Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Gospel of Consumption

and the better future we left behind....,

"Do we live to work or work to live? The question of how important work is in our lives is central to Hunnicutt's study of Kellogg's daring social experiment, which began in 1930 and lasted until 1985.... [I]t could serve as a wake up call for a nation in big trouble if the jobless future comes to pass." —Publishers Weekly
This was welcome news to workers at a time when the country was rapidly descending into the Great Depression. But as Benjamin Hunnicutt explains in his book Kellogg's Six-Hour Day, Brown and Kellogg wanted to do more than save jobs. They hoped to show that the free exchange of goods, services, and labor in the free market would not have to mean mindless consumerism or eternal exploitation of people and natural resources. Instead, workers would be liberated by increasingly higher wages and shorter hours for the final freedom promised by the Declaration of Independence "the pursuit of happiness."[...]

In a 1927 interview with the magazine Nation's Business, Secretary of Labor James J. Davis provided some numbers to illustrate a problem that the New York Times called "need saturation". Davis noted that the textile mills of this country can produce all the cloth needed in six months operation each year and that 14 percent of the American shoe factories could produce a year's supply of footwear. The magazine went on to suggest, It may be that the worlds needs ultimately will be produced by three days work a week.[...]

Yet we could work and spend a lot less and still live quite comfortably. By 1991 the amount of goods and services produced for each hour of labor was double what it had been in 1948. By 2006 that figure had risen another 30 percent. In other words, if as a society we made a collective decision to get by on the amount we produced and consumed seventeen years ago, we could cut back from the standard forty-hour week to 5.3 hours per day-or 2.7 hours if we were willing to return to the 1948 level. We were already the richest country on the planet in 1948 and most of the world has not yet caught up to where we were then.

Kellog's vision, despite its popularity with his employees, had little support among his fellow business leaders. But Dahlberg's book had a major influence on Senator (and future Supreme Court justice) Hugo Black who, in 1933, introduced legislation requiring a thirty-hour workweek. Although Roosevelt at first appeared to support Black's bill, he soon sided with the majority of businessmen who opposed it. Instead, Roosevelt went on to launch a series of policy initiatives that led to the forty-hour standard that we more or less observe today.[...]

But we cannot do it as individuals. The mavericks at Kellogg held out against company and social pressure for years, but in the end the marketplace didn't offer them a choice to work less and consume less. The reason is simple: that choice is at odds with the foundations of the marketplace itself-at least as it is currently constructed.
The men and women who masterminded the creation of the consumerist society understood that theirs was a political undertaking, and it will take a powerful political movement to change course today.
Kellogg's six-hour day was the pinnacle of a hundred-year process that cut working time virtually in half. Kellogg Management, propelled by a vision of Liberation Capitalism, insisted that six hours would revolutionize society by shifting the balance of time from work to leisure--from economic concerns to the challenge of freedom.

Kellogg's employees, like centuries of workers, believed that work was a means to an end. An overwhelming number of employees were willing to "share their work" and found the extra time an opportunity to invest in the family, community, church, and individual freedom. When World War II ended, Kellogg's managers abandoned the six-hour shift and began with the rest of the nation to define progress as more work for more people. Losing sight of the original dream of more time to live outside necessity, management argued that work should remain the center of life, providing identity, meaning, and purpose to an otherwise meaningless existence.