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Why the Right fears the four-day week

I’ve got a guilty secret. I subscribe to CapX‘s mailing list and occasionally, I like some of its output. For those of you who don’t know (or don’t care) what CapX is, it’s a fancy ass blog that styles itself as the home of some of the best politics writers going. And Daniel Hannan. It also happens to be firmly on the right somewhere between Cameroonism and the batshittery of so-called libertarianism. In many ways, its stock-in-trade in contrarianism, albeit not as strident or as obviously stupid as your average Brendan O’Neill missive. No, their niche in the comment landscape is the provision of middle brow arguments bigging up Uber, applauding Tory economic policy (well, until this happened), and blindly, blithely cheering on the anarchy of market fundamentalism. Still, lefties used to the thought-free rantings that normally passes for right wing thinking should check it out if they want their conservatism a touch more substantial.

Anyway, scrolling through their plugs last week, I came across this by Allard Dembe, a Health Services academic at Ohio State University. And his piece, ‘The hidden dangers of a four-day workweek’ isn’t exactly a title that leaves a lot to the imagination. As readers know, there is an emerging trend on the left (and, indeed, in politics as a whole) interested in what’s happening at work. Chiefly, most worrying for policy makers – and a system utterly dependent on the disciplining of workers – are predictions that advancing automation is set to wipe out millions of jobs, make thousands of occupation types redundant, and that the new jobs set to fill the gap will neither be available in sufficient quantities or offer a like-for-like replacement (Andy’s taken a recent look at this, I plan on replying in due course). Hence discussion has been doing the rounds about reducing the working week, or introducing a basic income to support people outside of work.

As the historical record shows, the workers’ movement from its inception has fought to reduce the number of hours we spend selling our labour power in return for a wage or a salary. As the work/life boundary becomes blurred for large numbers of workers and work is extending itself beyond the formal work day, we need to take this more seriously and start asking serious questions about what the economy should be for, rather than limiting economic debate to pushing up GDP figures and job creation strategies. It’s in this context that Dembe’s arguments should be appraised.

Dembe has considerable experience studying workplaces, and possesses a long publication list that testifies to this. Unfortunately, sometimes expertise doesn’t necessarily mean you ask the right questions. He begins by listing a number of companies that have experimented with four-day working and outlines advantages in terms of reduced overheads for business, less time spent commuting, and so on. And then goes on to rubbish it by listing the disadvantages. Chief among them are the consequences of compressing work time. For instance, assuming that five eight-hour days are crammed into four days, Dembe notes the risk of at-work accidents creep upwards. Furthermore, using 32 years worth of data, long work hours are related to a plethora of later life health problems. And that’s before we start talking about mental health problems, parental responsibilities and the like. He concludes, “I don’t know about you, but the prospect of a four-day week scares me. I already have a hard enough time getting my regular weekly work done over five days.”

There is an obvious point here. Can you tell what it is yet? Why yes, Dembe is assuming the number of hours worked in a week are inviolable. There is more than one way to shorten the working week. Assuming the “hegemonic” normal working week, you could just redistribute the hours across four days, as Dembe has assumed is the only way it could possibly be done. Or, here’s a radical suggestion, work commitments could be redesigned so the number of hours worked are less. Instead of a working week of four 10 hour days, how about four eight hour days? As we have seen over the course of the last 30 years, productivity gains have resulted in record profits while wages have lagged well behind, and living standards kept afloat mainly thanks to credit and cheap consumer durables. There is no reason, apart from politics, why work could not be reorganised to spread these gains to everyone through the reduction of the working week without loss of wages. For Dembe, CapX and friends this cannot be countenanced – a day less at work surely means fully automated luxury communism is next.

What Dembe’s piece demonstrates is a total poverty of imagination. It’s a case study in how capital’s intellectual bodyguards cynically try and narrow the horizon of possibilities around a particular issue, in this instance labour’s economic dependence on capital, foreclose alternatives by failing to even mention them, and then provide drab technical reasons why such-and-such a proposal is unworkable and/or undesirable.

4 Comments

  1. Robin Edwards says:

    In contradistinction to the dictatorship of capital the dictatorship of the proletariat will ensure that all gains in productivity will be channelled into an ever shorter working week without loss of pay for workers as opposed into ever greater profits via job cuts and rationalisations for the capitalist class. We will further reduce the working week by ending capital’s ability to maintain a reserve army of unemployed to be used as a battering ram against organised labour by instigating a regime of full-employment by which those who cannot find their own job are bought into the local workforce to share in the available productive work with each paid the minimum of a trades union living wage.

  2. Karl Stewart says:

    Thanks for the article Phil,

    Lots of people discussing this issue at the moment an a range of suggested ‘solutions’ right across the political spectrum.

    First thing we need to establish is that mechanisation/automation, the introduction of machinery to perform tasks previously performed manually has been taking place since the beginning of time – it isn’t new.

    Some examples:

    The invention of the wheel made redundant the people whose job it was to pick up the log at the back of the cart and run to the front of the cart.

    The building of bridges across the Thames impacted on boatmen, the tractor made horse-driving skills in agriculture redundant, as did the invention of other forms of mechanised transport.

    So please let’s dismiss the ludicrous notion that the current trend towards automation is unprecedented.

    Also important to establish that this process is a benefit.

    The wheel allowed man to travel further and quicker, more bridges across the Thames hugely improved trade and commerce, and the tractor enabled massive advances in food production.

    For those of us on the side of the working class, the question is – as it always is – one of how we ensure that this benefit is distributed in the interests of working-class people.

    The pro-business, neo-liberal ‘solution’ is to use technological development purely to increase the rate of profit, regardless of the human cost.

    But our position must be essentially as you’re outlined – to take the opportunity to launch a serious fight for a shorter working week without loss of pay.

    Whether this takes place by means of daily reductions or of reducing the hours one one single day will be an issue, I’d suggest, perhaps best decided within particular industries and sectors by the union representatives and their members respectively.

    And also, within this policy of fighting for a shorter working week, let’s not lose sight of the need to protect and enhance shift and unsocial hours allowances, and overtime rates.

  3. Bazza says:

    Whilst we all need to sell our labour to live (why even professionals although they have more autonomy) perhaps it is capital that is really dependent on labour, perhaps it is the labour of the working billions who really create the wealth and make societies work.
    Take coffee, it is grown by farmers, picked by workers, bagged by workers, transported by workers, sold on a market by workers, put into jars by workers, warehoused by workers, transported across oceans by workers o cafes or supermarkets by workers, put on shelves by workers, paid for via check out workers.
    If I owned a plantation and had millions what good would this be to me if there were no workers.
    Why if I could carry out all these tasks myself I would be “a self-made man” (!)
    We need 3/4 day working weeks to free time poor working humanity (without a loss of pay) and we need to harness technology as a public benefit to free working humanity from soul destroying work so we all have the time to enjoy life and our beautiful planet.
    Every evening the rich must pray that the working billions will turn up for work tomorrow – theirs is THE REAL DEPENDENCY CULTURE and this is what they know and fear.
    So harness technology, robotics etc. and with socialist ideas we can share the work out and then let humans do what only they can do best, care for each other then be creative!

  4. David Pavett says:

    The changing nature of work for many along with the social, economic impact of those changes on the way we live is clearly a very important topic. I look forward to the contribution that Phil B-C promises on this. I hope though that he will approach without the lefty intellectual superiority, treating conservative thought as the product only of fools and knaves. The left is simply in no position to adopt such a stance, quite apart from its inherent invalidity.

    Clearly right-wing fools and knaves are not in short supply but, while their words and actions often require comment, that is the easy bit. Far more difficult is to take conservative thought on where it is strongest, where it exercises a vice-like grip on ordinary and even educated reasoning.

    So I have real doubts about taking on opponents who can be denounced as “somewhere between Cameroonism and the batshittery of so-called libertarianism”, “middle brow arguments bigging up Uber, applauding Tory economic policy”, “the thought-free rantings that normally passes for right wing thinking”, “total poverty of imagination”, “capital’s intellectual bodyguards cynically try and narrow the horizon of possibilities around a particular issue”.

    Taking on fools and knaves may offer some easy victories but it is not likely to provide a basis for advances in left thinking. It is more likely to end up in a form of left self-congratulation akin to the soothing repetitiveness of some “ol’ time religion”.

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