‘The market-based order’ is fundamentally challenged when people find out that not all values are quantifiable, that money cannot buy everything and that what it cannot buy is something essential, or is even the essential thing.
But workers will not discover the limits of economic rationality until their lives cease to be wholly occupied and their minds preoccupied by work: until, in other words, a sufficiently large area of free time is open to them for them to discover a sphere of non-quantifiable values, those of ‘time for living’, of existential sovereignty. Conversely, the more constricting work is in its intensity and hours, the less workers are able to conceive of life as an end in itself, the source of all values; and more as a result they are induced to regard it in economic terms [and] conceive of it as a means towards something quite other which would, objectively, be valued in itself: money.
Charly Boyadjian has given us a remarkable description of this destruction of workers’ personalities through the compulsion to work, to the point where they know nothing beyond the wish for more work so that they can earn more; and the rediscovery of non-economic, unquantifiable values […] when the compulsion to work is slackened.
The author worked in a shoe factory where split-shift working was in operation, forty-eight hours and six days a week and
“it was easy to find volunteers for Sundays as well. I’m sure that there were times when you have asked them to work seven days out of seven for a whole year; they’d have done it, if they’d been pushed … And there were people who worked after house as well, cash in hand, as well as their split shift, either through alienation, or sometimes from necessity. You see, when you were working forty-eight hours a week, cash really became the thing you were after … A friend said to me, jokingly: ‘Me, when I’m not working, I don’t know what to do, I’m bored stiff, I’m better off at work.’ Your factory is your life. When you’re at work, it’s kind of secure, you’ve nothing else to do, it’s all set up for you, you don’t have to use your initiative. You have a bit more money, you’ll buy as much electrical gadgetry as you can. You’ll chase after money, but it won’t do you much good in the end. It won’t buy you any time. In fact, you just lose quantities of it: to gain, lets say, ten minutes on something or other that you do every day, you’ll lose an hour a day at work to pay for it. It’s quite mad. But you even get to like it in the end. It’s real security, you have no more responsibility, it’s almost like going back to childhood. This applies to everyone: before I came to this factory, I was an activist, politically ‘advanced’, but I was sucked into these same ways of carrying on.”
The author tells how physical and nervous exhaustion stifles the life of a couple, erodes sexual relations (‘you end up so exhausted that you completely forget the other person, you really haven’t got time’), and destroys the ability to think:
“Even I, during these periods, though I was on an anti-racist commitee, I was a hell of a lot more racist … Intellectually, you’re hopeless, for the very good reason that you can’t make the physical effort of listening to someone else and arguing with them; so you become really authoritarian. After a while you get to be so exhausted that it’s not your brain that’s in charge but advertising slogans.”
When the crisis came, working hours were reduced to forty a week and then, a month later, to thirty-two, spread over four days:
“Then, bit by bit, there was an unbelievable phenomenon of physical recuperation. The idea of money really lost its intensity. I don’t mean it had disappeared but eventually even the blokes with families to look after said, ‘It’s better now than before.’ It’s true that we lost a good deal of money, £40 to £50 compared with before but, quite soon, only one or two of the blokes minded. It was about now that the blokes became increasingly radical because we had begun to have a lot of discussions … It was now, too, that friendships began: we were now able to go beyond political conversation, and we managed to talk about love, impotence, jealousy, family life … What’s odd is that during this period of short-time working, work on the black economy lessened … It was also at this time that we realised the full horror of working in the factory on Saturday afternoons or evenings. Before, the blokes had to put up with it, but now were once again learning the meaning of the word living, working Saturdays came to seem an enormous grind … Similarly, for Sundays or Bank Holidays, which were paid at triple time, managed admitted to us that they had difficulty finding people … There had been a change of attitude, they weren’t able to buy workers as easily as before.1“
More is better, whether this applies to speed, power, income, turnover, capitalisation, life expectancy, levels of consumption and so on, whatever the concrete content or the use value of these increasing quantities might be. People must be prevented to from choosing to limit their working hours so as to prevent them choosing to limit their desire to consume. A growing number of wage earners must work and earn beyond their felt needs, so that a growing proportion of income may be spent on consumption determined by no need. For it is such optional, superfluous consumption, which can be directed, shaped, manipulated according to the ‘needs’ of capital more than the individuals needs.