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Modern Times, Ancient Hours: Working Lives in the Twenty-First Century

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"In Western society, for at least the past twenty-five years, the average working time of wage laborers has become increasingly burdensome and invasive -- more intense, fast-paced, 'flexible' and long."

Pietro Basso

Reviewed by Jonathan Sterne

Monday, September 22 2003, 11:06 PM


To call economics a dismal science is perhaps an understatement. Pietro Basso's Modern Times/Ancient Hours is filled with lengthy, dry discussions of statistics on the working day. But that does not make it boring. No, Modern Times/Ancient Hours is a work of horror. Basso's book will terrify anybody who is concerned the quality of life in modern capitalist societies.

Basso's main concern is the length of the working day in modern industrial and post-industrial societies. His thesis: "in Western society, for at least the past twenty-five years, the average working time of wage laborers has become increasingly burdensome and invasive -- more intense, fast-paced, 'flexible' and long." Basso means that people work more and harder, and have less and less control over when and where they work. This is true in both industry and the service sector.

The working day was a major political concern in 1867, when Marx argued (in Capital Volume I) that most of a worker's day was spent manufacturing profit for his or her employer -- very little of that work time was required to generate the equivalent value of the worker's wage. Since the advent of the eight-hour day and forty-hour week as U.S. and European norms after World War II, the length of the working day has stagnated. Although it has been on the agenda of labor activists in Germany, France, and Italy, it has gotten less attention in the United States.

This should not be so. Presumably, technology and overall efficiency have improved in most industries and service professions, which means that people could work shorter hours and their employers would make just as much money. In fact, this is central myth of modern capitalism. Basso quotes economist John Maynard Keynes, who predicted that advances in machinery and other elements of production efficiency would reduce the number of required working hours for people to levels as low as three hours a day by the 21st century.

Basso argues that the problem is the demand for growth in capitalism, the demand for continual increases in profit. This pushes capitalists to see increases of efficiency as opportunities for increased profit. Again, this is an old argument, one that can be found in Marx.

Although Basso's claim is not new, it is a crucially important one, especially as a whole new wave of technology press promises, once again, reduced working hours through revolutions in technology. This is where Basso shines. He juxtaposes the vast technological advances of the past three decades against an ever-increasing work day. Technology has not set us free.

Thus, the majority of Modern Times/Ancient Hours consists of careful analysis of statistics on the working day, and lengthy discussions of case studies from a range of sites in Western Europe and the United States. Basso is quick to point out that statistics can be used to lie, and he dissects the premises and assumptions behind the statistics: for instance, one widely-used study of working hours included both children and retired people in its averages. The middle of the book is therefore best left to the die-hards, where Basso demonstrates his argument in exhaustive and vigorous fashion. The intro and conclusion will suffice for those who want to get the flavor of Basso's argument.

Basso only considers the United States and Western Europe, but he points out that it is generally acknowledged that conditions are far worse in most of the rest of the world, especially in the factories of Southeast Asia and the Maquiladoras just south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Add these zones to the already grim statistics, and the situation looks even more dire.

By the end of Modern Times/Ancient Hours , you will be convinced that the working day is not only a central issue for labor organizing, but also a crucial site for cultural politics. For someone who works for a living, free time is a precious commodity, and if you work all the time and come home exhausted, you have no energy left to enjoy life, much less to participate in politics.

As it was in Marx's time, so it is today. There is a basic conflict of interests between employers and employees over working time. It doesn't matter if we're talking about the widget business or the digit business. Capitalists know that more hours means more profit. It took a militant labor movement to get the working day down to the fictional "eight hour" length, and that's why it will take a powerful movement to improve things today. Shorter hours for all working people ought to be at the center of any progressive social or political agenda. There is no humane alternative.

Modern Times/Ancient Hours is available from Verso 

Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.
 

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