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The ‘Busy’ Trap

Tim Kreider, Opinionator (blog), New York TImes
If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

… I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?

But just in the last few months, I’ve insidiously started, because of professional obligations, to become busy. For the first time I was able to tell people, with a straight face, that I was “too busy” to do this or that thing they wanted me to do. I could see why people enjoy this complaint; it makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon. Except that I hate actually being busy. Every morning my in-box was full of e-mails asking me to do things I did not want to do or presenting me with problems that I now had to solve. It got more and more intolerable until finally I fled town to the Undisclosed Location from which I’m writing this.

Tim Kreider is the author of “We Learn Nothing,” a collection of essays and cartoons. His cartoon, “The Pain — When Will It End?” has been collected in three books by Fantagraphics.
(30 June 2012)

It’s the 21st century – why are we working so much?

Owen Hatherley, Guardian
The right calls for hard work, the left for more jobs. The dream of mechanisation leading to shorter working hours seems forgotten

If there’s one thing practically all futurologists once agreed on, it’s that in the 21st century there would be a lot less work. What would they have thought, if they had known that in 2012, the 9-5 working day had in the UK become something more like 7am to 7pm? They would surely have looked around and seen technology take over in many professions which previously needed heavy manpower, they would have looked at the increase in automation and mass production, and wondered – why are they spending 12 hours a day on menial tasks?

It’s a question which isn’t adequately answered either by the right or by the official left. Conservatives have always loved to pontificate about the moral virtue of hard work and much of the left, focusing on the terrible effects of mass unemployment, understandably gives “more jobs” as its main solution to the crisis. Previous generations would have found this hopelessly disappointing.

In almost all cases, utopians, socialists and other futurologists believed that work would come near to being abolished for one reason above all – we could let the machines do it. The socialist thinker Paul Lafargue wrote in his pointedly titled tract “The Right To Be Lazy” (1883):
(1 July 2012)

Whatever happened to the leisure society?

Philip Ferguson, Redline
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one of the biggest ideas being talked about by liberal supporters of capitalism was ‘the leisure society’. Automation and the development of computers, people were told, meant that what once took 40 or 50 or 60 hours to produce now took much less time and soon would take so little that the work week would get shorter and shorter. Because the same, or even more, goods and services would be produced, we could still get the same pay and be able to buy more and more. The big struggle we’d have would not be making ends meet or trying to find time for leisure, but what on earth we’d do with all our new leisure time.

Keynes: in 1930 he predicted capitalism could deliver a 15-hour work week for the masses and we’d be living a leisured existence well before now

Indeed, this idea of a leisure society had been discussed even earlier, in fact right near the start of the Great Depression, by the leading bourgeois economist of that era, John Maynard Keynes. In a 1930 article, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, Keynes had looked beyond the increasing economic difficulties, mass unemployment and poverty of the Depression to a period of dramatic recovery and improvement in the living conditions of the masses.

He noted that from the period of several thousand years before when Christ is supposed to have been born up until the early 1700s, living standards hadn’t changed much in what he called “the civilised centres of the earth”. From the 1500s on, and especially the 1700s on, “the great age of science and technical inventions began”, making it possible to improve the living conditions of people, even while population increased dramatically.

He estimated that within the lifetime of people of his own generation, “we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.” He predicted that in 100 years – that is, by 2030 – living standards in the advanced capitalist countries would be “between four and eight times as high” as they were in 1930. Indeed, he felt, “It would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of a far greater progress still.” (The Depression, he claimed, was a sort of blip which would be overcome without too much trouble. Avarice and usury “must be our gods for a little longer still.”)

However, what he called “the economic problem”, and defined as “the struggle for subsistence” which had gone on for thousands of years, would be solved altogether by the time his generation’s grandchildren reached adulthood. At this time, he noted, a work week might consist of five shifts of three hours!

… In 1975, American sociologist Max Kaplan noted that in the United States, “the normal extension of automation has reduced weekly work hours roughly from 70 to 37 in the past century, almost four hours per week less each decade; thus an additional reduction of 12 hours by the year 2000″. He went on to make what he described as an “oversimplified projection” but one that was nevertheless, he felt, generally valid: “with the help of computerization, the additional time off could be five hours in the 1970s, six in the 1980s, and seven in the 1990s. The result could be a workweek of 20 hours at century’s end.”

Yet the new discourse was barely established when the postwar boom came to an end. Economic stagnation and crisis quickly dominated discussion. Mass unemployment returned. Workers might have found they suddenly had plenty of leisure time, but it was because they had been made jobless and wageless. The struggle to make ends meet occupied workers’ minds, rather than notions of the leisure society and how they’d fill up all the leisure from a 15-hour work week for the same pay they’d previously gotten for a 40-hour week. Some workers who still had jobs found they had less hours and less pay. Other workers found their work week lengthening. The very problems of capitalism, which ensure that crises are a regular part of the system, had returned with a vengeance.

In the four decades since, capitalism has been unable to generate a new period of expansion in any way comparable to the long postwar boom. So the world of work today is far, far removed from Keynes’ 1930 optimism and from the superficial leisure society prognostications of liberal sociologists and pundits in the late 1960s and very early 1970s.
(3 April 2012)
Related by the same author: Pensions and the retirement age: the problem is capitalism, not an aging population – June 29, 2012
Also, by EB contributor Michael Yates: Whooppee, we’re all gonna die. . . working.

No Fun: Living Death in Emotional Capitalism

John Brissenden, New Left Project
Review: Dead Man Working
Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming
Zer0 Books, 2012.

Hard day at the office? In Dead Man Working, Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming remind us of the ways in which late capitalism, in its remorseless drive to capture and enclose our very living being, condemns us to a living death. No postmodern, corporate organisation, from the call centre to the university, is complete without its “vision and values” statement, its corporate social responsibility programme, its employee “wellness” regime. It suffocates us with its creepy injunctions for us to be “ourselves”. It leaves us with nothing, no escape. As the authors put it: “A quest without end or rationale, slowly poisoning almost every aspect of our lives on the job and even afterwards when we think the daily grind is over. But, of course, it is never over.”

… They argue for a (re)detachment of oneself and one’s social relations from the world of work. We should see the conflation of capitalism and life for what it is:

This means not mistaking the commonwealth that we produce together for capitalism. Not mistaking life and its conduct for work. Not mistaking the body and its sensibilities for a human resource. Not mistaking self-direction and its improvisational energies for the injunction to work or the boss function. Each mistaken conflation creates conditions ripe for self-entrapment – the true currency of biocracy. Each detachment, however, represents a positive moment of removal, separation, or withdrawal from the scene of power. A return to the rich and life-affirming flows of social living that is so anathema to existence under capitalism.

I’m a simple soul, and I’m still thinking through precisely what this means, and what it might look like in practice. At best, it seems that it might be similar to something I already see around me increasingly. As the creepy enjoinders to get involved!, enjoy! and show your passion! become more and more shrill, more and more people respond with sullen refusal rather than half-hearted, eye-rolling participation. Maybe, in a looking-glass world of emotions turned up to 11, the only proper response is indeed on the emotional plane. After all, as Cederström and Fleming point out, “being a party-pooper is today the most serious crime you could commit”.
(1 July 2012)

Do Less with Less, and Love It

Justin Ritchie, TheTyee
Unless you attended a debate, snatched up an inaugural copy of the Vancouver Degrowth newspaper, or caught sight of one the few Degrowth flyers around town, you might have missed Vancouver’s newest political party this past municipal election.

Running under the Degrowth banner, Chris Masson, Ian Gregson and Chris Shaw lost out in an election dominated by Vision Vancouver. With a budget of $1,300 to cover the cost of the newspaper and election registration fees, the three collectively received just over 20,000 votes — less than half of what the candidate with the lowest number of votes elected, Adriane Carr, received.

Yet the party doesn’t see their candidacy as failed. As Degrowth council candidate Chris Shaw puts it, “What we wanted to do was to start a discussion about how reliant our economic system is on economic growth — a reliance that will impact everyone harshly in the near future.”

The newly-minted Degrowth Party is the newest incarnation of the Work Less Party, which received over 12,000 votes in the 2008 municipal election. The party, notorious for its “Work Less Party parties” on Commercial Drive, moved to rebrand late this September.

“‘Work Less’ seemed frivolous to a lot of people, as if all we wanted to do was just bang on the drum all day,” says Degrowth council candidate Shaw. “It didn’t convey the image that we wanted to provide… more quality time for the people you love and freedom to engage in civic activities. The terms ‘Degrowth’ and ‘Work Less’ embrace truly green principles that contrast with what the term ‘green’ has become — empty and meaningless.”

Based on a movement with roots in Europe, the Degrowth Party is taking their message beyond the election with the hopes of debunking Vancouver’s image of being a sustainable, green city. They hope to convince citizens that a new economic vision is possible — however difficult that may be.

“We intended the term Degrowth to be challenging,” says Shaw, “because it gives us an opening that allows a discussion of the limits to growth.”…
(December 2011)