Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Time and freedom

There's been some interesting discussion in the blogosphere in the past week on time and the lack of it in most people's lives. Both KiwiPolitico and Liberation have highlighted the effects of this on our society and our democracy. Chris Trotter argues powerfully that the struggle for more time to spend on ourselves has been at the heart of the left-wing project:

One of the earliest demands of organised labour – dating back over a century – was for a limitation of working hours. And one of the first things the First Labour Government did in 1936 was to reduce the length of the normal working week from 48 to 40 hours.

In a very real sense the entire socialist programme was about how to disengage the individual from the tyranny of the employer’s clock. What, after all, is profit, if it is not the time you spend working for the capitalist rather than for yourself? Public ownership, by doing away with the need for profit, was supposed to reduce the amount of time required to keep society functioning – thereby making more time available for individuals and families.

Trotter sees this through his old socialist economic lens, of course; I view it as a matter of freedom and autonomy. It's not just about enough rest, enough play, family and friends, "work-life balance", stress, happiness and overall quality of life - it's fundamentally about who is making the decisions: time spent doing what I want to do versus time spent doing what other people want me to do. And only during the former am I really free. Every moment I spend working to pay the rent1 is thus a very real intrusion on my liberty. Which is why they call it wage slavery...

So what is to be done? Obviously, we need to take back more of our time. On Just Left, Jordan Carter tries to present a concrete political programme for doing so, focusing on increasing leave provisions, reinstating the 40-hour week (remember that?), greater paid parental leave and an acknowledgement that "employment" may not be a binary state. This is all good, if incremental, stuff, but somewhat surprisingly misses what I would have thought would be the key policy. Research by the Department of Labour into those who work long hours shows that it can be broken down into two roughly equal groups: professionals working to "get ahead", and people driven to it by poverty. It also shows that those who work the hardest receive the least reward, with the income distribution skewing downwards among those working over 60 hours a week. What this tells us is that if we want to give people their time back, the first step has to be income adequacy and wages families can actually live on.

As for the longer-term, I favour something more ambitious than Jordan's vision. Let's start with a 35-hour week - not as a measure to reduce unemployment, but simply to give us more of our time back (to those who immediately start whining about "productivity", the ball is in the bosses' court; one reason they have not made the capital investments required to boost it is because despite everything Labour has done, labour is still too cheap). Beyond that, we should be moving to replace the benefit and pension system with a universal basic income, a universal payment given to every adult regardless of circumstances. Not only would this give us time (in that people could choose to take that six months off, or even not to work if they were content to do without luxuries); it would also permanently remove the employers' boot from our neck. And that more than anything else will give us our time - and our lives - back.

1 And contra Trotter's trolls, this is why most of us work. Yes, its nice if you love your job. But most of us are only in it for the money, and would much rather be doing something else.