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What do we want? Part-time jobs, full-time wages and free time to spend them in. When do we want them? Now!

July 3, 2012

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.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Martin McLoone permalink
    July 4, 2012 8:56 am

    A bit cheeky, a bit polemical a bit spot on – and worth it to read again the prescient brilliance that was Marx!

  2. Strategist permalink
    July 5, 2012 8:46 am

    I agree, Rab.

    The 1% like to say, and even genuinely believe, that they work hard, but they don’t really. Their 70 hour weeks include all the time spent travelling business class, doing meetings, attending a corporate function at Wimbledon etc. The 70 hour weeks they want for the rest of us are the 70 hours of the Bangaldeshi sweat shop slave.

    Call me insane, but I actually believe there’s a window of opportunity on what Labour’s intended policy on all this kind of stuff is. And the good old Greens could make this existing plank of their policy more prominent.

    The interesting real world thing that has happened recently is that the French socialists have just reduced the retirement age from 62 to 60 as we have increased ours from 65 to 67. We’ve got a younger population than the French, so if you did the math using the calculation the British use it would show that there was no way this was affordable. And vice-versa, using the French’s math on the British numbers would presumably show an amazing cash surplus. What’s the difference? Apart from the fact that the French have a more productive economy (they do, although I don’t see it mentioned very often in the Daily Telegraph), it’s got to be that the British calculate the surplus value in society available to support the old after they’ve allowed a vast share of it to leak off the the super-rich and offshore, and the French don’t. What are you going to do about that, Ed Miliband???

    By the way Owen Hatherley has a Guardian article out on this very issue, but I do think yours is better. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/01/why-are-we-working-so-hard?INTCMP=SRCH

  3. July 5, 2012 9:14 am

    Interesting example Marx uses, of the greedy farmer getting the most out of the land but robbing it of its fertility, Of course the good farmer leaves one or more fields fallow for a season so that the soil recoups its nutrients. So, Rab, not only should we all work part time for full time wages but we should also take a year out on full pay every few years just to reenergize and spend more time in the pursuit of leisure?

  4. Rab permalink*
    July 5, 2012 11:03 am

    Welcome Martin. Hello Strategist and AA,

    Strategist, I think that you’re spot on (rather than insane). There is a window of opportunity here and ideas as apparently outlandish as AA’s giving people a year out of work should be on the table. But, fuck me, what a shift in consciousness and public debate that’s going to take, not least because what would underpin such a shift is an admission that we need to redistribute wealth and income. As ever, the problem to unleashing our full human potential, isn’t the poor and ordinary Joes and Janes. It’s the fucking rich – relatively idle, intellectually stagnant, and just a huge burden on the rest of us.

    I read the Owen Hatherley piece. I like Owen. He’s one of the best dressed Lefties around. I saw him in Belfast a few months ago and he looked like a young BBC producer circa 1956… the was a touch of the Humphrey Jennings about him, which I approve off… floppy fringe, baggy trousers with a turn up and sensible brogues. Lovely. I’m flatter that you think my piece is better (blushes).

    • July 6, 2012 8:45 am

      Interesting to consider what the system defines as outlandish or reasonable these days. It´s outlandish to propose an equal distribution of wealth; in fact, not just outlandish but downright dangerous, even insane. It´s outlandish to pass into law access to health insurance for the poor but totally reasonable to believe aliens have landed or that Hurricane Katrina was god´s punishment on a sinful people. It´s outlandish and offensive to be a worker and withdraw one´s labour for better pay and/or conditions but perfectly reasonable to put hundreds of thousands of people, many of them our youngest and brightest, on the dole in the name of ¨austerity¨.

      But before we get demoralised comrades, let´s stick to our socialist kalashnikovs and put this into slightly broader historical perspective. Twenty years ago, it was outlandish to argue that Rupert Murdoch was a disaster for democracy, politics and media in Britain, something only leftie academics and LIverpool fans ever believed – which kind of emphasised just how outlandish the idea was! Sixty years ago, it was outlandish to propose a universal health and welfare system and free education for all. While five or six hundred years ago, it was outlandish and heretical to propose that the earth revolved around the sun and that there was indeed no god.

      Time it seems has a habit of vindicating reason.

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