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The High Priests of Economic Nonsense

by Elmar Altvater Friday, Aug. 27, 2004 at 1:21 PM

"The rules of social state restraint of wild capitalism are ignored. The class struggle from above has long been a fact since the coalition of capital with the government is fairly stable and the media play along. Resistance is inevitable.."


40 Hours Plus X

by Elmar Altvater

[This article originally published in: Freitag 31, July 23, 2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Elmar Altvater is an emeritus professor of political economy at the Free University of Berlin.]

Is it the rainy summer that makes the greatest economic feeble-mindedness germinate, for example the demand for lengthening working hours? Mr. Zimmermann from the German Institute for Economic Research cheerfully proposes 50 hours. Back to working hours like the 19th century that was described as an old play or an old legend. Blatant nonsense from the mouths of the “economic wise men” is reverently spread by the media as unnerving truth. This happens as though no technical progress and no economic and social change have taken place in the past 150 years! As though the productivity of labor has not increased fourfold! As though the human lifestyle did not require a balance between working hours and work-free time that would be seriously disturbed if a 40-hour week was annulled as a rule! Didn’t hundreds of thousands of jobs arise since the return of structural mass unemployment thanks to a policy of reducing working hours?

Economists were once more enlightened than the scholarly nonsense prevailing in Germany today. Thus an unknown writer in 1821 wrote: “A nation is truly rich when 6 hours are worked instead of 12. Wealth is not command of surplus working hours but disposable time outside the time used in immediate production…” Marx added: “,,,the real economy…consists in saving working hours.”

Nevertheless the opposite happens in the real capitalist society. The length of working hours is regarded as the measure of wealth. The more hours are slaved away in the year, the more profit arises and the richer is the land. Those for whom longer working hours are demanded without wage adjustment have less free time for hobbies, culture and family. What they produce in lengthened working hours only benefits businesses as increased profit. Workers will be dismissed if this additional production is not stopped. A general extension of working hours is the surest macro-economic means of increasing unemployment.

The executives of Siemens and Mercedes Benz act like the capitalists described by Marx to whom the British parliament sent factory inspectors while the health of workers or “hands” fell by the wayside.

Germany is already world export master despite supposedly excessively high wages and shorter working hours. No one can deny that competitiveness is high because productivity is high and the unions pursue a very moderate wage- and working hours policy. All the rivals in a new and merciless round of the “race of the obsessed” (Paul Krugman) force ever lower costs for the “German position”.

The problem is maintaining reason when everyone from t6he chancellor to the practical trainees of the Bild newspaper fall to the collective delusion that the costs of the location must be reduced through longer working hours and lower wages. The madness is very clear in the example of Jurgen Hubbert, head of Mercedes Benz. Up to the nineties, Baden-Wurttemberg was regarded as a “model territory”, a highly productive industrial district with several key businesses like Daimler and thousands upon thousands of small and medium suppliers, with relations between unions and businesses that aimed at social peace and economic efficiency. The Baden-Wurttemberg success story was depicted as a model of modern regional economic policy. Today it is dismissed by Hubbert as the “Baden-Wurttemberg sickness”. Times have changed. Unions are weakened, the practical necessities of a restrictive monetary policy according to the European Union stability pact are rigorous and the parties from yellow to green are on the uniform neoliberal course. All those enlightened ones first wanted to withdraw from the “state of minority of their own making” (Kant) and secondly not abandon the goal of emancipation by creating more disposable time through reduced working hours.

The heads of Siemens and Mercedez Benz are obviously under pressure. They must gain massive profits for the “shareholders” even if the economy stagnates. With shareholder value, greed is inhaled in the upper floors of management. Those who sold off Mannesmann will get bonuses of 30 million Euro. A fictitious Mr. Mueller with a 2000 Euro salary would have to slave away for 1,250 years for that.

As the Daimler case shows, the rules of social state restraint of wild capitalism are ignored. The class struggle from above has long been a fact since the coalition of capital with the government is fairly stable and the media play along. Resistance is inevitable because more is at stake than working hours and wages, namely the dignity of people and balance in the globalized world. What is involved is not only defending achievements. In the future, working hours will be more flexible than in past decades. The portal to lower wages and longer working hours may not be pushed open with the flexibility pretext. Preventing this is the challenge of unions and the global justice movement. An “economic literacy” (Bourdieu) must be part of the enlightenment project against the “state of minority of our own making” and the folly of neoliberal economists.

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