Greece’s ‘troika’ of creditors – the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – has demanded that the Athens government introduce a six-day working week as part of the terms for the country’s second bailout. Those Greek workers who still have full time jobs already work the longest hours in the EU. Yet now the austerity technocrats are ordering them to work even longer and harder to pay off the bankers’ debts.
It is not just in Greece that longer hours are heralded as a solution to capitalism’s crisis. Britannia Unchained, the recent book by five Tory MPs from the 2010 intake, claimed that ‘the British are among the worst idlers in the world’. They bemoaned the country’s low work hours and early retirement age and ended by lamenting ‘the lost virtue of hard graft’. The authors render invisible the vast amount of labour that takes place outside official working hours.
On 20 October the TUC is holding a mass march for ‘a future that works’. There are many problems with work today: unemployment, low wages, precarious and temporary employment. Struggles for ‘more and better jobs’ are important. That is why we begin our ‘beyond work’ section by surveying current trends in industrial planning and look at the limits and omissions of these.
But even jobs with relatively ‘decent’ terms and conditions often monopolise too much of people’s lives. It isn’t just Britannia Unchained that valorises hard work and long hours – the work ethic pervades current thinking. Work, as defined by the labour market, is accepted as an obligation of citizenship – and the main way in which people are offered a role in society.
People’s desire to contribute to the common good, or their dreams of accomplishment, are only offered realisation through waged work – even though its prime purpose is not to produce social wealth but private surplus value: profit. Work has occupied the imaginations of both the political right and the left. When envisaging the future, social movements should not just consider how to make work better but also how to move beyond the wage contract.
The future cannot be postponed; it must be built today. If we want an alternative tomorrow we must find a way to reach it in our current struggles. To borrow Kathi Weeks’ phrase we must make ‘utopian demands’ – ones which offer concrete goals but can also act as a bridge towards transformation.
Such ideas are easy to describe and far harder to put into practice, but demands that point to a world beyond the wage already exist. Calling for shorter working hours without a reduction in wages is just such an idea. A 30-hour working week would help address some of the problems of underemployment and overwork. In addition it also challenges accepted ideas about the role of work in relation to other activities. While a shorter week may seem a moderate demand, it opens up new questions and critiques, and therefore offers a possible way towards more radical aspirations.
In our section looking beyond work Red Pepper also offers some moderate demands with potentially radical ends – demands like food sovereignty which aim to give people control over the material elements of their life and collectively reclaim food from the market. Or a citizen’s income which, like the women’s movement, recognises the labour involved in reproduction and also takes an imaginative step further, to think of a life outside of wage work.
We explore neighbourhood assemblies in Spain, which are beginning to root themselves in the day to day organising of local activities: spawning co-ops and action groups. Such creative new forms of co-operation outside of the workplace open up the possibility of a wider challenge to capital.
And in our essay, Hilary Wainwright highlights examples of trade union activity in the workplace that aren’t just organising for better terms and conditions but challenging the very purpose of work. She explores what it would mean for industrial policies to be devised with the purpose of releasing the social creativity of labour, whether in the workplace or not.
The disparate ideas we point to are connected by a creativity that is neither proprietary nor patented, by a labour that is neither individual nor alienated. The crisis of capital is not abating, and in this moment of post-Occupy strategising an imaginative leap beyond work can link current goals with future hopes.
Subcomandante Marcos said the society for which the Zapatistas struggle would be like a cinema programme in which they could choose to live a different film every day – and that the reason they have risen in revolt is that for the past 500 years they have been forced to live the same film over and over again. We must look beyond the screen of work to other possibilities and horizons. An alternative future is not based on working, but enabling creative and productive activity to occur beyond selling our creativity on the market.
Furthering the fightback The question of what new political formation is possible or necessary must always begin from the daily experience and needs of working class communities, writes Michael Calderbank
Fighting back against finance Financialisation is the common ground for a multiplicity of struggles, writes Sarah-Jayne Clifton
Editorial: Solidarity against the border To really win migrant rights we need to organise a politics that goes beyond borders, writes James O'Nions
Confronting the Climate Crisis: Graham Petersen interview On Saturday 8 June the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group is holding a conference bringing together climate scientists, trade unionists and environmental activists. Red Pepper's environment editor Kara Moses speaks to Graham Petersen, UCU environment and Greener Jobs Alliance co-ordinator
Tapping the resistance in Greece A combination of opposing privatisation and putting forward practical alternatives is helping water campaigners mount an effective challenge to austerity in Greece. Hilary Wainwright reports
The seven faces of Michael Gove Mike Peters looks at how the Tory education secretary uses the words and ideas of the left to win support for his policies
The Brighton pay dispute: the union view GMB union organiser Rob Macey puts the workers' side of the argument
The pay dispute at Brighton council: a Green view Davy Jones, Green Party parliamentary candidate for Brighton Kemptown, gives his view of a dispute that has caused huge debate among Green Party members in the city and across the country