New Internationalist

Stepping back to civilize ourselves

Spring is in the air. But that’s not why everyone’s so happy in Sunny England this week!

The weather is more mid-summer than spring, really, with blazing sun and not a cloud in sight. The weather cheers people up enormously, no doubt. But the thing that seems to make everyone smile is the fact that they’ve all had four days off, a three-day working week for heaven’s sake with Easter Week and the Bank Holidays. Folks have gone back to work on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, then have Friday off for the Royal Wedding. I’ve honestly never seen everyone look so perky in this country before.

Sun Leak. Photo by Sherman Geronimo-Tan aka Shermeee under a CC licence.

So it is actually four days off, work for three days and another four days off (including a weekend). Who wouldn’t be happy!!

The Royal Wedding seems to affect most people. The Royalists, of course, are queuing up to buy memorabilia even though everyone knows it’s outrageously overpriced. Perhaps it’s memories of Diana. Perhaps it’s a hope that her son will find happiness with the girl of his dreams.

For the others, those who pretend not to be interested in The Wedding, it’s an excuse to have a party, do a barbecue. People grab any excuse to celebrate.

But back to holidays. Someone said, ‘Everyone really should have a three-day week. It’s perfect.’ And looking at the happy faces around I wondered, why ever not? The artificial work cycle as we know it came with the Industrial Revolution. Till then, most people followed the natural agricultural cycle. They worked hard when it was ploughing, sowing, reaping or harvest time and then they relaxed when it was all over. There was a natural rhythm to life.

On the family farm in Bangalore, it’s a soothing experience to watch the cows come home, and the sun go down gently and peacefully. My husband Stan, who now spends long hours in meetings and at the computer, often remarks wistfully that he misses the natural rhythm of agricultural life. He grew up on a farm and as a child rushed home to collect the eggs from the chickens.

The food-gathering adivasis, or indigenous people of the Gudalur region where I live, and everywhere else in India, are fast losing their symbiotic relationship with forests and the earth. They have been forced into the dominant culture around them because of shrinking forests and the rest of the world closing in on them. Food gatherers never hoarded anything. They took what they needed and went out to forage for more food only when the food they’d gathered earlier, finished.

A decade ago, adivasis worked to the same pattern. They received their weekly wages on Saturday and if there was money left over on Monday, they stayed at home. The landlords and farmers who employed them hated this irregularity. The adivasis simply couldn’t understand why they should work on a Monday if they had enough money for their night meal. The employers branded them ‘lazy layabouts with no ambition’. Much in the same way as the Industrial Revolution produced the vagrancy laws, workhouses and rules which provided human fodder for horrid, mercilessly exploitative Dickensian factories at the turn of the nineteenth century.

As we sail through the 21st century, I watch with dismay as hard-won labour laws stop being effective. I see unions lose control completely and people go back to working long exploitative hours for fear of losing their jobs in a man-made recession which allows corrupt city sharks to swallow up pensioners’ hard-earned money, while the bankers responsible walk away with million dollar bonuses. I see young people fritter away their youth and their lives for a few dollars more, with little time to stop and stare, enjoy the spring, smell the flowers or just be young and silly. Their companies don’t allow them to. They seem to own their souls.

The Sun Sets. Photo by bigglesmith under a CC licence.

I’m not just talking about the factory worker who is exploited. I’m looking at the young, up and coming ‘professional’, young bankers, Wall Street yuppies, IT professionals. They are as owned by the company as the miners in the 1950s song ‘I owe my soul to the company store’. Its velvet gloved but the principle is the same. They don’t own their souls anymore.

In some circles, people are trying to reclaim the lost art of living by opting for a three day week. This allows other people to have jobs, while it gives them time to breathe again. They will be dismissed as lacking in ambition, not getting to the top of the ladder, etc. etc. But they’ve chosen to opt out of the rat race. They are actually getting a life.

May their tribe increase. If by some miracle they manage to make their point of view mainstream, we’d be taking a step back to becoming civilized again!

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