Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Four-day work week: Reformist or revolutionary?

Transforming our ecologically unsustainable class society will mean moving away from the capitalist growth imperative

Economic CrisisLabour

Office workers in the early 1980s. Photo courtesy the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums/Flickr.

The British Columbia Green Party is the closest thing to a left-wing political party (at least, with any seats) we’ve got in Canada. So I did a double-take when I saw that the World Economic Forum is advocating for the same policy they are: reduced working hours.

It turns out the BC Greens are just the latest to join an odd convergence of interests supporting the four-day work week. Groups ranging from self-proclaimed “business leaders” to mainstream media outlets, climate activists, and radical economists seem to have joined forces in support of this policy.

What exactly is going on? Is it genuinely a win-win-win, a top-to-bottom alignment of class interests with climate benefits to boot, just waiting for someone to flip the switch?

If you think that sounds implausible, it’s because it is: the reality is that the anti-capitalist economists who first studied the four-day work week made a radically different case for it than pro-corporate magazines like Forbes. Whether it’s radical or not depends on the form and context in which it’s implemented.

The World Economic Forum and various other business interests—I’ll call them the “Davos contingent”—advocating for a four-day work week claim that it will help fight gender inequality and climate change (along with a few other trendy issues they can try to co-opt). Simultaneously, and here’s the crux, a compressed work schedule will improve worker productivity to the point that it more than offsets the reduction in working hours.

One article cites a Japanese study that saw worker productivity go up by 40 percent, nearly double the reduction in working hours, and goes so far as to claim that reduced working hours is essential for “preserving economic growth.” Every piece of support from this camp emphasizes that cutting working hours will actually help grow the economy.

There is some evidence that cutting out an entire day of work could reduce carbon emissions even if it stimulated economic growth, although the mechanism behind this raises some questions about who exactly the Davos contingent imagines enjoying the benefits of a four-day work week. Most pilot studies have found climate benefits coming predominantly from a decline in commuting and, in some cases, from reduced energy use at offices.

To capture these climate benefits, new employees can’t fill in for the old ones, which in practice limits the opportunity to businesses where daily presence isn’t required—effectively, to the so-called “knowledge sector.” A grocery store, for example, would not see the same climate benefits from implementing a four-day work week that a public relations firm might because they’re simply going to hire more cashiers to fill in their hours. The same goes for hospitals, schools, and much of the rest of the economy.

So there’s already some question about just who this policy is designed for, and what limitations that might have on its purported benefits. But to top it off, the vast majority of the articles coming out of the Davos contingent justify the potential emissions reductions by mis-applying research by a sociologist named Juliet Schor—research that demonstrated that reducing working hours could reduce environmental footprint precisely by reducing total economic activity.

The Davos contingent is, at least publicly, attempting to have it both ways, arguing that we should reduce working hours as a way to stimulate economic growth while simultaneously claiming the environmental benefits that radical economists have found would come with reducing economic growth.

Schor’s research on working hours is part of a tradition that is now known as degrowth: the idea that to remain within the Earth’s ecological limits, wealthy countries need to shrink their economies. Most degrowth advocates support reducing working hours, but precisely as a way to help reduce total economic activity while mitigating harm to workers. Shorter work weeks and job sharing are ways to ensure people can still earn a living even if total economic activity in wealthier, industrialized countries declines. If, as the Davos contingent proposes, reducing working hours increases total economic activity through improved productivity, then the benefits cited by degrowth economists disappear.

All that leaves us with the question: should we support it, and how? It’s helpful to look at this through the frame created by the socialist philosopher André Gorz. Is this a “non-reformist reform,” or a reformist one? It is clearly a boon for workers—at least, the workers it applies to. But beyond its immediate material benefit, will it further entrench class society or will it contribute to the longer-term project of overcoming it? Will it perpetuate or accelerate the rate of consumption, or will it put wealthy countries like Canada on a path towards shrinking their material footprint? Does it contribute to revolutionary change even though its support base includes those thoroughly in the reformist (and even capitalist) camp?

As Mark and Paul Engler explain, Gorz didn’t give us a clear litmus test for whether something is reformist or non-reformist: context, framing, and the process of fighting for the reform itself are key factors. Just like Rosa Luxemburg argued in her famous essay on the subject, reformists and revolutionaries often pursue the same short-term tactics, but by framing those tactics as the end goal themselves, reformists lose out on the more transformative benefits that stand to be gained.

Companies and governments implementing a four-day work week because of the (claimed) benefits for business, workers, and climate? Reformist. Labour laws won by social movements that implement a four-day work week as a first step towards a bigger project of moving away from economic growth and towards sufficiency in the Global North? Non-reformist.

So where does that leave the BC Green Party’s campaign? Their framing is, at least so far, thoroughly reformist, presumably because they see that approach as a path to actually getting something passed. It’s a classic example of the hazards radical movements face when they obtain electoral power. But to their credit, the legislation they suggest the province adopt appears designed to apply to much more than just the knowledge sector and doesn’t specifically highlight productivity gains as a goal.

Ultimately, what it would take for this to be a radical campaign in BC is a shift in framing: are we simply trying to incrementally improve worker wellbeing and, maybe, cut a few tonnes of carbon emissions? Or are we trying to take a step towards transforming our ecologically unsustainable class society by moving away from the capitalist growth imperative?

Nick Gottlieb is a climate writer based in northern BC and the author of the newsletter Sacred Headwaters. His work focuses on understanding the power dynamics driving today’s interrelated crises and exploring how they can be overcome. Follow him on Twitter @ngottliebphoto.


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