Monday, July 02, 2012

Why Work?

An interesting article in the Guardian echoing much of what the Socialist Party has said over the years.

Surveys have long shown that most workers think their jobs are pointless.

The dream of automation leading to shorter working hours seems forgotten. Science and engineering have brought great benefits but not to the time we have to toil and labour. A few decades ago one thing practically all futurologists once agreed on, it's that in the 21st century there would be a lot less work. We were heading into a 'leisure society' in which all of us would have to work less arduous hours because computers and robots would be doing much of the work. What we have got in fact is a society in which most of the population still works long hours for less pay, and the unlucky ones live a life of enforced impoverished idleness.What would they have thought, if they had known that in 2012, the 9-5 working day had in the UK become something more like 7am to 7pm? They would surely have looked around and seen technology take over in many professions which previously needed heavy manpower, they would have looked at the increase in automation and mass production, and wondered – why are they spending 12 hours a day on menial tasks?

Socialists and other futurologists believed that work would come near to being abolished for one reason above all – we could let the machines do it. The socialist thinker Paul Lafargue wrote in his pointedly titled tract The Right To Be Lazy (1883):

    "Our machines, with breath of fire, with limbs of unwearying steel, with fruitfulness wonderful inexhaustible, accomplish by themselves with docility their sacred labour. And nevertheless the genius of the great philosophers of capitalism remains dominated by the prejudices of the wage system, worst of slaveries. They do not yet understand that the machine is the saviour of humanity, the god who shall redeem man from working for hire, the god who shall give him leisure and liberty."


Oscar Wilde evidently agreed – in his 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, he scorns the "nonsense that is written and talked today about the dignity of manual labour", and insists that "man is made for something better than distributing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine". He makes quite clear what he means:

    "Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing".

Both Lafargue and Wilde would have been horrified if they'd realised that only 20 years later manual work itself would become an ideology in Labour and "Communist" parties, dedicating themselves to its glorification rather than abolition...

 The designer, engineer and polymath Buckminster Fuller declared that the "industrial equation", ie the fact technology enables mankind to do "more with less", would soon eliminate the very notion of labour altogether. In 1963, he wrote: "Within a century, the word 'worker' will have no current meaning. It will be something you will have to look up in an early 20th-century dictionary".

Yet the utopian vision of the elimination of industrial labour has in many ways come to pass. Over the past decade Sheffield steelworks produced more steel than ever before, with a tiny fraction of their former workforce; and the container ports of Avonmouth, Tilbury, Teesport and Southampton got rid of most of the dockers, but not the tonnage. The result was not that dockers or steelworkers were free to, as Marx once put it, "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and criticise after dinner".

 Instead, they were subjected to shame, poverty, and the endless worry over finding another job, which, if it arrived, might be insecure, poorly paid, un-unionised work in the service industry. In the current era of casualisation, that's practically the norm, so the idea of skilled, secure labour and pride in work doesn't seem quite so awful. Nonetheless, the workers' movement was once dedicated to the eventual abolition of all menial, tedious, grinding work. We have the machines to make that a reality today – but none of the will. This absurd system will stay that way for the time being because that's how the capitalist class derives its profit. We have the means to produce enough goods for everyone in the world to have all they need but capitalists would rather limit what is produced so that scarcity prevails.

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