I have recently had this book review published in the excellent Oxonian Review, as part of a special issue focusing entirely on recent Zer0 books. I express my thanks to Alex Niven, Alexander Barker and others for their help in editing; their input was crucial in guiding me towards a succint account of the book. I undertook a great deal of research, using the London Review of Books and Guardian archives, giving thought to how work has been portrayed in the wider culture. My research of seminal writing on the topic by Bertrand Russell and William Morris had to be excised from the review - probably a good thing for the purposes of concision. However, they certainly informed my perspective, as did recent reports on employment and newspaper and blog articles concerning (un)employment. I now include some of my more expansive thoughts on work - hopefully organised to an extent and not overly rambling.
So, a director's cut of additional material that is virtually 5 times the word-count of the published review... I also include a Bibliography, Videography and Musical Playlist as hopefully informative appendixes.
Bertrand Russell: ‘[T]he rich […] have tried to make manual workers believe that there is some special nobility about altering the position of matter in space, just as men tried to make women believe that they derived some special nobility from their sexual enslavement.’
Bertrand Russell: ‘[T]he rich […] have tried to make manual workers believe that there is some special nobility about altering the position of matter in space, just as men tried to make women believe that they derived some special nobility from their sexual enslavement.’
Michael Foley: ‘[The] religion of work is a relatively late addition to the great world religions, but one rapidly gaining converts and with a growing number of fundamentalists. […] Your job is your identity and status, your life. Long gone is the notion of work as a tedious necessity that supports the true life.’
The Wake: ‘Everybody Works So Hard’
Paul Seabright: ‘the traditional job for life provided not just security but structure, an ordered progression through an individual’s life […] it is likely that the flexible economy is denying to the less fortunate something whose lack it is also teaching them to feel most keenly.’
Ivor Southwood: ‘We must be sure not to take work for granted and yet be willing to be taken for granted ourselves.’
Southwood’s book is one of the latest in a succession of accessible, short critical works from the publisher Zer0 Books - following feminist polemic (Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman), a clarion call for modernist culture and architecture (Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism), insightful essays on recent British cinema (Carl Neville’s Classless), humorous satire of English nationalist delusions (David Stubbs’s Send Them Victorious) and Mark Fisher’s inaugural Capitalist Realism.
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1877: ‘Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things. And it is not by any means certain that a man’s business is the most important thing he has to do.’
Client, 2004: ‘Work hard – why should I?’
In 1982, the economist, industrial chaplain and scientist Roger Clarke traced the idea of work back to ancient Greece and Rome where leisure was the ‘measure of the good life. In medieval times work and play and community jollification ran side by side.’ He went on to argue that in ‘the late twentieth century the work ethic is fading, though the economic system with which it was associated survives.’ Entering the second decade of the twenty-first century, this seems to hold true, though the work-ethic is still promoted by the media and politicians.
There may be enough work to go around, but not for everyone to undertake 40 hour working-weeks and one has to consider that we have a growing, ageing population. This presents difficulties for younger people: ‘People are now more accepting of the principle of later retirement, and believe that older workers are an important part of the workforce: they no longer support the idea of forcing people to retire early to make way for younger people’ (British Social Attitudes – The 26th Report, 2010). This all means we may ought to share work out more fairly, addressing the disparities between those doing 60 hour-weeks and those not employed at all. Otherwise, we may have a younger generation locked out of work as the elderly keep going to ensure they receive a ‘decent’ pension entitlement.
It is a right-wing assumption, spread by the media, that government has no duty to provide a job for everyone; yet, in 2006, 56% of the public said that it ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ should. Admittedly, a decline from 72% in 1985, reflecting the influence of the Thatcher-Blair succession, but clearly these more socialist attitudes to employment and unemployment linger – even if we can be considered significantly less progressive than Spain (83%), Norway (79%), Germany (66%), France (64%) and Sweden (59%). Britain is even more out of kilter with European attitudes as to whether government should be responsible to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed: 55% responded ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ in comparison with Spain (93%), Norway (88%), Germany (69%), France (68%) and Sweden (83%). It seems that UK citizens have relatively negative views regarding provision for the unemployed, though it will be interesting to see the impact the recession has on this.
Southwood rightly highlights the myopia of ‘cultural commentator’ Alain de Botton, who solely focused on the autonomous middle-class professional in his recent study of work. Such studies, and many television programmes – such as Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice give a false impression of what work is like for most people in the UK in 2011.
Work should not be seen as virtuous in and of itself. RBS executives investing in cluster bombs should be seen as a social evil far greater than someone who is unemployed due to the vagaries of their local economy or government spending cuts.
Labour does not necessarily bestow ‘dignity’ upon those who partake of it. In 1932, when Bertrand Russell wrote ‘In Praise of Idleness’, there was ‘educational propaganda, on the subject of the dignity of labour’ – in both West and East, manifested in Stalin’s USSR in the cult of miner Alexey Stakhanov, who was used to embody the supposed virtues of increasing productiveness within the ‘socialist’ economic system (the Five Year Plans). As Russell wrote, the ‘morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery’; we should not venerate work, whether it is as back-breaking as being down the mines or as parasitically anti-humane as working in ‘Human Resources’.
What of that old chestnut, the protestant work ethic, which the media, politicians and the public are so in abeyance to? (Even the Left, with the SWP’s recent ‘Right to Work’ campaign) Well, the main man himself, Christ, had these words on the subject: ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.’ (Matthew 6:25)
Even Tories used to express doubts about its wisdom; in March 1979, Tory spokesman on employment Jim Prior said: ‘If we do not have to face higher unemployment, let’s not despair. It may well be that in the next 10, 15, or 20 years we will have a new philosophy towards unemployment. We may have to move away from the Protestant work ethic.’ But Prior was a ‘One Nation’ Tory, a ‘Wet’ of the type displaced by ardent, “on your bike!”-bellowing Thatcherites. Attitudes to the unemployed are not really much different from 1877, when Robert Louis Stevenson articulated his unease: ‘Hence physicists condemn the unphysical; financiers have only a superficial toleration for those who know little of stocks; literary persons despise the unlettered; and people of all pursuits combine to disparage those who have none.’
Complete passivity would be problematic, if it equated to an avoidance of difficulty and challenge in life and work. The sort of ‘idling’ advocated by Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson perhaps too readily conjures the image of bearded slackers urging one to “chill out” against the backdrop of ambient music. However, Hodgkinson has a point with this: ‘In an idler’s world, the emphasis will be on quality of work rather than speed of execution and hours put in.’ Idling may in itself be a dead end, but that is not to say that we wouldn’t be helped by working less, by the finding the sort of work-life balance advocated by Bertrand Russell and modern liberals like Natasha Walter. Of course, where the cultural norm is to work long hours and identity is significantly formed by your occupation, idleness may not be so readily accepted. As Ken Coates observed of Peter Townsend’s study of working-class communities, idleness is ‘always conjoined with varying degrees of want, [it] is either an affliction, or an imposition.’ In 1977, Professor Tom Stonier of Bradford University made the still pertinent argument that education should not simply ‘prepare students to make a living but how to live.’ An education system that merely aims to prepare students for full-time jobs that may not exist or be viable in the long-term is surely failing them.
British public attitudes seem to have hardened, not just against welfare claimants but single-parents; in 2007, 79% believed that lone parents’ benefits should be reduced or stopped (up 4% on 2000) if they failed to attend an interview at the job centre. A quarter of respondents believed their benefits should be stopped completely, a significant 7% increase on 2000.
We should refuse work if it is as mind-numbing and pointless as the sort of menial, temporary jobs undertaken and described by Southwood. We should also question the assumption that everyone has to own property, which is the significant factor behind the absurd, astronomical amount of over-time worked in the UK.
You Get What You Deserve?
Above: Nalini Malani's interpretation of Bertolt Brecht's 'The Job'.
In the days of William Morris, ‘precariousness’ was created by the mechanisation of heavy industry. Now as then, it serves those in control of society to have others feeling that their jobs are ‘precarious’. At its extreme, ‘precarious labour’ can be a matter of life and death, as witnessed by the deaths of 21 Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay, employed by gang-masters.
Southwood notes the ironies of precariousness, as in this passage: ‘Employers are unhappy if their worker takes unscheduled time off or vanishes suddenly, conveniently forgetting that their own demands for short-term flexibility encourage exactly this sort of pattern. The applicant must often be available to attend interviews and start work immediately, regardless of whether he happens to be working elsewhere at the time.’ He presents the situation of managers ‘grumbling about temps’ unreliability, as if it were they who had somehow exploited the good will of the poor capitalist.’ As with so much in the world of work today, this would be pure farcical comedy, were the stakes not so high for the people unlucky enough to be afflicted by precariousness.
It should indeed be noted that managers – whether in public or private sector workplaces – are often paid to an extent that is obscene, when compared with front-line staff. And, as in the age of Morris, it remains the case that those with the greatest financial riches are often shirkers; we are supposed to be dazzled into submission by vacuous celebrities, superstar footballers or financial alchemists working in ‘The City’. Morris’s words in 1884 are appropriate for the state-owned banks today, such as RBS and Northern Rock: ‘they have to be kept at the expense of those who do work, just as paupers have, and are a mere burden on the community.’
Southwood also focuses on interview technique: the importance of the ‘gift of the gab’ in ‘selling oneself’. These are ‘unpaid duties’ of the jobseeker, who is effectively a ‘postmodernised inversion of the 1980s “gizza job” persona.’ In terms of what is like to work today, there is Southwood’s ‘looking busy’ and Michael Foley’s comparable focus on stagecraft: ‘we are acting without even being aware of it, even believing this to be natural behaviour – and entirely sublimating all negative feelings.’
The case of the Virtual Assistant (VA) brings home the loss of a focal point for dissent and organisation. As the laughable ‘feelgood’ discourse has it: “YOU ARE YOUR OFFICE”. Never mind about enriching social interactions with colleagues or trade unionist solidarity in a common cause. Never mind, even, the benefits of getting out and about. Atomisation is wonderful and something to be aspired towards, you modern workers!
Southwood draws on Raymond Williams, comparing the precarious workplaces he has experienced to TV’s ‘reiterated promise of exciting things to come, if we stay’. This is brought out in the temp’s compulsion to ‘look busy’ so that they might be kept on in preference to others.
Politically, we have had avowed protestant workaholics at the helm – such as Margaret Thatcher and Gordon Brown. They have reflected back to us our visions of work and produced a society that is intolerant of anyone who ‘works to contract’ or does not work full-time. They have insisted upon the fallacy that more work is necessarily better, whilst living out this dream themselves – leading to destructive results, both to their own health and society's.
Positives of work
Work can be enjoyable and enriching, provided there is a social purpose informing the work being done – as in William Morris’s distinction of ‘useful work’ as opposed to ‘useless toil’. Work can occupy the mind and bring one into constructive union with people and may be preferable to mere ‘idleness’. A functional item well made, knowledge passed on, children brought up, infirm relatives cared for: these might be defined as ‘useful’ work, where manipulating money would not. Work need not merely be about attaining enough money to live on; as fellow Zer0 writer Nina Power argues: ‘we are also interested in meaning and justice and always were’.
The worker ‘may provide services rather than commodities, like a medical man […] he should provide something in return for his board and lodging. To this extent, the duty of work must be admitted, but to this extent only.’ Russell here is strong on the ‘responsibilities’ agenda that should be reclaimed for liberal-leftism from its co-option by the Daily Mail and New Labour. The difference being that we should appreciatethe valuable work being done that slips under the radar in a marketised, GNP-driven economy.
We should not work ‘to support others in idleness’, primarily, of course, the super-rich. Application of political economy is required to ensure that all were contributing and that useful, remunerated work was available to fit people’s divergent capabilities. Russell makes the point that ‘Athenian slave-owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have been impossible under a just economic system.’ Diversity of work should be essential, to counteract the Stalinist and market-Stalinist ideas of a uniform workforce.
William Morris believed that ‘all must work according to their ability’. He also argued that variety of work was as important as quality of work – suggesting that a craftsman could engage in other duties valued by the community. Personally speaking, I want to be engaged in work that uses my brain and which benefits other people in society; with a main occupation taking up a 20-30 hour week, I could be free to do other useful community tasks for some of the remainder.
Work as portrayed in the culture
“You always have some excuse or another for shirking work.”
Amerie, 'Gotta Work', 2007:
'Sometimes it's gonna be days like this
Sometimes it's gonna be rain like this
Sometimes you're gonna feel pain like this
Sometimes you gotta work hard for it'
Morris, News from Nowhere, 1894:
‘She led us up to the door of the unfinished house, where a rather little woman was working with mallet and chisel on the wall nearby. She seemed very intent on what she was doing, and did not turn round when we came up; but a taller woman, quite a girl she seemed, who was at work nearby, had already knocked off, and was standing looking from Clara to Dick with delighted eyes. None of the others paid much heed to us. The blue-clad girl laid her hand on the carver's shoulder and said: "Now, Philippa, if you gobble up your work like that, you will soon have none to do and what will become of you then?" […] "Don't talk nonsense, Kate, and don't interrupt me if you can help it." She stopped short when she saw us, then went on with the kind of smile of welcome which never failed us. "Thank you for coming to see us, neighbours; but I am sure that you won't think me unkind if I go on with my work, especially when I tell you that I was ill and unable to do anything all through April and May; and this open air and the sun and the work together, and my feeling well again too, make a mere delight of every hour to me; and excuse me, I must go on."’
Brecht, ‘The Job’, 1933:
He could equally have focused on the rich vein of workplace satire within British television: The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The Office, People like Us or Alan Bennett’s underrated play for LWT, One Fine Day, in which Dave Allen’s disaffected estate agent sleeps on the roof of the tower-block he works in. Alan Plater’s Play for Love: the Party of the First Part – recently released on DVD http://www.networkdvd.net/product_info.php?products_id=1341 – contains Michael Gambon’s character, who escapes from his dulling daily grind via humour and silliness in his home life. One could also mention Steven Moffat’s Press Gang in which his adolescents are effectively initiated into the adult world of work with all of its conflicted narratives: is the Junior Gazette a moral mission, a means of individual career advancement or a facilitator of togetherness within the social group? Few easy answers are provided in Moffat’s intriguing series, still – to date – his masterwork.
Foley argues that ‘it is a curious and significant fact that there are hardly any novels set entirely in the workplace’. True, but it is worth considering the myriad psychological portrayals of workers, such as the disillusioned left-wing teacher Patrick Doyle, working under capitalism in James Kelman’s first-person narrative, A Disaffection. Kelman reveals the supposed autonomous position of ‘middle-class professionals’ to be rather more complicated than de Botton would have it. Samuel Beckett’s Watt sounds interesting; according to Lezard: a ‘great hymn to pointless drudgery.’ Then there is William Morris’s News from Nowhere, a utopian imagining of a future society engaged in useful work. Foley also fails to consider short-stories or poems.
James Joyce details discontent with menial clerkly work in his short-story ‘Counterparts’, from Dubliners (1914), demonstrating how this adversely affects Farrington’s extra-work life, with its bleak ending where he returns home. Of course, such cases as Farrington and Doyle could be said to be ‘individual’ and ‘isolated’, but then there is Bertolt Brecht with his acid portrayal of a society absolutely desperate for work: his short-story ‘The Job’ (1933) depicts a woman impersonating her dead husband for a position he was due to take up as a factory night-watchman on the cusp of his death. Brecht captures the experience of deep recession in contemporary Weimar Germany – the lengths which citizens will go to obtain work and the tenuousness of that work itself with the ‘reserve army’ of labour waiting.
One could also highlight televisual portrayals of joblessness – whether Boys from the Blackstuff with its humane treatment of a bleak existence on the dole, or The League of Gentlemen with its broad-brush depiction of the absurdities of job-centre courses. Pauline is an enforcer of capitalist realism, ramming the ‘one size fits all’ system down the throats of the hapless ‘jobseekers’: a system clearly designed to meet targets and provide a willing workforce for businesses – reducing the Daily Mail-perceived ‘drain’ on the state.
Popular music can be critical of work – as well as Client, there are the Pet Shop Boys, with satires such as ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’ and ‘Single-Bilingual’. There are also examples of musical endorsements of the ‘work ethic’, such as Amerie’s ambivalent ‘Gotta Work’ (‘I do it ’cause I love it’) and this ghastly, infinitely crasser polemic for neo-liberalism from Mick Jagger.
The uses of leisure
Just as the concept of work as automatically positive must be questioned, so must leisure. It would be foolhardy to make no distinctions whatsoever about how people spend their non-working time – liberalism without social consideration can too easily merge with Ayn Rand’s unhinged, ‘libertarian’ ideas. As Russell stated: ‘The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education.’ Wisdom must involve consideration for others and the context of one’s actions.
Leisure should not resemble the thoughtless, detached decadence of today’s super-rich, as exemplified by so many premiership footballers. Again, Russell’s words are salient: ‘The method of a leisure class without duties was, however, extraordinarily wasteful. […] The class might produce one Darwin, but against him had to be set tens of thousands of country gentlemen who never thought of anything more intelligent than fox-hunting and punishing poachers.’
Russell also spoke of ‘using leisure intelligently’; this needs definition, as if greater ‘leisure’ time means an expansion of irresponsible consumerism, the effects would be ecologically damaging and socially unjust – as exemplified, above all, by Dubai. As Nina Power argued in the Guardian recently, ‘we have been coerced into thinking about quality of life in terms of owning and accumulating more things.’ People entirely ‘doing their own thing’ in the neo-liberal culture ends up costing society and the planet.
Solutions – what is to be done?
Jimmy Reid, speech to students at Glasgow University, 1972:
“Reject these attitudes. Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes. A rat race is for rats. We're not rats. We're human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.”
Fiona MacCarthy, The Guardian, 1994:
‘Harold Laski, visiting Northumberland miners in the Great slump of the 1930s, found copies of News From Nowhere in house after house, even after the furniture had been sold.’
What is required for us to live well? Stability and security of employment; to be employed on permanent contracts, with generous holidays and some flexibility of hours – avoiding the Reggie Perrin routine – but not an expectation of overtime.
We should consider four hour working days, sharing the work around to reduce unemployment and over-employment. It should be noted that European countries such as France, Belgium, Sweden and Norway work less hours, but record significantly higher productivity. As LRB contributor Barry Schwartz counsels: ‘Reduce the working week so that people will have more time to spend as citizens, partners and parents.’
Russell spoke in 'In Praise of Idleness' of many being overworked while others were unemployed and makes the case that work should be shared more equitably – today, we might argue for a ‘maximum working week’ of 20 hours, or, more realistically 35, as the French have tried. It has been estimated that, across the EU, overtime working consumes the equivalent of some two million potential full-time jobs. Government can and should step in to provide Morris’s ‘useful’ work – localism on a national scale. A precedent would be how FDR created 3million new jobs in the New Deal through creating the Civilian Conservation Corps, who built 44 new wildlife refuges and planted 2billion trees.
Trade unions have to be willing to support compromise measures such as flexi-time and job-sharing for the greater good. The long-term demographic trends make ‘full employment’ of the 1950s kind a practical impossibility; we are going to have to live differently – difficult when the public's expectation is home ownership and consumer abundance. Instead of reflexively supporting the status-quo, unions and left-of-centre organisations need to question the present pattern of work, whilst supporting quality public service provision.
Southwood posits mockery and camp as possible solutions, within the workplace and outside it. As well as the aforementioned Client, he mentions Susan Sontag, Bertolt Brecht’s ‘estrangement effect’ and the ‘manic engagement’ of prisoners given a task in the film Cool Hand Luke. Brecht spoke of ‘stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them’; Southwood suggests that degrading work practices can be most effectively attacked through their lampooning – exposing their essential absurdity.
However, to achieve significant change, there must also be collective action, whether in whole workforce strike action, or the boycotting of market mechanisms; undirected anger is useless. Foley gives the example of how his colleagues rebelled against performance-related-pay: ‘teachers understood that teaching could not be accurately evaluated and that introducing rankings would be divisive. So they agreed that no one would apply’ for the higher-paid roles. Whether this works in every case will be down to specific workplace organisation and the vagaries of human nature. The hopeful humanist would say it could, but the British public-sector worker of 2011 might question the likelihood.
Within work itself, Foley suggests that a sensible strategy might be: ‘surrender to the task but not to the taskmaster, become absorbed in the work itself but never absorb the work ethos.’ Fair enough advice, provided the market-driven ethos does not infect the task. Foley recalls Seneca on the Stoics, proposing the worker takes a more detached position: ‘Quarrelling is a form of emotional involvement that establishes a relationship – and there should rarely be a genuine relationship at work.’ However, 'getting even' can surely only come about through organised strategies: trade unionism, satire and targeting of the systems which are the nerve-centres of neo-liberal institutions. Foley’s analysis seems akin to the sort of individualist anarchism that ultimately supports the very system deemed so harmful.
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