Interview on working time reduction

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Mojca Pišek,  a journalist and a working time reduction supporter from Slovenia wrote me an e-mail as part of the team of people who will in the following months prepare a booklet to represent the for-now informal network of activists and organisations that are dedicated to the working time reduction.

Main objectives of the booklet will be to give the current partners (and their members) a clear overview of the network, information on who to contact in which country and to attract new partners for the june 2018 meeting.

Mojca Pisek works under guidance of Margareta Steinruecke from Attac Arbeitfairteilen in Germany and David Feltz from Collectif Roosevelt in France.

Hereunder you can read Mojca`s questions and my replies:

  1. Who is “on the board”: how many individuals and/or organisations are advocating the topic in your country and do you form partnerships?

Reduced working hours idea has a long history, it goes back to Karl Marx, then John Maynard Keynes. With the outburst of the financial crisis in 2008 the long forgotten ideas have re-emerged in debates over the nature and limits of free-market capitalism. Governments across advanced capitalist economies have eased fiscal policy in an attempt to combat the deep recession. There were even talks of a modern New Deal to counter rising unemployment. Nationalisation and public works programmes, once thought of as relics of a distant past, have been revived as possible remedies for the constant economic ills.

The perversity of the present situation is that while many people work very long hours, others languish in unemployment. A readjustment of work time would help to reduce the jobless rate. It would also provide a necessary boost to the quality of work and life for many workers.

The idea of the reduced working hours is very much connected to combat unemployment. The talk now is about what governments can do to counter recession once other policy options have been exhausted. A former economic heresy – the reduction of working hours – may offer policy- makers an additional tool to prevent the economic downturn turning into a depression.

In the early 2000s several ATTAC Groups (e.g. in Germany and Austria) – as an alternative and complementary strategy to Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) started to work on the concept of a 30 hours week for Europe (with compensation of wages and personnel).

The introduction of UBI in Hungary is supported by the Első Magyar Feltétel Nélküli Alapjövedelem Egyesület (First Hungarian UBI Association), whose first active gathering was held in Budaörs on May 31, 2011. Among the more than 16 full members and about 15-20 sympatizers you can find a dozen of ATTAC Hungary members, too.

Katalin Szili, a former President of the House of Parliament, now an independent MP, submitted a proposal for a resolution to the Hungarian Parliament on 3 September 2013 on examining the possibility of introducing unconditional basic income in Hungary, but it was ultimately rejected.

On January 11, 2014, in Budapest at the Kossuth Club, a 98-page study of the LÉT Workgroup consisting of renowned economists and sociaologists was presented with great interest and considered as a realistic program of UBI, tailor-made for Hungarian conditions. According to LÉT`s intent, this would be the first time in history to account for insanity and deep poverty in Hungary.

In 2015, the Párbeszéd Magyarországért Párt (Dialogue for Hungary) was the first Hungarian party to approve the UBI and to incorporate its basic income concept into the party`s program.

On March 27, 2015, the Conference of Dialogue presented its proposal by spokesperson Bence Tordai. The conference was attended by Gabor Scheiring, Chairman of the Party’s Foundation , György Surányi, ex-Chairman of the Hungarian Central Bank (MNB), Eszter Babarczy, Miklós Gáspár Tamás, Zsuzsa Ferge, Bálint Misetics, Zoltán Pogátsa.

On May 21, 2016, the Foundation for Dialogue in cooperation with the Foundation for Renewal of Hungary, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Progressive Economic Policy Foundation organized an international conference on basic income. Keynote speakers were: Iván Szelényi, Gergely Karácsony, Tímea Szabó, Zoltán Lakner, Kinga Papp Réka, Benedek Jávor and József Tollner.

  1. What is your group`s actual proposal for the reduction of working time?

Orthodox economic theory teaches that those who argue for shorter working time succumb to the „lump of labour fallacy”. This is the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done in society, so any reduction in work hours must increase the number of available jobs. It is argued by orthodox economists that the amount of work is not fixed and that reductions in work time will simply add to firms’ costs. But the above fallacy is not wholly persuasive. If reduced hours encourage people to work more efficiently, then the effect may be to lower prices and to increase the demand for goods and services and in turn the demand for labour.

We start with the supposition that labour-power is bought and sold at its value. Its value, like that of all other commodities, is determined by the working-time necessary to its production. If the production of the average daily means of subsistence of the labourer takes up 6 hours, he must work, on the average, 6 hours every day, to produce his daily labour-power, or to reproduce the value received as the result of its sale. The necessary part of his working-day amounts to 6 hours, and is, therefore, caeteris paribus a given quantity. But with this, the extent of the working-day itself is not yet given.

The working-day is thus not a constant, but a variable quantity. One of its parts, certainly, is determined by the working-time required for the reproduction of the labour-power of the labourer himself. But its total amount varies with the duration of the surplus-labour. The working-day is, therefore, determinable, but is, per se, indeterminate.

The capitalist has bought the labour-power at its day-rate. To him its use-value belongs during one working-day. He has thus acquired the right to make the labourer work for him during one day. But, what is a working-day?

At all events, less than a natural day. By how much? The capitalist has his own views the necessary limit of the working-day. As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour.

Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.

If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.

The capitalist then takes his stand on the law of the exchange of commodities. He, like all other buyers, seeks to get the greatest possible benefit out of the use-value of his commodity. Suddenly the voice of the labourer, which had been stifled in the storm and stress of the process of production, rises:

The commodity that I have sold to you differs from the crowd of other commodities, in that its use creates value, and a value greater than its own. That is why you bought it. That which on your side appears a spontaneous expansion of capital, is on mine extra expenditure of labour-power. You and I know on the market only one law, that of the exchange of commodities. And the consumption of the commodity belongs not to the seller who parts with it, but to the buyer, who acquires it. To you, therefore, belongs the use of my daily labour-power. But by means of the price that you pay for it each day, I must be able to reproduce it daily, and to sell it again. Apart from natural exhaustion through age, I must be able on the morrow to work with the same normal amount of force, health and freshness as to-day.

We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e.,the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e.,the working-class.

  1. Who do you encounter as opponents and what are their counterarguments?

To understand the foundations of the capitalist state it is essential to understand the iron law of competitiveness. By capital, we mean the private ownership of such means of production that enable the employment of wage labor. Competitiveness is the precondition of the reproduction of capital with sufficient profit. Reproduction of capital with sufficient profit allows new investments with the purpose of either increasing production on the same technological level or upgrading technology – investments, which are the preconditions of preserving competitiveness. New investments result in the accumulation of capital.

Accumulation of capital is the essence of capitalism. Market competition, competitiveness, reproduction of capital with sufficient profit, accumulation of capital – are different approaches to the same thing, namely capitalism. So the iron law impacts upon all these factors. Profit is the right of capital and is a part of the value added, as created by employees (wage labor) in the process of production. Whether a capitalist wants it or not, in the long run, profit has to be increased within the value added as well as relative to the invested capital.

To increase the share of profit in value added, the share of labor compensation has to decrease. If a capitalist does not succeed in doing that, those competitors who manage to do so, will be able to push him or her out of the market, by means of their better/cheaper products. The basis of competition is the isolation of producers, their individual “company” form, so that each and every unit of production is “self-interested”: the root of the selfishness is the private property of means of production. It is the competition based on the isolation of properties that presses capital to reinvest profit, to accumulate capital and by these, to achieve growth. The way and key to growth – the iron law of capitalism – is the downward pressure on wage share in value added, additionally accompanied by either increasing, decreasing or stagnating amount of wages. (It is the share of wages that counts, not their absolute level).

Of course, one could imagine a world in which no company undertakes development, thus not threatening other companies’ activities, and does not even start any innovation – a world where market structures show no signs of changes at all – but it would not be capitalism. The essence of capitalism and the basis of its historical merit (the revolutionary development of means of production) is just competition based on the freedom for selfish profiteering.

The basic rule of the corporate competitiveness is to produce more value at minimizing the cost of the product. The central factor of the costs is the (living) labor, so the less people have to produce the more (value) product. Therefore, if a more productive method is introduced the redundant workers are laid off. The rest – under pressure of the reserve army – are forced to more (intensive) work. With the development of the productive forces the time liberated from the production turns towards society in a hostile manner, piling up cumulatively on the side of the unemployed mass. This leisure time instead of a true „life” acts as an enemy of life, a working time-guzzling small dumpling. The laid off workers do not only produce anything but – similarly to the workers forced to increased performance – decay of the stress and the hardship and their medical condition deteriorates, deviances (drugs, crime) are on the rise. To eliminate or to treat these effects, the society should set aside income and working time be spent (for law enforcement, health care, drug prevention, etc.). This development is embodied and partly called by the mainstream as the sphere of the „second labor market” and the „social economy”. (Social, home beautification, environmental and youth protection programs and organisations supported by public money, broadening the local service sector, etc.) However, these do not prevent the deterioration of physical and mental state. The reserve army means that older people’s labour is no longer needed so it does not matter if they wear out faster and their place – as the quick obselescence of technology – are filled with younger workers anyway …

Due to the lack of community education of the youth and as a result of the reserve army of the unemployed the main productive force, the manpower works far below its possibilities, its capabilities lie unused and wasted.

  1. What is the public opinion on the working time reduction in your country? Is it favourable, what are people`s main reconsiderations?

The cause of all-embracing capitalist wasting is the efficiency of dotted ball method, namely the isolation conditions that also can give birth and nurture individualism. The white spots of the dotted ball represent the isolated units of management (i. e. the companies), the red „base” symbolizes the different resources of the society. The basis of the isolation in capitalism is the private property of productive forces. The (private) company (white spots) served to produce profit manages only the resources necessary in its production processes, while it ejects the savings as a „space garbage” to the dead water of the society (in red).

Regarding cost management basis, by comparing the socialist state enterprises and the private capitalist enterprises only the latter may be the winner. The difference is basically due to the enumaration. From the company’s point of view efficiency is considered, if less people are working as much as possible. But from a social point of view, the situation is just the opposite: the more effective use of social labour fund is when the more people work the less.

In Hungary, for example, if all of the working age people could work, the same amount of GDP would be reached if all worked only five and a half (!) hours a day. More time would remain for relaxation, cultural activities or education, which could lead to an increase in output per hour. Not just as much, but more would be produced, ceteris paribus, if everybody worked only six hours a day. Partly because six hours working is less tiresome, than 8 hours and secondly because working spirits were higher. In addition, it would be less stress, disease, crime, deviance, etc., that would reduce spending on the social level as well. The fairer burden-sharing and smaller workloads would strengthen the community spirit of the people’s sense of responsibility to each other and their environment, increase empathy, tolerance and generosity. In the meantime, it would do less damage.

However, all of this isolation conditions do not allow the companies to manage the labour fund of the society (the whole red area), because only a part of it is at their disposal (their white spots). If more people were employed in less working hours, it would increase their costs and lead to a deterioration of competitiveness. They can not afford it.

It is important to emphasize that the key question here is the isolation. The basic form of separation is the private property, of course, but the situation can also be imitated by corporate autonomy, self-management, employee ownership, municipal ownership, etc. These are exactly the same types of separation. The Community objective is to create the welfare (the needs) of the whole society and to manage the social labour fund (the productive force).

  1. What is your next step in the campaign? And what are your short-term, medium-term and long-terms objectives?

Our short and medium-turn objective is a slow but steady move towards a 30-hour week for all workers in the age of robotics. This will help solve a lot of connected problems: overwork, unemployment, overconsumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other and simply to enjoy life.

People working shorter hours generally have a smaller ecological footprint. If you are tied to the workplace for 40-plus hours, you don’t have much time for the rest of your life. So things have to speed up. You travel by plane or car instead of train, foot or bike. Convenience-driven consumption takes a heavy toll on the environment. Workers on shorter hours tend to be more productive hour-for-hour. They are under less stress, they get sick less often and they make a more loyal and committed workforce.

Our final long-term goal is to build up a socialist, beyond-capitalist world, which would in no way represent some abstract theoretical declarations, revelations, the proclamation of an abstract socialism. It can only break through concrete demands, ideas, plans, existing social movements, which can be shaped in every country according to national specifics.

Capitalism, the capitalist market economy as a world system essentially is not a reformable system. Whatever is transformed in it, however its existence is extended by the latest, most sophisticated or brutal methods of repression, the main problems remain: the inconceivable inequalities that are the natural consequences of the given relationships of the production and the distributions, the poverty, the environmental degradation, the dissipation of the material goods on the basis of market logic, renewed outbreaks of violence and wars as the way of existence of the great powers, the unemployment, the gender inequality, and the permanent reproduction of institutions of oppression. This system can only be conquered globally! Do not occupy the streets, but the working places!

Budapest, 4 February2018.

Matyas Benyik, President of ATTAC Hungary Association

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