by Giles Fraser
Back in 1929, the Soviet Union abolished the weekend. In its place a more ‘rational’ and less historically religious arrangement was established. The nepreryvka – or “continuous work-week” – divided workers up into five groups and assigned them all colours, with each group given their own specific day off. This way, production would never cease, with four-fifths of the workforce always on the go.
Socially, the nepreryvka was a disaster. People had no time to see friends; instead they associated by colour: purple people with purple people, orange with orange, and so on. Managers were supposed to assign husbands and wives to the same colour but rarely did. The Communist Party saw these dislocations as a feature, not a bug, of the new system. The Party wanted to undermine the family, that bourgeois institution.
- Judith Shulevitz, The Atlantic
But hasn’t capitalism simply reinvented nepreryvka, Judith Shulevitz argues in The Atlantic, with our hectic work-lives now increasingly directed by the demands of a 24-hour gig economy that has no respect for shared time with friends or the old fashioned idea of the family weekend?
Many employers now schedule hours using algorithms to calculate exactly how many sets of hands are required at a given time of day—a process known as on-demand scheduling. The algorithms are designed to keep labour costs down, but they also rob workers of set schedules.
- Judith Shulevitz
Maybe this is why you haven’t seen many of your friends recently.
Out of curiosity, I look up the Keep Sunday Special website, and note that they haven’t sent out a press release since March 2016. Perhaps even they have given up the fight.
Does this matter? Isn’t ‘schedule flexibility’ liberating, allowing us all to set our own work pace designed around our own chosen lifestyles? In theory, perhaps. But in practice it means everything has to be scheduled and thus the subject of continuous — and often fraught — negotiation. So families do their own thing. Friends socialise on Facebook. And we all know the euphemism of labour flexibility is often code for fitting round your employer’s needs — both geographical and temporal — rather than your own.
All of which has serious long-term consequences.
It’s a cliché among political philosophers that if you want to create the conditions for tyranny, you sever the bonds of intimate relationships and local community. “Totalitarian movements are mass organisations of atomised, isolated individuals,” Hannah Arendt famously wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She focused on the role of terror in breaking down social and family ties in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin. But we don’t need a secret police to turn us into atomised, isolated souls. All it takes is for us to stand by while unbridled capitalism rips apart the temporal preserves that used to let us cultivate the seeds of civil society and nurture the sadly fragile shoots of affection, affinity, and solidarity.
- Judith Shulevitz