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Since last October’s edition of Red Pepper on why the future isn’t working, the Tories’ ‘workers versus shirkers’ narrative has taken hold. The idea that paid employment is a prerequisite for being a decent human being is stronger than ever. We need, urgently, to reframe this debate. Making the case for a shorter working week could be exactly what is needed.
In Emma Hughes’s editorial, a shorter working week was mooted as the kind of ‘utopian demand’ we need in order to achieve immediate material changes while simultaneously paving the way towards more radical social transformation. It is worth pausing to explore what this could mean. We can see the immediate material appeal of spending less time in work, but the ‘utopian’ potential prompts further questions. Could a shorter working week lead to further fundamental improvements in paid work? Could it transform life beyond the workplace?
Starting with the first question, we have to consider what else would need to change in the workplace for the promise of a shorter working week to be realised. For one thing, hourly wages would have to go up. Fewer hours for poverty pay is hardly what we’re after.
What’s more, spending 30 hours doing a disempowering, dull job is little better than doing 40 hours in the same conditions. Jobs must be fulfilling and dignified. And we’ll achieve very little if people are forced to squeeze 40 hours’ work into 30 hours. This will simply ratchet up stress, anxiety and discontent. In many areas of work – such as caring – you can’t get ‘more for less’ by compressing time and hurrying up.
The crucial issue here is who determines how workers’ time is used and who has control in the workplace. Everything depends on power structures and patterns of ownership – realising the benefits of a shorter working week work would require some fundamental shifts in these respects.
What of the transformative potential beyond the workplace? Time could be freed up to grow our own food and generate our own energy, undermining unsustainable and unjust global markets and moving towards food and energy sovereignty. We could make more time for caring for each other, building our relationships and our communities. We could do away with a notion of political agency constrained to five minutes, every five years, at the ballot box and shift power from elites by building local, participatory forms of decision-making.
Associated with these changes to the architecture of social, political and economic life would be fundamental shifts in what we value. Working less and living more might free up space to reflect upon what has gone amiss with a society that values labour market contributions above all else. For one thing, we could think again about how much value we attach to unpaid activities – including learning, creating and caring for others. Redistributing time and revaluing unpaid work could have a significant impact on gender relations, by breaking down the current divide between ‘male’ and ‘female’ spheres of activity.
This kind of radical social upheaval would not, of course, be an inevitable consequence of reducing working hours. Rather, spending less time in work is a necessary condition for moving towards more democratic, sustainable and socially just modes of social and economic organisation. This is because reclaiming control over our food, our energy, our workplaces and the decisions that affect our lives all require reclaiming control over our time.
A shorter working week is within our grasp: other European countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, have much shorter average hours. What’s more, by injecting the idea into the public debate now, we gain a timely platform to talk about the value of social contributions made beyond the labour market. This is one way to head off the government’s divide-and-rule strategy that scapegoats those who are not in paid work.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi