For the Ancient Greeks, the Good Life depended on how you could use your time. Their idea of time differed from modern thinking. They divided it into four categories. They distinguished between labour, activities done for pay or as a slave, which they avoided, and work, activities done around the home, in philia (civic friendship), associated with care, craftsmanship and creativity. And they distinguished between recreation, mainly physical activities, sport and participating in drama, from which they learned the values of empathy and compassion, and leisure or schole, the combination of participation in public political life and education, in the broad civilising sense of the term.
Progress was measured in how much time could be devoted to schole, particularly public action in the agora, the commons, in which citizens could forge morality and the capacity to be political. Vitally, it was recognised that this required deliberation and learning. A special place was also given to what Aristotle called aergia, idleness, regarded as vital for contemplation.
Today’s way of looking at time is a far cry from all that. The rot began in the way work was reinterpreted over the ages. For the 18th century Physiocrats, only agricultural labour counted as productive work. For Immanuel Kant, anybody doing what we call ‘services’ was unfit to be a citizen. For Adam Smith, the father of economics, services in general were unproductive. By the 20th century, the silliness reached new heights. Only labour done for income was counted as work, and only labour boosted economic growth, which became the yardstick of progress.
The rot began in the way work was reinterpreted over the ages.
So, literally, the work most women do more than any other, that of caring for their children or other relatives, ceased to be work. For the Ancient Greeks that would have been seen as odd. So, if a man hired a woman as a housekeeper, economic growth and employment went up – progress was made. If they married, and she continued to do the same ‘work’, economic growth shrunk. Our national income statistics continue this nonsense to this day.
What happened to the idea of leisure is no less odd. The distinction between recreation and leisure has been lost. Both are needed for a Good Life, but the distinction is vital. Journalist Paul Mason recently wrote that ‘hours of work’ had declined since 1945 and so hours of leisure had increased by the same amount. Using the Greek concepts, that is profoundly erroneous. Many more people are paid for less time in labour, which is what is counted in official statistics, but must do more work-for-labour (on and off workplaces) and work-for-reproduction (retraining, etc), which are not measured in those statistics.
If unemployed or on the margins of the labour market, you must also do a lot of work, filling forms, queuing, job-searching, and attending numerous interviews to establish entitlement for benefits. That is scarcely leisure; it is work. But if they do not do it, they are branded as idle or lazy, which contrary to how the Greeks saw it, is regarded by our modern moralists as a sin.
Most people use less time thinking deeply about political matters, and it shows in reactions to political sound bites that tug on emotion rather than reasoning.
Meanwhile, more time is allocated to recreation (dubbed leisure), much of it passively, looking at screens. What has been squeezed, not enlarged, is time in leisure as envisaged by the Greeks: participating in political life, gaining education in civics and culture and engaging in deliberative conversation. Most people use less time thinking deeply about political matters, and it shows in reactions to political sound bites that tug on emotion rather than reasoning.
So, one can make a good case for saying we have not made progress in the way we use time. What about the way we live? For medieval Britons, progress was measured by access to secure commons for shared activity, assured subsistence, the right to a home and the right to work in the commons, rather than subordinated labour for bosses or landlords.
These principles were enshrined in a foundational constitutional document, The Charter of the Forest of 1217, which was the first environmental charter and which remained longer on the statute books than any other legislation, only repealed in 1971. This legitimised the commons – not private property, or state property, but zones of sharing, of commoning. The commons enshrine ideas of freedom and rough equality, of reproduction of nature and a way of life, not profit-making and accumulation of wealth, status and power.
But progress mocked those values. By the 18th century, commoners were demonised by apologists of emerging capitalism, depicted as idle and debauched for living in the commons, holding back economic progress by not supplying labour. So, they were driven off the commons, by enclosure and lost access to resources. They could no longer survive on work, they had to do labour.
The plunder of the commons went much further in the late 20th century and into the 21st, when a doctrine of progress known as neo-liberalism swept into ascendancy with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. For the economists guiding this revolution in thinking, what had no price had no value. Only private property had value. So began the privatisation of all what had been commons – beginning with the privatisation of council housing, school playgrounds, water, North Sea oil, railways, roads and town squares, and extending to the commercialisation and decay of thousands of public parks, libraries, forests and so on.
This embodies an insight known as the Lauderdale Paradox. In 1804, the seventh Earl of Lauderdale, an amateur political economist, wrote an essay in which he puzzled over the fact, as he depicted it, that as private riches rose, public wealth declined. Even by then, progress was measured by private riches. Lauderdale understood that if the commons were taken by an elite, they would amass property and command over resources, and there would be ‘contrived scarcity’ of goods needed by other people, commoners. That would raise prices, causing a new phenomenon of widespread relative poverty, with homelessness and starvation.
According to the Enlightenment, progress is measured by whether society is advancing the great trinity – freedom, equality, solidarity. A scorecard on modernity’s achievements would be unimpressive.
The Lauderdale Paradox has continued with savagery in the 21st century. Since the onset of neo-liberalism in the 1970s, private wealth in Britain has risen from 300% of GDP (national income) to 700% today, and now over 60% of all private wealth is inherited. Is that progress? Meanwhile, the value of public wealth has shrunk from 50% of GDP to being negative. And there are more homeless and rough sleepers than at any time in British history, while the number of food banks has boomed. Yet there has been plenty of economic growth, and employment has never been higher.
This leads to another irony regarding the historical revisions of the idea of progress. According to the Enlightenment, progress is measured by whether society is advancing the great trinity – freedom, equality, solidarity. A scorecard on modernity’s achievements would be unimpressive. Solidaristic institutions have been dismantled in the name of freeing market forces. Freedom has been eroded by economic and social insecurity and loss of respect for the judicial principle of due process. In particular, if you are insecure and need state benefits, you can be denied them or sanctioned and have them taken away, at the whim of a local untrained bureaucrat without any trial or legal representation.
As for the steep reversal of progress on equality, this is best understood in terms of the class fragmentation that has occurred in the wake of globalisation, the technological revolution and the impact of neo-liberal economic policies. As explained elsewhere, the modern system has moved away from anything close to a free market economy, despite much rhetoric to the contrary, and has generated what is best described as rentier capitalism.[
The outcome is a new global class structure topped by a tiny plutocracy of multi-billionaires gaining rent from physical, financial and intellectual property. They are global citizens, owing allegiance to nothing except to their class. They convert a fraction of their fortunes to buying the media, and funding chosen politicians and election campaigns. Democracy has been thinned and corrupted. That is no progress either.
Below the plutocracy is an elite of multi-millionaires and a shrinking salariat, with all the perks of salaried employees, much coming from rentier income. Then there is the shrinking old working-class, the proletariat, which had shaped labourist social democratic political parties. Increasingly, they are sinking into the new working class, the precariat.
The pursuit of economic growth remains the standard refrain of mainstream politics, the media and economics textbooks. But economic growth has become toxic.
The precariat consists of all those facing unstable labour and income, without occupational identity, losing social and economic rights. Their precarity comes from their relationship to the state, in that they do not have assured benefits or reliable social services, and feel like supplicants. They have been hit hardest by the plunder of the commons. They are not ‘the left behind’; they have been thrust into a new type of existence, living on the edge of unsustainable debt. But the precariat is currently split into three factions. The first, which I call the Atavists, does feel they have lost the past, or see their parents or communities as having done so. Being relatively uneducated, they listen to the sirens of populism, and vote for the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, who promise to ‘bring back control’. Despite economic growth over the past decade, they certainly have not seen personal progress.
The second faction consists of migrants and minorities who feel they have no secure home anywhere. This growing group, called the Nostalgics, tends to be detached from political life, detached from the state – left out rather than left behind. The third faction consists of those promised a career and a future if they went to college, who emerge realising they have only an uncertain future and debts stretching into it. They are looking for a new politics of paradise, one blending ecological concerns with security and a sense of being in control of their work and leisure, which is why I dub them Progressives. At present, they do not see progress, but are hungry for it.
This returns us to the puzzle of progress. The pursuit of economic growth remains the standard refrain of mainstream politics, the media and economics textbooks. But economic growth has become toxic. Growth does not equal progress. Growth depends on the exploitation of nature and uses vast amounts of energy, which pollutes and accelerates global heating. Growth must be higher if the precariat is to gain materially, since most of the income goes to the plutocracy and elite. It is sick to talk of economic growth as progress when it involves further plunder of the commons, growing wealth and income inequality and a life-threatening ecological crisis.
There is some good news on which to conclude. The Progressives are growing within the precariat, the Atavists are greying. If a new generation of political leaders could harness the energy of the Progressives to an attractive agenda, progress in the Enlightenment sense could be renewed. We all should earnestly hope so. We could start with a politics of time, focusing on finding ways of gaining control of it. That would be progress indeed.
G.Standing, The Plunder of the Commons: A manifesto for sharing public wealth (London: Pelican Books, 2019).
 G.Standing, The Corruption of Capitalism: Why rentiers thrive and work does not pay (London: Biteback, 2016).
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