Monday, August 06, 2007



Leaving aside gratuitous antisemitism, Paul Lafargue's The Right to be Lazy is an enjoyable polemic ("a masterpiece of studied contempt" in the apt words of Dave Renton) which advocated, in 1880, a three-hour day, with the rest of our time to be spent "resting and banqueting" (although there would presumably be some time for hunting, fishing and criticism as well).

It is brought to mind by Anders Hayden's interesting account (PDF) of the 35-hour week introduced in France nearly ten years ago. Hayden suggests that, contrary to what Anglo-Saxon and French neo-liberals alike (not to mention less ideological but amply lazy media observers) would have you believe, the timidly implemented Working Time Reduction probably created about 350,000 jobs over a three or four year period, besides bringing significant "quality of life" improvements to a majority of workers, in particular mothers of young children.

Hayden's analysis does, on the other hand, support a point made here by Yglesias, which is that the better-off are of course in a better position to enjoy time-off than poorer workers - not just in terms of having money to spend on foreign trips etc., but also in having greater leverage to negotiate the structure of their time-off (it makes a big difference if your reduced working time comes in the form of a last-minute phone-call from the boss saying "we don't need you next week", just as likely to become a last-minute call the following week saying "we need you to work double shifts next week"). The innumerable variety of non-financial resources accumulated over a life of relative advantage also increase the relative value of time-off for the better-off.

Thus the 35-hour week, and the implicit value-choice it made, prioritising increased free time over increased income, is clearly likely to please post-materialist types like me more than low-income workers - but only in so far as it is implemented in the manner of a transfer of wage-income from the already employed (through wage-moderation) to those who get jobs because of it and not in the manner of a transfer from capital to labour. If the latter approach were taken (as it wasn't in France) there's no reason why working time reduction couldn't be a straightforward distributive and quality-of-life gain all round (for workers at least). All the more so given the dynamic fiscal, labour market and consumption effects of increased employment and decreased unemployment.

Coincidentally, although it was Hayden's article that reminded me of Lafargue's, Dave Renton's commentary on the latter brought me full circle:

Among Paul Lafargue's surprising admirers can be counted the [then, i.e. Socialist] current French government. In 1999 Lionel Jospin's socialists passed a new law introducing the 35-hour week. French workers already benefit from five week's paid holiday, two month's summer vacation, and a range of public holidays to make their confreres in Britain and America weep. Indeed Jospin has dropped his own hints suggesting the influence of Paul Lafargue on the new law.

And then:

it seems to me that Paul Lafargue's notion of a work-less future provides a compelling vision of the alternative society that most labour movement activists would actually like to bring about. Indeed I suspect that his utopia would be compelling to much wider layers of people, even than that.

Me too. And one last quote:

Each year seems to bring new advances in labour-saving technology, but the working week never shortens - not for Spanish-speaking workers who are now challenging African-Americans to take on the roles of labourer, driver and cleaner for white urban America; not in Russia, where life expectancy has fallen over the past fifteen years; not in France where unemployment remains at 10 per cent; and not in Britain where the gap between rich and poor has hardly narrowed in the 100 years since statistics were first collected.

It's quite a mystery really when you think about it, isn't it? Anyway read Hayden if you're interested in the details of France's 35-hour week

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