Covid-19 Is an Opportunity to Rethink How We Work

For decades, the distinction between work and leisure time has been fading away. We can't afford a return to that old 'normal' – after Covid-19, we must fight for a future where workers control their lives.

After a tiring week, the desire to rest over the weekend seems only natural. But as I lie on the sofa, having a leisurely read, the sound of the clock ticking becomes deafening. The cuckoo strikes at the hour. As it recedes back into its nest, I notice its accusatory glare, as if to remind me that another hour has passed me by, and that time that can never be regained. As I sit up, I ask myself, could I have been more productive? 

The feeling of guilt as we agonise over a ‘wasted’ day can’t be separated from neoliberalism’s tightened grip over our psyches. As we internalise market relations our own mind constantly demands productivity. It becomes difficult to avoid the feeling that activities which aren’t rooted in productivity are without value. 

In Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism, E.P. Thompson discussed how the Industrial Revolution saw the imposition of time discipline and established the centrality of the clock. His work traces the changes in the apprehension of time within Western Europe, where he notes that time measurement enabled farmers in the mid-seventeenth century to begin calculating their expectations of how much work their employees would be able to complete during a shift. 

Time, as the saying goes, became money – more specifically the employer’s money, and Thompson highlights how it evolved to a point where “it is not passed but spent.” 

And as the system which prioritises productivity and profit above all else persists, the lives of workers remain an afterthought. From a young age, we are taught to structure our lives around work: from constantly being interrogated about our ‘dream jobs’ to being scolded as idle or self-indulgent when we are relaxing. 

During ‘normal time,’ our self-worth is rooted in our productivity and, more specifically, our achievements. But in the pandemic period, many have been forced to slow down or come to a halt. The inner compulsion to achieve, which is rooted in bourgeois notions of self-advancement, has been involuntarily suspended.

With little certainty in sight, many of us have been forced to live in the present, to savour the small things: that walk you never usually got to take that exposed you to natural beauty, or regular phone calls with loved ones. This hasn’t been the case for everyone: parents, key workers, freelancers, and many others have been left in states of anxiety, most particularly by the government’s failure to provide adequate support.

But for millions, this ability to maintain or rebuild a healthy relationship with themselves has been an unexpected positive of the pandemic.

As lockdown eases, we shouldn’t be too quick to return to pre-pandemic life, with so many people burning themselves out to maintain daily subsistence. We should be thinking about how to reconfigure our economic structures to ensure every worker has more agency over their time, so that they can lead more fulfilling and happier lives. 

This sentiment has been a consistent feature of the labour movement for centuries. In The German Ideology, Karl Marx argued that the goal of socialists should be to ensure that “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity, but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes.” 

And while Marx himself was dismissive of utopian socialists and their eccentric blueprints for a future society, we must still provide broad outlines of the world we wish to see. Socialists can surely articulate a compelling vision of a happier and healthier society. And if not now, when?

We can imagine a society where, in Marx’s words, “one could hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening and criticise after dinner, without ever becoming huntsman, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” When the injunction to accumulate is removed, leisure could become more fundamental to our lives – and more available to many who are denied it today.

It is a deep indicator of capitalism’s failures that we can dismiss things we enjoy doing as a form of procrastination, a ‘hobby,’ or come to label self-care as self-indulgence. Many of the activities that nourish human life are not underpinned by financial gain, have no deadlines or specific end-goals, but they allow us to look after our well-being.

People are looking for change. A recent poll in Britain discovered that a mere 6% of people want a return to the pre-pandemic ‘normal,’ while New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin have suggested reducing the work week. There is a battle today over whether this pandemic will result in a systemic change, or whether many workers will be forced to risk their lives in order to return to a lifestyle they never wanted.

When CBI boss Carolyn Fairbairn blames the demise of Britain’s high streets not on the growth of multinational corporations and the absence of government support but on workers protecting their health in a time of pandemic, it’s part of a push for a return to the status quo ante as soon as possible. 

In this context, the Left has to be serious about its own vision. Marx was right to say that “the shortening of the working day is freedom’s basic prerequisite,” and we should be emphasising the calls to move towards a four-day week, especially when they come from trade unions. 

Long before Covid-19, life had deteriorated for millions of workers. The demarcation between ‘work time’ and ‘free time’ was blurred at best, non-existent at worst. It’s time to think again about how we can live happy and dignified lives, and build an economy on more than sandwich breaks amid the drudgery.