Go to the Ant, Thou Sluggard

Posted by WiredSisters on April 22nd, 2014 filed in Daily Life, Economics, History, Work

 Or better still, watch the noble king of beasts (and his various queen-consorts) and how they spend their days. Not too different from how your own smaller domesticated feline predator spends his or hers. Sleeping, mostly. Occasionally aroused by some small creature crossing its path, to a hunt and a chase, and, with any luck, a snack. And then a quick wash-up and some more sleep.

 This is how most predatory mammals occupy themselves, except in times of extreme scarcity, when they may spend a lot more time hunting and a lot less eating.

 Pastoral mammals, of course, don’t hunt, they graze, and they generally do it in groups. They spend their time either looking for pasture or enjoying it, and socializing, and just standing around.

 Mammals, in short, live pretty relaxed lives except when food is scarce.

 Insects, on the other hand….Well, bees really are busy, and so are ants. Most insects run around a lot by daylight, foraging, building nests, looking for mates, you get the idea. Insects are the models of diligence in the non-human world.

 But humans are not insects. In fact, we are mammals, and mostly, we are predators. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we lived pretty much like other mammals, mostly like other predators—the kind of life our military and public safety types often characterize as “hours of boredom, moments of terror.” I suspect it is the life we were evolved to live.

 From hunter-gatherers, our economics evolved further, to pastoralism and then to farming. Pastoralism put us on the same footing as the non-predator mammals we tended. We spent our days either looking for pasture or watching our critters graze and socializing, our nights sleeping, except when the critters were dropping young or being turned into food or textiles. It wasn’t as easy as the life of predators and hunter-gatherers, but it wasn’t constant labor, either.

 Farming involved much more and much harder work, for much longer stretches of time, but our agrarian ancestors still got the winter off, and a lot of the spring and fall, too. And even when we were working, it was only from dawn to dusk. We had our evenings to ourselves, if only so we could get a lot more sleep.

 I’m not hankering for the return of the hunter-gatherer days, still less to become a pastoral nomad or a farmer. For one thing, the planet could not support seven billion of us living as hunter-gatherers, pastoral nomads, or subsistence farmers. Those occupations use too much land per non-starving person. But we are still better suited to them than to the constant industrial drudgery the market economy has imposed on the working population for the last two hundred years.

 Okay, let’s switch viewpoints. Now, let’s look at work from the point of view of industry and the market economy. What that system needs is constant production until the manufacturer has made enough “product” [a neologism almost as unpleasant as its counterpart, “content”--both meaning purely generic “stuff” significant only to the extent that, whatever it is, it can be sold at a profit] to maximize profit. The system can then shut down (as Detroit’s auto factories used to do for a month or so every year) until the market is ready for a new batch of stuff. What are the workers supposed to do in the meantime, just go dead like the machines they run, until somebody needs them again? Well, no, at least not any more, now they can collect unemployment benefits and live off the taxpayer.

 Ideally, the people in charge of this system would prefer that their workers live without sleep until the annual shutdown, and just work 24/7. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, they came pretty close. The work day was 12 or 14 hours, not counting the time spent traveling from home to work. The work week was seven days. The workers might get one or two holidays a year. Church-affiliated reformers eventually managed to get the workers all or at least part of every Sunday off, though usually only for church-related pastimes.

 But the transition from agrarian to industrial work, in every society where it has happened, has been awkward at first. The earliest industrialists complained that their workers worked only until they had earned enough money to live on for a while, and then took off to spend it. The problem was that, like the farmers in the Bible, they paid their laborers every day. They solved the problem by paying weekly, or every two weeks, or even monthly, so the workers had to stick around and keep working to get paid.

 This created the culture we have today, an awkward compromise between the constant labor the employer would prefer and the bustle-and-loaf schedule most natural to human beings. It preserves vestiges of earlier arrangements, most notably the schedules of our elementary and high schools, which run from early morning through mid-afternoon, fall through spring, because that’s when our agrarian ancestors could do without the kids. School had to shut down in the summer, because that was the season of the most intensive farm labor. When it was in session, it had to let out early enough so the kids still had a couple of hours of daylight to do the chores. Once their parents got swept into the industrial work force, this meant making some sort of arrangement for the time when the kids weren’t in school but their parents were still on the job. The hours between when the kids get out of school and when their parents get home from work are widely known as the most dangerous hours of the day, in inner-city neighborhoods. It’s prime time for violence, petty crime, and sex. Increasingly, schools and other community organizations are solving the problem by creating space and activities for those hours, and for the summer. The latter is a purely temporary arrangement. The summer vacation is shrinking at both ends, and is likely to disappear entirely in another decade or so. That’s partly because we are increasingly convinced that young people must be constantly supervised by somebody, and, if it is not to be their parents, it should be the organization we have already designated as the next best thing, the school. And it’s partly, I suspect, because deep down we cannot bear to allow our children the leisure we have been forced to deny ourselves.

 I honestly think we envy our children their leisure. We even envy the relative leisure of our public safety workers, especially firefighters. Recently, here in Chicago, some alderman seriously proposed putting the fire department on an eight-hour day, because, he contended, the firefighters used the 24-hour on 24-hour off schedule to “get into trouble.” Just like high school students, I guess. So far, that proposal has gone nowhere, I suppose because nobody has managed to put urban fires onto an industrial schedule. So far we have not come to the same envious conclusions about soldiers and police officers, perhaps because we still take crime and battle more seriously than fire. But it’s only a matter of time. YHIHF (you heard it here first.)

 Anyway, getting back to the working hours most compatible with human health, studies have repeatedly verified that we work best in one-hour or at most two-hour stretches, interspersed with mild exercise or small meals. Most of us, forced to work more steadily than that, are ultimately reduced to faking diligence as the day draws on. The bustle-and-loaf system is not only more pleasant for the workers, it is more productive for the employer.

 Some bosses accede to reality by looking the other way when their workers take extra, or extra long, breaks. Some may honestly not notice. But economists have been telling us for a while, and winning Nobel prizes by doing it, that most people make economic decisions for non-economic and even non-rational reasons. That works on both sides of the class barrier. Unions go on strike every so often, even in these difficult times, even when they know they will lose more money staying off the job that they can possibly win back in a better contract, just because every so often it feels good to tell the boss to take a flying leap. And employers work their employees long past their hours of maximum productivity because it’s fun to be able to make people do what they don’t want to do, even if the industry loses money as a result.

 Back in the early 1960s, social scientists and economists glimpsed the possibility of shrinking the work week to 20 hours or less. It worried some of them. What would people do with all that leisure time? Get into trouble? Or just sink into a morass of existential despair? It’s hard even for those of us who still remember those halcyon days to believe in that Ghost of Future Past. But, given the large amount of time wasted looking busy and putting in face time rather than actually doing the job and then going home, it’s not hard to believe in the possibility and even the rationality of a 20-hour work week. If, that is, we believe in the rationality of our fellow human beings. That, I’m not so sure of.

 Red Emma


One Response to “Go to the Ant, Thou Sluggard”

  1. Lynn Gazis-Sax (Sappho) Says:

    There’s a book called Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, in which a historian reconstructs the lives of ordinary French villagers during the fourteenth century through the records of the Inquisition (the village was a hotbed of Catharism, so a bishop brought in all the inhabitants for questioning). One thing I remember from that book is that the villagers had a fair amount of leisure time in the form of religious feast days. Also, shepherds had a lot of freedom to come and go from their work, with one shepherd covering for another.