‘The one-sided focus of most Marxists and socialists on distributional questions has obscured the fact that the animating principle of the Left is not so much equality, but rather freedom — freedom from alienating work and freedom touse our time and creativity for our own self-directed ends. Socialism does not equal the roughly equal distribution of stuff; the martyrs of the labor movement didn’t give up their lives so that everyone could have the right to buy an iPhone or a plasma screen TV, or to waste their lives working at crap jobs. Marx himself was rather clear on this point. Near the end of Volume 3 of Capital, he famously argues that the “true realm of freedom” lies beyond the sphere of material production, and that “the shortening of the working day is its prerequisite.” While the necessity for people to do some sort of potentially alienating work to ensure social reproduction will likely never be totally abolished, it should entail “the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.” So long as the Left does not seek to fundamentally alter the labor process nor shorten the working day to the least amount of time possible, it fails to act on what should be its most fundamental principles.
‘As an employee of a strapped government agency looking to cut costs wherever possible, I was offered the opportunity earlier this year to reduce my work week for the rest of the fiscal year to 21 hours with a concomitant reduction in my annual salary. While I was worried about voluntarily giving up 40% of my pay, my mounting dissatisfaction with the technological deskilling that hollowed out much of the appeal of my job provided me with the impetus I needed to trade some financial security for a three day work week. I can say unambiguously that working much less has dramatically improved the quality of my life, especially my psychological well-being. It has given me the ability to pursue graduate study and spend more time with friends and in political activism. It has even made me an objectively better worker from the standpoint of capitalist rationality during the three days that I am at work; I probably do the same amount of work now than I did in five days, and with a much sunnier disposition to boot.
‘Economists who study the social effects of a shortened work week have found empirical support for my overwhelmingly positive subjective experiences. Earlier this year, the New Economics Foundation in Britain issued a report calling for the normal work week to be reduced from its current level to 21 hours. They find that experiments in working less are often popular with both workers and employers, cut down on environmental pollution because of a reduction in commuting, help to reduce unemployment, encourage a balancing of gender relations at home and at work, and improve workers’ physical and psychological well-being. I don’t mean to portray shortening working time as a panacea, and I admit that I have been able to perform my small experiment in freedom because I am a young man with low overhead costs and no familial obligations. The fact that my union continues to protect my position while I work a reduced number of hours certainly doesn’t hurt either. But the potential benefits are clear and could be a central component of a new political program for the Left.
‘Clearly, the prospects of building a movement around such a program currently appear to be bleak. But so are the prospects of building a movement around a more traditional Left program that continues to operate under the assumptions of mid-twenty-century social democracy. In this time of crisis and uncertainty, all potential options should be considered and pursued.
‘A demand for less work and more free time could be the thing that activates the formation of a new collective political subject with the capacity to pursue a class politics appropriate for the twenty-first century. It might create the conditions under which “a Left endowed with a future rather than burdened with nostalgia for the past might re-emerge,” as Gorz incisively put it. Besides, we have already earned that general distribution of products and universal holiday that Paul Lafargue talked about over a century ago. It’s time to cash in.’