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Why battles over working hours are key to capitalism

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Bosses won’t let us benefit from advances in technology unless we fight them, argues Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2622
Car factory
A Tesla car factory (Pic: Steve Jurvetson)

Workers should look forward to a four-day working week in the next 100 years because of advances in science and technology. 

This will come about if bosses “share the wealth of new technology”, according to Frances O’Grady, the head of the TUC union federation.

With the spectacular wealth of global capitalism, workers could easily reduce their working hours with no loss of pay.

But O’Grady’s argument rests on a sort of technological determinism that sees advances in technology naturally leading to social progress.

Whenever automation is introduced the question is, will it benefit bosses or workers?

From its beginnings, capitalism has been marked by battles over working hours.

Mainstream economists say capitalism is based on “free and fair exchange” between capitalists and workers.

Going to work is seen as a business transaction between two equal parties, where bosses buy labour for a “fair” price. But the revolutionary Karl Marx argued that this exchange hides exploitation. 


For Marx, exploitation wasn’t a moral term used to describe mistreatment of workers. His labour theory of value explained how bosses get their hands on profits.

Capitalism is based on commodity production. Goods and services are bought and sold on the market.

The exchange value of these commodities is determined by the amount of what Marx called “socially necessary labour time” needed to produce them.

This is the amount of time it takes to produce a commodity using the “average degree of skills and intensity”.

But workers’ “labour power”—their ability to work—is also turned into a commodity.

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They sell it for a wage, but create more value than they are paid for. After, say, four hours’ work they may have covered the cost of their wages, but they keep working.

Marx called this gap “surplus value” and it lays the basis for capitalists’ profits.

That’s partly why battles over working time have been so central to capitalism.

By making workers work longer, bosses can ramp up the rate of exploitation to try and grab more surplus value.

Marx argued that working hours are determined by two components. One is a physical limit—bosses can’t work us all around the clock without killing us.

But the other is what Marx called the “moral-historical” component that’s determined by workers’ struggles.


Battles over the working day haven’t always been for shorter hours.

After the global slump hit JCB bosses didn’t want to lay off workers and pay to train new ones down the line. So they tried to claw back profits by cutting hours and pay.

There’s another division in capitalism between bosses themselves.

Firms look for more efficient production methods to try and get ahead of their competitors. They invest more in new technology and shed the number of workers they employ.

As only labour power—not machines—produces new value there are limits to automation. But it can be a threat to workers if technology can displace them in some industries. 

What matters is who controls the technology and in whose interests it’s used. 

Workers could enjoy shorter hours and better pay, but bosses won’t allow us to use advances in production to have a better life.

That requires a socialist economy based on meeting human need, not on maximising profits for those at the top. 

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