Home > General Comment, shorter work time > Don’t open the window, tear down the walls…

Don’t open the window, tear down the walls…

When Tom Walker first raised the topic of Overton’s Window, it did not seem to us to hold much value beyond the obvious conclusion that a democratic society, when it is at equilibrium, allowed for only the most modest changes at the margins.

We thought: Hey Tom, tell us something we don’t know.

After years of living with two wars, after the catastrophe that was the 2008 financial crisis, and after witnessing the fiery critique of American foreign policy that resulted in nearly 3000 deaths on September 11, 2001, and the watery critique of its domestic policy with Katrina, if society could pass through this and emerge with political relations pretty much undisturbed, we thought even marginal change itself seems like an overly optimistic goal.

Our opinion was simple: Society would change when it was impossible for its members to muddle along from one catastrophe to another. In the case of shorter working time, that means when you will reduce hours of work when, no matter whether you have a job or not, you still face starvation.

When hunger and want stalk you, no matter how many hours you sell yourself into slavery, the idea of selling yourself into slavery will die on its own

Okay – a little over the top, we admit. Not wrong, we believe, insofar as it goes, but it certainly doesn’t offer much hope that things will change short of really desperate times. (And, frankly, you can’t be trusted to do the right thing in relatively good times, how likely is it you will instinctively do the right thing in really desperate times?)

So we got to thinking, and trying to imagine something other than the worst case scenario. (Really difficult, mind you, this imagining something other than the worst case scenario. The last time we got our hopes up for real change was when the Soviet Bloc disintegrated, and a tiny handful of people began talking of a peace dividend. But, then HW’s sweetheart got bitch-slapped by Saddam Hussein, and suddenly it was the Munich in the Summer of 1938 all over again. Our children will never know how close this proud nation came to speaking Arabic with Iraqi accents! Just thinking about it gives us chills!)

Short of really desperate times how might the reduction of working time be realized?

One thing which got us thinking about this was recalling the events that led up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

After years of subpar performance, the leadership of the SU finally admitted they had among themselves no new ideas how to reverse the decline in the living standards of the country. Much like the US today, massive amounts of work time were being squandered on a useless buildup of military might, environmental degradation, social alienation, and war. A new leader, Gorbachev, ascended to power and found the support among the sclerotic elite to make one last push to break the spiral of decay – in a campaign they called Glasnost (openness and freedom) and Perestroika (economic restructuring). The idea was to take a hidebound, autocratic, ideologically rigid statist political system and open it up to new ideas that would, in some undefined fashion, make it possible for the Soviet Union to overcome the catastrophic course on which it clearly traveled.

It was, in other words, an announcement of the impending systemic collapse of the society by the Soviet bureaucracy in the only way a bureaucracy can admit its complete and utter failure: They put up a suggestion box.

Much like Overton’s Window the question of the moment in the Soviet Union was how to expand the range of possible change to which the system would be subject.

That it failed is not the point of this brief recollection; rather, the point is this item taken from the Wiki:

Arriving in Berlin on June 12, 1987, President and Mrs. Reagan were taken to the Reichstag, where they viewed the wall from a balcony. Reagan then made his speech at the Brandenburg Gate at 2 PM, in front of two panes of bulletproof glass protecting him from potential snipers in East Berlin. About 45,000 people were in attendance; among the spectators were West German president Richard von Weizsäcker, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and West Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen. That afternoon, Reagan said,

We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Later on in his speech, President Reagan said, “As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner, ‘This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.’ Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.”

The words President Reagan saw on the Berlin Wall, were not written by a young Berliner. The words were actually spray painted on the Berlin Wall by an American. On October 10, 1986, William Ozkaptan spray painted the words “The wall will fall. Beliefs become reality. W.Oz 10/10/86”.

Another highlight of the speech was Reagan’s call to end the arms race with his reference to the Soviets’ SS-20 nuclear weapons, and possibility of “not merely of limiting the growth of arms, but of eliminating, for the first time, an entire class of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.”

A little background to understand this excerpt

When National Security Council Report 68 was written in 1949-1950, the authors anticipated that the Soviet Union would, on occasion, make peace proposals to limit the possibility of conflict between the two empires. In their view, such proposals were little more than ploys designed to undercut Western resolve to contain the SU and its bloc of allies.

… the absence of good faith on the part of the U.S.S.R. must be assumed until there is concrete evidence that there has been a decisive change in Soviet policies. It is to be doubted whether such a change can take place without a change in the nature of the Soviet system itself. (p. 83)

However, whether these were ploys or legitimate attempts by the Soviet Union to deescalate the conflict is besides the point, since the reality the authors of NSC-68 faced was the possibility that such “ploys” might appeal to public opinion in Western Europe and the United States – and they wanted nothing to compromise Western willingness to contain the SU for what promised to be a very long time.

Gorbachev’s Glastnost and Perestroika was viewed in the same light by the authors of NSC-68 – who had, since, abandoned the Democratic Party in disgust, and rallied to Reagan during the Carter Presidency. A Soviet leadership committed to change on its own terms threatened an already grumbling coalition of Western governments and malcontents, and presented the threat that Washington Empire might disintegrate as well. To answer this threat, Reagan took to the podium on that day in Berlin to issue the ultimate challenge to the Soviets: Tear down this wall!

The Soviets called his bluff, and the American Dollar Empire went looking for a new evil to justify its bloated existence.

The rest of the story is a collection broken bodies, burnt beyond recognition, in buildings, wedding parties, and beds.

What lesson is there in this?

Gorbachev set out to widen the window of possible change in the Soviet Union. Reacting to this event, and intent on maintaining its coalition, the United States responded to this charm offensive by demanding that the Soviet Union do more than widen a window in the wall: The wall itself must be brought down.

The Soviet Union had to abolish itself.

Having abolished itself, it imediately called into question its opposite – the American Empire – the leaders of which have been working mightily to justify its continued existence based on the proposition that 48 percent of global war spending must be devoted to the extermination of one guy in a cave on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Don’t widen the Overton Window, tear down the Wall.

As Barkely Rosser at Econospeak has pointed out, all of the most pressing problems today, which have produced fairly broad, if mostly unconnected, movements for change are rooted in the need to reduce hours of work. (Rosser made this point only to disparage the work of Tom Walker, but it is true.)

To give a few examples:

  • The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could not be waged were it not for the excess hours of work put in by us that take the form of armaments production.
  • The waste that results in environmental degradation occurs first as the waste of the human labor which produced it.
  • The problem of containing health-care costs and delivering medical care to those who need it is generated not by too little working time in that sector, but too much.
  • The inequality endemic in all major industrial nations, which has led to bubble after bubble, and financial collapse, is created by hours of work set at unsustainable levels, which makes for massive profits seeking any outlet for reinvestment – even as unconscionable levels of human want is left intact.
  • Free trade, protectionism, immigration reform are all clearly connected to the problem of global excess capacity and an large global pool of unemployed labor that owes its existence to the overwork of those who are employed.
  • The overhang of debt, both public and private, rests on a large pool of superfluous profits that exist to be loaned out to governments and individuals – it is these superfluous profits which compel the growth of debt, not the other way around.

We could go on and list any of a number of social ills that have produced movements of individuals devoted to their eradication that are, at their core, only symptoms of a society which simply suffers from overly long hours of work.

(In fact, it was our intuition at the time, that the Soviet Union faced precisely this problem – albeit in a more pronounced form. Economists called it investment hunger, or some such stupid label. However, the paradox presented by this investment hunger was that adding ever more labor resources to enterprises only raised cost without significantly raising output)

We think it is time to take Ronald Reagan’s advice and tear down the walls that separate work time reduction from each of these movements, and, which separate and compartmentalize these movement each from the other – often on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Advocates of work time reduction must do the painful, difficult work of amassing evidence to support the proposition that each of these ills are no more than symptoms of overwork.

Much has been done so far to make the connection between global warming issues and long hours of work. Still more work like this is needed on a host of issues, even – dare we say it – wading into emotionally charged issues like immigration, and speaking to the leaders and members of a movement not known for political correctness.

We would like to know your thoughts on this.

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