Something has gone very wrong in the workplace. For many, their work is so distressing that they spend most of the year dreaming of their two weeks in the sun and the retirement to follow. I offer as evidence of this desperately inefficient time-management strategy an advert for Thomson holidays during which we watch a lone, poolside sunbather repeatedly shifting his sun-lounger to catch every possible ray, while we are informed that ‘for every afternoon in the sun you have to work three weeks and two days’. This advert was used to sell summer jet-propelled summer breaks a couple of years back.
There are a number of points about the image conveyed by this advert that are both symbolic and deeply troubling. First, the man is on his own. Are we to assume that he prefers spending his holidays alone, that his perfect escape is to a place where there is only his own company? Second, he is sitting by a swimming pool and yet he never swims. Like so many lives, the really enjoyable activity is missed because the central character, economic man, is distracted by the sun-lounger or his drink or the shadow, or whatever. But most importantly, he is enjoying not being at work because he does not like his work. His holiday represents an escape from his life, which is made unpleasant because of work he undertakes from pressure rather than from choice.
This is the greatest offence that capitalism does to a species who has as one of its central psychological drives the need to carry out useful work in conjunction with others. Again we are persuaded to miss the point, to spend our lives working for holidays and retirement rather than demanding employment that is intrinsically rewarding. I have written about this at great length elsewhere (follow this link to download Arbeit Macht Frei and other Lies About Work), so I am starting this a new strand on the blog which I will come back to from time to time. Please also add your own comments.
A couple of times while applying for funding for research into mining in the South Wales Valleys I was made aware of the ignorance of the nature of working people’s lives by the middle class people who make decisions about them, and the complacency they have when considering the work of others. The shock they feel when their cosy work structures are removed by the new management practices is the only good that I have to say for them. One application for a funding grant was rejected on the basis that ‘Whilst the idea of "participatory employment policy-making" is quite interesting, it is open to the accusation of being somewhat utopian’. In my response I pointed out that even in Medieval Europe, according to a Muttenberg ordinance, ‘every one must be pleased with his work’. According to Kropotkin:
We are laughed at when we say that work must be pleasant, but "every one must be pleased with his work", a medieval Muttenberg ordinance says, "and no one shall, while doing nothing appropriate for himself what others have produced by application and work, because laws must be a shield for application and work."’
My own writing about work is guided by the belief that ‘everyone must be pleased with her/his work’. If that principle is not followed in an economy then the economy is not working properly. We can, and should, do better than an economy where miserable people work in pointless occupations for three weeks and two days just to spend a lonely afternoon by a swimming pool.
Work as it is constituted within capitalism is not only economically inefficient and socially destructive, it is also spiritually offensive. As Schumacher put it, ‘Soul-destroying, meaningless, mechanical, monotonous, moronic work is an insult to human nature which must necessarily and inevitably produce either escapism or aggression, and . . . no amount of "bread and circuses" can compensate for the damage done’, was how Schumacher made this point.