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Radical Leisure

Eva Swidler is an environmental political economist and social historian. She teaches at Goddard College and the Curtis Institute of Music.

Connections, both real and hoped for, between the labor movement and environmentalists have been news for at least fifteen years now. The possibility of such a connection came into wider view at the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999, when alliances between trade unionists and other protest groups made headlines with catchy phrases like “Teamsters for Turtles”—or, more prosaically, the “blue-green alliance,” in reference to blue-collar workers joining with green ecological activists. Despite the once-exciting and novel possibility being now institutionalized in such organizations as the Labor Network for Sustainability, the Blue-Green Alliance, and SustainLabour, the thrill seems to be gone for mainstream environmentalist discourse, and labor has largely faded from view.

To be fair, the environmental movement has incorporated labor into its thinking in some ways. “Green jobs” for the building trades are often cited as a social benefit of retrofitting structures for energy efficiency or new energy technologies, to prove that reducing energy consumption and carbon production need not harm the working class. Environmentalists point to the health hazards that workers face in environmentally toxic environments—farmhands handling pesticides, workers manufacturing chemicals, miners—as destructive to humans and the larger ecology alike. A general willingness to campaign for workers’ rights alongside environmental responsibility is evident, as a sort of acknowledgment of the moral rectitude of fellow activists. Meanwhile, and in return, ecological activists hope that workers will take up environmental issues as part of a broad progressive agenda, creating a patchwork alliance.

Some environmentalists have even located capitalist dynamics at the heart of contemporary environmental destruction, while nevertheless failing to conclude that anti-capitalism is the way forward. The “voluntary simplicity” movement, zero-growth advocates, or the Transition Town movement all identify constant growth and ever-expanding consumption as motors of environmental destruction. Yet none of these groups seem to see the people whose labor enacts that destruction as key to their fight.

Union and labor activists understand the issue somewhat differently. They recognize the connections that environmentalists draw between dangerous work and the pollution that that work produces, or between energy efficiency plans for buildings and the employment those plans create. But labor often wants to claim a more central role in the fight for a sustainable world. SustainLabour, the International Labour Foundation for Sustainable Development, says: “Workplaces are at the center of production and consumption, therefore they should be central locations in any effort aimed to change production and consumption patterns at local, national and international levels.” Yet even this organization focuses on familiar ways of linking workers and ecological destruction: training workers on chemical risks, campaigning for green jobs, or urging climate change researchers to consider the most vulnerable populations in their analysis. The Blue-Green Alliance likewise pushes for infrastructure works, efficiency initiatives, and funding to subsidize fuel-efficient vehicle production. Such campaigns to counter the incessantly repeated shibboleth of “jobs versus the environment” are important, but the strain of being so reasonable appears to have consumed labor’s radical potential: to save the planet by challenging capitalism, profit, and even work itself.

Radicals hardly do better. In her recent bestseller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein claims the anti-capitalist mantle of the book’s title and gives a brief shout-out to the idea of the shorter work week as an important strategy to reduce climate change. In interviews, she explains that shorter work weeks could reduce the size of the economy and thus limit environmental destruction, while still allowing for necessary production. They would also give people more time to live in less consumptive ways—to grow kitchen gardens, or to cook at home, or to walk and bike places instead of driving. Juliet Schor and organizations like the Take Back Our Time Network and the New Economics Foundation have all said the same for years. Rather than the so-called “productivity dividend” (the greater economic capacity that results from constant increases in worker productivity) going toward greater profits for capitalists, or occasionally to slightly higher wages, annual increases in worker productivity could lead to a decrease in the amount of time that people work, while leaving the quantity of goods and services produced unchanged. Voilà, a steady-state economy.

Unfortunately, calls for a shorter work week tend to sidestep the thorny question of just who will make it happen. After all, a call for shrinking economies is effectively a rejection of capitalism and the profit motive itself—and that will take a fight. If the goal of that fight is to reduce work hours, then workers seem like the strongest candidates to take it on. But the discourse around the shorter work week makes no mention of a labor movement, unions, or the working class. This vision seems to presume that people of all classes will get together and talk to their neighbors, then overthrow the world economy: a simplistic, just-do-it voluntarism meets anti-capitalism. But meanwhile, the prime concerns of working-class movements over past millennia (beyond sheer survival) have been struggles over time and leisure, and only the working classes have ever had success on that front. Clearly the working-class fight against work and for leisure is a missing keystone in the struggle to defend nature against incessant growth.

In his classic 1967 article “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism,” E. P. Thompson described English workers’ everyday struggles against the capitalist regimentation of life. Workers of many sorts resisted the very designation of time as the proxy for work, and time measurement as the measure of labor; people still held onto earlier, alternative ideas of work, time, and leisure. In studying pre-capitalist societies around the world, Marshall Sahlins and later anthropologists have documented other cultures’ similar prioritization of a richness of social interaction over that of material goods. In what Sahlins called the “original affluent society,” affluence was measured by leisure rather than by the accumulation of wealth. Building on this insight, agricultural historians have also grown increasingly intrigued by foraging peoples who understood the domestication of crops, but consciously chose to reject or abandon agriculture as simply too much work, preferring their non-agricultural lives of greater freedom—and greater free time.

In consonance with what we might call this “leisure ethic” of pre-capitalism, which rejects the work-intensifying proclivities of bosses, the recorded history of early capitalist production in Europe and North America—at least outside of slavery—shows work as an integrated part of daily life, accompanied by eating and socializing, much to the chagrin of emerging industrialists. As Eric Wolf writes in his classic Europe and the People Without History, in European economies on the eve of industrialization, as long as industrial work was merely supplementary to the central work of keeping a farm, and had to compete with far more attractive recreational activities, such as holidays and family life, the organizers of industrial production would be searching for ways to “subdue the refractory tempers of work-people accustomed to irregular paroxysms of diligence,” in the words of one industrialist in 1835. The working-class life of balancing subsistence with leisure, which so irked the bourgeoisie, incorporated just enough production for capitalists as was necessary to satisfy a boss or tax man or to keep the wolf from the door, and no more.

The first attack on that independent working life was to create a system of measurement of labor based on time. The clock and the accompanying constant consciousness of time, and then the dedication of large portions of that now-measured time purely to a distinct activity called “work,” are elements of everyday existence that most of us can hardly fathom living without. Yet workers fought long and hard against this imposition of the time measurement of labor, and against the way in which designated work hours ripped apart the fabric of daily household life, which had blended conversation and community with economic activities.

In other words, the working classes of Europe and North America a few centuries ago lived in a state of rough sufficiency, despite their poverty. They refused to work simply in order to obtain more. They preferred to honor “Saint Monday” with leisure. Only when they lost this battle against the measurement of time and the standardization of labor did workers turn from a fight against time to a fight over or for time—that is, to a fight for shorter working hours.

Once self-directed labor had been replaced by industrial regimes and time discipline had been imposed, workers still held onto the value of leisure, making shorter hours a key demand at least as important as higher pay; Paul Lafargue’s anti-work manifesto The Right To Be Lazy, published in 1883, was a bestseller, reprinted many times and eagerly read throughout the global labor movement. The fight for shorter hours in Europe and North America lasted, by most reckonings, until the Second World War. Historian Benjamin Hunnicutt has devoted much of his career to describing labor’s fight for shorter hours in the United States, describing a series of working-class visions of a life with greater purposes than either work or consumption: a religious vision of the divine destiny for humans, a secular vision of active citizenship, and ideas of self-improvement. As a result of that persistent struggle, for more than a century after the invention of industrial work time, work hours in the West declined steadily.

That fight for time, however, came to an end decades ago. Now those with jobs demand higher wages instead, and perhaps even overtime work, while the many unemployed and underemployed fight to work at all. Today the dominant idea of a working-class agenda is to fight to be allowed to sell one’s time.

In the seventy years since organized labor gave up on shorter hours, not only did the length of the U.S. work week bottom out, then begin a steady climb that still continues, but labor force participation rates also rose. Women work for pay at ever-increasing levels; the elderly work until death. Ever-more hours work are siphoned from households, drawing in ever-more people. Multiple economic realities, as well as complex gender dynamics and drives toward women’s economic independence, have propelled more members of the working class into the paid workforce. Yet beyond that, we seem to have missed the fact that the motivating proletarian hope for a better world, formerly defined by maximizing free time and leisure, has been increasingly replaced by a vision of ever-expanding personal consumption.

In a curious circle, the workday once again seems less distinct from the rest of life, without a clear division between what we owe our employer and what belongs to us and our families; we live more and more in a world without demarcated work and leisure. But unlike Thompson’s loitering, sauntering, idle cottagers, who might choose to weave when pushed to it, who spent their days in self-direction and self-determination and resented the hours lost to paid work, this new, unbounded world is turned upside down. It is one in which all time is potential work time, and vacations are viewed as a theft from the boss.

Networks such as Take Back Our Time and movements such as voluntary simplicity have tried—without much broad appeal or success—to resurrect alternative understandings of prosperity. While undoubtedly some workers have continued to value time over money, the public discourse of “simplicity” has not attracted them or incorporated them. As the social movement that created and sustained a resistance to time discipline for centuries, and continued to fight for time once their fight against time was lost, the absence of labor from the simplicity forum is a striking and fatal flaw.

Labor historians—at least the few who have studied the struggle over work time—have noted a few key points worth recalling. First, no drop in work hours has been won without a fight by the working class. The leisure society that was promised into the 1970s never arrived, precisely because organized labor had abandoned the fight for shorter hours several decades earlier. Voluntary simplicity movements, whatever their name—work-life balance, life downsizing, slackerdom, the DIY movement—have never succeeded in reducing work hours on a social level. As a hodgepodge of individual actions, they fail to address the economic and social imperatives to work.

Professionals, in particular, have failed as a class to hold the line on work intensity or work volume, and academics writing about labor provide a prime example. With seemingly no personal experience of their own of either individual or communal work resistance or of a leisure ethic, researchers in labor history have been almost blind to the rejection of work, and have shaped the labor literature accordingly.

Those activities that the few working-class studies researchers examining the topic call “work resistance”—including drunkenness, absenteeism, loafing, and hoboism—could be considered proletarian forms of voluntary simplicity. Certainly capitalists have historically taken this grassroots working-class leisure ethic as a very serious threat indeed. Cultural wars against alcohol and laziness, legal sanctions against vagrancy, and the psychological training of children into obedience and work discipline through mass enforced schooling all reflect the intensity of the attack on proletarian resistance to work.

These maneuvers historically depended on even more basic punishments and tools, such as economic structures that threatened starvation and disaster for those who would not work. In earlier centuries, when the fight over time was more explicit, Western capitalists designed low pay levels to force workers into working more hours. In later years and in other parts of the globe, a variety of other strategies have been employed to extract work from the unwilling, including requiring taxes or fees from subsistence households in order to force people into participation in the cash economy, and dispossessing people of their means of subsistence or production in order to drive people into employment by others. Yet amidst all this enforcement of labor, workers maintained their own vision of leisure and independent time. This vision animated organized labor and drove the successful trajectory of decreasing work hours until the fateful mid-twentieth century moment when unions gave up the fight for time.

But why did organized labor stop fighting for shorter hours? No one seems to know. Clearly this choice coincided with other deeply conservative union developments, including purges of leftists from the ranks. A desire for free time was even painted as an effeminate demand of the weak and women. Whatever the causes, however, it is clear that since organized labor ceased its push for shorter hours, work hours leveled off and then began lengthening, despite ever-increasing worker productivity. If work time is to be reduced again, history shows that it is workers themselves who will have to accomplish this.

Students of the erosion of public life have focused in recent years on the cultural “commons”—the elements of social life that we (often unthinkingly) share, from cuisine to language to street fashion. But little has been done to connect either the concepts of the cultural commons or public life with the leisure ethic and the fight against work—a connection central to both spheres.

Without vital public spheres and cultures, leisure is unattractive; if and when we become individuals without an imperative to go to work, and if we are simultaneously without a community to be part of, we have “time on our hands,” time to be filled, time to be “killed,” time to be “passed.” We need to “stay busy.” When work so fills our lives and our society that we go to work even on days off to be in the company of others; when we do not take vacation days because we do not know what to do with ourselves outside work; when schoolchildren eagerly anticipate returning to their hated schools because time hangs so heavily on them in the summers; then there is no doubt that work reduction cannot be instituted individually. An alternate, collective, social world must co-exist with our work worlds, to provide an alternate home, an alternate web of connections, an alternate identity, an alternate constellation of values, activities, and purposes, even alternate markings of time.

Circularly, the commons and the public sphere require adequate leisure. To restore a social world independent of the market and the workplace, and to keep the commons vital, we need the leisure time to inhabit the commons. We also need our communities to have time to be there with us—hanging on the porch chatting, shooting hoops at the rec center, jamming in the basement. In other words, we need both a vital cultural commons beyond the world of paid labor and we need a leisure ethic, a constant challenge to the very concept and valorization of work. A leisure ethic and the public commons depend on each other. And for both of these, collectivity is key. With the communal revalorization of leisure, by pushing back against the constant attempts of capital to encroach on work-free time and the unmonetized forms of everyday life and community, we take up the most foundational struggle, the struggle against work itself.

I’ve already noted that academic professionals, notorious for their own ever-rising standards of work hours and productivity, have failed to appreciate the importance of work resistance, not merely as a weapon of class rebellion, but as an essential element of sustainability for the planet. Similarly, they have failed to appreciate the necessity of an ongoing community outside the workplace to advance an alternative to a world consumed by work. Rarely experiencing membership in such an external community themselves, they cannot imagine its centrality to breaking the stranglehold of laboring.

Activists for the commons, however, as well as proponents of voluntary simplicity, have zeroed in on the construction and maintenance of a shared social world and cultural commons as vital to the planetary future. Yet they have met with little notable popular success. Lacking a confrontational energy, they have failed to fundamentally reject work and work-time as we know it. This rejection has historically come successfully from only one source—the working classes.

The organized labor movement of the moment, fighting rearguard actions against neoliberalism, appears unable to mount such a cultural critique of work. Likewise, simplicity advocates seem entirely unaware of the working-class traditions of leisure, and uninterested in tapping them, failing to promote their vision outside their world of white professionals. Yet aside from unions, which, given a chance, might well surprise simplicity campaigners, working-class culture at large provides a wide wellspring of alternate conceptions of time, leisure, and the good life.

Surveying the last few centuries, it seems that there exists an undefined but discernible critical threshold. When relatively uncolonized spaces of everyday life and subsistence, rather than marketplace activity, prevail among the working classes, cultivating in working people a reality and a vision of self-determined life, capitalists must constantly use physical or economic force to draw workers into laboring. The lure of money and success alone failed to create a willing or self-motivated workforce in those historical circumstances. When the uncolonized spaces of everyday life shrank or were beaten back so much that they could no longer provide an independent foundation for self-determination, work filled the vacuum. The commons fell on the defensive, framed more as a missed opportunity for profit than a source of life itself. Only a powerful impetus for shorter work hours can reconstruct and defend the space necessary for the resurrection of a self-determined everyday life.

Movements for shorter work hours have met with ferocious opposition from capitalists not only because they threaten the primacy of the culture of work, but because they threaten the very source of profit. Even reform-minded campaigns for reduced hours are a direct attack on the basic mechanism of extraction from the working classes. Although pushes for higher wages attack profit as well, their focus on more money rather than time preserves the culture of work, and has therefore proven more palatable to capitalists. More leisure, in contrast, moves workers outside work into a world of economic and social self-determination, and is absolutely anathema.

True leisure does require some money, and more equally distributed money. First, leisure requires freedom from want. Starvation, homelessness, or cold, as well as the fear of these privations, preempt any possibility of more than momentary leisure. Second, the current levels of extreme inequality drive consumption and credit card debt, make public and communal efforts towards sustainability less likely to succeed, and reduce social support for environmentally motivated decision-making. Because adequate money and new patterns of distribution are essential to leisure, it is clear yet again that workers must lead the way to the largely immaterial joys of life, whether they are storytelling or music or friendships or napping in the sun.

We need to supplant endless consumption and production for the maw of the market, which, left unaltered, will ravage the earth to a degree presently unimaginable. But moralistic campaigns of individual voluntary simplicity will not suffice. Instead, we need to build, or rebuild, a shared culture of leisure. Whether that agenda is framed as a rational plea for a steady-state economy or as an apocalyptic battle against the cancerous imperative of growth, it must address the reality that the planet requires both a new economic system and a drastic reduction of material production, which means a drastic reduction in work.

The working class is perhaps the last remaining reservoir of a culture of leisure. The task ahead is to breathe new life into both the past and present proletarian values of slacking, napping, and lazing. Only laborers, and the refusal to labor, can achieve radical leisure and a future for the planet.

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