Toil as Citizenship

Bella has been thinking about work and economy in the context of Occupy, independence, climate change and collapsonomics. Here’s David Graeber:

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour working week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people in the Western world spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Read more here ‘The Modern Phenomenon of Nonsense Jobs’.

It’s worth thinking about as an increasingly aggressive far-right consensus emerges at Westminster and the reality of forced labour is articulated by a cabinet of hereditary millionaires, who with no sense of shame or their own ridiculousness talk of the end of a ‘something for nothing culture’.

@higgleDpee writes:

George Osborne on Monday outlined fresh plans to force long-term unemployed social security claimants to undertake mandatory unwaged work. The specific details may have been relatively new, but the tenor of these proposals is in keeping with an increasingly widespread approach in our culture to the notion of work, that ongoing welfare reforms being pushed through by recent successive Westminster governments have routinely typified.

What is notable and concerning about these reforms and the many variations on the by now well-worn theme of the ‘striver/shirker’ inflected rhetoric that accompanies them, is that they aggressively promote and rely upon a general public accepting a view of human beings as fundamentally predisposed to ‘shirking’ unless someone looms over them wielding a big metaphorical stick.

work-fare2[1]Furthermore, they promote a view that work (as specifically defined and designated by our dominant corporate-interest led, Westminster-dominated political discourse) is a virtue and worthwhile end in and of itself. Not only this, but that work and the willingness or ability to undertake it, is the utmost measure of human value. This in turn has hugely damaging ramifications for how vulnerable social groups are perceived by wider society, and not least for chronically ill and disabled people, many of whom already face significant barriers to finding and maintaining employment, whilst also having to contend with the effects of frequent cruel and inaccurate portrayals in mainstream media narratives as a bunch of workshy fakers and scroungers.

These portrayals both arise out of, and also help to further bolster this apparent growing public acceptance  that work must at all costs be undertaken for its own sake, as a moral duty, regardless of your impairments, and without expectation of either an adequate living wage or basic job security in return. Doesn’t there come a point when we have to ask ourselves: is this really a direction we want to continue to be headed in?

Meanwhile it seems we’re also in danger of rapidly losing sight of the notion of work as being worthwhile if, and only if it can provide the following essential elements: basic security, adequate remuneration, social inclusion, human cooperation and personal meaning as well as preferably ongoing value to our wider communities. After all, these are usually the kinds of ingredients which allow work to be at the very least bearable, or perhaps satisfying, and even, if we’re really fortunate, enjoyable too. If we’re prepared to continually surrender these values on behalf of people already struggling with the various unenviable array of social, economic, health, and self-esteem issues which typically accompany long-term joblessness, we’re also contributing to the steady erosion of these values for the majority of the rest of us in the longer term.

Or might it just be that some of the apparent populist voter appeal of coercive and punitive unwaged labour initiatives such the latest unveiled by Osborne derives from the fact that work in its current form as experienced by significant numbers, often isn’t all that marvellous either , falls short of meeting our basic human requirements, and thus encourages us to be both terrified and secretly envious of the idea of anyone else being potentially ‘let off the hook’ too easily? But if this is the case, does clamouring for the some of the UK’s lowest status and most socially excluded individuals to be forced to do unwaged labour really do anything at all to raise the bar for employment conditions across the UK generally? It would seem incredibly unlikely that this could ever be an effective strategy, that is if promoting better and fairer working conditions is to remain any sort of priority for us as a society anymore.

On the contrary, any tacit acceptance of, or overt support for, the rise of coercive and punitive welfare practices  on the one hand– only has the effect of encouraging us to fatalistically resign ourselves to the proliferation of precarious and exploitative employment conditions such as unpaid internships, casual and zero hour contracts  on the other. Of course, market logic is ensuring that workfare is already replacing paid positions. What’s more, there’s little compelling evidence it’s been successful in the US, it’s country of origin, either.

The consequences of accepting this ongoing redefinition of what work should mean to us, on the terms set out by our Westminster-enabled corporatocracy, at the expense of society’s most vulnerable, whilst using incessantly distorted statistics to justify themselves along the way, and accompanied by this continual rolling back of the baseline standards we’re prepared to accept are both immensely damaging and far-reaching.

There have been and continue to be appalling casualties: in the period between January 2011 and November 2011 alone, more than 10,000 people died shortly after being forced to undergo the Atos Work Capability Assessment, the degrading and dangerously inept test used by the government supposedly to assess the ‘fitness to work’ of people receiving benefits related to disability and ill health.”

What could be more symptomatic of a thoroughly debased approach to how we value other human beings in relation to the ever-intruding demands of work worship?

And It is, after all, pretty disturbing that we’re allowing ‘work’ to be defined as the ultimate virtue and measure of personal value especially whilst so many with current jobs maybe aren’t all that wild about what they do to either. And no, not due to any innate propensity to idleness, but more to do with a healthy and justifiable wish to resist encroaching, enforced meaninglessness.

We need to have the courage to explore and generate solutions which don’t begin with a cynical view of human beings as fundamentally feckless if not sufficiently coerced. When it comes down to it, people generally don’t ‘shirk’ wanting to have increased financial independence, or improved living standards, or a sense of purpose, or to meaningfully contribute to and be included in their wider communities when those opportunities are presented to them and can be chosen freely.

If you want to motivate people, at the very least try and persuade them that what they’re doing matters, and not just insist they present themselves as busy looking busy in order to satisfy some distorted and misguided sense of spite-fuelled propriety.

As it is, any welfare policy approach that proceeds from the idea that people are inherently disinclined towards meaningful and rewarding work is always going to look an awful lot like an exercise in bad faith.

Comments (11)

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  1. mrbfaethedee says:

    It’s why depsite the apparent good parts, socialism is just the other side of the same grubby coin that’s been keeping people tied to the yoke for centuries.

    Necessity is the mother of – ‘just do as you’re told’.

    Fighting for the ‘right’ for all to ‘earn’ a ‘wage’ could only seem like an aspiration in a consensual societal/cultural prison.

    q. Please sir, can I have some more?
    a. ‘Certainly sir, from cradle to grave.’

    People fought for better rights and won them, now we’re losing them all over. When we fight and win again the only question is how soon till the next cycle? It will come.

    We’re at a table where the game’s rigged and we have no money – we’re spending now and the future just to stay in a game we can’t win, that’ll deliver everything we share into the hands of the ones running the game.

    Apropos the article’s picture – yes we are. Even when we fight for more employment rights and so on, we are. Until we break the game completely, and demand our lives back, we are always slaves.

  2. Charles Patrick O'Brien says:

    We need a democracy not a monarchy as you cant have both,although we have been fooled into thinking that its good for us to be in a class system.

  3. Dave Coull says:

    Speak for yourself, “mrbfaethedee”. Okay, so “mrbfaethedee” is a slave. A slave who doesn’t even have a name, apparently. A slave is somebody who accepts slavery. Although I have the misfortune to live in a society based on slavery, I do not accept slavery.

    1. mrbfaethedee says:

      Who else would you imagine I speak for “””Dave””” (so called) “””Coull”””.

      Tell me how you’ve renounced your slavery “””Dave”””.

      You can ‘not accept slavery’ all you like. You’ll still just live in society like all the rest of us.
      I’m saying the worldview we have is defined by the societies we have lived in for centuries -the games of today are variations on the games of yesterday – and that sometimes it’s worth stopping to think if the the things you think are radical and transformative actually are.
      You don’t agree with what I’m saying? Fine, tell me why not. Explain it to me.
      What is it you think I’m saying “””Dave””” (is that your real name?) “””Coull”””.

      I’m sure all the actual (rather than economic-allegorical) slaves throughout history and into today would be delighted to know they just had to not accept it, and so be free. If only you had been there to tell them how easy would be their emancipation.

      [Next time, please log in using you NI number – so we know who you reeeaaaallllyyyy are – it’s dead important.]

      1. Dave Coull says:

        Dave Coull is my real name. “mrbfaethedee” is a false name. I’ve said all I want to say to you, mr-false-pretences.

        1. mrbfaethedee says:

          Gee, thanks “”Dave”” (so you say) “”Coull””, for finally actually addressing anything I said.
          Oh no, you forgot about that bit.
          All names are real. They’re just appellations “”Dave””, nomative declarations of identity. You identity here on the internet is completely represented by what you write – not your moniker. If you had called yourself “Daddy Cool” it wouldn’t have had any impact on what you said.
          What I wrote is there for you to address if you ever decide to. It doesn’t matter thatI’m actually Kaiser Wilhem II. Oh, wait I’m not – turns out my “””REAL””” identity doesn’t make any difference, what I said is there to address.
          I’m no intellectual – I’m sure you’ll tear apart what I wrote originally (if you eeeeeevvvveeer get round to it) – that’s ok, I’m not precious about it (happy to discuss it) – but I can’t help but notice you still haven’t got round to that bit (talk about false pretences…).

          FWIW – I’ve been using mrbfaethedee for years on the internet, I don’t care how many twats start demanding people use their ‘real names’ on the internet, it’s the internet – for 99% of people on it it doesn’t matter. If it matters to you, i feel sorry for you. If you think it’s indicative of some dishonesty or duplicity, seek help. Don’t worry – at least you’re Coull by name.

  4. HH says:

    “Or might it just be that some of the apparent populist voter appeal of coercive and punitive unwaged labour initiatives such the latest unveiled by Osborne derives from the fact that work in its current form as experienced by significant numbers, often isn’t all that marvelous either , falls short of meeting our basic human requirements, and thus encourages us to be both terrified and secretly envious of the idea of anyone else being potentially ‘let off the hook’ too easily?”

    This is precisely why some poor/low income workers are jumping on the bandwagon. Just yesterday I was at Lidls and a young woman working the till was discussing with me the new workfare plans. She works all hours, has a young family and does not seem to have much happiness with her own position. That I can understand but her comment that “at least it will get the layabouts doing something” was cringe worthy. No doubt there ARE people who are working the system but it is NOT the proportion that is portrayed by the media and they are NOT the ones who need taking down a peg……or ten. This woman will vent her rage on the poorer people because of her own unhappiness without a hint of realisation that it is the rich and unaccountable telling her too.

  5. This is precisely why we need an unconditional basic (or guaranteed livable, or citizens) income, or social dividend/wage – I’m not worried about what it’s called, as long as the payment is unconditional, and enough to live on decently. It would give some financial recognition for what people do outside the jobs market, give low-paid workers a base from which they could fight for better wages in jobs that most other people don’t want to do, the freedom to leave jobs which are meaningless or actively harmful for others. Where our current welfare morass slices people up into ‘treatment categories’, which force people to constantly prove their illness, or poverty, and now their ‘willingness to work’, basic income is a welfare policy of solidarity. I’m a little surprised it wasn’t mentioned in the article as an alternative.
    There is a European Citizens Initiative for Unconditional Basic Income running til January, which if successful will force the EU to do research into this policy, and a growing movement. Do sign it:

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