Same Shit, Different Labor Day

Right-libertarian apologists for capitalism seem to have a thing about using holidays as vehicles for their talking points. Every Thanksgiving, Reason trots out John Stossel’s ahistorical buncombe about how communism almost killed the Pilgrims before private property saved them from starvation (despite my debunking it every year). On Christmas, we get apologetics for Ebenezer Scrooge, whose thrift and abstention enabled the accumulation of capital that made us rich, every one.

And now it seems to have become a new Labor Day tradition to indignantly deny that unions gave us the eight-hour day and weekends. Witness this post by the Free State Project on Facebook: 

This Labor Day let’s take a moment to honor the 5 day work week, children not working in sweat shops, weekends off, workplace safety, and high wages.

All made possible by free market capitalism.

Thomas Woods makes essentially the same claim, at greater length, in his article “Labor unions didn’t bring you this or any other weekend.” For starters, there’s this:

Until society grows wealthy enough, all the labor unions in the world can’t make it possible to take two days a week off from work.

Can you imagine, in the primitive economies of 300 years ago, agitating for a shorter work week? People would have thought you insane.

If Woods’ claims ever come into contact with any facts from actual history here on Earth, the geometry capable of describing their intersection is as yet unknown. In England, at least, they had a shorter work week 300 years ago. Woods should Google “Saint Monday” (about which here). Or consider how many saints’ days working people took as holidays through the year, before the Puritan gentry suppressed them in the name of the Protestant Work Ethic. It was the propertied and employing classes of that day who objected to the laboring classes commonly taking off more than two days a week, and who agitated for longer work weeks (and by “agitated,” I mean imposed them by force). 

Far from the mythical history Woods imagines — in which people were unable to work shorter hours until capitalists had accumulated sufficient capital to increase labor productivity to the point where people could produce enough to live on in less time — in actual history, capitalists had to coerce people into working longer hours by robbing them of access to the means of subsistence.

The truth is the exact opposite of what Woods claims. Six-day work weeks with low wages were not a natural state of affairs that capitalism changed. They were the state of affairs created by capitalism. Capitalism was founded on enclosure of the commons by employers in collusion with the state. Capitalism and the wage system were established by forcible separation of labor from the means of production.

The explicit motivation of the propertied and employing classes — expressed in so many words — was to rob the peasantry of independent access to the means of subsistence so that they would work longer hours for lower wages. The stated goal — again, stated quite openly — was to lower wages so that people would have to work six days in the week instead of four.

During the time of Parliamentary Enclosures in England from the mid-18th to early 19th centuries, the contemporary press was full of arguments defending Enclosure as necessary to make the lower orders work longer hours. A 1770 tract called “Essay on Trade and Commerce” warned that “[t]he labouring people should never think themselves independent of their superiors…. The cure will not be perfect, till our manufacturing poor are contented to labour six days for the same sum which they now earn in four days.”

Let’s run that by Mr. Woods again: “till our manufacturing poor are contented to labour in six days for the same sum which they now earn in four days.” Can’t get much plainer than that, can you, Tom?

Mr. Bishton, in his 1794 Report on Shropshire, was equally honest in stating the goals of Enclosure. “The use of common land by labourers operates upon the mind as a sort of independence.” The result of their enclosure would be that “the labourers will work every day in the year, their children will be put out to labour early, … and that subordination of the lower ranks of society which in the present times is so much wanted, would be thereby considerably secured.”

But then, speaking of Enclosures, this isn’t Woods’ first rodeo when it comes to making laughably ahistorical claims.

He rebuked radical historians of the Enclosures for relying on outdated historiography like that of J.L. and Barbara Hammond, to the neglect of the new and up-to-date scholarship of G. E. Mingay — while himself failing to note the work of J.N. Neeson, who had mopped the floor with Mingay’s pasty ass.

Woods continues:

With little capital, and with most goods produced by hand, it takes all the labor power all the hours it can spare just to make life barely livable.

That’s why people worked long hours in terrible conditions in the past (and why they do in the Third World today). Not because short men with white mustaches and a monocle took delight in oppressing them.

With regard to the Third World: Britain and other imperialist powers reenacted the same enclosure process in the colonial world, from the hacienda system in Spanish America, to the Permanent Settlement in Bengal, to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, to the British settlers’ plantations in the East African highlands and the Boer farms of southern Africa. It was also the common practice of colonialists everywhere to impose head taxes payable only in money, as an inducement for even peasants who retained control of some of their land to enter the wage system. I’m not sure how common white mustaches and monocles were among the colonial authorities, though, if it makes Woods feel any better.

If you ask people who work in sweatshops today if they’d prefer to have (1) more pleasant conditions (or fewer working hours) but (2) less take-home pay, they overwhelmingly say no.

As we’ve already seen, this is a false dichotomy. It was employers who offered them the choice between long hours and death. Try offering them the choice of more pleasant working conditions, fewer working hours, and more take-home pay, and see what they say then.

Woods asks, sarcastically: “So those Third World countries looking to escape poverty and enjoy additional leisure just need…some labor unions?” But despite his asking in jest, the answer — in dead earnest — is yes.

Those workers in the Third World are already producing enormous amounts of goods. The problem is that other people have claims on the output. The overwhelming majority of the price of the goods produced in Third World sweatshops comes, not from the cost in labor and materials or the amortization cost of the capital goods used to produce them, but from embedded monopoly rents on patents and trademarks. So yes — what Third World countries looking to escape poverty and enjoy additional leisure need is to 1) abrogate all the global intellectual property accords that prevent them from using the same factories to keep producing the same goods for their own domestic market, at a tiny fraction of the price, and 2) form strong labor unions so that the value the workers produce is not expropriated by absentee owners. In other words, they need to tell those little men with the white mustaches and monocles to get fucked.

Woods also trots out the old right-libertarian talking point that accumulation of capital was responsible for increased productivity: “With workers vastly more productive than before, thanks to the assistance of machines, physical output was multiplied in quantity and quality many, many times over.”

And although he inexplicably left it out — he must have been wanting to get an early start on that three-day weekend — the clear implication is that rich people deserve credit for accumulating all that capital. This is a talking point we see all the time on the libertarian right (for example Jacob Hornberger): the best way to increase wages and leisure is to let rich people accumulate endless amounts of wealth.

But in fact rich people accumulated it from the surplus created by their workers.

I know, I know. Before you tell me to “go study economics,” let me say up front that I’m entirely familiar with all the capitalist apologetics aimed at disproving exploitation theory — from the 18th century “wage fund” doctrine, to the “abstinence” of Nassau Senior, to the “time preference” of Böhm-Bawerk and the “marginal productivity” of Clark. They’re all nonsense. In fact the primary function of marginal productivity theory is to conceal power relations behind the illusion of “neutral” laws of distribution. Böhm-Bawerk himself admitted that the steepness of time preference varied inversely with wealth and security, so the doctrine is basically just a circular apologetic for the tendency of them what has to get more.

The primary effect of the enclosures we considered above — as well as the Combination Laws, Laws of Settlement, etc. — was to reduce the bargaining power of labor, and increase the rate of surplus labor extraction. All the income the capitalists “abstained” from consuming and instead reinvested was actually produced by the workers.

Just as a matter of basic physical reality, all the plant and equipment, all the capital goods, in those super-productive factories, was the product of human labor acting on natural resources. Far from the capitalists advancing the means of subsistence to workers during the production process, the physical reality of the matter is that workers are constantly advancing their respective products to one another, and constantly consuming one another’s products, during the production process. As Thomas Hodgskin described it:

Betwixt him who produces food and him who produces clothing, betwixt him who makes instruments and him who uses them, in steps the capitalist, who neither makes nor uses them, and appropriates to himself the produce of both. With as niggard a hand as possible he transfers to each a part of the produce of the other, keeping to himself the large share. Gradually and successively has he insinuated himself betwixt them, expanding in bulk as he has been nourished by their increasingly productive labours, and separating them so widely from each other that neither can see whence that supply is drawn which each receives through the capitalist. While he despoils both, so completely does he exclude one from the view of the other that both believe they are indebted him for subsistence. He is the middleman of all labourers; and when we compare what the skilled labour of England produces, with the produce of the untutored labour of the Irish peasantry, the middlemen of England cannot be considered as inferior in their exactions to the middlemen of Ireland. They have been more fortunate, however, and while the latter are stigmatised as oppressors, the former are honoured as benefactors. Not only do they appropriate the produce of the labourer; but they have succeeded in persuading him that they are his benefactors and employers. 

In other words, whatever apparent role the capitalist plays in advancing food, clothing, and housing to workers amounts to a collection of ownership chits, resulting from the capitalist credit system, that entitle him to allocate the products of the labor of different groups of workers. The same process might have been managed by the workers themselves as a number of horizontal flows, in a cooperative credit system.

In addition to all that, the correlation between capital accumulation is not as direct or linear as Woods suggests. In fact, in 20th century mass production capitalism the relationship was mostly the other way around: rather than investing in physical capital to increase productivity, the industrial economy resorted to quite inefficient forms of production in order to soak up more surplus capital.

The most efficient model for the Second Industrial Revolution — the integration of electrical power into manufacturing — would have been the local industrial district model of craft production, using electrically powered general-purpose machinery and frequently shifting between production runs as orders came in. 

Instead, the alliance between capital and the state tipped the balance towards mass production, using extremely expensive product-specific machinery in long production runs. The high overhead from the capital-intensive production model required running the machinery at full capacity to keep unit costs down. This, in turn, required organizing the entire society around the need to guarantee that the full output was consumed, so the machines could keep running. So whatever “efficiencies” resulted from “economies of scale” at the point of production were more than offset by the costs of warehouses full of goods awaiting orders, high-pressure marketing and distribution, deliberate design for planned obsolescence, and waste production for the military-industrial complex. It also required finding new outlets for all that surplus capital — hence the enormous waste embodied in subsidized suburbanization and car-centered urban design. The entire society was a Rube Goldberg machine built around the need for waste production to guarantee full utilization of capacity and prevent depression.

What might the work week be, if not for all the subsidized waste and irrationality that are the direct result of that blessed capital accumulation the Austrians love so much?

There’s still the matter of the supposed relationship between productivity, and higher wages or shorter hours. The problem with that argument is that wages pretty much stopped going up with labor productivity in the 1970s. If the minimum wage had increased at the same rate as labor productivity, it would be $24/hour today (never mind what it would be if it had gone up at the same rate as CEO pay). Instead, all that increased productivity went to making capitalists, bosses, and landlords richer. So Woods’ claim about the correlation between labor productivity and wages is doubly bullshit.

Woods’ column is typical of the sort of thing you see at the Mises Institute and Lew Rockwell. It’s one just-so story after another, that bears no ascertainable relationship at all to history or to empirical reality. I know that Woods, being an Austrian, has to believe in a priori axioms. But apparently he believes in a priori facts as well.

What’s the motive for his constant, obsessive falsification of history? I hardly have a window into the man’s soul, but it seemed oddly serendipitous stumbling across this quote from David Graeber at the same time I was writing this commentary: “…one reason I spend so much time re-writing the past is because I am convinced it’s currently being written the way it is so as to make it almost impossible for us to imagine a viable future.” Or to borrow another quote: “Who controls the past controls the future.”

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