George Walford: The End of Work (3)

In IC15 there appeared an article entitled THE END OF WORK. It brought forward evidence, and reasoning against the orthodox view that people generally need work if they are to enjoy a full life. Folklore, psychoanalysis, history and literature all indicate that the natural, inborn, inherent inclination is rather away from work than toward it, that this inclination is still widespread and there is no reason to expect it to disappear or even become substantially weaker. The following quotation shows that IC was not the first to perceive this inclination:

Everybody knows that there is a vast number of journeymen weavers, tailors, clothworkers, and twenty other handicrafts, who, if by four days labour in a week they can maintain themselves, will hardly be persuaded to work, the fifth; and that there are thousands of labouring men of all sorts, who will, though they can hardly subsist, put themselves to fifty inconveniences, disoblige their masters, pinch their bellies, and run in debt, to make holidays. When men show such an extraordinary proclivity to idleness and pleasure, what reason have we to think that they would ever work unless they were obliged to it by immediate necessity? (From Bernard Mandeville, “The Fable of the Bees,” first published 1714, enlarged version 1723, quoted by Gertrude Himmelfarb in The Idea of Poverty, Faber & Faber, London 1984, p. 29)

The recognition of a widespread inclination away from work was no more readily acceptable in Mandeville’s time than it is in ours. His book “profoundly shocked contemporaries, provoked a frenzy of attacks, and resulted in a presentment handed down by the grand’ jury of Middlesex condemning it as a public nuisance.” (Ibid.)

There is one thing Mandeville does not mention (at least in this passage). He says nothing of the people who, because they possess wealth, are not expected to work. Yet the fact, that many who are free to decide whether they shall work or not choose not to do so, is also evidence against the belief in a general inclination toward work.

The article in IC15 also suggested that technological development, by reducing the number of people required to perform a given amount of production, distribution, servicing and administration, is making it possible to meet the inclination away from work. This is not universally accepted. The (anarcho-) socialists; for example, sometimes present a picture of the percentage of population required as workers going up and down like a yo-yo as boom follows slump follows boom with no overall tendency discernible. Here are a few items, gathered incidentally in the course of everyday reading, which indicate the shape of things to come:

* Fords at Dagenham have installed a system using 220 robots which cost £650m. It performs several major processes on up 950 cars daily; the big advantage lies not in increased productivity but in the reduction of staff by althost 2,500. (Sunday Times, 22 July 1984)

* Renault have installed assembly lines operated by robots at four of their plants. “Dozens of workers,” although still employed, rarely get any work to do. (Sunday Times, 27 Jan 85)

* Over the past four years working hours for more than seven million European manual workers have been significantly reduced, during the past 12 months working hours for a further one-and-a-quarter million have been further reduced, mostly from 40 to 39 hours weekly, and holidays have been “sharply” extended, 78 per cent of manual workers becoming entitled to more than 20 days annually. (Sunday Times, 20 May 1984)

* Cambridgeshire County Council has moved toward the automated office. The finance and administration director is satisfied that although the system is a long way from being perfect it is already reducing the staff required. (Sunday Times, 9 September 1984)

* Gestetner are closing their Tottenham factory which employs 700 people. Several reasons are given for the closure, one of them being that: “the extended use of electronics in our new stencil duplicating machines has greatly reduced the number of component parts.” (Hornsey Journal, 15 Feb 85)

* Over the next ten years Britain’s social security system is to be computerised. A saving in staff of 20,00,0 to 25,000 is anticipated. (Sunday Times 10 Feb 85)

* “It is not just manufacturing industry which is presented with the simple choice of ‘automate or liquidate;’ non-manufacturing industry is now undergoing even greater turmoil, as word-processors drain typing pools, databases relocate filing-clerks and expert systems render consultants redundant.” (Lou Burnard in TLS 14 Dec 84)

* And the President of the 1983 Trade Union Congress says of the delegates: “They realised that full employment, as they once knew it, is a goner, probably for good – they realised that three to four millions out of work may well be with us ‘for the rest of the century and beyond…'” (Frank Chapple, in Sparks Fly! A Trade Union Life Michael Joseph, London 1984)

The decline in the number of jobs available is commonly taken as threatening to deprive people of the work needed if they are to lead full lives. But there is good reason to believe, as our original article showed, that although there are many people who need work if they are to be contented this is an acquired tendency; there are many others – they may even be in the majority – who retain the original, natural, inborn, inherent tendency, which is rather away from work than toward it.

As society becomes increasingly able to produce what is required without needing almost everybody to labour it becomes able to meet the aspirations of both groups.

from Ideological Commentary 17, March 1985.