Saturday, December 01, 2007

Work Time And Human Nature

Cynics and economists often say that, when we call for shorter work time and simpler living, we are working against human nature. People are endlessly acquisitive, they say, and would rather have more money than more time.

They have observed human nature only in modern societies, and they would have a less narrow view if they also looked at people in primitive societies (who presumably are closer to unspoiled human nature than we moderns are). During the nineteenth century, European colonialists often claimed that the people they hired would work only long enough to buy necessities and then would stop.

Here is a bit of evidence about human nature from Marx:

"The Times of November 1857 contains an utterly delightful cry of outrage on the part of a West-Indian plantation owner. This advocate analyses with great moral indignation—as a plea for the re-introduction of Negro slavery—how the Quashees (the free blacks of Jamaica) content themselves with producing only what is strictly necessary for their own consumption, and, alongside this 'use value', regard loafing (indulgence and idleness) as the real luxury good."

Marx, Grundrisse, Notebook III, referring to The Times, London, Saturday, 21 November 1857, 'Negroes and the Slave Trade," Letter To the Editor.

7 Comments:

Blogger Trinifar said...

Not long after Marx wrote the bit you quote, the labor movement in the US took off almost entirely based on the desire to reduce the work day. The idea of a 8 or 10 hour day was anathema to business owners but highly desired by workers after the US Civil War. I think it was not until 1937 that the 8-hr day finally became law in the US.

Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America by James Green covers this period of the labor movement in great detail and notes that the Haymarket martyrs are better known and remembered outside the US than within it.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

I believe the 8 hour day - or the 40 hour week - was first legally established by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. That was Roosevelt's compromise after he turned against the Black-Connery Act's 30-hour week.

I appreciate your blog's coverage of the labor-movement history behind the shorter work week. Have you read about labor's support for Black-Connery in Hunnicut's Work Without End?

10:24 AM  
Blogger Trinifar said...

I haven't seen Hunnicut's book (although I'll now look for it, the reviews are quite positive) and only came across the Black-Connery Act when looking for background information for my post on Trinifar. (So thanks for providing the impetus for that.) In Green's book which I only recently read, he says the 40 hour week was achieved in 1937 (a mere quibble with your 1938 date).

I find it fascinating that the labor movement stalled on the 40 hour week since WWII and am intrigued with what's happened in the Netherlands regarding reducing the work week (following up on your writing). Was it the violent response to labor efforts or perhaps the conflation of the labor movement with communism in the 1950's that caused labor to back off during the McCarthy era? Or, to be cynical, perhaps was it the economic expansion of the 50's and 60's that caused the US labor movement to simply consolidate its gains in numbers and compensation?

I recall reading about European countries flirting with a work week under 40 hours during the 1970's, 80's, and 90's (meaning I recall seeing newspapers reporting about such efforts during that time), but don't think the American labor movement ever echoed that in the US. My sense is that from 1980 onward the US labor movement has been contracting due to pressuure from conservative adminstrations (Clinton's included) and the exporting of jobs offshore; it simply doesn't have the wherewithall to push for a work week reduction now.

Meanwhile, people like me have aided and abbetted the "let's work 60's hours a week 'cause we're professionals" ethic. Nothing like being involved in hi-tech in Silicon Valley during the boom years of the late '90's to get caught up in an unending work week and think it was a blessing.

11:06 PM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

I think your cynical diagnosis is correct. The American labor movement was still powerful during the 1950s, but it bought into the general sense of post-war prosperity and considered itself to be part of the affluent society. So it no longer had any desire to challenge the post-war vision of economic growth.

But the strange thing, to my mind, is that the issue of work hours somehow slipped into everyone's conceptual blindspot. It had been a major issue since the beginning of the industrial revolution, but everyone just seemed to forget about it and to assume that the forty-hour week was an inevitable fact of life.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Trinifar said...

...the issue of work hours somehow slipped into everyone's conceptual blindspot...

I wonder how much of that is due to a change in where we anchor our identity. Just guessing, but up through the 1950's it seems like local community (in the sense of a physical community like a town or neighborhood) and an individual's place in it were central to one's identity. Since then, with the increased ease of changing jobs and locations and the growing portion of the population living in metro areas, community has come to mean something different to many people, something less likely anchored in a physical place.

So, to continue guessing, perhaps our identities are now more anchored in our jobs than they used to be, and working long hours is a way to maintain a secure sense of self. Then any reduction in work hours would force us from our cocoon to re-establish who we are as individuals in new and more nebulous areas.

When the labor movement took off in the 1870 - 1880's identity was very much located in a physical community, a job (both skilled and unskilled trades), and often an ethnic group (even a language). After whittling away the ties to a physical community and even ethnic groups, we're left with jobs as the anchor to who we are. Thus the more we work the more we (however misguidedly) re-enforce our sense of self.

... off the cuff remarks from someone who is neither a sociologist nor a psychologist.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

I agree that there are also socio-psychological causes. Identity and sense of self is one way of looking at it, and here is another way:

Hunnicutt also wrote a book named "Kellogg's Thirty-Hour Week" about the shortened work week at Kelloggs between the 1930s and the 1970s.

When they introduced it in the 1930s, employees were able to make good use of their free time. Typically, they spent their time gardening, hunting, visiting with friends and relatives, and taking adult education classes.

But by the 1970s, younger employees were complaining that the shorter hours were a waste of time - that they didn't do anything except sit around and watch television.

In the 1930s, people still did productive work at home, such as gardening, and so they had the productive character orientation that let them make good use of their leisure, such as by taking adult education classes.

By the 1970s, the modern economy had taken over all the productive work, and people thought of their homes as centers of consumption. They no longer had the character orientation that let them pursue productive activities on their own.

Just as the consumer economy changed our character orientation, I think that more free time would gradually change our character orientation - and as a result, more and more people would want to take advantage of more free time.

I think this is very similar to what you are saying about the changing sense of self.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Trinifar said...

But by the 1970s, younger employees were complaining that the shorter hours were a waste of time – that they didn't do anything except sit around and watch television.

Oh my! And, yes, I think we are talking about roughly the same thing. If people find meaning, creativity, and a sense of participation only at work (to lean again on Manfred Max-Neef's enumeration of human needs), they will be at a loss with shorter hours.

4:44 PM  

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