Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Why the future isn’t working

When envisaging the future, social movements should not just consider how to make work better but also how to move beyond the wage contract, writes Emma Hughes

October 17, 2012
5 min read


Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.


  share     tweet  

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.


Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes