Bargain! Free Time Sale!


new internationalist
issue 213 - November 1990

[image, unknown]

[image, unknown] Recreation. Entertainment. Family. Fun. So where the hell is everyone? A note on the kitchen table. 'Back late. Alice gone to gig. Henry with chum Bertie next door. Look in freezer. Love Beth.' Fred opens a can of beer, switches on the TV, groans as he slumps over the sofa and looks at the paint peeling off the ceiling.

Bargain! Free time sale!
In the West, leisure is becoming more important than work. Geoff Mulgan
and Ken Worpole consider the implications for Alice and Henry.

Free time is what people are left with once there is food in their stomachs, a roof over their heads, security for their families and all the bills have been paid. Alice and Henry will have plenty of it. Fred and Beth haven't done so badly either. But what is it for?

Until recently this has never been a problem for Fred and Beth. 'Politics' of one kind or another occupied almost all their time between work and bed. But by the time their financial worries were over their political options seemed to be over too; starting new relationships looked easier than the tortuous process of political realignment.

Free time now means catching up with the things they 'have missed out on in the past: novels by Michael Moorcock and Toni Morrison, the new Australian cinema, opera cassettes borrowed from the public library, gardening and fishing, weekend trips to the landscapes of their respective childhoods.

They are painting in the gaps of a 'fuller' life which was defined originally by nineteenth century European humanist culture: work, self-education, rest and occasional play. But for Alice and Henry this will no longer be an option. For them free time is likely to be more important than work itself.

Yet for most of human history people have defined themselves by work. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread says the Old Testament; salvation through hard work go the Protestant ethic and the rigidities of the New Right; labour power, how nature is tamed and society transformed, argues Marxism. Often people's very names declare past occupations; Smiths, Bakers, Shumachers, Taylors, Millers, Shepherds and Thatchers. Occupation always defined class and class defined social consciousness and status. The world of meaning and self-definition seemed rooted in work: hard, physical, diurnal work; fetching and carrying, growing and feeding, making and breaking, communicating and transforming, ordering and being ordered. Housework, homework, work in fields, farms and factories. Now, in the affluent West, that world has possibly gone forever.

Alice and Henry might live to be a hundred. Neither of them will start work before the age of 25 and they will probably retire by 50. They will pay other people to help bring up their children. Their aging parents will be looked after in private homes. Many pastoral and voluntary caring relationships are now bought and sold in the market place. There will be lots of free time.

It has been computed that until the 1970s in Western Europe the typical working life was 47 hours a week, 47 weeks a year for 47 years, totalling 103,823 hours in a lifetime. Today this is more likely to be 37 hours a week, 37 weeks a year for 37 years, totalling 50,653 hours - less than half.

Conjuring trick
Much of this apparent reduction of paid labour has not in fact disappeared but simply been transferred to the unpaid domestic sphere. For the hours spent in the self-service supermarket (where massive cuts in labour costs have been achieved) are now really work too, as is filling up your car with petrol, DIY activities like building new cupboards and painting the ceiling at home, laying concrete paths, mending the car, driving to work. All these are jobs that in the past other people were paid to do but are now somehow part of 'free time'.

It is a spectacularly successful conjuring trick that capitalism in the West has pulled off: with one hand cutting down on paid labour by encouraging people to regard the jobs that used to be done by other workers as new forms of leisure, whilst with the other hand establishing new (and more profitable) economic sectors around voluntary pastoral care, such as care for the elderly.

Yet Alice and Henry may feel that all the great stories have been told - all the utopian political experiments have come to nothing, even though most of them have been based on fables, myths, irrational dreams and lies.

Take religion, for example. Fred and Beth have had to rebel against it (one brought up a Methodist, the other a Catholic). They suffered years of guilt and dissimulation before they could announce their own agnosticism or adamant disbelief. It is still a sore point with both grandparents that neither Alice nor Henry have been baptized. Yet organized religion is already as remote from Alice's or Henry's life as paganism or human sacrifice. They have been to church once, for Nan Smith's funeral, and all they remember is the smell of dusty curtains and a dead mouse under the pews. No golden cities and distant mountains echoing with thunder there. Heaven and Hell not only hold no terrors or promises for them - they no longer even exist as figures of speech.

Che, Rudi and Kylie
And when the walls came tumbling down in Eastern Europe at the end of 1989 to reveal cowering and bitter populations, overflowing prisons and mental hospitals, ruthless armies of secret police and state informers, corrupt politicians and equality only in misery, they might have wondered how their parents could have given even a second thought to the self-evidently corrupt, ruthless and authoritarian appeal of the ideal of 'World Communism Where their parents once had posters of Che Guevara. Bob Dylan. Rudi Dutschke and Rosa Luxemburg on their walls, Alice and Henry have Kylie Minogue, Madonna and Nelson Mandela at Wembley.

There is a spirit of internationalism abroad again, it is true, but it has a solid bass line, a repetitive drum loop. It is in the shops all round the world within two weeks of being recorded in Detroit and re-mixed in LA. For the single greatest cultural movement of the twentieth century is the rise and global hegemony of black music.

Even as the century nears its end, this key fact has yet to be properly understood or acknowledged. The musical forms that emerged out of the American black experience - gospel, blues, jazz initially; soul, funk, rock'n'roll, R&B, reggae, rap, House eventually - went on to become the dominant repertoire of popular music throughout the world, no matter how watered down. When in the late 1980s that powerful musical expression was joined by African, Latin American and hundreds of varieties of indigenous folk music traditions around the world to form 'World Music', the process of globalization of popular culture seemed complete.

Other global forces are becoming evident too, not necessarily derived from popular experience. The growth of world markets, to which the logic of capitalist development had to lead, has produced international brands of clothes, fast food chains, cigarettes, drinks, cars and advertising campaigns, culminating in what could be described as a 'Club Class' global, affluent lifestyle.

Saatchi and Saatchi, the world's largest advertising agency, claim that the French business executive driving a BMW car, flying TWA, wearing Italian clothes and banking with Citibank has more in common with an American counterpart leading the same lifestyle than with a Parisian neighbour who drives a moped and works on the Metro as a cleaner.

Global Eden
All of this leads Fred and Beth to worry that the fatal combination of an explosion of 'free time' with a booming global market in consumer goods and leisure industries will spell the death of their great utopian dream that they have cherished for so long - individual self-realization, mutuality in work and levelling out of global economic inequalities. The historical process of transforming the world, making it a better place, recovering a global Eden in its pristine simplicity, will end up with people selling it to each other by the dollar, pound or yen.

Alice and Henry will probably see it differently. Alice can already see the link between the internationalism of popular music and political concerns - Live Aid, Band Aid, the Nelson Mandela Concert -superseding that of the earlier brand of internationalism based on revolutionary social class or a proselytizing religion. New and intermediate technology seem to be on Fred's children's side. All they lack now is the levers of power. Consumer power (the power of free time, choices of spending) rather than producer power (the power of work and the threat of its withdrawal) is their main weapon now. But will it be enough?

Buying Nicaraguan coffee, ecological soap powder and non-animal-tested makeup from the local Health Food store doesn't seem likely to bring the world to heel or alter the balance of world economic power. Consumerism has all too evident limits. Retailing and tourism can't salvage an ailing economy. You still need food, energy, shelter and transport, however advanced your society. The ownership and control of these things explains a lot about the way the world still works today.

The crisis in the Gulf in the autumn of 1990 reveals once more how heavily the Western lifestyle rests on its ability to buy cheap commodities, backing up the rights of the sovereign consumer with gunboats (or F-111s) where necessary. Freedom and self-determination for a small country only seem to count when they go along with the freedom to drive large cars and the freedom to consume.

The crisis shows something else - the vulnerability of our economies and lifestyles, and the free time they sustain. Maybe the age of leisure will turn out to be a brief and unsustainable interlude rather than a new dawn after all.

Geoff Mulgan and Ken Worpole run Illuminations, a radical research and consultancy partnership working on cultural issues.

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