The Industrial Revolution put the total amount of work we need to do on a downward slope. In more recent decades it has become not just a slope, but a curve that drops ever more sharply downward.
A hundred years ago the normal working week consisted of six days of 10-12 hours each. For many decades now it has been five eight-hour days. It is clear today that working three or four days a week, perhaps 20-24 hours, would be enough to satisfy all the need for labor there is. My semi-serious scheme for determining the work week is to calculate the total number of work hours needed nationally and divide it by the total number of workers. There are obvious complications, but…
Working 24 hours a week
would be enough to satisfy
all the need for labor
Our productivity has risen sharply over the past half century. Computers now manage record keeping, inventory, construction scheduling, health care and billing, and thousands of other things. New machines have replaced labor or made labor far more efficient. Machines such as concrete pumps put concrete directly where it is needed, rather than in enormously heavy wheelbarrows that must be rolled by hand. And robots of all kinds and sizes get more amazing by the day. But not only do we not have a shorter work week, but millions of people can’t decently live on what they make working forty hours.
Why have we not benefited from the advances of the past 75 years? Why can’t we live reasonably on what we can earn with a 24-hour week?
Part of the answer goes back to the capitalist imperative to maximize profit, as do so many serious social failures. Almost all of the widespread improvements to productivity are the result of investment by capitalist agencies, and they have kept all the gain for themselves. There has been virtually no benefit to workers.
The answer goes back
to the capitalist imperative
to maximize profit.
There are very few significant improvements on the market developed by individuals solely in their workshops or at their computers, because even if individuals do invent an improvement, or a new app, it usually takes a large capital investment to bring it to market. This is why we see hundreds of IT startups with a handful of workers who put in 80-hour weeks to develop their product. What each of these groups wants is not to market their idea, but to sell it to a major IT firm. Such a buyer can be expected to pay the developers in the tens or hundreds of millions if they buy their product. Even billions. This payout is enough that a 28-year-old coder could easily live on it the rest of his or her life.
But the bulk of the benefit passes to the big IT company. The innovation becomes just another fragment of profit for the company and its investors. It does nothing to improve our working lives.
What we have now is
What we have is winner-take-all capitalism. It seems clear that this serves only to exacerbate inequality. The 28-year-old coder becomes a millionaire, the IT executive becomes a billionaire, and the rest of us continue as before, with flatlined or slowly declining income and no improvement in sight. Like stock market derivatives, hedge funds, flash trading, and bank robbery, winner-take-all capitalism makes a few people rich, but fails the Social Utility Test. It simply doesn’t serve society, because it assumes that capitalists have no responsibility beyond making money for themselves.
The big question is, therefore, how to arrange things so that the capitalists are rewarded for their perspicacity and investment, but they also pay their dues to society at large.
What will come of it all is the big question at the heart of the capitalist system. Whatever answer we find, it must serve to correct our growing inequality and improve all our lives.