From the July 1953 issue of the Socialist Standard
The phrase “working for a living” suggests a distinction between working and living which most people accept. But if “working occupies five or six days a week and fifty weeks a year, how much “living” is left?
That was the challenging question put to readers of the “Radio Times” some little while ago, in describing a programme on “What is Work?” The question is of particular interest to socialists, who advocate a form of society in which such a distinction between working and living (or the division of living into work and leisure) will no longer be recognised.
The present division which exists for most people between their work and their leisure is the product of historical conditions. Probably the concept of leisure as something apart from and opposed to work was unknown in societies in which there was no privileged class. Some primitive people have no word for “work”—work is for them the expression of living. And even the class-divided Greek civilisation evolved no separate word for leisure—the word they used also meant “school.”
The handicraftsman and artisan received a certain satisfaction from the work they did. They made whole articles, and used their skill and inventiveness to overcome the difficulties which arose. They were really educated by their labour. But the manufacturing division of labour under Capitalism has changed all that. A large proportion of workers are relegated to monotonous machine-minding and office routine, and few are able to gain real satisfaction from their work.
Even those who do make things that are useful to people often do not gain the pleasure of a good job well done, because of the tyranny of clocking-in, speeding-up, and down-to-a-price quality of products. Capitalist and worker alike are dominated by the need to compete successfully with others, since failure means an end to their “living"—yet success is bought only at the price of orienting one's life to goals that are trivial and artificial instead of basic and real.
The emergence of a class in society that is not compelled to participate in production coincided with the beginning of private ownership. A leisure class was the outgrowth of an early discrimination between employments, some being considered worthy (“exploit” by the males) and other unworthy (drudgery by the females).
“During the predatory culture labour comes to be associated in men’s habits of thought with weakness and subjection to a master. It is therefore a mark of inferiority and, therefore, comes to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate. By virtue of this tradition labour is felt to be debasing, and this tradition has never died out. . . . In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence. . . . A life of leisure is the readiest and most conclusive evidence of pecuniary strength and, therefore, of superior force; provided always that the gentleman of leisure can live in manifest ease and comfort.”—(“The Theory of the Leisure Class” Veblen, p. 36-8.)
Yet the fact remains that work is the foundation of any society. Hence, the value of work to society should be its prime consideration. But because, within property society, the dominating ideas arise from people who need not toil, and because a substitute for satisfaction from work must be found for millions who know it only as an evil necessity, leisure becomes the supreme goal.
Employment is a necessity imposed upon all but a privileged few. Consequently there comes to be a divergence between the conditions of working “for a living” and the kind of life which is held out by supporters of the system as desirable. The message preached is that the end of life is idleness and enjoyment. But workers, having absorbed the message, must return to the factory or office to earn the money without which they cannot live.
Machinery of Amusement
The means of mass influence—press, cinema, radio and television—all focus attention on those aspects of our lives that have nothing to do with everyday tasks. People figure in the “news” who are notable only for having money and time to spend. The constant display of wealth and leisure as desirable ends influences the standards of those who seek an outlet to express themselves which the conditions of their work deny them.
Various factors have combined to oust the old family-gathering type of popular leisure—doing has given way to watching and listening. Probably the Victorian party-piece was not as happily endured as many would have us believe, nor is the advent of television the unmitigated evil that some suppose. Nevertheless, leisure has largely taken on the form of a commodity that is passively consumed rather than an experience that is actively enjoyed. As Henry Durant writes in “The Problem of Leisure":
“All forms of leisure have become commercialised, endless devices are offered to the idle person, each to be enjoyed only on condition that he has money to pay. Without money he is condemned, unable to share in the pleasure and pastimes which press on him from all sides. But commercialisation does not merely erect a gate through which only those with the necessary fee can pass. It has a profound effect also on the nature of the fare offered. The ’machinery of amusement’ is run by business men actuated by business motives. Their concern is not primarily with the character of the entertainment or amusement they provide, for it is merely the means to the end of making profits.”
The ways in which leisure is spent are unavoidably influenced by the prevailing conditions of employment. Take, for example, the workers on a belt system in a factory who, in the course of their work, use only a small part of their brain capacity and nervous system. To stave off monotony their off-duty hours are mostly spent in such feverish pleasures as speedway and the more hectic forms of dancing—and their nervous systems inevitably suffer.
When work lacks interest it is either forgotten altogether on “knocking off ” or else it is the subject of grumbling. It is not complimentary to be told that you can never forget your work; and those who do take their socially useless work seriously often develop boring personalities and have few interests outside their daily occupations.
Here we can do no more than touch upon the various ways in which people search today for something different, something outside of their own drab existence. The cinema is an obvious example that springs to mind, but there are others that are not so often considered. All the preparations, the plans, the excitements and the ballyhoo that surrounded the recent Coronation surely demonstrate the emptiness of most people's everyday lives. And what of the weekly football pool coupon that excites study and comment out of all proportion to its importance? The punters are members of a Happy Circle, so they are told—and the atmosphere of mock geniality is shattered only when a court action is brought over winnings. Then it is admitted that the “Happy Circle" is just an advertising circular.
Some imagine that the socialist revolution either will or ought to bring a state of affairs where all will spend their leisure as the wealthy do now. Certainly the atmosphere in which they move is one to which the adjective “drab" hardly applies. Yet if you ask those who minister to the “needs" of the élite whether the latter really have the control over their environment that is the mark of free men, then the answer may surprise you. According to one writer, for instance, the rich take up gambling more or less because they are driven to it—they find they are “out of it" unless they join in roulette or whatever happens to be in vogue. And so they drift from one aimless diversion to another . . .
Whilst the first onset of mechanisation has taken all the joy from work, it may be predicted that its final result will be to return to human activities a freedom that is absent today. Man will then possess the machines and use them selectively, thus restoring dignity to all human occupations. Labour, in Marx's words, will be not merely a means to live, but itself the primary necessity of life.