It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I think there’s at least a few problems with modern day work.
In no particular order, here are some of my biggest issues with work, as it exists:
- It’s quasi-compulsory: Artificial scarcity enforced through laws, regulations and especially intellectual property sets up barriers, which makes it harder for people to work for themselves, as opposed to bosses. People by near-necessity have to work for corporations and not companies they have any person or financial stake in due to these same regulations that make it easier for corporations to exist than worker cooperatives, for instance.
- It’s hierarchical: Unless you live in a cooperative or work for yourself (and even in some cases, that’s still not really non-hierarchical thanks to companies like Uber) you’re submitting your work to some “higher” authority. There are all sorts of issues this that exist both in economics and psychology. But basically, bosses get in the way of workers actually being productive by scheduling unnecessary meetings, interrupting their flow and overloading them with deadlines and busy-work.
- It’s capitalistic: Theoretically you can have worker cooperatives with hierarchies (I’ve discussed this here) and have worker cooperatives under capitalism. Capitalism is one of the central forces behind what makes work so objectionable to begin with. By “capitalism” I mean a system of privileges that are most distributed to those with the largest amounts of capital or come from those types of upbringings. A capitalist system is one that benefits capital (material capital, that is) and those who wield it the best instead of those who do the majority of the labor. And often it benefits them even if the land or laborers will suffer. So capitalism, or any system that benefits one of these three factors of production over the others, is an inherently unbalanced and unfair system. Especially when those privileges are dispensed by governments who are often in partnership with the capitalists.
There’s other objections I have but notice something: No amount of reform would fundamentally challenge work.
So count me skeptical when people celebrate their workplace having a four day workweek. I’m not saying that this isn’t some marginal form of cultural progress, but it’s also not the golden key to improving work that some CEOs seem to think it is. They think their innovating work in such a way that it’ll be better for people, and it will.
At the same time, it’s not enough.
Work cannot be saved or reformed, it can only be abolished. Maybe that’s only in the long-term and in the short-run we have to keep watching these CEOs claiming they’ve found the next step in work innovation. If so, there are worse ways I to get to the eventual abolition of work. But ideally, I’d like to skip the unnecessary rounds of CEOs patting themselves on the back for recognizing the obvious (work sucks) and then barely changing anything meaningful. Then again, it shouldn’t be surprising, giving the fundamental problems with work that I listed, that they won’t meaningfully challenge anything.
They can’t because their jobs depend on those things as well. We should never expect the abolition of work to come from a CEO anymore than the abolition of the government to come from a bureaucrat. All of this hand-wringing about how many days we work is ultimately a distraction, ditto for the amount of hours we work.
Ultimately, these things are just the window dressing of why work sucks so much.
Sure, it’s helpful to give workers less hours and less days for jobs they’d rather be away from. I’m not necessarily discounting the enormous value that having a four day workweek can have for some folks. But this value is mostly subsumed and claimed by corporations, not the workers. The workers will not be the ones seizing this opportunity for themselves or their communities, so long as CEOs think they can still call the shots of how work should be reformed.
I’d honestly respect these calls for reform a little more if workers were actually leading the charge. If workers were the ones who were implementing these changes in their workplace. But ultimately, these changes come from on high and are only staying there because a “wild-eyed” CEO thinks it’s a good idea. Oh sure, it’s helpful the workers enjoy the policy but ultimately the stakeholders and the CEO matter more, that’s capitalism after all!
One thing that worries me comes from the CEO of Dreamr, Mylo Kaye:
Giving your team extra time to relax and learn new skills is an important part of ensuring you build a loyal workforce, attracting the right talent but also showing that you care about them, and not just profits.
This is an especially concerning angle for me because I aspire for workers to be as non-loyal to the capitalist class as possible. One of the (many) reasons I have a hard time unambiguously cheering on these sorts of reforms that have to do with how many days or hours folks work is because it’s in the service of capitalism.
It’s like a modern liberal movement to Make Capitalism Great Again, or something. And for pretty obvious reasons, I think that’s a movement worth being highly skeptical of, to say the least. Because capitalism was never (and will never in all likelihood) great. The “Gilded Age” is a myth propagated mostly conservatives and castigated for all of the wrong reasons by liberals who think it was some sort of “free market”, you know despite the government’s major involvement.
I don’t want capitalism to be “great” because I don’t want a capitalist system at all. And you can’t reform what makes capitalism so bad in the first place if you aren’t even recognizing that capitalism is a problem to begin with.
And does anyone really think that CEOs of all people, are well incentivized to recognize capitalism’s flaws? Again, this is similar to the liberal notion that a small class of politicians will rise up against the lobbyists, the big banks, the CEOs, the corporations and so on, against all of their realistic interests.
I usually work a three day workweek and I have to tell you, capitalism hasn’t crumbled yet.
And I doubt that’s gonna happen anytime soon either.
It helps me focus more on what I actually love doing (e.g. writing for this site, writing my comic book, playing music, etc.) but it isn’t some sort of revolutionary maneuver I’ve done. It’s a strategy to help me survive at a job I hate so I can eventually move on to a job that I like or even love.
But then, the point for these would-be reformists isn’t to fundamentally challenge work and how we interact with it but change some of the most obvious facets of what’s going wrong. And of course, it is has to happen from the top down, how else could it happen? We couldn’t possibly trust workers to understand their own profession better, right?
Google’s Larry Page is right when he says:
“The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is just not true,” he said. People need to feel busy and productive, he said, but they don’t need to work so much to get there.
“Most people like working, but they’d also like to have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests,” Page added.
But this truism doesn’t stop at reducing hours or days it stops when work itself is abolished. Because as long as work exists, we’ll always trying to meet other people’s needs or else balancing our own with theirs. Instead, we should be prioritizing our own goals as much as possible, over and above the companies we work for.
If you’re one of those lucky folks who genuinely enjoys your work, whatever the amount of hours or days you work, then congratulations. But for most people I know, most people my age and even some who are not my age, this isn’t their reality. They don’t have the luxury of, for example, cartooning for a living. And even in this example, this woman is quite obviously overbooking herself and barley getting by and that’s with highly reduced living costs.
So these are the costs of working under a capitalist system. And even if we removed capitalism and kept the hierarchical relations (maybe they’d be “project managers” instead of “bosses”) and the quasi-compulsory nature, changing the amount of hours or days we work won’t stop people from suffering at jobs they fundamentally don’t want to have.
And many of these jobs just aren’t necessary to begin with, regardless of how many hours or days you put into them.
I feel like I’m not being clear enough, so let’s sum this up:
Liberals, either radicalize your tactics so you don’t keep falling for these CEOs and their new-age business theories of (for example) getting rid of offices and reducing work hours and days.
Or get out of the way of the people who won’t buy into it.
You know, the ones who are going to actually make a difference.
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