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Do we need freedom from work?


10:14 am - July 28th 2012

by Guest    


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contribution by Luke Martell

Unemployment is sky-high across Europe. It might not seem the best time to be talking about freedom from work. But less work can provide greater autonomy for the employed, and help the jobless.

Political theories talk about freedom from state oppression, or what resources people need for liberty.

But freedom of time, from constraints of work, is discussed less. This is important. Many of us spend large parts of our lives doing work that impinges on this kind of freedom.

The left’s traditional constituency is the working class. It wants jobs and better pay and conditions for workers. Some on the left focus on overcoming exploitation and alienation through collective ownership of production. Utopian socialists have favoured lower growth and less industry. But this involves a low-tech self-sufficiency that’s quite labour-intensive.

The right is morally righteous about work, at least in relation to the less well-off. They distinguish the deserving working poor from the feckless work-shy. Greens are the most likely to see value in less work. This is because it means lower production and consumption, so less growth, which is good for tackling climate change.

For some, work is fulfilling, and provides structure, purpose and economic independence in their lives. But others see large parts of their jobs as pointless. They work for money and at the receiving end of hierarchical commands. Many would rather slow down, work part-time, or have longer holidays. They want to do things that are more leisurely or fulfilling. But time for this is scarce.

Marx, Keynes and André Gorz did envisage a future with less work. They believed that technological advances and increased productivity should allow us to produce just as much but with less labour. This would mean more time for self-directed, creative or social activities, or just to take it easy. This could be furthered even more if we reduced growth and production. Or if the employed redistributed some of their work to the unemployed, so all work less but all have work.

These ideas may seem utopian. But there are practical measures that could be used for implementing them. A basic income for all could replace the myriad of existing social benefits. It would allow for time free from work. Fairer taxes and redistribution from the top can help fund this. There’s already legislation restricting working hours that could be beefed up.

Less work and lower growth aren’t right for all times and places. In the short term, under austerity and in the developing world, growth is important. But longer term in rich countries reduced work and lower growth can give us freedom from life-consuming labour and produce environmental benefits.

Would people lose the incentive to work if they were given a basic income? Many would want to earn more, so would work more. Some do jobs because they’re worthwhile; lots of money isn’t always needed to make people work. And freedom from paid labour isn’t the same as non-work – it allows time for work that’s chosen and autonomous, from creative projects to volunteer help, for instance.

Is it oppressive to tell people they should work and consume less? Not if it’s done right. A working week that’s restricted within reason, by a democratic government, isn’t more oppressive than unaccountable corporations fostering consumerist culture – and so long hours of labour to pay for this – to make money for themselves.

We need to rein back the world of growth, profits and labour and take more account of human needs. If the employed work less they can have more free time. And the jobless can have work. Freedom from labour can provide more autonomy. And it can help solve unemployment and climate change.

—-
Luke Martell is Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Sussex.

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Reader comments


Yes,OK, more leisure time, less work. Makes life more enjoyable in many ways.

Just a couple of things that I would hope a professor would bring to a discussion of this.

1)The greatest increases in leisure, reductions in work, have not come frm market working hours. Sure, these have decreased from 60 a week to 40 over the past century and a half. But it’s still true that the great increase in leisure has come from the decrease in household production hours.

Washing machines (AS Ja Choon Hang points out) decent stobes, vacuum cleaners, more reliable cars, mechanical lawnmowers.

Thus concentration upon market working hours, whether talking about history or the future, is simply missing the point.

2) “Is it oppressive to tell people they should work and consume less?”

Yes, yes it is. For several reasons. The first being that *telling* ther peple what they shuld do is oppressive. The second is that insisting that people do fewer market working hours does not in fact increase their leisure time. They might, in fact we often observe that they do, increase their household production hours by more than the reduction in market ones.

Just as an example, is telling people they must grow their own veg rather than work to buy them a reduction in work? Depends how long they have to dig the allotment as against how long they used to have to work for cash.

And here’s the thing. When we look at international time use we actually find that more market working hours can lead to more leisure hours. Note can, not will. We know that Americans wrk longer hours than Europeans in the market, take fewer holidays and so on. Yet the average American woman does less total hours of work a week than the average German woman. They do more market hours yes, but fewer household.

Which brings us to the really big question here. Sure, I support a basic income etc. But that big question is who gets to decide that split between leisure hours, household production hours and market hours?

Note that government doesn’t in fact get to decide the split between working hours and leisure. They only get to decide the market working hours part. The split between houshold production and leisure is obviously and clearly up to the individuals involved.

Whihc, sadly, makes the entire set of ruminations about this”A working week that’s restricted within reason, by a democratic government, isn’t more oppressive than unaccountable corporations fostering consumerist culture – and so long hours of labour to pay for this – to make money for themselves. ”

Simply an irrelevance. Unless you’re about to institute a society in which government can decide whether and when people work in their own homes (cooking, cleaning, maintenance, growing food etc) then government doesn’t actually control working hours. It only controls market hours. And don’t you think that the division between market and household hours is really something that should be left up to individuals to decide?

2. Chaise Guevara

@ 1 Tim

“The greatest increases in leisure, reductions in work, have not come frm market working hours. Sure, these have decreased from 60 a week to 40 over the past century and a half. But it’s still true that the great increase in leisure has come from the decrease in household production hours.

Washing machines (AS Ja Choon Hang points out) decent stobes, vacuum cleaners, more reliable cars, mechanical lawnmowers. ”

I remember reading that, even with all today’s mod cons, the average housewife spends as much time on housework today as they did back when nothing was automated.

If true, this suggests that rising standards, along with other factors such as simply having a bigger house to clean, mean that housework rises to a certain plateau of sufferability and stays there.

It’s a much more simple version of the observation that, 50 years ago, many assumed that the rise in automation would mean everyone working a 1-day week and robots doing the rest of the work for us. In reality, working hours have stayed in the same ballpark due to people wanting more stuff, not to mention robots becoming *competitors* in the workforce.

Actually, we worked shorter hours in the 13th century and we didn’t have any technology to speak of.

1. Nobody has insisted that we must work more hours at home, the whole point of the post is leisure, now for some, working in an allotment is leisure while others are employed to work on the land, Similarly, playing football can be a leisure activity or a job of work. You are imposing you own labels/values upon individual activity and that’s not very liberal is it?

“I remember reading that, even with all today’s mod cons, the average housewife spends as much time on housework today as they did back when nothing was automated.”

I’m sorry but that is absolute howling nonsense.

Sure the average housewife fills 24 hours a day just as they did then and we all do now. But it ain’t filled with work as it used to be.

Seriously, google “time use surveys|” and “household production hours”.

“Actually, we worked shorter hours in the 13th century and we didn’t have any technology to speak of. ”

No, we most certainly did not. The major error with those estimations being that they do not consider household working hours. Which, in an environment where you cut your own firewood, cook everything on a wood stove, brew your own beer and quite likely bake your own bread would be considerable.

“You are imposing you own labels/values upon individual activity and that’s not very liberal is it?”

Snigger. I’m arguing that people should be allowed to choose between the three as they please. The author above is arguing that government must limit that choice of market work.

And I’m the illiberal one?

5. margin4error

There are a couple of things to address here.

1 – while freedom from work (as the article puts it) seems a good ambition – some serious social change in the UK would be needed to make it appealing. For example – bad parents earn less money. As such it is quite reasonable that parents choose to spend more time working and earning to give their kids good parents.

And yes, I know that sounds like some terrible moral judgement.”Poor parents are bad parents” is a little sweeping. But be it drug addiction, time in prison, low educational achievement, poor health, poor mental health, broken relationships, unemployment and so on – one’s likelyhood of experiencing these social ills are closely aligned with whether your parents were poor or not. So we can hardly ask out people to sacrifice the future of their kids in order to spend more time with them while they are kids. Until society deals with these inequalities it is simply a non-starter.

Secondly – households now work a lot more hours than at any time in history. Having been freed from household labour by new technology, we sent women off to work with men. So households ended up working more hours – with the time spent at jobs not mirrored by equivelent savings in “chores”.

There is of course a solution to this. The better educated some one is, the greater choice they have about their working hours. Well educated people can be more productive and so can earn enough to be good parents in less time than some one with no education.

So lets finally reform our education system into half year groups instead of whole year groups – introduce better technical education – and break down the idiotic “too many people go to uni” mentality in a country that is slipping fast down the ranks of nations for levels of university attendance.

4
Who mentioned housewives? Stop strawmanning. My point, which you have totally ignored, was that it’s difficult to divide work from leisure when so many activities overlap both categories. I agree that the notion of ‘productive work’ has changed such as cooking and brewing becoming an industrial process. And although it isn’t possible to compare exactly pre-industrial to industrial work patterns, we know that in the 13th century work was shared, was undertaken around the domestic area, and, to a great extent, this happened up until the 18th century. If the massive social change of industialization can be undertaken, which brought most adult males away from the home to a seperate workplace, then it is not beyond us to partially reverse it.

Since the beginning of the 20th century and the emergence of mass production, there are fewer jobs in manufacturing and a rise in the service industries, which includes some of those jobs which had normally been carried-out within the home.

Imo, there is no chance of reaching anywhere like full employment, in fact, we are likely to be blighted with growning unemployment levels. Having more leisure would free-up the working time of those who are already in full-time employment and productive work can be shared amongst the unemployed, more importantly, everyone can contribute into the economy, no paying for idleness which, at best, is totally inefficient.

5
I do tend to agree with you that poverty is usually disabling, but I’m firmly of the opinion that it isn’t poverty per se but poverty within a society that depends on consumerism to enable most cultural participation. Redistributing time and leisure should work towards reducing inequality.

“”4
Who mentioned housewives? Stop strawmanning.”

Err, @2 did.

“And although it isn’t possible to compare exactly pre-industrial to industrial work patterns, we know that in the 13th century work was shared, was undertaken around the domestic area, and, to a great extent, this happened up until the 18th century. If the massive social change of industialization can be undertaken, which brought most adult males away from the home to a seperate workplace, then it is not beyond us to partially reverse it. ”

Err, yes, you’re making my point for me rather. Lots of what we really do consider to be work was done domestcally in the middle ages and thus it’s nonsense to suggest that working hours were shorter then.

“My point, which you have totally ignored, was that it’s difficult to divide work from leisure when so many activities overlap both categories.”

Not really. When you do something for the product of having done it it’s work. When you do it for the joy of doing it it isn’t.

Sure, there are blurry lines but we’re all entirely capable of working out what is work and what isn’t.

“more importantly, everyone can contribute into the economy, no paying for idleness which,”

Snigger, but we’ve just defined at the top that the desirable thing is leisure: idleness.

7
Apologies, I thought you were referring to me.

You are doing a lot of sniggering, but believe it or not, it is quite possible to consider work, leisure and idleness as equally desirable, honestly.

9. Chaise Guevara

@ 4 Tim

“Sure the average housewife fills 24 hours a day just as they did then and we all do now. But it ain’t filled with work as it used to be.”

Fair enough – if my source was wrong then any extrapolation from it is irrelevant.

10. mergin4error

steve

I’d love to agree with you – but you are talking about a massive social change being needed before reducing working hours would not result in more of the bad parental outcomes as listed.

I mean, how would you go about making us less consumerist and what would you replace that with? The tendancy, as I say, is for those of a higher educational status to tie their perception of hapiness less to consumption than those with less education.

So again – I’d suggest we start with major overhaul of education to better educate our kids.

11. Just Visiting

mergin4error

> I’d suggest we start with major overhaul of education to better educate our kids.

This seems a tough task to lay at the feet of education.

It sounds like you think education can change a culture ?
What would the message be exactly?

“Some on the left focus on overcoming exploitation and alienation through collective ownership of production.”

Some? Holding those beliefs is a minimum requirement for being on the left. Otherwise you’re just a Thatcherite in denial.

10

Unfortunately good educational outcome isn’t all down to schools, many kids from middle-class homes are provided with stuff like musical instruments and lessons as well as private tuition, or private schooling, of course, not all access such things. However, middle-class kids are also encouraged by their parents who, can concretly show that education is worthwhile. Unemployed working-class people are not good role-models especially in high unemployment areas, not because they are inherently bad people but because their observable situation does not promote optimism.

Certainly redistributing work would create a massive social change, but it would be nothing compared to industrialization, and our present level of consumerism is also a new phenomenon, it’s not as if it’s in our DNA.

14. Chaise Guevara

@ 12 Chris

“Some? Holding those beliefs is a minimum requirement for being on the left. Otherwise you’re just a Thatcherite in denial.”

That’s some really cool melodrama right there. But some of us on the left recognise that the choice between communism and thatcherism is a false dichotomy, not to mention a choice between fanatics.

Chris,
Are you forgetting what happened in Eastern Europe? Unfortunately, “collective ownership” will always be impossible, because in the end someone will be making the decisions. Whoever that is will be the owner.

16. margin4error

Just visiting

Not sure what the “message” would be. Why would better education need a “message?”

Surely better education through a shift to half year groups instead of the ludicrously flawed and annual system that we no longer need for facilitating the harvest could teach much the same maths, English, science, etc. It would just get much better results.

The message might be more technical perhaps. The JCB college for example teaches the core curriculum but through themes around engineering. So a flight module can include literature that emphasises and incorporates flight (Catch22 is on the national curriculum anyway) while the science and maths lessons that term focus on aerodynamics for examples and experiments.

That sort of structure of giving a cohesive theme across a term seems to get results. And of course each school need not specialise in engineering as that college does. But the principle can be adapted to a great many specialists.

Tim Worstall: “Snigger. I’m arguing that people should be allowed to choose between the three as they please. The author above is arguing that government must limit that choice of market work.”

But you don’t choose between the three as you please, except in theoretical-market-wonderland which doesn’t exist.

The reality is that there is a shortage of opportunities for work – so unless you want to very rapidly be put in a situation of having no work or money at all (in which case you’re categorised as feckless scum to be allocated unpaid labour as punishment, I believe), you work however long your employer wishes you to work, usually many more than you’re paid to on paper.

The author is correct – we do have a problem here. Large chunks of the population are worked off their feet, barely seeing their families (or daylight, in the winter) while a significant minority have nothing to do at all. The market is not providing this choice you claim to be advocating.

Large chunks of the population are worked off their feet, barely seeing their families (or daylight, in the winter)

It’s also this portion of the population which is easiest to convince that something must be done to the unemployed, for obvious resentfully jealous attitudes.
And yes I do mean ‘done to’ rather than ‘done about’.

Thanks for excellent comments.

To Tim – points understood on household work but the importance of that does not rule out the importance of employed work. For most people the latter these days is more of an imposition (with important gender differences). I don’t think focusing on employed work misses the point. And I am suggesting less paid work time so there is more time for free autonomous activity, not for more housework, as steveb points out.

(BTW many people work a lot more than 40 hours in paid work).

Telling people they should work less. A lot of what I suggest is not about telling people they should work less but allowing them to work less when they would like to, eg the basic income. I accept that legal limits on working hours do involve telling people to work less, and that this is not a simple issue, but they just as much involve restricting employers making them work more than they want to.

We already have a 48 hour working time limit which has helped many workers. The issue is that at the moment people are often not free to decide how much they work. I am saying they should have greater chance to work less, and I think most people would prefer that choice. They don’t have it because employers and the nature of the productivist consumerist economy we have does not allow it. The idea that without state limits on working time people are free to choose how they distribute their time is not right.

The state does not have a monopoly on restricting freedom. In this case the economy, market and employers restrict freedom and state limits can protect people.

I’m not suggesting we should move back to growing our own food as Tim mentions, as something that involves people still working as much. I am suggesting we move back from the large scale productivism and consumerism we have now.

I’m not sure the more working hours less household hours USA scenario you suggest is a good thing. It’s all still work which most people do not want to do. The issue is free time to do what we want, which is not necessarily idleness. Idleness is underrated but many people would be very active in their free time – creativity, family, community, volunteering etc.

Who decides the split between different hours? I am suggesting individuals should. A basic income would allow that and maximum working hours would stop employers taking that choice away from us.

Margin. I agree this would need serious social and cultural change. But we have to be ambitious. It’s a big problem. And if we didn’t aim for serious social change we wouldn’t have got those big changes that we have got – welfare state, rights for women and others, workers rights etc.

Chris et al – Collective ownership. I sympathise with what you say Chris. There are others on the left who think we can achieve equality and social justice without collective ownership and that the latter has not worked that well so far, as is pointed out, but I do personally agree it is an important part of what it is to be left, depending on how you organise it.

Chaise and steveb and jungle excellent points, thanks.

The bottom line is most of us work more than we would like to and have less time to do things we want to. Others want paid work but they can’t get it. They could do if it was redistributed so workers have more free time and the jobless have work. Our system is not geared to human needs and it is not free. We need to change things so it is. Democratic intervention is as likely to increase freedom for us to do what we want as take it away.

20. margin4error

Luke
Agree that ambition is worth acting on. But I’m always inclined to the practical. Hence my slightly obscure “how can we achieve this without doing harm? ” thought process. Education seems the solution best available to us.

It used to be that (especially inn times of high unemployment) people were not forced onto punitive schemes to force them to work for nothing, but could use the time to seek work, make art, form bands, and contribute towards the creative economy. There was even an Enterprise Allowance scheme that granted new individual start up businesses one of dole-level pay. There are not enough jobs. So leave people alone, or distribute the available work more fairly?

22. margin4error

rentergirl

you mist one reasonable option.

leave people alone, distribute the work more fairly, or create more jobs.

creating more jobs is possible. Bringing forward HS2 would create a lot of jobs, for example.

Margin – yes agree about combining ambition and pragmatism, and that education needs to be part of something that requires cultural change.

Rentergirl, yes, absolutely, one of the big losses of the long-hours culture is that time for creativity and autonomous innovation is lost.

Large chunks of the population are worked off their feet, barely seeing their families (or daylight, in the winter) while a significant minority have nothing to do at all. The market is not providing this choice you claim to be advocating.

And this is laregely because the government has decided to mess up and make incentives not to hire people to work (through taxes and regulation), and incentives not to work (through taxes and social security).

Note that I don’t say there shouldn’t be taxes or social security. I’m saying that they have externalities which show up as unemployment.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

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  9. The Shrieking Violet

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  23. Luke Martell

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  26. Livable4All

    Luke Martell: 'rein back the world of growth, profits and labour and take more account of human needs' http://t.co/Yeh8bdun

  27. Livable4All

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    Do we need freedom from work? http://t.co/VtZsWKPS by Luke Martell #libcon #blog #economy

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  35. Fiona Grace Nunn

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  36. Luke Martell

    @MissEllieMae like your article. I wrote this one a few weeks ago on freedom from work. http://t.co/9bZRJ9qu





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