From the October 1951 issue of the Socialist Standard
"There, my son, you have a good job. Look after it and it will be a job for life.”
How many fathers have launched their sons into the world of wage-labour with that advice? How many sons have spent the best part of each day for the major part of their working lives polishing the seat of their pants on an office stool or fraying their cuffs at a workshop bench because of that advice? How many young working-class men have aspired to a life as motor mechanics only to find that the job they get requires them to be merely unit adjusters, grinding valves or drilling holes or pressing on bearings day after day? How many young girls have dreamed longingly of marriage and romance only to find that married life for a worker's wife offers them the drudgery of washing dishes, clothes and floors?
To the man, or woman, with imagination, who recognises variety as the spice of life, there can be little that is more detestible than the idea of having to hold on to the same job for life. To be chained to an office desk, or a drilling machine, or a steering wheel, or a kitchen sink for all one's working days is to know boredom in the extreme. When the novelty of such a job is past and the worker's eyes wander continuously to the clock, knowing that the same process will go on day after day, week after week, year after year, then he experiences one of the most cruel curses of Capitalism.
Small wonder that men talk with animation of the days when they were soldiers, even though in those days they experienced pain and suffering, discomfort, dirt and danger. Those were the days when they escaped, for a while, the monotonous routine of the alarm clock, the 8.15 train to town or the factory hooter. No wonder that they queue during their leisure time for a seat in the cinema to escape for a brief spell, to a “screen world” of adventure.
The idea that there is an advantage in having a “job for life” arises from the insecurity of livelihood under Capitalism. In a world where a man can, at any time, lose his livelihood through no fault of his own, a job that offers a prospect of continuous employment is one to be sought after, no matter how dull or monotonous the task to be performed. "Looking after” such a job implies being a loyal and docile worker so as not to displease the employer and invite dismissal.
In addition to the repetitive nature of many of the tasks that capitalist production demands, the worker is deprived of an interest in the product of his toil. Unlike the craftsman of bygone days, he can have little joy in his work and even less pride in the product. The process of production is too impersonal. He performs just a part, a small part, in the chain of production. Frequently he does not see the finished product at all and, maybe, does not know how it will look or be used. He is just a cog in the process of producing wealth for his employer. There is nothing about his job to stimulate his enthusiasm and relieve the monotony of his work.
With the ever increasing sub-division of work that Capitalism imposes, together with the process of making production more and more automatic, there is removed the final remnants of anything that might have held the worker’s interest and saved him from complete boredom.
Anyone who has visited the South Bank Exhibition and seen the girls feeding the sweet wrapping machine or withdrawing wafer biscuits from the revolving grills as they come from the oven, will understand how the machine sets the pace at which the worker must work and how the worker must keep mind and eye on the process of making the same short movements over and over again at intervals of a few seconds.
Anyone who saw the televised visit to a cigarette factory on August 25th will have an idea of the monotony of watching a completely mechanical process through a small window for hours on end.
Again, anyone who knows of the almost completely automatic process of oil refining will understand the dullness of sitting for days and weeks just pushing buttons and watching meters.
To see the film, No. 36 in the series “This Modern Age,” is to be impressed by the tasks of workers engaged in pressing gramophone records, making safety pins and electric light bulbs, printing wallpaper and linoleum and a host of other productive jobs that are sheer repetition of small hand movements made as quickly as possible or as quickly as a moving belt demands. Other jobs are simply machine watching, requiring the worker to stand and be attentive to a mechanical process in which he has no part until the machine fails.
Workers may laugh and joke and appear contented with their jobs, but usually they are simply resigned to the monotony, making the best of necessity. The eagerness with which they welcome finishing time is evidence of their anxiety to escape the boredom.
Think, for a moment, of the men and women who spend years of their lives screwing on nuts or stitching buttonholes, watching intently the cables of a rock drill, running up and down the stairs of an omnibus making little holes in pieces of coloured pasteboard, or adding up columns of figures that denote the extent of other people’s wealth. Think of these workers, and multitudes of others, and then no longer be surprised at the popularity of cigarettes and aspirin tablets.
Even the worker who is fortunate enough to capture a job where he can still use a little initiative and set his own pace is not free from the boredom of repetitive tasks. Capitalism calls for specialised efficiency and that is best obtained by keeping a worker at one task so that he will become as speedy and faultless as mechanical action can make him. It is speed of production that matters, not the nerves of the worker who does the producing. Profit is the motive, not the satisfying of human wants or the comfort of the workers.
Those sensational characters, the inventor and the detective, are being drawn from their fields of adventurous discovery into the laboratory to perform their jobs in a routine repetitive manner.
When the profit motive is removed from production and men produce things in order that they may enjoy them, they will have a different outlook on the tasks that they will have to perform. Making life more pleasurable will involve giving men and women opportunities for variety in their occupations. High-speed automatic production can still be an asset, but to tie a man to one routine job for years will be a torment that must be abolished. Interest in the work can be instilled by allowing men to engage in the various processes necessary to convert raw materials to finished products, or to formulate and perform social services. Just as men nowadays can become highly skilled in the tasks that they undertake as hobbies so they can become highly skilled in a number of branches of activity and have changes of job that will retain their interest and enthusiasm. With variety of occupation boredom will be banished, with an interest in the work, "automonotony” will end. With goods produced for use instead of for profit, pride in production will return. A man can be proud when he is doing a socially necessary job for the society of which he is a member, but not when he is toiling to fill the pockets of parasites.
Whilst the profit motive remains there will still be insecurity and men will crucify themselves to their jobs in an effort to avoid it. When the workers abolish Capitalism, the clock-watching commodity, labour-power, will be abolished with it. To condemn a man to a “job for life” will be tantamount to giving him a life sentence. There will be less square pegs in round holes and a lot more moving around of pegs in holes of the right shape.