a note on work

Michael Yates mikey+ at SPAMpitt.edu
Sat Sep 4 17:30:33 MDT 1999

Since the U.S. version of Labor Day is on Monday, it is appropriate to
make a comment on the subject of work.  Too often, it seems to me, we
radicals forget that capitalism is a system in which it is necessary for
capitalists to maximally exploit our capacity to labor, that is, to
convert our labor power into as much living labor as possible.  This
means that work, a most fundamental human activity, indeed the activity
through which we have transformed the world around us, including
ourselves, is considered by the capitalist not as a means to human
liberation but solely as a means of generating surplus value.

        Since in capitalism, workers have lost all connection to the means of
production, they must sell their ability to work on the market and
thereby lose all control over how this work will be done.  The fact that
the capitalists own the means of production, the sources of our very
ability to live, gives them the power to continuously transform work to
conform to their need to accumulate capital.  Historically this has
meant the gradual (and sometimes rapid)degradation of human labor.  I
suspect that members of this list are familiar with the major means by
which this has been accomplished.  But what I have not seen much of on
this list is commentary on what this implies for any anti-capitalist
revolution,namely that a radical change in the way work is done, in the
very meaning of work, must be at the heart of the revolutionary
project.  This transformation of work must be at the heart of the labor
movement's ideology and practice.  A socialism without such a
transformation is, in my view, no socialism at all.

        In 1918, Lenin said the following (Collected Works, Vol. 27, p.259,
1965 Moskow edition, cited in Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital, p.

"[The Taylor system--i.e. the system of Frederick Taylor known as
scientific management] like all capitalist progress, is a combination of
the refined brutality of bourgeois exploitation and a number of the
greatest scientific achievements in the field of analyzing mechanical
motions during work, the elimination of superfluous and awkward motions,
the elaboration of correct methods of work, the introduction of the best
system of accounting and control, etc.  The Soviet republic must at all
costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and
technology in this field.  The possibility of building socialism depends
exactly upon our success in combining the Soviet power and the Soviet
organization of administration with the up-to-date achievements of
capitalism.  We must organize in Russia the study and teaching of the
Taylor system and systematically try it out and adapt it to our ends."

        This is  a profound misunderstanding not only of what Taylorism is but
of what a revolutionary social transformation means (not to mention a
misunderstanding of the already in progress commodification of science
and technology).  We might just as well say that we should take the best
features of the maquiladora plants in Mexico and modify them
appropriately for socialism.  No, capitalist methods of labor control
are exactly that, capitalist; they develop within a capitalist milieu
and the have a thoroughly capitalist character.  There is no core of
objective science we communists can take from them.  Instead we must
invent new forms suitable for new human beings in a new society. Of
course, we will be stuck with the weight of past generations and we will
not be able to make our transformation overnight.  But we must not
compromise with capitalism or assume that this or that aspect of its
nature can be taken over as if this or taht aspect is somehow divorced
from the entire capitaslit system of exploitation.  We must take what is
and fight mightily against it and in the process struggle just as
mightily for a radically new world.


michael yates

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