From the July 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
“The binge working culture is taking its toll.”
On Sunday, 16 May, the Observer published two interesting and informative articles: ‘Sunday Blues and ruin weekends for many Britons’, by Tracy McVeigh, and ‘The binge working culture is taking its toll’, by Denis Campbell.
McVeigh observes: “The recession is raising stress levels so high that a quarter of workers are finding their weekends ruined by the Sunday blues – a dread of going back to the office next day – according to a report.” The report by ‘Mind’, said that 26 percent of workers felt dread and apprehension the day before they were due back to work after a weekend off.
Other findings include high rates of illness, and extensive low morale. High rates of unpaid overtime were mentioned. Many people “are living with constant fear of redundancy, and often taking on extra duties because of a recession – reduced workforce, and downsizing could mean years of uncertainty for workers”, notes the report. Indeed, the numbers of people reported to have left their jobs due to stress rose from 6 percent in 2004 to 8 percent in 2009. Working conditions have deteriorated; and people “are struggling to cope with extra demands of working harder, longer hours, and are under more pressure as their employers battle for survival”.
Isolation with longer hours
Denis Campbell, citing research published by the European Heart Journal, notes that depressingly familiar picture of Britons – British workers – slaving over their terminals “way beyond their supposed finishing time, sometimes involves a fatal price”. Those working three or more hours of overtime a day, are more likely to develop heart trouble, and potentially die of a heart attack than those who work a normal seven-hour day. And, reports the Heart Journal: “With increasing stress comes growing isolation from normal non-work activities – friends, family, hobbies.” Marriages come under pressure; tensions rise and personal relationships suffer. “The recession has made all this worse.” Unemployed workers, of whom there are now 2.5m (officially, but actually far more) face different pressures, says Campbell.
Paul Sellars, of the TUC, says that the European Working Time Directive specifies that workers should not work more than 48 hours a week. Anyone working 60 hours is almost certain to suffer harmful effects and ill-health. Research by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, in 2007, stated that 70m working days were lost to mental stress every year.
Production for profit – not for use
Why do workers accept such long hours, and such conditions of employment?
We live in a capitalist society. Capitalism is not a dirty word, or term of abuse, although it has been used by leftists and others as such. It is worldwide, and now embraces every country. Nothing is just national.
Briefly, capitalism is a social system wherein the means and factors of wealth production – land, factories, officers, the means of transportation – take the form of capital, and are privately owned by a minority of individuals, or the state, to the exclusion of the majority of the population. And capital is nothing more nor less than wealth used to create more wealth through the exploitation (in truth a form of legalised robbery) of a large number of wage and salary earners, employees, of whom most own little or nothing except their ability to work for an employer. In such a society, almost everything is produced primarily for exchange, for a profit, not just for use.
In the main, things are not manufactured and services rendered solely because people need or desire them. If, like millions of people throughout the world, you do not have enough money to buy, say, food or fuel you will almost certainly go without.
The increasing concentration of ownership and control by a minority class has tended to restrict individual initiative and responsibility. It has weakened the “self”, and stifled creativity. People have become atomised, mere cogs in a wheel, after rushing hither and thither for no apparent reason other than toiling on behalf of an employer, real or abstract. They have become alienated.
Originally, alienation meant insanity. Nowadays, it means estrangement or loss. Isolated. Alienation in production has led to individual powerlessness, and to a general feeling of isolation and frustration. Workers today have become alienated and estranged from their livelihood, from the very things that they have produced, and from their fellow workers; indeed, even from themselves.
Modern capitalism has completely changed our attitude to work. As previously noted, the last thing many of us want to do is get up in the morning (and particularly after a weekend of “freedom”) and go to “work”. It has destroyed craftsmanship and a joy in work. Often, it has become merely compulsive. Of course, what we really mean is not work at all, but employment. It is not surprising, therefore, that many workers become stressed and/or ill. So-called middle-class managers (who are themselves generally also members of the working class) often suffer the most from mental and physical strain, although they often underestimate the effects they have on other workers (Observer, 16 May).
Bureaucratic or Democratic Control?
Generally, our jobs are repetitive, uninteresting and, from our viewpoint, purposeless. We have little or no control over what we do, or what we produce. In fact, the division of labour is now so extreme that none of us ever makes a complete article. Indeed, many workers ever actually see the finished produce.
An important aspect of modern society is bureaucratisation. Capitalism has become increasingly bureaucratic. This applies to industry, the state and many other non-state institutions. Capitalism is largely organised by bureaucrats. And the bureaucrat’s relationship to people is one of almost complete alienation. It is largely impersonal. It affects not just industry and employment, but such voluntary organisations as trade unions and reformist political parties (and even revolutionary ones).
Capitalism is not really democratic. At best in a country such as Britain, a certain amount of limited democracy has been achieved over the last 150 years or so. But that is all. Capitalism rules. Money rules.
Unfortunately, however, most people are not aware of the prevailing alienation, domination and lack of real democratic control within capitalism. Most people accept, with reservations, the world as it is. Some reject, and even demonstrate against, certain aspects of present society. Workers struggle against the effects of exploitation and the wages system. But little else. They do not reject capitalism as such
The last sentence of our principles declares our determination to end, as speedily as possible, the present system, which deprives the working class of the “fruits of their labour”, and “that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality and slavery to freedom”. This is not wishful thinking.
Freedom from capitalism, with its apprehension, stress, illness, reported in the Observer cited above, cannot be attained by a few in a vast sea of alienation, and unfreedom. The emancipation of one necessitates the emancipation of all, of society as a whole, and by a majority. It must be the conscious aim of the mass of society; although each person, however, will have to achieve her or his own mental revolution first. Only then will private ownership of the means of life be converted into common ownership and democratic control, and government over people be replaced by an administration of things. It will not be easy. But necessary.
Peter E. Newell