Vanity thought #1239. Overworked

Harking back to the New Year period, I want to talk about predictions abundantly cited at that time. Usually, they are only for the following year, so nothing major, but various predictions made long time ago were meant to be checked twenty-fifty years in the future and they paint a better picture of our civilization in progress.

One ever present thread is hope that technology would make our lives easier. Whether it’s from a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, or this New Year, everyone always hopes that technology would help. People dreamed about air travel, people dreamed about video calls, and people always dreamed about robots. This year’s CES, one of the biggest technology fairs of the year, was all about drones – a kind of robots (and 4K curved TVs, but those are boring).

Brits are especially guilty of this. For some reason they have always been fascinated by visions of the future, and these visions always involve incorporating the latest technology and making it common. Silly part about it is that they assume that whatever is discovered now will stay with us forever rather than becoming forgotten in a few short years. They never leave space for anything new in their “home of the 2050” predictions, it’s all the same stuff we have now but better and more ubiquitous rather than confined to the likes of Bill Gates.

Ah, I’m wasting time, if you’ve seen these articles you would know what I mean.

Anyway, what is interesting there is the prediction that progress and technology would make our life much easier and would give us lots of free time. There was one dude, can’t remember details, who thought that technology would progress so much by 2000 that people will need to work only a couple of hours a day, from home, and all their life concerns would be about how to spend their free time, choosing between skying in Switzerland or sunbathing in Spain. It obviously didn’t happen.

In some ways, our current technology beats those expectations or at least is as good as that guy hoped for, but it didn’t relieve us from the need to work, and work a lot. More on that in a moment.

As children of western civilization we, despite ostensibly being devotees, have inherent appreciation for technology and progress. We can try to be indifferent and fully absorb ourselves in devotional service but it doesn’t work for everybody. Most of our devotees are very cued up on the latest trends. Maybe not in TVs but we are as proficient with mobile phones or the Internet as anybody else. We take our material progress for granted, as something that naturally happens to westerners.

We kind of have a choice – become a fully dedicated devotee and renounce the world, or make a fortune in the material world, not a big one, but sufficient for a relatively prosperous life. I once heard a prominent devotee casually make a claim that materially we, ISCKON devotees, are all very well set up. Just step outside of the temple, get a job, and you’ll be set for life.

Of course it doesn’t happen to everybody but then those who can’t make it probably feel that life has been unfair to them comparing to average devotees. Expectations are still there, and they come not so much from our books but from the influence of the outside propaganda – life is good and it will only get better. Material progress is undeniable and is a serious contender against promised spiritual pay offs.

Well, that narrative is false. Material progress of the past century or so did not make our lives easier, not in the way that should really matter.

Technology did help us to achieve same goals easier and much faster but the demand, the amount of goals we are forced to achieve, has grown correspondingly. We are not using only two hours to do the same amount of work, we are still working eight hours to do eight times more.

Our productivity has grown but it didn’t give us any more free time.

Traditional narrative, however, tells us that while working hours have stabilized, they stabilized at a level unthinkable in, say 19th century. We don’t work eighty hours weeks at soul killing factories anymore, and it’s been possible thanks to the technological progress.

Well, the problem with this is that they always compare our lives to the 19th century, which wasn’t the norm in human history, it was the period of the worst excesses of industrialization, an aberration. If we compare our current lives to pre-industrial times we are definitely digressing.

We assume that peasants and serfs had a very tough times then, that they worked from sunrise to sunset, and that escaping to factories in the cities was actually saving them from being overworked and overexploited, but it isn’t true.

There are several accounts of life in the pre-industrial world that can give us a clue how much people used to work then – not so much. The comparison is not very direct, work was organized somewhat differently then and so it must have felt differently, too.

In general, serfs spent up to twelve hours at “work”, but they also had several long breaks throughout the day, clocking maybe at only eight hours of actually doing something. It must have felt differently, as being part of their lives, work being not as separated from leisure as in our days where office time and home time are clearly different.

So they would do something in the morning, then have a long meal, socialize with their friends, do some more work, have a snack or siesta, socialize some more, do something else, and then call it a day.

The other big difference was that they had a massive amount of holidays. Several accounts point to them working less than half the days in the year, at most two thirds, depending on century and positions. They’ve observed all kinds of religious holidays and took all kinds of family related vacations – weddings, funerals, etc, plus they had long off-seasons when there was no real work to be done anyway.

I’m talking about England here, there was probably no off season in India, but then again England is not in the best climate to grow stuff so they probably had to work a lot more than Indian or even South European farmers.

One other thing – it was nearly impossible to make them work more than they wanted. There were just too many of them to do it by force and, unlike industrial age workers, they weren’t totally dependent on their employers so their masters didn’t have a lot of leverage. They could control the wages and their income, of course, but that didn’t work as it does now.

There was in inverse relationship there – the more you paid, the less they worked. This correlation between wages and working hours appears to be well documented, too. People were not greedy and didn’t have run away needs as in modern times. Once their (low) expectations were met they wouldn’t come out of bed, so to speak.

This is a very big difference from how people are taught to live these days. Putting in more hours for ever bigger gains is the mantra, the expectation drilled in people from early childhood. Europeans outside of UK have it differently but when western civilization marches around the globe this is what it offers to people of the third world – work more for a better life.

It’s most evident in China and we have plenty of reports about factory lives there. Before that we learned same things about Japan and how they managed their labor during their boom years thirty-forty years ago. Just last month I read about Japanese convenience stores and was surprised to learn that they do a brisk trade in disposable underwear because lots of workers often don’t go home and sleep at their places of work.

Anyway, the point is that so called material progress is an illusion in more ways than one. It is an illusion to think that it makes our lives easier and therefore provides a working alternative to surrendering to Kṛṣṇa. In fact, living a Kṛṣṇa conscious lifestyle within a usual varṇāśrama system might actually make us work a lot less.

Devotees trying to run farm projects might disagree but setting them up for the first time is not the same as doing the same thing over and over again for centuries. I also don’t think our farm devotees get as many holidays as in Vedic times, which should make a big difference. In ISKCON we follow western culture in this regard – only Sundays and a few biggest festivals are off, otherwise it’s saṇkīrtana all day long, as much as possible, but that’s a different topic altogether.


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