THE LEFT AND THE FUTURE OF WORK

by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt

 

A paper presented on September 17, 1992 in Sevilla, Spain at the International Meeting
on the Future of Work, sponsored by the Foundation Sistema.
This paper was published as Hunnicutt, B.K., "La Izquierda y el Futuro del Trabajo,"
El Socialismo del Futuro, (Madrid, Spain) Number 7, 1993.

I find myself more skeptical about the "Future of Work" than the sponsors of this International Meeting, and I disagree with the first "fact" they list on the prospectus for "authors to use as a basis for reflection." It is not clear to me at all that "the reduction (future disappearance) of work in the traditional sense of the word" is a "fact," and that automation and robotization will automatically be "job-killers" rather than job-makers.

Whereas it may be true, as our hosts claim, that in some European countries "[b]etween 1960 and 1990... the overall number of hours worked in the economy (i.e. the volume of labor) has diminished by 28%," this is certainly not the case worldwide and can hardly be counted on as an international trend. These "facts" do not represent a credible threat to what I believe is work's worldwide hegemony. The recent history of the United States and several other major industrial nations including Japan, reveal a counter trend that is arguably the wave of the future, destined to swamp the move to work reduction. Work creation and expansion have been the dominate economic realities on my side of the Atlantic for years.

The culture of work rather than a "leisure-ethic" has held sway, while the politics of "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS" has drowned out all suggestions that additional work reduction might be possible or desirable.

Historians in the United States have already discovered "the end of shorter hours" in their country and have been writing about the causes of this phenomena for several years. They have determined that even though work reduction was a powerful historical trend, lasting over a century and promoting widespread speculation about the "future disappearance of work," that seemingly irresistible trend came to an abrupt halt over fifty years ago when the "volume of work" ceased its long deflation in the United States.

Historians have maintained that in the place of work reduction, work creation as government policy appeared during the New Deal, and far from shrinking, the "volume of work" has in fact grown in recent years as more women have entered the work force. Moreover, pollsters and economists have recently shown that hours of labor have increased dramatically over the last twenty years in the United States. According to Louis Harris and Associates, the average American works 20% more today than in 1973 (up from 40.6 hours to 48.8 hours) and has 32% less free time per week (down from 17.7 hours per week to 8.5).

The Harvard economist, Juliet Schor, has just written The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure; a book that has generated a good deal of interest in the United States because of her claim that the "average Joe" works a full month more today than in the early 1970's. Moreover, work creation has been the basis of a remarkable and enduring political coalition between the Right and Left in the United States, and from all indications is likely to become stronger in the future. In this election year, all sorts of politicians in the United States vie with each other, claiming that their policies and plans are better because they will create more jobs.

World-wide, the cry is taken up and the chorus "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS" fills the air. Where liberals would stimulate the economy and provide job training or government jobs, conservatives look to the spontaneous expansion of a deregulated, tax-eased economy to provide more work for more people. Work expansion, supported either by the Right's reliance on tax relief for the rich and economic expansion at all costs, or based on the Left's reliance on government make-work is at the root of a number of modern dilemmas.

On the Right, environmental crimes are excused by "JOBS" above all. On the Left, make work is accepted as preferable to unemployment, with little thought given to the human waste and humiliation of doing "work" that is made up by bureaucrats.

Even in this conference, one hears the call for more work creation and expansion, of the "good" variety of course, to be contrasted with the destructive variety advocated by the Right. The ability of business to come up with new products and of advertising to transform them overnight into necessities, and the capacity of bureaucrates to create meaningless "work" are both infinte.

Between them, "work without end" will easily become a reality, notwithstanding the enormous and expodential expansion of mechanization, computerization, and robotization. Both Left and Right accept the growth of service jobs and wink at what Andre Gorz has described as the dreadful social regression involved. In deference to "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS," Left and Right have accepted the need to commercialize more and more of human life, steadily reducing free activities.

Little of life is left that is not bought and sold-- we in the United States are increasingly unable to conceive of "free activities" as having a value outside commerce. Family, community, and church are increasingly caught up in the "Cash Nexus" and leisure is trivialized as worth nothing unless money is involved.

The idea, "the more work, the better," has evolved into one of the most widely shared assumptions about modern economies. Its corollary; that one of government's major responsibilities is to help create more work for more people and replace work lost due to technological advance, is widely endorsed across the political spectrum. Instead of viewing progress as transcending work, necessity and economic concerns, and far from believing that increased freedom from toil is a constituent of human progress, much of the industrial world shares the belief that work is an end in itself, the ultimate measure of progress and the definition of prosperity.

Capitalists, managers, and labor leaders have ceased dreaming of further work reduction and "necessity's obsolescence," pinning instead for a world full of enough work for everyone or brooding about the "work famine" to come.

Therefore, I see work getting stronger, not declining in my country. I see leisure diminishing, sinking into utter triviality, and in danger of disappearing entirely. Work, not leisure, rules politics, dominates culture, determines economics, and holds the hearts and minds of the nations' people firmly in thrall. Even in this international conference, we still hear some who hold fast and unquestioningly to the faith in work expansion over all.

I maintain that without concerted opposition, organization, and political action, European trends will soon follow the American precedent. Based on the what happened in my country and in the worldwide support of work-creation, I predict that work reduction that the sponsors of this conference see as a good sign for European nations, will soon end and the trend reverse as work expands worldwide-- even now the nations of the world are locked in desperate competition for "jobs", and the country that is able to do more of the world's work is seen to be the international winner.

Without determined opposition, work's hegemony is unlikely to give way on its own or crumble before the rise of automation. As Stephan Linder noted some time ago in the Harried Leisure Class, the consumer society is so firmly entrenched that a change to increased leisure rather than spending for "consumer goods" would mean a drastic change in Western culture and a redefinition of progress of "historic proportions."

Herbert Marcuse made much the same point in the preface to Eros and Civilization

"Automation threatens to render possible the reversal of the relation between free time and working time: the possibility of working time becoming marginal and free time becoming full time. The result would be a radical transvaluation of values, and a mode of existence incompatible with the traditional culture. Advanced industrial society is in permanent mobilization against this possibility.

Until the coalition of Left and Right that has supported work creation for most of this century is exposed and challenged, it is unlikely that leisure will increase. It is only by the renewal of the old politics of shorter hours that the worldwide problems caused by work creation in the industrial nations may be addressed. Without powerful leadership with new ideas and with an appealing political agenda, work will continue its expansions with fearful results.

Considering the political domination of conservatives in my country and much of Europe, I further maintain that it is essential to build a new coalition of Left and Right supporting work reduction, similar to and as powerful as the coalition that has supported work creation for so long.

THE TRAGIC RESULTS OF WORK CREATION

But there is some slight reason to hope. Clear signs of transformation are appearing on the Left. Prominent left-wing writers and politicians have recently resurrected "the progressive reduction of the hours of labor" from a half-century of neglect.

Important European groups such as the SPD [Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands] and labor unions in Germany, the PCI [Partito Communista Italiano] and trade unions in the Italy and the Netherlands have endorsed the old labor cause. In support of the re-emergence of work-reduction, political theorists have begun to argue that the old issue could help re-establish a ideological center and a focus the Left has lacked for years.

Writers such as Andre Gorz in Europe and Senator Eugene McCarthy and William McGaughey in the United States conclude that the Left must take the high ground of Freedom from the Right, refocus its attacks on capitalism's basic irrationality, waste, human and environmental exploitation, and material values, and show the way to a higher standard of living than consumerism and to a culture other than of greed. Several recent theorists see in the issue of progressive work reduction a practical way to reconcile and accomplish such fundamental objectives.

One of the most effective attacks on work creation has been to show the catastrophic results of the policy of "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS." For example, in Metamorphoses du Travail (translated in English as Critique of Economic Reason) Gorz attacks one of the last remaining bastions of "pure reason," free-market rationality, insisting that economic reason, based on the "logical" operation of the free market alone, is incomplete or contradictory. He argues that there are two fundamental errors in the new incarnations of economic positivism, "Thatcherism" and Reaganomics; the belief that all human values may be represented by the economy, and the imperative to expand the "economic sphere" indefinitely into previously free human activities. (One of Gorz's central metaphors is prostitution as the commercializing and thus destruction of human values).

Quoting Jurgen Habermas extensively, he observes that unrestrained capitalism is always imperialistic. But even more dangerous than its traditional aggression against nations is the recent, tumorous spread over nature, traditional culture, and free, non-pecuniary values (what Habermas called the "colonization of non-economic aspirations"). Supporting Gorz's theory, historians in the United States have shown that one of the main cause of capitalism's metastasis was the modern notion that work is an end in itself (what Felix Cohen once called "Work Without End").

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries few workers assumed that the reward for hard working was more work to do, forever. Rather, work was the road to better things, to "free activities" outside what Karl Marx called the "sphere of necessity." In accord with what their good common sense told them, "work to live, don't live to work," generations of workers struggled for shorter-hours. But the view that work was merely a means to better things was defeated by capitalism's claim that progress was infinite economic growth through work's eternal renewal, and the politics of "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS" gained ascendancy.

Thus Gorz's basic hypothesis, that work has been transformed over the last century from a human means to a Capitalist end has been supported by historical evidence in the United States. But in theory (Habermas') capitalism can never answer freedom's ultimate question, "what activity or value is for itself?" because by definition, economic logic concerns means and exchange values, never ends or values that transcend the market. Capitalism can only create more splendid squirrel-cages and call them freedom and progress. Historically, it has been shown that the notion that work is its own reward entailed the assumptions that increases in productivity must always result in ever higher standards of living (consumerism) and that the human effort "saved" by machines should always be "re-employed" in new and better work. As Habermas predicted, it has been shown historically in the United States that as work spread, it carried the market contagion, homogeneous economic values ("one-dimensional man") and the growth imperative into areas of life previously free from the market, crowding out healthy, complex human culture.

Moreover, historians in the United States have also shown that the embodiment of "Work Without End" in government policies designed to create more work for more people and the acquiescence of the Left and labor were victories for capitalism and caused the work reduction movement to end nearly 50 years ago. And as Juliet Schor has demonstrated, such policies also played a vital role in work increase over the last two decades. Policies of work creation were followed naturally in American society by the spread of capitalism's fundamental irrationality and control over rival forms of reason, culture, and values. And the cancerous world of "total work" enlarges still. Among the tragic results (including gross maldistributions of wealth and massive human and environmental exploitation) of work's metamorphosis has been the segmentation of workers into a minority with "good jobs" and an increasing majority of "marginalized workers," existing on the fringes of the economy.

Workers have been "polarized between the 'haves' and 'have nots' on the basis of incumbency." Workers fortunate enough to have good jobs prosper. Others are "frozen out" because neither government nor the free economy can deliver the "good jobs" liberals and conservatives have promised for fifty years. Modern economies are not capable of living up to the work-myths they perpetuate; most new jobs are galaxies apart from the work-utopia Socialists still imagine and the "good-jobs" Capitalists promise. The faith, "new and better work is the natural result of automation," is given the lie by the growth of menial and "servant" jobs and theorists are now suggesting that a servant-class is re-emerging, rivaling the under-class of the early 19th century. As Juliet Schor and others have shown, work creation and eternal economic growth also put pressure on individuals, families, communities, and the environment, leading other writers to claim that capitalism's growth imperative creates most of the problems that welfare states are struggling to address. "Safety nets" fail on a fundamental level because they depend on the growth of capitalism. Consequently, welfare systems and bureaucracies are designed to support the politics of capitalism's growth imperative. A vicious cycle has been established where economic expansion creates problems the welfare state struggles to address by reliance on additional economic expansion. Several writers in the United States have concentrated attention and criticism on "waste."

For example in their book, Nonfinancial Economics, McCarthy/McGaughey observed that "economic growth becomes counterproductive in terms of human effort [when] we work harder to become poorer-- when we realize this, maybe then providing more leisure will began to make more sense." Offering numerous examples of the ways that work creation involves pointless expenditures of time and resources (brokers "churning" accounts, bureaucrats exchanging paper, academic administrators diligently making new work for others to do), McCarthy/McGaughey conclude that "economic growth [only to make more work] may not be real, but represent merely the assignment of dollars to activities that used to be done for free."

The modern simplistic belief in "good jobs" still fairs badly in the presence of the old Midwestern-Populist's view that many of the new, fancy jobs created by modern life and bureaucrats are counterfeits that debase real, productive effort. But perhaps one of the most persuasive arguments against capitalism's growth imperative and the politics of "JOBS" has yet to reappear.

Over a century ago John Stuart Mill predicted that if the Western World took the road we have in fact taken, the environment must eventually be destroyed: "the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase in wealth.. would extirpate from it. . . . I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it."

Mill wrote that the natural world will be the ultimate price for "consuming [more] things which give little or no pleasure exact as representative of wealth...there is [little] satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature. . . ." Mill made the inescapable point: unlimited increases in work and wealth in a limited world is simply impossible. Sooner or later humans will have to deal with freedom from working-- either accepting inevitable limits and voluntarily taking time off or, kicking against the traces of limits, plunge themselves into a wasteland of exhausted nature where an epidemic of forced unemployment rages. Freedom from work will come-- as William Green the former head of the American Federation of Labor once said; the only choice is "leisure or unemployment."

Mill recognized that the modern commitments to the growth imperative and to infinite work creation, not greedy industrialists or thoughtless polluters, will eventually destroy the environment. It is high time that the Green Movement in Europe and the conservationists in the United States recognize the connection between the economics and politics of work creation and the destruction of the natural world, and join in alliance with labor to reduce unnecessary human labor.

SOLUTIONS: THEORETICAL AND PRACTICAL BASES OF A RENEWAL OF WORK REDUCTION

Since the policy of work creation is obviously failing and creating new "technical barbarities," it is time to reconsider the economics and politics of work reduction and the value of increased leisure. McCarthy/McGaughey maintain that "... work schedules will not change in the United States unless the federal government intervenes... the crucial factor is political."

They cite Rep. John Conyers 32 hour workweek bill in the U.S. House of Representatives as a model and suggest that amendments to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act provide a feasible way to restart the politics of shorter hours. In addition, Schor offers several practical remedies to "reclaim leisure;" e.g. limiting hours of salaried employees, promoting "compensatory time" (repaying workers with free time rather than premium pay for overtime), making part time work more attractive, allowing workers to "vote" on whether they take their raises as more money or more leisure, and disconnecting basic welfare benefits, such as health insurance, from employment by national legislation.

But before such practical, detailed political action is possible the Left must reorient itself by reconsidering the old work reduction cause. As Gorz shows, this entails contradicting a standard socialist principle that has stood for over sixty years; i.e. that before leisure is possible or desirable, work must first be reformed and perfected by a socialist state.

But as Gorz shows, "for the mass of workers, it is no longer 'the power of the workers' that constitute the guiding utopia, but the possibility of ceasing to function as workers; the emphasis is less on liberation within work and more on liberation from work, with full income guaranteed." To reestablish class solidarity, Gorz recommends a "break with the utopia of work" that has been thoroughly "Thatcherized" and a return to work sharing. He argues that the working-class must "formulate a policy for the extensive... reduction of the working hours." The results would be that leisure, not consumerism would become the focus of culture, basic human welfare would be separated from capitalism's categorical growth imperative, and non-pecuniary values would be insulated from the market, no longer contaminated by exchange value. Only then will the Left have regained Freedom's high ground. Directly contradicting the majority of socialist writings in this century, Gorz concludes that progressive work reduction is a historical precondition for perfected work-- "liberation from work will have produced liberation within work, without ... transforming work (as Marx predicted) into fee self-activity." And as Peter Glotz remarked, workers would then become "the sovereign masters of their own lives (and time) without having first to go through a bloody process of revolution." Thus work reduction leads Gorz to a sharpened and simplified socialism.

"In the future the Left will mainly be distinguished from the Right by the emancipatory goals toward which it seeks to guide technical change... by its will to use savings in working time for societal and cultural ends, which will regulate economic objectives to the second rank. Here we come to the essence of socialism, as we have defined it with Karl Polanyi; the subordination of economic activities to societal ends and values... the subordination of economic rationality to societal ends"

 

A NEW COALITION OF LEFT AND RIGHT SUPPORTING WORK REDUCTION

 

The history of shorter hours in the United States reveals that a coalition of Left and Right formed briefly to support continued work reduction. This coalition was built on the conviction that shorter hours would address the problem of unemployment (work sharing) and redirect capital from wasteful to basic industry. A number of businessmen and "welfare Capitalists" joined the work sharing crusade in the 1920's and 30's in the United States, believing that shorter hours offered a permanent solution to technological unemployment based on "elimination of the work, not the worker."

According to several conservative theorists, the true miracle of welfare capitalism was thereby revealed; leisure. Under direction of enlightened industrialists such as W.K. Kellogg, Paul Litchfield, and Henry Ford and according to theorists such as A. O. Dahlberg, the free exchange of goods, services, and labor in the free market would not have to result in mindless consumerism or eternal exploitation of people and resources by government-supported capitalism. Rather, capitalism's destiny was revealed as a new freedom from work for more and more people, achieved through the market place. Workers would be liberated by increasingly higher wages and shorter hours for the final freedom promised by the Declaration of Independence-- the Pursuit of Happiness.

But this liberation would be based on freedom; on the free choice of the Capitalist to reduce work time (which was a sound management decisions) and the free choice of workers to cooperate and accept shorter hours as a benefit, or a "normal good," on a par with higher wages. Both the worker and the Capitalist would be making sound, free choices in the free market, for their own benefits. The result would be a shift of the center of American life from necessity to freedom.

The brief work-sharing coalition provides a pattern for the formation of a modern political alternative to the broad-range support of work creation. Unless a coalition of Right and Left forms to support shorter hours, the existing coalition supporting work creation will prevail. Unless elements of the Right, abandoning the faith in eternal economic growth and finding in the free market the possibility of the free escape from the market, join elements of the Left who discard the faith in "work's perfection" through state intervention and embrace "liberation from work" rather than the "transformation of work", work creation and capitalism's growth imperative will continue to triumph.

 

PROSPECTS

 

Committing to work creation, to "Work Without End," the Left and Right have joined to support a culture dominated by capitalism's new work ethic, in which only labor seems to have and determine value. The distinction between materialist Marxists and materialist Capitalists is lost because both deny leisure and accept work as absolute. Because of such agreement, a new political vision is essential for the Left to survive and to offer a program of reform.

On a theoretical level it is necessary to restructure ideological fundamentals, embracing shorter hours and abandoning everlasting economic growth, infinite work creation, and eternal "good jobs." What is needed is an alternate, older vision of Liberty; liberation from work and bosses-- free time for activities more important than getting and spending. Gorz described such things as "self-directed... work... fuller pursuit of one's own dreams in time once devoted to serving institutional agenda as well as the necessary spiritual refreshment of truly leisure time...."

What is needed is the reaffirmation of the old socialist principle that leisure is wealth, and should be counted as a part of national prosperity and progress. The renewal of such an outlook would fundamentally alter economic reason and revolutionize politics. But opposition is formidable. McCarthy/McGaughey admit that the weight of economic theory is against them; academic economists still see "leisure as an enemy of economic growth and prosperity," and United States Treasury Department officials hold leisure in disrepute-- they can't tax it. Observing the dramatic developments in Europe, the mounting support of work reduction and the overthrow of the Communist regimes that open new possibilities for democratic socialism, one may be permitted only a glimmer of hope.

But the experience of political leaders in the United States, such as Eugene McCarthy does not bode well. McCarthy made shorter hours a central part of his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president this year, holding a forum on work reduction at the University of Iowa last January. But his campaign was widely ignored, as was his championing of shorter hours. The politics of "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS" and culture of work is secure, at least in the United States for the 1992' campaign-- University forums and political campaigns seem helpless in the face of the dominant work culture and political coalition. Those who casually predict the revival of work reduction should consider the historical perspective and the experience of the United States.

If the process of work reduction begins again, it would be an renewal of historic proportions. Such a reversal of large-scale historical trends would involve what E.P. Thompson called "a novel dialectic" in the juxtaposition of old dreams about freedom from necessity against an array of all too real forces: a materialistic/consumer culture, a political orthodoxy that sees the creation of more work as government's most important function, and an economy that believes "full-time" work and economic growth are above all earthy and heavenly values.