Making capitals tick

A crisis in working time erupts every second of every day for some worker somewhere. An alarm doesn’t go off. The porridge burns. A car won’t start. The bus sails past your stop or the train runs late. Miniscule as each incident appears, any one of them could contribute to dismissal. Although employers should make allowance for the long littlenesses of life, these annoyances are not attributable to the needs of capital. The same cannot be said about the acceleration of life and work across some 250 years.

Longer hours, intensified routines and unpaid overtime are among the problems pressing on working people. The mass media have reported numerous cases of disruption to family and social life. These stories are presented as if the difficulties resulted from misunderstandings between management and the employees. Tony Abbott would be happy to resolve such disagreements by compelling workers to negotiate individual contracts, free from the rigidities imposed by union bosses. Sections of the union movement would prefer to extend last year’s ruling by the Industrial Relations Commission that employees may refuse excessive overtime. What Abbott dares not admit and the ACTU cannot absorb is that the conflicts over the organisation of time arise from the needs of capital more than from the aspirations of workers.

To prepare for the future of work, working people need to investigate the future of capital. This lecture offers a contribution to that understanding, conceived in the spirit of inquiry that guided Marx’s Capital (1867-) and Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899). The contest for the control of the pace and length of labour will be surveyed in two segments, each with three sections. The first part examines the pressures on time that stem from the expansion of capital: 

  1. i. the pre-conditions for the purchase of labour-power is the loss of property rights;

  2. ii. globalisation is shown to be the latest turn in reducing the time that an employee takes to complete each task;

  3. iii. longer hours and intensification are tied to the need that capital has to expand.

  4. The second part covers the experiences of labour:

  5. iv. the recent re-lengthening and intensifying of work-time is linked to the disorganisation of labour;

  6. v. some consequences of accelerating the pace of work are sketched;

  7. vi. a concluding section reflects on how homo sapiens sapiens has adapted to temporal climate change.

No solutions will be specified beyond the implication that policies are more likely to succeed when grounded in an appreciation of why capitals must behave as they do.

PART ONE: Capital  
i. enforcing free labour
The current concern about letting employers spend less time at their jobs is only one side of the coin. At the turn of the twentieth century, Joseph Furphy opened his novel set among Rivernia drovers, Such is Life, with the exhaltation: “Unemployed at last!” That predilection remains a greater concern to capital than any difficulties that employees face from overwork. Wherever labour is in short supply, the propertiless will try their luck with a succession of bosses. To make bush workers see out their contracts, Masters and Servants Acts were enforced until late in the nineteenth century.

For employers, the prime problem has always been to get people to go to work for them at all. In his1697 report to the Board of Trade on Relief and Unemployment of the Poor, John Locke recommended that the recalcitrantly idle be whipped and have their ears lopped off. Their offspring, he advised, should be taken away - stolen - at the age of three years to be placed in schools that would inculcate the discipline of work.[1]

A precondition for the capitalists’ ability to buy the labour-power is that its sellers possess no other means of sustaining themselves. That was not the case in 1829 at Swan River to which Mr Thomas Peel had conveyed the coin of the realm, the means of production and labourers but neglected to import the power relationships that, in England, would have obliged those farmhands to work for him. Unhappy Mr Peel was left “without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water”.[2] The labourers, meanwhile, were busy working land they had occupied for free. The Wakefield Scheme of Systematic Colonisation proposed to remedy this defect in nature by making assisted immigrants to South Australia work to repay their fares and then to save to buy land that would be made available only seven years after their arrival.

The evidence for an increase in inequality through globalisation is not to be found in income statistics alone, or through exposing the low wages in the factories that supply Nike. Underpinning those aspects, and of far greater import, is the proletarianisation of the world as billions of people are dispossessed of their land and water, or other resources for self-sufficiency outside the world market.

ii. intensification
Once labourers have been hired, the manager’s task is to make their labour as productive as possible during the hours for which they are paid. Workers sell their ability to produce (i.e. their labour-power), but what their employers need is its application. At the point of production, the class struggle is joined when the owners of productive property tussle with their labourers to enforce their attention to the tasks that will produce value in excess of the costs of reproducing their labour-power. Therefore, capitalists try to control their wage-labourers for every second that they are at work, a subordination dignified as managerial prerogatives. The capitalist has paid for labour-time and is driven to extract the most value from it. For that reason alone, Marx and Engels were right to declare that “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”.

When bosses call for “a fair day’s work”, they want to intensify their operative’s attentiveness. For instance, after the introduction of the 40-hour week in 1947-48, Australian employers called on unions to support “A Full 40-Hours”.[3] In 1953, the Chair of the Joint War Production Committee, Sir John Storey, deplored that most wage-earners put in no more than thirty-three hours a week “after allowing for public holidays, tea breaks, late starting and early finishing”.[4]

The length of attendance need not be the workers’ main burden. Some Japanese salarymen hung about their offices till 10 p.m. because there was no room for them at home. Even during the day, a few had little to do and were known as “apple polishers”, that is, clerks who sat at their desks polishing an apple until it was time to eat it. Their twelve-hour shifts did not lead to “death from overwork”. That syndrome afflicted a different stratum with similar attendance times but far heftier workloads. Equally, ill-health can result from seven-hour days in a thirty-five-hour week if the strain is relentless. While the physical effort has diminished in many tasks, mental pressures are up across the board. The isolation in the cabin of a mechanized coal-extractor makes twelve-hour shifts at an open-cut as stressful as eight-hours underground with a pick. Lack of control over one’s environment is the source of most mental and physical stresses.

Control over labour-time was known as convict discipline long before Fordism and Taylorism and is propelled through globalisation. The development of the methods for ensuring a worker’s attentiveness can be traced, albeit with a broad-brush, through the drive that capital has exerted over several hundred years to convert concrete labour times into a universal labour time. To this end, the capitalists’ concern had to spread from lengthening the working day to intensifying the application with which the work is performed. The crux is the comparative time taken by each operative to perform a task.

When production was for the maker’s own use, a lass might have taken an hour to cut out and finish a shirt, her sister ninety minutes and their aunt only forty. Indeed, there would have been as many actual production times as there were seamstresses. The time taken was important only in relation to other domestic tasks such as cooking, child-minding and gardening. However, should the shirt be bartered for food, then the participants to the exchange would have guessed at the time involved in its production to know how many eggs to offer.

The setting of relativities of labour-time assumed a different impact when the shirt-maker sold not the shirt itself, but her capacity to make shirts in exchange for wages. Once workers entered that regime, the time taken to finish each garment was not measured against household chores or personal satisfactions. The pace was no longer set by the wage-labourer, but by the purchaser of her labour-power. Depending on the nature of the produce, the capitalist also mimimised unproductive labour-time through piece rates.

From early on, the masters divided the making of each shirt into its several stages – cutting out, sewing, button-holing – and also into the shirt’s parts – sleeves, collars, backs and vests. The capitalists spurred each operative towards the rate of their most efficient employee. The particularisation employed to reduce labour-time also lowered the workers’ attentiveness and hence demanded stricter oversight. Efficiency is a mix of speed and quality. Spoils are a double loss to the employer, of wages and materials. Because their assault on profits is like stealing, operatives were fined for their mistakes.

Having established a factory-wide standard, the next step was to make the production time of each worker approach or exceed the best rate throughout the area in which that firm sold. The shortest labour-time in that market became the standard that all the wage-labourers had henceforth to match a Universal Labour Time (ULT). The quickest is never a permanent quantum. Innovations follow in reaction to the attainment of each rate. These speed-ups, in turn, drive all firms within that market area towards further cuts in labour-time.

The universal aspect of labour-time is never universal in the sense that it applies in all factories, service-providers or offices at the same time. Rather, the universal is a standard that capitalists are compelled to pursue if they are to survive. For a long time, its approximate achievement could be recognised only after profits had been reported. That index was rough-and-ready because book-keeping remained rudimentary. Moreover,  the realisation of any profit depended on the employer’s success at selling his workers’ output. Fordism and Taylorism were attempts to move beyond this post hoc measure of the success at matching ULT.

After railroads imposed standard time across the USA in 1884, a music-hall routine had a stage Irishman complaining that John D. Rockefeller had monopolized time within his Standard Oil. This joke conveyed an element of truth because the pace of work was being increased as part of the reorganization of capitals into corporations, cartels and trusts. Monopolising competition also compelled firms to move into new markets. Bukharin recognised as early as 1915 that those new structures were combining with the the migration of labour, commodities and of money-capital to inscribe a wage-rate for “socially indispensable labour on a world scale”.[5] These institutions brought forth the multi-divisional corporation in the 1920s boom. The longer post-1950 boom, better understood as the “great trough in unemployment”, was built on the conglomerate and the Multi-National Corporation.[6]

Control over labour-time remains at the crux of the current wave of competition between monopolizing capitals so that globalization continues the universalising of labour-time, but with a new dimension. Throughout the centuries, the geographic boundaries to that accelerating standard have been extended by communication, conquest and transport, or restricted by protective arrangements ranging from import duties to warfare, from oligopolisation to retail price maintenance. Nowadays, globalisation is making labour-time doubly universal by shifting certain kinds of production to sites where the workers can exert the least influence over the length of their working-day or the pace of the line. These relocations are not always to third world police states. Before planning a greenfields plant in Ontario, Chrysler was able to secure union agreement to lower wages because 15,000 automotive jobs had been lost in Canada since 1999. [7] 

At every stage across the past 250 years, the index of a managers’ ability to impose time controls has been profit. The ultimate test of whether a firm is besting the labour-times prevalent throughout its market area will be its survival. Given a choice between lower wages and greater controls over the labour-process, managers will often opt for the latter as the more profitable. Capitalists have much more than the pay-scales to consider in achieving a rate of profit that at least approximates that from the alternative investments.[8] In addition to Chrysler’s pressing down on Canadian wage-rates, it obliged its suppliers to contribute more than half of the construction cost of the plant.

iii. turnovers
Like greed, speed is not a personal choice for owners or managers but is tied to the expansion of capital. Hence, to ask why labour-time is always being speeded up is to ask why capital must expand. Of course, every capitalist expects to obtain a surplus on his investment out of each cycle of production and consumption. If he and his dependents consume that extra for their own enjoyment, his enterprise can do no more than repeat a circuit equal in scale to its original capital. That steady state puts them in danger of going under to a competing family who invests more of the surplus they have expropriated and realised. Because some of that surplus has been put back into expanding the raw materials, the labour and perhaps even the machinery, the conditions will exist for the extraction of surplus-value on a larger scale. A few capitalists will take this route because they enjoy the busyness of business. All capitalists must engage in an expanded reproduction of their capital if they wish to remain in business.

This expansion is not some mystical essence of capital. A need to expand is imposed on each firm (capital) because it comes under two kinds of pressure. The first is where competitors chase after its customers. To ward off these rivals, each firm produces more than it has been selling. This expansion usually involves more expensive machinery which tends to lower the rate of profit per item. To keep absolute profit levels up, each firm now has to sell larger quantities.

At the same time, all firms have to deal with workers who demand higher wages, shorter hours and safer conditions. If a firm cannot disorganize its workers, it must pay them more, driving up the unit cost of production to the advantage of its rivals. Larger absolute returns are required to meet higher labour costs. The threat of a competitor inhibits the attainment of that revenue through a price increase. The outcome of these intertwined forces is a greater volume of commodities. Profits still depend on their sale. Thus, employers must drive down their unit costs in order to compete. Greater mastery over all aspects of labour-time is inescapable.

Hence, the time pressures on employees derive from the pressures on capital to behave as capital. A factory is not capital. A machine is not capital. A warehouse of Nike shoes is not capital. The labour-power of an employee waiting for her next task is not capital. Gold bars under Malcolm Fraser’s bed are not capital. Indeed, capital items become capital only when they engage labour in adding values, that is, setting in motion the circumstances for its expansion.

This fact of life for capital applies at every moment of the production-consumption cycle. The greatest inventions of the industrial revolution were the re-organisations of labour-time. These breakthroughs, which in their time were as significant as Supercomputers, are now taken for granted. The continuous flow that Wedgwood introduced to his potteries in the 1770s was as ingenious as Watt’s steam-engine. This creativity extended to money-capital in consolidating individual hordes. Because a speedier realisation of the surplus that became possible because of the railways. Their construction had required the legal novelty of the joint-stock company. Such interactions still serve capital’s need to reduce the time taken for its circuit of expansion. The current pressures on working time followed a new round of innovations in the circulation of money. Much of what has happened to employment and labour-processes after 1980 required discount brokerage, indexed funds, cash-management accounts, junk bonds and spreadsheets.

The significance of time for commodity capital can be drawn out from the case of a manufacturer who puts all her resources into the production of razor wire. Until Mr Ruddock pays for those rolls, her firm cannot purchase more raw materials, hire labour or declare a dividend. The alternatives to a sale are either to borrow, or to cook the books. Without those expedients, there must be an interruption to the process of adding value in order to expand. This interval, in turn, slows down the progress of suppliers and reduces the consumer spending of the labourers. The effect is to retard the entire system. If the delay is protracted, the manufacturer or some of her suppliers may be driven from the field.

Too long a passage between making and selling is so hazardous that businesses created measures to shrink it. After the last war, the Benneton family got started on the principle: “First we sell them. Then we make them.”[9] From such beginnings, the biggest corporations are extending the just-in-time systems towards a regime of built-to-order as to “to eliminate incoming and outgoing inventory”. Firms have slashed the costs of holding supplies and from production and management. The next step is to reduce the period between completion and sale. Agriculture has long operated a futures market to avoid these delays to the circuits of capital. Now we could see a futures market in automobiles.[10] All these devices confirm Marx’s insight that capitalists would relish “Circulation without circulation time – i.e. the transition of capital from one phase to the next at the speed of thought” – a phrase that Bill Gates used as the title for his book.[11]

The futures market can be illustrated with another homely example. Around the corner from where I live, a new office block remained untenanted for a year. No rent came in. The builder was unable to start a new project. Instead, he faced bankruptcy. Let us suppose that a real estate agent had appeared on the scene when plans for the $10m. building were being drawn up. She offered to buy it for $9m. This price was one million less than the construction company had budgeted. But “loss” of that million would be offset by removal of most of the selling costs and erasure of interest payments on the bank loan taken out to pay for materials and labour. Moreover, even before the builder had sent workmen to the first site, he could plan for a second project financed by the promised $9m. The real estate agent has bought the building’s future.

This procedure is often explained as spreading the risk, which is part of what is happening. Even more important is that trading in futures can speed the cycle for the expansion of investment, and thus contribute to the growth of the economy as a whole.

The trade in futures began long ago when it was called Merchant’s capital, familiar from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. As Merchant’s capital quickened the accumulation of capital, it also increased the space for swindles. Derivatives spun out of the trade in futures. Some of these devices continue the service provided by Merchant’s capital, helping capital to expand with fewer and shorter interruptions. Other derivatives are parasitical, shaving fractions of a percent off each trade. Still others are larceny. The necessity for speed does not make theft necessary. Rather, some of the mechanisms by which the turnover of capital is quickened have multiplied the opportunities for capitalists to rob each other, which is a less expensive undertaking than making workers go faster. As Marx observed: “All nations with a capitalist mode of production are therefore seized periodically by a feverish attempt to make money without the intervention of the process of production.” [12]

PART TWO: Labour
iv. disorganised labour
The crisis of time management being encountered by Australian workers and their families is but one result of the success that capitals have had across the world in the contest for control of the labour-process. High among the factors that have tipped the balance of strength in favour of employers has been the disruption of labour movements. In Australia, the Accord, industry restructurings, union amalgamations and de-registrations contributed to that weakening. Meanwhile, the employers consolidated behind legislation and administrative interventions. Plans by a few firms to de-unionise their workforces have built into patterned non-bargaining. One constant has been the organizing role of the state which attempts to achieve for capital what its managers cannot do through corporations.

The contest for ideological dominance has also run in favour of capital through tax-payer funded think-tanks inside universities, for instance, Judith Sloan in Labour Studies at Flinders, as well as outriders in the H. R. Nicholls Society. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc encouraged employers around the world to feel confident that they could bear down on their workforce without risking the survival of their system. On the other side, workers feared that there was no alternative. The dissolution of Australia’s three Communist Parties from the late 1970s has deprived the labour movement of even the strategic economism that had passed for a socialist objective. The pace of globalised speed-ups has been possible only because the labour movement had been so disorganized ideologically.[13]

Just how much organized labour can achieve was given a human face in John Morrison’s Stories of the Waterfront. Morrison introduced his collection by recalling that, when he went on the wharf in the late 1930s, “minimum period of engagement could be for as little as two hours; smokoes were limited to particularly strenuous or fast cargoes such as pig-iron and bagged flour”. He wrote of a Melbourne gang which had worked for nineteen days without a break, and till nine o’clock every night, or over 200 hours without a day’s leave. The average week for three years had been between sixty to seven hours. By 1949, militant leadership of a determined membership had settled “these long-standing grievances”. [14] Sydney wharfies campaigned under the slogan “Nights are for love” to put an end to the 11pm to 6 am shift.

v. revolution in time
The story of time management in the capitalist era has been told by several authors.[15] A perception of a crisis in the time pressures on paid work is not peculiar to the present. Its longer history can be glimpsed by comparing a pharmaceutical response from the 1870s with a couple of nostrums from a hundred years later.

In the 1870s, the strain of work led to the diagnosis of a medical condition, Neurasthenia. To cope with this malaise, Pope Leo XIII and the Prince of Wales endorsed Vin Mariani, alcohol laced with cocaine. Its popularity led to the concocting of Coca-Cola in 1886. Its inventor knew that New Orleans stevedores used cocaine to work 72-hours shifts and that West Africans chewed the kola while carrying the whiteman’s burden. Cocaine fell from favour in the 1890s, but the need for a kick-start remained. By the 1970s, eight percent of prescriptions in the USA were for amphetamines.[16] Nowadays, children with normal energy levels are diagnosed as suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder, although their parents need sleep more than the kids require drugs.

Time-pressures persisted across post-war Australia, despite the adoption of a forty-hour week, long-service leave, four-weeks annual leave and flextime. Evidence for the demands placed on workers in the 1950s is less grounded in statistics than it is for the more recent past. Some clues to those earlier decades are embedded in the novels of working life that the authors wrote as participant-observers. Dorothy Hewitt’s recreation in Bobbin’ Up of the clothing factory where she had worked, lamented the inadequacies of child-minding:

Jeanie was two minutes late. By the time she got the kids from Fivedock to Erskinville and then caught the bus to Alexandria, it was always the same. Five minutes late and docked a quarter of an hour.[17]

In The Dyehouse, Mena Calthorpe made a comparable comment:

John Thompson woke in his bedroom at Granville. The alarm blurred in the dark morning. It as only a little after five, but he had long trip to the [Macdonaldtown] Dyehouse and there would be trouble if there was no steam up before seven twenty.[18]

Both authors included these incidents as no more than everyday demands which their characters had to cope with to hold down a job. The naturalness of the retelling adds to their claim on actuality.

Exaggeration is more likely in the forty-year-old remembrances from a wife that her husband had been

working practically seven days a week to keep us …. For a long time, he worked 12-hour shifts. He would get up in the morning and go to work, come home, have something to eat and go to bed, and that went on for a long, long time … because we needed the money.[19]

That long hours were not uncommon is confirmed by a mass of interviews and statistics on overtime and second jobs. The effort demanded of male wage-earners continued into the 1970s even while the national average per week was declining from 39.5 towards 37.4 hours. For example, a steelworker at Whyalla gave this account of his routine:

I can bring home $150 a week if I work seven days a week plus some extra overtime in the evenings. At the end of each day you are buggered, physically buggered. You’re just sort of shattered. And it takes a couple of hours when you get home of sitting down to get over it. There is no hope of being able to play with the children. Quite often I’m so buggered at the end of the shift that the only thing I can do is go to bed. My entire twenty-four hours of each day is basically geared to this eight-hour shift at the steelworks. You go home, wash and have tea and the thing that you most want to do is just sit and drink beer and watch the television. I go to bed at about nine of ten so that I can get up in time to be back at work by seven in the morning. We are just working machines. They tell you that you are working for BHP for only eight hours a day, but basically you are working for the Company twenty-four hours a day.

You don’t feel like sitting down and reading a book or going for a walk with your children. Last night I came home from work at 4.30p.m. and had a bite to eat and sat down in front of the television and fell asleep, and then I went to bed at seven and didn’t wake up till six this morning – just in time to go back to work.[20]

These quotations cannot tell us whether matters are worse today, but at least serve as a reminder that workers’ perception of time-pressures is not novel.

By contrast, Don Townsend set Gland Time (1975) in a Tasmanian abattoir in the 1960s when the workers ran the joint to suit their social, sporting and sexual needs. They had even more success, if with less gusto, than the garbos in Frank Hardy’s The Outcasts of Foolgarah (1971). Those pictures of sociable working environments now seem as remote as William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1888). David Ireland’s Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971) proved more prescient regarding the dehumanization both of the labour-process and its respites.

One new aspect is that the time-squeeze has moved beyond process workers to include more professionals and thus is a “problem” for policy-makers because those now enduring the time famine have access to the media.

A second change is that the burden of total hours of paid work is becoming more evenly distributed between men and women. The belief “that contemporary women have become overburdened … is the issue behind most of the discussion of the balance between work and family”. The pressures remain on men, whether or not they are husbands or fathers, though those relationships will add to the strain. In 1974, the number of Australian men working longer than 11 hours a day was one in eighteen. By 1997, that ratio had risen to one in eight.[21] Time pressures have never been confined to one gender. Rather, they have been distributed unevenly between paid and unpaid work. Within each kind, time pressures take a different form for each gender. In turn, those forms are expressed differently at different periods, locations and for ethnic communities.[22]

The calls for reform aim to increase the unpaid work that men put in at home while reducing that of women, especially mothers, both at paid work and in the domestic sphere. The market’s pressures on many men to work harder and longer need to be included in any divvying up of domestic chores. Although a declining percentage of men are in full-time employment, more of those who are so occupied are putting in excessive hours. Meanwhile, more women are either in full-time employment or spending the equivalent hours in cobbling together part-time casual jobs.

Neither the source of these shifts nor their solution is confined to gender relations. Rather, they derive the conflicting needs that capital has for increased productivity and a growth in effective demand, driven by mass marketing. Capital’s recent ability to hold down hourly wage rates has meant that the rise in the socially necessary costs of reproducing labour is being met by additional hours. Capital-induced needs compel workers to seek or accept a longer working week, as well as boosting the number of dual-income families.[23] These needs of capital bear down on both genders, although in different ways.

To comprehend these problems, it is necessary to ask why there is still a problem with excessive hours. In the mid-1950s, the panic was that mass unemployment was just around the corner from automation. In the 1970s, the concern was that there would be a social crisis as people failed to cope with an unaccustomed excess of leisure. An early contributor to the debates sparked by the 1974 publication of Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital proposed that

society as a whole needs to devote less and less of its time to factory work … If everyone did a short stint of factory work each year, it would be possible for everyone to be free from such work for most of the year. [24]

Similar scenarios were sketched by commentators of every political persuasion. Yet the reverse has happened. The reason is that no firm or national economy could survive against its monopolizing competitors if it made these concessions. The future where nobody will need to sell her or his labour-power for more than a few hours a week remains in the realm of science fiction.

Time travel
The impact of this 250-year fast-forward can be glimpsed by commandeering H. G. Wells’s time machine to propel a worker of average mental and physical abilities from 1750 into the present.[25] How many hours would elapse before he experienced a total mental and physical collapse? A clue can be gleaned from villagers who came down from the New Guinea highlands in the 1950s to Port Moresby, then a town of only a few thousand. The culture shock was so great that a phrase was added to Pidgin to cover the encounter. The visitor was called a “head-he-go-round-man”. Sometimes, the speed of life and work in Sydney leaves even those of us raised in modern industrial urban centers a touch dizzy. In the main, we get by.

If the pace has been ratcheted up across 250 years, how have human beings coped? Two hundred and fifty years allow for only twelve generations, too brief a span for human beings to have evolved physiologically. Human nature, however, is an interaction of the physical with the social. Social adaptation is a less protracted affair than molecular change, and can be passed on as learned experience.

Our distant ancestors developed tools in making themselves into homo sapiens sapiens. We deploy both tools and machines – to quote Marx again - as prolongations of our bodies.[26] Levers and the wheel reduced the output of physical energy. In 1945, Brambles supplied men with long-handled shovels to fill two fifteen-ton railway trucks per day each with silt from the Hunter River.[27] Nowadays, dredges deposit the load directly into conveyors.

As well as reducing the wear-and-tear physically, we have improved the means to repair body and brain. The marketing of medical research has provided chemical, prosthetic and dietary means to preserve our capacity to labour. On the pharmaceutical front, cocaine, caffeine and amphetamines have been noted. Office workers do yoga and take fitness classes in their meal breaks. In the 1940s, two of the Brambles brothers collapsed and died in their mid-fifties.[28] Today, their vital organs would be replaced, their hearts operated on. The most extreme instances of prolonging the body are the norm in the working lives of professional sportspeople. (For some reason, the replacement of joints is distinguished from other performance enhancing drugs.) These interventions are only beginning. Scientists at Flinders University announced in July 2002 that spectacles devised to help the body counter jetlag could be used by shift-workers to reset their circadian rhythms.

In addition, the coping with time pressures has brought forth thousands of new commodities which affect every nook and cranny of life: the zipper in place of the hook-and-eye; instant coffee and the tea-bag; nail polish which dries in a minute; non-iron fabrics and dry-cleaning; takeaway fast food, the prepared stir-fry, or meals that brought about a rephrasing the vulgar materialist maxim to read “You are what you heat”.

Despite the array of aids to help us cope with the lengthening or intensification of work, some strata have fallen behind in the race for paid employment. Someone who would have been designated mentally or physically “slow” in 1750 could still have been a useful agricultural labourer, contributing more than he consumed. His prospects today are uncertain. Prolongations of the body and brain have provided more chances for the most extreme disabilities, as shown by Steven Hawking. Others find they are no longer employable because their bodies and brains cannot keep up with the equipment that has reduced the physical effort. They wear out in their forties. Still others find the social and mental pressures of chasing after jobs too great, and retire hurt.

The Coalition’s attempt to increase the working hours required from those designated “disabled” should direct attention to the wider significance behind that bureaucratic category. First, the pace of life and work has produced a new definition of the “unfit”. Social Darwinists preached that the fittest would survive the class struggle. Taylorism came closer to Darwin’s meaning of “fitness” by promising to match each worker with the task to which they were best adapted.[29] Since then, speed and endurance have been increased so much that Taylor’s ideal labourer as trained ape would now be out of a job.  

Secondly, a truly radical meaning should be attached to “disabled”. Throughout the workforce, how many jobs leave their operatives feeling that our abilities have been used to the full? In that sense, a majority is being “disabled” by the conditions of our employment, irrespective of hours or intensity. The goal of integrating life and work has to be more than a drop in weekly working-time to six hours of apple-polishing. Workers need to have creative endeavour in democratic organisations restored to the program of reform of the workplace.[30]

The World Bank vice-President for PNG and the South Pacific envisages a free market in labour to match those being installed, under the rubric of globalisation, for investments, products and services. In short, he wants labour power to be another commodity. Joseph E. Stiglitz, who had been second in command at the World Bank, has complained about neoclassical economists’ thinking of labour power in that way. The truth is that they are merely expressing how labour is treated in its exchange relations with capital.[31]

The labour movement will never reclaim the initiative from the Abbotts until we can recreate a vision of work which challenges more than the demands of capital for unpaid overtime or overcome its low regard for child care. The Coalition intends to destroy unionism, not just to tame it. In their ratty way, Abbott, Reith and Howard have a firmer grasp of history as class struggle than Crean, Tanner or Burrows. Workers need a vision of our work as humanly fulfilling if the tactics for rebutting attacks on our rights are to achieve even that limited aim. Defence as much as defiance requires reclaiming the body of knowledge that the labour movement had won through industrial conflict, the insights from Capital and an appreciation of ourselves as more than commodities.

[1] E. J. Hundert, “The Making of Homo Faber: John Locke between Ideology and History”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 33 (1), 1972, pp. 5-6.

Labour discipline in the Soviet Union would have met with Locke’s approval. From 1938-40, lateness of more than twenty minutes became a criminal offence, punishable by removal to the Gulag. “Given the unreliability of public transport, not to mention that of Soviet clocks and watches, this put every employed person at risk”. The enforcement of the new labour laws ran wider even than the Great Purges and brought sufferings to the urban proletariat second only to the famine of the early 1930s. Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism, OUP, New York, 1999, p. 8.
[2] Quoted Karl Marx, Capital, I, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1958, p. 766; in late 17th-century Virginia, the struggle for land between tobacco planters and their bonded labourers turned violent and led to the dominance of chattel slavery, Robert Brenner, “The Origins of Capitalist Development”, New Left Review, 104, July-August 1977, pp. 88-90.
[3] IPA Review, Nov.-Dec. 1948, p. 173.
[4] Clay Products Journal, January 1954, p. 39.
[5] N. Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy, Merlin, London, 1972, pp. 23-27. Bukharin paid closer attention to the equalization of labour costs and the global redistribution of surplus value than did Lenin in relation to “an aristocracy of labour” in Imperialism, which he wrote a year later, after penning an introduction for Bukahrin’s manuscript.
[6] Walter Korpi, “The Great Trough in Unemployment: a Long-Term view of Unemployment, Inflation, Strikes and the Profit/Wage ratio”, Politics and Society, 30 (3), September 2002, pp. 365-426.
[7] Forbes, 23 December 2002, pp. 20-21.
[8] David Kucera, “Core Labour Standards and foreign direct investment”, International Labour Review, 141 (1-2), 2002, pp. 31-70.
[9] Jonathon Mantle, Benetton: The Family, the Business and the Brand, Little, Brown, London, 1999, p. 56.
[10] Economist, 7 December 2002, pp. 69-70.
[11] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973, p. 173.
[12] Karl Marx, Capital, II, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1957, p. 56.
[13] Humphrey McQueen, “Neither glory nor power: the ALP in an era of the globalising of labour-time”, Australian Journal of Politics and History, forthcoming.
[14] John Morrison, Stories of the Waterfront, Penguin, Ringwood, 1984, pp. 74-75, 82, 105 & vii.
[15] David Landes, Revolution in Time, Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1983.
[16] Humphrey McQueen, The Essence of Capitalism, Sceptre, Sydney, 2001, chapter 13.
[17] Dorothy Hewitt, Bobbin Up, Australasian Book Society, Sydney, 1959, p. 175.
[18] Mena Calthorpe, The Dyehouse, Seven Seas Books, Berlin, 1964, p. 17.
[19] John Murphy, “Breadwinning’: Accounts of Work and Family Life in the 1950s”, Labour and Industry, 12 (3), 2002, p. 65.
[20] Roy Kriegler, Working for the Company, OUP, Melbourne, 1980, p. 125.
[21] Michael Bittman and James Mahmud Rice, “The Spectre of Overwork: An Analysis of Trends Between 1974 and 1997 Using Australian Time-Use Diaries:, Labour and Industry, 12 (3), 2002, pp. 6 & 15.
[22] Humphrey McQueen, “Breadwinning in the 1950s: a response to Murphy”, Labour and Industry, 13 (3), April 2003, pp. 93-98.
[23] McQueen, The Essence of Capitalism, op. cit., chapter 14.
[24] Donald D. Weiss, “Marx vs. Smith on the Division of Labor”, Monthly Review, 28 (3), July-August 1976, p. 110.
[25] The latest film version removed Wells’s 1895 critique of capitalism where the social division of labour has turned classes into species, the Morlocks and the Eloi. His twist on the theme of exploitation was that, by the year 802501, the former emerge from their subterranean labours to eat the rich.
[26] Karl Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, New World Paperbacks, New York, 1965, p. 89.
[27] M. Manuel, Men and Machines: the Brambles story, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1970, p. 74.
[28] Manuel, op. cit., pp. 75 & 77.
[29] Reinhard Bendix, Work and authority in industry, Ideologies of Management in the Course of Industrialisation, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1963, pp. 275-80.
[30] Humphrey McQueen, “Whatever happened to alienation?”, Arena, 62, December-January 2002-3, pp. 20-25.
[31] Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Employment, social justice and societal well-being”, International Labour Review, 141 (1-2), 2002, pp. 9-30.