Thursday 11 April 2024

How many hours is enough?


It is a historical fact that, ever since the Industrial Revolution, working people have had to fight for each and every reduction in the working week, and every one of those reductions has initially been resisted by the owners of capital and their political representatives. It is an essential part of capitalist ideology that most of us exist only to serve the interests of capital, and the more input can be squeezed out of people, the more profitable output can be produced. They don’t phrase it in such terms, of course, preferring to say things such as 'work gives our lives meaning', with its whispered corollary that life without work would be meaningless. The philosophical difference between ‘work gives your life meaning’ and ‘work makes you free’, is smaller than many might think – the differences revolve around the degree of compulsion and the extent to which work is financially rewarded. Seen from this perspective, the individual exists primarily to serve ‘the economy’. Persuading people of the truth of the statement rather then employing outright physical coercion makes it easier to achieve the goal, but that’s a difference of tactics, not principle. If the slaves can be cajoled into volunteering to make their own chains, managing them requires much less time and effort.

It isn’t the only possible outlook on life, though (although looking at the current main political parties in the UK, and their obsession with the idea that everyone must work and if they can’t live on their wages then they should work more hours or get a second job) one might think that there is no real alternative. But the idea that there is an alternative is hardly a new one: one of the classic pieces of writing on the issue is “In praise of idleness” by Bertrand Russell from 1932. The alternative ideological take on work is that it’s something of a necessary evil. We need a productive economy to enable us to meet our needs, but over and above that, human society should be about giving people the time, space and resources to develop human potential. Or, in simpler terms, the goal of an economy which works in the interests of all is to maximise leisure and minimise work. That’s not a formulation which I’ve heard from many politicians. Rather than seeing the increased use of mechanisation and Artificial Intelligence as opportunities to advance the development of people, they are being used to divert ever more resources into the pockets of a small and extremely rich subset of humanity; not sharing the benefits more equally is a deliberate political choice. And the rest of us are told that the problem is with people who aren’t working, or who are not working hard enough.

The Welsh branch of the English Conservative Party has this week expressed concerns about the increasing moves to a four-day week. Nothing either new or surprising about that – if one starts from a belief that people having time to do things other than work is inherently a bad thing, it’s an entirely natural response. It wouldn’t even occur to them to ask why it would be such a bad thing if we could meet all our needs to the same extent as currently by working one day a week less. (That’s a significant ‘if’, of course, and beyond the scope of this post, although the employers moving to such a working pattern seem confident enough that it’s true.) What really took my breath away, though, was the reason that they seem to be giving for opposing it, which is that it is unfair that some people should only have to work 4 days whilst others still have to work 5 days. It’s tantamount to saying that ‘no-one should have their working week reduced until everyone can have the same’. This from the party which is usually quick to criticise what they call the ‘politics of envy’.

It overlooks the fact – presumably deliberately, since they can’t all be so ignorant as to not understand this – that every reduction in working hours has been enjoyed by some workers before others; had some groups not been able to set the pace (whether because of their industrial power or slightly more benign and enlightened employers), we would all still be working 12 hours a day 6 days a week from the age of 10 until we die. Although, on second thoughts, they probably regret that we aren’t.

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