No wonder the world is angry

The demands of the workplace are squeezing our sleep to such an extent people are increasingly turni

What daylight saving time taketh away in March, it giveth back in October. And that extra hour in bed is a rarer commodity than one might think.

Because people are working so hard they have virtually no time to sleep. A fifth of American adults sleep fewer than six hours a night, says the US National Sleep Foundation, and that number is rising despite doctors telling us it’s bad for our health.

Asia is yet more sleep deprived – four out of ten Japanese sleep no more than six hours, according to an ACNielsen sleep survey. Perhaps it's no surprise the most sleepless countries top the national income tables. Workers in the richest nations are sacrificing sleep to sustain healthy growth figures.

Today’s work-sleep balance is oddly reminiscent of late 18th century Lancashire. Workers during the dark days of industrial take-off spent 12 to 14 hours a day in the cotton mills on six-day weeks.

At the day’s end, there was little time for anything other than eating before collapsing into a bunk. The "eight hours for work, eight hours for leisure, eight hours for sleep" the 19th-century Chartists fought for redressed those grim conditions, but has been forgotten like last night’s dream.

Proof enough are the gaunt, sickly faces on a midweek morning on the Tube – or indeed the New York Subway or Tokyo’s Metro. A recent survey by the think tank Demos found that 39% of adults admit they suffer from sleep deprivation, rising to 50% for those in managerial jobs.

Sleep steals hours from productive work. The technologists, therefore, have always had an incentive to come up with profitable solutions. Thomas Edison’s 1913 invention of artificial daylight, the light bulb, changed natural sleeping patterns for good. It also, you could argue, undid the great work of the Chartists’ eight-hour campaign. Workers could now toil 24 hours; round-the-clock production started at Henry Ford’s factories in Detroit and hit previously unimaginable output rates.

In many ways, Edison epitomised modern capitalism’s constant yearning for increased productivity and efficiency.

"Most people … oversleep 100 per cent, because they like it. That extra 100 per cent makes them unhealthy and inefficient," he said.

"The person who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully asleep and never fully awake.” According to a 1975 study by Wilse E Webb and Harman Agnew, Edison robbed us of two hours sleep every night.

Just before the pre-light bulb era in 1910, the average adult slept 9 hours. The average today is 7 to 7.5 - that’s up to 700 hours a year most likely doing overtime.

Edison’s edict of “more work, less sleep” rules the commercial bustle as much as it did a century ago, but today workers are increasingly turning to pharmaceuticals to get them through the day.

In fact, sleep is now big business and has become the fastest-growing sector of the £300 billion global pharmaceutical, leisure and well-being market.

Tiredness is often treated like an unwanted virus. In the US, a mild amphetamine is replacing the double espresso to fend off daytime drowsiness.

Ritalin - prescribed for attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy and chronic fatigue syndrome - is seeing more widespread abuse.

A new generation of eugeroics or “wakefulness” pills promises to keep tomorrow’s workers awake into the night: Modafinil, a sleep suppressant, is used both by the military to maintain the alertness of pilots on 40-hour missions and college students cramming for finals. US-based Cortex Pharmaceuticals is developing a simulated-sleep pill, CX717, that when taken replicates the effects and benefits of a good night’s sleep – but in two waking hours.

We, like other animals, need food, water and sleep to live. Studies have shown that our sleeping habits are governed, as with primates, by the Carcadian cycle: every 12 hours our bodies and brains want downtime, first at between 1am and 4am, then again in the early afternoon.

The siesta - not as Mediterranean as is commonly thought, and widespread in northern Europe a few centuries ago - is a natural remedy, but one that is even being phased out in its spiritual home, Spain. A national government campaign there last year urged civil servants to take no more than 45 minutes for lunch because it posed a challenge to productivity.

Sleep has become a valuable commodity. If you want it, be prepared to pay for it. The pressure to top the world economy super league has trickled down inevitably to the competitive workplace, encroached on our bedtimes and subtly enforced a sleep diet.

Is it time to resurrect outside our office blocks the intertwined numbers “888”, which adorned the pediments of many union buildings in 19th-century Australia and doffed a cap to the Chartists? Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep isn’t much to ask.

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain