Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: US Labor - Supply vs. Demand

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In this episode of Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, Prof. Harvey looks at the conditions of labor in the US today: the supply and demand as well as the characteristics capital requires from its labor force. If those characteristics are not met, Harvey explains, or can be met for a cheaper wage, capitalists will often seek it out in other countries. This parasitic nature results in an underinvestment and underdevelopment of resources such as health care and education for the domestic workforce. Instead, Harvey argues that we must utilize the surplus labor and surplus capital in the US in order to create a society in which basic needs are met and towards productive work with a social purpose.

Transcript has been edited for clarity

This is David Harvey and you're listening to the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy At Work.

In the chapter in Marx's Capital that deals with the working day, Marx makes a very interesting observation, actually in the form of a question. He asked, how is it that a state, controlled by capital and the landlords, will pass legislation which will restrict the length of the working day in such a way as to try to reach down to the benefit of labor? We have in a sense an analogous situation right now , when we ask the question, why would Treasury Secretaries in the United States government, many of whom have come from Goldman Sachs backgrounds, really care about passing legislation to help homeowners or healthcare or education or anything of that kind? The short answer is that of course they don't, and I think that the short answer in Britain at the time when the struggle over the daily wage and the working day was in motion, the capitalist class by and large, and the capitalist individuals, didn't care at all about that kind of legislation.

But Marx then points out that there is a kind of real issue here which arises out of a term that I've often used in these commentaries. It rises out of the coercive laws of competition. If I'm competing with you and I can employ my workers for 12 hours in a day, and you can only employ yours at ten, I'm likely to get a higher rate of profit, and I'm forcing prices down, and
therefore at a certain point you're going to be pushed to also go for a 12-hour day. Now the result of this is that you can go from 12 hours to 13 hours a day to 14 hours a day. The coercive law is a competition, [with] no limit, and at a certain point you find that you're working workers to a point where they die.

I've mentioned this topic before which is death by overwork, and this is something which occurs in China these days, it's something that occurs in Japan, and it is something which has occurred in the advanced capitalist countries. In addition to which, it turns out that if you lengthen the working day from ten to 12 hours, the last two hours do not produce the profit, as was held in the 19th century, and what they do is actually weaken the concentration of the labor and the efficiency of the labor. So there is a declining efficiency that goes on with the length of the working day, to the point where if you go to 14 hours in a day, your laborers are falling asleep on the job. There are industrial accidents. There are all kinds of things going wrong. So there is a social need to control the length of the working day effectively.

This is what Marx starts to talk about, that it is a situation in which individual capitalists operating in their own self-interest are likely to behave in a way which is inimical to the conditions which are best suited to reproduce the benefits of working, over the capitalist class in general. So this problem is one which is very general and it leads to the question of why it is that we should start to think about the conditions of capital accumulation in relation to wage labor in a very distinctive way.

If we ask the question, what sort of labor does capital demand? What kind of labor does it need, and what kind of labor is it going to look for when it goes into the labor market to fill a position? The answer is that the capitalists would prefer to have laborers who are healthy, who who are physically fit, who are mentally capable of adjusting to certain labor regimes, who are collaborative and respond to instructions, can work with instructions, can take limited initiative in relationship to labor processes, to be able to sort things out when they go wrong. In other words, you could list a set of qualities that are very positive for capital, and which capital would like. In other words, if you look at it from a class perspective, and you said what kind of class character would you like labor to have, then it would be all of those things, mixed in with cultural dispositions which are favorable to engaging in the labor process: knowledge, intelligence and so on. Therefore it is in the interest of capital in general – though not necessarily an interest of individual capitalists – for a labor force to be constructed which has all of those characteristics.

Now, clearly those characteristics are not fixed. They depend very much on the technological mix, they depend very much on the nature of the labor process, and they depend
therefore on some kind of match which goes on between labor capacities and powers on the one hand, and capitalist needs on the other hand. An interesting example of this was written up in a book by Edmund Wilson some time back, which is called Apologies to the Iroquois (with A Study of the Mohawks in High Steel by Joseph Mitchell). What [Mitchell] found was a rather surprising situation in which the Mohawk Indian indigenous population seem to have a capacity to walk around at great heights without any trouble, and for that reason the Mohawk Indian labor force became absolutely critical for the building of skyscrapers in places like New York and Pittsburgh because they could be up there on the girders walking around fearlessly. Whereas everybody else – If you put me up there I'd have vertigo and so be clinging on for dear life, but they just walk around. So here you have a cultural group, an indigenous group, which have certain physical skills which enable them to engage in a certain kind of labor process in ways which most people would not be able to do. So Edmund Wilson] wrote this wonderful book of apologies to them, understanding that here is an indigenous group that has played a very critical role in the building of the skyscrapers of New York and Pittsburgh and beyond, and that therefore that group should be appreciated and rewarded. He was making these very general points in his book. This is what I mean when I talk about the matching of cultural attributes and labor demand in particular circumstances.

There is, therefore, in a capitalist social formation the requirement that things be organized in such a way that you end up with the kind of working class which is useful and has all of the attributes which you would require for capital in a given state. Now in the 1960s, we go back to that because we're talking about a period of Fordism, a period which created, as Gramsci called it, the American Worker, the New Worker, the Fordist Worker, who had certain attributes, and those attributes were not only acquired on the job. They were also acquired by having an educational system, a health care system, a housing system, and all the rest of it in such a way as to be able to make the reproduction of those kinds of workers feasible and financially viable so that they were available for employment in the car plants.

But then of course the car plants started to change their technology and you had less and less demand for that kind of labor, so you don't need that labor anymore. You need a different kind of labor. One of the big questions right now is, what is the demand for labor
in capital right now? What is the class demand? What you see is an interesting kind of response to that, because it depends where you are in the world. If you're in China or if you're in Bangladesh, the kind of demand coming from capital is for a certain sort of labor which would not be easily available in the United States. In the United States, the demand for labor is very different. There's a demand for labor which is less and less voluminous and more and more concerned with the capacities of labor to engage in research, to engage in mental capacities and mental work and the like. So that the conditions of investment in the labor force are going to look very, very different depending upon the kind of labor process which is going to be dominant in the particular place and time where capital is operating.

If we look at this from a global perspective, we're finding that in fact we don't want to see the reproduction of the labor force. We want to see the reproduction of labor forces which have very different capacities and powers. In different places in the United States right now the demand is for casual labor, but casual labor is not the same as industrial labor. The demand for employment in manufacturing in the classical sense of manufacturing is very much reduced in
the United States, but the demand for other kinds of labor has expanded dramatically. We see, for example, employment in Amazon, employment in Starbucks, employment in delivery workers, employment in airports and so on.

All of those sources of employment are actually pointing to a demand for a certain kind of labor force which is able and willing. The willingness becomes important because a labor force that is operating under conditions of coercion rarely operates as efficiently as a labor force which operates under the rule of consent.That consent becomes very, very significant in terms of the kind of labor force we want. This then raises the question, how well are we doing in terms of educating people, housing people, looking after their healthcare needs and mental capacities and powers and cultural predilections and so on? How good are we at mobilizing all of those elements together to create a labor force which is adequate to capital in a particular place and time, given its technological mix and given its demands for knowledge and understanding and certain capacities and powers? How good are we at doing that? The answer is, we're not that good, but the fact that we're not that good in a particular place is modified by the fact that we can always find labor from elsewhere.

The United States has been pretty parasitic on other countries in terms of getting the kind of labor force it really needs and requires, given the kinds of job opportunities that exist in the United States. Actually there is underinvestment in the United States in education, underinvestment in training, and underinvestment in university and higher education. So that underinvestment means that the actual domestic product in terms of the kind of labor force you need to work on the one hand in Google's research arm, and on the other hand in terms of the delivery workers for Amazon, is not fitting very well with those requirements.So one of the things that happens is that when you have a deficit of a certain kind and a scarcity of some kind, you go around the world and say where can we find a labor force which will meet our needs?

It's interesting that by and large if you go into any hospital in New York City and you look at who the doctors are, how many of them are immigrants, where did they come from, well –
they came from Egypt, they came from Africa, they came from all over. The United States offers certain employment opportunities and allows for the migration of populations into the United States because they're technically skilled. My guess is that the health care system in the United States operates very heavily on the basis of imported labor and the kind of imported labor which is very specific to work in hospitals. My experience of New York hospitals is that it was very hard for me to see somebody who looked like they were straight up from the United States, [but] from from all over the world even from countries like Burkina Faso, which you would think would not be a good source, but they're a good source because in their own countries the labor opportunities are very weak. If you are a skilled physician and you are living and working in Puerto Rico, you might want to think about moving to the United States where the job opportunities are much better and the facilities are much better. The same would be true of a
doctor with certain skills from Cairo, or a quantum computer specialist who is located in Britain
but find themselves lured to Silicon Valley because that's where the action is and that's where all the opportunities are. So the United States increasingly looks to recruit a labor force from overseas and in doing so is becoming parasitic upon the labor forces coming from elsewhere. It's well known, for example, that software workers come from southern India, from Bangalore, and if you go to Google, you're going to find a whole labor force which is South Asian. In certain technical areas like space economics, you'll find a lot of technical workers coming from Russia, particularly after the collapse of the Cold War.

The question of labor force preparation for the dynamics of capital accumulation is something that needs to be looked at as a policy issue, and that policy issue is taken care of by certain departments – or should be taken care of in certain departments – of the Federal government, but also in certain departments of state governments and the like. The assessment of how adequate that preparation is for a labor process that is very much in transformation, through artificial intelligence for robotization and mechanization, the introduction of electronics, and the emergence of new demands, for example delivery workers and Uber workers and people like that.

This dynamic – this dialectic, if you like – between supply of labor and demand for labor is one which is creating a certain amount of problems in society. In particular, one of the things we're finding is that, more and more, labor is actually becoming redundant and is becoming not necessary. Here we have a remarkable situation where the surpluses of labor looking for productive work and looking for things to do given their capacities and powers, the surpluses are becoming extremely significant in relation to the fact that there are surpluses of capital around also. So one of the big issues, I would argue right now, is taking the surpluses of labor that exist and the surpluses of capital that are lying around out there which are not being used very productively – they're largely being used for unproductive uses – and trying to find ways to bring the surpluses of capital and the surpluses of labor together in social projects which are really oriented towards the creation of a different kind of environment, an environment that is going to be adequate to the needs of everybody instead of adequate simply to the needs of the
current ruling oligarchy.

Here's the situation: capital is now dominated by an oligarchy that has no interest, and a financial oligarchy also which has no interest in this big question of the relationship of the labor force as it is evolving and the creation of productive work for us for a social purpose. They have no interest in that. When I asked that original question, “Why would the class of the state, which is made up of capitalists and landowners, actually pass legislation over the length of the working day?” Well, that needs to be answered coherently. The big problem, it seems to me, is that there is no forethought being given, even within the capitalist class, to try to take these surpluses of capital and surpluses of labor and put them together in useful tasks.

This is always the hallmark of crisis. That is, in the 1930s, if you go back, you would find masses of capital lying around unused. You would find masses of labor unused, and the big problem was the inability of having a society, a capitalist society and a capitalist ruling class, that was prepared to bring these back together, which is what Roosevelt was trying to do by the New Deal. There was partial success in the New Deal, but essentially there were the changes that occurred through World War II and through the 1940s and 1950s, which actually got us to the situation of full employment of capital and labor once more. So [in terms of] the employment of capital and labor being put to those socially useful tasks, my own belief is that there is so much
surplus capital out there, so much surplus labor out there, that if they are put together to try to create socially useful effects in terms of healthcare, the built environment, all the rest of it, that in effect the surplus would still be there.

The surplus can go two ways. The surplus can either go to capital, onto the oligarchy, and the oligarchy will, like the famous example of the vampire squid of Goldman Sachs, with tentacles and bloodsuckers down, into the depths of society. It's either going to be sucked up by the oligarchy, or it's somehow going to be retained, but retained in such a way that would create a society where basic needs are met, because you've taken all that surplus capital and surplus labor and put them together. Once basic needs are met, then we have free time to do what we like. We create a situation where the surplus time can either be taken out for production for the oligarchy, or it can be taken up for people to have in free time. This seems to me what the socialist project should be about. It's about the production of conditions where we maximize the free time that people have.

This is something that Terry Eagleton made a lot of in his book, Why Marx Was Right. The two things he said [were]: The Marxist project is to create a world in which basic needs are met, and which they're met in such a minimum of time that thereafter people can do what they
like, and they can do productive things or unproductive things, but what we have to do is to stop the blood-sucking vampires of Goldman Sachs and all the rest of it sucking out the surplus time in ways which are advantageous to them.

That means that there has to be control of the oligarchy, and we're seeing how the oligarchy is trying to exercise its own controls as much as it can over the sphere it works in, but also uses on the side. For instance, Jeff Bezos buys The Washington Post, and while he has not at this point intervened, as far as I know, dramatically in terms of the content of the newspaper, nevertheless the fact that it is controlled by Jeff Bezos of Amazon plays a significant role. We find out that Elon Musk is trying to take over Twitter, and again, control the media. So control of the media is again a serious issue. What seems to me to be useful at this point is to try to re-theorize the nature of the capitalist state and to understand that the capitalist state is not a monolithic entity. One part of it, like the Treasury Department in particular, is aligned almost totally with the need to reproduce capital in an orderly way. That is the mission of the Treasury Department. The other departments, of housing, health, education and so on, are about trying to create a working class which is adequate to capital. We have to transform away from “adequate” capital to creating a working class which is able to use its condition of “surplus to requirements” in such a way that it mops up the surplus capital in projects which are going to create a world in which basic needs are going to be met by capital and labor working together as they are right now, and eventually abolishing the class distinction in a situation where automated possibilities are taken care of, basic needs are followed up and met, and and the rest of the time is totally free time for people to do whatever they want, presumably in a responsible way that by doing what they want they don't interfere with the rights and well-being of our other people, which is always one of the problems that needs to be sorted out.

Thank you for joining me today. You've been listening to David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a Democracy At Work production. A special thank you to the wonderful Patreon community for supporting this project

Transcript by Cindy Mitlo

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Apologies to the Iroquois by Edmund Wilson: https://us.macmillan.com/books

Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton: https://bookshop.org/books/why-marx-was-right

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