The Fight for a Six Hour Workday


“The labouring man will take his rest long in the morning; a good piece of the day is spent afore he come at his work; then he must have his breakfast, though he have not earned it at his accustomed hour, or else there is grudging and murmuring; when the clock smiteth, he will cast down his burden in the midway, and whatsoever he is in hand with, he will leave it as it is, though many times it is marred afore he come again; he may not lose his meat, what danger soever the work is in. At noon he must have his sleeping time, then his bever in the afternoon, which spendeth a great part of the day; and when his hour cometh at night, at the first stroke of the clock he casteth down his tools, leaveth his work, in what need or case soever the work standeth.”

James Pilkington, Bishop of Durham, 1570.

How long should we work? Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal of a 6-hour working day policy shows the answer to this question is not a god-given fact. In reality each society makes a deliberate decision, and the answers are subject to massive historical fluctuation and social struggle, which we continue to see today. When Francois Hollande announced this year that the 35-hour week would be increased, he was met with the #LoiTravail strikes, which were fierce enough to see the exhausted French police begging the trade unions for a ceasefire. With the biggest social-democratic party in Europe putting 6 hours forward, this is now a move which could feasibly take place. But what are the arguments for and against it? What did the working day look like in the past? And how could it look in the future?

First let’s look at the history. One of capitalism’s myths is that it’s reduced the burden of human toil, but what it’s actually done is create a vast potential for that reduction. The profit motive hamstrings and misdirects technological innovation under capitalism – but nonetheless progress drives forward at a breakneck pace. We can produce more than previous generations dreamed of, using only a fraction of the labour-power. Keynes famously predicted that by the dawn of the 21st century, this trend would leave us working just 15 hours per week. But what has capitalism actually done, historically, to the working day? During the industrial revolution, it averaged 12-14 hours, sometimes stretching to as much as 16 hours. This was a change on an almost unimaginable scale from the pre-capitalist world.

We often imagine the life of serfs under feudalism to have been one of misery and hardship, and this is not without an element of truth. But one of the hardships we tend to imagine, the image of a peasant farmer toiling wearily from dawn to dusk in the field, is a myth. According to Oxford Professor James Rogers, the medieval workday was not more than eight hours. The worker participating in the struggle for the eight-hour day during the late nineteenth century, therefore, was “simply striving to recover what his ancestor worked by four or five centuries ago.” This persisted into the early modern period, where workers refused to venerate their work beyond its due, and held fast to breaks in the working day that made their lives more tolerable, as James Pilkington’s remarks demonstrate. It was the advent of industrial capitalism that saw workers plunged into extreme working days, by what were, in Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, “quite plainly the forces of hell”. Working class resistance gradually pushed the length of the working day back, first through the Ten Hours Bill (an achievement of Chartism) and eventually through to the famous demand “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, and 8 hours for what we will”. From this we might presume that capitalism has been historically tamed on the issue of working hours. But what has happened since then? British workers now stay on the job nearly 9 hours a day, and we work the longest annual hours in Europe. We’ve gone backwards. What are the arguments for changing course?

First the arguments against, which in truth are now thin on the ground. Even a Google search of ‘Arguments against the 6-hour day’ gets you a long list of articles singing its praises, including employers and other sections of the elite. They point to the success of particular companies or regions such as Gothenburg, Sweden, in implementing it.

But eventually you find the critics. Maria Ryden, deputy mayor of Gothenburg, objects on the grounds that “the government should not intrude in the workplace”. Perhaps Ryden has missed the thousand intrusions that governments already make on the workplace; the minimum wage, equal pay for women, mandatory breaks, and of course, the existing 8 hour day. Kyle Smith wrote in the New York Post comparing the 6 hour day to a demand for “pet unicorns for all” and pointing out “every hour you aren’t working is costing you money”. But the 8 hour day is itself the result of a deliberate reduction, and Smith offers no explanation for why that is realistic where 6 hours is a utopian fantasy. As for loss of pay, in Gothenburg they implemented the 6 hour day with no change in wages.

The typical arguments in favour of a reduction are simple. Commentators point to proven productivity increases, reduced absenteeism and improved worker health. These are all valuable, but they are only the relatively narrow benefits of improved workplace efficiency, and we should look beyond them. We should look to the massive reduction in our carbon footprint, to the improved mental health we’d enjoy, and to the increased time we would have to spend time with our families and friends. We should ask hard questions about work as a whole. What do we do that is necessary, and what is superfluous?

Clearly, there are large sections of the global economy which are frankly waste industries that should be dropped or massively scaled back. David Graeber is happy to name names in his essay “On Bullshit Jobs”: financial services, telemarketing, the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. Graeber points out that even the workers employed in these industries tend to think their jobs are bullshit – that they are “utterly meaningless, contribute nothing to the world, and in their own estimation, should not exist”.

The packaging industry, much of which is devoted to marketing products, is the biggest industry on the planet after energy and food. Packaging costs an average of 10–40 percent of non-food produce items purchased, and the packaging of cosmetics items can cost up to three times as much as the contents. Advertising costs come to a similar amount. The US alone spent a trillion dollars on advertising in 2005; the total cost of ending extreme poverty is estimated at 3.5 trillion dollars. We’re putting colossal effort, resources and labour-power into activity that helps nothing but profit margins. And we’re doing it in a world hurtling towards the precipice of irreversible climate change, in a world where half of us say overwork damages our relationships with our children and partners. By eliminating superfluous work, automating existing jobs where possible, and reducing the length of the working day, we would free up a massive amount of time for the global workforce, giving us an early glimpse of the world of FALC – Fully Automated Luxury Communism.

That time could be spent on leisure, on self-improvement, or simply on more meaningful and satisfying projects of work. To fight for a reduction in working hours is not to take a stand against labour itself, but against the compulsion towards work that is unnecessary, and for its replacement with something better. We should fight for a 6-hour day – and then we should go much further, and fight, in James Butler’s phrase, for “a world where we’re left to sit around sharing newly discovered cheese varieties, creating ever more niche club nights and exploring the oceans – or whatever makes for a happy, fulfilled humanity”.