A new utopian-minded political organization in Silver Spring, Maryland called the Bread and Roses Party came to the right conclusion after asking: "How should America return to business... after COVID-19?" The answer: With ten hours cut out of the working week.
This is the kind of rich thinking that happens when people have the time to examine their lives, society, and economy. Forty hours leaves most exhausted and in need of imagination-numbing distractions. But the stay-at-home order and social distancing, both of which certainly are not without their hardships, have forced changes to the way we work and move, and these changes, combined with the extra time, has let loose the associative side of our imaginations. What other changes are possible? What else can we do with ourselves, our bodies, our minds? Part of the reason for the push to get us back to work can be found in this concern: in a state of real free time (not the kind you have to pay for), people start getting ideas.
The Bread and & Roses Party states:
Our “quality of life” campaign resonates with many Americans across parties who strongly believe it’s time to re-evaluate our economy, starting with working hours. The Bread & Roses Party advocates a new economy enabling a shorter workweek for all jobs in America.
Though the Bread & Roses Party has the right idea, its plan for a shorter workweek is wrong:
One important benefit of going to the 30 or 32-hour workweek is that it will result in more workers being re-hired as we try to climb out of our 20%-unemployed economy. And by hiring back 4 workers at 30 hours, rather than 3 workers at 40 hours, we would also mitigate the unjust pattern of most recoveries, in which minority workers are the last to be re-hired.
I can only describe this kind of thinking as muddled. Nothing much is gained if we reduce the workweek for the sole purpose of lowering the unemployment rate. The clarity that's needed at this conjecture is the understanding that less work should be rewarded with more pay, not the same pay as before. And those who see this demand as laughable utopian dreaming must be pitied, because someone has tricked them into a form of sleep-talking.
But if they were to snap out of the spell, the economic essence of the 40 or so years that have passed in the US would be immediately grasped. Because productivity has dramatically increased while real (not nominal) wages have declined, we have, as our reality, almost the perfect inverse of decreased work for increased pay. To demand a shorter workweek for more money, then, is as concrete as working more for increasingly less money.
Also, it was only about 40 or so years ago that the working week in the US stopped falling.
We have been stuck here not because it's a natural barrier or limit. This is where we have been told to stay. The designation of the 40-hour workweek is, therefore, cultural, not biological. In fact, a few months before the end of Second World War, John Maynard Keynes, the leading British economist of his generation, wrote a letter to the American poet and banker T.S. Eliot that said the US would be better off if it reduced the workweek to 35 hours.
The letter is dated 5 April, 1945:
...the full employment policy by means of investment is only one particular application of an intellectual theorem. You can produce the result just as well by consuming more or working less. Personally I regard the investment policy as first aid. In U.S., it almost certainly will not do the trick. Less work is the ultimate solution (a 35 hour week in the U.S., would do the trick now). How you mix up the three ingredients of a cure is a matter of taste and experience, i.e. of morals and knowledge.
For Keynes, the reduction of work was supposed to be the moral goal of an economy, not profits, which have no end in sight and so can never achieve what John Stuart Mills called in his 1948 book of Principles of Political Economy the "steady state." Or, put another way: zero growth. There was in Keynes's mind nothing that noble about working day in and day out. And he also thought the goal of an economist should be the construction of an economy that needed economists as much as it needed dentists. Fixing fiscal breaks or circulation blockages should be like pulling out teeth or crowning a cavity. Keynes was not a socialist, if that's what you are thinking. He was aristocratic, and this social mode has some points that meet with those of the utopian socialist mode.
My point in all of this is that the Bread and Roses Party proposal is not far-fetched. Also, when Microsoft cut one day out of the workweek for its employees in Japan, productivity actually went up sharply, by 40 percent. (I must admit, I have complicated feelings about this success, and also arguments that justify the reduction of work on the basis that it's more efficient and profitable than over-working wage earners. I would much prefer productivity to zigzag down the economic chart. The world does not need more productivity. We have done productivity forever and forever. Can't we do something else with this, our one and only world?)
Let's close the post with this lyrical passage from a 1999 book, Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society, by the late Austrian-French philosopher André Gorz:
Work now retains merely a phantom centrality: phantom in the sense of a phantom limb from which an amputee might continue to feel pain. We are a society of phantom work, spectrally surviving the extinction of that work by virtue of the obsessive, reactive invocations of those who continue to see work-based society as the only possible society and who can imagine no other future than a return to the past.