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Is the Four-Hour Work-Day Possible? What About the Two-Hour Work-Day?

With the Productive Capacity of Today's Technology, Why Are We Working More and More?

By Punkerslut

Image: Photograph by M. Amposta, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 License

Start Date: August 19, 2011
Finish Date: August 19, 2011

Overwork is the Way of Capitalism

"It is a heinous crime in the eyes of a legislature, composed exclusively of capitalists and landlords, and representing no other interests than their own, for us to try, by any means, to obtain for ourselves and for the comfortable subsistence of our families, a larger share of our own produce than these our masters choose to allow us."
          --Thomas Hodgskin, 1825
          "Labour Defended against the Claims of Capital"

     Today, like several decades ago, the standard working-day is eight hours. But since those several decades have past, productivity has skyrocketed. The number of workers required to feed everyone was once at least three quarters of the population, whereas today, in industrialized nations, it hovers around 1%. [*1] While productivity has exploded to unpredictable proportions, there is one thing that has not changed: the length of the workday.

     The atmosphere is full of megatons more of carbon monoxide, the waters are even more contaminated with mercury, and the water coming out of the sky is even more unfit for human consumption -- but, everyone still works eight hours a day. The distance from home to work has increased, with the introduction of mass transit and highways. It is not so unbelievable that a person would have to spend a few hours doing nothing on their way to work. In the 1930's, it was this wasted time that caused some of the biggest strikes in historically conservative towns. [*2]

     Taking total time lost, we should estimate the average workday today to be around ten hours, and even longer for many cases. Workers in the 13th and 14th century worked fewer hours than workers today, and there's not a great distinction between workers of 1400 to 1600 compared to today, either. [*3] Not only that, but the airs, the seas, and the land itself was not contaminated with toxic waste and chemical filth. Yet today, it is often expected of workers to spend as much as four to six hours a day traveling to and from work, as many of the laborers in New York City.

     The work-day grows and grows, the standards of living weaken and weaken, while productivity goes up and up. Why is it that we are working more, when we are producing more? Why is it that when our labors produce more value, we are awarded less of the resulting value? Why is that when we become better at what we do, that we become condemned on this ground?

Just How Much Are We Overworked?

"It grows evident that the appropriation by a few of all riches not consumed, and transmitted from one generation to another, is not in the general interest. We can state as a fact that owing to these methods the needs of three-quarters of society are not satisfied, and that the present waste of human strength is the more useless and the more criminal."
          --Peter Kropotkin, 1892
          "The Conquest of Bread," Chapter 14, Part II

     Between 1947 and 1973, productivity increased every year by 2.8%. Until 1979, it only rose 1.1% every year, then 1.4% until 1990, and roughly 2.5% until 2010. [*4] These are statistics from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, these are annual increases in productivity, meaning that there is the issue of "compound interest." From the year 1947, until the year 2011, worker productivity has increased by 485% in total. [*5] The workers are building more and more, becoming tremendously productive.

     From the year 1955 to the year 2000, the productive capability of the American worker has risen by more than 400%, but we're expected to work even more and to devote more of our time to the job. If productivity has gone up by 400%, then why couldn't we have cut work hours to 1/4th of what they were? Why not maintain an equitable standard of living for everyone, while working two-hour days?

     The Bureau of Labour Statistics in the US provides "unit-per-hour-output," which is elusive, since a "unit" could be anything. What about the same statistics, except with a "dollar-value-of-unit-per-hour" output ratio. These statistics are provided for nearly forty countries, and this statistic can provide us with a deeper insight into the meaning of economic productivity.

     For every hour worked by an American laborer, the dollar output they produce is $59.50. [*6] [*7] This ratio compares the number of work-hours to the amount of Gross Domestic Product. So, it technically takes into consideration all of the other costs of production. The $59.50 value, per hour, is not how much revenue is being produced -- it is how much marketable value is being produced. A worker producing a toaster, for instance, manufactures it with metal from an iron worker, and that iron worker gets his iron from a miner. But each of these workers, likewise, is averaged in to the total product, which is the Gross Domestic Product.

     Other countries have similar statistics in terms of dollar output compared to their gross domestic product. Belgium was at $58.50 per hour worked, France at $54.70 per hour worked, Ireland at $54.0 per hour worked, Germany at $53.50 per hour worked, Australia at $51.60 per hour worked, and the United Kingdom at $50.80 per hour worked. [*8] The situation of exploitation is the same the world over.

Just How Can We Achieve Shorter Work-Days?

"It is said that our ideas are impractical. That is true. From the standpoint of old institutions, interests and their beneficiaries; the new is always impractical."
          --Joseph J. Ettor, 1913
          "Industrial Unionism: the Road to Freedom"

     If you ever worked an eight-hour shift, you know that the first hour is so much easier than the last hour. But could you "get by" and "make ends meet," if you only worked two hours a day? It wouldn't just be possible, but easy, if you were paid $60.00 an hour. That is how much value an individual laborer produces on average, but the wages paid to the workers are extraordinarily below this level. The two-hour day, or the four-hour day, would only be a possibility, if the productive level of the workers actually worked toward their own self-interest. That is the problem.

     What does an increase in productivity mean? As an increase in profits, it can only destroy jobs, either by those of competition overtaken, or by the employment made unnecessary by the new technology. Does it mean a reduction in the workday? No, it actually tends to increase the workday, by making workers less necessary, and therefore, economically more exploitable.

     The only way increased productivity can improve employment is by creating a new field of luxury goods and items, which was not already by tapped by the extreme wealthy. [*9] Any other form of increased productivity tends to destroy the economy, if we are to take the phrase "economy" to mean the livelihoods of the great, vast majority of the people. Oh, there is one other alternative: Socialist Revolution.

     If the workers control productivity, then they get to choose how it is managed: how much each laborer is paid, the conditions of the workplace, and the hours. Otherwise, instead of receiving $60 an average per hour of work, you'll receive only what the boss can get away with sharing. It is likely there would be a burst of relaxation if we adopted the two-hour day, but it would eventually mold itself into creative forces: art, writing, philosophy, science, and all of those small things that truly make up civilized thought.

     But the bosses and the Capitalists, who are taking the majority of the $60 you produce every hour, don't want that system. Because you work eight hours a day, only receive the produce of one or two hours, they receive the fruits of your other six hours of labor -- that goes into mansions, yachts, expensive automobiles, planes, meals that cost hundreds of dollars, bottles of wine that cost thousands of dollars, vacations in Europe, summer homes in South America, and on, and on, and on. The Capitalists are not just holding on to the right to be idle, to be lazy, to never do any work at all -- your boss is also holding on to the right to live an existence and a social life that is far above your own.

     As long as the workers do not control the tools they work with, you will never reap the whole bounty of your labors, you will never get beyond the eight-hour work-day, and you will always be subservient to someone who controls your income. As long as all workers do not unite together against the Capitalist class, every single one of us is vulnerable to the preying claws of the beast.

"...it is the declared principle of industrial unionism that the wage-workers have no interests in common with capitalists; that, in fact, their material interests are in conflict, and it is its declared purpose to abolish the wage-system, and supplant it by a system of industrial co-operation in which the workers themselves shall have full control for their own benefit..."
          --Eugene V. Debs, 1909
          "Industrial Unionism," from International Socialist Review, Vol. X, No. 6



*1. "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey," Chapter: "Occupation and Industry," Section: "Characteristics of the Employed," Table 10: "Employed persons by occupation, race, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, and sex," by the United States Federal Government, Bureau of Labor Statistics, where "Farming, Fishing, and Forestry Occupations" is listed with 0.7% of the total work force in the United States. FTP.BLS.gov.
*2. "The Social System of the Modern Factory; the Strike: A Social Analysis," by W. Lloyd Warner and J. O. Low, Published by Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1947, Yankee City Series, Volume 4, pages 25-26, chapter 2: "Prelude to Conflict," Section 2: "Grievances." Quote:

"Regarding the operatives' second complaint, that they spent many hours without pay in the factories waiting for work, the manufacturers countered that they were spreading the work at the request of the President of the United States. By this device it would become possible to divide wages among many workers rather than discharge a large proportion of operatives.

"But the trouble was that the manufacturers did not plan the work in way which would give each individual two or three full days' work each week. Instead, they required all the employees to come to the factories every day and wait around for what work they could get."

*3. "Pre-Industrial Workers Had A Shorter Workweek Than Today's," by Juliet B. Schor, from The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, republished under the column "Productivity and the Workweek," by Erik Rauch, Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT), Groups.CSAIL.MIT.edu.
*4. "Productivity change in the nonfarm business sector, 1947-2010," by the United States Federal Government, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Last updated: August 9, 2011. FTP.BLS.gov.
*5. 2011 years - 1947 years = 64 years, compound interest rate of 2.5% on 100% productivity = 485.65% productivity.
*6. "List of Countries by GDP (PPP) per Hour Worked," from Wikipedia, Wikipedia. Original Source: "The Conference Board Total Economy Database, Summary Statistics 1995 - 2010," published September 2010, by the Conference Board. Conference-Board.org.
*7. If one were to doubt these statistics, they can do them in their head. The US has roughly 150 million workers, working roughly 30 hours a week for 52 weeks a year, while producing roughly 14.5 trillion dollars worth of GDP every year. Total hours, then, equals 150 million times 52 weeks times 30 hours, or 234 billion hours worked every year. 14,500,000,000,000 dollars divided by 234,000,000,000 hours, or 14.5 (trillion) dollars divided by 0.234 (trillion) hours, gives you $61.96 dollars per hour -- only two dollars off from the Wikipedia estimate, by using basic, rough estimates. (You can easily obtain GDP and total worker statistics by googling them.)
*8. "List of Countries by GDP (PPP) per Hour Worked," from Wikipedia, Wikipedia. Original Source: "The Conference Board Total Economy Database, Summary Statistics 1995 - 2010," published September 2010, by the Conference Board. Conference-Board.org.
*9. See the book "Class Conscious," 2004, Chapter 2: "The Economics of a Free-Trade, Capitalist Society," by Punkerslut. Punkerslut.com.

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