Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century
Marxian economics, as I have written more than once in these pages, continues to exert its powerful intellectual influence, even though the formal study of Marxism hardly exists in American universities. One of the reasons for this persisting influence is that Marxian economics bears on many problems that are ignored or lightly passed over by conventional economics. For example, during the 1930s and 1940s Marxism commanded special interest because of its concern with capitalist breakdown. Then during the 1950s and 1960s, Marxian economics again seemed pertinent because of its concentration on the global effects of capitalist market forces. In recent years still another “Marxian” economic question has become urgent. This is the problem of the working life of man.
The problem of work has always absorbed Marxian economics. Indeed, this absorption has given it a distinctive attribute—its division of the economic world into two parts. One of these, which also engages the attention of non-Marxian economics, is the “sphere of circulation.” Here is the familiar world of commodity exchange, of money, of “value” seeking “realization” as the labor-filled products of the economic process are put to the final test of salability. Here are also technical problems that have engaged economists for over half a century, such as the “transformation problem”—the famous puzzle of finding a consistent means of moving from Marx’s abstract labor-time into the ordinary cash of everyday prices.
The problem of circulation is enormously important in Marxian economics, for this is where the capitalist economic system meets its test of cash success or failure. Yet, strangely enough, the pure economics of this aspect of Marxism is not radically dissimilar from conventional economics. After all, conventional economics also deals with money and the exchange of commodities, and also recognizes the difficulty of transforming costs into receipts. More important, the fundamental assumptions of conventional economics about the behavior of workers and capitalists are also much the same as those of Marxism.
Indeed, to the extent that conventional economists accept the crucial Marxian assumption that technology tends to displace labor, they are driven to very “Marxian” conclusions about the impending malfunction of the economy. I would even go so far as to say that the essential difference between Marxian and non-Marxian economics, at this level, lies in the failure of non-Marxists to attach historical significance to the “models” they construct, so that no conclusions are ever drawn about the changing institutional consequences of economic growth or decline.
But Marxian economics has never been solely concerned with the sphere of circulation. It embraces as well a second “sphere” of the economic world, production, in a manner almost wholly foreign to conventional economic analysis. Conventional economics is, of course, vitally concerned with production. But mainly it studies those aspects of production that directly manifest themselves in the sphere of circulation—for instance, the purchase of the services of the factors of production, or the calculus by which entrepreneurs combine factors to achieve lowest cost per unit. Meanwhile, the actual social …