Push back those working hours to care for others and the planet, and to develop ourselves. But a positive vision is required

As Oscar Wilde once said, “the trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings”. But it’s not just a problem for “socialism”. For reasons of automation, as well as climate burden, human beings (beyond their party-politics) should be looking at taking the benefits of productivity and efficiency in units of time, rather than money.

What we see, in the humane-and-relationship-centred initiatives we cover in A/UK, is a vast pent-up desire to be acting in common with others; to care, express and socially build. The pressure for shorter working weeks, from top down as well as bottom up agendas, would seem to be inevitable. 

There’s no doubt that one traditional vector for pushing back labour-hours historically comes from the labour movement. What is interesting about the recent concrete push for this, in Germany, is how much it’s driven by explicitly caring concerns. 

IG Metall, the industrial and manufacturing union, secured a 35-hour week for its members in the mid-80s. In early 2018, they achieved a 28-hour week which workers could take for two years, in order to look after children or elderly parents, with the right to return back to full-time work after.

It’s part of a trend, says Reuters:

It’s not the first time the German work week has been cut. A decade ago, Germans voluntarily cut their hours to share the available work more equally during the global economic crisis. But where that was a crisis measure, this could be the beginning of a social trend, experts say. 

Employers got a hint of the mood in 2018, when most of the more than 100,000 employees at national rail operator Deutsche Bahn were given a choice of more money or more holidays—and chose the extra days off [28 to 30 days]. 

Click image to enlarge. (Report here)

In 2019, the UK think-tank Autonomy made a modest proposal for a shorter working work, resplendent with from-to, “progressive” graphics like the one here. Yet what is striking is still the grim “better-working” functionality of this picture (“the Happy Productive workforce with a healthy work-life balance”, “high-skilled workforce…more productive economy”). 

Perhaps this is because, as Jacobin magazine puts it:

…there is a major rhetorical battle to be fought over notions of work as a source of meaning. And that means thinking more deeply about free time, and how we would spend our lives in a society with many fewer hours on the job.

Under global capitalism, free time is often punitive; plenty of people already have ample amounts of it, from refugee-camp dwellers to the unemployed. And the opioid and methamphetamine crises make clear that without proper resources and social networks, free time can be the opposite of liberating. 

But money, on its own, isn’t the answer. One need only look at Kim Dotcom’s “Good Life” video or the “money diary” of someone on a $1,250,000 salary in Los Angeles to glean the dispiriting vapidity of expanses of time filled with commodity consumption. 

Meanwhile, capitalism has been rather crafty in pervading what little free time we have with the same urges to produce and measure that we associate with the workplace.

It’s interesting to go back to some of the classic thinkers about how we can use automation to increase our “autonomous” time (as opposed to “heteronomous”, sold time). This Novara Media piece on the French thinker Andre Gorz reminds us of his vision for what we might do with our hours, days and weeks of increased autonomy:

  • Cultural and aesthetic activities whose aim is to give and create pleasure and enhance and ‘cultivate’ our immediate environment;

  • Assistance, caring and mutual-aid activities, which create a network of social relations and forms of solidarity throughout the neighbourhood or locality

  • The development of friendships and affective relationships.

Dear regular readers: does this sound familiar? 

Yet the question we want to constantly ask is: how can such a vision of balanced, flourishing social life be pursued in advance of, and setting the tone for, these great structural changes? Indeed, isn’t it better to try to start militantly living this kind of existence, in some part of your calendar, widely and diversely enough - so that the massive policy and regulatory shifts come to seem commonsensical, inevitable?

See our hopes for Citizen Action Networks that could sustain and support such activity.