Wednesday, October 7, 2009


by the Sandwichman

Chris Nyland wrote the following in 1986:
"Traditionally worktime has become a major political and economic issue at times of high unemployment. During periods of economic crisis the labour movement invariably puts forward the argument that standard times should be reduced to spread the available work amongst as many individuals as possible. [emphasis added]"
Nyland predicted that demands from organized labor would intensify as decay of the capitalist economies proceeded. As we now know, that didn't happen. Nyland was right that previously worktime had become a major issue during times of high unemployment. He was almost right that the argument was "invariably" put forward by unions. "Usually" would have been a more judicious word. But his extrapolation from past experience that demands would intensify was falsified by the course of events -- at least in North America and in other English-speaking countries. The question is "why?"

There are any number of facile answers to that question. The Sandwichman has heard them all. (Yes, Trucker, I know all about health insurance premiums.) But there are no well thought out answers forthcoming -- most conspicuously from organized labor itself. My two candidates for possible explanations come from Herbert Marcuse and Paolo Virno.

The Marcuse excuse would be that the balance between work and leisure have reached a tipping point where any substantial increase in leisure would move work out of its privileged central role in everyday life. This is something "the authorities" cannot and will not tolerate.

The Virno gloss proceeds from the observation that the boundaries between work and non-work have become permeable and imprecise and thus leisure, work and unemployment cease to appear as clear-cut contraries or alternatives. For example, why should those who are paid for "leisurely" work (that is to say knowledge work with a high social content) seek to exchange it for more "arduous free time" (isolation and amusing-ourselves-to-death entertainment)?

What those two explanations have in common, I suppose, is the notion that a great deal of the paid work that is done today is superfluous, "treadmill" work. This is not to say that it is superfluous to the individuals who have to perform it and rely on income from it. On the contrary, the objective nonnecessity of much work makes it all the more subjectively precious. Because... the wolf of unemployment lurks just outside the cubicle. The nonessential thus presents itself as a "matter of life or death."


Anonymous said...

If you look at the prices of goods as measured by hours of work it becomes clear that workers here are being disciplined by subtle encroaching threat of starvation.

The median price of single family house, as measured by hours of work, has increased from 8000 hours to 15000 hours between 1964 and 2006.

This is resulting not simply in the lack of demand for shorter hours, it has also resulted in dual income families, and delayed retirement, and another generation of latchkey kids.

And, it is self-reinforcing, to the extent that, as you point out, this additional work is mainly taking the form of superfluous activity. This superfluous activity has the effect of inflating prices generally, since it adds nothing to output. Inflation, therefore, increases labor force participation, which increased participation adds to inflationary price pressure...

Keynes observed that unions were not likely to challenge constant inflation they way would fight wage cuts - making it possible reduce real wages. What he did not add is that they could be compelled by this cruel tactic to work themselves to ruin.

Anonymous said...

'The nonessential thus presents itself as a "matter of life or death."'

Yes, but what are the consequences of this on a societal level? What are the consequences to the collective unconscious of a society when a significant number of its members feel threatened by any measure that conserves resources for future generations or preserves the environment or decreases the likelihood of armed conflict? The people whose livelihoods depend upon profligate resource consumption or unlimited polution or the manufacture of armaments may protest that there is a genuine need for what they are doing (witness all the fearmongering about the Chinese when they tried to eliminate the F22) but most of them can see the effects of what they are doing even if they won't admit it.

This sounds like a recipe for a real pathology to me.