The end of work by Norbert Trenkle

The pace of business rationalization has accelerated to such an extent that in the core sectors of world market production, fewer and fewer workers are needed despite growing output of goods. Thus, the development of productive power has reached a point at which it makes absolutely more labor superfluous in each period.

The end of work

by Norbert Trenkle

The pace of business rationalization has accelerated to such an extent that in the core sectors of world market production, fewer and fewer workers are needed despite growing output of goods. Thus, the development of productive power has reached a point at which it makes absolutely more labor superfluous in each period than is additionally required by an expansion of production.

The end of work

On the connection between the informal sector and modern commodity production

by Norbert Trenkle

[This article posted in April 2003 is translated from the German on the Internet, Das Ende der Arbeit.]

In many ways, the working and living conditions in the slums, backyard workshops and screwdriver factories, in the slum huts and dilapidated tenements in the global South, East and increasingly also in the West are phenomenologically reminiscent of conditions in early and mid-19th century Europe. Working hours almost around the clock, extreme exploitation under tremendously unhealthy and dangerous conditions, minimal wages or even direct slave labor, a high proportion of home-based work in combination with the most diverse activities of self-sufficiency, indescribably miserable living conditions, etc. More generally, it could be said that all this was nothing new under the capitalist sun anyway. In the periphery, mass misery was always present anyway, and in the metropolises it had only been temporarily suppressed for a few decades of Fordism and the “Cold War”. Now capitalism is returning to its structural “normality” of over-exploitation in the metropolises as well.

As true as it is that capitalism has always brought prosperity to only a small part of the world’s population, plunging the majority into misery or leaving them there, and that the informal sector has always been an integral part of the overall capitalist context, this general statement cannot adequately explain the current development. The decisive difference is blurred: While the early capitalist misery in Europe and the European colonies was a moment in the process of assertion and ascent of capitalist society, today’s globalized mass misery, on the other hand, is the result of a secular process of decay and decline of precisely this social formation, which in its decline once again unleashes all its destructive power.

The failed integration

The core of this crisis process consists in the intensification of a fundamental inner self-contradiction of modern commodity production. On the one hand, it is dependent on putting as much labor as possible into motion in order to exploit the capital employed. On the other hand, it is subject to a permanent pressure to increase productivity and, ultimately, to displace living labor. This dilemma could be solved over almost two hundred years by ever faster expansion. But with the microelectronic revolution, the pace of business rationalization has accelerated to such an extent that in the core sectors of world market production, fewer and fewer workers are needed despite growing output of goods. Thus, the development of productive power has reached a point at which it makes absolutely more labor superfluous in each period than is additionally required by an expansion of production. Under capitalist conditions, this increase in productivity cannot be used to provide a good life for all people in the world.

Rather, this development leads to the melting of the mass of value and thus undermines the functioning of capital valorization. The consequence is not only an economic crisis in the narrower sense, but a fundamental functional crisis of the commodity-producing system, in the course of which whole regions of the world, but also growing sectors of society within the metropolises, are excluded from access to social resources and social recognition altogether. They are only the object of repression and are otherwise left to their own destitution.

Taken in isolation, the exclusion mechanism is nothing new. But the basic global tendency today is no longer that of the partial, but nevertheless advancing capitalist inclusion of certain segments of the population with simultaneous exclusion of others, but a process of mass exclusion, which worldwide also encompasses those segments of society that were once fordistically included; and this process can no longer be reversed immanently in capitalist terms, but is increasingly accelerating. In other words: The perspective of integration into mass work and mass consumption, as it was temporarily successful in the world market centers and on which the concepts of catching-up modernization in the “Third World” were also oriented, no longer exists and will not exist again.

The limits of exploitation

In apparent contradiction to this is the fact that today more people worldwide than ever before earn their living with an activity oriented toward the market or commodity production. Statistically, there have probably never been so many market-oriented subjects in the broadest sense in history, from Western computer experts to street vendors from a favela. How can this be reconciled with the diagnosis of crisis that has been made?

First, even if capitalist exploitation has reached its absolute limits, in its historical process of enforcement it has succeeded in formally transforming the vast majority of the world’s population into commodity-money subjects. That is, they are forced to earn money in some way (even if it is only a few cents a day). This is because the social, cultural, and material foundations of other modes of social reproduction (e.g., the agrarian subsistence economy) have been almost completely destroyed. Elements of this have survived in the form of neighborly self-help in the slums and favelas, or are being partially restored. But this can only partially ensure everyday reproduction, if only for the simple reason that food can only be produced in very small quantities in the cities. But when people sell Coke cans or chewing gum on the street or offer cheap “services” of any kind (from cleaning to repairing appliances to prostitution), these are commodity-money circuits, but no capital valorization and thus no capital accumulation takes place there. They are second- and third-order circuits, which ultimately depend on the fact that globalized world market production still functions to some extent, because they are connected to it via various levels of intermediation; they depend on at least a small inflow of goods and money from there. For this reason, these dependent commodity-money cycles become completely captious whenever a country or a region is disconnected from the world market, as is the case in large parts of Africa. In such cases, subsistence living very quickly turns into mass starvation, because the last remnants of a market-based livelihood are lost.

Secondly, it must not be forgotten that since the crisis of the 1970s – the end of Fordism – capital valorization no longer functions from a self-supporting accumulation dynamic, but is artificially fueled by an ever-growing influx of “fictitious capital” (speculation and credit). Only in this way has it been possible to temporarily prevent the full impact of the crisis on the core sectors of utilization and on the metropolises. Therefore, a large part of commodity production, even where it is formally value-creating, is in reality based on uncovered bills of exchange on future value creation, which, however, will never take place. It is only for this reason that the enormous shift in weight toward the tertiary sector, which has been celebrated in surface sociological terms as the transition from an industrial to a service society, was possible at all. It is nothing other than a secondary product of the capitalist deferral of the crisis by means of an inflation of the financial markets. The informal sector, too, is directly and indirectly dependent on the financial bubble, insofar as it depends on the inflow of money and goods from the formal sector.

So far, only a comparatively small part of the “fictitious capital” has been destroyed with the collapse of the “new economy” (namely a part of the fictitious accumulation of value since 1996), but this has already shaken the stability of the world economy. However, the actual devaluation thrust of the credit and speculation mountain accumulated since the 1970s has not even taken place yet, because Western governments and central banks are pumping massive amounts of uncovered liquidity into the financial markets in order to save their skins once again. Central bank money is now available for practically nothing in the U.S., as it has been since 1991 in Japan. But this stock market Keynesianism cannot be sustained in the long run, if only because of the exploding government deficits. But if the financial bubble bursts, this will not only mean the repercussion of the long-delayed crisis potential on the real economy, state budgets, social systems and thus the lives of people in the metropolises. These developments will also hit the periphery hard. The same applies to the derived second- and third-order commodity-money circuits of the informal sector and thus to those millions and millions of people who are thus far still indirectly dependent on the world economy at a misery level.

Thirdly, the many millions of low-wage workers and subcontractors producing directly or indirectly for transnational corporations worldwide are by no means in contradiction to this diagnosis of crisis. It is true that they play an important role in the brutal business cost-cutting strategies. But this does not mean that cheap mass labor plays the same role for capital valorization as it did in the ascendant phase of the commodity-producing system, i.e. the first industrial revolution of the 19th century. At the then still very low level of the development of productive forces on the whole, an accumulation of capital on a large scale was possible at all only under the condition of excessively long working hours and extremely low wages. Marx famously calls this period the period of “absolute surplus value production.” With the increase of productive power, however, another form of utilization of labor power came to the fore: the “relative surplus value production”. Working hours shortened, but work became more intensive. The share of wages (or, more precisely, of “variable capital”) in the total mass of value produced fell in relative terms, which conversely meant that surplus value grew in relative terms; but because the productivity of labor as a whole increased at the same time (i.e., more goods were produced per unit of time), workers were able to buy the same or even a larger quantity of goods with this wage.

High-Tech Misery

Today’s situation, however, is completely different. The mass existence of extremely poorly paid and informalized misery labor does not express a still relatively low social productive power; conversely, it is the reverse of the extremely advanced application of science to production. On the one hand, high-tech and precarized mass labor complement each other within the framework of globalized corporate strategies, but the dynamic is always on the side of the development of productive power. As a result, the gap between the two segments is widening, productivity standards are constantly being raised, and the value represented by an hour’s work is constantly being lowered. For example, if a highly automated garment factory in Europe churns out several thousand shirts an hour, and a seamstress in a favela gets maybe three or four a day, then she is well above the norm of socially necessary working time set by the high-tech factory. And this in turn means that her working hour represents only a vanishingly small quantum of value when measured against the prevailing standard of productivity. So the overlong working hours of the precarized labor force do not represent a large mass of value at all, and therefore cannot be the basis for a new self-sustaining thrust of capital accumulation – even if they do, of course, feed the profits of the individual enterprises and retail chains concerned. They do not compensate for the displacement of labor by capital in the most advanced segments of world market production, but are merely another form in which this process of displacement is expressed. It is true that this kind of exploitation, in line with neoliberal theory, replaces expensive capital with cheap labor, but this does not contribute to an expanded utilization of capital at the level of society as a whole, so it does not counteract the secular crisis process, which is based on the melting of the value base on a global scale, but is only one of its forms of development.

For those affected, this fact may at first seem irrelevant, but it has decisive consequences for their work and life perspectives and also for the orientation of social struggles. First of all, it means for the slum workers that they are exposed to a constantly growing pressure to offer themselves for even less money and under even worse working conditions. This is not only because competition among themselves is becoming fiercer worldwide, but above all because it is the only way to keep up, at least temporarily, in competition with the high-tech segments of production. In this way, however, the development of productive forces is exerting a pressure that is exactly opposite to that in the ascendancy period of the commodity-producing system in the Western metropolises of the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. If the workers’ movement there succeeded in winning far-reaching improvements in the material living conditions of broad strata of the population – which necessarily also went hand in hand with a formalization of social relations (labor law, welfare state, civil rights, etc.) – then this was not least due to the fact that it acted, as it were, with an economic tailwind. Their struggles were in the context of a historically unrepeatable double movement of rapid productivity development and simultaneous expansion of the capitalist mode of production.

A social emancipation movement at the beginning of the 21st century, however, would have to start from completely different premises. Even if it wanted to, it can no longer be about mass integration into the formal sector of the commodity-producing world system. This would no longer even offer an already miserable welfare state and legal protection of existence as a work animal, but only the progressive degradation and exclusion of more and more people and regions. For this reason alone, social struggles today, even if they may initially “only” revolve around the enforcement and preservation of simple material and civilizational standards, only have a perspective if they are directed against commodity society and its institutions.

Editorial Notes

Norbert Trenkle is editor of the journal Krisis. This article first appeared in No. 267 of iz3w – bl├Ątter des informationszentrums 3. welt.and is a reflection of



Theses for the Congress “Work differently – or not at all? (April 23 – 25, 1999 in Berlin)

by Norbert Trenkle

[This article posted in May 1999 is translated from the German on the Internet, Norbert Trenkle Thesen zum Kongre? “Anders arbeiten – oder gar nicht?!.]

Co-editor of Krisis – Contributions to the Critique of Commodity Society

The idea that there could be an “Other Work” in an “alternative” or “Third Sector” next to the capitalist machinery of exploitation has always been an illusion. For the Third Sector is not beyond the market and the state, but is their necessary complement and condition of existence. It fulfills the systemic function of absorbing all the socially necessary activities and tasks that are not “profitable” in business terms, that the state cannot or does not want to organize on its own, and that cannot (or not to a sufficient extent) be passed on to families (and that still means, for the most part, to women). This system-stabilizing function logically gains in importance to the same extent as fewer and fewer people find a livelihood in the capitalist machinery of exploitation, because their labor power is no longer needed there. The further the crisis of the labor society progresses, the greater the economic and political pressure on the third sector to adapt, and the smaller the already limited freedom and leeway it offers. So when the state today increasingly discovers the third sector as a social buffer (as in the report of the Bavarian-Saxon Commission on the Future), this is neither arbitrary nor an abuse, but simply politically logical. If no consistent resistance is organized against this, then the Third Sector will soon be completely reduced to a form of precarious survival economy and to an instrument of state emergency administration.

2 The so-called crisis of the labor society is nothing other than a fundamental crisis of the capitalist society. The basis of this society is the mass setting in motion and utilization of labor power in economic processes of commodity production, whose only purpose is the constantly growing utilization, i.e.: multiplication, of capital. If the utilization of capital comes to a standstill and permanently declines, because due to the achieved technological standards in the core sectors of world market production (keyword: micro-electronic revolution) less and less labor is needed, then this means that the basis of the modern system of commodity production breaks away; i.e., that it comes up against its absolute historical limit.

This fundamental, immanently insoluble capitalist crisis is not a sudden collapse contracted to one point, but a process of collapse extending over several decades. This process began in the mid-1970s with the end of the postwar Fordist boom. Since then, one region of the world after another has fallen into disrepair, that is, has been declared useless by the world market and has been plunged into extreme economic and social misery (which not infrequently also triggers processes of state and military disintegration). This initially affected large parts of the Third World, then the entire former Eastern bloc and finally also the Southeast Asian “tiger countries,” which had been praised for years as models of success. In the capitalist core countries, too, the standard of living for broad sections of the population was continuously lowered, but it was initially possible to postpone a nationwide penetration of the crisis – above all with the help of enormous national debt and an inflation of the speculative sector. However, the limits of this postponement strategy have now been reached. We are therefore facing an enormous intensification of the crisis process, and that means the most severe socio-economic collapses, which are also likely to further fuel the racism and nationalism that is rampant everywhere.

4 In view of this situation, nothing is more dangerous than spreading expedient optimism and handing out tranquilizers. If, for example, the invitation leaflet to this congress postulates that the Third Sector stands for “the chance to replace >alienated work
5 Such an emancipatory perspective cannot be theoretically anticipated and painted in detail, but its outlines can certainly be sketched. Let us begin with a necessary demarcation. Demands for a reduction of working hours, a redistribution of labor, or subsistence money do not represent a perspective. For they all presuppose a more or less regular continuation of the functioning of the capitalist machinery of exploitation. First, the fundamentally destructive form of the commodity-producing mode of production and life is not questioned. And secondly, the crisis process is not seriously reckoned with: the continuous melting of the labor mass in the core sectors of world market production (i.e. the fundamental crisis of labor society) cannot be stopped by the redistribution of labor time or money. But since in capitalist society production only takes place when capital is utilized, and capital can only be utilized where labor is expended, the circle closes. Any strategy of redistribution of labor time and money must ultimately accept the structural constraint of the crisis dynamics that the available mass of commodity and monetary wealth is decreasing (which is currently only obscured by the enormous masses of real-economy uncovered money capital on the financial markets) and therefore accepts the logic of crisis management, which amounts to excluding ever larger parts of the world’s population – be it according to criteria of capitalist “performance” or according to those of nationalist and racist definition.

6 An emancipatory perspective can therefore only consist in the direct appropriation of social wealth in its material-concrete form by a social movement. This means: the means of production and subsistence must be snatched from the capitalist machinery of exploitation in order to use them in a self-managed, cooperative and needs-oriented way for the development of a rich and independent social context beyond market and state. I am not talking here about the bad utopia of an “alternative market economy” of commodity-producing self-governing enterprises, cooperatives and barter rings; nor about a locally narrow-minded subsistence economy on a peasant-craftsman basis. The perspective must rather be to create new forms and institutions of direct social communication and understanding about all social affairs, which correspond to the achieved level of productivity, knowledge and the developed level of needs. It goes without saying that this cannot be done off the cuff, but must be developed in a longer process and in constant confrontation with the increasingly savage capitalist society. First of all, however, it is important to make such a perspective of a radical break with capitalist criteria and institutions thinkable again in the first place. For only in this way can a common focus and orientation framework for a new radical-oppositional movement emerge. The practical starting point of such a social movement is not a privileged social location or a specific social interest (as in the case of the workers’ movement). Rather, it can in principle emerge wherever people defend themselves against the impositions of capitalism (and today that means essentially: against the impositions of crisis management) and develop a fundamental attitude of refusal.

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