When the British Conservative Party announced at its 2013 conference that it had the interests of “hard-working people” at heart, they invoked a mantra long propagated by an out of touch political class. “Hard-work”, we’re often told, is a positive thing in and of itself, regardless of its social effects or the impact it has on the individual actually carrying it out. The term, employed in the rhetoric of both the left and the right, is rarely challenged and forms much of what is viewed as “common sense”. Hard work is seen as a virtue, a service to the nation and an ideal to aspire to.
Yet, when we are honest with ourselves, most of us hate work. It’s why Mondays are grim and Fridays are awesome. It’s why we spend most of our week days watching the clock in eager anticipation of 5 o’clock, all the time wishing our lives away. The person who claims to enjoy “hard work” is either a liar or intensely boring. A recent Gallup poll found that, across the globe, only 13% of people actually like going to work. This is unsurprising, given that work for most people under capitalism is often low paid, unrewarding, stressful, degrading and tedious.
There is nothing noble about coming home from work mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. Neglecting your friends and family in favour of helping your boss make more profits is not virtuous. And restricting the time you spend on developing talents such as music, art or sports because of your excessive working hours is not only detrimental to you personally, but is also detrimental to wider society. How many people with the musical potential of Jimi Hendrix have been unable to develop their talents because they had to spend the majority of their life in a factory? How many potentially great writers have been unable to express themselves like George Orwell or Oscar Wilde because the bulk of their energies were channelled into working in a supermarket?
Since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, trade unions and the left have argued for the creation of more jobs to tackle unemployment. Yet, in doing so, they have failed to highlight one of the most absurd contradictions of capitalism; the fact that there are 200 million people unemployed across the globe, while those who are in employment are generally overworked. Rather than increasing the number of jobs, we should be arguing for existing jobs to be shared out while simultaneously reducing the length of the working week.
The New Economics Foundation (NEF) recently outlined a strong economic, ecological and social case for reducing the standard working week to 21 hours – something that has the potential to resonate in the 21st century. Less work can assist in the fight against climate change and allow us to live more sustainable lives. The fast-pace of our working lives forces us into many environmentally and socially destructive habits. We drive cars because they are deemed to be more “convenient” instead of using less carbon-intensive public transport. And instead of growing our own food, many people consume nutritionless ready meals and packed vegetables which, as the NEF shows, are grossly more damaging to the eco-system.
Trips abroad can also become more ecologically friendly than the carbon-intensive short-term holidays of modern capitalist society. As it stands, most people can only avail of two or three weeks away from their jobs at any one time, meaning slower modes of transport, such as trains, are not a viable way of visiting a foreign country. If workers were given the opportunity to take a number of months off at one time, in exchange for working extended hours at another time of the year, what is to stop them getting a train to Beijing or a ship to New York? The mass use of airplanes merely emphasises the sheer rush and intensity of modern life, as people seek to maximize the amount of leisure they manage to squeeze into the meagre time they have away from work.
In 1930, British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advancement would allow people in the 21st century to enjoy a 15-hour work week. Leisure time, it was suggested, would become so plentiful that people would struggle to find enough activities to occupy themselves. Yet, despite a rise in productivity and the abundance of material goods, these predictions failed to materialise. Across Europe, the average working week stands at 41.6 hours, and that doesn’t include time spent commuting to and from work.
The ‘work ethic’
Negative aspects of any class society, such as inequality, ecological degradation and social deprivation, need to be justified or excused by widely propagated myths in order to be sustained. The excessive working hours endured by most people is justified by the work ethic, as exemplified in the Conservative Party’s condescending slogan lauding “hard-working” people (the inference being that those deemed not to be “hard-working” are less deserving and less eligible for political representation).
The worship of work is as old as capitalism itself, and it is under the unique characteristics of capitalism as a mode of production that the work ethic takes hold. Under slavery and feudalism, work was seen as a negative thing, something that was bestowed upon humans from God as punishment for ‘original sin’. Ancient societies in Greece and Rome saw human labour as something to be avoided at any cost. Work was for the slaves — the lowest rungs of society. Before capitalism, most labour was done out of necessity. In feudal Europe, for example, peasants produced their own food and the surplus was passed onto the lord who owned the land. Since the production of huge surpluses was not necessary, people enjoyed extended periods of leisure once they produced what was needed. Work did not define individuals, as is the case today; work was merely a means to an end.
The Protestant Reformation challenged the traditional idea of work, with Martin Luther arguing that God’s Will could be fulfilled by individuals working hard. Labour was seen as a service to God, an outlook which helped to normalise the long, gruelling working hours which defined the Industrial Revolution. These ideas proved useful for an economic system which was based on, as Marx wrote, production “for production’s sake”. Max Weber, who coined the term ‘the Protestant work ethic’, argued that the rise of these ideas ensured that capitalism would surface in Europe before it would in any other part of the planet.
The work ethic transformed over time, gradually becoming more secular to reflect societal values. Where people once served God, we now aim to be seen as “contributing” to society, a perverse form of social Darwinism under which humans beings must justify their existence through “hard work” before they can benefit from the fruits of civilisation. The unemployed, the elderly and the disabled are seen as a “burden” on society, living a life of luxury at the expense of the mythical “taxpayer”.
In the United States, the ‘American Dream’ played on the unrealistic aspirations held by many working people, who were conned into believing they could one day be millionaires, provided they put in the work. During the World Wars and the subsequent recovery, the population was called upon to work in the ‘national interest’, a term which has been resurrected by the right following the global financial collapse of 2008. Today, as Sharon Beder pointed out, “the work ethic is promoted primarily in terms of work being a responsibility both to the family and the nation”. She went on to explain:
“As we begin the twenty first century work and production has become ends in themselves. Employment has become such a priority that much environmental degradation is justified merely on the grounds that it provides jobs. And people are so concerned to keep their jobs that they are willing to do what their employers require of them even if they believe it is wrong or environmentally destructive.”
The capitalist work ethic is often used as a vicious weapon of class warfare. It dehumanises us and commodifies our very being. We are not seen as individuals with aspirations and interests; we are mere beasts of burden, with the sole life purpose of “working hard”. Our lives should not be defined merely by productivity nor should we have to justify our existence by proving to others our ability and willingness to “work hard”. Human progress is about overcoming the need for human toil as much as is practicable, and this is a case the left needs to make. As the great Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid once quipped: “A rat race is for rats. We are not rats. We are human beings.”
This article was published in the Morning Star