On Exhaustion

Fritz Lang, Metropolis (German silent movie, early 1920s)

On Exhaustion

My thesis in this essay is that, in the words of 19th century British workers, ‘we have no time to be wise’. The overwhelming majority of people are just too physically and mentally exhausted and ‘time-poor’ to be able to really care much about anything more than the immediate and personal. Although obviously not the key or only reason, this is one of the often overlooked reasons for the depoliticisation of most people.

Consider the work day of a modern factory worker. In this case the repetitive work of Grace Clements, an American woman in her mid-forties making felt luggage.

We are constantly standing and moving. If you talk during working, you get a reprimand, because it is easy to make a reject if you’re talking. […] All day long is the same thing over and over. That’s about ten steps every forty seconds about 800 times a day. We work eight straight hours, with two ten-minute breaks and one twenty-minute break for lunch. If you want to use the washroom, you have to do that in that time.[…] So you don’t really have too much time for conversation. Many of our women take half a sandwich or some don’t even take anything.[…] I find it very difficult to complete my lunch in the length of time.[…] The job I’m doing is easier than the punch presses I used to run. It’s still not as fast as the punch press […] here you can have a couple of seconds to rest in. I mean seconds. (Laughs.) You have about two seconds to wait while the blanket is on the felt drawing the moisture out. You can stand and relax those two seconds ‒ three seconds at the most. You wish you didn’t have to work in factory.

This inhuman kind of drudgery is the enforced lot of millions. Women of course have the added stress of being doubly exploited by usually having to do all or most of the domestic work on top of their paid jobs. Grace Clements spells out the mental ramifications of this daily torture with regard to finding ‘an incentive for life’ and the widening of horizons that comes with embedding her life within political activity:

Before the union came in, all I did was to do my eight hours, collect my paycheck, and go home, did my housework, took care of my daughter, and went back to work. I had no outside interests. You just lived to live. Since I became active in the union, I’ve become active in politics, in the community, in legislative problems […] I see the others, I’, sad. They just come to work, do their work, go home, take care of their home, and come back to work. Their conversation is strictly about their family and meals. They live each day for itself and that’s about it.

All who have worked full time at almost any job in this society – including white collar and professional work ‒ know how difficult it may be to do anything else in one’s spare time but to try and recuperate, often in the form of ‘vegging out’ on the sofa with a drink in front of the TV. And the latter’s main function will then not be to prolong the worries, stress, frustration and anger-arousal of the workplace via news and current affairs but to provide respite, enjoyment, humour, distraction, entertainment:

When I get home, I argue with my wife a little bit. Turn on TV, get mad at the news. (Laughs.) I don’t even watch the news that much. I watch Jackie Gleason. I look for any alternative to the ten o’clock news. I don’t want to go to bed angry. Don’t hit a man with anything heavy at five o’clock. He just can’t be bothered, this is his time to relax.

Obviously physical and mental exhaustion from over-work and material or financial anxieties about survival have been the enforced historical lot of the overwhelming majority of people in all class societies since the origins of class society and civilisation. One of the many possible subjective reasons for declaring oneself a socialist may in fact often lie in simultaneous amazement at such a fate of ‘fruitless, unremitting labour’ for the vast majority of men and women and the realisation that this tragedy would in fact be unnecessary if society were rationally organised. There is a long history of plebeian and working class revolt against wage labour itself.

The absence of the human right to leisure, and thus to regaining mental and bodily equilibrium, to the possibility of autonomous activity, further self-education and the expansion of the mind, has thus always been the enforced lot of exploited men and women in class civilisation. The psychological ramifications today are not essentially different to those already keenly articulated by workers in the early phase of capitalist industrialisation, as, for example, by the Bradford woolcombers in an address to their masters in 1840:

[…] we are only fit for sleep or sensual indulgence, the only alternations our leisure knows; we have no moral elasticity to enable us to resist the seductions of appetite or sloth; no heart for regulating our households, superintending our family concerns, or enforcing economy in our domestic arrangements; no power or capability to rise above our circumstances or better our condition; we have no time to be wise, no leisure to be good: we are sunken, debilitated, depressed, emasculated, unnerved for effort; incapable of virtue, unfit for anything which is calculated to be of any benefit to us at present or any future period.

The differences between pre-industrial slavery sans phrase and industrial wage slavery are doubtless many. Liberal capitalism is without doubt an improvement on slavery and feudalism. However, from the point of view of the slaves, the main difference may often seem to boil down to the exchange of the unfreedom of direct, personal oppression for the purely formal freedom of wage labour, i.e. indirect, impersonal oppression. The structural violence of the liberal principle of ‘work for a wage or starve’ has always been the basic economic ‘freedom’ offered by capitalism to those without land or capital.

Within the ‘rat race’ of such a harsh, competitive, isolating, all-consuming economic and social context, perceived reality must then very often be largely narrowed down to one conducive to mere personal surviving, as an individual or a family unit usually isolated from others. Whatever the spiritual belief systems or compensatory phantasies (which may in fact proliferate under such drudgery), the social and economic constraints are such that the first priority must be given to simply materially surviving, to fulfilling personal material needs. ‘Materialism’ is thus not some personal choice or ethical failure, as some middle class ideologues, moralists or ‘idealists’ rather superciliously maintain. It is rather a case of the system’s inherent materialism making almost everyone into a ‘materialist’, i.e. someone necessarily adhering to Bertold Brecht’s well known slogan: ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral’ – ‘First it’s about getting a feed, then it’s about morals.’

Such survivalist, exhausting social conditions have obviously provided not only economic but also system-stabilising benefits to ruling elites. People exhausted and slaving to get the food on the table, pay for child care and mortgages, work for piece rates, shifts, two jobs or overtime, such people simply do not have much time or energy left for democratic engagement, social action, critical reading and thinking and for more global concerns.

Indeed, in the now still relatively affluent times of a frenetically globalising ‘turbo-capitalism’ with its ‘24/7’ consumerism and ‘just-in-time’ rationalisations, ‘time poverty’ has become the new (or additional) form of poverty of most of the working population in the over-industrialised countries. The previous boundaries between work and leisure time, often bitterly fought for in class struggles of the past, have been increasingly and most profitably blurred. The terrors of work time regimentation and ‘just-in-time’ warehousing have been increasingly generalised to the whole of ‘24/7’ market society. Despite or because of an increasingly harried leisure time often passed in the duty of passive consumption, there is hardly any true ‘slow time’, self-determined leisure or autonomous public space left in this super-competitive, expansionist capitalism.

Such a qualitative time and space, however, are essential pre-requisites for the possibility of a ‘coming to oneself’, for a meaningful dialogue about public matters, also known as democracy. They are also necessary for the development of a deepened awareness of the world beyond the immediately personal beyond the most simplistic or stereotyped of ways as promulgated in the tabloid media and talkback radio. Within such an enforced social framework of structural busyness and exhaustion, official interest rates and their impact on mortgage repayments simply must, on average, command more attention than, for example, the social and economic reasons for global poverty, imperial wars or climate change.

Let us leave the last word to Mike Lefevre, American steel worker, and the possibly radical consequences of the introduction of a twenty-hour week:

What do you think would happen in this country if, for one year, they experimented and gave everybody a twenty-hour week? How do they know that the guy who digs [George] Wallace today doesn’t try to resurrect Hitler tomorrow? Or the guy who is mildly disturbed at pollution doesn’t decide to go to General Motors and shit on the guy’s desk? You can become a fanatic if you had the time. The whole thing is time. That is, I think, one reason rich kids tend to be fanatic about politics: they have time. Time, that’s the important thing. It isn’t that the average working guy is dumb. He’s tired, that’s all.

Given the problematique of structural unemployment in advanced industrial economies and the inevitable coming of a lower energy economy (Peak Oil, climate change), a twenty hour week would be a most rational proposal. Obviously democracy could only benefit, or in fact be implemented for the first time, from the resulting critical mass of energetic, time-rich citizens.

[Endnotes of the original essay have been omitted in this post]


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 17, 2012.

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