From the January 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
Have you ever felt like reporting in sick?
At 8.15 I had convinced myself not to go to work. I plucked up courage, coughed to check I really was unable to function and phoned in my excuse. I had wandered for several minutes, nervous, guilty and had insisted on total silence from the children at the breakfast table. By 9 o'clock it was too late to reverse the situation. All guilt had evaporated and I was feeling much better. That was it. The only remedy for that sick feeling that precedes going to work was not going to work.
Work in modern society defines you. If someone asks you what do you do you tend to answer with the nature of your job. Too many of us do not leave our work at the workplace but carry it round wherever we may be, it lurks and inhibits what is known as leisure time. In fact a lot of so-called leisure time is simply time spent getting ready to go back to work. Clothes are got ready for the next day. Sandwiches need making, an evening shave saves time in the morning. We have early nights despite wanting to stay up for that great film on television because we have to be able to function properly for work. Work structures our lives.
Whilst plenty of people get some sort of fulfilment, job satisfaction, enjoy the company of their fellow workers and so on it is surely not something we would choose to do for so long a period of time. For a lifetime of work means just that. There is an old story about Pandora opening a box which contained all the evils in the world. On opening the box she released ponos the Greek word for work from which we derive our word punishment.
There is a saying that a hard day's work never did anyone any harm. Well that's not exactly true. Whilst I wouldn’t sniffle at the odd hard day I would argue that a lifetime of hard days has a nasty cumulative effect. Why else are so many days "lost" through sickness real—or, as in my case, imagined? Up pops guilt once again! Our working lives have impacted on the way we live when not physically at the place of work. We all know the fear of oversleeping, of being late and the headlong rush to be there on time. Witness the antics of normally calm, rational human beings on their daily commute to work, charging along to speed through traffic lights. Cutting each other up, fighting over ownership of a few precious yards of road, cocooned in the modern-day suit of armour, the car.
Our eating habits have changed. Real food is becoming a luxury, replaced by packaged, frozen, tinned, oven-ready instant meals. We have instant coffee. Whatever happened to the coffee bean, the smell of roasting beans? Instant potato that could be used for filling in holes in the walls. Meals have to be quick and easy to prepare for the simple reason that most of us don’t have the time to prepare them.
We come close to telling lies to get the job in the first place. We appear groomed and well-mannered. We give the answers we think the interviewing panel want to hear. We are not ourselves.
Just as dogs can be trained to leap gracefully through a hoop in return for a tasty titbit and seals will juggle balls in return for some tasty fish so we do that which we find unpleasant in return for money. If we didn’t get the money we would very quickly find that we would be unable to maintain the acceptable standards necessary to get the money.
Jobs need doing but . . .
It is self-evident that to maintain an effective modern society, one in which we continue to eat, have clothes to wear, somewhere fit to live and so on that a certain amount of work is necessary. Jobs need doing. I never heard of a house that built itself or of a cabbage that was self-planting, self-cultivating and somehow managed to get itself to a greengrocer's. But it is the difference between work and employment that throws up the dilemma. I would define work as socially necessary, needed for the functioning of society and the people that make up that society. Employment is what jumped out of Pandora's box and when you think about it is what gives rise to instant potato and getting up in what appears to be the middle of the night for three months of the year and going to a place you don’t want to go to do something you don’t want to do. You wouldn't treat a dog like that.
I am making the assumption that most people if given the chance would be able to give you plenty of examples of how their life could be improved. That society could in fact be organised in a way that actually improved the quality of our lives. To assume that, you have to consider changing things. Change is not something to fear and it is change that has enabled humanity to mould and shape the world that we live in. If you do not accept change then we are no more advanced than the dinosaur. It is as good a time as any to contemplate the possibility of doing jobs that need doing and of stopping doing jobs that are in fact only keeping us in a position that we do not in fact really approve of.
Society has evolved to a point where we can produce an abundance of what we need. Technology gives us the possibility of having less work and more possible leisure. But only if we concentrate on what needs doing and discard that which simply preserves and maintains the status quo. John Lennon summed it up beautifully in his song Imagine. Humanity possesses not only the imagination but also the physical ability to make such a society possible. A society that only produces goods and services if they can be sold for a profit is an anachronism for it creates injustice and suffering on a scale that beggars belief. Have you nothing better to do with your life?