Prime Minister Boris Johnson – God, what an opening – has appointed perhaps the most revoltingly hard-right cabinet of my lifetime. Two of the contributors to the libertarian screed Britannia Unchained, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab, now occupy great offices of state. It is not enough for the left to define ourselves as simply anti- Boris: we need to articulate alternatives. Libertarianism is a truly terrifying ideology, dead-set against any sort of class solidarity, and it now holds sway over significant parts of our government. It is the duty of the left to oppose it with our own ideas.
The guiding intellectual justification for libertarianism rests on the concepts of ‘freedom’, of ‘maximising human potential’, and of ‘choice’. Choice has been the great selling point of capitalist ideology, serving as both its defining element and most oft-cited justification. Perhaps all the drudgery and misery is worth it, if it means that we get to have three more brands of mouthwash on the shelves. Choice, we are told, is empowerment. The more choice we have, the more empowered we are. This, inevitably, has led to the marketisation of everything; to a world of endless choice.
Much of our culture is filtered down through our desire for real choice. When we cannot meaningfully control our lives, we tend to turn to controlling tiny parts of ourselves – how we look, what we wear. In the 1980s, political economist Robert Crawford noted this in his article ‘Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life’, where he observed that people tended to choose to control their own bodies when they couldn’t control the world around them: ‘…the turn inward toward self-cultivation can be partly understood as a reaction to the disappointment and political impotence experienced in the 1970s. Redefining the problem as self-change and preoccupying oneself with keeping healthy is one way to cope with that disillusionment.’ Likewise, Joel Golby, in his recent book of essays ‘Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant’, writes about the modern aesthetic trends of minimalism and ‘hygge’ as reactions to precarity in the rental market. The entrapment of rent means that millennials cannot actually make meaningful decisions, because they don’t own the house or control the space, so they cultivate an aesthetic that can fit in a few bags – minimalism – or an idea of cosy that can be confined to one room in a flatshare – a ‘hygge’ bedroom.
In this marketplace, you’re totally free but lacking in choice. You never have any influence over the market, or even over your own time. It’s here that I want to ask a question: what kind of choices do we enjoy making? When shopping for insurance, who actually has fun? The kind of choices I want to make are things like what to eat, what to read, what to do with my free time. This, of course, requires us to have free time in the first place, which many people don’t. By advocating policies like the Four-Day Week, as Joe Hamm has done on this website, we offer a set of alternative policy proposals from the left that do what the libertarians claim to do, but better – fulfilling the actual wants and needs of British workers.
As a libertarian worldview takes hold, freedom is being eroded at the psychic level. Work is the great insatiable machine which must be fed; it subsumes all else. Even ‘traditionalist’ conservatives do little to secure the kind of economic stability needed for one-income households to exist, preferring post-Fordist precarity for all, even at the cost of their so-called ‘family values’. Marx told us that this would happen: ‘all that is solid melts into air, and all that is sacred made profane’. The right to free time, to stable relationships, to real choice, is hard to assert in our current climate, for even our resistance to work has been affected. This is partly due to the decimation of union power under Thatcher (and since), which has destroyed our ability to resist work in a material sense, but also partly due to a shift in the psychological elements of work. Your boss no longer says ‘Fuck you, I pay your wages, do as I say.’ Your boss now says ‘…could you stay behind to work on the Joe Bloggs account? It’d be super helpful for your colleagues! Look, here’s a few beers and ping-pong table. Work can be fun!’
Obedience isn’t enough, it allows for too much resistance. You have to submit even your desire to the new authority. It’s easy to tell your authoritarian boss to fuck off, or at least it’s easy to take the piss out of them at the pub with your friends. It’s a lot harder when your boss is also your ‘friend’. Under our new form of constant capital, it is not enough to simply clock in, work, obey your boss, then go home. Even hobbies have been subsumed by the bleak logic of post-Fordist capital, reduced to a ‘side hustle’ – a term that should inspire nothing but utter revulsion. Your job must be your passion; and your passions are turned into jobs. For many graduates, careers have become the main vehicle for self-actualisation, moving from things graduates do to things they are. You aren’t applying for this role because you need money for rent so you can see your friends in the pub on the weekend, you are paying rent so you can do this job. I’m loath to invoke Orwell, but it must be done: you must love Big Brother. From the well-cited cruelty of the DWP to the transformation of jobseeking into a form of job in itself; it has become harder and harder to resist work at the level of materialism or desire. There is a tendency to view wage labour as an end in itself. Unemployment thus becomes a terrible problem that must be fixed. A four-day week, with a bolstered welfare state is crucial, because it shifts the paradigm we view the world through, shifting work back to a means, not an end. Free time allows us to decide what we want to do, rather than have what we’re doing dictated to us by the ever-changing whims of the market.
Capitalist ideology has led – in the face of climate catastrophe – to a specifically anti-humanist mode of thinking. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have announced that they will only be having two children ‘for the sake of the planet’, and many a headline has decried having children. Meanwhile, Elon Musk – perhaps one of the most prominent ‘cultural capitalists’ – has declared that he thinks that in order to keep up with AI, humans are going to have to start merging with machines, and has created ‘Neuralink’ in order to make this a reality. What a bleak reality this is, where rather than ask about altering our methods of consumption or production, instead we are encouraged not to create human life, or to alter it beyond the realms of what we would consider human. Transhumanism has often been painted as liberating, but under the guidance of libertarians and capitalists in the vein of Musk, one can only imagine what bleak form it is likely to take. Capital has become so all-encompassing that we are willing to quite literally martyr what it is to be human at its altar.
We must demonstrate better alternatives than those on offer from the current political class. Say what you want about libertarianism, but it is a totalising worldview. We must offer similarly expansive ideas. The Left’s political project will necessitate asking: what choices are meaningful? It will involve resisting the inhuman forces of capital, and redistributing not just money but also control. Polices mooted by the left, like the four day week, encapsulate all of these three elements. At the core of the four day week is the rejection of the whims of the market in favour of human freedom. It is an affirmatory humanist proposal in an anti-human era, opening a space for self-actualisation that isn’t tied to work. Crucially, it serves as a base from which the left can not just fight capitalism, but also recover a sense of joy, and remember why the fight is worth it in the first place.