Work and Shirk is us…

While many people with zero hours contracts probably want to work more, the rest of us with any sort of secure employment usually want to work less.

David Graeber argues that

the concept of selling off one’s time in increments is relatively new. Historically, he says, the idea “that one person’s time can belong to someone else is actually quite peculiar.” To the ancient Greeks, he claims, you were either a slave and your whole life was owned, or you sold a good (an eating utensil, food) that you created as you saw fit. He implicates the shift toward clock time in the Middle Ages as the culprit behind our collective acceptance of wage slavery. Whereas time was traditionally amorphous, determined by geographical distances or chemical transformations (as long as it takes for the bread to rise, the wheat to dry) clock towers and then pocket watches (disallowed in factories so bosses could cheat by meddling with the hour hands on clocks), turned time into discreet, barter-able chunks.

It is certainly true that work before the industrial revolution was in hours terms, very considrably less.

Additionally David Graeber has always suggested that

Naturally, we’re built to work in bursts and then to celebrate and rest, just as Mother Nature ordained, not pace ourselves to produce at an even tempo for hours at a stretch, day after day, all week.

There seems, in spite of current neoliberal capitalist attitudes, no objective reason to suggest any different outlook.

Indeed before the enclosures the prospect of having to find a job would be unusual. Peasants would work on the land and might also, or instead, be craftsmen acquiring a skill via the guild system, but usually and probably, still in the family. A skill would be acquired through appretinceship, a journeyman would be a half way stage and a master [probably in fact ‘master craftsman’] would be the fully skilled man finally self employed and able, if he so wished, to take on his own apprentice. (Interestingly, as an aside, “journey” is a corruption of and derived from journée, meaning “daylong” in French).

Needless to say small peasant proprietors and serfs, after enclosure, became agricultural wage-labourers (although some were paid to give up the property rights, rather as I might have been bribed – as I was eventually – to give up my part ownership of the Halifax Building Society). The small peasant proprietors and serfs and their heirs had little further choice but to leave the countryside and to work in the entirely new, towns, whose opportunities increased further as opportunities decreased on the common lands which were being enclosed.

This was a great contribution to the industrial revolution – at the very moment new technological advances required large numbers of workers, a concentration of large numbers of people in need of work presented itself.

What I have to describe as the new peasant class – I fear I have no other way of so describing working people (including me) – are often beginning to realise that rather than simply wanting to work – we should be wanting to work LESS.

It would interesting to see if Britain’s infamously low productivity might actually improve as the very few instances where less hours have been worked (while maintaining the same pay) seem to have been successful in keeping the same output as before the change. (The Royal Mail have also reduced their staff hours to a 35 hour week though my impression is that this has, in fact, been accompained by a slackening of service standards.)

And thus it may be that the Job Guarantee isn’t so desirable – especially if you want to work less. That is why a Universal Basic Income or Universal Basic Capital is indeed, actually so desirable…

The OECD statistics on working hours are fascinating – generally those you always thought were hard workers turn out mostly to be ‘shirkers’… Even if the hours worked are unlikely to indicate much.

Again David Graeber has suggested that the Calvanist approach that work is in and of itself, valuable is widespread, and that the workshy should be scorned and any uselessness of work was inappropiate to the intrinsic and disciplinary value of all work.

Doesn’t that equate to much Conservatism?

In contrast we have had medics suggest that a shorter working week is likely to be distinctly beneficial. And the New Economics Foundation have their own ideas for ten reasons for a shorter working week.

In the end shouldn’t all progressive thinkers be upholding what could be called ‘the right to regress’ – that is: to work less – and at least as little as our ‘Middle Age’ ancestors?

Perhaps a Universal Basic Income (or Capital) could make up any slack?


  1. Bill Hughes -

    During the 3 day week phase of Edward Heath’s Conservative government due to the coal mine strikes in the 1970s, productivity actually increased and happiness and well being increased for a while. The argument for a 4 day week is attractive and universal basic income a good idea, albeit the exact pay levels and means of implementation may be tricky and requires more thought and research as the recent experiment of UBI in Finland (just a group of 2,000) was not considered succesfull.

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