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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How Work turns our Brains Off (And then Blames us for It!)

It’s Not the Best Choice, It’s [Amazon’s] Choice! Source: http://www.carlybird.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Bored_At_Work.jpg
Another video on my Youtube Watch Later list is on the docket and only a couple left! This time we’re talking about the last Big Think video I saved before I unsubscribed to them however many months later. Part of the issue with Big Think is that they’ll have some interesting videos done by cool folks. But then they’ll also have videos by assholes or they’ll try to get “all perspectives” on a given topic, which, just so happens to include right-wing folks. The comments section is also a pretty big cesspool, especially when anything even marginally left-wing is posted.

I once posted that liberals are not leftists (from an anarchist perspective but they didn’t know that) and it got hundreds of likes quickly because people thought I was insulting leftists!

Anyways, this is a fun and interesting video. I don’t think it tells us much we didn’t already know about work but there are some concepts in it that I was unfamiliar with such as the “seeking system” in brains that often get turned off during work. Many people try to keep these systems within our brain active with podcasts, the ones that help with curiosity and discovery. There’s a technical term for this system which psychologist Dan Cable identifies as the ventral striatum but I’ll just call it the “seeking system” for the sake of spellcheck and my sanity.

This seeking system can’t only be held aloft by podcasts, but they do get us thinking and concentrated on something else besides the menial and repetitive work we’re doing. I know when I’m listening to the NeoScum Podcast (a Shadowrun podcast) it helps me laugh, get myself out of my own head a little and make me think about a far away land. But it also doesn’t replace what’s going on in front of me with something better. It doesn’t take that mop out of my hand and give me a wand or make what I’m doing not menial, just a little more bearable.

These seeking systems are important because they help us learn and as a result, when they are minimized or even turned off we can get bored easier. Our brains are trying to tell us something, that it isn’t us but the work we feel as if we need to, as Cable puts it (paraphrasing), “…get through to make it to the weekend”. After all work is where we typically cannot be with our family, friends, loved ones, beloved hobbies or have the time to do as we please and go on a relaxing walk and explore what’s around us. Cable goes so far as to call this experience an “epidemic” and a “humanistic sickness” which tends to drive us to utter boredom.

One thing that frustrates me about his analysis though is that it focuses in not only on how this harms the workers but the organizations they’re a part of. He notes that this streak of boredom can result in a “lackluster performance” from workers but who cares? Shouldn’t the bosses get lackluster performances when they’re giving us lackluster work?

It’s like that saying goes, “Minimum effort for minimum wage!”

Cable traces back the origin of this boredom to the way work has been scaled up in the past few hundred years. Especially through supposed visionaries and industrialists like Henry Ford who, as Cable denotes, saw curiosity as a problem and a bug, not a feature of the workplace he wanted to build and thrive under capitalism. This kind of workplace breaks work into many small tasks which means that individual workers and even groups of them are all cut off from each other.

This likely reflects a capitalist’s dream of making it much harder for workers to communicate easier about their shared issues and then potentially forming a union and striking. This also led to the punishment/reward systems we tend to see these days in modern workplaces. The employee of the year for a punishment and a firm “talking to” or “notice” for valuing our own autonomy.

Generally, tedious and repetitive tasks are going to tend to drive you to listen to podcasts, music, the whirring of the ceiling fan above you that makes your office just a little bit too cold. It’s going to get your brain starved for things to think about, to process, to understand and discover. And through that starvation you’ll often be told that you are the problem in some way. Why don’t you get another job? Why don’t you go back to school? Why don’t you switch departments or talk to your boss? Anything but try to address the issue: Work itself.

Now, Cable claims that smaller companies tend to do better at increasing curiosity because the people involved are more likely to be engaged with their work. If there are only 50 people as opposed to 50,000 you won’t have the corporate decree of “stay[ing] in your lane” as much. And that seems plausible to some extent.

But even smaller businesses can fall into capitalist traps that punish workers for trying to flex their own autonomy in even the most basic ways. In fact, it can often lead to even worse micromanagement because the firm is much smaller and therefore the employees are much more legible to their bosses. And while Cable is surely right that the cultural expectations of a given company matter more than any given standard, those expectations are driven by economic ones.

Ultimately, tackling our cultural expectations around work, the way we victim-blame workers and laud bosses for making work as menial as possible, means tackling capitalism and work itself. Either through worker organizing, worker-owned organizations, individual slow-downs to preserve our own cranial integrity or maybe, just maybe, a revolution someday.

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