In 1930, the great economist John Maynard Keynes predicted the working week would be drastically cut – to perhaps 15 hours a week, with people choosing to pursue leisure as their material needs were satisfied. Yet despite rising living standards, we are working longer hours than ever before. So many, in fact, that they seem to invite workers to spend hours at their desks writing extended articles about how they should be working less. Yet the postwar compromise between big business and labour has been entirely rolled back. Now it is only a one-way street. It’s not a good time to be a worker.
But more than that – why do we insist that the sum total of our lives is to be ‘hard workers’ – working in jobs we don’t like, in which we are actively disengaged from? With advances in technology, the 15 hour week is entirely possible – as our material needs are met. Indeed, it’s true that many jobs are increasingly redundant or superfluous, with machines able to do much of our work for us.
This isn’t to advocate the luddites – who hated technology because they wanted to keep the jobs machinery and industrialisation deprived them of. Rather, it is to advocate a new way of looking at the world, in which we don’t measure success by the amount of hours we spend at our desks scrolling the internet and staring at spreadsheets.
Success, surely, is a society in which productivity and efficiency is high, while also giving much greater free time to individuals to explore their own pursuits – intellectual, sporting, philosophical, social. Such activities can only ever improve us on both an individual level and as a societal whole. Yet the greatest impediment to pursuing these activities is the notion of work – and 35 or 40 hour contracts when actually 15 would suffice.
At this point of writing it proves difficult to concentrate over the imagined screams of managers and CEOs, whose wails of horror at the thought of letting their workers work less are more terrible than the sounds of Cthulhu. So, let’s think for just a moment about how this new way of thinking could benefit everyone – even the people who bombard us with dire warnings about how bad things will be if we don’t put up with our zero-hour contract, dilapidated pension scheme and vindictive boss.
If employers truly desired productivity, they would relish the opportunity to keep their workers on 15 hour contracts – each member of the workforce would spend 15 hours productively working, and the rest of the week relaxing, and improving their intellectual capacity, which would then improve their own working productivity week after week.
Not only this, it would do away with the culture of ‘presenteeism’ – i.e. the tendency to stay at work beyond the time needed for effective performance on the job.
Where once one person worked 15 hours over the course of 35 each week, two people would work productively for 30 hours over the course of, yes, 30 hours. This would benefit the whole of civil society, of course, and not just employers. Because employing two people rather than one tackles unemployment, as well as the problem of having high-skilled and educated graduates working behind bars on zero-hour contracts.
Wages, of course, should also be maintained or raised – rather than spilling out all profits to shareholders who provide no value to private companies. Yet this provides the necessary currency for workers to live the lives they want to lead – and promotes spending.
Indeed, workers, with their extended free time, would stimulate local and national economies in their pursuit of leisure, pleasure, education and entertainment. Thus, such a new way of working would support retail and leisure industries, while simultaneously bolstering the coffers of universities.
Government, meanwhile, should take advantage of the free days afforded to the populace and promote physical recreation and sporting events where everyone can get involved – increasing social cohesion, while also improving fitness and the overall health of the population; thereby cutting costs and relieving some of the strain on our health services.
Logic? What logic?
Of course, the most important question here is ultimately whether you truly, genuinely love spending your life working late hours day after day – improving the profits of someone else while seeing limited reward in your paycheck as your wages stagnate. Even if you are paid well, and feel productive and happy in your working life, would you not rather work far less for the same money? Because it is possible. Despite what the media or your employers might say. We the people have the power; the power to take control of our working lives. We the people control not only the means of production, but also the economy; our credit debt and spending of our wages generates economic growth for an elite few – and those few do not control or pay back into the economy, despite their protestations to the contrary.
This is not something to agree with immediately. But rather for you to think about, really hard for thirty minutes instead of thirty seconds. Do you want to spend your lives working solely to the economic benefit of others? Or do you want the opportunity to live the life you want to lead? To pursue the goals and interests you want; that you once dreamed about – and perhaps still do dream of? It might be difficult to believe it is possible; but you have to try.
Do not forget: it is in the interests of those in power to keep society fixated and obsessed with work – even though the problem of collective material wellbeing has long been solved (remember, with our access to instant hot water, multiple rooms in our houses or flats, fire at the click of a switch, instant light, heat and warmth, we all of us live the lives of Roman Emperors. Meanwhile, we have the tools necessary to meet all our needs – food, clean water, healthcare, modes of travel. We don’t actually need anything more – certainly not the new iPod 34).
We are told the consequences of us choosing not to work, or to pursue our own interests, will result in calamity – complete penury for ourselves and loved ones. So the private sector and many of our politicians thus tell us to adopt an altruistic, collective mentality that keeps bringing us into the office each day, working to support our bosses and the profits of company shareholders.
Yet these same private powers tell us our altruism and instinct to collectivity stops there – and that we should feel nothing for those most vulnerable in our own national society, and elsewhere in the world. In fact, we should recoil from them as one would recoil from something horrible and undesirable – like “cockroaches”. Because our altruism is only of use to these people if it is supporting their bottom line revenues. And also because they realise that our true human nature – and inclination to help others – has the potential to collapse the entire social order, which maintains their lives of luxury at our expense.
As Peter Fleming notes in this article, the rationale of the established elite is this: “You either do the “right thing” and put up with your own private nightmare or, by default, consider yourself a privileged whining snob who is just one step away from social oblivion. The choice is yours.”
Of course, this rationale is based on a misunderstanding of society – and of human beings.
Think of Foucault’s musings on Gesellschaftspolitik – the policy that addresses the whole consensus of society, and which was built on the rationale that, in order to maintain the status quo, the system must produce willing actors to take part in the economic process, and who would blindly accept the reality of their economic position and their fate. I.e. the working population or labour force must accept the only truth offered to them by the system: that work is the end all and be all and final meaning of all existence, and that to choose not to work was to be apart from society, innately ‘other’, and at risk of losing everything. Thus the workforce accepts its fate, because it is slightly less terrible than the offered alternative. This despite the obvious fact, of course, that there is always an alternative path to be taken – it just needs to be discovered.
Indeed, much of the basis of current ideology espoused by the political, media, and economic elite, is based on the image of humans as homo economicus – the economic man. This portrays human beings as consistently rational and narrowly self-interested agents, who will pursue their subjectively-defined ends optimally. I.e., that rather than be altruistic, we are selfish, and will always choose the selfish option if it is also presented as the logical choice.
This, of course, is thoroughly nonsense – and debunked excellently in Adam Curtis’ documentary series, the Century of the Self, as well as The Trap. Indeed, Curtis demonstrates in these series how such theories have been consistently proven wrong – with humans always demonstrating their instinctive altruism instead. The only exceptions to this rule – and the only proof that some humans do think in this rational, selfish way – are psychopaths and economists, who seem to show no capacity for altruism.
Yet it is this incorrect image of human beings that we are constantly presented with, and asked to conform to. We therefore spend our days trying to be exactly what we are not. Anyone who stands apart from this model faces derision. This can be seen in the recent phenomenon of calling Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters ‘loonies’ for believing that human beings are fundamentally good, and willing to help others, instead of being fundamentally selfish and self-serving. But it can also be seen further back – in the calling by conservatives (both in Thatcher’s government, as well as in the then conservative youth groups of our current Cameron-led government) to hang Nelson Mandela, for his activism against the brutality of apartheid and then for his messages of peace, love and reconciliation.
The vehement vitriol of the establishment’s rhetoric is what keeps us passive, subjugated and willing to work our lives away for little personal gain or fulfilment beyond the superficial – being able to afford a BMW in our mid 40s; going to the Maldives two weeks a year to spend the money we earned by working long, unsociable hours for the other 50 weeks.
So, how might we break out of the cycle?
Welcome to the end of the future
The provocative European intellectual, Franco Berardi issued the call to stop working and start living: “Only if we are able to disentangle the future (the perception of the future, the concept of the future, and the very production of the future) from the traps of growth and investment will we find a way out of the vicious subjugation of life, wealth, and pleasure to the financial abstraction of semiocapital. The key to this disentanglement can be found in a new form of wisdom: harmonizing with exhaustion.”
Berardi calls for the introduction of a radical imagination into civil society – an imagination both poetic and timeless, and centred upon what he calls an “infinite present” – as opposed to neoliberalism’s obessesion with the future; future growth; future expansion; future work; future shareprices.
Do not believe the idea that the purpose of life is to go out and get things for yourself and gratify yourself and just go all the time. Do not believe that humans are only driven by a desire for more things, more violence, more speed. We want more time to live, and more time to think and pursue our interests – but this is psychological, spiritual and intellectual desire, rather than materialistic.
To constantly pursue growth in physical terms – owning more things, living larger on individual levels – and constantly driving for perpetual expansion of our nation-state economies – is to only lead to destruction, to war, and to a total exploitation of our personal lives, which become enslaved to money and work.
As Berardi says, “the possibility of richness, of joy […] was destroyed by the restoration of the law of capitalism, or profit […] you can see this destruction, this devastation of the possibilities that modernity has created. You see it in the dictatorship of the financial economy. The financial economy is destroying intelligence, is destroying public schools, is destroying creativity, is destroying the environment, is destroying water, is destroying weather. Everything has to be sacrifisable to growth – to this abstract growth, of money, value, nothing.”
To counter these trends, it is up to us, the people, to stop the endless march of rapacious capitalism. We must withdraw from the pervading ideological consensus of the neoliberal elite, and choose slowness over pleasure. We do not need to possess things or spend our days imprisoned by our spreadsheets, or by our work phones and emails that follow us home after we’ve left the office and wake us up in the middle of the night. We do not need more things; we need more time. We do not need more property, we need more joy.
The potential for human beings to create great things is evidenced throughout or history and our society – in our healthcare, our space programmes, our philosophy, our culture. But so often these things were created or are created by people who have time. Who are not saddled with credit debt or student debt. When we aren’t entrapped by the demands of constant work and constant productivity, we can go out and we can create things and we invest our time in ways that make the world better.
Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your back problems
We must break with current dogma of constant work in favour of self-care, self-education, self-fulfilment. Our collective intelligence has already created the possibility of producing everything we need without more exploitation. We grow more food than we need and Western countries throw food away while people throughout the world starve. A tiny minority of individuals own huge swathes of the world’s wealth – greater amounts of money than entire countries. Distributing these things throughout the world can free all of us – from Western office workers to the rat catchers of Mumbai – and enable us to do the things we should be doing, which are the things that make life worth living, rather than the things that make it pass by, unnoticed as we sit in our chairs developing back problems.
Nobody ever dies saying ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’. We deeply regret the business trips or the reports we stay up late finishing that lead to us missing anniversary dinners; school plays; family reunions. So, before we die, why not imagine, for a moment, the lives we would lead if we had just a little more time. And, by imagining such things, let us come to realise they are possible, if only we allow ourselves to think differently about the world. We can build a world in which going to work is a secondary commitment to our primary commitment to joy and to life. In the words of Captain Picard: we just need to “make it so.”