[OPE] Fewer hours worked for US labor?

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@tiscali.nl)
Date: Fri Apr 18 2008 - 17:00:03 EDT

NYT reports rather dramatically that:

"Throughout the country, businesses grappling with declining fortunes are cutting hours for those on their payrolls. (...) From March 2007 to March of this year, the average workweek reported in the private sector slipped slightly to 33.8 hours, from 33.9 hours, while overtime for manufacturing workers fell by a larger margin." http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/18/business/18hours.html?scp=1&sq=jobs+18+April+2008&st=nyti
Actually, if you look at longer term US BLS data series, there is no statistically significant change in the sector averages or grand averages for production workers at least. In principle, workers on low wages must work more hours to obtain a reasonable income; it is more the higher-earning workers who can afford to work fewer hours. 

The NYT comment is more likely to apply to the services sector and to better qualified staff. What a recession really does in this respect, apart from creating unemployment, is that the intensity and hours of those in paid work increases, and it increases the hierarchical inequality among workers; it intensifies competition all round, and it increases the level of social conflicts. 

A more significant trend is that between March 2007 and March 2008, US BLS recorded an extra 127,000 persons not in the labour force who want a job, while the overall level of unemployment remained about the same (it is now rising, of course). 

These numbers are still all not all very significant in an overall sense, but it all reminded me of a passage in Marx's Capital Vol. 3:

"The law of increased productivity of labour is not, therefore, absolutely valid for capital. So far as capital is concerned, productiveness does not increase through a saving in living labour in general, but only through a saving in the paid portion of living labour, as compared to labour expended in the past, as we have already indicated in passing in Book I (Kap. XI II, 2, 5. 409/398). [English edition: Ch. XV, 2. - Ed.] Here the capitalist mode of production is beset with another contradiction. Its historical mission is unconstrained development in geometrical progression of the productivity of human labour. It goes back on its mission whenever, as here, it checks the development of productivity. It thus demonstrates again that it is becoming senile and that it is more and more outlived. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/ch15.htm

This point is often lost in Marxist discussions, which suppose that labor productivity just keeps on increasing all round. In reality, the "productivity gains" are of a specific type, namely productivity gains which produce more capital. This becomes especially important in an age of rampant speculation, where enormous "productivity gains" are made simply in shifting the ownership of assets from A to B, rather than increasing the amount of tangible wealth. 

Marxist doyens such as Peter Taaffe, Lynn Walsh, Robert Brenner, and Hillel Ticktin claim we are facing "the deepest crisis that capitalism has faced in decades", raising the catastrophist spectre of a great depression. Of course, this is very easy to say, insofar Western Europe and North America experienced fairly steady output growth with few interruptions for almost two decades, be it at a lower level than during the long boom of 1947-1973. Any significant drop in economic activity is then obviously a break from that pattern.  

But there is no good evidence for the prospect of sustained negative real GDP growth and very rapidly escalating unemployment yet, while at the same time a number of countries continue to experience negative real GDP growth; and for poor people generally, there is a permanent economic crisis. It doesn't matter a great deal if they are earning two dollars a day instead of one dollar a day.  But all that says is, that socio-economic inequality continues to increase, that the growth of some industries balances against the decline of other sectors, and that some groups of workers can lever up their wages, while the wages of others fall. 

The irrelevance of the Marxists is really that they prophesy the "grand conflagration of the capitalist system" while they ignore the crisis occurring under their own nose. But they are in good company there; thus, for instance, many people explain the food crisis in terms of  "overpopulation and eating too much meat", a rather cruel and false banality.


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