Capitalism Can’t Have Everything Its Own Way

I’ve just finished reading a few books and all of them taught me something, or at least put something I was already aware of into perspective.

The first was My Shit Life So Far by Frankie Boyle. It’s an interesting read. I laughed out loud an embarrassing number of times, then gave it to my wife, who did the same. I also found some odd similarities between Frankie’s life and mine. Although ostensibly we are really quite different, as children we both spent a lot of time in dull parts of the grey sock that is Scotland, then we both went to the same university, and we’ve both seen Beastmaster far too many times. That aside, it’s a bit of a patchy read with gags mixed in with story and general musings in a way that sort of dribbles off a bit as you’re waiting for him to get famous.

Anyway, the part that really made me think was when he quoted Noam Chomsky as saying that capitalism can’t have everything its own way or it will create a hell that no rational person would want to live in.

The reason I found that so interesting is that I often wonder how advertising became a job that can demand your time so arbitrarily. Most of us, in theory, work a normal day. However, if evenings and weekends are ‘required’ then that is taken as a reasonable situation, despite the fact that it might double your working week for no further financial or temporal compensation. With margins shrinking and agencies trying to get as much as they can out of an ever-shrinking and more miserly client base, it seems that getting 35% more out of your workforce for free is a way to make it happen.

‘Looks like we’re going be in on the weekend’ is a phrase that just gets dropped into Friday afternoon conversations as if everyone subject to that decision has nothing better to do on Saturday and Sunday. I have heard of many bosses who impose that condition while not coming in themselves. Why should they? They had plans on the weekend. But it’s OK for the rest of their staff to work through.

If I was to guess why that might be the case, I’d say that there’s an feeling in ad agencies that the work (especially the creative work) isn’t really that hard. Of course, it’s not toiling down a mine or running an emergency hospital in Darfur, but then how many jobs are? The world has reached a situation where there isn’t enough work to go round, so tasks that used to be performed perfectly well by a few people are now littered with extra hands. This contributes to the situation where certain jobs are more sought-after, and therefore people consider that those lucky enough to do them ought to be grateful for the opportunity. To a certain extent this is true, but nobody makes footballers do an eleven hour day followed by the entire weekend, and their job is pretty tasty. Likewise musicians or novelists. They need time to recharge their batteries, but then so do we all.

I think that this culture, which, by the way, is only going to get worse, is helping to contribute to a less happy and less productive workforce. And a less productive workforce produces work that is less good. So it should work harder to compensate (you can measure hours but you can’t measure talent) and the whole circle goes round again. In addition, with many companies now publicly listed, the only bottom line that really matters is the financial one.

There’s nothing wrong with working hard, even working evenings and weekends, but I find it only really ends in a good result when it’s a matter of choice. When you really want to put the hours in to crack a brief for your own pride or career, then that never feels like a chore or an imposition. Autonomy is the key to happiness, and the key to better work. Arbitrary lengthenings of the working week to feather the nest of someone much richer is the key to resentment and misery.

And that’s why you can’t keep giving capitalism everything it wants. It will end up with shit being produced by depressed people, all for the sake of another few pence in the dividend.

Why would any rational person want that?