Friday, 10 May 2013

In Praise of Idleness, part two. The vanishing point of work

“Manual work is the ideal which is held before the young and is the basis of all ethical teaching,” so said Bertrand Russell in his essay, In Praise of Idleness.

Russell was writing about Stalin’s Russia of the 1930s but delete ‘manual’ and you have an uncannily accurate description of the mores of contemporary Britain, a country that, in the opinion of the author Mark Fisher, has embraced “market Stalinism.” 20% of young people are unemployed but work, paid or unpaid, is exalted as both an ethical and practical ideal. “Arbeit Macht Frei” in the words of one Daily Mail columnist. Yes really.

“What will happen” Russell went on to ask, “when the point has been reached where everybody could be comfortable without working long hours?” We now know what will happen – an intensification of the idealisation of work, a joyless embrace of the tyranny of immediate self-interest. A kind of tunnel vision that refuses to allow questions about the ultimate purpose of work to intrude.

It is tempting to wonder about the curious capacity of ideology to become more intransigent and boastful at precisely the moment when the objective justification for it dissipates. But there is also a stubborn nugget of truth at work here, albeit one fanned mercilessly by the Right. A human being, says Russell in his essay, inevitably consumes a certain amount of the products of human labour in his or her lifetime. Work is, to a greater or lesser extent, disagreeable. It is, therefore, unjust that a person should consume more than s/he produces.

“To this extent, and to this extent only” says Russell, “there is a ‘duty’ to work”. Or, in the unforgiving words of St Paul, “if any would not work, neither should he eat”.

The latter threat is at the heart of the Conservative assault on social security benefit claimants in Britain; an offensive, emboldened by opinion polls, that has resulted in many people in the seventh richest economy in the world having no food. Not insufficient food. No food. The strivers versus shirkers rhetoric (however divorced from reality) is founded on stoking a resentment that, while you have to go through the disagreeable experience of working every day, others do nothing. That it thrives by inflaming resentment, rather than resting on economic logic, is demonstrated by the fact that the work obligation destroys paid employment.

Heaven knows I’m miserable now

One way to assuage this sense of resentment could be, of course, to make work more agreeable. But that doesn’t chime at all with the priorities of the age of austerity where everything should get worse. It’s ironic that, whereas in the 1980s the Thatcherite Right taunted the Left by saying it wanted to ‘level down’, now the reverse is true. The UK welfare benefit freeze – all benefits will, including tax credits, will rise by an under-inflation 1% -  is justified by the fact that employees are experiencing real term pay cuts. Cuts to public sector pensions are presented as reasonable because these state pensions are more generous than their private sector equivalents, where final salary schemes are becoming extinct. It is proposed to shorten school holidays in order to compete with China. Level down. Make life more miserable.

But there is still a dilemma here for a genuinely radical Left that isn’t in thrall to the work obsession, and is prepared to confront the question, “what is the point of work?” Without many of the basic commodities of modern society, life would be more a slog than it already is. Consumption, in a sense, makes life meaningful. “The problem with full supermarket shelves is that they’re not enough — not that they’re unwelcome or trivial,” writes Seth Ackerman in an illuminating essay, The Red and the Black.

“The citizens of Communist societies,” he goes on, “experienced the paucity, shoddiness and uniformity of their goods not merely as inconveniences; they experienced them as violations of their basic rights.” Many simple conveniences – lights that work, TVs that function, bath plugs that fit – instantly loom very large in importance when they malfunction. The second biggest cause of fires in Moscow in the 1980s, says the economist Ha-Joon Chang, was exploding TV sets. Despite the implications of 3D printing, and the inescapable fact that material production requires fewer and fewer people, useful commodities do not as yet make or repair themselves. Not everything can be performed by robots.

Can I do the mindless, repetitive unpleasant, dirty, smelly jobs please?

It is not mindlessly repeating conservative tautologies to point out that someone has to bake the bread, make the laptops, distribute the food, repair the washing machines, care for the elderly and clean the offices. To do, in other words, the disagreeable activities that few people would freely volunteer to do. At the same time you have to be living in a galaxy far, far away not to appreciate that many contemporary jobs are “socially useless” – hedge fund manager, sales director, lawyer, public relations executive, many types of manager etc etc. These jobs solely exist to further the interests of the organisations that create them. The question for a post-capitalist Left is how do you get useful, necessary and disagreeable activities done, while excluding activities that are either superfluous or harmful?

One answer to the first half of that equation is a market of worker, not capitalist, controlled firms. The ability of firms to freely enter a market is, says Ackerman in the above essay, the way to avoid the scarcity of useful goods that characterised the Soviet bloc. But markets, worker-controlled or otherwise, also have it in their DNA to exploit opportunities to sell, go way beyond actual needs and try to out-muscle the competition. They are socially useless as well as socially useful.

Bertrand Russell’s answer to this dilemma was what he termed a “sensible” organisation of production. “Owing to the absence of any central control (my italics) over production,” he wrote in In Praise of Idleness, “we produce hosts of things that are not wanted.” The presence of “central control”, he implied, would prevent any employee from being compelled to work more than four hours a day. There would be no unemployment and enough for everybody. Russell was more of an anarchist than a Communist but his embrace of “central control” still implies the kind of state central planning, whose pathologies we are far more attuned to now than when Russell was writing in 1932. One post-capitalist writer, David Schweickart, has specifically ruled out any “central authority”. The residual question that Russell’s “sensible organisation” solution doesn’t address is who decides what is and is not wanted and how?

It is possible for the government to legislate that no-one can work more than four hours a day, in much the same way that the French government instituted a 35 hour week in 2000. But over and above the difficulty that the direction of travel is resolutely in the opposite direction (we must all work harder we are told by politicians), the intrinsic problem with this solution is that the government imposes sensible limits on an unreconstructed capitalist productive system that is full to the brim with socially useless activities, and will work tirelessly to nullify the work-limiting legislation. The “workers’ control” solution to overwork would entail the employees of particular firms insisting on a more civilised work-life balance, and/or rotation of work tasks, because they are in charge of the enterprise and they want it that way. But, externally, markets don’t produce “sensible organisation”. The firms within a market have to react to competition and the need to make a profit. A third solution can be seen in the popular assemblies that have sprung up in Europe in response to economic collapse and dysfunctional “democratic” political institutions. They have begun to set up cooperatives to provide for needs that are not satisfied by a failing economic system. A decade or so ago, the assemblies in Argentina in response to an analogous situation, created enterprises such as community bakeries. The relevance to this argument is that the assembly controls the enterprise and can insist upon humane working hours. But the scope of these assembly-controlled enterprises is, as yet, limited and way short of what any meaningful economy would comprise.

I can’t highlight the solution. But the disconnect between, on the one side, the declining demand for paid labour and the vanishing objective need for work, and on the other, the social purpose of production and the desire for a meaningful and spacious life, will bring immense pressure to bear to find a solution.

But to crystallise the case for radically reduced working hours I believe we should concentrate on its opposite. What, in other words, is the point of not working, and that isn’t a non sequitur. It is this question of non-work that I want to examine in the final part of this post.

You can read Part One here by the way

And here is the final part