One of capitalism’s myths is that it’s reduced the burden of human toil, but what it’s actually done is create a vast potential for that reduction. The profit motive hamstrings and misdirects technological innovation under capitalism – but, nonetheless, progress drives forward at a breakneck pace. We can produce more than previous generations dreamed of, using only a fraction of the labour-power. Keynes famously predicted that by the dawn of the 21st century, this trend would leave us working just 15 hours per week. But what has capitalism actually done, historically, to the working day? During the industrial revolution, it averaged 12-14 hours, sometimes stretching to as much as 16 hours.
We often imagine the life of serfs under feudalism to have been one of misery and hardship, and this is not without an element of truth. But one of the hardships we tend to imagine, the image of a peasant farmer toiling wearily from dawn to dusk in the field, is a myth. According to Oxford Professor James Rogers, the medieval workday was not more than eight hours. The worker participating in the struggle for the eight-hour day during the late nineteenth century, therefore, was “simply striving to recover what his ancestor worked by four or five centuries ago.”
It was the advent of industrial capitalism that saw workers plunged into extreme working days, by what were, in Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, “quite plainly the forces of hell”. Working class resistance gradually pushed the length of the working day back, first through the Ten Hours Bill (an achievement of Chartism) and eventually through to the famous demand “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, and 8 hours for what we will”. From this, we might presume that capitalism has been historically tamed on the issue of working hours. But what has happened since then? British workers now stay on the job nearly 9 hours a day, and we work the longest annual hours in Europe. We’ve gone backwards.
There are large sections of the global economy which are frankly waste industries that should be dropped or massively scaled back. David Graeber names them the “Bullshit Jobs” such as financial services, telemarketing, the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. Graeber points out that even the workers employed in these industries tend to think their jobs are bullshit – that they are “utterly meaningless, contribute nothing to the world, and in their own estimation, should not exist”.
The packaging industry, much of which is devoted to marketing products, is the biggest industry on the planet after energy and food. Packaging costs an average of 10–40 percent of non-food produce items purchased, and the packaging of cosmetics items can cost up to three times as much as the contents. Advertising costs come to a similar amount. The US alone spent a trillion dollars on advertising in 2005; the total cost of ending extreme poverty is estimated at 3.5 trillion dollars. We’re putting colossal effort, resources and labour-power into activity that helps nothing but profit margins.
By eliminating superfluous work, automating existing jobs where possible, and reducing the length of the working day, we would free up a massive amount of time for the global workforce, giving us an early glimpse of the world of FALC – Fully Automated Luxury Communism.
Time could be spent on leisure, on self-improvement, or simply on more meaningful and satisfying projects of work. To fight for a reduction in working hours is not to take a stand against labour itself, but against the compulsion towards work that is unnecessary, and for its replacement with something better.
Adapted and abridged from an article by ALEX RICHARDSON-PRICE which can be read in full here