In his classic 1967 article “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism,” E. P. Thompson described English workers’ everyday struggles against the capitalist regimentation of life. Workers of many sorts resisted the very designation of time as the proxy for work, and time measurement as the measure of labor; people still held onto earlier, alternative ideas of work, time, and leisure. In studying pre-capitalist societies around the world, Marshall Sahlins and later anthropologists have documented other cultures’ similar prioritization of a richness of social interaction over that of material goods. In what Sahlins called the “original affluent society,” affluence was measured by leisure rather than by the accumulation of wealth.
The union movement pushed for reduced hours until the apparent failure of the campaigns in Australia for a 35 hour week. This happened as the”neo-liberal” order reasserted itself via the oil crisis and what those on power called the crisis of democracy (ie there was just too much of it going on for them to be able peacefully accumulate anymore!)
Eva Swindler in Monthly Review last year asked “why did organized labor stop fighting for shorter hours? No one seems to know. Clearly this choice coincided with other deeply conservative union developments, including purges of leftists from the ranks. A desire for free time was even painted as an effeminate demand of the weak and women. Whatever the causes, however, it is clear that since organized labor ceased its push for shorter hours, work hours leveled off and then began lengthening, despite ever-increasing worker productivity. If work time is to be reduced again, history shows that it is workers themselves who will have to accomplish this.