Anyway, scrolling through their plugs last week, I came across this by Allard Dembe, a Health Services academic at Ohio State University. And his piece, 'The hidden dangers of a four-day workweek' isn't exactly a title that leaves a lot to the imagination. As readers know, there is an emerging trend on the left (and, indeed, in politics as a whole) interested in what's happening at work. Chiefly, most worrying for policy makers - and a system utterly dependent on the disciplining of workers - are predictions that advancing automation is set to wipe out millions of jobs, make thousands of occupation types redundant, and that the new jobs set to fill the gap will neither be available in sufficient quantities or offer a like-for-like replacement (Andy's taken a recent look at this, I plan on replying in due course). Hence discussion has been doing the rounds about reducing the working week, or introducing a basic income to support people outside of work.
As the historical record shows, the workers' movement from its inception has fought to reduce the number of hours we spend selling our labour power in return for a wage or a salary. As the work/life boundary becomes blurred for large numbers of workers and work is extending itself beyond the formal work day, we need to take this more seriously and start asking serious questions about what the economy should be for, rather than limiting economic debate to pushing up GDP figures and job creation strategies. It's in this context that Dembe's arguments should be appraised.
Dembe has considerable experience studying workplaces, and possesses a long publication list that testifies to this. Unfortunately, sometimes expertise doesn't necessarily mean you ask the right questions. He begins by listing a number of companies that have experimented with four-day working and outlines advantages in terms of reduced overheads for business, less time spent commuting, and so on. And then goes on to rubbish it by listing the disadvantages. Chief among them are the consequences of compressing work time. For instance, assuming that five eight-hour days are crammed into four days, Dembe notes the risk of at-work accidents creep upwards. Furthermore, using 32 years worth of data, long work hours are related to a plethora of later life health problems. And that's before we start talking about mental health problems, parental responsibilities and the like. He concludes, "I don’t know about you, but the prospect of a four-day week scares me. I already have a hard enough time getting my regular weekly work done over five days."
There is an obvious point here. Can you tell what it is yet? Why yes, Dembe is assuming the number of hours worked in a week are inviolable. There is more than one way to shorten the working week. Assuming the "hegemonic" normal working week, you could just redistribute the hours across four days. Or, here's a radical suggestion, work commitments could be redesigned so the number of hours worked are less. Instead of a working week of four 10 hour days, how about four eight hour days? As we have seen over the course of the last 30 years, productivity gains have resulted in record profits while wages have lagged well behind, and living standards kept afloat mainly thanks to credit and cheap consumer durables. There is no reason, apart from politics, why work could not be reorganised to spread these gains to everyone through the reduction of the working week without loss of wages. For Dembe, CapX and friends this cannot be countenanced - a day less at work surely means fully automated luxury communism is next.
What Dembe's piece demonstrates is a total poverty of imagination. It's a case study in how capital's intellectual bodyguards cynically try and narrow the horizon of possibilities around a particular issue, in this instance labour's economic dependence on capital, foreclose alternatives by failing to even mention them, and then provide drab technical reasons why such-and-such a proposal is unworkable and/or undesirable.