In a previous post I argued that Western culture needs to make a dramatic shift away from devoting so many hours towards paid employment. This has become something of a hot topic in the USA right now, partly because some implications of the Affordable Care Act apparently involve forcing some employees to reduce their hours (why such a rich country must interfere with all employers just to ensure that sick children born to poor parents aren’t simply left to die is beyond me and thankfully also besides the point here), but mainly because The Partially Examined Life covered the topic of work in their most recent podcast. In the following guest post, my friend Joey Jones -in a section from his Philosophy MA thesis- takes a rather different view on work both to myself in that aforementioned post, and to the traditional socialist position represented by Karl Marx, whose views I have also written on.
Governments always want to increase the amount of work being performed via employment levels, but is this a goal we should be seeking? This depends on whether doing so is in peoples’ best interests. There are some interests that are the same for everyone, but other things are a matter of preference. Given that people have an interest in having time to pursue their interests, an increase in their employment would not be conducive to that interest. Admittedly, there might be some people who don’t want time to pursue their preferences. This may be because their preferences are perverse or harmful, and they believe it is better for themselves or others that they not indulge in these preferences. As such, it is more precise to say that we all have an interest in having time to pursue those preferences of ours that we deem it good to pursue (this does not require that those preferences are actually good).
There is a lot to be said for paid employment. Employment can be understood as a package of tasks and benefits. One performs the tasks and receives the benefits. This is the case even if one works for oneself.iThe benefit of employment is any money, positional goods such as prestige, free drinks, internet time, stationary or company car etc. that the worker accrues in participating in the work. In the UK there is a welfare system so no one need fear of starvation if they do not take a job. Even the workfare programme proposed (in 2010) only threatens to reduce welfare payments if work isn’t taken, not strip them away entirely. As such, no one is entirely coerced into taking any given job. Given that this is so, jobs have to be desirable enough that their perceived benefits outweigh the onerousness of the task involved, and more generally the opportunity cost of doing that job rather than doing something else. Employment can undoubtedly give people structure in their lives and offer them opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have. There are many kinds of work that people find personally meaningful, and it is a central life interest for many. A study of nurses, for instance, have been found to be highly job-orientated, with 79% of respondents counting work as a central life interest.ii This can be generalised to other professions; J. K. Galbraith even goes so far as to say that there is a growing class of professionals (he calls the New Class, but because that was half a century ago) who define their lives in terms of their work, and work not for the pay but for the satisfaction of doing something that they deem meaningful.iii For these professionals, the benefit of work is in performing the task at hand, rather than receiving the pay (though some of the benefit may come from the prestige of a high pre-tax income).
Most of the people in the world are not members of a work-orientated professional class. Industrial workers have been shown on the whole (76% of those asked) not to identify work as their central life interest, and those that do tend to be managersiv and nearly a quarter of all people employed globally (that there are statistics for) work in industry.v 37.5% of the global workforce work in agriculture,vi which has become heavily industrialised over the last hundred years,vii and so we might expect similar results. The other 40% or so in the service sector are of course, not all professionals, but mostly subprofessionals and other workers: secretaries, shop assistants, waiters, clerks and the like. It can thus be surmised that most people aren’t professionals. Obviously, there will be many people in all sectors who find their work highly meaningful and do it not for the pay. Also, cultural and religious differences undoubtedly shape people’s attitude towards their work. Furthermore, working conditions differ considerably throughout the globe. This might make it less likely people will identify with their work as most factories in the world have worse conditions than workers in secure manufacturing ‘job-for-life’ in 1960’s America.viii ix Therefore it can be comfortably assumed that probably for most people, work is not a central life interest.
However, the focus of this paper is not on the globe, but on the United Kingdom, and the people of the UK collectively outsource the majority of their industrial needs, and 60% of their agricultural needs are met by less than 2% of the population (the rest being imported).x While some workers labour in manufacturing, the vast majority of British workers work in the service sector (over 80%).xi Of these, the majority are in routine and semi-routine, lower supervisory and intermediate occupationsxii.xiii Hairdressing aside, these sorts of employment are found to be the least satisfying occupations of the UK,xiv and it is safe to assume that unsatisfying work is unlikely to be a central interest for the worker. Thus, the first criticism of employment, as it is in the UK, is that studies suggest that most people in Britain would prefer on the whole doing something other than a job with their time. And given that jobs take up so much time of the employed, it wouldn’t be surprising if people take an interest in what they are doing. But even if the majority of workers polled in Britain had found their work on the whole satisfying, however, this wouldn’t necessarily mean it was one of their chief interests in life.
Bearing in mind all the benefits of paid employment, and the statistics about the kind of employment available in the UK, I will now look at the more philosophical arguments against employment. Over time there have been many critiques of employment, and more particularly, meaningless or repetitive work. Three philosophical works stand out as particularly anti-employment: ‘The Right To Be Lazy’ by Paul Lafague; ‘In Praise of Idleness’ by Bertrand Russell; and ‘The Right To Useful Unemployment’ by Ivan Illich (not to be confused with the eponymous character of Tolstoy’s novella). Given that these works were historically located in different times and conditions to our own (1883, 1932, and more recently 1978), I will outline their core arguments in the attempt to determine whether they are still relevant. Then, after these critiques, I will outline my own separate phenomenological critique, before developing a composite argument for the reduction of certain forms of employment, and in working hours in general.
The Right To Be Lazy
“[The Proletariat] must return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness… It must accustom itself to working but three hours a day, reserving the rest of the day and night for leisure and feasting.”xv
Paul Lafargue was Marx’s son-in-law. His most influential work was ‘The Right To Be Lazy’, which is a response to the more traditional socialist full-employment demand for the right to work. Lafargue argues that “in capitalist society work is the cause of all intellectual degeneracy, of all organic deformity”, with all of the “individual and social woes” faced by the proletariat “are born of [their] passion for work”. As an empirical claims, these statements are obviously false today. However, on a charitable reading we can admit that for average worker of late 19th century Europe, most of their woes were caused by long 10-14 hour days, few holidays and poor working conditions- conditions forced upon men, women, children and the elderly alike. Given that children and the elderly no longer have to work, and working hours have decreased somewhat, there are grounds for dismissing the strong form of this argument. More generally, work is responsible for an array of occupational illnesses, and, as even Adam Smith argued,xvi engaging in the same employment on a regular basis is clear limit to intellectual growth, especially if that employment offers little in the way of intellectual challenge. Of course, this isn’t so much a rejection of work, but rather of unsafe, arduous and dull work.
Lafargue’s second argument is that the workers are not able to enjoy the products of their labour, which are pushed onto foreign markets. He holds that all should be able to live as decadently as the bourgeoisie. In this sense, he may find something redeemable about the vast consumption of the modern European workforce. However, it is still true that there are workers who cannot afford the goods they make. For instance, in 2007 the average monthly pay for a Nike worker in Vietnam was $62,xvii whereas in the same period the a typical Nike trainer would cost the consumer $120. So, while conditions have clearly improved for the British, this improvement is not universal.
Lafargue’s third argument is that machines are so much more productive than people- his example is that of the knitting machine which can make 6000 times more meshes in a minute than a skilled worker- and so instead of overproduction followed by glut and economic inactivity, the machines should work for the profit of everyone and give each person ten days of rest for each day working, or alternatively, require them each to work only three hours a day. Note, Lafargue’s argument isn’t that we should produce any less, but rather that the production process not be characterised by enforced overwork followed by enforced idleness. It was his contention that reduced hours had in fact, and would continue to, increase productivity- and the rewards of this productivity could be shared among all (in his idle of vision of society, there is much feasting).
The claim that reduced working hours would increase productivity is a weak one. Certainly, decreasing the individual’s working hours, but employing more people can increase morale and productive hours at the same time. But, typically, more can be produced if people work longer. Since Lafargue’s time, working hours have considerably decreased and output has increased, but this is more to do with increased machine productivity (output per hour), and, if we agree with J. K. Galbraith, the declining marginal urgency of goods.xviii Although there is a greater of people due to population growth, no greater proportion of people are producing things than before.
While working conditions have changed, they are still onerous for many in the outsourced factories of the world. Consumer goods are more widely enjoyed and in general there are shorter hours. However, hours have not continued to decrease in line with increased productivity. In sum, Lafargue’s critique is mostly of global economic injustice rather than the nature of employment per se. Also, we may wish a richer envisioning of leisure than his time for rest and feasting. In any case, he is right that machines and industrial techniques are more efficient at producing things than people. Gross domestic product in the UK, even taking into account inflation, has more tripled in the last fifty years,xix and although the average working week has shrunk in size since then, the average British worker still puts in around 43 hours a week.xx This taken with the fact that only a small proportion of the populace are needed to produce food, we could in theory enjoy a 1950’s lifestyle -i.e. one with a lot less energy consumption and consumer goods- by working less than 20 hours a week. Obviously there are some economic complexities being ignored here, but the fact of the matter remains that we have at least the technological means to meet our productive needs while limiting hours worked.
In Praise of Idleness
“I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”xxi
‘In Praise of Idleness’ is one of Bertrand Russell’s many popular essays. Despite its whimsical style, the essay has some clear arguments against the culture of work. He argues that in pre-industrial times leisure was the preserve of a select few, but with modern industrial techniques that right to leisure can be more ‘evenly distributed throughout the community’.xxii This presumption in favour of leisure is that it is the precondition for civilisation. In ancient Greece, the products of civilisation, of the leisured class, were dependent on the labours of the many. Their work was good not in-itself, but in that it enabled the leisure class both to live leisurely, and to produce great works of art and philosophy, and to start developing the sciences. This aristocratic argument in favour of the reduction of work was previously made by Oscar Wilde in his essay ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’.xxiii There he made the argument that in the past only a few Darwins and Keats have been free from the constraint of living for others (being employed), but without the constraint of work, we could have a culture of culture.
Interestingly, Russell has a real-life example of widescale diminution of productive work. He points to the Great War, in which many people were engaged in military roles, making munitions, propaganda and so on. But despite this, he claims that the general level of wellbeing among unskilled labourers was higher than before. Without the relevant figures we might have to just take his word for this (he was there at the time). In any case, his argument is that the scientific organisation of labour that allowed a large portion of the population to be made free for fighting and munition work, could be harnessed to organise work such that each could have it but at only four hours a day. Nowadays, political sentiment has shifted, and fullscale benevolent scientific management of the economy is unlikely to become public policy; however, a programme which achieved the functionally equivalent: the employment of all with limited hours, is perhaps more feasible. Russell’s argument respects a certain level of reciprocity: everyone should work for their keep, but nobody should be overworked (and arguably 43 hours a week is overwork).
Rather than have some people- the unemployed and the very rich- not work, and everyone else work excessively, the work could be shared and thereby provide everyone with leisure time. Russell has a strong presumption in favour of leisure. This presumption isn’t universally shared. Galbraith argues that there is no intrinsic reason why paid work should be more unpleasant than leisure, especially given that the activities involved in one can be the same as the other.xxiv I may fix watches or perform hypnotherapy for a living or just as a hobby. In either case, the activity is the same. The crucial difference is that except for Galbraith’s New Class, most employment is not such that it would be taken up as a hobby. A stronger objection is that leisure is in fact worse than work. Aldous Huxley claimed once that it is only the exceptionally stupid or the exceptionally gifted that can long withstand the burden of leisurexxv- most of us require something to do. There is a clear difference, however, between complete inactivity (which few can bear), and not engaging in paid employment. Russell admits that those who are accustomed to spending most of their waking hours in employment may well find it difficult to deal with extra leisure. This isn’t so much an indictment of the proposal, but of the current state of affairs in which people haven’t the skills and resources to autonomously direct their free time. This is a line of argument Illich explores.
In sum, Russell’s position is this: we have the technology to free people from work and make work time small in comparison to leisure time; leisure is itself good, not only in that it is pleasant, but also a prerequisite, along with education, for culture; thus, as we can increase leisure time, and leisure is manifestly better than work, we should increase leisure by reducing and more fairly distributing working hours. It’s important to get a handle on what it meant by leisure. There are different ways of understanding leisure. It can be understood as the pursuit of leisure activities (golf, euchre, swimming etc.), but this is not what Russel has in mind. What he means is leisure as free time. There are two relevant senses of this form of leisure: leisure as inactivity or purposeless activity (the opposite of the broad definition of work as purposeful activity); and leisure as time spent not employed (in distinction to work as employment). Russell uses this latter sense, which is not incompatible with working in a broad sense (for oneself, others or some ideal). His argument isn’t so much that employment is necessarily bad (he identifies work directing other people as enjoyable), but that the products of civilisation are so valuable. It might be objected that culture can and is routinely created in the context of regular paid employment (and self-employment). Professional opera companies, studio painters and popular novelists are all paid to create art. This is true, but it misses Russell’s point, which is that everyone should have the leisure and resources to create artistic works and events, engage in discussions and develop ideas; not a select few who have the time to do so, or those that are employed to do so. Actually, it is already the case with the gift economy aspects of the internet whereby millions of unpaid people freely share content with one another.xxvi
The Right To Useful Unemployment
“Wherever the shadow of economic growth touches us, we are left useless unless employed on a job or engaged in consumption: the attempt to build a house or set a bone outside of the control of a certified specialist appears as anarchic conceit.”
Ivan Illich was an anarchist philosopher whose work spanned the twentieth century. A Catholic priest, he also introduced the concept of ‘deschooling’. His long essay, The Right to Useful Unemployment, contains several related arguments, but I’ll only be looking at the argument in defence of useful unemployment. The first part of the argument is essentially that increasingly in modern society the individual is unable to use their free time in an autonomous way. This useful unemployment matches the third sense of leisure discussed earlier: leisure as intrinsically motivated activity, with the perception of freedom. Thus, Illich’s ‘useful unemployment’ is characterised not by lack of activity, or rest for the sake of recovering for work; nor is it found in the consumption of leisure products. Useful unemployment, autonomous free-time, is self-directed time spent on activities that are chosen by the individualeither for their own sake, or for some freely chosen goal. This precludes most forms of employment, in which one takes up goals chosen by others and spends time on activities which they wouldn’t chose if they were not under compulsion (of starvation, lack of a home etc.), or trying to maintain status. This focus on leisure constitutes a stark contrast of emphasis with the focus on the right to socially useful employment traditionally espoused by socialists.
Illich identifies at least three reasons for the diminished realm of autonomous activity: professionalisation, stupefying education and unequal distribution of resources. Professionalisation is the process in which we outsource decisions about our lives to professionals, and what was once a need becomes a product or service. This can be relatively benign: for instance, we might think trusting doctors with our health-related choices is in our best interest. However, the trouble comes when the providers of professionalised products and services become the sole providers, and we no longer have the choice to make our decisions for ourselves. This can be enshrined in law: in many countries it is illegal to do your own electrics or plumbing without a certificate (which one must pay to obtain). This essentially disables the auto-electrician and limits the individuals’ autonomy. Not being able to wire up the house on a whim is a small freedom to lose, but significant when combined with all the other freedoms lost to professionalisation. My realm of freedom is severely diminished when I must give way to the electrician, planning officer, plumber and architect when I want to build my home; give way to the doctor and dentist when I wish to set a limb or remove a tooth; and give way to the lawyer, and solicitor when I wish to settle my affairs. Beyond legal limits to self-directed action, there are cultural limits: if I cut my own hair; clean my own office or care for my children then I am taking work from the hairdresser, cleaner and carer.
One of Illich’s reoccurring themes is the conflation of learning with the undergoing of formalised education.xxvii What the establishment requires in schooling is the passing of exams, and what is required by places of employment is qualifications- exams passed; having the skills and knowledge required to pass an exam clearly isn’t the same as having a good understanding. Under the professionalisation of learning, the parent has a legal obligation to put their child through formalised education, and formalised education is the prerequisite for many forms of autonomous action (e.g. auto-electricianing). There are a number of ways in which education can be ‘stupefying’xxviii. As noted, it conflates learning with the achievement of qualifications. Schooling also habituates pupils for future employment. This is not so much due to the curriculum, which may include many items of knowledge that are only really appreciable for their own sake, and not for any future practical use (such a poetry analysis, trigonometry and the formation of oxbow lakes). More rather, schooling prepares the child for employment in requiring them to arrive at the same time every day, follow instructions and submit to authority figures whether or not it bores or frustrates them. In this way, the structure of schooling conditions the child for the structure of the workplace. Furthermore, the prolonged entrusting of learning to a body of professionals entails the pupil’s loss of responsibility for their own learning. The students’ capacity for autonomous self-directed learning is effectively quelled. Thus it is one of Illich’s core claims that a different form of education is necessary before people can use their free time in autonomous activity.
Of course, useful unemployment also requires resources. First, a person must have time not spent in employment. Most people’s working hours do not fully encompass all their waking hours, but when ‘shadow work’ is taken into into account the number of free hours a worker effectively has is often limited. Shadow work can be understood as any unpaid activity necessary for the undertaking of employment, that one wouldn’t otherwise perform. This includes hours spent travelling to the workplace; the months spent acquiring necessary qualifications; the minutes lost to washing uniforms; and all the time spent recuperating from work, whether that be in increased rest or increased passive consumption of television programming. Even without taking into account unpaid overtime, the extent of shadow work in any given worker’s life is already considerable. Add to this the time which must be spent attending to needs: eating, sleeping and so on, genuine free time is left a scarce resource for most.
Even if one does have the time (and people certainly do manage to complete D.I.Y. projects and learn languages), material resources are also necessary for many forms of autonomous activity. If I want build a house or grow a garden I must have land and the tools. Under present arrangements, the distribution of land, tools, other resources and monetary means of obtaining these resources, are a highly inequitable. A recent study by the World Bank estimates that the richest 1% of the world’s population own as much assets as the poorest 57%.xxixAlthough income disparity does differ between different countries, it is the case that in all countries resources are unequally distributed and most people must engage in paid employment for the means to spend their free time autonomously.
So how useful is Illich’s conception of useful employment and its impediments? Critics will take issue at the underlying presumption that choosing employment isn’t (or at least doesn’t tend to be) an autonomous choice. If working at a job is an autonomous action, then we might not think there is any need for a useful unemployment. Here a lot rests on the notion of ‘autonomy’. Of course, small forests have been pulped over the meaning of autonomy and it is not my aim to substantially add to this. At the very least, an autonomous choice is one which is not undertaken under compulsion, and which involves meaningful alternatives to pick from. An autonomous activity is any activity in which the choices faced while performing that activity are autonomous, including the choice to perform that activity. So, one might freely choose to become a slave, but the choices made under conditions of slavery are not autonomous.
In a developed country with a welfare safety-net, a job is not really taken under compulsion of starvation and we might think that all that we should assure for the sake of autonomy is that there be a set of good options of employment to choose from. A liberal egalitarian following Rawls’ principles of justice may be satisfied so long as offices and positions are open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.However, even if there are a good range of choices of job available (and in world of systemic unemployment, this seems increasingly less likely), there is typically a lack of meaningful choice within that job. In typical employment, the employee’s time and decisions are chosen by others. The hours worked, the way of completing tasks and the tasks that must be completed are all often out of the control of the worker. Certainly not all jobs are completely void of autonomy. Being employed as a CEO, lecturer or freelance bail bond agent involves greater freedom of choice over the work and how it is performed than a factory seamstress or a commercial pilot.xxx
Here we might think that as well as having a good choice of employment available, that employment should also be meaningful. So again, rather than supporting a right to useful unemployment (as nice as that is) we might simply advocate a right to meaningful work.xxxi In contrast, we might think that autonomy and meaningful work aren’t the only worthwhile goals (hardly a controversial claim) and as such, we shouldn’t advocate a right to meaningful work.xxxii Afterall, some people would prefer constrained but well paying work if, say, they value consumer goods more. However, this is because they have been educated for work, and their preferences have been shaped in this environment. Likewise, the attitude of habitually sacrificing daily enjoyment for future gains that underlies a tolerance for unfulfilling, repetitive or unpleasant work is typically inculcated by formalised education and the nature of the work itself. This attitude isn’t found in non-industrial peoples, who typically value ludic approaches to work.xxxiii Under a more ideal preference-forming environment, it is doubtful that anyone would choose meaningless or heteronymous work. This still might not be enough to create a presumption in favour of an outright right to meaningful work: we may think, like Richard Arneson, that it is enough only to have meaningful work as one option available.xxxiv
Is this the same with Illich’s useful unemployment? Does anyone have a preference for constrained time, spent acting towards goals chosen by others? Well, clearly yes. Many people are unable to enjoy unemployment even when they possess ample resources. This is because they have been educated for work and do not have the skills to cope without authoritative command and the scheduled structure of work. Like the tolerance for meaningless, an intolerance for free time is likely often due to skewed preference formation and the conditioning of formal schooling. One cannot form a preference for something which one knows nothing about and has little chance to experience. The weaker Right to Form a Preference for Useful Unemployment still requires the elimination or at least reduction of the inhibiting factors of professionalisation, formalised education and inequitable distribution of resources. Whatever our preferences might be, it is surely better not to be disabled when not on a job or engaged in consumption.
Routine and the Reduction of Qualitative Life
My own critique of employment is that most forms of employment, after a point, reduce a person’s qualitative life-span, and that heavily routinised work is an anathema not just to an interesting life, but to all experiential life. It is an uncontroversial claim to say that the vast majority of jobs involve routine, and routinised tasks make up a significant part of these jobs. This isn’t limited to just agriculture and industry (areas that despite automation make up the bulk of all human employment), but is obviously a large part of service-sector jobs. Routine brings many benefits, not least the internalisation of of tasks which would be onerous to learn afresh each time.
The problem is that when an event becomes subsumed into a routine, and is performed over many times, the individual instances of this event are likely to be forgotten. We do not remember every time we have brushed our teeth, just as the telemarketer does not remember every phonecall nor the dustbin collector every bin collection. In order to see why this is a problem, it is helpful to reflect on why we think shortening someone’s lifespan is a bad thing. Let’s imagine the following scenario: you have an disease that due to well accepted physical laws will never be cured. However, the doctors can stave off the disease for five years, after which you will certainly die. Alternatively, they can put you into a coma and keep you on life support for a further forty years. This second choice will increase your physical life-span, but most people would choose five years alive and well over forty coma years. The reason for this is clear: we value our qualitative life-span over our quantitative lifespan. That is, time spent actually experiencing the world, rather than time spent just living. Those that do favour the coma option often do so because they anticipate a rich innerlife, or at least a vivid series of coma dreams. That is, the benefit of the coma for them is that it offers a longer time having experiences.
Again, imagine two people who have exactly the same lifespan. One of them, Paul, leads a highly routinised life: for most of his life he commutes every weekday into work following the same route, he works in that same firm for forty years, after a childhood spent in strict school attendance and before a retirement mostly spent to the orderly timetable of the care home. Quentin, on the other hand, lives an unpredictable life travelling the world, taking hundreds of different and varied jobs and meeting thousands of people in a wide range of circumstances; his childhood is itinerant and his old age is spent reinventing himself. Experientially, Paul lives the same day over and over each with minor variations. When they both die, Quentin will have had a much fuller life, in a very literal sense.
Routinised work that employment offers may give us new experiences, but as far as these go there are significant diminishing returns for each iteration of the routine. If we were only interested in having new, qualitatively distinct experiences, routine work would have great opportunity costs. Of course, some people don’t mind rote work, and others may like reading the same books over and over. This just goes to show that having qualitatively distinct experiences isn’t the only value people have.
The Anti-Employment Position
Now that a number of anti-employment perspectives have been surveyed I can synthesise them and a composite anti-work position can be sketched. The realm of jobs should be reduced because employment is so bad and autonomous free time is so good. Employment is unhealthy, it reduces one’s qualitative lifespan and if engaged in too narrowly, limits our intellectual growth. Useful unemployment is necessary for the products of civilisation, is intrinsically rewarding, and gives us the time to be good friends to one another. Productive work should still be done, but there is a big difference between productive work and employment.
Here we have a critical view of employment which has a utopian element in that it is very far from the current norms of thinking about these matters. Further, it is amenable to different and possibly contradictory realisations. Should we have a scientific socialist management of the economy to ensure that jobs and income are justly distributed? Or a universal basic income that would allow all members of society to engage in useful unemployment should they choose, with an incentive for businesses to make unpleasant work more pleasant or higher paid to coax those on the basic income to work? What about popular control of the farms and factories such that production levels, and less work, can be decided for en masse?
Nevertheless, a serious challenge has been presented to the claim that it is peoples’ interests to increase the total amount of work done via employment.