Abolish Wage Slavery: Productivism As An Extractive Industry

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Above photo: Getty Images.

The alienation of labor takes many forms, including the outright ownership of slaves. When big mills and factories were introduced under systems of waged labor, elements of judgment and craft were still preserved among workers because otherwise the machinery would not run at all. Streamlining assembly lines became one of the innovations of the Ford factory system, and his best paid workers were able to buy the basic model cars. In this sense, Fordism was already emerging as an industrial model concurrently with the time and motion studies of the Taylor System.

Taylor died in 1915, and by 1913 the Ford system reduced the production time on the Model T chassis assembly line from 12.5 hours to 1.5 hours. Ford was able to reduce the price per car, raise wages for workers, and expand the market for the product. There is a tendency in ruling class ideology to attribute all innovation to the “job providers” and leading entrepreneurs. But workers on the job deserve plenty of credit as well, since they were closer to problems and discussed possible solutions. The actual market value of their solutions was not commensurate with their actual wages.

For those interested, the suggestive essay on Americanism and Fordism drawn from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci is well worth reading. He wondered if Fordism represented a particular conjunction of productive forces or an industrial model that might translate more generally across borders. In fact, Fordism proved to be one of the foundations of global neoliberalism. In periods of financial turbulence and contraction, neoliberal regimes advance austerity programs. We are witnessing some consequences in the Yellow Jackets movement in France, which has enough common ground to gain traction against the corporate “centrism” of Macron (and indeed against the old party system and managerial unions), but is not a fully class conscious movement for a socialist alternative. Even so, the words of Gramsci were prophetic:

“A series of problems requires to be examined under the general and somewhat conventional heading ‘Americanism and Fordism.’ But first of all one should take account of the basic fact that solutions to these problems must necessarily be put forward within the contradictory positions of modern society, which create complications, absurd positions, and moral and economic crises often tending towards catastrophe.”

Retrospectively, it’s easy to note the “absurd positions” within Gramsci’s own argument, and his old left ambivalence on “the question of sex.” But at least he did raise that question in earnest and in the context of the wider public sphere, whereas other socialists of his time dismissed it as a distraction or reduced it to the footnotes. What should be underscored here is Gramsci’s contradictory effort to come to grips with contradictory realities. In this respect, his historical and cultural horizon went far beyond the current ideologies of the ruling class.

Steven Pinker, the darling of Davos, is one notable purveyor of a rosy “progressive” ideology, and argues that daily life in modern states is less violent than in the countries of medieval Europe—even if the world wars of the previous century are taken into account. For the time being, Europe and North America have found means to export the sharpest class exploitation to countries underdeveloped by a long history of colonial extraction and client regimes. The neoliberal status quo, in Pinker’s account, is not quite “the end of history” but remains the best way forward. He argues for “reason” and against “political correctness.” In economics, Pinker simply updates Fordism to keep pace with modern technology. Even if the strip-mining of the planet could be slowed by cleaner energy, Pinker has no problem with the extraction of labor power within a “free market” that is blessed with benign self-correction. For Pinker, the ruling class may sometimes toss up a crassly ignorant ruler, but is otherwise solidly founded on a global meritocracy. The ruling class can thus be trusted to overcome (again, in Gramsci’s words) any of the many “moral and economic crises often tending toward catastrophe.”

When robots were introduced on the assembly line, the logic of corporate profit was well on the way to turning workers into adjuncts of an increasingly automated production process. The extraction of labor power from human beings also became ever more directly productivist, under the oversight of data driven experts and profit driven corporate boards and stockholders. On this subject, consult a current article below from Quartzon General Motors and the Lordstown strike. No socialist alternatives are suggested in that article, but it is quite honest in exploring how capitalists both created and circumnavigated the contradictions of their own theory and practice.

Regarded as a closed system, productivism may seem as rational as 3 + 7 = 10. That bit of math may be broken down into units. For example: One tenth of total operating capital assigned in wages to workers; one tenth assigned to renovation of the industry; one tenth to advertising; and seven-tenths assigned to bank reserves, legislative bribery, corporate candidates, and profits to managers, executives and stockholders. (For more sophisticated models, readers may refer to The Accumulation of Capital by Rosa Luxemburg, published the year before the outbreak of World War I.)

Any such “ideal” formula will not, of course, fit each industry and situation. In that sense, such formulas are no more but no less than teaching models. Keep in mind, however, that this given formula is quite generous from the point of view of hired labor if we consider actual disparities in the present general wages (and total wealth) of workers and major corporate CEOs in the United States. The documentation of wages, capital investments and banking reserves should be empirical in each case, so far as any public accounting is possible. But the mobility of capital is international and includes an archipelago of occult off shore accounts. Creative accounting is thus one branch of corporate public relations.

If workers protest or even strike, management will try better methods to get workers with the program. Wage concessions may be part of the deal, so long as “job providers” dictate the larger economy from the top down. A corporate economy is already a command economy. Any workplace, however, is never an entirely closed system so long as human beings are hired as workers at all. They talk to each other on and off the job. Maybe a more encompassing system of surveillance could identify and eliminate malcontents from the labor force.

In 1914, Lenin took a critical view of the Taylor System, as you can read here: The Taylor System – Man’s Enslavement by the Machine  (V.I. Lenin, 1914).

By the 1920s, however, Soviet leaders were increasingly inclined toward “socialist competition” with capitalist production. Given the limits imposed by global capital, some of the Soviet methods of production resulted in the organization of labor by military regimentation. Political prisoners were gathered in state purges and many died in work camps of exposure and overwork. By 1935, during the second Soviet Five Year Plan, the Stakhanovite movement began in earnest and workers were encouraged to perform above work shift quotas. Critical workers were disgraced as “wreckers.” Only after Stalin’s death did some Soviet leaders dare to dissent, and in 1988 the Soviet newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda stated plainly that the “heroic” achievements of Stakhanovite workers had been inflated. What was proposed instead? An updated Soviet kind of Taylorism, tailored to local industries and task sequencing.

In the previous century, some sectors of the Western left remained committed to state capitalist models. To this day, there are some leftists who still take a managerial view of labor. Thus it is possible to find even “scientific socialists” who recommend vote by rote allegiance to “the left wing of the possible.” Is this merely a dispute in the realm of ideology? Not at all. Facts closer to the ground are relevant. Indeed, the more managerial leaders of some labor unions have one speech for labor conventions, and quite another understanding within the corporate bunker of the DNC.

Realism in that regard is not a prescription of fatalism. On the contrary. The good news is that nurses, teachers and service workers are in the forefront of many current labor campaigns. These are not, of course, sectors of labor without men, but women are majorities in many of the related workplaces and unions. Women are also leading thinkers and organizers in those struggles. In our current division of labor, men have often been displaced from domestic extraction and mining industries, in some cases because the owners are seeking both work sites and cheaper labor abroad. This country still has a manufacturing sector, though much diminished and often for similar reasons. Even so, women workers are changing the whole landscape of possibility for all workers. Bread and Roses, an old labor anthem, remains a clarion call now: “As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men.”

Democracy at work has to mean much more than state ownership of the means of production. A free federation of the councils of workers and neighbors, including cooperatives of production and distribution, is both the existing and potential ground of democratic socialism. Both and at the same time. Because such a federation is a work in progress.

Any socialist party, and more especially any “vanguard party,” that works from a party program and not from a base in actual councils and cooperatives is already a retrograde engine of the managerial state. That is both sectarian vainglory and a betrayal of class conscious democracy. If we do not get democracy right, we will surely get socialism wrong. Socialists can appeal to the morals and ideals of the middle class, and we can argue with good reason that the middle classes do better in other countries with basic social democracy. Likewise, in periods of open class struggles, a significant fraction even of the ruling class has turned against a system that made them sick at heart. There is no substitute, however, for workers defending both their own interests and social solidarity in a democratic republic.

As Frederick Douglass wrote in the 19thcentury, “experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.” The relation between means and ends is relevant here. One practical present aim is to raise the ground floor of wages. Fifteen Bucks An Hour is a legitimate and defensible means here and now, especially in regard to the most exploited workers. Unless present reforms are oriented to socialist goals, however, even such reforms may be built on a foundation of quicksand, and then will be more quickly eroded over time. The corporate state always counterattacks, and at the same time takes the long view. The old motto of class conscious workers goes beyond present wage fights, and indeed should be a guiding goal of democratic socialists: Abolish Wage Slavery.