In communist society,” wrote Karl Marx, “it is possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner.” In the ostensibly communist society of the People’s Republic of China, the utopia of labouring for pleasure, where tasks are carried out purely as a matter of taste, has not come to pass. In fact, such has been the hegemony (in the sense defined by another Marxist, Antonio Gramsci) of state-driven capitalism in China, that citizens have “voluntarily” been working themselves to the point of burning out. So, in order to ensure the continued generation of surplus value, the party-state has stepped in.
In Shenzhen in southern China — basically the country’s Silicon Valley — it has been made mandatory for workers to take their earned leave. Those with “a heavy mental and physical workload can avoid excessive burnout” by making sure they get some R&R. In the Chinese tech sector in particular, working 72-80 hours a week is the norm, and a culture of (often self-imposed) over-work has become embedded. The policy of compulsory paid leave will “serve as an example” to the rest of the country, according to Shenzhen city officials.
It is more than likely that self-interest and the profit motive, not Marxist principles, are the cause of this enforced benevolence in China’s tech capital — IT workers and programmers are a valuable asset and need to be protected. But Shenzhen can indeed “serve as an example” in the era of work-from-home. For many around the world, the home is office, the office home, and each carries the faults of the other. And the “mental workload” during the pandemic has certainly increased. Perhaps, a little enforced paid leave, however un-Marxian in its motivations, isn’t a bad idea. Hunting and fishing for leisure is unlikely either in Shenzhen or Siliguri — but there’s always Netflix.
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