Reply to Tom O'Lincoln on wage labour

Mon Nov 18 15:59:29 MST 2002

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> You can't "organise claims to the social product"
> without a wages system (or something worse). But
> the socialist project aims to create a society where
> we don't distribute resources on the basis of
> particular claims. We work out collectively what is
> needed.
> Of course you can organise claims to the social product without the wages
> system, or are we talking about making babies here ?

Sometimes I wonder whether this is a mailing-list dealing with Marxian
critical theory or just another offspring of bourgeois "socialism" in the
tradition of Proudhon, Lenin and the like (hard-core Protestantism would be
another therm). Central to Marxian theory is the question of soical
mediation. Currently we are subject to a system which mediates social
relations by the social abstraction of value generated by abstract labour.
Labour cannot be redefined:
After centuries of domestication, the modern human being cannot even imagine
a life without labour. As a social imperative, labour not only dominates the
sphere of the economy in the narrow sense, but also pervades social existence
as a whole, creeping into everyday life and deep under the skin of everybody.
"Free time", a prison term in its literal meaning, is spent to consume
commodities in order to increase (future) sales.
Beyond the internalised duty of commodity consumption as an end-in-itself and
even outside offices and factories, labour casts its shadow on the modern
individual. As soon as our contemporary rises from the TV chair and becomes
active, every action is transformed into an act similar to labour. The
joggers replace the time clock by the stopwatch, the treadmill celebrates its
post-modern rebirth in chrome-plated gyms, and holidaymakers burn up the
kilometres as if they had to emulate the year's work of a long-distance lorry
driver. Even sexual intercourse is orientated towards the standards of
sexology and talk show boasting.
King Midas was quite aware of meeting his doom when anything he touched
turned into gold; his modern fellow sufferers, however, are far beyond this
stage. The demons for work (labour) even don't realise any longer that the
particular sensual quality of any activity fades away and becomes
insignificant when adjusted to the patterns of labour. On the contrary, our
contemporaries quite generally only ascribe meaning, validity and social
significance to an activity if they can square it with the indifference of
the world of commodities. His labour's subjects don't know what to make of a
feeling like grief; the transformation of grief into grieving-work, however,
makes the emotional alien element a known quantity one is able to gossip
about with people of one's own kind. This way dreaming turns into
dreaming-work, to concern oneself with a beloved one turns into
relationship-work, and care for children into child raising work past caring.
Whenever the modern human being insists on the seriousness of his activities,
he pays homage to the idol by using the word "work" (labour).
The imperialism of labour then is reflected not only in colloquial language.
We are not only accustomed to using the term "work/labour" inflationary, but
also mix up two essentially different meanings of the word. "Labour" no
longer, as it would be correct, stands for the capitalist form of activity
carried out in the end-in-itself treadmills, but became a synonym for any
goal-directed human effort in general, thereby covering up its historical
This lack of conceptual clarity paves the way for the widespread
"common-sense" critique of labour society, which argues just the wrong way
around by affirming the imperialism of labour in a positivist way. As if
labour would not control life through and through, the labour society is
accused of conceptualising "labour" too narrowly by only validating
marketable gainful employment as "true" labour in disregard of morally decent
do-it-yourself work or unpaid self-help (housework, neighbourly help, etc.).
An upgrading and broadening of the concept labour shall eliminate the
one-sided fixation along with the hierarchy involved.
Such thinking is not at all aimed at emancipation from the prevailing
compulsions, but is only semantic patchwork. The apparent crisis of the
labour society shall be resolved by manipulation of social awareness in
elevating services, which are extrinsic to the capitalist sphere of
production and deemed to be inferior so far, to the nobility of "true"
labour. Yet the inferiority of these services is not merely the result of a
certain ideological view, but inherent in the very fabric of the
commodity-producing system and cannot be abolished by means of a nice moral
What can be regarded as "real" wealth has to be expressed in monetary form in
a society ruled by commodity production as an end-in-itself. The concept of
labour determined by this structure imperialistically rubs off onto any other
sphere, although only in a negative way in making clear that basically
everything is subjected to its rule. So the spheres extrinsic to commodity
production necessarily remain well within the shadow of the capitalist
production sphere because they don't square with economic administrative time
logic even if - and strictly when - their function is vital as it is the case
with respect to "female labour" in the spheres of "sweet" home, loving care,
A moralising broadening of the labour concept instead of radical criticism
not only veils the social imperialism of the commodity producing economy, but
fits extremely well with the authoritarian crisis management. The call for
the full recognition of "housework" and other menial services carried out in
the so-called "3rd sector", raised since the 1970s of the last century, was
focused on social benefits at the beginning. The administration in crisis,
however, has turned the table and mobilises the moral impetus of such a claim
straight against financial hopes in making use of the infamous "subsidiarity
Singing the praise of "honorary posts" and "honorary citizen activity" does
not mean that citizens may poke about in the nearly empty public coffers.
Rather, it is meant to cover up the state's retreat from the field of social
services, to conceal the forced labour schemes that are already under way,
and to mask the mean attempt to shift the burden of crisis onto women. The
public institutions retire from social commitment, appealing kindly and free
of charge to "all of us" from now on to take "private" initiative in fighting
one's very own or other's misery and never demand financial aid. This way the
definition juggle with the still "sacred" concept of labour, widely
misunderstood as an emancipatory approach, clears the way for the abolition
of wages by retention of labour on the scorched earth of the market economy.
The steps taken by public institutions bear out that today social
emancipation cannot be achieved by means of a re-definition of labour, but
only by a conscious devaluation of the very concept.

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