This essay appears on the website www.zerowork.org as part of a larger project reconstructing the genesis, evolution and end of the political project that produced and published two issues of the journal Zerowork in 1975 and 1977. The entire text of the first two issues are on the website. Most of the texts for a third issue – produced but never published – are now also available for the first time on the website. As explained on that website, this is an ongoing project whose texts are subject to change as research proceeds and feedback comes in. Any constructive feedback will be welcome via email at email@example.com
June 16, 2014
Background: Genesis of Zerowork #1
Paths to Zerowork
Workers’ Autonomy in the Sphere of Production
From the Johnson-Forest Tendency to Facing Reality and Beyond
Socialisme ou Barbarie
Italian Workerism (Operaismo)
From Struggles of the Waged to those of the Unwaged
Housework and the Struggle against It
Schoolwork and the Struggle against It
Peasants and their Struggles
Brief Biographies of the Editors of Zerowork #1 (1975)
Those who formed the initial collective that published the first issue of Zerowork were a diverse bunch with various intellectual and political backgrounds and, collectively, considerable international experience. George Caffentzis, William (Bill) Cleaver, Leoncio Schaedel and Peter Linebaugh were Americans living in the United States, but George had family in Greece, Leoncio had recently escaped Chile after the overthrow of Allende and Peter had studied in England. While Bill and Peter had both majored in history, during the crafting of Zerowork #1 Bill was working in the library of the New School for Social Research in New York City and active in local union politics, while Peter was teaching history at Franconia College and at New Hampshire State Prison. George had studied philosophy of science and was teaching at Brooklyn College of City University of New York. Leoncio was in the graduate program in political economy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Paolo Carpignano, Mario Montano and Bruno Ramirez were Italians who had all studied in Italy before crossing the Atlantic. But while Paolo and Mario came and stayed in the US, Bruno moved on to Toronto, Ontario after completing both a BA and an MA in the US. Peter Taylor was a Canadian living in Toronto working – and not working – in the Post Office. Paolo and Mario had both studied sociology, and Mario was teaching it at Clark University. Bruno was working on his dissertation in history. The two corresponding editors, John Merrington and Ferruccio Gambino lived in Britain and Italy respectively. But John had studied in Italy, translated and circulated political materials from Italy in England and participated in study groups with Peter Linebaugh. Ferruccio was at the Department of Political Science at the University of Padua where Toni Negri was chairman, but his frequent travels in Europe and the United States not only kept everyone up-to-date on what was happening and being discussed elsewhere but wove a web of interpersonal relations vital to all involved. (For more detail on the intersecting trajectories of their lives, see the section below with individual biographical sketches.)
These folks came together in the midst of crises both local and international.
Within major Canadian and U.S. cities, such as Toronto, Montreal and New York City, successful and untamed struggles by both waged and unwaged workers had been undermining capitalist control for some years. Ever since public employees in Canada – spearheaded by Post Office workers – had won collective bargaining rights in 1967 and formed the Common Front in Quebec in 1972 – the ability of city, provincial and national governments to provide popular services with cheap labor had been undermined. In New York City street-level and welfare rights struggles had interacted with those of public employees to so undermine the “business climate” of the city as to provoke business flight and job losses in the private sector and fiscal crisis in city finances. By 1974-75 the banks were beginning to refuse to roll over the city’s debt while city government, with the help of union bureaucrats, were beginning to raid union pension funds – not only to cover city debts but to undermine public employee struggles.1 These crises were forerunners of others to come – of which the automaker abandonment of Flint, portrayed in Michael Moore's 1989 film "Roger and Me", and the 2013 bankruptcy of Detroit are but two examples.2
At the international level, widespread worker struggles in the United States had undermined the ability of the Keynesian state to manage the wage/productivity deals that had been the basis of post-WWII accumulation and had provoked business efforts to compensate by raising prices – causing such an acceleration in inflation as to contribute to the disappearance of the U.S. trade surplus and to provoke President Nixon in 1971 to unhook the dollar from gold and abandon the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. That ostensible “monetary crisis” was soon followed by a state-engineered food crisis in 1972 and the first “oil shock” of 1973-74 – initiated by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) but sanctioned by United States policy makers.3
In the midst of these crises, local, national and international, the members of the Zerowork collective put our heads together to construct an analysis of the situation – an analysis that would, hopefully, also reveal strategic implications for workers’ struggles. Two things had become obvious to all of us. First, these crises were not the usual “inevitable” crises envisioned by the Left as resulting from the internal laws of motion of capitalism, but were the products of, and responses to workers’ struggles.4 Second, those struggles had achieved the power to throw capital into crisis – and provoke it to counterattack – through a dynamic interaction between the struggles of the unwaged and those of the waged. Indeed, by the time we came together, all of us in the Zerowork collective had seen beyond the classical Marxist definition of the working class as made up of waged workers to a broader view in which the unwaged – including housewives, students and peasants – were integral both to the expanded reproduction of capital and to the make-up of the working class.
These two shared insights had grown out of both experience and study. On the one hand, several of us had been involved in unwaged student struggles and in the Civil Rights movement that brought us together with waged workers; others had been involved in waged worker struggles but linked, organizationally, to those of the unwaged. Examples of the latter were collaborations between Canadian student activists and blue collar militants in both the national Post Office system and local automobile factories. On the other hand, the emergence of the women’s movement had not only brought to the fore the centrality of women’s work in the home (and student work in schools) in the production and reproduction of labor power, but produced new theoretical formulations that deepened Marx’s limited discussion of that work and its role in capitalist reproduction as a whole. At the same time, study of the origins of capitalist policies in rural areas of the Third World – from the Vietnam War and land reform to innovations in agricultural technology – revealed not only how capitalists understood peasants to be part of the class they were doing their best to put to work but how the struggles of those more-often-than-not unwaged peasants undermined the best laid capitalist plans and forced repeated shifts in counter-revolutionary strategies.
But having become convinced that the crises surrounding us had been brought on by workers’ struggles – both waged and unwaged – we still had to figure out what characteristics of those struggles had given workers the power to rupture capitalist accumulation? On the surface, the characteristics were as varied as the struggles themselves and seemed to have little in common – a situation that led capitalist policy makers – always keen to divide to conquer – to disparage them as distinct “special interest” politics and others, more sympathetic, to honor them as diverse “social movements.” Waged workers had been fighting for more collective bargaining rights (where they didn’t have them, e.g., farmworkers), against corrupt union bureaucrats (e.g., in the United Mine Workers and International Brotherhood of Teamsters) and, pretty much everywhere, for more money (higher wages and pensions), better working conditions and fewer working hours. Women had been fighting for personal, legal and economic equality. Students had been fighting for free speech, for changes in curriculum better suited to their desires, for ruptures in the links between universities and the war machine and for racial, ethnic and gender equality in access to higher education. Welfare rights militants – mainly women – had been fighting for more resources and fewer humiliating intrusions by state welfare agencies. Black and brown militants among the unemployed and partially employed had been fighting for civil rights, racial equality and against police repression. Prisoners (disproportionately black or brown) had been fighting against abuse, for greater legal rights and more freedom within their confinement to study and communicate. Peasants had been fighting for land, for autonomy and for liberation from foreign domination, whether colonial or neocolonial. All of these efforts contested one mechanism or another of capitalist domination, locally, nationally or internationally. But did all these diverse groups constitute sectors of the working class only in so far as they were all subjected to, and resisting, capitalist domination? Or, was it possible to identify enough interconnections to see beyond their differences to an interactive and collective efficacy? We argued that there were.
To summarize our arguments for the existence of such efficacy – as spelled out in the first issue of the journal – the historical dynamics of struggle that led to a many-sided rupture of capitalist command had two fundamental characteristics. First, there were not only myriad interconnections among the various struggles but those interconnections were pathways through which struggles circulated from sector to sector amplifying their collective effects. Sometimes that circulation was through confrontation; sometimes it was through collaboration; sometimes it was merely the result of some struggles inspiring others. Second, the manifold demands articulated within those diverse sectors, more often than not, involved or supported a common refusal of the fundamental mechanism of capitalist domination: the imposition of work.
The identification of the interconnections and directions through which struggles had circulated were central to the analysis laid out in Zerowork. We saw the struggles of waged workers, for example, to have been spurred by the entry into factories and offices of previously unwaged militants, whether from the streets (young black militants moving into Detroit and Flint auto factories) or from schools (ex-student activists moving into many domains of wage labor). We saw the struggles of men – ourselves included – to have been spurred by those of women, both in their intimate personal relationships and in wider social ones as women fought for equalities that challenged the hierarchies of capitalist patriarchy. Indeed, we recognized that the refusal of authority by children in schools was partly the consequence of the refusal of authority by mothers. The resistance of peasants (and other workers in Southeast Asia, and elsewhere) to US government counterinsurgency efforts, we argued, inspired draft resistance and anti-war activity. Just as the struggles of Mexican and Mexican-American farmworkers helped (along with exploitation and repression in the cities) inspire the formation of militant Chicano groups, so, we concluded, did the efforts of later force changes in the strategies of the former. Other examples can be found in the pages of the first issue of Zerowork.
To argue that the refusal of work lay at the heart of so many different kinds of struggle turned out to be one of the most controversial aspects of the analysis. It challenged the traditional socialist perspective that workers struggled against capitalist imposed work only in order to embrace post-capitalist work freed from exploitation and alienation. The inclusive understanding of the working class that included the unwaged meant that some domains that had hitherto been seen as refuges from capitalist imposed work, e.g., families and schools, were argued to also be terrains of the imposition and refusal of work. To the traditional Marxist recognition of worker struggles for shorter working days (and later weeks, years, and lives) detailed in volume one of Capital, those of us in the Zerowork collective saw other struggles by the waged, such as those for better working conditions, higher wages and pension funds as ones that, when successful, were used to reduce work time. Better working conditions meant less work worrying about and avoiding injury; higher wages financed strike funds and vacations; pensions financed earlier retirement. At the same time, we interpreted practices that were often dismissed by labor union bureaucrats as bespeaking laziness and irresponsibility, e.g., shirking on the job, faked sick leave and other forms of absenteeism, as informal acts of resistance to work – sometimes individual, sometimes collective and coordinated.
In a parallel fashion, once we recognized the activities of housewives and students as involving the work of producing and reproducing labor power, then a whole array of struggles clearly involved various forms of refusing that work. Thus the variety of struggles that defined the women’s movement – ranging from the refusal of family altogether (manifested in falling marriage rates) through the resistance of women to endless procreation and child-rearing (perceptible through falling birth rates and struggles for access to contraception and abortion), the fight for personal and legal equality (and thus less work for, and under the supervision of men, both in the home and outside it) and the assertion of the rights of women to form intimate bonds with other women rather than with men, to the demand for wages for housework from the state – we identified as undermining the capitalist ability to impose enough work within the nuclear family to guarantee the reproduction of a malleable labor force.
Similarly, we interpreted the myriad struggles of students against the imposition of discipline within classrooms, against the power of the state boards of education, school administrators and teachers to unilaterally determine the content of curriculum, against the reduction of learning to training for jobs, against the imposition of the same kinds of gender hierarchies being resisted by women outside of school, against the teaching of history, government and the social sciences that ignored struggles important to them (e.g., those of blacks, browns, women and even students), in short, against the subordination of their learning to educational institutions and programs shaped to justify and reproduce capitalism, as the refusal of the work of transforming themselves into manipulable and compliant members of the working class.
Instead of the post-capitalist vision imagined by socialists as consisting of a parasite-free, one-class society of workers in command of their tools, "zerowork", evoked for us a future in which the success of worker struggles was tending, among other things, to achieve such a dramatic reduction in work per se that it would become only one activity of self-realization among, and enriched by, other activities. The shared vision of those of us who crafted Zerowork was thus very much in the spirit of the famous passage in the German Ideology where Marx imagined a communist society “where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, [where] society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.” But unlike the usual socialist vision of a distant, future communist utopia, we also embraced another of Marx’s early insights, also enunciated in the German Ideology: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”5
Paths to Zerowork
For all those who consciously suffer, and resent, lives burdened with too many hours and too much energy sacrificed to work necessary for survival, and for those who haven't completely internalized the very capitalist subordination of life to work and become one-dimensional workaholics, the term "zerowork" must be one to conjure with. But could there really be such a thing as zero work, or something close to it? Beyond utopian imaginings, could the real movement actually abolish the subordination of life to work? Are there paths down which we could actually create new kinds of social life in which work could be one of many, freely-chosen forms of self-realization instead of a means of domination? One response to these questions that quickly becomes obvious to anyone who takes them seriously is that technically such paths are quite feasible. A second response is that politically those paths can only be opened through struggle and the revolutionary abolition of capitalism. Allow me to explain the reasoning behind both of these answers.
With regard to technical possibilities, modern industrialized society has repeatedly demonstrated, in thousands of domains of work, that machines can be substituted for and reduce human labor. This has happened in so many industries – from agriculture through manufacturing to services and communication – that no room can be left for doubt that technological development can be, and has been organized, to reduce the amount of work required to produce this or that commodity. But to what degree can such reductions in particular kinds of work result in an overall reduction in the average amount of work required per individual? There are two ways of answering this question: historically and theoretically.
Historically the rise and spread of measuring, of the gathering of statistics on more and more aspects of modern life have revealed that within capitalism the substitution of machines for human labor has become progressively general. For millions, though not for all, there has indeed been a reduction in the amount of work required per individual. In the United States, for instance, between the mid-1880s and 1940 – a period of rapid technological innovation in industry – the average working week was reduced from 75-80 to 40 hours and from 6-7 days to five. The weekend, that revered two-day period in which millions of waged or salaried workers are freed from any obligation to show up at their jobs, was the result. In the post WWII period – as technological development continued, often facilitated by war-time innovations, a similar reduction occurred in terms of working years as annual vacations emerged, providing many workers with enough days freed from jobs to permit substantial non-work activities, such as travel and tourism. Although some anthropologists have compared such marginal achievements negatively to the vast amounts of free time enjoyed by some pre-industrial peoples, certainly the course of modern capitalist development has thoroughly demonstrated the technical feasibility of the progressive reduction of work.6
With regard to theory, the development of capitalism has included the recognition of the technical possibilities of steadily reducing work on the part of its critics but also of its apologists and strategists. Not surprisingly, writing in sympathy with workers whose lives had been rendered miserable through longer and longer hours of imposed work, the critics of capitalism, of its "satanic mills" and of its dank, polluted working class neighborhoods were the first to herald those possibilities.7 William Godwin, in his An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and Frederick Engels in his speeches in Elberfeld (1845) waxed eloquent about the possibilities of reducing the total amount of work by eliminating all of those jobs – both private and public – peculiar to the protection and promulgation of capitalism.8 By 1867 Karl Marx was able to analyze theoretically, in his Capital, two phenomena relevant to the possibilities of reducing work. On the one hand, he highlighted the power of living social labor that was repeatedly imagining and inventing new machines and new ways of organizing production to make work more efficient. On the other hand, he showed how capitalists turned that imagination and inventiveness against workers through its relative surplus value strategy of substituting those machines for living workers. By raising labor productivity (i.e., output per hour), such substitution made it technically feasible to enjoy the fruits of such substitution in the form of less work.9 But instead, capitalists were using those innovations to control workers and impose more work. Ironically, quite different theoretical innovations by supporters of capitalism could lead to the same conclusions about technical possibilities.
During the rise of capitalism, its theorists – mercantilists and classical political economists – were more preoccupied with justifying the imposition of work and figuring out how to impose more work on people who did not want their lives confined to endless toil, than with exploring the possibilities of reducing work. But, by the end of the 19th Century, the theoretical innovations of neoclassical, marginalist economists clearly revealed that technological development made possible more output with less work. At the time, economists such as Alfred Marshall, were mainly concerned with wielding their theory of marginal productivity to convince workers to restrict their demands for higher wages within the bounds of productivity increases.10 Marshall examined the conditions under which marginal increases in wages might reduce profits and those under which they would not. The key was the relationship between marginal increases in wages and marginal increases in labor productivity or "efficiency". In Chapter 11 on wages in his The Economics of Industry (1879) we find:
A rise in the Time-wages of any trade tends to diminish profits. But if the wages that are paid for work vary according to its efficiency – if Task-wages are unaltered – the share of the produce of industry that is left for others [the capitalists] will be the same whether Time-wages are high or low. It is only where the rise in time wages is not accompanied by a corresponding increase in efficiency, and therefore Task-wages rise, that the change is injurious to capital."
Yet this same theory is equally applicable to the issue of work time. Let us imagine productivity – measured in terms of output per hour of labor – doubling through the introduction of machinery. Then obviously one has choices as to how to realize the fruits of that increase in productivity: double output with the same amount of work, the same output with half the work, or some intermediary combination of more output and less work. Clearly, any choice other than the one that maintains the existing hours of labor involves reducing work. Moreover, if any of those choices that reduce work are made over and over, year after year, then the amount of work will be steadily reduced. Indeed, the ever-diminishing amount of work will asymptotically approach zero.
Therefore, as long as increasing productivity can be achieved, zero work is a goal that can be approached ever more closely. The many decades in which technological innovation has involved rising productivity has been one source of the optimism associated with the modern idea of progress. That idea, for some, has included the continuing technical possibilities of reducing work. 11
Turning from technical possibilities to political realities is necessarily sobering. Close examination of the historical path of rising productivity cited above reveals that only through sustained organizing and struggle have workers been able to realize the fruits of their innovations in the form of less work. At every step of the way, capitalists have opposed such reductions, often with violent repression. In Section 6 of Chapter 10 of Volume I of Capital, Marx described and analyzed the struggles of English workers to reduce working hours. Years later David Roediger and Philip Foner presented a parallel study of workers' struggles in the United States.12 Only those struggles were able to wrest time away from work as labor's share of the benefits of its own creativity – to win the forty hour, five day week and the weekend. The same history has played out throughout the capitalist world. The better organized and motivated the workers, the more they have won. Workers in Western Europe, for example, have won greater reductions in work time than those in the U.S. American workers have, in turn, won more than many in other parts of the world.
The reasons workers have fought to free their lives from capitalist imposed work – alienation and exploitation –
were also analyzed by Marx. At the same time, he also recognized how capitalists could concede some benefits to workers in exchange for their productivity raising innovations. But why have capitalist employers preferred, in general, to concede greater wages rather than less work? Why the bloody repression against battles for the 8-hour day in the late 19th and first half of the 20th Centuries? One answer emerges from the realization that the core of Marx's theory – his labor theory of value – is really a theory of the value of labor to capital as its most fundamental and thoroughgoing mechanism of social control. Capitalists don't just impose work to get rich by exploiting other people; capital as a whole can only survive by endlessly subordinating people's lives to work. Control-through-work includes not only that exercised directly over waged or salaried employees during formal "working hours" but also vast amounts of formally "free" or "leisure" time. For example, for years, during and after Marx's lifetime, workers fought to liberate their children from mines, mills and factories. As they achieved the ability to do just that, and demanded schools to prepare their children for better lives, capitalist social policy makers – backed by corporate or State funds – swooped in to structure public schooling to incarcerate, discipline and shape children into compliant future members of the labor force. Similarly, capital has intervened in every sphere of so-called leisure time – from the home to domain after domain of recreation – to convert people's activities into the unwaged work of producing and reproducing that ability and willingness to work for capital that Marx called "labor power." It has not always been successful, but its efforts have been quite thorough.
The implications of all this are at least three-fold. First, as a result of capital's attempts to turn all of life into work, the struggle for less work can be found throughout every dimension of capitalist society. Second, for those struggles to successfully open paths toward zero work requires not only the freeing of time from formal jobs, but also the defeat of attempts by capital to convert our gains (e.g., child labor laws) into subtle defeats (e.g., obligatory schooling as mere job training). Third, precisely because we must fight everywhere, what we really need is the revolutionary transcendence of capitalism.