Ideas & Debates


The Fight for Free Time and the Fight Against Capitalism

History has shown that the struggle for free time has always been a major site of battle between bosses and workers.

December 15, 2017

Our epoch has been called the century of work. It is in fact the century of pain, misery and corruption.
Paul Lafargue

Recently, Jacobin published an article entitled “The Fight for Free Time,” written by Miya Tokumitsu. The topic of the article is of great importance for working people and well worth examining for those of us on the Left. Inspired by the campaign launched by the IG Metall Union in Germany to reduce the workday, Tokumitsu raises the crucial issue of the clash between bosses and the working class over the length of the working day and the connection between this conflict and the problem of unemployment.

Tokumitsu makes several important points. She states, “Surprisingly, it has long ceased to be an issue that graces political platforms in the US, even on the Left.” She adds that “many pockets of the Left are humming with discussions of time and temporality; “late capitalism,” “post-work” futures, and “accelerationism” have become familiar phrases. These discourses are valuable. But because actual goals in these discussions often remain in the realm of the abstract or far, far in the future, such rhetoric, on its own, does not provide adequate tools for movement-building. Furthermore, because these ideas tend to circulate in academia and other small circles, they often bypass most working people, however attractive the ideas themselves might be. In other words, those old rascals, theory and practice, like twin toddlers running in opposite directions, need to be wrangled and brought together.”

Although Tokumitso is debating with the American Left, it is instructive to bring to this debate the recent experience of the Left Front in Argentina. The Left Front is an electoral coalition composed of three Trotskyist parties: the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas (PTS), the Partido Obrero (PO), and the Izquierda Socialista (IS). This coalition obtained significant results across the country in last October’s midterm elections, including 1.2 million votes, three national deputies, and more than 40 provincial legislators. These achievements are pertinent here because one of the most critical electoral proposals of the Left Front was to fight to reduce the working day to six hours, five days a week.

The Campaign of the Left Front in Argentina

“Reduce the workday to six hours, five days a week, without any reduction in salary!” “For a salary at least equal to the cost of living!” “For a division of the working hours between the employed and the unemployed!” These were some of the central demands of the Left Front, and particularly the PTS, during the primary elections in Argentina this year.

During the campaign, the militants of the Left Front listened closely to the workers express their deep discontent. A young metal worker, for example, commented that “[the bosses] make our lives precarious.” A worker of the flour industry said: “I am worth more than the earnings of the bosses.” Many workers specifically addressed the problem of unbearably long and exhausting days at work. Nurses, who joined the campaign, explained that “in the papers, it says it is six hours but in reality we work 12 or 14.” Because the Left Front incorporated these grievances and the workers’ demands into its electoral platform, it was not surprising that campaign slogans like “Our lives are worth more than their profits!” resonated among broad sectors of the Argentine working class.

Unemployment stands at almost 10 percent in Argentina; among youth, the figure is double that. Businesses are conducting massive layoffs, while one third of the population is overworked — because they are on the job 10 or 12 hours per day. Around 35 percent of workers work off the books, virtually without any rights. At the same time, the bosses and bankers are making multimillion-dollar profits.

The Left Front dedicated the majority of their media campaign, including the TV spots allotted by the State, to denouncing this situation of rampant overwork and unemployment. However, it has done so based on an understanding that setting limits on the working day is not something that can be easily achieved given the relations of power between the classes under capitalism. History has shown that the struggle for free time has always been a major site of battle between bosses and workers and that it cannot be waged effectively without organization.

From the Fight for Free Time to the Fight Against Capitalism

Miya Tokumitsu discusses various demands such as “shorter workweeks, steeply increased overtime pay, lower retirement ages, expanded social security, family leave, paid vacation, paid sick leave, child allowances, and sabbaticals,” as well as “achieving full employment, for instance, by pruning working hours and spreading them out between more workers.” These demands are considered by the author to be all equally “tangible, achievable goals that can be built upon” and can be fulfilled “in the immediate term.”

The problem is that while the reduction of the workday is to some extent possible (although typically not probable) under capitalism, abolishing unemployment is not. The eight-hour workday (or the seven or six-hour day) itself is a “minimal demand,” attainable through reforms within the framework of bourgeois society. However, slogans for “the distribution of the working hours between the employed and the unemployed” confront capitalist irrationality as such. This is because capitalism, by necessity, propels and keeps millions of people out of the active labor force while simultaneously imposing the most strenuous and most extended hours on those who have work.

The capitalist system needs unemployment and overwork even as the resulting super-exploitation and deprivation systematically cut workers’ lives short. Unemployment is used as a tool by the bosses and governments to put downward pressure on salaries and to further degrade the working conditions for those who are “fortunate” enough to have a job. It is therefore precisely because capitalism requires an army of permanently unemployed people to extract a greater amount of surplus value from the working class that the demand for a division of the working hours between the currently employed and the currently unemployed sectors of the working class represents a direct attack on one of the main pillars of capitalist exploitation.

If one asks the capitalists and their supporters about the viability of distributing working hours between the employed and unemployed, they answer: “That is impossible; that’s utopian.” This demonstrates that capitalism has no solutions to offer for the problems it creates. In reality, the development of technology would allow for a different kind of life. Under capitalism, the economy is organized to guarantee bigger profits for the few. Technological innovation, for the capitalists, means a reduction of the number of jobs available and not a reduction of the length of the working day.

If the working class takes up the demand for a reduced workday, it can develop its conception of a future beyond the narrow confines of capitalism. The Left uses “transitional demands” to popularize ideas that open up paths to questioning the capitalist system as a whole, but always starting from the most felt needs and demands of the masses. Fighting for the distribution of working hours among the employed and the unemployed, and therefore for an end to over-work and unemployment, is such a transitional demand.

You might be interested in: The Workday: An Endless Battle Around Time

Today, in the wake of the neoliberal offensive, the working class is living and laboring under harsh conditions. The 8-hour workday conquered by the working class in the past no longer exists for the broad masses of workers. By taking away this erstwhile concession, capitalism managed to overcome its crisis and continue to guarantee extraordinary profits for the wealthy. The fight against neoliberal reforms can lead workers to challenge capitalism as a system, especially when the demands put forth cannot possibly be granted by the ruling class because doing so would jeopardize their profits. This is why the socialist Left has an obligation to raise "minimal demands" and link them to demands that question the entire economic system.

These demands also need to be a guide for action. It is impossible to think about taking this fight seriously without a specific program to recover the unions for the rank and file from the domination of the bureaucracy. However, the fact that “many unions embraced this new attitude; several still advocate for increased hours rather than for making employers compensate members more for the hours worked” is not because they bought into the consumerist ideology as Miya Tokumitsu suggests. Unions contributed to the triumph of neoliberalism, and they bear a large part of the responsibility for the implementation of even more precarious labor conditions in recent years.

If the task of recovering the unions for the workers is an urgent one, so is the task of raising the class consciousness of the working class. These are vital elements of the struggle for a government of the workers for the workers, a struggle that can only proceed via the mobilization of the exploited and oppressed.

The Battle Against the Inroads of Neoliberalism

Another problem with Tokumitsu’s argument is that she offers a one-sided discussion of the consequences of neoliberalism. She says, “The rise of neoliberalism didn’t help either. Generations of workers have been inculcated to believe that the basic expressions of humanity can be deferred or purchased, and that working harder and longer is the ticket to a fulfilling life.” What the author seems to forget is that neoliberalism did not just create a culture of individualism, consumerism, and a false “meritocracy”; it was also a massive attack on labor conditions. Based on major defeats of the working class worldwide, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was portrayed by the defenders of capitalism as evidence that history had come to an end and capitalism had won, the system was able to increase the profits of the few by way of increasing labor precarization for the many.

In other words, the problem is not that workers want to work many hours in order to buy more things. Rather, neoliberal capitalism compels people to work longer and longer hours just so they can survive. One way it has accomplished this is by dividing the working class into “first class” and “second class” workers, the latter including undocumented workers, outsourced workers, temporary workers, non-unionized workers, etc. As a result, many workers must work extra hours or else live on a wage that is not even enough to pay the rent and grocery bill, that is, for their own means of subsistence.

The situation is significantly more aggravated in the semi-colonial countries. There, the bourgeoisie seeks to unload their own backwardness as a class onto the backs of their workers. The ruling classes of the Global South compensate for the shortage of investments in technology by extending the workday, increasing the intensity of work, and paying dramatically lower wages. Multinationals that produce in countries like China, Taiwan, India, Malaysia, etc. offer conditions that are far worse, and workers in those parts of the world face even more obstacles to achieving improvements without engaging in a major battle against globalization and the international division of labor under capitalism.

Those demands cannot be separated from a transitional program; they affect the work market itself and therefore the functioning of global capitalism. To fight for a shorter work day must also mean to fight for a workers’ government and a break with capitalism. The goal is to establish a democratically planned economy and a society where the slogan “Our lives are worth more than their profits” is a reality.

Abolish Wage Slavery!

Marx defined communism as “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.” That is, a communist society is a society without classes, a society in which production won’t be ruled by the desire for ever greater profits for a tiny ruling class but by the needs of the whole society in the greatest possible harmony with nature. Money will no longer exist. Neither will the state.

There will not be a minority accumulating all the wealth while the vast majority lives in poverty, forced to work just to survive. A communist society will allow people to live a life free from all forms of oppression, one in which the time spent at work is reduced to a minimum and “free time” is spent not merely on the reproduction of one’s labor power, i.e. on the necessities of life that enable us to return to work the next day, but on actually living our lives.

In his work The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky says that “the very purpose of communism (...) is to free finally and once for all the creative forces of mankind from all pressure, limitation and humiliating dependence. Personal relations, science and art will not know any externally imposed "plan", nor even any shadow of compulsion. To what degree spiritual creativeness shall be individual or collective will depend entirely upon its creators.”

This is what we fight for.


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