Posted 5 years ago on June 4, 2014, 10:59 a.m. EST by flip
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Well, we can talk about the decline of the union movement, but it runs deeper. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go.
I’ve said this before, but I think one of the greatest ironies of history is how this all panned out when workers’ movements did manage to seize power. It was generally the classic anarchist constituencies—recently proletarianized peasants and craftsmen—who rose up and made the great revolutions, whether in Russia or China or for that matter Algeria or Spain—but they always ended up with regimes run by socialists who accepted that labor was a virtue in itself and the purpose of labor was to create a consumer utopia. Of course they were completely incapable of providing such a consumer utopia. But what social benefit did they actually provide? Well, the biggest one, the one no one talks about, was guaranteed employment and job security—the “iron rice bowl”, they called it in China, but it went by many names. You couldn’t really get fired from your job. As a result you didn’t really have to work very hard. So on paper they had eight- or nine-hour days but really everyone was working maybe four or five.
I have a lot of friends who grew up in the USSR, or Yugoslavia, who describe what it was like. You get up. You buy the paper. You go to work. You read the paper. Then maybe a little work, and a long lunch, including a visit to the public bath… If you think about it in that light, it makes the achievements of the socialist bloc seem pretty impressive: a country like Russia managed to go from a backwater to a major world power with everyone working maybe on average four or five hours a day. But the problem is they couldn’t take credit for it. They had to pretend it was a problem, “the problem of absenteeism,” or whatever, because of course work was considered the ultimate moral virtue. They couldn’t take credit for the great social benefit they actually provided. Which is, incidentally, the reason that workers in socialist countries had no idea what they were getting into when they accepted the idea of introducing capitalist-style work discipline. “What, we have to ask permission to go to the bathroom?” It seemed just as totalitarian to them as accepting a Soviet-style police state would have been to us.
That ambivalence in the heart of the worker’s movement remains. Growing up in a lefty, working class family, I felt it all the time. On the one hand, there’s this ideological imperative to validate work as virtue in itself. Which is constantly being reinforced by the larger society. On the other hand, there’s the reality that most work is obviously stupid, degrading, unnecessary, and the feeling that it is best avoided whenever possible. But it makes it very difficult to organize, as workers, against work.