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23 aug 2021

How many people work for me?

Every day a certain amount of work is done. Food is grown. Machines are built and operated. Stuff is transported. If I would add up all the time - the seconds, minutes, hours - that other people work to provide me with the things that I consume, would I arrive at 1 FTE? 2 FTE? 5?1 In other words: BP may have tricked me into thinking about my carbon footprint [2], but what is my labour foot print??

Figure 1: Source: Reddit (so probably fake, but still) (also see here)

The fact that most of us "work" may give the impression that we are "in this together". We all have the same 24 hours. Some wake up a bit later, and some retire a bit sooner. But overall, we all get up in the morning to do stuff, and go to bed when the work is done. Sure, there is inequality: at the end of the day, some take home considerably more money than others. The former get to buy the more expensive versions of the things that the latter also buy. Those who earn more stay in fancier hotels. They buy fancier cars. Good for them, but does that really concern those who earn less?

Maybe it would concern us more if we would stop looking at the differences in the money we earn, and instead look at the differences in the effective time we work for each other? The notion of having others "work for you" may invoke images of wealthy aristocrats running their estates with the help of a butler, a gardener, a cook and a maid. But aren't many of us, overall, effectively doing something similar? Don't we effectively have a butler, a gardener, a cook and a maid? Distributed over a large amount of (fractions of) production processes, spread across continents? What if we "imagine away" that distance and fragmentation? To what extent are we "actually" padrones with estates full of servants?2

Figure 2: Tijm is money

If that sounds a bit crazy, I believe this is ultimately a straightforward empirical question: how many hours of labour go into the things I consume on an average day?

It may be tempting to just look at my income and the average income of the people around me: if I make twice as much as the people around me, I can exchange the product of half a day's work with the product of a full day of work of someone else. If we would all work full-time I would have effectively two people working for me, every day. But I am not so much interested in how many hours of labour I could theoretically purchase.3 I am interested in how many hours of labour I am already currently consuming every day.4

I haven't found a satisfactory (way to) answer to this question yet, but I am afraid that I will have more than one person working for me. Probably many more. Every day. To be sure, having only one FTE working for me might still be problematic: it is not a sufficient criterion for a fair world.5 But I do believe it is necessary for a fair world that we all work (care) for each other in more or less equal amounts.

An earlier version of this post was posted at 21 July 2021.



In Ta-Nehisi Coates' We were eight years in power, I came across the following quote by George Fitzhugh, a 19th-century intellectual from the South of the United States:

Whilst making his fortune, [the "professional man"] daily exchanged about one day of his light labor for thirty days of the farmer, the gardener, the miner, the ditcher, the sewing woman, and other common working people’s labor. His capital was but the accumulation of the results of their labor; for common labor creates all capital. Their labor was more necessary and useful than his, and also more honorable and respectable. The more honorable, because they were contented with their situation and their profits, and not seeking to exploitate, by exchanging one day of their labor for many of other people’s. To be exploited, ought to be more creditable than to exploitate.[1]

Coates uses the quote to illustrate the selective indignation of progressive whites like Fitzhugh over the plight of white workers, while remaining silent about (or, in the case of Fitzhugh, even justifying) the enslavement of black workers. So the quote is tainted by racism, to say the least. But some of the question he raises, stripped of its white supremacy, connects to a question I have been asking myself lately: how much hours of labour do I consume?


To understand the way we relate to each other in terms of how many hours we work for each other is - I believe - one of the key ideas behind the Marxist labour theory of value. I also believe that this theory is one of the most heavily debated theories (at least among Marxist political economists). One of the things that I am a bit wary of, is how reducing the diversity of work experiences to "hours worked" erases the very real differences in what these hours feel like and cost (e.g. in terms of physical and mental health). In this sense, the suggestion that the people that produce the things that I consume can collectively be compared to a "servant" may be inappropriate. The reason why I still make this comparison is because I want to "describe anew" a generally normalized situation, using imagery and language that feels awkward, alien or wrong to many people (like "having multiple servants").


Instead of using my extra income to consume more hours of labour, I could also "just" have relatively expensive people work with relatively expensive stuff (the people might for instance be expensive because of their talent or training, and the stuff might for instance be expensive because it is rare, or the product of a lot of (or expensive) labour). "How much more/less I make than the people around me" does not necessarily translate into how many hours of labour I consume.


When sharing the thought of this post with other people, I often get something back like "yeah ok, you can compare how much we all work, but you must recognize that one person earns a lot per hour, and the other person earns very little". This misses the point that "what we earn" is effectively again a claim on other people's labour. Individuals who earn ten times as much as the people around them, could - theoretically - have ten of these people working for them every day. I think the key point that these responses miss, is that I am not comparing "how many hours we all work". I am comparing "how many hours we work for each other". How many hours of labour (of people working to satisfy my desires) I get in exchange for the hours of labour I put in.


Relying more on the produce of a highly automatised local community (rather than on the produce of manual labour in the Global South) would reduce the number of hours I consume (effectively spending my money on scarcer, more expensive labour, see 3), but it would still be unethical to maintain and protect such a (theoretical) self-sufficient bubble of relatively high living standards when the surrounding world is on fire. Especially if those higher living standards were secured at the expense of the people outside the bubble.


[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. One World, New York, October 2017.
[2] Mark Kaufman. BP created 'carbon footprint' as a devious, manipulative PR tactic. https://mashable.com/feature/carbon-footprint-pr-campaign-sham, July 2020.
Tags: marx economics english blog

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