Wednesday, August 15, 2012
The Three Day Workweek
Although it's the norm throughout much of the world, the seven day week is a completely arbitrary entity. Indeed, it is even more arbitrary than the time-unit of the week itself. Days and months, of course, correspond to natural chronological cycles - and that there would be an intermediate unit between the day and the lunar month is entirely understandable. That it happens to be seven days, instead of six or eight, or five or ten, however, doesn't really seem to make very much sense. It is a custom; one extending into the earliest days of civilization, to be sure, but it is nevertheless merely a custom. And even while the ancient Hebrews, and the ancient Babylonians, and the Sumerians before them, shared this custom, the seven-day week was not always the supreme time-unit acting as the intermediary between the day and the month in the ancient world.
Among the most influential civilizations of human history, the ancient Egyptians had a ten-day week. The Celts, it is believed, had a nine-day week. And until the third century of the common era, the Romans enjoyed an eight-day week. Over on the other side of the planet, the Mayans and the Aztecs each had a thirteen-day week. And examples of shorter weeks are not difficult to come by.
Modernly, the French instituted a ten-day week - the decade - in the years following the French Revolution. And in the twentieth century, shortly after seizing power in 1917, the Bolsheviks instituted a five-day week. In 1931, this five-day week (which repeated 72 times throughout the calendar year) was lengthened by one day into a six-day week. But then in June of 1940, less than a year after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union returned to a seven-day week.
Of course, the length of the week and the number of days one is expected to work (and just what one is working for in the first place) during that week are two altogether different things. One could have a four day week, for example, but get only one day off. And, then again, one could imagine a five day week that has two days off, or even three. And while it goes without saying, it nevertheless ought to be pointed out that the whole notion of getting days off in the first place implies relations of coercion. For in many respects the one who decides that one can have a day off is the same one who decides that one must have a day on.
On Monday mornings, returning to my place of work from an insufficiently restful two-day break, I find it difficult to not reflect upon the arbitrariness of not only the length of the workweek, but of the things produced during the course of these workweeks. As far as the former is concerned, my colleagues do, too; for again and again, in response to still other colleagues' questions concerning how their weekends were, they express my very feelings. Too short, they reply. And it's not just at my work site that I hear these two words. I hear them all over the place. On the train, at the cafe, in the elevator, everyone seems to be using them.
How was your weekend?
Too short. How was yours?
Mine was too short, too.
At this point it might do us well to recall that the very word calendar is derived from the Latin calendarium - which designates a banker's account book. And, in light of this, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to see that domination (domingo) is never too far removed from time-keeping in the first place. Indeed, demarcated units of time function in a manner roughly analogous to how walls function in the physical world, cutting off access to units of space (and lending to their respective commodifications). Of course, beyond their problematic functions, walls offer support and structure vital for people's health - reflecting the very ambiguity of health as, on the one hand, the security of ease and, on the other, the security of prisons and coercion.
And while many might argue that the most hygiecratic thing would be to get rid of all mandatory temporal designations, along with their attendant expectations, in the short term a variation on the week - e.g. a shortened workweek - would be politically expedient. To be sure, it is a testament to the backwardness of the present political situation that the very notion of a three or four-day workweek, which was a standard facet of political discourse in the 1920s and 1930s, is not discussed at all - excepting some of the discussions stemming from the subject of the too-short weekend. If this issue were resuscitated, however, and a three-day workweek were brought about, it would be a considerable step toward a more hygiecratic world.