Abraham Lincoln said: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Over 150 years after he said it, it is still the minority view. Today workers are under pressure – more work for less money – than they have been for generations.
Few things inspire us, incense us, or matter more to us than work. It doesn’t matter if you work because you need to, or if you do it for pleasure. It is irrelevant if you have found your ideal job, or if you have lost hope and are despondent about ever being able to find some position for some pay.
In a time when work is ever-elusive for increasing numbers of people and when admiration grows for those who are able to simply grab and hold on to their jobs in 2013, work is one of those few words that are always found on everyone’s lips.
It used to be that one’s sense of worth, or of place in society, or of mission in the cosmos was more connected to family and surnames, friends, political and/or philosophical convictions, affiliation with political parties, sports clubs, or religious and theosophical convictions. Those were the qualities or, in rather more neutral terms, the characteristics that used to define individuals and how high or low in the social ladder they might be located.
This no longer seems to be the case.
The news everywhere is more and more about work: the lack of it or the excess of it depends on whether you are a hopeless young graduate; a desperate, middle-aged, overqualified professional; a despondent, unqualified adolescent; a burned-out, control freak banker or a global executive in a multi-national corporation addicted to your mobile communication device . Everyone seems obsessed about the cost of it or the productivity of it and how, if one lowers the former as much as one increases the latter, companies and even whole nations may be saved.
One may be reminded here of the motto of one of fascist Portugal’s corporations: “Gaiety through work.” Or, on a somewhat more sinister note: “Arbeit macht Frei.” Work has become THE path to both freedom and happiness.
There is, under the present “narrative”, no other way.
Even the most traditionalist of Popes, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, now-Pope Emeritus, seems to have somehow turned the office of the Papacy into just another job. Maybe it was the long hours together with the little amount of free time and the colossal human resources under his aegis. Anyway, it all got to be too much for the ageing Pope. He resorted to that typical institution that comes with work: retirement. Might that have anything to do with the present occupant’s reluctance to sleep, as it were, at the office?
Maybe Pope Benedict has retired at the same age as we in the 40-something generation will be able to enjoy it as well: in our eighties.
Does anyone even still remember how, in our not so distant past, there was a consensus about how technology would free us from excessive work hours and give us the potential of more leisure time? How gains in automated production would turn us to more natural and creative, but otherwise productive and wealth-generating, pursuits?
Instead we seem to be falling into successive traps. No profit is enough, no matter how huge. No workforce is so small it cannot be further reduced. No salary, pension plan, or other so-called benefits are beyond slashing.
It seems that this was the exact spirit of Yahoo’s incoming CEO, who has only just announced that all her staff will have to punch in at the office. No more working from home.
Yahoo is one of the first renegers of a trend that has been gaining wider acceptance from both private and public employers. It is a practice that recognised that in certain jobs, as long as results were obtained and workers were happier, you didn’t have to further clog the transport system and do the almost-always excruciating daily commute.
And yet we could all benefit from a change and especially a pause in the persistence with which neo-liberalist inspired globalisation-driven practices are applied to work relations and to the ever cheaper solution.
Professor Manuel Carrilho, Portuguese philosopher and former socialist Minister of Culture, argued in a recent article that a “European effort to rethink society, the individual and work needs to gain momentum”. He added that it could be argued as well that in many respects the way the left-leaning political parties and thinkers view work is more reminiscent of the still-victorious neo-liberalist ideology. Professor Carrilho, recalls that the (now as much missed as longed for) full employment of the 20th century had to do with the relentless changes in work conditions from the 19th to 20th century. Work hours are supposed to have fallen by as much as 60 percent in this time span.
Ought one, therefore, not stop believing and/or building one’s reflections from the basis of our “ideological enemies”? You don’t have to look into Marx’s dogmatic opus on work and property to underpin some of the basic tensions or conflicts in the design of the society we live in. Aristotle had already done it: “What a shame about enslaving people. But we need to do it so someone will play the music, since we need the music”.
The contention is that for, what now appears to have been but a brief lull in history, this was a time where more and more people – at least in the developed world – were able to play the music, even if they had to work the dullest, most repetitive jobs. This lull is nowhere better characterised than by Ortega Y Gasset’s “Revolt of the Masses.” The same author, who argued that “an unemployed existence is a worse negation of life than death itself”, also described how the industrialised democratic societies of the West were changed by the prosperity acquired by the masses. He decries the loss of high culture and noble life in favour of the rise of the “satisfecho señorito.” In a way, Ortega Y Gasset’s main problem was with the fact that the newly wealthy masses crushed singularity, favouring sameness and clung to the same tastes and rituals they had before prospering.
Aren’t we though at a time where we are not only stripping the masses of their wealth, but also pushing through, unlike at any time in the past, with a great global homogenisation? It is a lose-lose situation.
The sense that work is a necessary evil, where one “covered himself in shame during his work hours” as Kafka put it, or that “all the jobs that pay, humiliate. And the decent jobs do not pay,” as Harold Nicholson claimed, is reality for many who, living in high unemployment countries, fear that, once they leave their seat at the table, no other place may be forthcoming.
Apparently, after nearly four years of blind stubborn and prejudiced insistence on austerity policies against all the evidence, Europe’s erratic and irresponsible leaders are waking up to the need to refocus on “short term growth measures” (in Durão Barroso’s words), as well as once again allowing the tired 60-year old professionals to retire with a dignified pension (paid for by European funds) so that a new generation may gain access to the market. Will this be enough?
Can this reassessment which Professor Carrilho would like us to do, lead to the introduction of greater proportionality and rationality into higher salaries? Or perhaps to a limit on bonuses, linking them to value creation and not just to profits?
Could companies’ voracious drive for relocation and new markets be tempered by (at least) some of the legal and self-regulatory frameworks they operate under in the countries where they originate? Can’t we force a pause in the headlong rush towards more inequality and once again use our standards regarding work loads, fair compensation and other hard-earned social rights, when either giving other countries access to our markets or gaining access to theirs?
The news coming from some of the biggest brands’ factories in places like China is that the local work force is no longer prepared to work so much for so little. Can we in Europe, however, afford to wait so long for their mass revolt? And will we still be standing straight enough to be able to play the music?