Saturday 11 March 2017

Why the Right Fears the Four-Day Week

I've got a guilty secret. I subscribe to CapX's mailing list and occasionally, I like some of its output. For those of you who don't know (or don't care) what CapX is, it's a fancy ass blog that styles itself as the home of some of the best politics writers going. And Daniel Hannan. It also happens to be firmly on the right somewhere between Cameroonism and the batshittery of so-called libertarianism. In many ways, its stock-in-trade is contrarianism, albeit not as strident or as obviously stupid as your average Brendan O'Neill missive. Its niche is the provision of middle brow arguments bigging up Uber, applauding Tory economic policy (well, until this happened), and blindly, blithely cheering on the anarchy of market fundamentalism. Still, lefties used to the thought-free rantings that normally passes for right wing thinking should check it out if they want their conservatism a touch more substantial.

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.


David Timoney said...

Dembe's piece depends on a strawman: the claim that reduced hours will lead to higher productivity. The actual claim is the reverse: that increased productivity justifies reduced hours.

Given inflation, the gains of productivity would ideally be divided between wages (to maintain purchasing parity) and a reduction in hours. At the factor level, this simply means the benefits largely accrue to labour. The political economy issue is that the benefits of productivity growth over the last 30+ years have largely gone to capital instead.

While some capitalists have sought to increase hours in order to capture productivity gains, most have relied on a combination of repressed wages and investment that biases towards job polarisation / deskilling (pushing down the average wage). This has been supported by a state framework of easy credit and in-work benefits, which has in practice socialised a portion of labour costs.

Reduced hours are not necessarily a problem for capital so long at it can increase the rate of exploitation and thus monopolise the gains in productivity that allow it. To achieve this will require both a much higher level of capital investment and the further socialisation of labour costs - i.e. in effect, paying a minimum hourly wage for those "lost" hours through a state mechanism. The political economy objective will be to decouple that mechanism from growth so that productivity gains still accrue mostly to capital and not to labour.

It isn't a coincidence that interest in a basic income is prominent among capitalists operating in sectors with very high capital composition and high wages.

James Semple said...

Both of you retain the outdated concept of GDP in cash terms. What about the unpaid care and community work? They contribute massively to the economy and should be counted as part of GDP. That's where the basic wage scores.

David Timoney said...


Unpaid care and community work is indirectly included in the GDP figures. If the work was paid, the money would need to be deducted either from the capital (profit) or labour (wages) share of output (printing extra money would have the same effect by virtue of inflation, but would impact both factors, hence its unpopularity in certain quarters). In practice, labour supports most of this either by wage-earners subsidising family members who provide care and/or by income and consumption taxes funding benefits.

It's a common misunderstanding that GDP does not include various elements of value, but in fact the only notable amount it excludes is the labour of people who can live exclusively off the land, which is insignificant in the context of the UK. Everyone else is a producer and consumer within the market system, so their labour is accounted for somewhere.

James Semple said...

Yes, well I maintain my criticism, bolstered by that product of "provincial radicalism" the Manchester Capitalism series - in particular "The Econocracy" endorsed by Robert Skidelsky and his ilk.

My favourite GDP atrocity story dates from 2014 when GDP rose by £10 billion to widespread right-wing rapture. It turned out that the EU had just insisted on the inclusion of sex workers and drug dealers in the contributing occupations, hence the rise.

Wise up guys.