Only a select few get sinecures at conservative magazines like the National Review. Those few don’t have to work much, but they must carry out a key task: denouncing any effort to make life more bearable for the vast majority of us working stiffs.

A worker cuts lumber on a construction site in Miami on September 24, 2021. ( Matias J. Ocner / Miami Herald / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

In 1956, a utopia-minded politician predicted a future in which Americans could work less and the forty-hour week would become a thing of the past. “These are not dreams or idle boasts,” declared the Marxist firebrand — one Vice President Richard Nixon — “they are simple projections of the gains we have made in the last four years.” In the “not too distant future,” he anticipated, “[the] backbreaking toil and mind-wearying tension will be left to machines and electronic devices.”

Nixon, it hardly needs saying, was neither a radical nor a friend of the American worker. But his sentiment nevertheless reflected a certain conventional wisdom about technology and the future of work. With the help of robots and automation, it was long assumed, machines could increasingly take on the lion’s share of mundane and laborious tasks, leaving ordinary workers with more time to spend however they saw fit.

The same logic can be found in Senator Bernie Sanders’s recently tabled “Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act.” Introduced by Sanders earlier this month (and notably backed by a broad coalition of trade unions), the legislation would, as its title suggests, gradually reduce the standard forty-hour work week to thirty-two hours over a period of four years without loss of benefits or pay. (Workers, of course, could still work more but would receive overtime for every additional hour.)

All things considered, it’s a modest, commonsensical, and decidedly nonutopian idea. For one, as my colleague Nick French has noted, the average American worker is currently clocking hundreds more hours every year than her German, French, or British counterparts. There’s also a mountain of evidence from pilot projects in the likes of Germany, the UK, and Iceland to suggest that reduced working hours not only don’t bring down productivity but can even sometimes modestly increase it.

Which brings us to National Review editor in chief Rich Lowry and his recently published case against Sanders’s thirty-two-hour workweek proposal. Lowry’s argument is a flimsy one, but it’s also remarkably anguished given the relatively modest aims of the legislation.

Opening with some garden-variety right-wing hysterics about Marx and communism, we soon get to the first of his actual objections to the idea of shortened working hours:

[The] belief that work is basically a capitalist imposition that is unnatural and bad for people still holds sway on the left, and Sanders is, accordingly, proposing to move from a 40-hour to a 32-hour work week to make us healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Before we go any further here, it’s worth noting that plenty of the work performed throughout the American economy is quite literally a capitalist imposition. When the federal government distributed stimulus checks and other payments to workers during the pandemic, conservative publications like the National Review were quick to complain that they represented “disincentives to work.” This wasn’t exactly wrong either: given a choice between returning to unpleasant and badly paid jobs or taking a few months to stop and enjoy their lives, many quite understandably chose the latter (and were all the better for it).

The takeaway, though, is that millions of jobs really are so underpaid and exploitative that getting even a few hundred dollars a week in the mail was enough to make staying home a more attractive prospect than going back to them. That’s because the capitalist labor market is, at its core, a mechanism of coercion that offers workers the “freedom” to choose between low-wage work and going hungry.

Given this reality, what’s often called an incentive is, functionally, much more of a threat. For millions of American workers, especially the most badly paid, work is thus — quite literally — something imposed rather than something taken on willingly.

Lowry goes on to make some perfunctory economic arguments against a shortened working week — among them that “[w]hat we earn is not an arbitrary number, but is linked to what we produce.” It’s ironic, given his own attempt to label Sanders’s proposal “a frank expression of economic illiteracy,” that Lowry is so guilty of it himself here. American workers are some 400 percent more productive today than they were in the 1940s but, as Sanders rightly points out, the value of their wages has been stagnant for decades. What we earn, in other words, is quite visibly not linked to what we produce.

What we earn is quite visibly not linked to what we produce.

Lowry, to be fair, does at least acknowledge the reality of increased worker productivity. But this somehow leads to what may be his most ridiculous flourish of all:

Sanders complains that American workers are 400 percent more productive than they were in the 1940s, yet they are still working long hours. Over time, though, we have worked less. In 1830, the average working week was more than 70 hours, and over the course of the next century, it dropped by almost half.

Putting aside the shoddy logic here (most everyone would probably agree things are better now than they were in 1830 — so what?), it’s worth pondering why, exactly, the average working week was so much shorter during the twentieth century than it was a few decades into the nineteenth.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, workers throughout the industrialized world organized themselves in unions and political parties with the goal of securing better pay and basic dignity on the job. In America, these years of agitation eventually yielded the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) — which, among other things, established a shortened working week of forty-four hours.

As California representative Mark Takano, the lead sponsor of Sanders’s bill in the House, recently put it:

Before these federal labor standards were established, workers — including children — in the early 19th century were on the job more than 70 hours a week, often in horrendous and dangerous working conditions. In the late 1800s, workers conducted major strikes for an 8-hour workday, coining the historic slogan, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will.”

That most of us work fewer hours today than we did in 1830 is not arbitrary — it’s the product of political struggle. But it also reflects the reality that technological progress lessens the overall number of hours that have to be expended on tedious, dangerous, or backbreaking tasks.

Unless, of course, you hold the belief that endless toil and low pay is simply what most people — i.e., those who aren’t capitalists or fortunate enough to occupy a sinecure at somewhere like National Review — deserve. Tellingly, the author chooses to conclude his piece by citing a book that argues that work “is good for us, indeed an inherent part of the human condition.” Much like Ben Shapiro, who recently suggested abolishing the retirement age so that more people are forced to work after sixty-five, Lowry apparently sees some intrinsic good about an economy that forces millions to spend the majority of their waking lives grinding in the workhouse for the enrichment of a small handful of bosses just to obtain the bare necessities of life.

In this respect, the most revealing passage in his piece actually comes much closer to the beginning:

“It is time to reduce the stress level in our country and allow Americans to enjoy a better quality of life,” the Vermont socialist insists. “It is time for a 32-hour workweek with no loss in pay.” The last clause is the key one. If everyone can work less and produce and earn exactly the same, why not? And if this is possible, why stop at four days a week? It’d be positively cruel to make someone work four days when they can work three days with the same outcomes. 

Positively cruel, indeed.

Original post

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NESLETTERS

We’d love to keep you updated with the latest news 😎

We don’t spam!

Leave a Reply

We use cookies

Cookies help us deliver the best experience on our website. By using our website, you agree to the use of cookies.

Thank you for your Subscription

Subscribe to our Newsletter