Whatever Happened to Workers’ Playtime?

, , Comment closed

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×
Print pagePDF pageEmail page

dowordJennifer O’Connell has a lifestyle feature in the Irish Times today that takes on David Graeber’s essay in Strike! Magazine about bullshit jobs with a ‘sure wasn’t ever thus?’ type of argument. But one of the ironies of it is that while she largely agrees with Graeber she can only do so by avoiding an important element of his central premise – that it’s about capitalism.

In his essay Graeber says:

“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.”

What this doesn’t address, however, is that Keynes argument was originally a lecture which he presented to mollify those of his students in Cambridge in the 1930s who were being attracted to Marxism and Communism.  Keynes, later Lord Keynes, hated Marxism, despised the USSR and was happy to declare that when it came down to it he would always side with his class, the capitalists against workers. His arguments about providing full employment and increasing wages were deployed as the best way to maintaining equilibrium within capitalism and not about improving the living standards of the majority, per se. Maintaining this equilibrium, however, depended on the ‘euthanasia of the rentier’, the suppression of reckless financial speculation and the promotion of productive investment. In his lecture, which Graeber and O’Connell refer to without acknowledging this context, he was telling his students, sure capitalism is doing badly now and is making things difficult for everyone, but within their lifetime working hours would be reduced and capitalism would provide the kind of conditions that are envisioned within a worker’s republic. Capitalism works, stick with it.

“In quite a few years – in our own lifetimes I mean – we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.”

Keynes, in his challenge to orthodox economics which claimed that economic pain now was worth it because equilibrium would return in the long run (see Patrick Honohan’s article saying exactly that in the Irish Times yesterday) countered it with ‘in the long run we are all dead’. But before his vision of capitalism could even get to the medium term there was a world war which killed over 60 million people, no doubt, including some of those undergraduates who attended Keynes’ lecture.

But Keynes had already added a proviso:

“I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the ‘economic problem’ may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not – if we look into the future – the permanent problem of the human race.”

As Michael Roberts points out, wars cannot be separated from the capitalist mode of production. The US post-war ‘Golden Age’ could only have happened once the grueling depression years of the 30s had wiped out all the excess stock and debt of the pre-1929 boom. The anticipated post-war mini depression never materialized. Instead, the economy was propelled upward by the pent up demand and savings which had built up during the wars years. Because foreign competition was completely wiped out, the US had an immediate export base and was able to both finance and create very favourable trading conditions with two of the largest industrial economies which the war had reduced to rubble, German and Japan.

Michael Perelman outlines this very well in the Confiscation of American Prosperity (page 18):

“The state of consumer demand at the end of World War II also provided business with an exceptional opportunity. Many families had to defer their purchase of expensive consumer goods for an extended time. First, during the Depression many consumers were unable to afford cars and other expensive consumer goods. Later during the war, the government rationed production so factories that ordinarily produced consumer goods, such as automobiles, could build tanks and trucks. All the while, the existing stock of automobiles, as well as other consumer goods, was aging. This backlog of consumption was all the more powerful because many families liquidated their consumer debt and then accumulated considerable savings during the war. Consequently, a broad group of people had both the wherewithal and the desire to purchase expensive consumer goods, while business had more than ample productive capacity to meet their demands, setting the stage for a postwar boom.

In addition, financial conditions at end of World War II were almost ideal. Business was flush with cash. The Depression had unleashed a wave of bankruptcies, which had wiped out much of the previous U.S. corporate debt. The Depression had also frightened financial institutions, making them concentrate on high quality investments whenever possible. At the time, banks held many of their assets in the form of highly liquid U.S. government securities.

In terms of international finance, the position of the United States was just as enviable. By the end of World War II, about 70 percent of the world’s monetary gold stock resided in U.S. vaults (Magdoff and Sweezy 1983, 9).”

To return to Graeber though. Obviously he is not a Marxist, but he is talking about how capitalism has failed to reduce working hours or improve the standard of living for the majority and how instead of having less to do, it invents myriad pseudo-occupations to replace those that technology has made redundant. Capitalism is based on the creation of profit from the exploitation of human labour. Profit can only be realised from the surplus value added by humans less the nominal cost of their labour. Even doing a demoralising useless task adds value and therefore profit somewhere down the line.

And it is just as likely that the development of technology will reduce rather than improve your standard of living.

The farm worker forced off the land and pushed through the necessity of eating into working very long hours in terrible working conditions for subsistence level wages would hardly say that the advances of technology which increased the production of cotton and led to the development of the railways had noticeably improved their lives.

“In fact, so far as the period 1790-1830 goes, there is very little in it. The condition of the majority was bad in 1790: it remained bad in 1830 (and forty years is a long time) but there is some disagreement as to the size of the relative groups within the working class. And matters are little clearer in the next decade. There were undoubted increases in real wages among organised workers during the burst of trade union activity between 1832-4: but the period of good trade between 1833 and 1837 was accompanied by the smashing of the trade unions by the concerted efforts of Government, magistrates, and employers; while 1 837-42 are depression years. So that it is indeed at “some unspecified date between the drafting of the People’s Charter and the Great Exhibition” that the tide begins to turn; let us say, with the railway boom in 1 843. Moreover, even in the mid-40s the plight of very large groups of workers remains desperate, while the railway crash led to the depression years of 1847-8. This does not look very much like a “success story” ; in half a century of the fullest development of industrialism, the standard-of-living still remained-for very large but indeterminate groups–at the point of subsistence.” E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, P209

The stagnation of real wages for workers (taking inflation into account) and the barely perceptible improvements in living standards through that modest rise in income since the 70s is well known, as are the escalating gaps between ordinary workers and the owners of capital. Graeber is an intellectual influences within the Occupy Movement, and it has made these facts impossible to ignore through the use of the ‘99% vs the 1%’ slogan.

O’Connell concedes the main point to Graeber that now we are working as hard as ever, if not more so, citing “the 50-hour week and the always-on iPhone”, so that you’re never not in work. The increasing discussion about the precariousness of employment (with the evolution of a new ‘class’, the precariate) and the attacks on public sector workers are all useful in pushing forward the notion (not the reality) that no job is safe, even in occupations where it is important for the continuity of services for those who work in them to have permanent job security.

This is a forcing on workers the ideology that working that 50 hour week is just what you have to do. Because if you don’t do it someone else will. And the prospect of losing your job at this time of high unemployment is really is a nightmare scenario. How the hell are you going to pay off all that debt?

The over-worked sub-editor, who probably worked through their lunch break for the private media company, no doubt is responsible for added the title to O’Connell’s piece. ‘A bullsh*t job is better than no job’ sounds like they are justify what they are doing to themselves.

Note, there is no ‘I’ I bullsh*t.