09 February 2011

Willing Slaves

Great post/review of 'Willing Slaves', M
adeleine Bunting's analysis of why we work too hard...

Excerpt from The Guardian, 3 July 2004

'...There's a great tradition of what we might call anti-work writing, which stretches back to the beginning of the industrial revolution. The thinkers and pioneers of the Enlightenment truly believed that commerce, machinery and wages would bring freedom to the British peasantry. But that was not how William Blake, Coleridge, Lord Byron, William Cobbett, GK Chesterton, DH Lawrence, Bertrand Russell and EP Thompson, among many others, saw it. They saw capitalism and its machines as slave drivers. Now Madeleine Bunting has joined the argument, and the question she asks is: what has happened to the promise of work? Hard work was supposed to bring wealth and satisfaction. Instead, argues Bunting, with an abundance of statistics and anecdotes to back her up, it has brought worry, illness, poverty and debt. Why do so many of us voluntarily submit ourselves to low, low wages, long, long hours and high stress? Why do we willingly enslave ourselves?

In the late 18th and all through the 19th centuries, the great project of industrialisation was to take a nation of strong-willed and independent agricultural workers and transform them into docile wage slaves. The two principal methods used by those at the top were fear of God and fear of hunger. A new work ethic was promoted by the Methodists, who preached every Sunday to the new working class that it was their moral duty to work hard. God wanted you to work; God was a sort of ├╝ber-boss, or "overlooker", in the jargon of the time. Slack off at work and the eternal flames of hell awaited.

Crucially also, wages were set low to ensure the worker returned to work on Monday morning. Hunger was found to be an effective prod to ensure that workers - men, women and children from the age of six upwards - made it to the mill on time.

These evils were, of course, resisted. First there was the 10-hour-day movement. Then, eventually, child labour was abolished. The trade unions - after much struggle, it has to be said - managed to improve conditions. The eight-hour day was introduced. Surely things are better today? The physically brutal conditions have gone, and no one is so poor today that they starve.

Bunting argues that we are still enslaved. We may not die from hunger, but we are certainly overworked and stressed out. Work has overtaken us, she argues; it has invaded our consciousness. And the physical hardships of working in the old mills have been replaced by new psychological hardships. Wages are low, hours are long, stress levels are rising...

...For all its blather about "work-life balance", the government remains firmly attached to work as a panacea for all social ills. Tony Blair believes in work for everyone. "Anyone of working age who can work should work," he said in 1998. That included single mums and the disabled. And those unwilling to join in are sent on various Restart schemes.

So if it is true that work is a gigantic con trick that we are now waking up to, the question remains: if we dismantle the job system, then what do we replace it with? How do we live?

One answer is to live well on less. If we do not desire the panoply of products that are sold to us each day, then we will not have such a voracious appetite for money. Less money means less work. Less work means more freedom to do our own work or do what we want to do. Bunting gives a few inspiring examples of families who have downsized, gone part-time or freelance.

Bunting also calls on the unions to help. They have become so obsessed with wages, she says, that they have forgotten about conditions and employee well-being. They have neglected the terrible effects that not being able to control one's own time can have on the human spirit. A shorter working week might be a start. Russell and Maynard Keynes thought that four hours a day was enough. The government, Bunting thinks, could be doing more. Are there legislative solutions - more generous maternity and paternity leave, and so forth? More bank holidays? But first, perhaps, we need to reject the work ethic in ourselves, embrace liberty and redefine, as Bunting suggests, the meaning of success.'

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