Right now, artists of all kinds find themselves isolated, with little capacity to organise and articulate collective demands
While it would be unwise to overstate the extent to which COVID-19 has torn up the neoliberal playbook, there’s no denying the pandemic has ushered in a vibrant debate about how we might reform our economies. One proposal that’s returned to the limelight in recent weeks is the four-day working week. Not so long ago this notion was largely disregarded as the outlandish fancy of socialist movements and radical think tanks. Now, following a series of large-scale experiments, most notably in Iceland, where results confirmed the measure could be beneficial for workers’ wellbeing while also increasing productivity, governments of all stripes are beginning to take the idea seriously. Spain, Japan and Belgium have all announced experiments and policies to shorten working hours. Even in the UK, one of the world’s most staunchly neoliberal economies, 30 companies will participate in trials of a four-day working week later this year, and a cross-party group of MPs has pushed for a nationwide policy to encourage even greater uptake.
Given the unprecedented enthusiasm towards this proposal, it’s interesting that workers in the cultural sector have been relatively mute in embracing the opportunity, especially compared with other proposals like, for example, an artists’ basic income. One reason for this is doubtless the fact that so many art workers are reliant on the gig economy, working multiple precarious jobs to earn a living. Individuals in such a situation tend to perceive themselves as belonging to a unique section of the economy, ostensibly due to the irregular labour time that many creative tasks require. Having worked for years as a freelance writer I can empathise. Indeed, anyone who has ever found themselves chasing-up unpaid invoices just to cover the rent, could be forgiven for recognising greater potential in the prospect of regular, universal payments than a reform which, on the surface, seems only to benefit those who are already relatively secure.
There is, however, a strong case to be made that a four-day working week would improve conditions for all workers. The first reason for this is that – by definition – the measure is not about cushioning individuals against emergencies, but transforming the normative definition of work in society as a whole. The backbone of the cultural sector is comprised of a whole ecology of workers including curators, ushers, baristas, ticket staff, IT specialists, accountants, cleaners and others. While many are on short term and zero-hour contracts, many others are fully employed facing long hours, low pay and overwork which is now a defining characteristic of the labour market. It’s true that initially a four-day working week would only benefit employees, but it would also mark a step towards making work more fulfilling, or even decentring it as the defining activity of our lives and identities. The power of this ‘moral shift’ shouldn’t be underestimated.
Yet improving the lot of the salaried workforce – even modestly – would also have a more concrete knock-on effect for freelancers that is less often discussed: namely, it would increase their bargaining power. Right now, artists of all kinds find themselves isolated, with little capacity to organise and articulate collective demands. Too many have internalised the mantra that it’s normal for their work to be exhausting and poorly remunerated, because that’s just part of the ‘privilege’ of calling oneself an artist. If society as a whole were to shift towards reduced hours at the same pay, individuals in such a situation would have a stronger basis to work with unions or other intermediaries to demand symmetry to the broader economy; which is to say, higher rates and more time off. This process of (re)integrating freelancers into the process of collective bargaining, would, by extension, help develop class consciousness among the so-called ‘precariat’ or ‘cognitariat’, which has been so fatally absent in recent years.
All of this provokes a larger, more ambitious question. Why shouldn’t artists demand and enjoy well-paid salaried jobs? The fact that this is so rarely asked, and that it sounds so fanciful, is itself rather curious. While the ultimate blame must surely be attributed to politicians that have so unscrupulously cut culture budgets over the years, some arts workers have – inadvertently – facilitated that process. The counterculture movements of the ’60s and ’70s, for example, were vocal in their criticisms of ‘work’, which they defined as a violent abstraction stifling humanity’s productive potential in the form of wage-based remuneration. In the context of industrial capitalism, during the transition to so-called post-Fordism, adopting an ‘anti-work’ stance was a radical act. Those who did so were not only seeking to ‘save’ life from being extinguished in factories and offices, they were also attempting to forward an anti-consumerist agenda, to integrate human affectivity into political-economy, and to challenge the normative imperative of the nuclear family.
All of these struggles remain vital. After four decades of neoliberal hegemony, however, during which time the welfare state has been gutted, workers’ rights stripped, and individual liberty co-opted by ‘flexible work’, these arguments need reformulating. In a context where freelance work has become its own kind of ‘precarious system’, dialectical oppositions such as ‘alienation versus autonomy’ feel outdated and obtuse. And while it’s certainly still valid to ask such questions as to how we might salvage productive activity from the exploitative structures that package labour as work, it’s clearer than ever that we need to do so while simultaneously protecting workers’ rights. The four-day week does not, on its own, offer a solution to capitalist exploitation, but it might prove a useful tool for transforming work as we know it. Because that’s arguably where a previous generation of activists got it wrong. Anti-work advocates cannot ignore struggles to reform the workplace; re-building social solidarity is a prerequisite, not an appendix, to true creative freedom.