Work is something we are expected to perform. If we fail to work (or fail at trying to find work) we are seen as exploiting those others who do work. They do the commute, put in the hours and those who do not are simply not pulling their weight. But are there limits to these demands? Or is it the case that some work is always better than no work at all?
Before reading this article please do watch the following video. It gives a little meat to the above question and makes a little more vivid precisely what I am talking about.
Finished? Undoubtedly impressive skills. But I am reminded of Adam Smith’s reflections in ‘The Wealth of Nations’, on work in the factory and the worker who emerges from the factory gates:
“The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”
There has been obvious skills and dexterity developed in the course of picking up these kinds of quick fingers. But once that initial resistance is overcome, we have a fairly straightforward equivalent to Sisyphus’ eternal and infernal rock rolling. This is not to say that these people are stupid: we need not follow Smith here. But whatever intelligence, wit, skill and capacities they might have are not helped by the fact that they must perform this task, one imagines, thousands of times a day.
One thinks also of Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times’ (made in 1936 to demonstrate the length of time we’re talking about here) taking on the quirks and twangs of the machinery, twitching his way into trouble as he becomes unable to escape from the clutches of his labour.
Of course the reason people have to perform this kind of labour — and there is much worse than the above video besides — is the fact that their lives, quite literally, depend on it.
This ‘version’ of necessity is essentially the same as the necessity that comes with dancing under the sword of Damocles. There are other forms of necessity that do not rely on there being noose about our necks. The necessity that comes with wanting to do one’s part for one’s community or, in less idealistic tones, the necessity that comes with wanting more than is basic.
Basic income is absolutely an unapologetic means of escape from conditions unsuited to the dignity of men and women. All the better for basic income!
There are of course those who believe that Basic Income allows individuals to avoid work. There is necessary labour that has to be done and by supplying a Basic Income without conditions or stipulations for use we allow people to escape from their responsibilities to work. But is all work worthy of human involvement? Should we demand a person to spend 48 hours a week doing degrading, unskilled labour that we could either share out, automatize or, to take on William Morris’ gamble, see if we can do without?
Basic income is a way to force that question. It is not an escape from everything, from all the demands of social life whether they be economic, political or otherwise. Indeed, other arguments that would use basic income to reduce the working week would ply those freed up hours for the tasks and duties of citizenship. But it is an unapologetic means of escape from degrading labour conditions (such as the disgraceful zero hour contracts becoming more and more ubiquitous throughout the western world) and from the kinds of necessity that force us into situations that are not worthy of the dignity of men and women.
By providing a space that is protected and guaranteed the individuals are empowered vis-a-vis the labour market and their employers.
Lets not pretend that working 40 hour weeks is necessarily good for us. We can surely get beyond this revolting paternalistic nonsense once and for all.
Work should work for us, we should not work for it!