Gambling across borders

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The new, not so affluent society

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Returning to work after a long Christmas break I was particularly receptive to an article by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) which argued that a thirty hour week could be more productive and sustainable, increase our well-being and spread paid work more evenly throughout the population.

In the UK, there is still perverse kudos to be gained from working long hours and a 50 hour week is sometimes upheld by the weary as a badge of honour. Moaning about marathon work sessions in the pub on a Friday night is indulged rather than dismissed as puzzling self-sabotage as it might be in Denmark, Germany or the Netherlands. In 2012 the BBC found that the average British worker manages 1,647 hours a year, far less than the table topping South Koreans with a whopping 2,193 but still more than the average German who clocks up 1,408, just above bottom of the table Netherlands with 1,377.

In part this is due to a long recession and shrinking public sector. Academics, who are to some extent able to structure research time around teaching and administrative obligations, are nevertheless working longer hours as funding is cut and pressure to publish increases. At the University of East London, for example, 53.7 per cent of respondents to a 2012 University and College Union survey said that they worked more than 50 hours a week. But these differences are also a reflection of the cultural value of work, and varying relationships between work, identity and citizenship.

In the second half of the 1960s a discussion about these issues grew out of a Chicago symposium ‘Man the Hunter’, which featured the work of Marshall Sahlins. Sahlins used numerous case studies to support the general argument that hunter gatherers were ‘the original affluent society’, a theory he developed in his best known book, Stone Age Economics.

Sahlins and colleagues were challenging dominant representations of nomadic foraging groups as materially and therefore socially ‘primitive’: poverty stricken and miserable, limited to mere survival by their simple technologies. In fact, Sahlins argued, their immediate needs were easily met and they enjoyed ‘a  kind of material plenty’. Lee’s work with the !Kung in the Dobe area of Botswana and McCarthy and McArthur’s work in Arnhem Land in the north eastern corner of the Northern Territory of Australia suggested that hunter gatherers could meet their basic needs with as little as fifteen to twenty hours work each week.

Far from facing a daily struggle for survival, ‘Man the Hunter’ was, by today’s standards, radically underemployed. When people had enough to eat, they simply stopped working. As a result, these groups had plenty of spare time for elaborate storytelling, relaxation and other forms of social maintenance. Possessions were not accumulated as they were inimical to mobility. As a result, inequality was minimal. The allegorical power of the symposium attracted public attention, and in the process hunter gatherers were presented as proto communists, closely resembling, in some cases, those who had chosen to study them.ID-10026678

Sahlins’ thesis was subject to much criticism. The symposium title ‘Man the Hunter’ was misleading for several reasons. It placed undue emphasis on hunting rather than gathering, which takes up the bulk of time, and provides the majority of calories. It also universalises gendered roles which are in practice culturally determined. It perpetuates a ‘cave man’ image which implies that hunter gatherers are remnants of a prehistorical past, rather than full members of contemporary society. Overall, his thesis paid insufficient attention to differences in quality of life between ages and genders, and risked homogenising and freezing in time a diverse and fluid social category – those who subsist without farming.

Despite these limitations it is worth revisiting Sahlins’ description of hunter gatherers as ‘uneconomic men’ (sic) in order to reflect on our own understandings of wealth. According to his argument, the freedom from acquisitiveness enjoyed by hunter gatherers is not the result of overcoming base instincts, but an indication that unlimited wants are not universal. On the contrary, they are a reflection of a particular economic system: a necessary part of the self-image that keeps us working long after our immediate needs have been fulfilled, in search of a surplus which we have become accustomed to desire.

Campaigners for the thirty hour week in the UK face many difficulties including ensuring that the lowest paid can receive a living wage and enlisting the support of business leaders concerned about the costs of regulation. They may also wish to reopen more profound but basic questions about the purpose of work. In order to decide whether we want to work more or less, we first need to establish what we are working for.

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Written by samkelly2014

March 21, 2014 at 10:00 am

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