The Abolition of Labour

September 4, 2010

This began as a comment below a post at Reid’s very interesting new blog The Luxemburgist – but it grew to mammoth proportions, so I’ve turned it into a post here; I hope Reid doesn’t mind. The context is a discussion of the Labour Theory of Value and, relatedly, the question of whether Marx’s politics is (and whether Marxist politics should be) oriented towards ‘the abolition of labour’. I’m of the opinion that, yes, the abolition of labour should be a central goal for Marxists (and I think it was a central goal for Marx). But I don’t have a good enough knowledge of the different theoretical traditions to point at a (not-by-Marx) text that I think makes this case persuasively. I need to do more reading in this regard.

On the question of the abolition of labour, then – the issue is partly what we mean by labour. As you say, Marx certainly has no problem deploying the category in a very general way, and using it beyond the (capitalist) social conditions that currently make it intuitive. So Marx doesn’t think we can abolish human physical activity oriented towards a constructive end (for instance)! But there’s a complex game with the category, in Capital, where (again, as you say) Marx starts off defining it very broadly, and then shows how this very broad category is made available as a category – made ‘socially valid’ (and also socially portable, as it were) – by much more specific social conditions. Those (capitalist) social conditions are what Marx wants to abolish.

The question then is: what exact social conditions are (or should be) the target of Marx’s (or our) critique? I think there are various possible answers to this, in different strands of the Marxist tradition.

One very common answer is that Marx wants to abolish exploitation – ‘exploitation’ meaning (for this strand of the tradition) an economic situation in which a portion of the worker’s output, often understood in value terms, is confiscated from the worker and used to support a wealthy and parasitic ruling class. The usual corollary of this position is that if the parasitic ruling class could be eliminated, such confiscation would no longer take place: workers would receive the entire value of their product; this would be an economically just distributive situation; and the negative features of capitalist socio-economic organisation would have been overcome. The LTV is often used as a foundation for this kind of position: the LTV is taken to give us a way of establishing something like a just or natural reward for labour, and Marx’s analysis of the extraction of surplus value is taken to be an analysis of the social coercions by means of which a portion of that just or natural reward is pocketed by the capitalist ruling class. The goal of socialist politics is then basically the elimination of surplus-value extraction. Labour can still be understood as central to socio-economic life in a post-capitalist society. But labour would be appropriately rewarded – it would be ‘realised’, as they say – instead of exploited.

A second (not at all incompatible – in fact these often go together) way of understanding the kind of social transformation Marx wants re: labour, is that he wants the abolition of specifically wage labour. The idea here is basically that Marx wants the abolition of the institution of the labour market – perhaps as part of a broader abolition of markets in general, or perhaps not. Again, this approach is entirely compatible with the continuing centrality of labour to socio-economic life – and it’s of course compatible with (although it does not require) the idea that labour will, in a future communist society, receive its just reward. So a prominent view in the Marxist tradition would run something like: the LTV gives an account of exploitation; we need to eliminate exploitation; the best way to do this is to eliminate the wage labour market. There is also of course the option of eliminating the wage labour market but not eliminating exploitation: I shouldn’t think many people would advocate for this – but it’s a common account of what went wrong with a lot of attempts to realise communist political ideals (in the Soviet Union, for instance – which ended up with a parasitic ruling class living off the labour of others; there were just different mechanisms for managing and exploiting labour from those associated with wage-labour markets, and therefore a different kind of ruling class).

Now, I don’t think either of these political goals (just reward for labour; elimination of the wage-labour market) are what Marx principally had in mind with his critique of capitalism. I think he’s actively opposed to the idea of a just reward for labour as an ultimate political goal (c.f. the beginning of Critique of the Gotha Program, for instance, or the very end of Value, Price and Profit. He thinks the idea of a just reward for labour can be tactically very useful in fighting for better wages under capitalism, and he fully endorses that fight – but he sees the idea of a ‘just reward for labour’ as basically a conservative idea.) Marx definitely does want the abolition of wage-labour – there’s no question that this is a central political goal for Marx. But while a fair bit of the Marxist tradition understands this goal in terms of the elimination of wage-labour specifically, in order better to realise labour in some other form, I think we should see the elimination of the wages system as part of a larger project to eliminate the institution of labour more broadly conceived.

What does this mean? Without grounding this textually in Marx’s work (which I think could be done, but which would take a fair bit of work) – I’d argue that Marx basically wants: 1) Everyone to have a lot more leisure time. 2) People’s access to the necessities (and luxuries) of life not to be principally mediated via reward for work. [These two things aren’t all that Marx wants, of course – he also wants the elimination of poverty and of various forms of economic and political violence, for instance – I just think that these are the main things he means when he talks about the abolition of labour.]

Marx basically thinks that these goals are achievable (i.e. they’re not utopian) because of mechanisation. Marx thinks that mechanised mass-producing industry – an extremely recent historical innovation (and one of the principal social resources that capitalism has created) – gives us the technical and social ability to support huge populations of human beings in a comfortable way, without those human beings having to spend most, or even much, of their lives working. If you like, Marx basically wants a slave society, but with machines instead of slaves. This social and technological possibility is very historically new, but Marx thinks we should seize it, and create a society in which labour (as an economic institution) will not be at the centre of anyone’s lives.

(Obviously some work would still have to be done in the kind of society Marx envisages – there’d still be a lot of unpleasant non-mechanisable tasks that people would have to do. And of course the leisure time that such an institutional transformation would make available could be used in pretty much whatever way people liked, including ways that might today be pursued as paid occupations. But work for economic reward would not be the principal focus of social activity for the bulk of mankind: this is one of Marx’s goals. In a communist society, as Marx sees it, there would be no proletariat.)

In Marx’s theoretical (as opposed to directly polemical or political) work, he sets himself two tasks (among others). First, to give an account of the social resources that can be appropriated to build an alternative society. And second, to give an account of the social obstacles to the realisation of that society. (This is all part of a general analytic description of capitalist social forms, of course.) For Marx, the very existence of capitalist large-scale mechanised industry creates both an opportunity and a puzzle: why is this large-scale mechanisation of the tasks required to feed, clothe, house, etc. vast populations – why is this mechanisation having the impact it is on society? Large-scale machinery massively reduces the amount of labour required to achieve the tasks it mechanises. Why then is it creating and recreating an industrial proletariat, who must be slaves to this machinery day and night, in the most grotesque conditions? More broadly: why is the phasing out of individual labour-tasks, by mechanisation, not resulting in the aggregate reduction of labour across the entire economy? This is a puzzle that Marx thinks needs to be answered: a large part of the theoretical work in Capital involves the tracking of the social structures that, taken all together, reproduce the existence of a proletariat, even when at the level of the individual firm and industry the overwhelming and ongoing trend is toward the reduction in the need by industry for labour. This account of the reproduction of a proletariat (the society-wide dynamic of the displacement and reconstitution of labour) is (and here, as in all my discussions of Marx (and as you know), I am channelling N. Pepperell’s interpetation of Capital!) at the heart of Marx’s analysis of capitalism – it is, for Marx, the defining feature of capitalist society.

The corollary of this is that the defining feature of effective anti-capitalist politics, Marx believes, should be the elimination of this general socio-economic dynamic – and, as part of that, the abolition of labour. In that sense, although his understanding of the social forms that create and give ‘social validity’ to the category of labour changes across his corpus, Marx never retreats from the early formulation of The German Ideology:

[T]he proletarians, if they are to assert themselves as individuals, will have to abolish the very condition of their existence hitherto (which has, moreover, been that of all society up to the present), namely, labour.


8 Responses to “The Abolition of Labour”

  1. […] Law has an great new post expanding on this comment. He deals with the speculative question of what the socio-economic […]

  2. reidkane Says:

    Hey Duncan,

    Thanks for the generous response. I have a response here, and while it is critical of your position I hope it doesn’t come across as unnecessarily hostile or harsh. I greatly appreciate the discussion and have already benefitted greatly from it.

  3. Jed Harris Says:

    Glad I found this. I’d be very interested in your thoughts about peer production (Open source, open content, blogging, etc.) I’ll provide a little background on that from my perspective, apologies if this is redundant. I get back to questions at the end.

    Current peer production isn’t that different in its social relationships from voluntary production that’s been around for a long time (art, science, literature). However unlike these previous examples, current peer production is displacing production organized using labor and capital. So for example Apache (an open source web server) is out-competing IIS (a webserver from Microsoft produced using a typical corporate process). This is not exceptional, it is normal in some economically important areas.

    There are also other important forms of displacement of capitalist production by largely voluntary activity. has largely displaced for-profit classified advertising. seems to be displacing paid accommodations with voluntary accommodation sharing for a significant number of people. Etc.

    These production processes have quite rich and complex internal self-regulation processes that have evolved over the last several decades. In at least some cases they can scale to coordinate extremely large groups doing very complex tasks, with apparently quite high quality (e.g. Wikipedia).

    So if I understand you correctly, so some extent these new types of coordination are executing the Marxist program of abolishing labor. But interestingly they are doing that with minimal explicit political activity. In some cases they have an explicit political agenda, in other cases they strongly disavow politics. But in every case they seem to succeed within the current political / economic / ideological framework, with relatively little conflict. To the extent there is an appearance of conflict, it seems to mainly be trash talk and/or anti-competitive gestures by existing businesses that are threatened, but this behavior seems similar to the way those businesses would react to any competitive threat.

    Specifically, so far there does not appear to be any broad demonization or ideological attack on peer production or similar voluntary activities. This surprises me.

    So, a lot of context. I’m very interested in your reflections on this set of social phenomena from the Marxist perspective (especially the new approach that you and N Pepperell are pursuing). It seems that there should be a fruitful intersection, but I’m not familiar enough with Marx to be able to articulate it.

    More specifically, what can you say — and/or what questions seem worth pursuing — about the likely future of peer production and related social formations: the potential scope, possible limitations, larger social effects, potential political backlash from entrenched interests, etc.?

    I’d be happy to provide links to relevant background on peer production if you want more of that.

  4. Jed Harris Says:

    On re-reading the accumulating commentary, I realize I omitted two potentially important points about peer production and related activities:

    (1) “Robots” are apparently necessary for these processes but only for low level clerical tasks that facilitate human activity. All the actual writing, review, social coordination, etc. are entirely driven by the participants. Attempts to automate more of the process have been failures, and in fact automation has evolved in the direction of more social control.

    (2) These activities are organized to prevent the appropriation of value. The contributors and organizers generally can’t appropriate the value their work has for others. The more aggressive versions (GPL and its kin) attempt to legally prevent the appropriation of any value added by others later, outside the project.

  5. duncan Says:

    Hi Jed – thanks for your comments, and apologies for leaving them hanging for so long. The unfortunate truth is that I don’t know anything like enough about these social spaces and communities to respond in an informed way. I was sort of hoping something would strike me – but it hasn’t, so I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with ignorant and brief remarks.

    Basically I guess my feeling is that: 1) there’s nothing necessarily oppositional about these kinds of communal activities – I’d imagine they’re capable of existing perfectly happily alongside capitalist modes of organisation. 2) they do provide possible models for or case studies in (and perhaps incubators for) modes of voluntary organisation that are capable of achieving quite complicated results, both in terms of production (the organisation of voluntary activity to create wikipedia’s content, say) and in terms of distribution (craigslist, maybe – though I really know nothing at all about craigslist, unfortunately…) 3) they can therefore usefully give the lie to the idea that capitalist modes of organisation and incentivisation are necessary in order to achieve these kinds of effects.

    You already know all of that, of course. I’m confident there’s much much more that could be said – it’s just that I don’t know enough about peer production, basically. I wonder – do you know the blog hack the state? I look over there occasionally but it’s one of many interesting sites I’ve never taken the time to get to grips with. Some of the content there might be close to your interests…

    Sorry not to be of more use…

  6. Jed Harris Says:

    Thanks for the reply! I didn’t expect it after so long, so glad I saw it. I realized that I had asked questions that really fall outside the focus of this discourse community.

    As you say these types of production “usefully give the lie to the idea that capitalist modes of organisation and incentivisation are necessary in order to achieve these kinds of effects.”

    In my work I’m trying to build on this, using these examples as grist for understanding actually existing post-capitalist production — not at all retrograde, instead leveraging the benefits of technology so outside capital isn’t needed.

    I’ll look into Hack the State, thanks for the pointer.

  7. Jed Harris Says:

    Related to this question (and to Hack the State), a conversation has sprung up around an essay by James C Scott on the Cato web site (Scott is an anarchist and not at all propertarian, so an odd fit to Cato). Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber applied these ideas to market driven standardization.

    These ideas seem to me to apply in interesting ways to your characterization of the social conditions that underpin labor. Scott, Brighouse and other conversants focus on the legibility imposed on human activity by governments, markets, etc.

    Legibility (in this sense) seems to arise mainly from a need to treat many social particulars in a uniform way — for administration, tax collection, and exchange.

    This requirement for legibility is a key driver — perhaps the only essential driver — of the institution of labor in the sense you discuss.

    Which raises the interesting question of how requirements for legibility shift in these non-labor-based modes of production.

  8. duncan Says:

    Thanks Jed – I’ll check out the pieces you link to. (Sorry your second comment got held in moderation.)

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