What do we want? Part-time jobs, full-time wages and free time to spend them in. When do we want them? Now!
I’ve never much cared for work. I like doing stuff – all sorts of things. I’m not a lazy. It’s just I hate the way work is coercive. I hate the way you’re made to do things that don’t interest you or are just plain inane by any sensible measure.
I appreciate that work has got to get done no matter how tedious. But I just don’t want to have to do too much of it. I want to be free to get on with stuff that is more edifying, interesting and useful – I’d like to teach more, write books (and songs), grow my tomatoes and do a lot less administration.
And I can’t see why it can’t be so. There are huge numbers of people currently unemployed. Couldn’t we just redistribute work better?
The government are putting an inordinate amount of time and propaganda into trying to bully people into non-existent jobs. (Actually I suspect that the government are really trying to bully them off benefits and don’t care much whether they get work or not). But wouldn’t it be better to simply take what work there is and spread it around more equally?
Ahh, you sigh, that’d be great but people wouldn’t be prepared to work less given that this would mean a commensurate drop in wages.
Well, of course they wouldn’t, so people’s take home pay would have to be maintained at present levels.
But that’s fucking madness, you scream. You can’t pay people the same money for less work, it makes no economic sense.
Yes it does. Imagine the economic benefits of part-time workers on full-time wages with more spare time and energy to spend it. It makes perfect sense. Certainly better sense that allowing the rich to squirrel all the money away while the rest of us eat each other alive.
On the old Red Pepper forum (now sadly past) I used to argue that the Left should consider ditching the ‘dignity of labour’ rhetoric and make the case for working less on the basis that we have a world of labour saving technology. Now I learn that no less a figure than the economist John Maynard Keynes, thought that we need not work more than a 15-hour week to secure a standard of life four or five times higher than in 1930.
Robert Skidelsky points out:
Keynes’s reasonable expectation was that leisure would increasingly oust work from the centre of our lives. The rich never had to work for a living; Keynes thought that as societies got richer, this exemption from toil would spread to more and more people. Leisure would increasingly become the meaningful core of life; and work, in the sense of working for a living, would increasingly become a residual.
In the same article, Skidelsky, argues that ‘We shouldn’t be aiming to extend the domain of work into old age, but to extend the domain of non-work into young age – that is, to abolish the concept of retirement altogether.’ He suggests that work and leisure should be spread much more seamlessly across life. The fact that work is much less physically demanding than it used to be makes this possible, he says.
To achieve a more relaxed blend of work and life, Skidelsky believes we should aim for a much more equal distribution of wealth and income.
The premise of the argument is that societies as a whole – and so far this applies only to western societies – are rich enough to afford all their citizens the material prerequisites of a good life. But the rich and super-rich have raced ahead from everyone else; and there are 13 million households, or 21% of the population, who live below the officially designated poverty line. This group cannot reasonably be expected to trade income for leisure. They must first have more income.
I doubt Skidelsky is an unreconstructed class warrior but it seems to me that an equitable distribution of free-time is as much a class issue as the redistribution of wealth and power. Although it may seem perverse or counter-intuitive to argue that people should work less at a time of high unemployment, actually there’s probably never been a better time.
Marx might agree. Below is an extract from Capital Vol. 1 where the man himself ruminates on capitalism, labour and time.
“What is a working-day? What is the length of time during which capital may consume the labour-power whose daily value it buys? How far may the working-day be extended beyond the working-time necessary for the reproduction of labour-power itself?” It has been seen that to these questions capital replies: the working-day contains the full 24 hours, with the deduction of the few hours of repose without which labour-power absolutely refuses its services again. Hence it is self-evident that the labourer is nothing else, his whole life through, than labour-power, that therefore all his disposable time is by nature and law labour-time, to be devoted to the self-expansion of capital. Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilling of social functions and for social intercourse, for the free-play of his bodily and mental activity, even the rest time of Sunday (and that in a country of Sabbatarians!) moonshine! But in 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. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential. It is not the normal maintenance of the labour-power which is to determine the limits of the working-day; it is the greatest possible daily expenditure of labour-power, no matter how diseased, compulsory, and painful it may be, which is to determine the limits of the labourers’ period of repose. Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power, that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.
The capitalistic mode of production (essentially the production of surplus-value, the absorption of surplus-labour), produces thus, with the extension of the working-day, not only the deterioration of human labour-power by robbing it of its normal, moral and physical, conditions of development and function. It produces also the premature exhaustion and death of this labour-power itself. It extends the labourer’s time of production during a given period by shortening his actual life-time.