Afterwork and Overtime: The Social Reproduction of Human Capital

Giacomo Bianchino


In the heady expansion of capital’s productive capacity during the post-war period, E.P. Thompson wondered optimistically at potentials accruing to humanity by accelerating automation. He asked, “If we are to have enlarged leisure, in an automated future, the problem is not ‘how are men going to be able to consume all these additional time-units of leisure?’ but ‘what will be the capacity for experience of the men who have this undirected time to live?’” (Thompson 36). Indeed, linear and economistic variants of Marxian materialism have long emphasised that the socialisation of production by the use of machinery will eventually free us from work. At the very least, the underemployment produced by the automation of pivotal labour roles is supposed to create a political subject capable of agitating successfully against bourgeois and capitalist hegemony. But contrary to these prognostications, the worker of 2019 is caught up in a process of generalising work far beyond what is considered necessary by tradition, or at least the convention of what David Harvey calls “embedded liberalism” (11). As Anne Helen Peterson wrote in a recent Buzzfeed article,

even the trends millennials have popularized — like athleisure — speak to our self-optimization. Yoga pants might look sloppy to your mom, but they’re efficient: you can transition seamlessly from an exercise class to a Skype meeting to child pickup. We use Fresh Direct and Amazon because the time they save allows us to do more work. (Peterson)

For the work-martyr, activity in its broadest Aristotelian sense is evaluated by and subordinated to the question of efficiency and productivity. Occupations of time that were once considered external to “work” as matters of “life” (to use Kathi Weeks’s vocabulary) are reconceived as waste when not deployed in the service of value-generation (Weeks 15).

The point here, then, is to provide some answers for why the decrease in socially-necessary labour time in an age of automation has not coincided with the Thompsonian expansion of free time. The current dilemma of the neoliberal “work-martyr” is traceable to the political responses generated by crises in production during the depression and the stagflationary disaccumulation of the 1960s-70s, and the major victory in the “battle for ideas” was the transformation of the political subject into human capital. This “intensely constructed and governed” suite of possible values is tasked, according to Wendy Brown, “with improving and leveraging its competitive positioning and with enhancing its (monetary and nonmonetary) portfolio value across all of its endeavours and ventures” (Brown 10). Connecting the creation of this subject in relation to personal or free time is important partly because of time’s longstanding importance to philosophies of subjectivity. But more to the point, the focus on time is important because it serves to demonstrate the economic foundations of the incursion of capitalist governance into the most private domains of existence. Against the criticism of Marx’s ‘abstract’ theory of value, one can see that the laws of capitalist accumulation make their mark in all parts of contemporary human being, including temporality. By tracing the emergence of afterwork as the unpaid continuation of the accumulation of value, one can show how each subject increasingly ‘lives’ capital. This marks a turning point in political economy. When work spills over a temporal limit, its relationship to reproduction is finally blurred to the point of indistinction. What this means for value-creation in 2019 is something in urgent need of critique.

State Reproduction

According to the Marxian theory, labour’s minimum cost is abstractly determined by the price of the labourer’s necessities. Once they have produced enough objects of value to cover these costs, the rest of their work is surplus value in the hands of the capitalist. The capitalist’s aim, then, is to extend the overall working-day for as long beyond the minimum as possible. Theoretically, the full 24 hours of the day may be used. The rise of machine production in the 19th century allowed the owners to make this theory a reality. The only thing that governed the extension of work-time was the physical minimum of labour-power’s reproduction (Marx 161). But this was on the provision that all the labourer’s “free” time was to be spent regrouping their energies. Anything in excess of this was a privilege: time wasted that could have been spent in the factory. “If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself”, says Marx, “he robs the capitalist” (162).

This began to change with the socialisation of the work process and the increase in technical proficiency that labour demanded in early 20th-century industry. With the changes in the sophistication of the manufacture process, the labourer came to be factored in the production process less as an “appendage of the machine” and more as a collection of decisive skills. Fordism based itself around the recognition that capital itself was “dependent on a family-based reproduction” (Weeks 27). In Ford’s America, the sense that work’s intensity might supplant losses in the working day propelled owners of production to recognise the economic need of ensuring a robust culture of social reproduction. In capital’s original New Deal, Ford provided an increase in wages (the Five Dollar Day) in exchange for a rise in productivity (Dalla Costa v). To preserve the increased rhythm of industrial production required more than a robust wage, however. It required “the formation of a physically efficient and psychologically disciplined working class” (Dalla Costa 2). Companies began to hire sociologists to investigate how workers spent their spare time (Dalla Costa 8). They led the charge in a what we might call the first “anthropological revolution” of the American 20th century, whereby the improved wage of the worker was underpinned by the economisation of their reproduction. This was enabled by the cheapening of social necessities (and thus a reduction in socially-necessary labour time) in profound connection to the development of household economy on the backs of unpaid female labour (Weeks 25).

This arrangement between capital and labour persisted until 1929. When the inevitable crisis came, however, wages faltered, and many workers joined the ranks of the unemployed. Unable to afford even the basics of their own reproduction, the working-class looked to the state.  They created political and social pressure through marches, demonstrations, attacks on shops and the looting of supply trucks (Dalla Costa 40). The state held out against them, but the crisis in production eventually reached such a point of intensity that the government was forced to intervene. Hoover instituted the Emergency Relief Act and Financial Reconstruction Corporation in 1932. This was expanded the following year by FDR’s New Deal, transforming Emergency Relief into a federal institution and creating the Civil Works Association to stimulate the job market (Dalla Costa 63). The security of the working class was decisively linked to the state through the wage guarantees, welfare measures and even the legal guarantee of collective bargaining.

For the most part, the state’s intervention in social reproduction took the pressure off industry by ensuring that the workforce would remain able to handle its burdens and that the unemployed would remain employable. It guaranteed a minimum wage for the employed to ensure that demand didn’t collapse, and provided care outside the workforce to women, children and the elderly.

Once the state took responsibility for reproduction, however, it immediately became interested in how free time could be made efficient and cost effective. Abroad, they noted the example of European statist and corporativist approaches. Roosevelt sent a delegation to Europe to study the various measures taken by fascist and United Front governments to curb the effects of economic crisis (Dogliani 247). Among these was Mussolini’s OND (Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro) which sought to accumulate the free time of workers to the ends of production. Part of this required the responsibilisation of the broader community not only for regeneration of labour-power but the formation of a truly fascist political subject.

FDR’s social reform program was able to reproduce this at home by following the example of workers’ community organisation during the depression years. Throughout the early ‘30s, self-help cooperatives, complete with “their own systems of payment in goods or currency” emerged among the unemployed (Dalla Costa 61). Black markets in consumer goods and informal labour structures developed in all major cities (Dalla Costa 34). Subsistence goods were self-produced in a cottage industry of unpaid domestic labour by both men and women (Dalla Costa 71). The paragon of self-reproducing communities was urbanised black Americans, whose internal solidarity had saved lives throughout the depression. The state took notice of these informal economies of production and reproduction, and started to incorporate the possibility of community engineering into their national plan. Roosevelt convened the Civilian Conservation Corps to absorb underemployed elements of the American workforce and recover consumer demand through direct state sponsorship (wages) (Dogliani, 247). The Committee of Industrial Organisation was transformed into a “congress” linking workers directly to the state (Dalla Costa 74). Minium wages were secured in the supreme court in 1937, then hiked in 1938 (78). In all, the state emerged at this time as a truly corporativist entity- the guarantor of employment and of class stability. 

From Social Reproduction to Human Capital Investment

So how do we get from New Deal social engineering to yoga pants? The answer is deceptively simple. The state transformed social reproduction into a necessary part of the production process. But this also meant that it was instrumentalised. The state only had to fund its workforce’s reproduction so long as this guaranteed productivity. After the war, this was maintained by a form of “embedded liberalism” which sought to provide full employment, economic growth and welfare for its citizens while anchoring the international economy in the Dollar’s gold-value. However, by providing stable increases in “relative value” (wages), this form of state investment incentivised capital flight and its spectacular consequent: deindustrialisation. The “embedded liberalism” of the state-capital-labour compromise began to breakdown with a new crisis of accumulation (Harvey 11-12). The relocation of production to non-union states and decolonised globally-southern sites of hyper-exploitation led to an ‘urban crisis’ in the job market. But as capitalist expansion carried on abroad, inflation kept dangerous pace with the rate of unemployment. This “stagflation” put irresistible pressure on the post-war order. The Bretton-Woods policy of maintaining fixed interest rates while pinning the dollar to gold was abandoned in 1971 and exchange rates were floated all over the world (Harvey 12). The spectre of a new crisis loomed, but one which couldn’t be resolved by the simple state sponsorship of production and reproduction.

While many solutions were offered in place of this, one political vision singled out the state’s intervention into reproduction as the cause of the crisis. The ‘neoliberal’ political revolution began at the level of individual groups of capitalist agitants seeking governmental influence in a crusade against communism. It was given its first run on the historical pitch in Chile as part of the CIA-sponsored Pinochet revanchism, and then imported to NYC to deal with the worsening urban crisis of the 1970s. Instead of focusing on production (which required state intervention to proceed without crisis), neoliberal theory promulgated a turn to monetisation and financialisation. The rule of the New York banks after they forced the City into near-bankruptcy in 1975 prescribed total austerity in order to make good on its debts. The government was forced by capital itself to withdraw from investment in the reproduction of its citizens and workers. This was generalised to a federal policy as Reagan sought to address the decades-long deficit during the early years of his presidential term. Facilitating the global flow of finance and the hegemony of supranational institutions like the IMF, the domestic labour force now became beholden to an international minimum of socially-necessary labour time. 

At the level of domestic labour, the reduction of labour’s possible cost to this minimum had dramatic consequences. International competition allowed the physical limitations of labour to, once again, vanish from sight. Removed from the discourse of reproduction rights, the capitalist edifice was able to focus on changing the ratio of socially necessary labour to surplus. The mechanism that enabled them to do so was competition among the workforce. With the opening of the world market, capital no longer had to worry about the maintenance of domestic demand.

But competition was not sufficient to pull off so grand a feat. What was required was a broader “battle of ideas”; the second anthropological revolution of the American century. The protections that workers had relied upon since the Fordist compromise and the corporativist solution eroded as the new “class-power” of the bourgeoisie levelled neoliberal assaults against associated labour (Harvey 23). While unions were gradually disempowered to fight the inevitable tide of deindustrialisation and capital flight, individual workers were coddled by a stream of neoliberal propaganda promising “Freedom” to those who would leave the stifling atmosphere of collective association. The success of this double enervation crippled union power, and the capitalist could rely increasingly on internal workplace wage stratification to regulate labour at an enterprise level (Dalla Costa 25). Incentive structures transformed labour rights into privileges; imagining old entitlements as concessions from above. In the last thirty years, the foundation of worker protections at large has, according to Brown, become illegible (Brown 38).

Time and Value

The reduction of time needed to produce has not coincided with an expansion of free time. The neoliberal anthropological revolution has wormed its way into the depth of the individual subject’s temporalising through a dual assault on labour conditions and propaganda. The privatisation of reproduction means that its necessary minimum is once again the subject of class struggle. Time spent unproductively outside the workplace now not only robs the capitalist, but the worker. If an activity isn’t a means to increase one’s “experience” (the vector of employability), it is time poorly spent. The likelihood of being hired for a job, in professional industries especially, is dependent on your ability to outperform others not only in your talents and skills, but in your own exploitability. Brown points out that the groups traditionally defined by the “middle strata … works more hours for less pay, fewer benefits, less security, and less promise of retirement or upward mobility than at any time in the past century” (Brown 28-29).

This is what is meant by the transformation of workers into ‘human capital’. As far as the worker is concerned, the capitalist no longer purchases their labour-power: they purchase the sum of their experiences and behaviours. A competitive market has emerged for these personality markers. As a piece of human capital, one must expend one’s time not only in reproduction, but the production of their own surplus value. Going to a play adds culture points to your brand; speaking a second language gives you a competitive edge; a robust Instagram following is the difference between getting or missing out on a job. For Jess Whyte, this means that the market is now able to govern in place of the state. It exercises a command over people’s lives in and out of the workplace “which many an old tyrannical state would have envied” (Whyte 20).

There is a question here of change and continuity. A survey of the 20th century shows that the reduction of ‘socially necessary labour time’ does not necessarily mean a reduction in time spent at work. In fact, the minimum around which capitalist production circulates is not worktime but wages. It is only at the political level that the working class prevented capital from pursuing this minimum. With the political victory of neoliberalism as a “restoration of class power” to the bourgeoisie, however, this minimum becomes a factor at the heart of all negotiations between capital and labour. The individual labourer lying at the heart of the productive process is reduced to his most naked form: human capital. This capital must spend all its time productively for its own benefit. Mundane tasks are avoidable, as stipulated by the piece of human capital sometimes known as Anne Helen Peterson, if they “wouldn’t make my job easier or my work better”. People are never really after-work under neoliberalism; their spare time is structurally adjusted into auxiliary labour. Competition has achieved what the state could never have dreamed of: a total governance of spare hours. This governance unites journalists tweeting from bed with Amazon workers living where they work, not to mention early-career academics working over a weekend to publish an article in an online journal that is not even paying them. These are all ways in which the privatisation of social reproduction transforms afterwork into unpaid overtime.


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capital, overtime, afterwork, human capital, exploitation, economy, neoliberalism, modernity, production

Copyright (c) 2019 Giacomo Bianchino

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