When “Progress” Means Stepping on People, It Gets Easier to See


Remember when I wrote that article about how capitalism justifies itself with bogus studies that seems plausible enough or make it sound like capitalism has done a good job? Right, of course you do, because that was literally the last article. Luckily, I totally planned for this next article to be an excellent display of that very phenomenon that I was just discussing! What a genius I am!

In all seriousness, a friend of mine sent me this article from HumanProgress.org by Marian Tupy a while ago and as mentioned, it lines up with what I discussed last time. Serendipity! The article goes over how markets have achieved what Karl Marx wanted: Less work (or labor if you prefer).

Let’s put to the side that Marxism’s (a popular form of communism) main goal is a classless and stateless society where money is abolished and the means of production are collectively owned instead of privately owned. But if you really think about it all Marx wanted was…less labor? Sure.

For the sake of argument let’s grant that reductive perception of Marxism and get to the article itself which proudly compares modern America to the Industrial Revolution:

In 1830, the workweek in the industrializing West averaged about 70 hours or, Sundays excluded, 11.6 hours of work per day. By 1890 that fell to 60 hours per week or 10 hours per day. Thirty years later, the workweek in advanced societies stood at 50 hours or 8.3 hours per day. Today, people in advanced societies work less than 40 hours per week. That still amounts to roughly 8 hours per day, because workers typically don’t work on Saturdays. The “weekend” was born.

It’s worth noting, from the start, that this was only achieved not because capitalists wanted it to happen but because society at large forced them through cultural osmosis or because workers literally died for their right to work fewer hours. Whether it’s the radical unions, the reformist ones or individuals striking, these changes didn’t happen without the blood, sweat, and tears from just about everyone except the supposedly noble capitalists in charge.

In fact, these same capitalists often stood in the way of progress. The only reason we have the 40 hour work week is because workers fought for it in the first place. And even when capitalists such as Henry Ford started instituting an 8 hour work day at their own factories it was often in response to the long and desperate pleas from workers for an easier life not because of their generosity.

“That happened more than 60 years after workers, through their unions, began organizing for an eight-hour day in the 1860s,” said David Bensman, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations. “When Ford adopted the eight-hour day for his factory, he was responding to a working force that had been demanding the eight-hour day for a long time.” (Source)

And so change had to come from the bottom up through unions, workers, protests, riots much like any other significant societal change throughout history and across cultures. The capitalists were not the ones largely clamoring for these changes to the worker hours and even when they did these were (as the source I linked states) policies now laws which could be,

…yanked away whenever the cost exceeded profits,” said Robert Bruno, a professor with the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations.

Companies that operated this way, Bruno said, often revoked these policies when the Great Depression hit.

So even if we admit the studies findings (more on this in a moment), the changes didn’t happen neutrally or without great amounts of conflict from the bottom to the top. Capitalism is then, at best, highly resistant to the positive change that Tupy is trying to establish here. And so even if capitalism was responsible for less hours (it isn’t, unions are) this is “responsibility” where your friend threw your basketball in the net and you somehow take credit, it just doesn’t add up.

Another problem with these studies is that in this article and where it was originally written there are almost no citations for this data or where it comes from. The article hand waves its limitations more than once by saying that “scholars estimate”, “Data for developing countries is difficult to come by”, ” International comparisons are difficult” and “Whether the United States is representative of a broader trend is unclear”, etc.

The only source given is the American Use Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Americans enjoyed, on average, 5.24 hours of leisure and sports per day in 2017. That was 2.5 percent more than when the survey started in 2003.

When it comes to this survey there’s many problems with it and you can find that just by looking it up with the words “leisure” or just American Use Survey without any qualifiers:

  1. Even if we did have more leisure time, how it’s measured matters. What counts as leisure when women are still doing most of the housework?
  2. What about conflicting data that show that women in particular are working more? Even if we are overall working less (that’s a big if), women aren’t.
  3. What are we doing with that leisure time anyways? Less reading and more sleep doesn’t seem like a glowing recommendation of the American way of life.

And these are just a few problems with using a study that doesn’t count commute time as your work. Nor does it count household work as work (because it’s unpaid). It also doesn’t count the time the unemployed spend frantically looking for new jobs either. Again, because that’s unpaid labor and therefore doesn’t count as non-leisure time. In short, the methodology is very flawed.

I don’t know about any of y’all but I don’t consider time that I dry and put away the dishes to be leisure time. Heck, I don’t even consider exercise to be “leisure” since it actively tests your body against itself. If I’m watching TV, taking a nap/sleeping, going somewhere with my partner, reading, writing or playing video games then that is leisure time because my body is (generally) at rest and I don’t often feel stressed, nor am I being paid, though that’s hardly the main qualifier.

There’s also a simple explanation for that incredibly mild increase in leisure time besides bad measurements: more participants. It’s likely that when you get more people to respond to a survey, get the survey better known and have better technology from which to access and distribute the survey itself, you’ll get more people involved! And that is going to make it so that certain percentages necessarily get bumped up over time. That doesn’t mean capitalism is great!

Lastly, at this point, it’s hardly, “…undeniable that people have more free time than they used to – at least since our nomadic days.” as Tupy claims. It’s only undeniable if you rely on faulty data, a misguided notion of what constitutes progress and an ideology that’s rotten to its core.

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