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ISC 19. On the impossibility of determining the length of the working-day for intellectual labour

Ruth Rikowski


In order to effectively understand, explain and critique capitalism we need to develop Marxist theory, as far as I am concerned, and apply it to the global capitalist world that we find ourselves in today. In particular, I am arguing in my various published works (Rikowski, 2000a, 2000b, 2003a, 2003b), that capitalism goes through various phases. Previously, there was the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, and now we are moving into the knowledge revolution. This means that more value is being created from intellectual labour and that this value is then embedded in intangible goods/commodities. This is in contrast to value being created from manual labour and becoming embedded in tangible goods/commodities. This clearly has repercussions for labour itself. Labour is the core of capitalism, but today, in the developed world as we move into the knowledge revolution, there is a greater expenditure of intellectual labour and less expenditure of manual labour.

This paper will explore, specifically, the length of the working day for the labourer, and will demonstrate the impossibility of determining the length of the working-day for intellectual labour. This means, ultimately, that the concept of the working-day becomes meaningless in the knowledge revolution, I suggest. Thus, whilst we need an appreciation and an understanding of Marx's concept of the working-day, having arrived at this understanding, we then need to appreciate the fact that the concept actually starts to lose its meaning and significance in the advanced stage of capitalism that we are now in. Indeed,

All that is solid melts into air. (Marx and Engels, 1888, p.83).

We come full circle, and prove the power of Marx's theoretical analysis.

Length of the working-day

As Marx emphasises over and over again, the capitalist wants to get as much work out of the labourer and to create as much value as possible. Value (and from this, profits) can only be created and extracted from labour, but there are limits to this, if the labourer is to survive, and if labour-power, the capacity to labour is to be replenished. The labourer needs to rest, sleep and have nourishment, so this basic fact alone means that the labourer cannot labour for 24 hours a day. But obviously, the labourer wants to engage in other activities as well. So, a settlement is found in regard to the length of the working-day, but this is still the 'product of a protracted civil war'. As Marx says:

The creation of a normal working-day is.... the product of a protracted civil war, more or less dissembled, between the capitalist class and the working-class. (Marx, 1887, p.283)

So, how does the length of the working-day differ for the intellectual labourer, in the knowledge revolution, as opposed to the manual labourer in the period of the industrial revolution? Obviously, both forms of labour are needed, but in the knowledge revolution there is a greater expenditure of intellectual labour and less expenditure of manual labour. First of all, there is a need for workers to be far more flexible in the knowledge revolution. In the industrial revolution, the emphasis was on 'graft' and physically hard work. The more physical expenditure that the labourer could exert the better - more products could be produced, such as cars and washing machines. This manual labourer created value and some of this value would then be turned into profit, which meant that companies could succeed and capitalism could thrive. In this way it appeared to be a system that 'worked'. The differences between value and profit will not be explored - that is a very complex area. However, it is important to appreciate the fact that value and profit are different. Increasing the amount of manual labour is quite straightforward (in comparison with intellectual labour). If the manual labour is fit and nourished then he/she can work very hard for a certain period, which means that new value can easily be created. Only labour can create value - "...human labour creates value..." (Marx, 1887, p. 57). Furthermore, labour is the 'substance of value', and as Postone says:

We have seen that labour, in its historically determinate function as a socially mediating activity, is the 'substance of value'; the determining essence of the social formation. (Postone, 1996, p.166)

So, in regard to manual labour, it is just a matter of making a decision in regard to an appropriate length of the working-day - say, 10 hours, then the manual labourer works for this period, and creates value. There are also different forms and aspects of value, but there is not the space to explore this further here, but this will be considered further in my forthcoming book Globalisation, Information and Libraries: the implications of the World Trade Organisation's GATS and TRIPS agreements.

The intellectual labourer in the knowledge revolution, flexible ways of working and the concept of the length of the working-day for intellectual labour

However, with the intellectual labourer the picture is not so straightforward. Ideas can materialise at any time of the day or night. The intellectual labourer might have a vested interest in not divulging some of his/her knowledge and ideas within the company, preferring to take them home, and utilise them for another purpose. If a manual labourer is not labouring, the manager can see this very easily, and insist that they work harder. But the knowledge worker? Are they sitting there thinking up something wonderful to benefit the company, or are they just dreaming about their forthcoming night out, or a football match? Many workers surf the net. It is difficult for a company to keep track of whether this is being done for the benefit of the company or for the labourers' individual benefit. Companies do have the facility to track this - but how time-consuming that could be and might not be productive at all. Also, in order to create new ideas and to be forward thinking, labourers must be given a certain amount of freedom, including intellectual freedom, but on the other hand, the company does not want to give them too much freedom, as this could be detrimental to their profit margins. It all starts to become complex. A big problem, though, as far as many companies are concerned, is that many labourers take their knowledge and ideas home with them at the end of the day and/or when they leave the company. This means that the company does not benefit from this knowledge and ideas (even though they have been paying the labourer). As Leadbeater says:

Knowledge assets often reside in, or stem from, people. People cannot be owned, unless we return to a form of slavery. Companies cannot own the source of one of their most important assets: human capital. (Leadbeater, 1999, p.178)

How can companies overcome this problem? Many companies are now devising mechanisms for transforming what is often referred to as human capital into structural capital. This involves capturing the labourers' knowledge so that he/she does not take it away with him/her when they leave the company. Various schemes have been introduced, and in many ways, this seems to be working quite effectively. But obviously, it is impossible to capture everything - there is always that next idea and that next thought, on the horizon. Also, once such knowledge is put into a database it is not necessarily quite the same piece of knowledge as the one that was in the labourers' head. Furthermore, some argue that knowledge is subjective, as each person's perception of knowledge is different. There is not the space to explore this further but the complexities of the issue in regard to the length of the working-day for the intellectual labourer should be fairly self-apparent by now.

The majority of labourers that work in the service industry and with knowledge and intangible assets probably still work a 'traditional' 9-5 working day. The negotiations over the length of the working-day over many years having resulted in a shortening of the length of the working-day in comparison with the period of the industrial revolution - which we are all very aware of. However, there is a trend moving away from this, and towards the 'flexible' worker. Such labourers work unconventional hours and not always in the same place. Sometimes, they will work from home and sometimes they will carry a laptop around with them and go to different place in order to be inspired, to consider how other organisations are operating etc. Leadbeater refers to 'knowledge workers' and the need for them to be mobile in the following way, saying:

One of the most powerful social groups created by the knowledge economy are so-called 'knowledge workers': mobile, skilled, affluent, independent, hard-working, ambitious, environmentally conscious, people who can trade on their skill, expertise and intellectual capital. These knowledge workers will be highly mobile. (Leadbeater, 1999, p. 229)

In the knowledge management empirical research that I undertook, where I interviewed a number of different knowledge management 'experts' in a variety of organisations (Rikowski, 2003b), the topic of the flexible worker was raised by some of the participants. One of the participants (P5) said:

...we're not in an organisation where people physically sit at a desk everyday...I've just arrived at my office this morning. I was in my office one day last week and I'll probably only be in the officeone or two days this week...I might be travelling. Or I work at home... we can actually take our libraries with us...We have technology that allows us to support...our people wherever they go...we use a groupware package called LotusNotes which allows you to replicate our databases... whatever databases you want. You can effectively take your library with you. You can search over those libraries in a disconnected way.

This participant also talked about synchronous collaborative work tools and online collaborative working. This is where workers can share a whiteboard, draft documents together, formulate ideas collaboratively, have real-time chat sessions and more formal online meetings and conferences etc. The technology has opened up a whole new range of options, which is enabling the worker to be more 'flexible'.

As well as, or as an alternative, there is also a move towards more flexible ways of working within an organisation itself, particularly within what are often known as 'knowledge-creating companies'. Leadbeater refers to such companies, saying that:

A knowledge-based firm differs markedly, in theory and in practice, from that traditional model of the company. The core of a knowledge-based company is the know-how of the people who work there. A know-how company is created by an agreement between people to forgo their claim upon their work for the sake of a joint enterprise. (Leadbeater, 1999, p.177)

There will tend to be less formal networks in such organisations, and more opportunity for knowledge and information to flow freely. There may will be more open forms of communication, with employees being encouraged to challenge the status quo. In such an environment, there is also likely to be more flexibility in regard to the standard length of the working-day. And so we have 'flexi-time', where labourers work a pattern that is outside the 9-5 run.

Are knowledge workers empowered?

To return to Marx and his analysis in regard to the working-day, and where he says that the working-day is:

....the product of a protracted civil war, more or less dissembled, between the capitalist class and the working-class. (Marx, 1887, p.283)

Where does this quote and a Marxist analysis fit in with this new, flexible knowledge worker? Some say that it does not, and that therefore a Marxist theory including a Marxist theory of value is wrong or redundant or irrelevant today. Many feel very passionate about this, and argue that the new knowledge worker rather than being exploited and alienated is actually empowered. So, this knowledge revolution is seen to be wonderful, and as liberating workers. Knowledge workers hold the knowledge so they can 'call the shots'. They can ask for a pay rise but if they do not get it they can leave the company and take their knowledge with them. They can bargain. I very much challenge this notion, but even if we were to accept it, the argument is still seriously flawed, if we are concerned with any form of just society. Supposing highly skilled knowledge workers are liberated in this way - well, what about the rest of the labourers in the developed world? A new divide would be established between those that have these knowledge skills and those that do not. And those in the developing world - well, they will be even further impoverished. So, to argue that we live in a wonderful society because knowledge workers are empowered must be seriously flawed.

However, to return to the more fundamental point. Are knowledge workers empowered? A deeper analysis of this, and a return to Marx, clearly shows that they are not liberated in this way. The knowledge worker still has to sell his/her labour-power as a commodity in the market-place, the same as any other labourer does. He/she then has to work for a certain period, for which he/she is paid a wage, but during this period he/she creates value over and above the value that already exists. He/she creates 'added value'. As Marx says:

...the labourer, by virtue of his labour being of a specialised the mere act of working, creates each instant an additional or new value. (Marx, 1887, p.201 - my emphases)

There is much in the business literature that emphasises the need to create this additional value. As Welch says, for example:

The organisation has to recognise that its prime objective (perhaps its only objective) is to add value .... (Welch, 2000, p.10 - original emphasis)

So, the creation of this added value by the labourer (no matter whether this be a manual labourer or an intellectual labourer) is very beneficial for the capitalist. As Marx says, this is:

...very advantageous to the capitalist inasmuch as it preserves the existing value of his capital. So long as trade is good, the capitalist is too much absorbed in money-grabbing to take notice of this gratuitous gift of labour. (Marx, 1887, p.200)

Furthermore, this notion of the 'empowered knowledge worker' assumes that the knowledge worker is in total control of his/her own knowledge, and can choose whether or not to impart the knowledge, and if it is to be imparted, then the way in which it is to be imparted. However, this is often far from the case in reality. Companies sometimes take the ideas from the knowledge workers and encapsulate them into intellectual property rights that then belong to the company, without giving the knowledge workers sufficient recompense. Or joint intellectual property rights might be formulated, but perhaps the input of the individual knowledge worker within this is not given sufficient recompense. Also, there are now moves afoot to extract knowledge and ideas from workers by other means - ideas that they might or might not want to share. This includes tapping into peoples' unconscious knowledge and various brain mining techniques. Milton (2000) describes various ways in which organisations try to tap into people' unconscious knowledge. He says that two types of tacit knowledge can be distinguished - conscious (what you know that you know) and unconscious (what you do not know you know). He suggests undertaking brain mining to extract the unconscious tacit knowledge from people's minds. As a Knowledge Manager for BP Amoco, Milton describes the brain mining techniques he has used for the extraction of this unconscious knowledge, including After Action Reviews where small teams undertake a brief action and are then questioned to extract their knowledge. It was found that superficial questions produced shallow answers but harder questions extracted the deeper knowledge. Thus, by such measures unconscious knowledge can be extracted from workers, knowledge that they are not imparting freely and willingly, so clearly these knowledge workers are not empowered in any way.

Tapping into peoples' unconscious knowledge would disturb many peoples' sense of morality, but a detailed investigation would demonstrate, I suggest, that the capitalist system has no such moral concerns, and that, indeed, it cannot have such concerns. Instead its concern is with the need to be forever creating value from labour and for this value to then become embedded in the commodity - this drive is infinite, and there are no moral barriers to the realisation of this. Capitalism is sustained by value, and not by morals (this is also examined in my forthcoming book). This relates back again, to the joint desire to limit the length of the working-day. This is not because of any sense of morality on the part of the capitalist, but because ultimately, it is in the capitalist interest. The labourer must have a rest from work and have sleep and nourishment. Furthermore, as Marx said: its blind unrestrainable passion, its were-wolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital, oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. (Marx, 1887, p.253)

In the knowledge revolution this is likely to include tapping into peoples' unconscious knowledge, as well as tapping into peoples' emotions and friendships etc., I would suggest. Boyett and Boyett say that we might even be moving into a new 'post-knowledge economy' and that:

A new post-knowledge economy may be emerging that is based not on the exploitation of information, but on stories. This market for feelings may gradually eclipse the market for tangible products. Six such emotional markets can be discerned now: adventures for sale, the market for togetherness, friendship, and love, the market for care, the who-am-I market, the market for peace of mind, and the market for convictions. (Boyett and Boyett, 2001, p.47)

They go on to say that:

Ultimately, we may see the development of an even newer post-knowledge economy in which the chief value that companies deliver won't be food, material things, information, connectivity, emotional satisfaction, or experiences but individual or personal transformations (Boyett and Boyett, 2001, p.47).

Thus, ultimately, knowledge workers are far from empowered.


A consideration of the length of the working-day for intellectual labour is very much a new, unexplored area. To summarise - establishing the length of the working-day is still formulated on a 'battleground' between the capitalist and the labourer. When the labourer labours he/she creates value which is beneficial to the capitalist, indeed, it seems to be rather like a gift from God, or a 'gift of Nature', as Marx says. So, obviously, the more free gifts that the capitalist can get, the better, as far as he/she is concerned. But the labourer cannot labour for 24 hours, so a settlement needs to be arrived at, in regard to an average length of the working-day. For the manual labourer this was relatively easy to establish. In the period of the industrial revolution it was at least 10 hours, but today, it is about 8 hours. But in order to maximise the value that can be extracted from intellectual labour, this rigid 8-10 hour approach is not really beneficial. People cannot think creatively in a constrained environment. So, flexible ways of working are now being developed. This has led some to say that the knowledge worker is empowered and not exploited. But the intellectual labourer still has to sell his/her labour-power as a commodity, and so, he/she is still exploited. Furthermore, in some circumstances, the intellectual labourer might well work for longer than the length of the average working-day that has been established for the manual labourer. So, it is possible for the knowledge worker to be more exploited, rather than less exploited. On the other hand, an incredible new idea could be formulated it minutes. In regard to the concept of the 'working-day' specifically, this concept becomes a nonsense when applied to intellectual labour. This is because, with the need to engender an environment that encourages intellectual thinking and with the need for more flexible ways of working etc, it becomes impossible to determine the length of the working-day for intellectual labour. So, indeed,

All that is solid melts into air... (Marx and Engels, 1888, p.83)


Boyett, Joseph H. and Boyett, Jimmie, T. (2001) Guru Guide to the Knowledge Economy, Chichester: John Wiley

Leadbeater, Charles (1999) Living on thin air , London: Viking, Penguin

Marx, Karl (1887) (1954 - reproduced text of English edition of 1887) Capital: a critique of political economy, Vol. 1 , London: Lawrence and Wishart

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich (1888) (1967) The Communist Manifesto , Middlesex: Penguin

Milton, Nick (2000) The knowledge you don't know you know, Knowledge Management, May, pp. 16-18

Postone, Moishe (1996) Time, labour and social domination: a reinterpretation of Marx's critical theory . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Rikowski, Ruth (2000a) The knowledge economy is here - but where are the information professionals? (Part 1), Business Information Review , September, Vol. 17, No.3, pp.157-167

Rikowski, Ruth (2000b) The knowledge economy is here - but where are the information professionals? (Part 2), Business Information Review , December, Vol. 17, No. 5, pp. 227-233

Rikowski, Ruth (2003a) Value: the life-blood of capitalism - knowledge is the current key, Policy Futures in Education. Vol 1, No. 1, pp. 163-182. Available at:

Rikowski, Ruth (2003b) Value theory and value creation through knowledge in the knowledge revolution. A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the University of Greenwich for the degree of MA by Research in Business. Included empirical research on knowledge management - interviews and focus groups

Welch, Rob (2000) Knowledge management in a deconstructing economy, Managing Information, May, p.10

This paper was presented at the "Marxism and Education: Renewing Dialogues IV" seminar on the theme of Education and the Labour Process, held at the Institute of Education, University of London on 5th May 2004

Ruth Rikowski, Visiting Lecturer London South Bank University and University of Greenwich and Series Editor for Chandos Series for Information Professionals.

Ruth Rikowski - Author of: 'Globalisation, Information and Libraries: The Implications of the World Trade Organisation's GATS and TRIPS Agreements, Chandos Publishers: Oxford, 2005. ISBN 1 854334 084 4 (pbk); 1 84334 092 5 (hdbk)

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