In the mid-20th century, especially in the 1960s, it was commonplace to see articles or features about the supposed coming “age of leisure” which would be facilitated by machines and advanced industrial techniques. Now (since the 1980s), those predictions are often laughed at, as society (eg in the UK) finds itself enmeshed in the “long hours culture”, the workaholic culture, the low pay economy. Was this inevitable?
The fact is, that the predictions of the past about a future “society of leisure” left out one crucial fact in particular: that the benefits of industrial efficiency and the emerging developments in computing, robotics etc would be taken by the owners of capital, by shareholders and others.
Since the 1970s, real pay (whether absolute or per hour) of most employees has stagnated and indeed even declined across the advanced Western world generally. At the same time, the profit accruing to capital and the remuneration of the upper strata of executives, higher managers and their professional counterparts has rocketed.
The above was true to some extent even in the Soviet Union, except that there, the developments in technology and efficiency were not spread equally across all industrial sectors and the benefits were used mainly for State power and prestige: military and naval upbuilding, space programmes and other large-scale projects such as the BAM railway.
The result (focussing on the West and particularly the UK) is that people have to work ever-longer hours for ever-lessening real pay. If public services, amenities and State benefits are taken into account, the contrast between the optimistic promises and predictions of the 1960s and 1970s on the one hand and the realities of 2016 on the other is even more stark.
There is another factor to be taken into consideration: there are three “work/leisure” faces:
- work as unwelcome and/or repetitive drudgery, with little free time;
- leisure as mere absence of work, for whatever reason;
- creative work, balanced with stimulating leisure or free time
Adolf Hitler was referring, by implication, to the above alternative lifestyles when he noted “the Aryan ideal of creative work“, to be contrasted with (as he saw it) uncreative Jewish profit-making, as well as equally-uncreative paid drudgery [see Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf 2:7]. In explaining, for example, the symbolism of the red-white-black NSDAP banner, Hitler wrote:
“And indeed a symbol it proved to be. Not only because it incorporated those revered colours expressive of our homage to the glorious past and which once brought so much honour to the German nation, but this symbol was also an eloquent expression of the will behind the movement. We National Socialists regarded our flag as being the embodiment of our party programme. The red expressed the social thought underlying the movement. White the national thought. And the swastika signified the mission allotted to us — the struggle for the victory of Aryan mankind and at the same time the triumph of the ideal of creative work which is in itself and always will be anti-Semitic.”
In our contemporary society, we see the temporary victory of uncreative work/leisure modes: on the one hand, soul-less profiteering (whether by manipulations on stock and bond markets or by buy-to-let parasitism etc); on the other hand, everyday work becoming less and less interesting for most people. Soul-less economic serfdom. Creativity and a decent work/life balance become the province of the artist, the maverick off-grid person, the creative writer. Most people are excluded.
At the same time, those without paid work and who are under pensionable age cannot even enjoy the one major benefit of being unemployed: leisure! They are harried and chased around by Department of Work and Pensions drones. In other words, in place of actual paid work, there is a ghastly and ghostly simulacrum of work consisting of the tick-box applying for (often non-existent) job vacancies or the attending of pointless “courses”, in return for which the unemployed claimant is paid a shadow version of a very low real salary: State benefits.
It is estimated that, between now and 2030 or so, developments in robotics alone will mean that 20%-30% of UK jobs will disappear, including some presently “professional” ones (eg in the medical and legal fields). The numbers of unemployed, under-employed and poorly-paid will increase. The “precariat” will include ever-more people.
The solution to all of the above is not a “society of leisure” but a “society of measure”:
- strict limits on hours worked by employees, perhaps 30 hours per week;
- strict enforcement of break-times within the working day;
- strict demarcation between work-time and free-time (leisure time);
- strict limitations or barring of employees being “on call” when at home;
- payment to all citizens of “Basic Income”
- more equitable distribution of the fruits of the economy.
Such a society will have time for those important things which have traditionally been part of “leisure time”: home, family, culture, rest, sleep, entertainment, sport. This must be the way to go and will cure many of the ills of the present society.
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