Still Working: Book Reviews

Processed World reviews Modern times, ancient hours by Pietro Basso, Forces of Labour by Beverly Silver and The trouble with music by Mat Callahan.

Submitted by Steven. on December 20, 2010

“Productivity” will always be a holy canon for business. Even today when most wealth takes the form of speculation on speculation, obtaining the maximum labor effort from workers matters more than it ever did. No amount is ever enough. Pietro Basso’s book details the human consequences of the workhouse society: overtime, speed-ups, shift work, night work, on-call work, temp work, “accidents,” ruined health and lives. Basso deftly deploys a mass of empirical data to show that working (and thus living) conditions are deteriorating universally. The importance of Basso’s book is that he not only describes the horrors of modern work but attempts to explain the reasons for them. He does this by relating the increasing length and intensity of work to the nature of capitalism itself.

It is an indication of the weakness of the working class today that Basso even has to argue for its existence—or, to put it more precisely, those who have no means of survival except the sale of their ability to work to those who stand to gain financially from it. He does this with feisty wit, desiccating the widespread fantasy spewed by academic charlatans that the working class is an antiquarian curio. In fact, Basso demonstrates that when viewed on a global scale the growth of industrial work has been a secularly increasing trend over time—and that today there are more industrial workers than ever before in history. The relative decrease in industrial work in “developed” nations is not evidence of salvation from a proletarian existence, but a consequence of the enormous increases in the productivity of labor and the consequent decrease in demand for living labor (exactly as predicted by a thinker whose name is more often invoked as a political signifier than his ideas bothered with, Karl Marx). The preponderance of service work in the developed world represents an amplification of capital’s command over labor, not its diminishment: service jobs are modeled on the principles of industrial work, not vice versa.
Basso connects the explosion in working hours—as well as work’s intensity—to profit making itself. Profit (or surplus-value) is nothing but the excess of money that emerges at the end of the circulation of capital. The magnitude of surplus-value depends on the quantity of surplus labor, which is the excess of the working day over the labor-time necessary for workers to produce a value equivalent to their wages. This is how workers are exploited; they produce more value than they are paid, and therefore a part of their working day produces surplus-value for capitalists for which they receive no equivalent. It follows from this that there is an inherent conflict between capital and labor over the length of the working day and over the intensity of labor, and that there is an inherent tendency toward technological change that reduces necessary labor-time.
According to the mythology of the economists, work time has been decreasing with the rise in the productivity of labor. Much of Basso’s argument is directed against this fallacy. He not only exhaustively shows that the opposite is the case—work time has increased or, at best, remained stationary in one or two countries—but shows that when the working day was successfully shortened (way back in 1918 and 1968) it was a result of class struggle by the working class—and not a gift from capital, as the economists would have you believe.
The labor process is designed to squeeze as much labor time as possible out of workers, so that workers in many modern factories—and offices—are forced to be in continuous motion for 59 seconds of every minute. This is way up from the average 45 seconds per minute of the classic assembly line of thirty years ago. Even as work performance is gauged by the minute—even by nanoseconds in today’s computer world—so also the length of what constitutes the social norm for working time has expanded. No longer based merely on the 8-hour day, work time is now calculated according to the week, the year, the lifetime. Basso exposes the economists’ swindle that time away from work has increased per lifetime because life expectancy in developed countries has more than doubled, raising the retirement age (though even this is being contested by capital’s political hirelings). This, of course, overlooks the fact that working lives—the most vigorous years of life, not coincidentally—have doubled as well. And what exactly is a worker entitled to after having had nerves and muscles depleted in the service of another’s wealth? A slow wait for death while being constantly reminded how expensive it is to maintain those who no longer contribute to the GNP.
Strangely, Basso’s book, with its lost-in-translation title (it has nothing to do with ancients), is marketed as being about excessive working time when it deals comprehensively with all aspects of work under contemporary capitalism. For instance, Basso repeatedly points to the quality of work—its mad pace, its stultifying monotony, its corrosive stupidity, its degradation of sociability and spirit. The never-ending torment of wage labor is not just for the sheer sake of it—or because of the “work ethic”—but is linked to capital’s need to valorize fixed capital expenditures by keeping plant and equipment running at all times, making the worker ever more servile to the pace and demands of machines. It is a measure of capitalism’s strangulation of human progress that its enormous development of technology does not serve to alleviate burdensome toil but increases it.
No patron of ideological fashions, Basso validates the much-maligned “immiseration” thesis—which, contrary to received opinion, does not have to do solely with wages (real and/or nominal) or quantity of work time, but more broadly with the power relation between labor and capital. Workers have been made ever more dependent for their continued employment on the successful competitiveness of “their” particular firm, territory, or nation-state. The meaning of “flexibilization” is that the worker adapts to the economic cycle, facing overwork in periods of business expansion and unemployed desperation in recessions.
Basso brings out the true meaning of globalization. The book is organized to show the common experience of increased exploitation of workers around the world as workers everywhere are put in competition with each other. At the most glaring extreme, there is the example of 24-hour shifts in Vietnamese sugar factories. In the developed world, America’s example of work overload—grown by an exponential five weeks a year over the last 30 years—has established the norm to beat for its rivals. Japan—which has a word for death by overwork—now looks like a slacker’s haven by comparison. Elimination of legal limits to the working day are now being attempted in Europe, as portended by last year’s defeat of a strike for a shorter work week by the world’s most powerful union, IG Metall in Germany. However, it is probable that the Bush administration’s elimination of overtime pay requirements for all kinds of job classifications will keep the USA in the vanguard of cheap, super-productive workforces.
Of special interest is Basso’s analysis of the 35-hour workweek in France that, contrary to the illusions of reformists, is anything but an exception to the trends he outlines. In fact, the 35 hour workweek has served to create more work—eliminating downtime, informal breaks, overtime pay, and introducing Saturday workdays—and not at all in the sense of its absurd promise to create jobs for the huge numbers of unemployed. The Aubry law indexes work time to the year—that’s called “annualization”—rather than to the week, thus allowing employers to exploit existing workers in sluggish periods for, say, 30 hours a week while overexploiting them in periods of high demand for, say, 50 hours a week (supposedly averaging out to a 35-hour week!). It also greatly expands the category of part-time work. The whole plan re-organizes the work process to enable French capital to compete on the basis of less investment in new technology with more effort (“productivity”) on the part of the workers. Most insidiously, implementation of the law is negotiated sector by sector, thus ending uniform social legislation that treats all workers equally, serving to divide workers against each other.
Although Basso does not explore this, French workers resisted the Aubry law (this is the subject of an excellent film, Human Resources). This is disappointing given that Basso optimistically predicts an eventual upsurge in working class resistance—in fact he claims the swell is mounting. Though this is sort of like predicting when the biosphere will collapse—what are the limits to unhindered exploitation?—it raises the question as to why the demand for shorter work time has not been on the working class’s agenda for the last ... quarter century at least! One rather obvious reason is that overtime constitutes an important part of workers’ efforts to make up for declining wages. The threat of unemployment is another. Basso notes the alarming discovery of the American problem of “presentee-ism”—i.e., workers who refuse to leave the office—as domestic life in America is so alienated that work has become a refuge from it.
Although Basso demonstrates the total failure of social democrats and trade unions in Europe to shorten work time, he doesn’t draw any political conclusions from this. When not arising organically from the working class’s own struggles but is merely a demand with which leftist bureaucrats seek to lead the masses to a happy world of pro-worker capitalism, the effort to shorten the workday can be a trap. At best, French workers were asked to accept lower wages for shorter working time. Whose interests does this serve?
Although its appeal is rare among American capitalists, shortening work time as a political demand does have its adherents here. Take, for one example (there are others), the entirely virtual “movement” of Give Us Back Our Time, a public interest-type group enlisting liberal religious leaders, unionists and human rights petitioners to appeal to capital and the state to shorten exploitation to an extent that will allow workers to spend more time in church, with their families and communities. The literature of Give Us Back Our Time details the human costs to workers of the “time squeeze” but it bases its whole program on convincing capitalists that its in their interests to shorten work time. If workers work shorter hours, they can work them harder, thus enhancing the position of American capital in the global market! What these reformers really oppose is not the shortage of time for a life worth living but the shortage of profits.
Similarly, a recent MSN article deplored the shortage of vacation time for American workers—because it leads to higher health care costs for employers! It is not uncommon to see editorials and research papers pityingly shed a tear for the sad condition of workers today—wages have failed to keep up with productivity (shocking!); or: work time has failed to decrease with increased productivity (outrageous!). But this is a conjurer’s trick: under capitalism, the point of increased productivity is not to give workers time off—unless, by “time off” is meant unemployment. The point is to save labor costs and gain a competitive position that allows the individual enterprise to accrue surplus profits above the average. Nor is the point of production to enable wages to rise, or for people to have better things; it is to make rich people lots of money. The delusion of economics is that capitalism is a system of meeting needs that rewards its participants with what they put into it: capitalists with profits, workers with wages.
The notion that wages and productivity should rise together—if unequally—formed the underlying principle of the post-WW2 wage bargain, codified in collective bargaining agreements. But just as collective bargaining and the “social wage” in that period served the needs of accumulation by providing capital with a predictable, regulated supply of workers and wage costs, so today economic growth—the “bottom line” of all social policy—demands that the costs of working class reproduction be pushed ever lower. This makes appeals to the common interests of workers and capitalists an exercise in nostalgia at best.
Maybe, as the French example shows, less work time is not as important as other aspects of flexibilization such as income insecurity. Maybe there are other demands with wider resonance, such as—given the truly torturous distances workers are forced into—paid commute time. No question, less work time would be an improvement—but not at the cost of decreased wages. It must not be forgotten that decreasing work time can never be an end in itself. At best, it’s a defensive—if necessary—fight that repairs labor so that it might be able to go to work the next day. A fight solely to enable the working class to continue to function as a working class is ultimately not in the interests of the working class—their interest can only be the end of exploitation itself, not its shortening.

Forces of Labour reviewed by Chris Carlsson

Forces of Labor, is a fascinating, if badly written, sociological approach to global labor unrest since 1870. Beverly Silver bases her study on data developed by the World Labor Group, of which she is a member. They have gone through back issues of the NY Times and London Times to find mentions of “labor unrest” since 1870, arguing that the two papers are the voices of their respective imperial centers and though they certainly do not record all instances of labor unrest, by charting the ebb and flow of such mentions, one derives a picture of global historical periods that appears remarkably accurate. Silver constructs a fascinating analysis of the complicated, nuanced, layered dynamics of labor unrest and capitalist perpetuation.
“The insight that labor and labor movements are continually made and remade provides an important antidote to the common tendency to be overly rigid in specifying who the working class is (be it the nineteenth-century craftworkers or the twentieth-century mass production workers). Thus, rather than seeing an “historically superseded” movement or a “residual endangered species”, our eyes are open to the early signs of new working class formation as well as “backlash” resistance from those working classes being “unmade.” A key task becomes the identification of emerging responses from below to both the creative and destructive sides of capitalist development.”
She makes good use of a double paradigm understanding of labor insurgencies—Karl Polanyi-types are ones characterized by “the backlash resistances to the spread of a global self-regulating market,” where workers or others are resisting the uprooting of traditional ways of doing things, or the destruction of their livelihoods, or the loss of their jobs. Karl Marx-types are those where “newly-emerging working classes” are fighting as they are fully subjected to market discipline and their collective power is strengthened as “an unintended outcome of the development of historical capitalism.” Silver sees world capitalism as swinging back and forth between a crisis of profitability and a crisis of legitimacy.
Against this overarching set of contradictory dynamics, she also smartly identifies “a continual struggle not only over defining the content of working-class “rights” but also over the types and numbers of access to those rights. How—and how quickly—a new crisis of legitimacy/profitability is reached is determined in large part by “spatial strategies”—efforts to draw “boundaries” delineating who will be “cut in” and who will be “left out.” This boundary drawing process is a key to understanding capitalist counterattacks against strengthening workers, but importantly it is also a key to understanding the way workers create identities (based on nation, race, gender, etc.) that distance them from self-identification as workers.
Forces of Labor also breaks down different ways capital alters the terrain of contestation—product fix, technological fix, spatial/geographic fix, financial fix. A detailed discussion of the leading industry of the 19th century, textiles, is juxtaposed to a similar treatment of the 20th century’s lead industry, automobiles. Ultimately Silver attacks the premise of a “race to the bottom,” arguing that class struggles have been displaced by the aforementioned fixes, never eliminated and never put to rest. She applies her theory to the present and future, trying to guess which industry might play a “leading’ role in the 21st century, and while unsure, she points to Education (producing workers), and transportation (moving everything around) as likely candidates. She’s also unabashed in predicting that the next wave of Marx-style labor unrest will appear in China.
She departs from the somewhat self-referential arena of labor unrest in the last two sentences of the book, which took me by surprise.
“While the overlap between the racial and wealth divides on a world-scale has been consolidated, environmental degradation has proceeded at a pace and scale unprecedented in human history. Thus the ultimate challenge faced by the workers of the world in the early twenty-first century is the struggle, not just against one’s own exploitation and exclusion, but for an international regime that truly subordinates profits to the livelihood of all.
All in all a smart book with a lot to think about.

The trouble with music reviewed by Chris Carlsson

The Trouble With Music is a brilliant, much-needed book. Drowning in the white noise of modern life, “the trouble with music” is the trouble with life in general. Callahan’s passionate prose dissects with surgical precision the dynamics by which our common wealth, in this case our innate ability to share joy and community through making music, is turned into a product to be purchased, diminishing our basic humanity in the process.
“Music originates in the human body. I sing, clap my hands, stamp my feet. This is literally universal in an even more fundamental way than speech… Music making is rooted in these simple acts that bring delight to the one doing them, which is then increased when one is joined by others… This kind of relationship to music could abolish the sonic adornment; simply wipe it out with the lived experience of people making music themselves… It is precisely because music can play a vital role in freeing people and challenging the forces of oppression that confusion is being sewn and the false is being substituted for the genuine article… the trouble with music is that it is out of control. It provides a human connection to the cosmos that defies domination of any kind. It militates against the very forces that would turn everything from the water we drink and the air we breathe into products for consumption and profit.”
His years in all sides of the “business” of music qualifies him like few others to reveal the inner workings of both the creative passion that produces good music, how we might come to a new understanding of what “good music” actually is, and how banal commodification has flooded our world with “anti-music.” For musicians and listeners, rockers and rappers, clerks and toe-tappers, The Trouble With Music will widen your view, deepen your pleasure and reinforce your justified rage.