Section 5: Struggle Over Extension of Work Day
Harry Cleaver

Excerpted from Thirty-Three Lessons on Capital: Reading Marx Politically (forthcoming Pluto Press, UK)

Outline of Marx’s Analysis

  1. The struggle has two subjects
    – capital, which increases work time as much as it can
    – the working class which seeks “time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfillment of social functions, for social intercourse, for the free play of the vital forces of his body and his mind…”
  2. Capital will use up workers’ lives quickly
    – if new recruits are available
    – if not, it may have them imported, e.g. from agricultural areas or poor houses by “flesh agents”
    – true for slave labor, true for wage labor
  3. This excessive using up of human life
    – not a question of subjective viciousness but
    – one of competition between capitalists that keeps pressure on all
  4. The normal working day
    – the result of centuries of struggle between capitalists and workers
    – fourteenth to eighteenth centuries, to force the “free” worker to make a voluntary agreement
    – “to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage”
    – capitalists used the state to extend working hours
  5. Up to the epoch of large-scale industry, workers
    – resisted giving up their whole week
    – were attacked as “naturally inclined to ease and indolence.”
  6. This included attacks on idleness among children and
    – praise of Germany where children were “educated from their cradle at least to ‘something of employment’“


As capitalism spread like a plague through the world, its functionaries gained enough power over the state to enforce an ever-greater imposition of work. In that period, the capitalists clearly had the initiative and people were fighting a defensive battle against the loss of their life time. Yet capitalist gains were not won easily. Marx points out how this new form of domination took “centuries” to impose. Even through most of the eighteenth century workers still preserved some time free from capitalist control.

This period reveals the kind of world capitalists shaped as they gained the power to arrange things according to their own ideas of social order. They created a world in which life was entirely subordinated to work and the mere existence of any time for other activities was derided as a threat to morality and (more accurately) as undermining the submissiveness of the working class.

Marx’s comment about workers who could live on four day’s wages not wanting to work another two days for the capitalists is reminiscent of his wonderful reference in the Grundrisse to a similar situation in the West Indies:

The Times of November 1857 contains an utterly delightful cry of outrage on the part of a West-Indian plantation owner. This advocate analyses with great moral indignation —as a plea for the re-introduction of Negro slavery— how the Quashees (the free blacks of Jamaica) content themselves with producing only what is strictly necessary for their own consumption, and, alongside this “use-value” regard loafing (indulgence and idleness) as the real luxury good; how they do not care a damn for the sugar and the fixed capital invested in the plantations but rather observe the planter’s impending bankruptcy with an ironic grin of malicious pleasure.1

The capitalist anger and racist hate inspired by this situation can be seen in comments by one of the would-be slavers best-known apologists: Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Writing much earlier, Carlyle penned an “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” for the December 1849 issue of Fraser’s Magazine.2 Inspired by the renewed attention to the circumstances mentioned in The Times, Carlyle revised and reissued his essay as a pamphlet in 1853. There we find Carlyle raving against the high price of labor in the presence of sun and rich soil that makes people largely autonomous of the labor market.

Far over the sea, we have a few black persons rendered extremely “free” indeed. Sitting yonder, with their beautiful muzzles up to the ears in pumpkins, imbibing sweet pulps and juices; the grinder and incisor teeth ready for ever new work, and the pumpkins cheap as grass in those rich climates: while the sugar-crops rot round them uncut, because labour cannot be hired, so cheap are the pumpkins . . . The West Indies, it appears, are short of labour; as indeed is very conceivable in those circumstances. Where a black man, by working about half-an-hour a-day (such is the calculation), can supply himself, by aid of sun and soil, with as much pumpkin as will suffice, he is likely to be a little stiff to raise into hard work!3

While there is much else in Carlyle’s pamphlet worth reading because of what it reveals about capitalist racism, ideology, and strategy, the point here is simply the relevance to Marx’s discussion of wages. What the situation in Jamaica revealed, once again, is how “natural” circumstances – untamed by the imposition of the social relationships of capitalist-imposed work – may undermine capitalism. Therefore, the need to re-impose those relationships. Like Wakefield in Chapter 33, Carlyle discusses various strategies for doing so, from the re-imposition of slavery to a dramatically increased importation of free labor to make land and “pumpkins” so scarce that free labor would be forced into the labor market, the effective imposition of near-slavery.

This phenomenon of workers making enough wages to want to work less, to have the time to enjoy the possibilities created by their wages, has been recurrent in capitalism, growing more common as standards of living have risen. Indeed, success in the wage struggle inevitably leads to intensified struggle over time because, from a worker’s point of view, the real object of wages is to live and life requires time. More and more money (and the wealth it buys) is useless if there is no time to put it to use. Even economists eventually came to recognize how income and leisure are “complementary goods”.

Escaping Work

When work is imposed, and the workplace an alienated hell, then escaping from it (with enough means to survive) means a flight to liberty and freedom. As Marx wrote in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, when work is imposed workers often feel “outside” themselves at work and only feel “at home” when they are not working. Thus, escape from work is not only a victory won, but a freeing of the body and, at least potentially, a rebirth of the spirit, a rediscovery of life-for-itself after life-as-work-for-capital.

Of course, such escape and such joy of liberty can only be obtained by most workers for brief periods. Processes of primitive accumulation have removed the means of production from most people and thereby the possibility of sustained independence. Freedom can last only as long as available resources (saved or directly appropriated) permit. As those resources are used up, and in the absence of nineteenth century “Poor Laws” or twentieth century “welfare”, workers are driven back to work for the capitalists who alone can provide the wages and salaries necessary for survival.

Nevertheless, the joy of such escapes into freedom from work and into freedom to be and to do independently of the whims of any employer can be sweet indeed —no matter how short or how long. The fleeting opportunities of the weekend or the joys of vacation may not last long, but they can give a taste of freedom and the possibilities of self-valorization. The exhilaration of telling a boss to “Take this job and shove it!” derives partly from casting off alienation, partly from the sweet taste of free activity it makes possible.

Among American writers who have written in protest against the conditions of human life under capitalism, the themes of escape from the universal life sentence of hard labor and of the joy it can bring has been recurrent. In Jack London’s short story “The Apostate” (1906) the main character—a boy named Johnny who had spent all his life in factories—finally walks away from a life that had stunted and twisted him. What will become of him we don’t know, but in the escape from work there is bliss.4

In Sinclair’s The Jungle, a very similar event occurs in the life of the main character Jurgis Rudkus, who flees the hell of working-class Chicago and briefly escapes from work and all its miseries. This event occurs late in the novel, after he and his family have been exploited and beaten down on the job and off, after all their hopes and dreams have been destroyed, after his wife has died in an unheated garret and his baby son drowned in an unrepaired street. After all this, Jurgis – like London’s Johnny – jumps a train and flees the city and the horrors of his life. But in Sinclair’s novel, unlike London’s short story, we find out what happens next. Jurgis soon finds himself in the countryside, a countryside not so unlike what he had known in Lithuania as a peasant child before immigrating to America.

Avoiding any pastoral romanticism, Sinclair has Jurgis soon learn that the American countryside is also a factory, only organized differently, in farms rather than in plants. He learns the ways of tramps but also of the migrant agricultural labor force – with plenty of work and good wages for a few months in the fall and no work and no wages throughout the long months of winter. Thus, the escape into freedom proves only temporary and as the story unfolds, Sinclair makes it very clear that such flights by individuals can only be temporary and fleeting. The momentary joys of the individual in these stories figure as evocations of the possibilities open to humankind through the transcendence of capitalism.

No other modern film exalts such escape with as much humor as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). In this case the escapees are students, not waged workers, but the portrayal of their temporary escape from school incarceration and testing quickly became a beloved celebration of grabbing free time when you can. As Ferris says in the opening sequence “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once and awhile you could miss it.” Stopping and looking around takes time, time away from work, whether in factory, office or school.

The Struggle over Free Time

Although the working class was ultimately able to block the capitalist expansion of the working day, as Marx shows in the next section, and was eventually able to pass over to the offensive and successfully reduce its length, capitalists are forever trying to increase the amount of work they get out of workers, not only on-the-job (as this section discusses – and as recent calls to delay the age of retirement illustrate – but also during unwaged hours.

Sometimes, the effort to convert free time into a part of the working day is obvious, many times it is not. In many jobs, employers expect workers to use their free time for company business. Salaried corporate employees, for example, are often expected to take work home at night if necessary, as well as putting in long formal hours. One example I discovered at a Motorola factory in Austin, Texas, was an effort to convince techies to spend their time driving to and from work listening to recorded articles on the latest developments in their area of expertise.5 Similarly, students are expected to use their free time for homework. And those with aspirations for higher education, must also sacrifice free time to all kinds of “extra-curricular” activities to beef up their future applications. As I noted in my commentary on Section 2, secondary school teachers are regularly forced, by the size of their classes and other obligations of their work, to take home tests or papers to be graded. University professors, whose promotions and “merit” salary increases depend upon publishing, inevitably convert many hours that might be “free” into work. All too often, hard-pressed, underpaid teachers, adjunct professors and students find themselves forced to seek extra, waged night-work just to survive. Perhaps the most extreme example of such capitalist efforts to convert leisure to work has been the hope (so far disappointed) that through hypnopedia, or sleep-learning, everyone could be subjected to recordings at night and go on working while asleep! Such have been modern versions of the capitalist fantasies Marx relates in the seventeenth through the nineteenth century.

While Marxist cultural critics have elaborated extensive critiques of the capitalist colonialization of free time through the structuring of consumption, the most instructive of what has been written on this theme has been composed by women. For the distinction between work time and free time has always been nebulous for housewives. Unlike factory workers where work time and free time are ostensibly separated by the gates of the plant or the doors of the office, women working in the home and community have no clear-cut division between housework and time for self. As any number of feminist writers have pointed out, much of what has been justified as fulfilling “love and nurturing” has often been work – either for men or for capital or for both – with little or no self-fulfillment involved.6 Shopping, house cleaning, child care and even sexual activity can and often has been reduced to the work of reproducing labor-power. The increasingly common observation that husbands retire but housewives never do, reflects this muddled boundary between work and freedom. We must also recognize the society of the spectacle, as the Situationists have done, to see how workers’ time is structured and diverted to merely restore the vitality necessary to work rather than infusing energy for struggle. Observations such as these lead us to see how the boundary between work and non-work has been obscured and often erased, as capital has structured “non-work” time to reproduce work time.

However, unlike those who see only domination and no effective struggle in such spheres, who see, for example, only the instrumentalization of the wage struggle – wage driven consumer demand contributing to the expansion of capital – we must also see the ways struggle often ruptures accumulation and causes crisis. One critical theorist, Herbert Marcuse, understood how the autonomous appropriation of consumption had revolutionary potential in the youth revolts of the 1960s. But, having written off the industrial working class as sold out, he failed to see how the rupture of the Keynesian productivity deal in the factories could also undermine capital and lead to the refusal of what he, following Freud, called the sublimation of libidinal energies into work.7

We can recast the critical theorists’ critique of consumerism by seeing not only how consumption is shaped by capital to reinforce a life based on work but how this is resisted. Critical theorists have often argued that consumption has replaced work as the key category of advanced capitalism.8 What they have failed to demonstrate is any reversal in the subordination of consumption to work. On the contrary, it is rather easy to show not only how most spheres of consumption are structured as spheres of the reproduction of labor-power and how the desire to consume requires the ability to buy and that ability depends on work! So, the most avid consumers wind up having to do the most work in order to get the money they need to buy the stuff they want to consume. Consumerism leads directly to workaholism.9

But there are manifold struggles against this subordination of free time to life-as-work. We must recognize how students have resisted being conditioned into dutiful workers. We must learn from feminist literature how women have fought against their subordination to men (and to capital). We must examine how the passivity inculcated by the spectacle has been repeatedly ruptured and people have taken the initiative in the shaping of their own and their communities’ lives. We must see how people have either refused or taken and subverted the consumerist commodities through which capital has sought to structure our lives. We must listen to hear how music has escaped the limits of commercialism and fired resistance and revolt. We must watch to see how, even in Hollywood, films have reproduced and circulated people’s struggles against their integration as passive pawns in others’ games. All this involves extending Marx’s analysis of the fierce working-class resistance to the expansion of the working day to the class struggle over whether free time will really be free.

In his pre-radio, pre-moving picture, pre-TV era, Marx illustrated the capitalist imposition of work and workers’ struggles for less working day with literary allusions and quotations. But rising wages and new technology facilitated the spread of popular culture from bars, coffee houses, vaudeville and cabarets to juke boxes, vinyl records, cassette tapes, compact discs, TV, film, and YouTube. As a result, we can now complement his illustrations by a rich array of contemporary audio-visual ones.

Despite American workers achieving a five-day working week by the early 1940s, with weekends free (at least in principle), a great deal of popular culture has reflected ongoing attacks on the continued domination of life by work. The almost universal critical attitude toward work is manifest in the resentment of, and attacks on Monday – the day most people must return to work – and celebrations of Friday – the day people escape from work.

These attitudes have been articulated, elaborated on and circulated in almost every form of popular music. Rock & roll, country-western, punk, rap and hip-hop song writers and bands have all contributed to the construction of a corpus of musical denunciation of the working week and of the rhythm of the working days which constitute it. Among the more memorable contributions are the following, in chronological order.

1) The British rock band The Kinks created a concept album entitled Soap Opera (1975). Most of the songs on side A of that album critique moments of the working day and its consequences: before, during and after official work hours.

In “Rush Hour Blues” , 7 a.m. begins the day – well before the official job itself at 9 o’clock. As this and the other songs make clear the real working day is much longer than the official one and includes getting ready for the job and getting there. Compare The Kinks’ cup of tea with Parton’s “cup of ambition” through The Clash’s “cold water in the face”. (below) The story is the same: there is no spontaneous enthusiasm that brings one springing from bed in joyous anticipation of going to work. On the contrary, dreams, yawns and reluctance require shock and drug treatment to be overcome. In the Kinks song, the reluctance becomes resistance to being hurried to the unpleasantness of both commuting and work itself. “Rush Hour Blues” laments all the details of the daily annoyances of commuting, “waiting for the train”, “rushing up the stairs and in the elevator”, being “caught in the crush”, being “pushed” and “shoved”, “fightin with my briefcase and my umbrella”. And the worst of it is “some people do it every day of their lives”!!

The second Kink’s song “Nine to Five” has something of the same tenor as that of The Clash. Work life “is so incredibly dull”, “the hours tick away / the seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days / each day, each week / seems like any other”. And the result, “he’s starting to lose his mind” – or take it back, depending on your perspective.

2) Two years later Elvis Costello’s launched a general attack in “Welcome to the Working Week” (1977): “I know it won’t thrill you / I hope it don’t kill you”. The points are well taken because not only do most people dislike working but work does kill thousands of people each year, either through on-the-job accidents or through its byproducts such as stress and insanity.

3) Many songs attack Monday, the first and most despised day of the working week. “I Don’t Like Mondays” (1979) was written by Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats in response to the actions of a student in California who, one Monday morning, decided not only that she did not want to go to school but that no one else should go either. To implement her decision, this school girl who lived across the street from the school took a 22-caliber rifle and started shooting. The song reflects on the general amazement that followed this event as no one could understand how this hitherto quite ordinary 16-year-old – who was always “good as gold” – could do such a thing. In the Rats interpretation, “the silicon chip inside her head got switched to overload” – in other words her programmed behavior of going to school every Monday became more than her humanity could tolerate. “Why?” everyone asked, “what were the reasons?” Well, the Rats respond, “They can see no reason / Cause there are no reasons / What reasons do you need to be shown?” In other words, what needs explaining is not why she flipped out, but why it didn’t happen long before. How was it possible for a healthy human being to be programmed into weekly self-destruction without revolting? That is what needs to be explained, not why she didn’t want to go to school. All of this, of course, is based on the understanding that school, like the factory, is a place of incarceration, that schoolwork really is work, and is imposed on people just like other kinds of work; and therefore, that revolt against unwaged schoolwork, like the revolt against waged work is a perfectly sane response. The song is reminiscent of the analyses of schizophrenia and psychosis by R. D. Laing (1927-1989) and David Cooper (1931-1986) who have argued that people sometimes find themselves in situations to which sane responses appear to be insane.10 Commonplace in the wake of more recent school shootings, analysis has focused on either the character of the shooter or the issue of gun control. The fundamentally repressive nature of schooling is rarely discussed.

4) Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” (1980) – theme song of the movie of the same name describes not only the morning rituals of drugging one’s self awake and dragging one’s self to the job, but also exploitation on the job where “they just use your mind and they never give you credit” and “you’re just a step on the boss man’s ladder”. Without ever speaking of “capitalist society” as such Parton says the same thing in American vernacular: “It’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it / And you spend your life puttin’ money in his wallet”.

5) “Magnificent Seven” (1980) by The Clash, probably the second best known British Punk band (after the Sex Pistols), like the Kink’s “Nine to Five” and Parton’s “9 to 5”, rails against the working day – from dragging one’s self from bed at 7 a.m. through work, till quitting time and beyond, to a life poisoned by work. The title of the song is, of course, ironic. Seven in the morning is NOT magnificent but rather damned because it is the time you must start getting ready for work “Move y’self to go again / cold water in the face / brings you back to this awful place”. On the job, “clocks go slow in a place of work / minutes drag and the hours jerk” till lunch when you can “wave bu-bub-bub bye to the boss” and get away from the grind. The Clash are very clear about the qualitative nature of time in this song, when they sing about lunch time stolen from work: “It’s our profit, it’s his [the boss’] loss” versus work that is the boss’s profit and our loss. Work is money for the boss, loss of life for us. Time away from work is life for us, loss of profit for capital. Work in the afternoon, the after-lunch, the after-freedom (such as it is, watching cops kickin’ gypsies on the pavement!) is no better: “So get back to work and sweat some more . . . It’s no good for man to work in cages”. But what follows, at the end of the day, once you “get out the door” and escape? The worker “hits the town, he drinks his wages” Workers never make enough money to change their basic condition: “did you notice you ain’t gettin?” At the end of the song there is an evocation of various people who have struggled against some aspects of capitalism, Marx and Engels, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. The reference to Marx and Engels is humorous and refers to Marx being poor and having to borrow money from Engels. The reference to King and Gandhi is much more bitter, “they was murdered by the other team”.

6) The Bangles also complain in “Manic Monday” (1986) about the unpleasantness of getting up and going to work in contrast to the pleasures of Sunday, making love and dreaming. Despite the unpleasantness of a “run day” when she must hurry, hurry, get dressed, catch a train and make it to work on time, the singer gets up and goes to work for the classic reason within capitalism: in order to eat! In this case the pressures on her are even greater because her lover is unemployed and they both depend on her job for survival – the traditional situation of the family with only one wage earner.


  1. Grundrisse, Notebook III, pp. 325-326; MECW, vol. 28, p. 251. 

  2. Thomas Carlyle, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question”, Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, vol. xl, no. ccxl, December 1849, pp. 670-679. 

  3. Carlyle, Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question (1853). John Steward Mill countered Carlyle with an essay on “The Negro Question”. The two essays have been published together, e.g., The Nigger Question and the Negro Question, Whitefish MT: Kessinger Publishing Reprints, 2010. 

  4. This story can be found online, or in Donald Pizer (ed.), Jack London: Novels & Stories, New York: Library of America, 1982, pp. 797-816.  

  5. For several years I took advantage of tours offered at the local Motorola “campus” to show my students what a modern, high-tech factory was like. We discovered the corporation’s strategy to steal commute time while visiting the corporate library where articles were read out loud and recorded on cassette tapes. Given the distances and congestion of Austin’s roads – due to the influx of high tech firms – commuting itself was already uncompensated work for Motorola. Listening to tapes while navigating to and from home amounted to an intensification of that work. 

  6. See, for example, Giovanna Franca Dalla Costa, The Work of Love: Unpaid Housework, Poverty and Sexual Violence at the Dawn of the 21st Century, Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2008. 

  7. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. 

  8. See, for example, Claus Offe, “Work: The Key Sociological Category?” in Claus Offe, Disorganized Capitalism, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1985, pp. 129-150. 

  9. A wonderful film that illustrates this dynamic is Lulu the Tool (1971), originally La classe operaia va in paradiso (The Working Class Goes to Heaven), in which a machine tool operative piles up lots of consumer goods by working harder than everyone else and getting paid more but ruins his marriage – until an accident at work makes him realize there’s more to life than stuff.  

  10. See, R. D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960, R. D. Laing and D. G. Cooper, Reason and Violence, London: Tavistock Publications, 1964 and D. G. Cooper (ed), Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry (1967), New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.