The Politics of Work, UMass Amherst, 9.20.13
The first of an upcoming panel series, to subsequently be held internationally in Halifax, Chicago, London, and Toronto in Fall 2013.
A moderated panel discussion and audience Q&A with thinkers, activists and political figures focused on contemporary problems faced by the Left in its struggles to construct a politics adequate to the self-emancipation of the working class. Hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society at Rethinking Marxism 2013.
Transcribed in Platypus Review #62 (Click banner below to see):
Room 101, Campus Center, UMass Amherst
Stanley Aronowitz (Graduate Center of the City University of New York)
Robert Pollin (Political Economy Research Institute and University of Massachusetts, Amherst)
Jason Wright (International Bolshevik Tendency)
"Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labour: it is a book about unemployment." - Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One
"...the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all." - Joan Robinson
"The error consists in believing that labor, by which I mean heteronomous, salaried labor, can and must remain the essential matter. It's just not so. According to American projections, within twenty years labor time will be less than half that of leisure time. I see the task of the left as directing and promoting this process of abolition of labor in a way that will not result in a mass of unemployed on one side, and aristocracy of labor on the other and between them a proletariat which carries out the most distasteful jobs for forty-five hours a week. Instead, let everyone work much less for his salary and thus be free to act in a much more autonomous manner...Today "communism" is a real possibility and even a realistic proposition, for the abolition of salaried labor through automation saps both capitalist logic and the market economy." - Andre Gorz
It is generally assumed that Marxists and other Leftists have the political responsibility to support reforms for the improvement of the welfare of workers. Yet, leading figures from the Marxist tradition-- such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky-- also understood that such reforms would broaden the crisis of capitalism and potentially intensify contradictions that could adversely impact the immediate conditions of workers. For instance, full employment, while being a natural demand from the standpoint of all workers’ interests, also threatens the conditions of capitalist production (which rely on a surplus of available labor), thereby potentially jeopardizing the system of employment altogether. In light of such apparent paradoxes, this panel seeks to investigate the politics of work from Leftist perspectives. It will attempt to provoke reflection on and discussion of the ambiguities and dilemmas of the politics of work by including speakers from divergent perspectives, some of whom seek after the immediate abolition of labor and others of whom seek to increase the availability of employment opportunities. It is hoped that this conversation will deepen the understanding of the contemporary problems faced by the Left in its struggles to construct a politics adequate to the self-emancipation of the working class.
1. How do you characterize work and employment as a political issue in contemporary society? What is wrong with unemployment? And/or what is wrong with work?
2. A distinction is often drawn between "work" as purposeful human activity (presumably existing before and after capitalism), on the one hand, and "work" in the sense of labor in capitalism, where the worker undertakes purposeful activity for money under threat of material scarcity (typically in the form of wage labor), on the other hand. Is this distinction politically relevant when thinking about work? In a free society, would work manifest in one or both senses?
3. If the widely observable phenomenon of overwork and unemployment is a necessary feature of capitalist society, why and how is this so? What kinds of social necessity, in the present organization of the world, do you take to be underlying this phenomenon? Then, given your understanding of the nature of this necessity, what would it mean to radically transform it?
4. In the history of the Left, what examples do you regard as informing your attitude towards the politics of work and unemployment today, and what is relevant about these touchpoints?
5. Historically, the left has sought to remedy the problems of overwork and unemployment, through various means: full employment; a guaranteed minimum income regardless of employment; and/or shorter working hours for those employed. Which of these, if any, do you consider to be adequate responses, and how, if at all, should the Left pursue them?
6. If the abolition of wage labor should indeed be a goal of emancipatory politics, what forms of politics or concrete demands should be pursued to attain this goal? How do we get from "here" to "there"?
7. Given the breadth of issues and struggles pursued by the Left historically and today--race and racism, gender equality, environmental concerns, globalization, militarism, etc--what is the relationship between the politics of work and the broader project of social emancipation? Exactly how central or peripheral is the politics of work to social emancipation as such?
8. Where do you find the most promising attempts by the Left to address the issue of work and unemployment, today? What makes this contemporary work relevant and propitious?
9. What role, if any, do you assign to political organization, such as an actual or potential political party, in working to progressively transform contemporary relations of work and unemployment? What should be the relationship between any such organization and the working class?
10. A century ago, these questions were consciously taken up by a politically constituted workers movement in which socialists and Marxists participated. Today, discussions of this topic risk becoming utopian in the a-political sense. How, if at all, has the decline of workers movements and the death of the Left circumscribed our ability to engage the politics of work in the present?