When I was growing up, the “four-day work week” was considered a viable political and social goal: the next logical step after the long and often bloody struggle to win a five-day week for most working people. Like “full employment,” this idea was sometimes actually built into the public platforms of serious, broad-based parties and political movements.
Yes, children, before “wealth creators” and other masters of the universe were held up as worthy models for their 80-hour weeks and unstinting dedication to squeezing every single minute ever more tightly for a few more bucks — before those of us who serve the creators and masters were supposed to be supinely grateful for working ever harder and longer to swell the bosses’ private coffers — there once existed the notion that there might actually be more to human life than the treadmill and the ant hill. And that we might even use the amazing technological advances that our species has produced to make life easier, richer, deeper, more engaging and humane for all of us.
All of this is long gone now, of course. As Owen Hatherly notes in the Guardian, both Right and Left have combined, for many decades, to advance the idea that pointless labor is our lot, and that we should be happy with it:
… Conservatives have always loved to pontificate about the moral virtue of hard work and much of the left, focusing on the terrible effects of mass unemployment, understandably gives “more jobs” as its main solution to the crisis. Previous generations would have found this hopelessly disappointing.
In almost all cases, utopians, socialists and other futurologists believed that work would come near to being abolished for one reason above all – we could let the machines do it. The socialist thinker Paul Lafargue wrote in his pointedly titled tract The Right To Be Lazy (1883):
“Our machines, with breath of fire, with limbs of unwearying steel, with fruitfulness wonderful inexhaustible, accomplish by themselves with docility their sacred labour. And nevertheless the genius of the great philosophers of capitalism remains dominated by the prejudices of the wage system, worst of slaveries. They do not yet understand that the machine is the saviour of humanity, the god who shall redeem man from working for hire, the god who shall give him leisure and liberty.”
Oscar Wilde evidently agreed – in his 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, he scorns the “nonsense that is written and talked today about the dignity of manual labour”, and insists that “man is made for something better than distributing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine”. He makes quite clear what he means:
“Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing”.
Both Lafargue and Wilde would have been horrified if they’d realised that only 20 years later manual work itself would become an ideology in Labour and Communist parties, dedicating themselves to its glorification rather than abolition. … American industrial theorists, strangely enough, seemed to share [these later] socialiists’ views.
Of course, as Hatherly points out, in the hands of our wealth creators and universe masters, technology did eliminate a lot of work — but not for those who labor and are heavy-laden. As with so much else in our system, the risks and downsides of technological development have been “socialized” — borne solely by ordinary people — while the profits and benefits are “privatized” into the coffers and control of the elite:
Yet the utopian vision of the elimination of industrial labour has in many ways come to pass. Over the past decade Sheffield steelworks produced more steel than ever before, with a tiny fraction of their former workforce; and the container ports of Avonmouth, Tilbury, Teesport and Southampton got rid of most of the dockers, but not the tonnage.
The result was not that dockers or steelworkers were free to, as Marx once put it, “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and criticise after dinner”. Instead, they were subjected to shame, poverty, and the endless worry over finding another job, which, if it arrived, might be insecure, poorly paid, un-unionised work in the service industry. In the current era of casualisation, that’s practically the norm, so the idea of skilled, secure labour and pride in work doesn’t seem quite so awful. Nonetheless, the workers’ movement was once dedicated to the eventual abolition of all menial, tedious, grinding work. We have the machines to make that a reality today – but none of the will.
Yes, in our ultramodern, technologically super-savvy 21st century, we all must be grateful — yea, humble and worshipful — if we are lucky enough to be vouchsafed the privilege of wage slavery by the masters and creators.
This is what is known as “progress.”
Hatherly’s piece put me in mind of some scraps on this theme which I set down some time ago. These lines were initially prompted by some readings inBabylonian history, especially a passage about their belief that the gods, tired of working so hard themselves, made humankind to labor on their behalf.
If the gods themselves grew tired of ceaseless labor
and rebelled, making the clay things that we are,
endowing us with sufficient mind and spirit
not only to do their work but also look and yearn beyond,
why shouldn’t we in our turn overthrow divine order
in search of ease, rich pleasures and idleness?
Death, you say, will follow; but death is here already,
it waits on the good servant and the bad,
swallows both, swallows all. Why then blister
your hand with the heft of an axe
when you might instead lay it gently on some soft flesh?
No: proclaim yourself an enemy of all industry;
he who works for another man’s bread is a slave.
Declare your fast devotion to the goddess of Joy:
serve her with song, and wine, and every kind of dream.
Let no black hat or stiff collar come
to charge you with sin or sloth or crime:
if he’ll crush no cup, then send him to the devil.
If he will not sing, then let him die
the blank white agonizing death in life
of a soul unrooted from the natural way.