Refusing Wage-Labour: From Practicality To Necessity

Historically there have been many reasons why the reduction of labour time and even the abolition of wage labour itself has been seen not only in a positive light but as an achievable concrete goal. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes in his famous paper ‘Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren’, wrote:

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.

By the economic problem Keynes was referring to the fundamental premise that lies behind most work, that is, the struggle for subsistence and the general procurement of our material needs. The real issue as Keynes saw it could essentially be summed up in two words, what next? After many years of being raised in societies which positioned work as not only a necessity but as something through which people were conditioned to seek their fulfilment, how would people adjust to a reality where this was no longer the case. Keynes was so concerned that he considered what then seemed like radical way of staving off the supposed tedium of endless free-time a 15-hour workweek:

But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

However, in 2019, it appears Keynes concerns were possibly misjudged, despite a steady decline in working hours since the late 19th century workers on average work more than double the number of hours Keynes prophesied. Additionally, these statistics only count for compensated work, in 2018 research conducted by the TUC suggested many workers find themselves working ten or more hours a week unpaid, either due to the volume of work they regularly have to deal with or occasionally pressure from line managers or bosses. 

This also leaves out one of the largest sources of uncompensated work, domestic chores, which in every OECD country is disproportionately performed by women with on average men doing around 136 minutes and women doing around 264 minutes of unpaid domestic labour. This work, often referred to as ‘invisible labour’ cannot and should not be seen as separable from paid work as Silvia Federici noted in ‘Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle’ domestic work is a crucial component of social reproduction that is to say, the labour required to reproduce workers not only in the literal sense of having, bearing and caring for children but also in the sense of the numerous varied processes that take place outside of what is typically deemed the working day. As Federici put it.

Not only did feminists establish that the reproduction of labor power involves a far broader range of activities than the consumption of commodities, since food must be prepared, clothes have to be washed, bodies have to be stroked and cared for.

In Federici, we can also see one of the manifestations of the refusal of work in her documentation and work alongside predominantly Italian women in the 1970s which culminated in the campaign.  Wages for Housework which among demands for unemployment benefits, equal pay and parental leave called for recognition of reproductive labour as the foundation for industrial labour yet labour which had not been deemed productive enough to be recognised as paid work. Within these demands is another important concept, that domestic labour be recognised as work not only so it can be compensated but also so that it can be refused as Federici points out part of the reason for persistence of this arrangement was the idea that housework is something that is always done out of a sense of duty or love rather than being a necessary component of wage labour overall. 

The quantization of time and the specialisation of work, under wage labour has other effects as well, in 2013 Forbes magazine printed an astonishing article where based on the results of a Gallup poll meant to measure employee satisfaction a huge number of workers reported feeling unsatisfied by their job. The poll surveyed around 230,000 people in 142 countries and found only 13% of workers felt engaged by their job, including a connection to their colleagues and a desire beyond subsistence to push the company forward. 63% felt not engaged meaning they were unhappy but not severely so, whilst 24% despised their work to the point of wanting to undermine their workplaces.

Taking the last two together, the picture appears somewhat bleak with 87% of workers feeling actively disengaged from their work. Gallup offers some technocratic fixes, suggested that more highly educated workers appear to derive more satisfaction from their work, but I would argue the issue is perhaps more fundamental. In 1844, Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 coined the term Entfremdung theory literally translated as “estrangement theory” but more commonly known as the Theory of Alienation. In this work, Marx theorised that a large part of the alienation that workers feel under the current mode of production is due to the relative distance between the worker and the products of their work. Or to put it another way:

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have, in two ways, affirmed himself, and the other person. (i) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and, therefore, enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also, when looking at the object, I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses, and, hence, a power beyond all doubt. (ii) In your enjoyment, or use, of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature […] Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.

This is further reflected by the work of Shantz, Alfes, Truss and Soane in their paper ‘Drivers and outcomes of work alienation: reviving a concept’ which examines the political and social relationships around employment. Selecting autonomy, variety, task identity and social relationships as precursors for a deeper investigation into alienation the group surveyed 671 workers from a construction and consultancy firm. At the conclusion of their work, the group discovered that alienation was both negatively correlated with productivity and positively correlated with what the group defined as workplace deviance such as spending time away from their tasks on personal matters. A closer look at their work revealed that task identity and task variance were inversely related to feelings of alienation leading to the group suggesting that workers that enjoyed a wider variety of tasks and who could generally see how their work was connected to the function of the business more generally felt less alienated. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly for most, this has not been accompanied by a corresponding rise in wages, although curiously it has for executives and business owners at the top end of the scale

This research also has some bearing when considering labour time and output, in 2017 The Pew Research centre put out a report confirming what many Americans already knew, that jobs in manufacturing had fallen at a fairly steady pace since the 1980s, however, what perhaps isn’t so well known is that total output has continued to rise during that time.

Similar patterns can be seen in agriculture where despite employment in the field being at a record low productivity has continued to rise. According to a 2018, report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers even service sector jobs which appear to have taken on on many of the people displaced by these changes within do not appear to be entirely outside of this phenomena as automation continues to expand its scope. However, rather than seeing this as a potential problem what I would instead advocate is, rather than seeking additional ways to capitalize our time including gig economy work which, perhaps ironically includes literal wages for housework, is a revival of the Keynesian utopia the reduction and eventual abolition of wage-labour. Rather than the patterns seen so far which indicate that these advances in technology are largely directed in service of profit and shareholder and executive pay, the progressive abolition of wage-labour and the maintenance of pay levels will look to convert these technological advancements into free time for all. 

There have been some moves in this direction already, in New Zealand the Perpetual Guardian financial services company trialled reducing their hours by 20 per cent and discovered not only did their employees report being happier, having a better work-life balance and decreased stress levels they were also 20% more productive. However perhaps more interesting is that the effects of any potential decline in profits or increase in the cost of labour, on the owners of businesses as generally this has favourably correlated with the increased use of automation in order to continue the increasing the levels of profits. This provides further scope for additional decreases in working time. Decreasing time spent in work also provides additional time not only for leisure but also for organizing in order to secure additional improvements within the working environment including perhaps altering some of the factors associated with alienation.

Another way organisations might choose to deal with the decreases in the availability of wage labour caused by a reduction of work time is simply by hiring more workers bringing into the fold many of the workers currently classified as non-labour force participants. Thus reducing the abstract threat of the industrial reserve army of labour often bandied as a cudgel by those looking to appeal to nativist prejudice. Some evidence of this can be seen the rise of precarious work which, in order to preserve profits has led to rises in zero-hours contracts and the increasing numbers relying on the gig economy to supplement these wages. 

A 2019 report by the multi-disciplinary think tank Autonomy highlights perhaps one of the most critical aspects of a program to reduce wage labour which is its potential environmental benefits. A reduction in work time would allow for more time to be spent on less polluting or entirely carbon-neutral forms of transport, such as cycling, walking or running. This is particularly urgent given that recent estimates have suggested almost 40,000 deaths a year are linked to air pollution with almost a quarter of those occurring within London alongside strong links to the development and exacerbation of respiratory conditions such as asthma.

More time for domestic labour would allow for additional time being made available for food preparation, particularly food preparation that requires fresh ingredients rather than frozen microwave meals which, aside from their often less nutritious content generally require greater energy consumption. An abundance of time outside of working hours, Autonomy suggests, could also allow for a shift towards ‘soft’ carbon neutral activities such as sports, socialising and personal education. These activities as well as improving physical and mental health, can also foster greater social and/or political engagement in local community activities as well as engendering personal growth. 

Many have reflected on the merits of free time, Over two thousand years ago the Roman Statesman Cicero offered the concept “Otium Cum Dignitate”, roughly translated as “leisure with dignity” as a template of how an honest person should live. This was in some ways an unusual concept as typically Roman society would not consider Otium, in itself as a way of obtaining dignity rather dignity was something earnt in the service of the state. As such dignity was something reserved for the public space and in the negation of idleness and Otium was itself, something that was reserved only for nobility.

In 1932 Bertrand Russel, the British philosopher and mathematician submitted an essay to the US magazine Harper’s entitled “In Praise of Idleness” where he noted that the virtuousness of work was historically linked to the desires of the propertied class who enjoyed a far more leisurely lifestyle. He traced the desirability of work and its supposed necessity through the feudal age into the industrial age before making the incendiary statement that “The morality of work is the morality of slaves and the modern world has no need of slavery” after connecting work and it’s continuing propagation to the interests of the few.

At the time of writing the downward trajectory of working hours, appears to have ground to a halt but rather than place the blame for this on technological stagnation or falling productivity, both of which would be incorrect instead I suggest it should be located in the realm of political will. Victories by German trade unions in 2018 show early indications of what is possible, but rather than simply creating a situation where a reduction of working time for some workers lead to a situation where more 40-hour jobs could be created, as was the case at IG Metcalf, such moves should be seen as the first step the emancipating ourselves from wage labour altogether and rediscovering the possibility of leisure time for all.

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