Capitalism in crisis can only lengthen the working day

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World Revolution 283 carried an article from WR’s 16th Congress entitled Britain can’t escape the world economic crisis. It explained the reasons for the relative ‘health’ of the British economy compared to its traditional European rivals. The main reason it identified is the increase in the level of exploitation of the working class in Britain over the last 20 to 30 years due to a general increase in the length of the working day (taking place alongside an increase in unemployment and part-time working), which gives British capital an increase in the absolute surplus value extracted from the working class. While this tendency exists in every country, it is in Britain that the bourgeoisie has used it to the utmost in order to drive home a short-term advantage against its economic rivals: refusing to accept any EU limitations on the length of the working day.

The following article, written by a close sympathiser, looks at the question of the extension of the working day, firstly in the context of the development of ascendant capitalism and the struggle to reduce the working day; secondly in the context of the decadence of capitalism and its inability to further reduce the working day, and thirdly in the context of the tendency for the working day to increase in recent decades.


For Marx, the question of the working day lies at the very heart of capitalism: “The prolongation of the working-day beyond the point at which the labourer would have produced just an equivalent for the value of his labour-power, and the appropriation of that surplus-labour by capital, this is production of absolute surplus value. It forms the general groundwork of the capitalist system.” (Capital, Chapter XVI, ‘Absolute and relative surplus-value’).

Getting more out of a working day of fixed hours or extending those hours by any trickery has always been a goal of capitalism. Going back to its roots, capitalism demands an increase in the working day in order to increase exploitation and the extraction of absolute surplus value. Any increase in the working day leaves cost of labour power (i.e. the monetary equivalent necessary for the worker to exist in the general manner to which he has become accustomed) the same, but worsens the condition of the worker by increasing the pressure upon him or her. As Marx noted, not only is the general tendency of capitalism to increase the working day and wear out its wage slaves, but it is also to reduce the cost of labour power (the amount necessary for the maintenance and regeneration of the worker and the workers’ family). In Capital, Marx often refers to capitalism as a “blood-sucking vampire”, a “gnawing worm”, and capitalism’s “blood lust”, (consuming) “the worker as the ferment of their own vital processes”. For Marx it was never, and, contrary to what the leftists claim today, it will never be a question of the nastiness of individual (or state organised) capitalists. The anarchy of capitalism, its devouring and destruction of labour power in its quest for profits doesn’t “depend on the good will or evil will of the individual capitalists … the immanent laws of capitalist production hold sway irresistibly over every individual capitalist” (ibid.).

By lengthening the working day, by increasing the period of production, capitalism ever more deteriorates and shortens the life of workers as a whole. Here, on the basis of Marx’s own analysis, is one of the major contradictions that expose capitalism as an essentially short term and self-destructive system. There is no other conclusion to be drawn.

During capitalism’s ascendancy in the 19th century, as the working class found its feet, the tendency of capitalism to make the working day as long as possible clashed with the tendency of the proletariat to limit the working day to the minimum. “When two rights come into conflict, force decides the issue”, said Marx in Capital. This is the class struggle in its “aggregate”. With enormous sacrifices the class struggle, a “protracted civil war, more or less veiled, between the capitalist class and the working class” (chapter on ‘The working day’), wrested real reforms from the hellish conditions of capitalism in its ascendant phase. Despite enormous resistance from the bosses, the average working day fell, the worst conditions of children’s and women’s labour were attenuated and legislation was enacted and (more or less) enforced in order to improve the general conditions of the working class. But a historical materialist analysis must insist that even these reforms couldn’t have been made unless capitalism was in a position to grant them – otherwise revolution would have immediately been on the agenda. These reforms spurred the most powerful and far-sighted elements of the bourgeoisie to increase the development of machinery and the productivity of labour. Thus a reduction in the working day, amelioration in the condition of the working class, led to a further increase in exploitation and surplus value, leading capitalism to expand afresh.

Capitalism’s decline

During the latter part of the 19th century, capitalism more and more filled the limits of the world market. With a lack of solvent outlets available its cyclical crises became increasingly violent. Unable to create sufficient internal markets and having spread to all regions of the planet, capitalism, again demonstrating its essential destructiveness, could only turn in on itself and seize the markets of other nations, whatever the cost. Like slavery and feudalism before it, capitalism could only go into irreversible decline and this event was marked in the bloodiest way possible by the First World War. And, contrary to those who saw this as a one-off (“the war to end all wars”), it was followed by deeper crises and then by a second world war. Wars, crises, famines and disaster have continued ever since. Compared to the tribute in blood and suffering that the working class has paid during this period of decay, the acquisition of a few weeks paid holiday and the temporary decrease in the working day during part of the 20th century count for nothing. On the contrary, the threat to the very existence of the working class, and of all humanity, is far greater today than it ever was in the 19th century.

With the decadence of capitalism came not only the development of permanent, sharpened competition between all nations – imperialism, but also the same permanent sharpening of the class struggle - the revolutionary perspective.

Along with the massacres of millions of the proletariat – mostly its youth – the two world wars saw the militarisation of labour in all the capitalist metropoles, including increases in the working day, the extension of night work and child labour. Outside of periods of open, generalised warfare came increased exploitation, productivity drives and increased overtime enforced by the trade unions, now transformed from workers’ organisations into capitalism’s shop-floor cops promoting the ‘national interest’. The anarchy and irrationality of capitalism means that in its decadent phase, as productivity and the intensity of work increases, it also becomes necessary to increase the length of the working day in order to extract even more profit.

A worsening situation

This has particularly been the case during the last two or three decades, which have seen the slow but inexorable deepening of the economic crisis following the end of the post-war reconstruction period. In recent years – which we are ceaselessly told have seen a vast increase in prosperity and even the end of class divisions – the extraction of absolute surplus value at the expense of the working class has in reality reached levels undreamed of by the capitalism of the 19th century. In Britain, a country at the forefront of extending the working day, 1.7 million women (13.7% of women workers) and 2.6 million men (18%) work some sort of shift pattern (Office of National Statistics). If you add up the unpaid time for shift handovers and the general rule that meal breaks are taken within shifts and toilet breaks supervised, the millions of hours daily robbed from workers, over and above the profit already extracted, can be seen. In Australia there are over a million workers on shifts, half on rotating shifts, and this is increasing rapidly. Studies show 50,000 workers with sleep disorders and the appearance and growth of heart disease in young shift workers under 20. The same study shows that the unions have agreed to and implemented 79% of new shift patterns. Between 1985 and 1997 shiftworking rose 30% in the USA to include some 15 to 20 million workers with over 50% suffering sleep disorders (US Department of Labor).(1)

All the injurious and deleterious sicknesses detailed by Marx in Capital from the hellholes and sweat-shops of the mid-19th century are increasing and becoming much more extensive today: heart disease, high blood pressure, back pain, stomach problems, psychological and sleep disorder, stress related illnesses. On current estimates a shift worker has 75% of the life span of an ‘average’ worker.

Britain has led the way in cutting public transport and health care, affecting travelling time and family obligations, thus making the working day even longer. Under the guise of privatisation there have been centralised, state-organised attacks in the gas, electricity and water industries, innovating such measures as the electronic ‘tracking’ of mobile workers (being taken up by local authorities) as well as clocking on and receiving daily work through mini-computers as soon as the worker leaves home. Such shackles, undreamed of by the most caricatured mill-owner of the 19th century, are the real stuff of the ‘technological revolution’.

Again Britain is at the forefront of informal unpaid overtime, formal contractual overtime, annualised hours – where you’re sent home when there’s not enough work and called in by pagers or mobile phone when the work is there. Workers on the end of a electronic rope, yanked back into work at the whim of the boss, take us right back to the attempts to get around the restrictive factory legislation of the 19th century, but with the difference that today such efforts are legal, more efficient and are backed by the unions. Similarly “stand-by” is on the increase. Here, again electronically, and for a pittance of usually a couple of pounds a day, the worker, after a day’s work, is on call for 24 hours for days at a time. Technology is neutral and depends upon the social system. But in capitalism’s hands, what chains are forged – invisible but so much more effective and backed by the trade unions. At the same time traditional overtime payments of time and a half and double time are becoming things of the past throughout industry, being reduced to fractions like time and a sixth (Post Office, retailing) when they are not disappearing altogether in union-imposed ‘flexibility’ and ‘annualised hours’ agreements. All these tendencies are growing, even while they exist alongside unemployment, part-time working and long-term sickness, and they drive on the increases in the working day – a tendency which the British bourgeoisie, whatever the government, has pushed forward over the last decades.

In Capital, Marx showed, amongst other things, the horrors of capitalist production. But whereas in the period of the ascent of the system these horrors could be somewhat attenuated, both under the impetus of the class struggle and the system’s ability to grant reforms, such a situation does not exist today and will never exist in the future under capitalism. We are now in a dramatic, downward decline where, even if it wanted to, capitalism cannot deliver any reforms but, on the contrary, can only attack the working class more and more head on. Marx’s Capital was a call to arms, a critique of the inherent anarchy and contradictions of capitalist production as well as its inherently transient nature. Taking this critique as a whole, it is obvious that any reforms for the working class, any reduction in the working day for example, can only henceforth come about after the seizure of power by the proletariat and as steps towards a fully communist society.

Ed. 23/4/05.

(1) All these figures were collated before the take-off of 24 hour manned call centres in the banking, insurance and other industries. Therefore, millions more can be added.

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