[Marxism] 30 for 40

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 26 12:15:51 MDT 2011

Under the menace of its own disintegration, the proletariat cannot 
permit the transformation of an increasing section of the workers 
into chronically unemployed paupers, living off the slops of a 
crumbling society. The right to employment is the only serious 
right left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation. 
This right today is left to the worker in a society based upon 
exploitation. This right today is being shorn from him at every 
step. Against unemployment, “structural” as well as 
“conjunctural,” the time is ripe to advance along with the slogan 
of public works, the slogan of a sliding scale of working hours. 
Trade unions and other mass organizations should bind the workers 
and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual 
responsibility. On this basis all the work on hand would then be 
divided among all existing workers in accordance with how the 
extent of the working week is defined. The average wage of every 
worker remains the same as it was under the old working week. 
Wages, under a strictly guaranteed minimum, would follow the 
movement of prices. It is impossible to accept any other program 
for the present catastrophic period.

Leon Trotsky, "The Transitional Program"


Counter-intuition 101: why recent bad economic news means it’s 
time for working less

The economic news of the last few weeks has not been encouraging. 
In Europe, the various national debt crises remain unresolved, 
with a continued monopoly of banker-friendly austerity programs, 
and their predictable consequences of rising unemployment and 
stagnation. Debtor countries are being forced into the same 
financial orthodoxies that prolonged the depression of the 1920s 
and 30s, so we shouldn’t be surprised at the failures they will 
bring. More recession may also be the future of the countries 
enforcing these once-discredited policies, as weak demand across 
the region represses consumer demand, investor confidence, and 
government spending. In the United States the details are 
different, but the main story is the same. The country is 
experiencing continuing mass unemployment (25 million Americans 
remain unemployed or underemployed), further collapse in the 
housing market and an extremist political movement determined to 
slash all government spending directed at the people who are most 
likely to spend: the poor, the unemployed, and the middle classes. 
The outlook among wealthy countries is for more economic 
“weakness,” a conclusion supported by the plummeting stock markets 
of recent weeks.

Protecting bankers’ and creditors’ interests above all else is 
foolish economic policy. It enriches one group of people at the 
expense of nearly everyone else. But these days, it’s hard to get 
a hearing for the view that the wealthy countries remain wealthy, 
that we can solve our economic problems without making most people 
worse off, and that we can also do it while addressing the much 
larger challenge we face: climate change and growing ecological 

So what’s the alternative to slashing government programs, budget 
cutting, and more concentrated wealth at the top? The centerpiece 
of a new approach is to re-structure the labor market by reducing 
hours of work. That may seem counter-intuitive in a period when 
the mainstream message is that we are poorer than ever and have to 
work harder. But the historical record suggests it’s a smart move 
that will create what economists call a triple dividend: three 
positive outcomes from one policy innovation.

The first benefit of hours reductions is a significant reduction 
in unemployment. In the wealthy countries, many of the jobs lost 
in the 2008 downturn will not re-appear. The revolution in 
information technology has made many jobs unnecessary, raised 
labor productivity, and undermined a good swathe of the labor 
market, as firms introduce radical technological and product 
innovation. (And some of the jobs are being created in low wage 
countries.) This is familiar territory, as it has been occurring 
since the 19th century. The buggy and barrel makers are long gone. 
Toll takers and the workers in DVD factories are on their way out. 
So too are household tax accountants and retail check-out clerks.

Historically, market economies have absorbed this displaced labor 
in two ways. The first is the creative of jobs in new industries 
making new products. The 20th century brought automobile workers, 
higher education administrators and medical personnel. But new 
jobs, spurred on by growth in GDP, are only half the story. The 
other mechanism for maintaining balance in the labor market has 
always been reductions in hours of work. Without the advances of a 
shorter workweek, vacation time, earlier retirement and later 
labor force entrance, the economies of the OECD would never have 
attained the “golden age” of high employment that prevailed after 
the1930s depression. Between 1870 and 1970, hours of work fell 
roughly in half. These countries have re-balanced the labor market 
by re-distributing work to make its allocation fairer. We need 
shorter hours because it is unrealistic to count on growth in GDP 
to absorb all this current and future “surplus” labor. Rich 
countries just never grow that rapidly. So the austerity economics 
that says work longer and retire later has it exactly wrong.

But even if GDP growth could solve the unemployment problem, it 
shouldn’t, because the cost in GHG emissions is prohibitive. North 
America and Europe have already blown their carbon budgets and 
until we re-structure energy systems, growth isn’t reconcilable 
with responsible emissions levels. Here too shorter hours of work 
provide a dividend. They are associated with lower ecological and 
carbon footprints. Countries that work more pollute more. That 
both because their scale of production is larger (the GDP effect) 
and because time-stressed households and societies do things in 
more carbon intensive ways than societies in which time is more 
abundant. Longer hours of work lead people to travel, eat, and 
live faster-paced lives, which in turn require more energy.

The third benefit of shorter hours is the time itself. As a 
growing movement of “downshifters” attests, short hour lifestyles 
allow people to build stronger social connections, maintain their 
physical and mental health, and engage in activities that are 
creative and meaningful. Time is especially valuable in rich 
countries where material needs can be met for everyone, and 
deprivation is caused by mal-distribution of income and wealth.

So that’s the triple dividend: reduce unemployment, cut carbon 
emissions, and give people quality of life. Austerity economics 
says we can’t afford to work less. A serious reading of our 
economic history suggests we can’t afford not to.

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