Are You in Control?
Have you ever thought how much your life revolves around work? Not even the time you spend at home is your own, it is spent recuperating from one day’s employment and preparing for the next. You need to regain your energies by eating and sleeping; if you have a bath and iron your clothes, it is mostly for the purpose of turning up at work reasonably sweet-smelling and dressed in a manner that is socially acceptable. This situation was described very well by Karl Kautsky in Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx:
Thus from the standpoint of reproduction, the worker is engaged in the interest of capital, not only during his labour time, but also during his “free” time. He eats and drinks no longer for himself, but so that he may maintain his labour-power for the capitalist class. It is therefore not a matter of indifference to the capitalist how the worker eats and drinks. If, instead of resting and recuperating his labour-power, the worker gets drunk on Sunday and has a headache on Monday, the capitalist does not regard this as an injury to the worker’s own interests, but as an offence against capital, an embezzlement of the labour power that is due to capital.
One of the most exciting prospects of socialism is that for the first time since the beginning of property society we shall regain control of our time, of our lives. As it is today, the lower you are down the social ladder, the less money you have in your pocket which means limited options and a low level of control. Continent-hopping executives are as much members of the working class as are cleaners at the local school but it is doubtful if they feel the same incentive to spur on the revolution.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not high-powered business executives who suffer most from stress-related diseases. Unskilled manual workers develop and die more often from cancer, heart failure and chest diseases. Even middle managers have 40 per cent more heart attacks than top executives. Manual workers have to put up with more stressful working conditions, their lack of control over their working lives and boredom with the job they do can reduce frustration and anger. (Guardian, 12 February 1986).
Within capitalism, work is often the only place people’s natural need to communicate and socialise with others can be expressed. It may seem a better alternative than home, if home is a constrictive cell consisting of four walls, a TV set and an uncommunicative spouse. It is usually to be preferred to trying to exist on the dole. Commuting between the double prison of home and work you may feel you are fleeing from one unsatisfactory situation into another.
So how do we spend our leisure time? Apart from frantic activity or total collapse at weekends, a lot of our “free” time is spent on what Marx called “animal” activities:
As a result, therefore, man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions — eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up. etc; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.
Certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc. are also genuinely human functions. But abstractly taken, separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal functions. (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844).
In some jobs, employees sell not only their pure labour power but such things as “appearance”. “sociability” and the “right” kind of part-time interests — if they prostitute themselves completely to their employers they will take home unpaid work voluntarily and have few other subjects of conversation but possible promotions/demotions and other goings on at work.
For all this devotion, workers’ labour power is just a commodity to be bought on the market or discarded in the best interests of profit and capital. Every year, there is another crop of eager young school-leavers to be picked, at their physical and intellectual peak and usually ready to work for less than more established wage slaves.
Meanwhile, the lid is kept firmly on a discontented and frustrated population, whether it is the police force with their tougher methods of crowd control or GPs prescribing large amounts of tranquilisers. According to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, unemployment and the stress of threatened job loss may increase families’ consultation rates with general practitioners by as much as 20 per cent. (Financial Times, 14 February 1986). The article goes on to say that “Prescription rates in Wales, Northern Ireland and the north-west are up to 50 per cent higher than those in areas such as Oxford”
Our life in capitalism becomes more and more fragmented, more and more specialised. There is a specific period in our life for learning, another for working, then some more compartments for “leisure activities” and so on. From an early age we are encouraged to decide what we want to do for “a job” as adults and our time in the education system is spent training for a particular slot in the capitalist machine. Work under capitalism is supposed to be the pinnacle of our lives, the coveted goal reached in young adulthood when our roles as passive consumers can really begin. Many “happy young couples” have been conditioned to expect that their main pleasure and purpose in life is to consume; carpets, sales, best buys, cookers and three-piece suites then, as the old cheap rubbish wears out or they are persuaded that “changing” leads to happiness. the whole thing starts all over again — a life-time revolving around the acquisition and replacement of shoddy things.
Real sensitivity is blurred and genuine human caring has a hard time in the ruthless reality of the capitalist market place. Everything has its price and competition is so much a part of our every day experience that it penetrates and sours even our personal relationships. Greed, ambition and self- interest are held up as virtues in capitalism. Let us be really ambitious and use these so- called virtues against the system that fostered them.