New Work and Old Time Labour

After reading last week about the labour struggle to define and control the working day, I’ve found everything I’ve read this week raises questions over what had been fought for.

There is good and bad work, and just as some people are using the rights gained from that struggle to deliver less of what they “owe”, others are seeking fulfilment in more of it.

Love or hate work, what underpins it is consumerism. But consumerism too has changed. As always, there’s the choice of quantity or quality. However, as work becomes increasingly abstract, it gets increasingly difficult to distinguish between them.

The pleasures of progress are dulled as what was a choice becomes an acceptance.

The New Struggle is Different to the Old Struggle

In the struggle over the length of the working day around the factory Acts in Britain, lawmakers were forced to list the minutiae of things that capitalists could and couldn’t have their labourers do. If they didn’t, capitalists would find a way to twist things in their favour. But now, it’s as though many of those rules have been turned from protecting the worker to exploiting the capitalist.

One example of this is an anecdote from a movie production set, where “waste” is everywhere and strong unions are “protecting” their worker in the short term by ensuring their jobs won’t be around for a digital future.

The production was shooting a scene in the foyer of a law firm, which the lead rushed into from the rain … the director yelled “Cut,” … the screenwriter noticed that a tiny droplet of rain remained on the actor’s shoulder. Politely, as they spoke, he brushed it off.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an employee from the production’s wardrobe department rushed over to berate him. “That is not your job,” she scolded. “That is my job.”

The screenwriter was stunned. But he had also worked in Hollywood long enough to understand what she was really saying: quite literally, wiping rain off an actor’s wardrobe was her job—a job that was well paid and protected by a union. And as with the other couple of hundred people on set, only she could perform it.

Why Hollywood as We Know it is Already Over (Vanity Fair)

Work Can Be Fun

In some ways, it’s incredibly unfair to use isolated examples like this, but things have changed for workers. They are not doing repetitive work in the factory, but in interesting environments, allowed to collaborate, to be creative. For those workers, work has moved from being something you do to have a life to something that defines a life.

John Maynard Keynes mused in 1930 that, a century hence, society might be so rich that the hours worked by each person could be cut to ten or 15 a week.

Karl Marx had a different view: that being occupied by good work was living well. Engagement in productive, purposeful work was the means by which people could realise their full potential. He’s not credited with having got much right about the modern world, but maybe he wasn’t so wrong about our relationship with work.

The problem is not that overworked professionals are all miserable. The problem is that they are not … As professional life has evolved over the past generation, it has become much more pleasant. … Offices in the rich world’s capitals are packed not with drones filing paperwork or adding up numbers but with clever people working collaboratively. And I begin to understand the nature of the trouble I’m having communicating to my parents precisely why what I’m doing appeals to me. They are asking about a job. I am thinking about identity, community, purpose – the things that provide meaning and motivation. I am talking about my life.

Why Do We Work So Hard (Economist)

But it’s not only the “professional” jobs that have changed, factories are heading that way too. Companies such as John Deere are turning to tech, and opening their own training skills. The old, labour-intensive factory jobs are not there any more.

“The toolbox is now a computer,” said Andy Winnett, who directs the company’s agricultural program at Walla Walla Community College in Washington.

These are the types of good-paying jobs that President Trump, blaming trade deals for the decline in manufacturing, has promised to bring back to working-class communities. But according to a study by Ball State University, nearly nine in 10 jobs that disappeared since 2000 were lost to automation in the decades-long march to an information-driven economy, not to workers in other countries.

Wanted: Factory Workers, Degree Required (NYT)

Technology has changed the game. It’s made work more demanding, but also more fun and interesting.

Quantity Not Quality

But behind it all, there is the need for the producer to sell products and for the consumer to buy products, and as the demands of the consumer in terms of volume have risen, the requirements in terms of quality have fallen. We have got a disposable culture; technology has changed the way we relate to the world.

Many of us work very abstract jobs, requiring little bodily awareness, and much mental effort tracking abstract things like processes, policies, formulae and schedules … It is normal now to spend most our lives preoccupied with what’s going on in places we’ve never been and will never go, and the actions of people we’ll never meet … The shoddiness we tolerate in our material goods is a symptom of our extreme preoccupation with the abstract and symbolic side of life.

We Are Not Materalistic Enough (Raptitude)

The world of work has changed over the last 200 years; for some, the “creative professional”, it’s been incredibly positive, but for the factory worker too, there have been a lot of positives.

But with that, life has got a lot more abstract, and as things get more abstract, it’s harder to work out if something is good or bad. Things just are, and if they are branded, that thing must be a better one. We know this because the marketplace tells us, using price as a measure of value.

But cheap things are not the same as good things. At some stage, I like to think that difference will matter.


Of course, not all workers are benefiting from this. There are zero hour contracts, failure to pay a living wage and a lot of horrible jobs out there. What’s interested me this week is how a lot of the arguments Marx used about exploitation have become almost a want on our part to be exploited. As social structures break down, work can be fun and provide a structure, meaning and system of rewards that can’t be found in other parts of life.


One thought on “New Work and Old Time Labour

  1. Lovely piece. Whether you live where it’s labor or labour, rethinking work and its role in our lives is truly the signature struggle of our time.

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