The Three Day Work Week Is Here (But It Takes a Revolution of Consciousness)

Around the world, people are gradually discarding the myth that work is a sacrosanct value

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איור: יעל בוגן
Illustration. Credit: Yael Bogen
Kfir Cohen Lustig

One way or another, people around the world are slowly arriving at the realization that the capitalist order is no longer viable. This sweeping perception, though perhaps not easy to accept, is based on certain facts and forecasts about which a modicum of agreement exists on both the right and the left.

The first fact is that, since the 1970s, the capitalist system has found it difficult to generate the type of high profits that were the global norm between World War II and the oil crisis of 1973. This is reflected in low growth rates in the developed countries, together with a low global average in general during the present century. It is this profit ceiling – more than the influence of the neoliberal ideology propounded by European and American thinkers – that is driving global capitalism to cast its net worldwide to look for cheap labor, to distribute credit irresponsibly, to weaken political establishments and to destroy nature, all in the attempt to sustain a dying system. According to various forecasts, if we do not stop subordinating work, nature and social relationships to profit making, we can expect a distinctly gloomy future of slow and painful global economic deterioration and ecological disaster.

If we do not allow pathos to bewilder us, it would be right to say that people in every part of the world are at a historical junction. But the struggle over the shift from a capitalist to a postcapitalist order encompasses not only the direction to be taken, but also how the junction itself is to be understood.

We tend to forget, for example, that this moment, in which we are being driven to rethink the world order, is not only one of crisis. There is an additional truth, too, which frequently goes unmentioned: namely, that the protracted crisis notwithstanding, we are living at a historical moment when humanity’s collective abilities have generated unprecedented wealth, and with fewer working hands. Even if this wealth, in the broad sense of the word, is not divided equally, even if energy is a perishable resource and land a limited one, it can be said cautiously that human society is no longer defined by scarcity.

At the same time, the legendary wealth we are creating hinges on an economic-political order that is incapable of fulfilling humanity’s needs and is endangering its continued existence. It is not only the potency of the existing system that is responsible for this disparity. There is also the feebleness of any political counter-force or intellectual project that can posit substantive alternatives to the existing order. Neither Keynesian economics, identitarian politics, nor even certain streams of ecological thought offer adequate alternatives.

Postcapitalist thought does not confine itself to asking what can be done within the existing framework. The question is not how to go about righting the wrongs one by one, how large the public expenditure will be, or how to safeguard the oceans. The question is what we need to do in order to enable the free and equal existence that we should be able, and want, to have. For the moment, at least, it looks as though the horizon of political demands in Israel – those possessing the greatest public resonance – doesn't extend beyond a return to the pre-coronavirus routine: back to work, back to school. But the world we knew in February 2020 will not return. We need to learn how to put forward new political demands and to use the crisis to bring about a gradual comprehensive structural change in our ways of life.

Freedom for all

Postcapitalist thought is holistic, encompassing an array of new political demands: severing the connection between work as a necessity and form of remuneration, a shorter workweek, a universal basic income, universal housing, public medicine, full democratization of capital and places of employment, joint management of public resources and more. But beyond these demands, postcapitalist thought proposes an alternative worldview in which these and future demands have place and meaning.

Underlying these demands are two points of departure, one anthropological, the other political. The first point is that, as human beings, we are confronted with the necessity of producing the conditions that make both life and social life possible by ourselves. If we want food, water, housing, healthy and loving children, internet access, travel abroad, vacations and the like, we need to work and to organize the work in order to bring these things about. These conditions change from time to time and are inextricably bound up with life’s necessities, on the one hand, and with the attempt to be liberated from then and achieve a degree of freedom, on the other hand.

If, as Marx maintains, all social order arises from the attempt to organize the relationship between necessity and freedom, then extricating a measure of freedom from necessity is one of the most essential purposes of human existence. If we think about it in this way, freedom and necessity are not separate but are entwined: We work and organize our work to make possible different degrees of freedom.

Postcapitalist politics would sever the tie between work and the fulfillment of basic needs by constructing universal welfare services. In such a world, we would have all we need prior to going to work – a situation that would alter the character and quality of work, its social division (i.e., who works where and why) and its purpose.

In the simplest terms, the meaning of social wealth is freedom from work. Not freedom from work in general, but from work as necessity: that is, freedom from work that is demanded for one’s social existence and which, as we know, changes from time to time. As such, it’s incorrect to say that a postcapitalist society brings about the “end of work”; rather, it reduces work as a necessity to the very minimum.

According to a survey conducted two years ago, the salaried workweek in Israel is 40.5 hours on average. One of the goals of postcapitalist politics is to reduce that workweek to 32 hours, and subsequently to 24 hours – just three days a week. This aspiration is far from being wishful thinking. In Holland the average workweek is already 29 hours. European leaders, firms and unions are already talking about the benefits of a four-day workweek post-COVID-19.

Strengthening existing labor unions and creating strong, new ones is one way, necessary and proven, to reduce the workweek. In countries like Sweden, where unions are strong, there is no fear of automation or a resultant decrease of income. But new modes of organization and assembly will also arise to further this demand. It will emanate also from people who haven’t yet entered the labor market, from people who lost their jobs, from people who work only part-time. Labor unions will be an inherent part of every postcapitalist society, but there will also be new political subjects.

Why reduce the workweek to three days instead of reducing the length of the workday? Paul Mason, the author of an interesting book about postcapitalism, notes that the demand for a three-day workweek is intended to shift the balance between work as necessity and freedom, in favor of the latter. In a world of that kind we are free from work most of the time, so much so that a substantial change occurs in our understanding of basic concepts like “work” and “leisure.” In the existing order, we think of leisure as the time that remains after work, and for the most part we try to use it to rest in the broad sense.

In a postcapitalist society, where the chief category of our life is free time, the meaning of work as necessity changes – it becomes a remnant required to ensure a free life. Work as necessity becomes a time tax or a national-global service. Free time thus becomes the central arena of human life.

If this happens, it will be possible to say that in a postcapitalist world the purpose of work as a necessity of an entire society is not “work as a value in itself”; we have to learn how to bid farewell to this myth, as Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek propose in their book “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work.” Work as necessity has one purpose; namely, to increase the amount of free time and its quality; we will work three days in order to be free on four.

In a postcapitalist society, based on free political organizing, two different economies will come into being, two orders of life, though naturally they will be interconnected as in a Möbius strip. In one order, we organize work as a necessity to fulfill our changing needs as a society, while in the other order we are free from work as a necessity, yet also wealthy enough socially to enjoy universal welfare services and realize personal and community yearnings. In the first order, we part amicably from the destructive capitalist system of “every person for himself.”

The question here will not be what I can obtain for myself in return for minimum work and effort, but what everyone needs to do in order to enlarge the scope of freedom of each and every one of us. This will be one of the organizing questions of politics. At the heart of this order will be a tendency to automate everything that can and should undergo automation. Whereas in the second order, people will be liberated from their dependence on profitmaking on the one hand, and from creating the necessities of life on the other hand.

Satisfaction and meaning deriving from work will not disappear; they will take on new life, because work within the framework of this new order, to the extent that we wish to perform it, will be its own reward and not subordinate to foreign principles. The relation between the two orders is dialectic and dynamic, because what is a private passion in the one order today, is the need of all humanity vis-a-vis the other order tomorrow.

It’s possible there will be nothing to rule out the marginal operation in this scenario of markets that will be based on democratic principles and will constitute one path for leading a personal and social life. We will need to develop original economic-political thought capable of creatively engendering new concepts of freedom, politics and social organization. The humanities and the social sciences will perhaps gain new leases on life.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that our language is the limit of our world. But one could say instead that it is precisely our form of political organization that places limits on our world and thus on language, and the time has come to breach them.

We live in reactionary times, but ones that also see the beginning of a new political and intellectual project in Israel and internationally that seeks to learn from past mistakes and renew the debate about universality. We need to start asking seriously not only how to eradicate the evils of the current system, but what constitutes a worthy life that is embedded in freedom and equality, and not stop until we actualize that life.

Dr. Kfir Cohen Lustig is a senior research fellow and head of the Globalization and Sovereignty Cluster at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. This article is part of the work of the institute’s Postcapitalism research team.

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