In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that technological innovation and automation would lead to such increased productivity that the standard work week would be reduced from 40 hours to a mere 15 — a fantasy to the millions of Americans working multiple low wage jobs just to make it by. Instead, people are working now more than ever. What was the cause for this massive miscalculation? Was there not innovation in technology? There was. Were there not great increases in productivity? There were. A PEW Research Center study revealed that as U.S. manufacturing jobs have disappeared, output has grown. Surely we don’t need to work more if we are thinning our workforce and increasing output. Why do American’s spend more time working at their jobs now, than they did 90 years ago when Keynes made his predictions?
The most common story told is that Keynes didn’t account for the rapacious consumerism of Americans, that what he imagined as being a suitably good life just wasn’t enough for us. We wanted to compete for things like Yeezy shoes and backyard swimming pools. American’s desires grew with the economy.
Author and Anthropologist Ben Graeber offers a different perspective, however, in his book Bullshit Jobs. He argues instead that organizing work in this fashion “isn’t economic: it’s moral and political.” He continues to make the case that the ruling class has made the decision that a population that is well cared for and given too much idle time is “mortal danger” and as such they must be occupied with meaningless jobs. He then goes on to list the hundreds of highly paid and meaningless administrative positions belonging to the folks that inhabit the office buildings that create the Manhattan skyline.
In the time of Covid, the lack of importance of the managerial class in the function of society is laid bare. Before the nationwide shutdowns there was never any question that the PMC’s were going to be able to continue to perform their work from home, they don’t really do anything anyway. Going to meetings, writing reports, meeting about the reports you’ve written, are all things one can still pretend are important contributions to society over a Zoom call. Leaving plenty of time to bring bottles of wine into the shower or whatever the hell they’ve been up to.
As the corporate machine attempts to define a new normalcy in a country that continues to be ravaged by the covid-19 pandemic, they are forced to re-evaluate the way the workforce is structured. The entire national workforce is restructuring fast and it’s high time workers unite to make their voices heard on the matter.
During the Democratic primary, Andrew Yang ran a quite popular insurgent campaign warning Americans of the dangers of automation stealing American jobs. However, despite the fevered warnings from silicon valley moguls like Elon Musk, robots are not sentient, and they are unlikely to become so any time soon. So how could they then steal anything? What is often described as theft is essentially just a dramatic hoarding of resources; the robots will be privately owned and thus the profits they generate stockpiled by the wealthy, and the poor are left with no jobs like some sort of Ayn Randian daydream.
Here the catastrophe is that instead of channeling the increased production efficiency that emerged from the technological advancements of the last century into allowing people to work less work, we’ve hollowed out the American workforce, creating a class of corporate oligarchs and poshe paper pushers who do little-to-no work at all and kept working the proletariat into the ground regardless of the improvements in productivity.
However, there doesn’t seem to be any frantic worry that software will one day replace the class of posh paper pushers? There’s a very strange sociological occurrence taking place in America, now that our entire economy is built on what Marx would call “fictitious capital” aka a speculative financial economy, where wealth is derived from speculating on wealth. Whereas by and large, the only professions in which anyone actually does or makes anything, are looked down upon as if it’s low-class work, work better suited to be done by a machine.
According to a 2015 Yougov poll, nearly a quarter of all employed Americans find their jobs to be totally void of any substantive contribution to society. This growing mass of workers who collect paychecks and possess a fancy title but don’t necessarily create any real value, often fetch the highest salaries and surest sense of job security. All the while living in a society where teachers and home care providers, roles our society is in desperate need of, often end up on food stamps.
As someone who has had the personal misfortune of sitting through hours of college BA courses and being served the capitalist kool aid in mass quantities, based on all theories of a capitalist economy presented to me, shouldn’t a functional market with a dire deficiency in an essential role be driving the salary of those professions through the roof until they are filled by market demand? However in spite of the spike in demand for people in the care professions or agriculture, vital professions in a functioning society, the people are forced to endure a life of poverty, the market hasn’t boosted their pay one bit. Just one of the many compoundings cracks in the hull of capitalist leviathan, and those cracks must be exploited.
This presents the left with a unique opportunity to bring new supporters into the fold by introducing a bold proposal to cut the American work week in half. The thing is, Keynes’ prediction wasn’t wrong in the sense that he foresaw a lack of need in the future for people to work for 40 hours a week. He was however wrong that it would occur naturally. The structure of the American economy is broken, but it is not too late to fix it if we make our voices and demands heard.
Through all of this it is imperative we remember that just as the economy did not produce the 8 hour day or the 40 hour work week naturally, it will not produce the 15 hour work week. It must be fought for and won by organized labour. Following the Civil War, the National Labor Union took up the cause of the eight hour workweek. Their slogan “Whether you work by the piece or work by the day, decreasing the hours increases the pay.” rings just as true as it did over a century ago, little has changed for the American worker in that sense.
The NLU along with many other organizations in the labour movement, held strikes across the nation where workers refused to raise a hammer and massive amounts of pressure was put on Congress to pass universal legislation to limit the working hours for the entire labour force, not just women and children, which had largely been implemented in the past. After much struggle in 1886, the government created an 8-hour workday for Federal Government employees, with many states adopting similar legislation.
It wasn’t until more than 50 years later, following the single most catastrophic economic collapse in American history, that Congress would pass legislation limiting the American workweek to 40 hours per week after the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Which again, like the eight hour work day, was not born out of some economic necessity, but by a concerted, collected effort by organized labour activists to demand it. In the decades following the New Deal, organized labour was quite literally beaten out of the culture using brutal tactics.
Just as the economic upheavals that occurred in the wake of both the Civil War and Great Depression created the societal conditions ripe for a groundswell of action amongst organized labour coalitions, so too does the post Covid-19 economy. Following the estimated closure of more than 40% of small businesses nationwide, Amazon “ballooned by over $90 billion to record highs since mid-February, adding $5 billion to the fortune of founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos.” according to Reuters.
The American economy has been permanently altered by the lingering effects of the widespread shutdowns and continued social distancing measures. The time is ripe for the left to organize with the American working class, the remaining doers of our society, and demand a permanent restructuring of society. Picking up the same mantra of NLU almost a century later to demand an economy that works for its workers, reducing the hours and increasing the pay.
As we confront the collapse of our economy, we must demand the construction of a new system that considers the needs of the many before the needs of the few. A society that lives in fear of a day when humans no longer have to spend their days tirelessly working is a fundamentally broken one. Instead of campaigning for a paltry 2 thousand a month in exchange for presumably lifelong unemployment, the working class deserve stable, fulfilling jobs that offer competitive, full-time pay, at half the hours. It can be done as Keynes predicted, but the market won’t provide it. The working class must forcibly seize the 15-hour workweek.