Just Two Precious Weeks?!!

analysis by primitivo morales

Submitted by ludd on July 4, 2010

A recent advertisement for US Air tells us that foreign workers (German, French, Australian) all enjoy paid vacations of a month or more. It concludes "In the US we get just two precious weeks. [pause / cut to diver over pool] GO FOR IT!" It is at once a nakedly revealing portrait of our overwork and a paean to our personal toughness.

With few exceptions, people don't enjoy work. Not only is it compulsory, often in a boring and predictable environment over which we have little or no control, suffering major outrages and minor threats, exercising no personal creativity, but the JOB keeps encroaching on our own time! While the work week lengthens with growing commutes and time spent preparing for work, the job extends into leisure space/time -- perhaps more accurately labeled "autonomous" time, since it is seldom exclusively dedicated to "leisure." The phone, the home computer and the fax -- all becoming more mobile and powerful -- are changing our society's definition of leisure time. Nor is it enough to show up for work, bright eyed and bushy tailed -- or at least awake -- one must now conform to company policy and drug law at night and on the weekend.

As other reviews in this issue indicate, the reduction of work time is not only desirable, it is feasible -- dare we say necessary. Recently, in a break with the 40-hour straitjacket, the (West) German Metalworkers Union signed contracts for a 35 hour work week, which at least suggests that it is possible to reduce the workweek. But increasing autonomous time is not a goal; it is a means to a fuller life.

The common phrase "free time" is precisely analytical, rather than flippant and vague. The core of the experience is time spent at one's own desire. Anything else may be satisfying for a while -- for some people it may always be gratifying -- but it runs the risk of becoming a sham, of being just another role one plays. Of course we humans are wondrously inventive, and so the appropriation of time and its multiple utilization is never a simplistic matter. What is one person's drudgery, avoided or minimized by gadgets or hired persons, is another person's joy. I like cooking and eating; my disposal of time (and money) will be dictated by a different requirement: far from minimizing it, I want to intensify the experience.

Satisfaction in autonomous time is strangely elusive. Free time is not fun, instead it can be threatening. As "Paris- Cheques," a data processor in a bank puts it in Travailler Deux Heures Par Jour (see page 44): "The women at work tell me: "But what would you do with an extra free day? I don't even know how to go to the movies alone!' As far as they're concerned, if I am not either at home or at work I'm obviously cruising the street. ... You have coffee, next to you is someone who feels like having a conversation, who perhaps had a cool experience and it stops there. That's life. Or listening to some guy play jazz in the street: that's pleasure. They [the women] have lost even pleasure. You deny yourself joy and after work you get drunk or run away towards who knows what, eventually to die ..."

We have so little practice in using autonomous time in creative ways that it would be surprising if most people were capable of unfettered enjoyment -- schools, the crucible of team sports, conformity & obedience, work to dissolve creativity and personality, resulting in Homo Obedientus, a creature capable of performing menial jobs under supervision. For many (north) americans, leisure time is equivalent with the hypnotism of TV and mass sports, tinged with the drudgery of household tasks.

In reality, "free" time serves to divide and pacify workers even as it buys them off. The money economy permeates off-work life as thoroughly as it controls work-life. At the same time that it has extended itself to the farthest reaches of the planet by means of pesky tourists and ubiquitous radio waves, it has moved ever more relentlessly into diverse spheres of domestic life. The "Phone Sex" industry is a colonization of the world of fantasy. Activities which used to partake but little of the realm of commodities are now informed by entrepreneurial concerns.

The ironically named "Leisure Industry" is big business indeed; the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated that in 1987 the U.S. spent some 570 billion dollars on leisure -- about 18% of all personal expenditures. Hardly surprising, as in this society the realization of every human need is reduced to a way to make money.

Beyond the profit motive there are even more insidious uses of leisure -- take, for example, an early example of industrial psychology. Workers in a factory were divided into two groups, one of which was given a 15 minute break during the day. Not surprisingly, they were more productive than the other group, even though they worked fewer minutes. After the experiment the company, with typical ingenuity, ended the break ... and the workers who had received it remained more productive than the other group! Aha! A science of control is born. If so small a thing as a few minutes break entirely surrounded by work can be a powerful motivator we might deduce that paid vacations are an even more enticing carrot.

We -- the consumers of this leisure time, the temporarily free -- see things differently. For us this time is not just a reward or a way to be exploited. It is the locus of our personalities and hopes, as well as our own reproduction; not just sex, but also cooking and cleaning and health maintenance and all those other necessary tasks that can't be done at work. To the extent that culture is produced outside of the corporate realm it is created and supported by this free time; garage bands and writers and artists and singers all help to both create and preserve popular culture.

There are many ways of looking at free time on the micro- level; perhaps as many as there are people. How do we define its boundaries? I arbitrarily imposed some order by borrowing a division used by business, which yielded 12 broad categories: Entertainment, including music, movies, games (except sports) etc.; Sports & fitness; Culture and the Arts; Reading; Self-education; "The Second Job," including hobbies that cross into the commercial sphere, financial investments, etc.; Home improvements and "Do it yourself" projects, etc.; Cooking &/or Eating; Shopping; Vacation & Travel; Family & Friends; and Beliefs & Values, which covers philanthropic, charitable, religious and political activities (this magazine, fer instance). To this list I would add Automobiles, including all those improvements & frills on cars, as well as "cruising" in all its forms; Pets; Fantasy; and Crime, such as joy riding, petty burglary, drugs, etc. Informal notes on one of these exercises -- vacations -- accompany this article as a sidebar.

The difficulty categorizing this time reveals a central aspect of leisure time -- it serves many uses at once. In autonomous activity we can discern a denser usage of time: while some cook, for instance, alone and in silence, most people "utilize" their now-occupied leisure by adding to it on "another channel." The radio may be on, providing at least an ersatz human interaction (the talk show), music or a story, sports and games, etc. Friends or family may participate either by working or simply "hanging out" and talking. These social contacts are more prevalent in societies that are characterized by larger family groups and more extensive social networks.

Attitudes towards "women's work" -- often highly productive -- are also affecting the definitions of work and leisure. House work and child care is necessary to the maintenance of the home, indeed, of life itself, yet it is unpaid and often not recognized as "real work."

This "free time" is not merely an expression of consumption; it can be a (re)assertion of creativity, personal enjoyment & worth, and our sense of play. It is the alter ego of our Clark Kent work life.

The attempts at personal enjoyment and the human will to create fight against control and conformity. We day-dream on the job and take breaks to reassert some control over the workplace (or at least to side-step it for a while), we form friendships to ameliorate the isolation and inhuman environments. Making fun of the boss, or of stupid rules, helps us maintain sanity as well as undermining authority. Time-theft is one of the most common & direct ways of reasserting personal control at work: reading & writing, practicing waste-basket basketball, etc. Sabotage and theft represent not just personal gain but also ways of reasserting ones' self; of restoring some much needed excitement and risk to life. We might also remember that the Luddites broke frames not simply to protest speed-ups and layoffs, but also in rage at the degraded quality of the product: the need for competence, as opposed to waste, is a very strong motivator.

As businesses increase pressure on executives and managers, who increasingly have no real job security, they too join the stampede to identify themselves with their leisure time activities. While for some leisure is just another arena in which the personality displays itself for others it is increasingly the reason for being.

Autonomy -- or leisure, or recreation, by whatever name -- is as productive as "real work" -- usually more so. This is the seed of recreating the way we work; rather than wage-labor one can envision a different form based on this sense of autonomous activity. Autonomous time is intense, creative, social. As less time is spent at paid labor more may be spent at creative work. Not only does mechanization yield greater productivity during those hours at work; the time freed for other activities may be more fully used -- the person will be less exhausted and preoccupied.

Leisure time -- autonomy, free time, my time -- is multifaceted. It serves as a way of expanding the money economy and commodity relations as well as intensifying their hold. It is the essence of how we, as people, reproduce ourselves and our culture. It is both a shield against the tyrannies of work and a sword that can help end that tyranny. .

Primitivo Morales, with thanks to Thorsteen Veblen, Dennis Hayes, William Danner of Leisure Trends, and the PW collective; the errors and lacunae are mine.