Sunday trading and Sabbath: why it's time to resist the endless commodification of our lives
Sunday is boring. It's grey and dull. Sunday is tedious. If only something could be done to rid us of this non-day, this aberration, this pathetic waste of everyone's time.
Maybe there's hope, though. If only we could find a way for large buildings to open. Places where people can flock on a Sunday and bask in the glory of a higher power. Somewhere where their lives can be changed, their dreams made real, their problems solved and their joy made complete.
There's a problem, though. For some reason, a mean band of boring, old, grey curmudgeons are trying to prevent this glorious utopia from appearing. They say they want to 'keep Sunday special,' but really, they just want to spoil everyone's fun. They want to keep a few hours each Sunday where these golden palaces of worship remain closed, and force people to engage in such archaic pastimes as spending time with their family, getting outside and exercising, or even – ha! – going to church...
Thankfully, it looks like the forces of light could win the day. The government is stepping in and allowing the great temples of mammon to open for longer on Sundays and now all will be well in the world. No longer will we be forced to endure whole hours without access to these precious shrines, filled with such awe and wonder. We will soon be unshackled to give praise and make offerings to the gods which inhabit them throughout Sunday, magically transforming it into a day of joy, prosperity and most-importantly for our wellbeing – profit.
You may think I'm being over the top, far-fetched, flippant or trying to spread some kind of moral panic here.
I'm not making it up, though. Listen to Conservative (sic) MP and Government Minister Anna Soubry, "We are of that generation where Sunday, truthfully, was the most miserable day of the week... The only thing to look forward to was Sing Something Simple on the radio. Goodness me, if that didn't sum up a miserable Sunday."
Soubry's answer? Shopping!! Throw open the doors of the large shops and let the good times roll! No more dull old Sundays. We'll be saved from the tedium by being able to go the garden centre at 9pm, we'll be able to fill our trolleys with cat litter in the supermarket at 7am, and, joy of joys, we'll be able to spend those precious extra hours deciding whether we NEED a 46 inch or a 50 inch television.
That's not all though – according to the government, Sunday trading isn't just going to take away monotony and make our lives exciting. It's also, apparently, going to transfigure our economy. "This will be another part of my plan to ensure a truly national recovery, with our great towns and cities able to determine their own futures," said Chancellor George Osborne.
Osborne's claim doesn't stand up to scrutiny. This move wouldn't necessarily be better for our economy at all. But there are far more persuasive arguments for leaving the law as it is – a good British compromise, as it has been described.
Here are three main reasons the government is so mistaken to bow to corporate pressure and permit Sunday trading hours to be extended.
1) It allows the exploitation of workers.
In his brilliant book The Land, the eminent Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, "Sabbaths are the only events which protect the poor from being bought and sold. If Sabbaths can be eliminated, life will be emptied of history. Land will be void of covenant. Everything can be bought and sold. Brothers and sisters, like land, become commodities."
This is as self evidently true in the 21st Century as it was in ancient Israel. Without the slim protection offered by reduced Sunday hours, many workers – who are already paid less than the Living Wage, will feel compelled to work on a Sunday – giving them less time with their families, less time for rest, and less sense of themselves as anything other than an economic unit. Oh, and their pay might be cut further as bonuses for working on a Sunday are eliminated.
2) It will further damage small businesses and local communities.
Small shops are vital parts of many communities. They already struggle to compete against rapacious supermarkets. Research from Oxford Economics showed that 8,800 jobs would be lost in the convenience sector as a result of Sunday trading changes. The net result of removing Sunday trading regulations would be a loss of 3,270 jobs in the wider grocery sector.
Pubs are closing at an alarming rate. Churches continue to lose members, as we know only too well. Community centres and youth services are under immense pressure. The fabric of our communities is at risk of coming apart – and dealing a blow to small community shops will only make this worse.
3) There is more to life than shopping.
For that matter, there is more to life than money. At times, though, you wouldn't know it. The crass reductivness of our national conversation is almost beyond parody. As a society, do we truly believe the only metric for measuring our success is in how many things are bought and sold?
The mocking of sincere people who think that six hours on a Sunday is sufficient for people to buy things (and to force others to work) seems to suggest we really have lost our way.
The campaign to keep Sunday special isn't about imposing antiquated Victorian views on a dynamic economy – as proponents of non-stop hyper-consumerism would have you believe. A broad coalition of churches, trade unions, small shopkeepers and others simply wants the chance for us all to have a brief period of Sabbath.
If we allow extended Sunday trading, we sell another part of our collective soul. We place another part of our common life on the altar of mammon.
If late capitalism won't allow even a partial Sabbath, then we say no. We reject the colonisation of our lives by money. We, in the words of Brueggemann, resist the endless, "demands of market ideology that depend... on the generation of needs and desires that will leave us endlessly "rest-less," inadequate, unfulfilled, and in pursuit of that which may satiate desire."