[OPE-L] _Modern Times, Ancient Hours: Working Lives in the 21st Century_ (review by Jonathan Sterne)

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Mon Aug 29 2005 - 10:03:42 EDT

Modern Times, Ancient Hours: Working Lives in the
Twenty-First Century

"In Western society, for at least the past twenty-five
years, the average working time of wage laborers has
become increasingly burdensome and invasive -- more
intense, fast-paced, 'flexible' and long."
Pietro Basso

Reviewed by Jonathan Sterne
Monday, September 22 2003, 11:06 PM

To call economics a dismal science is perhaps an
understatement. Pietro Basso's Modern Times/Ancient
Hours is filled with lengthy, dry discussions of
statistics on the working day. But that does not make
it boring. No, Modern Times/Ancient Hours is a work of
horror. Basso's book will terrify anybody who is
concerned the quality of life in modern capitalist

Basso's main concern is the length of the working day
in modern industrial and post-industrial societies.
His thesis: "in Western society, for at least the past
twenty-five years, the average working time of wage
laborers has become increasingly burdensome and
invasive -- more intense, fast-paced, 'flexible' and
long." Basso means that people work more and harder,
and have less and less control over when and where
they work. This is true in both industry and the
service sector.

The working day was a major political concern in 1867,
when Marx argued (in Capital Volume I) that most of a
worker's day was spent manufacturing profit for his or
her employer -- very little of that work time was
required to generate the equivalent value of the
worker's wage. Since the advent of the eight-hour day
and forty-hour week as U.S. and European norms after
World War II, the length of the working day has
stagnated. Although it has been on the agenda of labor
activists in Germany, France, and Italy, it has gotten
less attention in the United States.

This should not be so. Presumably, technology and
overall efficiency have improved in most industries
and service professions, which means that people could
work shorter hours and their employers would make just
as much money. In fact, this is central myth of modern
capitalism. Basso quotes economist John Maynard
Keynes, who predicted that advances in machinery and
other elements of production efficiency would reduce
the number of required working hours for people to
levels as low as three hours a day by the 21st

Basso argues that the problem is the demand for growth
in capitalism, the demand for continual increases in
profit. This pushes capitalists to see increases of
efficiency as opportunities for increased profit.
Again, this is an old argument, one that can be found
in Marx.

Although Basso's claim is not new, it is a crucially
important one, especially as a whole new wave of
technology press promises, once again, reduced working
hours through revolutions in technology. This is where
Basso shines. He juxtaposes the vast technological
advances of the past three decades against an
ever-increasing work day. Technology has not set us

Thus, the majority of Modern Times/Ancient Hours
consists of careful analysis of statistics on the
working day, and lengthy discussions of case studies
from a range of sites in Western Europe and the United
States. Basso is quick to point out that statistics
can be used to lie, and he dissects the premises and
assumptions behind the statistics: for instance, one
widely-used study of working hours included both
children and retired people in its averages. The
middle of the book is therefore best left to the
die-hards, where Basso demonstrates his argument in
exhaustive and vigorous fashion. The intro and
conclusion will suffice for those who want to get the
flavor of Basso's argument.

Basso only considers the United States and Western
Europe, but he points out that it is generally
acknowledged that conditions are far worse in most of
the rest of the world, especially in the factories of
Southeast Asia and the Maquiladoras just south of the
U.S.-Mexico border. Add these zones to the already
grim statistics, and the situation looks even more

By the end of Modern Times/Ancient Hours , you will be
convinced that the working day is not only a central
issue for labor organizing, but also a crucial site
for cultural politics. For someone who works for a
living, free time is a precious commodity, and if you
work all the time and come home exhausted, you have no
energy left to enjoy life, much less to participate in

As it was in Marx's time, so it is today. There is a
basic conflict of interests between employers and
employees over working time. It doesn't matter if
we're talking about the widget business or the digit
business. Capitalists know that more hours means more
profit. It took a militant labor movement to get the
working day down to the fictional "eight hour" length,
and that's why it will take a powerful movement to
improve things today. Shorter hours for all working
people ought to be at the center of any progressive
social or political agenda. There is no humane

Modern Times/Ancient Hours is available from Verso

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