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Slow down, you move too fast

DOUG NICHOLLS, general secretary of the GFTU, in the fourth of his weekly features, reflects on the importance of slowing down the pace of work to tackle inequality

TIME and motion studies in factories were once led by brown-coated foremen with clipboards. 

When trying to analyse the processes of well-organised shop floor workers, their puzzled expressions reflected the hopelessness of trying to get us working faster for no extra pay.

Nowadays, with less organisation in the workplace, just in time production, instant targets to meet and inhuman tracking and delivery in logistics and online ordering, the contemporary foreman needs a PhD in maths to shave a few seconds off “waste” in the labour process and unfortunately workers are more exposed and less able to collectively invent ruses to prevent speed-up.

The key mechanism that has led to a dramatic redistribution of wealth from wage earners to the owners of capital has been the increase of the rate of exploitation at work. 

Exploitation means their ability to get more out of us by making us do more for less.

At its extreme, in the world’s two largest capitalist economies, the US and Japan, the killing power of exploitation has accelerated to the speed of light.

It’s led to a new word in Japan — “karoshi” — meaning death by overwork, either from heart attacks, strokes or suicides.

In the US, the brutal hire-and-fire anti-union culture is matched by the fact that there is no entitlement in employment law there to paid leave. Where it has been won it is usually around 10 days a year.

Unions in Britain took on a secondary manifestation of manic work pressures in their campaigns and court cases against stress in the 1990s. 

But the difficulties in defending against redundancies, public service cuts and the break-up of collective bargaining meant that the harsh intensification of work and imposition of impossible targets and expectations allowed the disease of overwork to spread.

The inequality that everyone rages about, but cannot seem to stop, arises mainly from this reality.

At the heart of the whole neoliberal period is the attack on the protections and rights of workers and their unions and their ability to bargain on pay, conditions and pensions. 

It successfully increased the rate of exploitation and it was this that tipped the balance from the 99 per cent to a tiny 1 per cent.

We made more for them for less in return and bailed them out when they went bust. 

We paid more to get lower pensions and work harder for longer. 

Some accepted the need for tightening our belts on pay at a time of austerity and frankly panicked when public service workers eventually gained traction in their determination to defend pensions. 

This would really have upset the apple cart at the time, but was stopped dead in its tracks by those in the movement too timid to challenge capital and the Establishment.

The issue is not about the nasty “rich” and the deserving “poor.” 

These words are ancient and useless, belonging to past periods when the social and economic mechanisms that led to class differences were not so evident. 

Though even the early Christians agreed helpfully that it was more difficult for a rich person to get into heaven than to get a camel through the eye of a needle.

At the start of Britain’s industrial period, the great poet William Blake wrote: “Pity would be no more if we did not make somebody poor.” 

His emphasis is on the deliberate construction of poverty and the cultural enjoyment its creators get from it by indulging in the solace of charity and pity. Most major corporations and banks have tax-saving charitable arms.

Making people financially poorer and creating swathes of unemployed or precarious workers is an absolutely central economic policy to try to keep profits high and wages low. 

This cannot be remedied by focusing exclusively on taxing the “rich” and spending on the “poor.” We have to concentrate on ending the core economic relationship.

We’ve declined from being a movement capable of earning a decent share of the national wage and creating a vast public sector more immune to the incursions of private capital, to one having to fight modern forms of slavery and zero-hours contracts.

Being creative and busy and valued at work is about as distinctively human as anything can be, the ability to labour and transform the world collectively is what makes us what we are.

Stress at work is not caused necessarily by having too much to do, but usually by losing control over the application of your skill or ability to function at a reasonable and satisfying rate. 

It’s a result of losing control over the process you are involved in and not having time or opportunity to complete something socially as useful as you could.

Work has speeded up and become more productive exponentially over time. 

For millennia its pace was determined by the turn of the seasons, the speed of walking, the roll of the horse and cart, the strength of the wind to power ships and mills. Work was also very much a matter for most of being undertaken by hand.

Speeding up work has been a constant requirement of capitalism, which relies on an incessant improvement in techniques of production and distribution and communications to buy and sell for profit.

But different forms of capital work at different speeds. Investment in and management of land, construction, heavy industry, civil engineering, infrastructure, telecommunications, retail and so on all have different velocities. Some are longer-term than others.

However, the general pace of events is largely determined by the dominant form of capital accumulation. 

Since the liberalisation of capital markets and the removal of exchange controls on capital — both key components of the globalising, neoliberal agenda — finance capital, which is money gambling on money, footloose and fancy-free, has dominated. 

It has sought to privatise anything public and socialise its own risks and penetrate all aspects of life with the “kerching” of the cash till.

Unlike capital tied up in machines, buildings, land and real processes, finance capital deals in speculative, infinitesimally quick transactions to gamble on all sorts of markets all over the world. 

It has no allegiance to any country or national democratic government.

It’s very fleet of foot and happy to profit from industrial ruin in one country or industrial growth in another. 

As Naomi Klein and others have shown, it licks its lips at human disasters where there’s spoils to be pillaged. The fund managers now are speculating against each other on when the “bottom” of the current market collapses will be and what to flog and barter in anticipation of a giant slump.

What worries them is slowdown in activity. That’s why, as the Star has reported, big finance is heavily lobbying governments in the US, Japan and elsewhere to get back to business quickly, regardless of risks to workers and society.

We’ve all been infected by the frantic pace of work demanded, ultimately, by the underlying quick buck drive of the owners of capital and translated down the line into the wretched pestering of millions of email requests and the cultural change that believes any complex question can be answered immediately.

Those working frantically at the moment at an exhausting pace in nursing homes, hospitals, food industries, pharmacies and so on are not benefiting any private owner. They benefit us all. What if we all decided to do that all the time?

This great activity, combined with the slower pace of life enforced while on furlough, or homeworking for many — when every day feels like Saturday (except Saturday) — gives us time to reflect on the real value of our time on this planet.

In slower, more confident, hopeful times Pentangel’s lovely theme tune Light Flight to the 1970 TV programme Take Three Girls gently rejected the City rat race by observing: “You go to London Town, you see the people there, they’re rushing round, they’ve got no time to spare.” 

At the same time, in the US, Simon and Garfunkel had a great line in their happy, soft hippyish, care-free, daydreamy song known as Feelin’ Groovy: “Slow down, you move too fast / You’ve got to make the morning last.”

World finance capital has been led by Wall Street and the City of London since those two songs were written. 

The financiers’ and stock exchanges’ free-wheeling rush for profits for a few have created a situation where they now stand uselessly by as the most pernicious, life-threatening virus in the world lets rip, while real planners, real scientists, real manufacturers of food, medicines and useful life-giving ventilators rush to breathe life for us all.

After this period, slow down at work, get organised, spend your time working faster for us, not them for a change.

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