OP-ED: The Tyranny of the Workday – Democratic Socialists of America


By Thomas McGath

While DSA Weekly has lately been debating the significance of “the gig economy,” some of us are trying to find other ways to work without losing our lives.

Our lives are made of time. I decided to look at the nature of work in the neoliberal world and explore its material beginnings. I decided to look at how, and why. capital and work colonize your free time. In the end, curtailing the work day would allow personal emancipation outside of work.

Andrea Komlosy, author of Work: The Past 1000 Years, describes what she terms the “flexibilized” workforce, a floating class of expats who attempt to balance dwindling occupational security and opportunity by precariously shifting from sector to sector.

The flexibilized workforce’s most defining feature is its ability to rapidly shift career paths and identify a set of skills that increase their own market value.

I myself am emblematic of this trend. An American in Berlin working his fifth job in four years, I have only been able to increase my standard of living by emigrating to a country with guaranteed health care and vacation days.

While I could do this—through immense personal financial cost, extra education and self-promotion—it makes me realize how work colonizes not just our productive hours, but virtually all our waking hours—from mentally preparing for a draining workday, to sleepless hours spent worrying about the next day.

The truth is, in such a career trajectory your working hours never truly end at the end of the workday. The constant pressure to remain marketable destroys any sense of free time—especially in a society where we are being asked to produce more than ever in the face of vanishing security.

Drastically shortening the work week would effectively put an end to these worries. But beyond that, it’s important to recognize that this proposition is more than an issue of economic fairness, but a profound act to reclaim time itself.

To begin with the workday itself, it has warped from a highly regimented and monotonous routine into something where we never seem to be off the clock, without time for much else. This is nothing new if we take a look back at the early days of industrial work, where workers labored as long as 16 hours a day on the factory floor. Now, much factory and retail work has become a terror of scheduling, where one tries to put together enough hours to survive. Wherever we find ourselves working, work has taken a distinctly self-exploitative nature, whose logic extends deep into your hobbies, your literature, your “free” time.

Are we stuck in a cycle of endless regeneration for the following workday? Whatever we do, workers today are caught in an endless rat race, one that only ends when they have outlived their usefulness and are discarded.

Retaking our personal time requires a radical reappraisal of how we, as a society, work together to produce the necessities of life. By returning to some of what Marx wrote about the nature of work and its exchange value, we can find some answers that tell us working less, working more together, and working towards the liberation of all will lead to the end of the tyranny of the workday.

Historically speaking, the workday is a distinctly modern phenomenon.

Such a pattern has almost no relation to the great lion share of humankind’s daily history. Before the advent of capitalism, most humans were bound temporally to the changing of the seasons and the cost of castor oil.

This was because humans inhabited their place of production, creating a bridge between their livelihood and their productive capacity. They lived on the same land that provided them all they needed to survive: food, clothing, water, and shelter. Capitalism broke all that, cramming the heaping masses of workers into urban centers where they had to work wage labor to secure their livelihood.

This violent rupture of the natural connection between humanity and the land that fed and clothed them, was the stuff of horror books.

At the same time, it was the origin of hitherto unimaginable wealth, brought about by breakneck technological advancement spurred by the accumulation of capital.

Technological advancements had catapulted productivity so high that philosophers Marx and Engels could imagine a future where these productive forces could unleash enough for all, at a fraction of the cost.

Marx was a pioneer in his theory of alienation, and located this alienation chiefly at the workplace. He argued that by disenfranchising the worker, removing him from the land and severing the direct tie between work and sustenance, capitalists made it easy to drive workers to the brink of total destitution. Without selling their labor for wages, workers simply could not survive.

Taken to the next logical extension, selling your labor to ensure your survival also devalues your work. Without land or access to bare essentials, you cannot withhold your labor. Capitalists, on the other hand, can extract more because they are not dependant on the individual worker.

While we seem far removed from the poorhouses of Dickensian London, the central logic remains. We still live in a society where an hour of one person’s time is not worth the same hour of someone else’s.

This is disastrous for the value of your labor. The more a capitalist has, the less he must pay. Because we allow for the unequal accumulation of resources to pool deep in the pockets, island mansions and estates, or futuristic play toys of Silicon Valley-ites, we are constantly exposed to decreasing returns. It’s a bizarre feeling when working longer and harder yields less in return. You may begin feeling that your skillset is becoming more and more unnecessary, or that the work you do becomes increasingly mechanical, in the face of algorithms that began to do substantive work for you.

Truth is, human labor can feel like it’s becoming increasingly obsolete, as productivity reels upwards. And in order to prop up our declining profits, as humanity produces more and more, we individually must optimize our own production to survive or beat back a precipitous decline in living standards.

As the Marxist-Humanist philosopher, Raya Dunayevskaya puts it, "Constant technological revolutions change how much labor time is socially necessary … All must subordinate themselves to the newly-set socially necessary time to be expended on commodities."

Marx himself theorized that the value of work was relative given how long it took on average to produce a commodity. As technology improves, the average time required sinks. That means you are constantly forced to optimize, stretch, or refocus your time.

In short, you become a self-optimizing machine of survival and production. It turns many of us into capitalists of the self, competing with other isolated producers ready to seize your job with their flexible lifestyle or lower wage demands. This is as true of the lowest-paid caretakers and cleaners as of the so-called “creative class.”

If the bulk of our productive time is spent at work creating value for others, then the remaining time must be spent preparing ourselves for the next or following workday. If we don’t do this, we risk seeing our productivity or the value of our own work decline.

The workday cripples self actualization

In fact, a  cursory survey of most career-oriented and personal wealth websites like Forbes or Entrepreneur seem to confirm that, in fact, much of your downtime is spent preparing yourself mentally for more work.

“Having a good start to the day where you have greater control is critical in achieving better results, and ultimately greater career success,” says Lynn Taylor, who self-describes herself "as the most widely recognized national workplace expert and bestselling author on increasing empowerment and emotional intelligence in your work."

On Business Insider, we are told that "Productively utilizing your spare time could help you do your best at work and advance your career." This is the telling subheader for an article detailing the habits of successful millennials–an ironic, almost self-contradictory phrase which seemingly subsumes an entire generation’s socio-economic problems into matters of personal failings.

Beyond the occasional team run and the mandated Slack availability, the deeper colonization of work into private lives enfeebles workers in the pursuit of their own personal fulfillment or gain.

These two values of self-promotion and personal reproduction appear at odds. While in reality, there is decreasing time for both the more we are forced to produce. It is an ironic choice one must face daily: whether to recharge mentally or practice coping mechanisms to face the full brunt of the next working day (engaging in a form of personal reproduction), or to find new ways of optimizing your own work to produce more to offset decreasing socially required labor for your work.

Thus in this way, not even leisure time is really free when bound to the temporal and objective necessities of other productive relations, as Tithi Bhattacharya puts it. Perhaps most bitterly true is that I, myself, am writing this article during my leisure time. While this perhaps may be the most meaningful thing or self-”truest” work I’ve done all week, it is nevertheless tainted by the full workday that came before it.

Marx would agree. He argues that time spent towards leisure, specifically "concrete" (leisure) labor, is so oversaturated and controlled by our own (alienated) labor that it is no longer our own time.

Work extending into our private time makes that time more tedious. We are faced with the incessant self-reproducing routines of ironing and stitching clothes; sculpting and forming bodies for the following day. It’s immensely stressful weaving through overcrowded supermarkets, jostled from all sides by other equally agentless people, wishing they could have more control over their time.

What begins to materialize is the image of the blank, horrifying face of Patrick Bateman the homicidal stockbroker from the film American Psycho:  his meticulous physical routine, his mix of boutique moisturizers and an exact amount of sit-ups bringing him closer to his full productive force. So much so, that he forgets to produce a true self, one that produces feelings, thoughts, and desires that belong to himself. The lack of these features, in essence, belong to this productive shell.

Thus it’s important to remember that a shorter workday is not a privilege, but rather an existential necessity.

Revolution in waiting: the political potential of working less

Thinking back on the evolution of the work week, perhaps the most enduring and all-encompassing contribution that socialism has given to the working world is the 40-hour work week. As a radical project, it fought to curtail the wilful destruction of human life perpetuated by robber barons and criminal capitalists in the 19th century.

Yet that’s just what it wasa contribution.

Some are quick to label socialism as a deterministic project, rooted in the routinization of production through centralized planning. While in fact, the core project is the extension of our rudimentary understanding of freedom and the multiplication of human potential. It is indeed true that, as Marx writes, “the realm of freedom really begins only where labor determined by necessity and external expediency ends…the reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.”

At the root of this basic prerequisite is, returning to my previous emphasis on the temporal nature of work, an understanding of time and the value of that time. In capitalism, since we are bound to our work to provide for ourselves via exchange, our labor is unequal. And must remain unequal.

It’s also a matter of distribution. While we are facing a crisis of overwork and stress, in the UK stress accounts for 37% of all work-related sick cases, we are also facing a crisis of underemployment. There is a massive gap between those who report being overworked and underworked. At the present, it’s at its widest point since before the financial crash in 2008.

Between this widening gap must come a deeper and more radical understanding of labor. As Marx asserts, “we should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during the same hour.”

Fighting for a shorter work week is thus a radical proposition to extend egalitarian principles past self-advancement, sharing the productive exchange value with those systematically shut out of it. Moreover, radically redefining the amount of labor required to survive also would have the effect of reappropriating productive capacities towards more socially valuable labor.

Suddenly, the shorter the work day becomes, the more it must be focused towards meeting needs, not profit. It cuts into profit rate because the capitalist is forced to provide a livable wage that is more fairly commensurate with the actual labor performed.

In this way, the struggle for a shorter work week severs the tie between producing value for exchange and reappropriates it for personal or social need. The less we work for our survival, the more time we can spend on our own fulfillment.

Reducing work hours would also be an important step towards full employment.

By virtue of raising the purchasing power of individual workers through more equally distributing their productive capacities, capitalists would see their powers downsized. A managed reduction in working hours spreads the demand for labor around. On top of that, a reduction in the total amount of available labor increases its inherent value.

As Chris Maisano writes in Jacobin: “A full employment economy raises the bargaining power and living standards of the working class in the short run and erodes the relative power of capital, opening up possibilities for radical social transformation.”

But wouldn’t that simply lead to inflation? Actually, no. As Mike Beggs, a lecturer at the University of Sydney attests: “Full employment is simply a state in which demand for labor matches supply. If supply falls because working people earn enough to be comfortable from fewer hours of work, that’s great. In fact, the aims support one another: full employment gives workers the bargaining power to reap the benefits of productivity growth as they choose.”

These two economic projects are part and parcel with one another. Working less forces a reduction in the amount of available labor hours, breaking the productive capacity and value maximizing ability of capitalist.

The tyranny of the workday is one that extends far beyond the struggle at the workplace. It permeates our private time and forces us to produce more to increasingly match supply.

As we work longer hours, we also sacrifice our free time: enfeebling our own attempts to stay above the curve. We continue to self-maximize, whatever the cost. This in term hampers our own ability to self-reproduce or repair. Leading to decreasing physical ability to perform work. We’re stuck in a downward spiral.

But this has to end at some point, and not just from a humanist perspective. From the systemic ecological destruction wreaked upon our planet, to a rise in workplace-related illnesses and sagging life expectancy in countries like the US, we’ve hit our productive limit.

A more equal distribution of the work day and week is a start. By radically redefining the value of our work and spreading the labor supply more equally we would have not only more control over our free time but more productive capacity to use as we see fit.

It is not, nor ever has it been, enough to survive. It is up to us to find new ways to thrive.

Thomas McGath is an American writer who has lived in Berlin since 2013. He completed his master’s degree in Global Public Policy at the University of Potsdam, having specialized on the democratic approaches to development and the power dynamics of participatory democracy. He is the occasional activist and volunteer for political causes.