London Calling Back, #3 — “Career Opportunities” Revisited? Work, Leisure, and The Four-Day Week.
By Emre Kazim
APP EDITORS’ NOTE:
LONDON CALLING BACK, by Emre Kazim, is a series about philosophy, society, and politics, from a British and non-North-American point of view, emphasizing a new critical-dignitarian, edgy, and thoroughly push-backarian philosophical, social, and political ferment on the rise in London, recalling the heady days of politicized punk and The Clash.
#3: “Career Opportunities” Revisited? Work, Leisure, and The Four-Day Week
The Clash’s classic critique of jobs and work, “Career Opportunities,” goes like this:
They offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I’d better take anything they’d got
Do you wanna make tea at the BBC?
Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a cop?
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock
Career opportunity, the ones that never knock
I hate the army an’ I hate the R.A.F.
I don’t wanna go fighting in the tropical heat
I hate the civil service rules
And I won’t open letter bombs for you
Bus driver….ambulance man….ticket inspector
They’re gonna have to introduce conscription
They’re gonna have to take away my prescription
If they wanna get me making toys
If they wanna get me, well, I got no choice
Ain’t never gonna knock
In contemporary UK, there’s been an increasingly vigorous debate about the future of labour.
One glaring and impending question is what we, as a society, should do as a result of automation and the loss of jobs.
Another discussion has been about the four-day week, whereby the traditional nine-to-five is replaced with a four-day or more flexible work schedule.
Increasingly this is being introduced on a trial basis by institutions, and periodically some reports are produced on the apparent results, including information like the impact on the welfare of workers, productivity, etc.
As someone who works in an institution that follows office hours (although academia is more flexible than industry), the idea of an extra day to the weekend is of course highly appealing!
Indeed, I would readily support such a general reorganisation of jobs and work.
However, I’m also someone who has worked in the food services industry (in restaurants, etc.), and am therefore acutely aware that such things as “office hours” do not translate into most people’s jobs (e.g., nurses, those who drive cabs, work in the Underground, or in restaurants, etc.).
It goes without saying that the physical burden of these non-office hours type of jobs is far greater than the office dwellers, unless we account for the back pains caused by endlessly sitting in front of a computer screen.
So when we consider the four-day week from the standpoint of most people’s experience of jobs and work, it becomes problematic.
Although I wouldn’t want to blame anyone for wanting more leisure, nevertheless the fever and enthusiasm of the proponents of flexi-hours is highly self-serving.
For if the principle of the four-day week were truly universalised — and all were granted the same hours of work and leisure — then how exactly would the extra day or time be spent?
Perhaps my intuition is unwarranted, however: but my suspicion is that those campaigning for the extra time off wouldn’t also be pleased by offering the same hours of work and leisure to those who work at gyms, cafes, restaurants, libraries, reduced transport, and other amenities or sites of leisure.
Indeed, I can hardly see them campaigning for a four-day a week National Health Service!
In other words, the four-day week proposal is in fact imagining and proposing a two-world picture, whereby (i) some classes of workers enjoy additional leisure (let’s call them leisure-consumers) , whilst (ii) they’re served by other classes of workers (let’s call them leisure-labourers).
One could, I suppose, argue that the additional leisure time for the leisure-consumers will produce more “career opportunities,” higher wages, and increased economic power for the leisure-labourers.
The obvious moral and political problem with this is that the principle according to which the increased leisure time is being proposed–namely, the well-being of workers–is not being consistently applied to all classes of labourers.
In fact, it’s one rule for some and another rule for others.
More vividly put, there’s a very real sense in which the four-day week simply re-creates the classical Marxist categories of the proletariat (i.e., working class: now leisure-laborers) and the bourgeoisie (ruling class: now leisure-consumers).
Some hard questions need to be asked, the central of which is: what are the conditions under which we can create and implement a truly fair system of significant reductions in labouring hours for all workers?
It’s clear that under the current plan, there’s a sharp value gap, by which I mean that social values are being gauged differently for different kinds of jobs.
This isn’t necessarily problematic: certainly, we may, with moral and political justification, socially value the work of (say) doctors more than other forms of labour; nevertheless, in the vast majority of cases a clear-cut difference isn’t at all clear.
Even if we do accept that there will always be some differences in how we socially value labour, this doesn’t mean, in the context of the four-day week debate, and, more broadly, in the context of debates about increasing leisure time for particular classes of workers, that we should be drawing any significant distinctions whatsoever between classes of workers.
The principal condition that supports the proposal for reduction in work hours for any class of workers is the surplus value that this yields.
In other words, whenever there is “more than enough social value to go around,” then everyone should be able to share that value.
–Which poses the question: why isn’t this surplus value currently being distributed such that others who are struggling day-to-day can directly benefit and be proportionally relieved from the burdens of their daily struggle?
There’s a very real sense, then, in which the four-day week is simply an affirmation of a deep kind of inequality: one that simply assumes that leisure-labourers should have to shoulder a disproportionate burden of work so that others, the leisure-consumers, may relax and refresh themselves.
In other words, instead of offering a deeper critique of the structure of inequality in jobs and work, those who propose the four-day week are actually asking: “how can we make life even better for those who are already doing, comparatively, quite well?”
Indeed, this debate is particularly corrosive in the context of the “decade of austerity” that workers in the UK have already endured.
Moreover, it’s simply repugnant, in view of statistics which show that “the average real wage is lower now than it was ten years ago.”
So let’s have a serious debate about re-distribution of social values via reductions in working hours, yes, absolutely.
But as a necessary preliminary and prolegomenon to that, let’s be far bolder and have a serious critical moral and political debate about the nature and operations of the social-institutional structures that led to such disparities and inequalities in the first place, a world in which “Career Opportunities” really means the highly hypocritical oppression of certain classes of labourers, e.g., leisure-labourers.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 376
Mr Nemo, W, Y, X, & Z, Saturday 18 January 2020
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