Worth reposting in full I think, as it’ll quickly get lost in the ether on openDemocracy, where it’s originally published. It’s a long essay, but rewarding, on the links between workfare, the crisis of work, the inability of the mainstream left to adequately respond and some speculative ideas for an exit strategy. It’s also packed full of wide range of linked references which inform it.
Seems especially pertinent following the disgraceful Labour abstention (including my MP Paul Blomfield who won’t tell us his reasons for doing so, even when many of his colleagues refused and voted against) on the government’s retrospective changing of the law on Tuesday – allowing them to renege on responsibility and liability for £130m of benefit rebates, to around a quarter of a million jobseekers unlawfully made to work for free.
Workfare recognises a reality that the TUC and many on the left haven’t – our current model of production, from a social perspective, is crumbling. Make workfare a weapon for change.
The potential list of objectionable adjectives that have been extended to the medley of policies collectively understood as ‘workfare’ is, much like any credibility once invested in the present coalition government, indubitably nearing the point of expiry. Indeed workfare, and its present puppeteer the Home Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, are now not not only regarded as mad, bad and malicious but also thoroughly inept. Surely even ‘IDS’ thought the numbers, the returns on government ‘investment’ in awarding these deals to A4E and others would not be so precociously dreadful as to place the programs beyond the parameters of any credible defence?
The contribution of groups such as Boycott Workfare, DPAC and Solfed, among others, in discrediting workfare programmes is impressive. At the same time such a contribution has undoubtedly been embedded within a defensive approach that has come to characterize anti-austerity struggles throughout the OECD. At times, as with workfare, such a response can be impressive. The student movement of 2010 was similarly a defensive struggle but was nonetheless possessed of admirable flexibility, scale and intensity. The same is true, indeed to a greater extent, with the ultimately victorious Quebecois student movement of the last two years, impressively coordinated by Classe. Conversely the UK ‘pensions fightback’ by public sector unions in 2011, again essentially defensive, shared few if any of these qualities. This is for a variety of reasons and has nothing to do with the intelligence or integrity of those involved, nor the quantity or quality of legitimate grievances they possessed. Indeed for all its scale, tenacity and openness the UK student movement of 2010 likewise failed to achieve its objectives or indeed really catalyse a larger movement beyond itself – although in retrospect it undoubtedly undermined any credible argument the coalition could communicate about its ambition to ‘share’ the burden of austerity.
Responses such as the 2010 student movement and the backlash against workfare should have been fully expected. As welfare states and labour markets throughout the OECD are restructured over coming decade(s) in response to the Long Recession, defensive claims, objectives and strategies will almost inevitably be the basis from which action, successful or otherwise, will be catalysed. Is it sufficient to merely attempt to defend those post-war gains that have already been steadily eroded for three decades?
‘Tools as Weapons’ – How to Move From Defensive to Offensive Strategies?
The idea that a defensive stance should inform political action against austerity evokes approaches to warfare before the introduction of gunpowder to Europe during the 15th century. Until that point war had primarily been a defensive enterprise based around the topos of the city walls and the tactic of the siege, with defenders consequently enjoying a natural superiority. This remained the case until the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, a seismic moment in the history of warfare and European geopolitics. Although the role ofOrban’s artillery can be overstated in the fall of Constantinople it’s centrality in Mehmet’s plans undermined a logic which stretched back to a time immemorial, best captured in the European imagination in both Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, the latter culminating with the sack of Troy after a decade long siege which was itself only broken through an act of supreme subtefuge, the ‘Trojan Horse’ proposed by Odysseus . Thus a map of city-states and empires with multiple levels of governance gave way to the modern European nation state, this being legislated most clearly in the Peace of Augsburg and later the Treaty of Westphalia. The massively increased use of gunpowder after the 15th century and the ubiquity of musket and cannon on the battlefield had prodigious and enduring consequences for social organisation, as well as merely the cartography of Europe and the art of war.
This brief sketch of the relation between the gun, cannon, warfare and the arrival of the ‘modern’ nation-state to my mind helps clarify the words of Giles Deleuze when he wrote so provocatively on the most useful forms of ‘resistance’ within changing conditions of political power. ‘There is no need to fear or hope’ he wrote ‘but only to look for new weapons’. Here then the move from defensive to offensive orientation is more than simply a change in motion or an increase in the application of force. Instead such a move necessitates the discovery of new ‘weapons’ much as was the case with the introduction of the cannon with its far-reaching consequences for the entire social order of early modern Europe. In the context of contemporary anti-austerity struggles, which are by nature defensive, what does such cryptic language mean and how does it allow us to understand a terrain of defensive struggles as being imminent with possibility for offensive opportunity?
One answer might be found in a line from Hardt and Negri’s ‘Empire’ which they themselves borrow from a song by Ana Di Franco where she sings “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right”. A synthesis of these two propositions, from both Deleuze and Di Franco, would identify that there is a need for newweapons in the face of fighting an ‘austerity’ that has no discernible horizon for the OECD and beyond, and that such weapons can perhaps themselves be forged from present tools even though they may currently reside in the hands of others with whom we are in political contestation. Such a dérive sounds both enigmatic and puzzling. What are its implications for the present predicament where every avenue of political action seems hostage to impossibility and theambivalently disenchanted among us ask ‘What can be done, when nothing can be done?
‘The Future Doesn’t Work(fare)’ – Work, Workfare and Crisis
I have written previously of how the various programmes that constitute workfare should be regarded as the fulcrum of the coalition’s ‘industrial policy’. It is within such an understanding of workfare that Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) becomes a state-subsidy for large companies such as Tesco to employ essentially free labour rather than a temporary form of collective insurance designed for intermittent periods of unemployment, that would also act as a stabilizer on final demand throughout cyclical downturns, as was its original intention.
Numerous other measures such as freezing the minimum wage for under-21s,capping pay increases below inflation for public sector workers, the introduction of studio schools and the outsourcing of probation and prison labour could all play a role in wage repression in the United Kingdom over the coming years. The major factor however will prove to be a recalibration of the labour market ‘from below’. This will sometimes occur in partnership with trade unions as people accept diminished pay and working conditions to keep their job. Undoubtedly however it is workfare that will play a major role in disincentivising the claiming of JSA and is central in the ‘self-management’ of a massive decline in pay and working conditions. Elsewhere ‘sanctioning’ or purposeful inefficiency in the benefits system is, unofficially of course, deployed in order to ‘incentivise’ people back into work. According to the Trussell Trust ending up at the local foodbank is a more likely outcome than receiving a paycheck however and they estimate that 43% of all those referred to food banks are there because of benefit stoppages or the refusal of a crisis loan.
Workfare is a policy tool to recompose the UK labour market. However it is also clear that within workfare programs there is a kernel of truth which is neglected within the analysis of social democrats and those on the centre-left. It is unequivocally motivated by political spite and class hostility. More importantly however we must also understand it as a policy response to changed conditions of production (which themselves are a response to the as yet unsolved and merely deferred crisis of the mid-1970s) which will not disappear and will only continue to intensify. Such an admission is founded as much on the work of Ulrich Beck as it is on any analysis that stems from a Marxian understanding of the ‘secular crisis’.
As has been pointed out elsewhere the TUC ‘likes work’.Consequently a future that ‘works’ is a future that would presumably embody the policy prescriptions of the TUC as legislated by a future Labour government. The basis of such prescriptions are easily discernible to anyone who has seen the logo from last October’s TUC demonstration. On holding the pamphlet issued by the TUC that accompanied the day, ‘A Future That Works’ , one’s gaze is impulsively drawn to the three Atlas-like human figures that adorn the front cover as they harmoniously return a declining and unnamed macroeconomic indicator back towards the celestial aether of ‘growth’. Camus once remarked that Sisyphus must have been happy as ‘the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart’ and one can only presume the author of this report holds similar sentiments. Our collective capitulation to the role of Sisyphus is not only one of necessity but is in fact a social mission capable of being endowed with the same libidinal investment and ethical content of Harold Wilson’s ‘moral crusade’ of five decades ago. Work, poorly paid work, is the only ethical imperative the Labour party is offering as a ‘future’ within the context of an economic crisis unparalleled in over seven decades and a decimated welfare state.
It is no surprise therefore that as a counter-measure to workfare the TUC proposes that ‘every young person who is unemployed for more than six months (receives) a job that pays at least the minimum wage, or quality training’.Alongside this measure, Labour have more recently proposed that every adult aged over 25 and out of work for more than two years should be obliged to take up a government-provided job for six months or lose benefits. Note that this was first suggested by ‘Open Left’, a project run by Demos and overseen, albeit at a distance by James Purnell as early as 2009. In both cases such suggestions are at odds with the ‘commitment’ of both the TUC and the Labour party to the marginally higher ‘living wage’. What is more, both programs would appear to operate much like existing workfare programs in acting as an instrument of downward wage repression and facilitating the recomposition of the UK labour market. Amid escalating food inflation, declining real pay and unaffordable rents and travel costs such a carrot appears not only small but thoroughly rotten. Even an ass would find it unappetising.
If we understand workfare as a policy response to the ‘secular crisis’ then it should come as no surprise that the first mention of ‘workfare’ by President Nixon in 1969 is correlative with a major downturn in US corporate profitability. Within this context of the secular crisis any return to unemployment benefit previously understood as of periodic necessity within the post-war welfarist context is impossible. Such an understanding of unemployment benefit remains from a period when the UK did not see unemployment exceed 2.6% for two and a half decades (1945-1970). These conditions did not exist either before and they have not existed since.
Workfare, Surplus Population and Secular Crisis
A discussion of surplus population is central to any enquiry as to the relationship between workfare and the secular crisis. The hypothesis runs thatwithin the contemporary global economy there is a large and growing ‘surplus population’ that is incapable of accessing the labour market. Alongside this group is another yet larger one which frequently includes the ‘working poor’; temporary workers, part-time workers, agency workers, those on zero hours contracts and increasingly since 2008 the precarious self-employed. We know that this second group has grown throughout not only the course of the last several decades but particularly so since the Global Financial Crisis.
While this second group can still access the labour market, albeit intermittently, it is for frequently low wages with little or no job security. This group also frequently requires credit, not only in order to access higher education, but also during intermittent periods of unemployment and underemployment. Many within this group also come from historically large cohorts who having been processed through higher education had mistakenly come to expect social mobility and career opportunities at least on a par with those their parents enjoyed.
These two groups when combined now comprise the majority of working age populations in the OECD. They are disproportionately younger and are generating insufficient savings to pay for their own pensions, elderly care, mortgages and frequently children (as outlined here). When combined with the fact that the pensioner to taxpayer ratio falls disproportionately hard on this cohort who are not even, unlike their predecessors during the ‘Long Boom’ capable of saving for their own retirement, one can begin to see the scale of the crisis both impendent and present.
An explanation for this structural increase in unemployment and underemployment is that the automation of work, and the changing ‘composition of capital’ as it has been referred to by ‘heterodox’ Marxists, means that an ever greater amount of production necessitates an ever smaller amount of human labour – a tendency for ‘variable’ to become ‘fixed’ capital. In recent months this hypothesis has gained increased attention from commentators such as Paul Krugman at the New York Times as well asIzabella Kaminska and others at the Financial Times. It is also more broadly evident in discussions about the 3rd Industrial Revolution as I have touched upon elsewhere. Such discussions while eulogising huge increases in automated production fail to answer the question as to who will be earning the wages, and with what jobs, to purchase the ever greater volume of commodities produced.
We can observe this ‘tendency’ of variable to become fixed capital in our everyday lives. One obvious example is self-scan checkouts which illustrate the replacement of variable capital (the wage-labouring checkout assistant) byfixed/ constant capital (the self-service checkout). Other prominent examples include the much-heralded possibility of a ‘driverless’ underground network,automated agriculture and food production. The Economist would like us to believe that this ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ will mean more of us work in services, such as ‘consultancy’ ‘branding’ and ‘research’. However such a conclusion ignores all of the present trends, namely increased periods of unemployment and underemployment throughout ones life, punctuated by work for which one was not specifically trained nor which one finds personally satisfying. That is not to mention the increasingly large swathes of unpaid work ranging from internships to ‘freelancing’. If the input of human labour is increasingly insignificant in the production and distribution of goods and services – something with which I entirely concur – and wages represent increasingly smaller amounts of capital allocation within production then who precisely is going to buy these products and with what wages? How will people subsist under capitalism without jobs?
‘The Service Economy as Crisis Economy’ – Security, Servitude and Equivalent Substitution
It is this issue that is perhaps most elided by the entire political class – the Labour Party and the TUC as much their supposed ideological counterpoints the Conservative Party and the CBI. The future must *work* and by defaulttherefore its moral invocations must stem from the dignity of labour. Even George Osborne, if ironic in his precise choice of words, is now calling for the ‘workers of the world’ to unite. Andre Gorz pointed out two decades ago that while OECD policy-makers are happy to express the ‘inevitable’ move to a services-based economy as a natural step of economic development they are reticent to admit that the jobs within these ‘restructured’ service economies are almost universally unskilled and poorly paid as well as being highly precarious.
Gorz also claimed that this contemporary labour force embedded as it within ever increasing automation and the growth of ‘service work’ might be understood as enduring a form of ‘employment apartheid’ between those who subsist from rents (such as property) alongside those small numbers within the well remunerated ‘hi tech’ manufacturing sector and ‘high value’ service jobs such as consulting, finance, legal services. These are the privileged few – and then there are the rest of us,
“The burgeoning slave trade in “personal services” must continue: cleaning, catering, massage, domestic nursing, prostitution, tutoring, therapy, psychological aid, etc. This is accompanied by a continual raising of the standards of security, hygiene, control, and culture, and by an accelerated recycling of fashions, all of which establish the need for such services.”
Such an analysis also includes the extension of biopower and what has been variously referred to as the ‘cybernetic hypothesis’ and ‘the society of control’ as central elements within the move to a service economy. The growth of the security industry and the militarisation of police forces throughout the OECD during the last several decades provide evidence to back up such a supposition. There are now 1.1 million private security guards in the United States far outweighing the number of police officers and G4S is now the largest employer on the FTSE 100 with 620,000 employees worldwide. To compound this point and to return to the example given earlier about automated checkouts embodying the tendency of variable to become fixed capital, the rise of these checkouts is also contemporaneous with that of shop security guards which can now be seen on the door of every ‘Tesco Metro’ that one may choose to enter.
This leads to another point made by Gorz when he claims that many of the jobs that are created as economies become increasingly service-based do not even produce value. Such a claim is based on the fact that service economies are geared towards equivalent substitution in production rather than the productive substitution which underlined the explosion in productive capabilities that was at the heart of industrial capitalism for its first century and a half
‘…in the past economic growth did in effect have ‘productive substitution’ as its engine: tasks which people had performed for centuries in their domestic sphere were progressively transferred to industry and service industries which possessed machines more efficient than those to which a household had access. Industrial production thus replaced ‘own-use’ production within the home and supplanted individuals engaging in their own social reproduction – no-one spins their own clothes anymore builds their own house and so forth and because industrialisation has led us to do a host of things more quickly and efficiently everyone, even the poorest, ultimately get more goods and services per hour of labour worked than would be the case before industrialisation’.
Under these conditions of productive substitution productivity per hour of labour explodes as we see formal subsumption and the introduction of the factory, the division of labour and later within the context of the ‘Second Industrial Revolution’ Taylorism, time-motion studies and the assembly line. As well as this there is of course the deployment of capital-intense distribution, energy and communication networks such as the telegraph, the railways, roads and national electricity, water and gas networks. Amid these conditions, whatever one thinks of the dehumanising impact on workers and the environment, there was without any doubt a huge explosion in productive capability and ‘use-values’. More recently as we move towards a ‘service-based’ economy however we see a move from productive substitution to equivalent substitution, a process which even Adam Smith referred to as economically unproductive. Such a change leads to a situation where I pay you to do an hours work so I do not have to do the same hours work. Such a trend is at the heart of the rise in ‘personal services’ such as care work, security work, housekeeping and so on. With all of these jobs there seems to be little ‘productive substitution’ taking place – an answer, in part perhaps to the ‘productivity puzzle’ much discussed by the UK’s most ‘eminent’ economic journalists.
All of these phenomenon; workfare, increased securitisation,the militarisation of the police, automation and the inability of large numbers of people to find access to decent-paying jobs, possess an intricate and inextricable relationship to one another. These are not spontaneous, unconnected phenomena but are instead trends that are consequent to changes in the organic composition of capital, the secular crisis and the formation of ever larger ‘surplus populations’. Workfare is a policy instrument that is an attempt to deal with these phenomenon and this crisis.
Workfare as Response to the ‘Crisis of the Society of Work’
The ‘crisis of the society of work’ is a crisis which has a profound paradox at its core. No-one examines this paradox more intelligently than the Invisible Committee when they write,
‘…work has totally triumphed over all other ways of existing, at the very moment when workers have become superfluous. Gains in productivity, outsourcing, mechanization, automated and digital production have so progressed that they have almost reduced to zero the quantity of living labor necessary in the manufacture of any product. We are living the paradox of a society of workers without work, where entertainment, consumption and leisure only underscore the lack from which they are supposed to distract us.’
The increasingly diminished element of ‘living labour’ necessary in the manufacture of any product’ is in fact one of the reasons why some claim that outsourced production could at some point come back to the OECD as any increases in labour costs with such a move would be outweighed by the proximity of production to the consumer market and lower distribution costs. As the Economist wrote in January,
“In the longer term reshoring will be boosted by the use of advanced manufacturing techniques that promise to alter the economics of production, making it a far less labour-intensive process”.
Thus were there to be a ‘re-industrialisation’ of Europe and North America it would in no way lead to a net increase in jobs. In fact the reverse is more likely as the current configuration of large service sectors in the OECD is far more labour-intense. This is due to the equivalent substitution that as already mentioned is at the heart of service economies rather than the productive substitution that is at the heart of increasingly capital-intense (and not labour-intense) industrial ones.
Within this context the wage-relation for Gorz, Negri and the Invisible Committee is understood as no longer necessary in facilitating increases in production, but rather is maintained purely as a mechanism of social control. As a consequence Negri claimed that struggles would move from ‘wage struggles to the struggle over appropriation’. While in the short-term he was proved wrong the riots of France in 2005, Greece in 2008 and England in 2011 certainly furnish such a claim with a contemporary pertinence.
Elsewhere Gorz repeats this broader point about work increasingly being a political imperative rather than an economic necessity when he writes,
‘Today work is tied less to the economic necessity of producing goods than to the political necessity of producing producers and consumers, and of preserving by any means necessary the order of work.’
But one not need stick to heterodox Marxists when invoking such arguments. Indeed one need look no further than John Maynard Keynes in 1920 when he writes,
“Let us, for the sake of argument, suppose that a hundred years hence (2020) we are all of us, on the average, eight times better off in the economic sense than we are to-day. Assuredly there need be nothing here to surprise us…I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not – if we look into the future – the permanent problem of the human race….thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
Even John Maynard Keynes, a man who said that in any class war he would remain firmly on the side of the learned bourgeoisie understood the relationship between the ‘satisfaction of the economic question’, the impending crisis of the society of work and the necessity for discovering new subjectivities beyond this very same society. Ninety-three years after these words were written we are perhaps already there. A shame then that Keynes showed more insight than so many of his contemporary advocates and much of the ‘left’ on this issue.
‘Weaponsing Workfare’ Call For Maximum Working Week and Guaranteed Social Wage?
Workfare can thus be seen as a response to the crisis of the society of work and the formation of surplus populations incapable of properly accessing the labour market. When one talks of an ‘anti-work’ politics the response one almost inevitably arouses is one of suspicion and outrage, even from the well-intentioned, ‘Against work?! People must work!’ one is unhesitatingly reminded.
Clearly we always have and always will have a need to ‘do things’ to reproduce human life and preferably, in the words of Keynes, to live ‘agreeably and well’. Living labour should however not be understood as work and it is this distinction which is central to a number of debates that converge around ‘anti-work’ politics.
This distinction between work and freely willed living labour is elegantly illuminated by Marx when he writes in the 1844 Manuscripts,
“…in degrading spontaneous, free activity to a means, estranged labor makes man’s species-life a means to his physical existence…estranged labor turns thus Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means of his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.”
Work can thus be understood as alienated labour at odds with freely willed living labour. Surely within the abundance afforded by automation as is so clearly understood within existing discussions about the Third Industrial Revolution the project of minimising alienated labour and maximising leisure or free time to do those projects that would constitute freely willed living labour such as teaching, caring for others, coaching, gardening, brewing, home repairs and other pursuits merits a worthy political project?
It is such a project that is outlined by one of the inspirations for Andre Gorz,Johano Strasser, when he writes,
“Not liberation from work but the liberation of work must be the urgent aim of socialism. And work is to be understood here in the sense of creative activity, including therefore its non-professional forms such as work for oneself, mutual assistance between neighbours, activity in self-help groups and charitable projects etc. By taking advantage of meaningful reductions in the hours spent in gainful work one can expand the scope for free activities; at the same time, the development of free activities, can make a part of one’s professional activities – and hence of one’s gainful work – superfluous.”
It is this desire to ‘liberate work’ that may provide a platform from which to take hold of the politics of work differently and which is the only possible basis from which to provide an alternative to workfare and the existing political economy of surplus populations which can be extended to prison labour, precarious labour and an increasingly large sphere of free labour
‘Workfare is a Weapon if You Hold it Right’
The propositions laid out here hitherto are as follows. Workfare is a response to an ever larger surplus population and precarious labour force that is simply too large to enjoy collective employment insurance as it was deployed during previous periods of very low unemployment during the ‘golden age’ of post-war planner states. Within the context of the impossibility of a return to unemployment insurance of the quality that one saw in the 1960s, particularly in the United Kingdom, it is clear why the TUC and the Labour Party can not really deviate from the present set of policy prescriptions. Workfare as a policy is a response to a crisis of capital in North America and Western Europe that was never solved but merely deferred with the move to ‘re-structured’ neo-liberalism in the face of the crises of the 1970s with its attendant focus on theFIRE industries as opposed to Fordist industrial capitalism.
With this in mind, it is clear that we can not ‘defend’ the old unemployment arrangement under the present conditions, nor can we posit as our ideal objective a return to 1960s style unemployment insurance. In this respect the crisis of the society of work, to which workfare is a response, also represents a crisis of labour-based socialism and the impossibility of an underconsumptionist solution. There is no return to the golden age of social democracy.
To return to those sentiments first expressed at the beginning of this essay and to quote once more Ana Di Franco, ‘Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right’.What does this mean if we understand Workfare as a response to the present conditions of production? As a tool that is currently being deployed by the powerful to recompose the UK labour market how can it become ‘our’ weapon?
A response must be that more jobs is not the answer to workfare and the increased underemployment inherent within the context of the changing composition of capital and the secular crisis. Workfare isn’t working, but neither will work.
Paolo Virno writes, borrowing from Marx, that the tendency for ever greater automation means that work becomes increasingly decoupled from production in so much as it is an ever diminishing component in the overall production process. Virno writes,
“Marx distinguishes between “labor time” and “production time” in chapters XII and XIII of the second book of the Capital. Think of the cycle of sowing and harvesting. The farm laborer works for a month (labor time); then a long interval follows for the growing of the grain (production time, but no longer labor time); and at last, the period of harvesting arrives (once again, labor time). In agriculture and other sectors, production is more extensive than labor activity, in the proper sense of the term; the latter makes up hardly a fraction of the overall cycle. The pairing of the terms “labor time”/”production time” is an extraordinarily pertinent conceptual tool for understanding post-Fordist reality, that is to say, the modern expression of the social working day. Beyond the examples from agriculture adopted by Marx, the disproportion between “production” and “labor” fits fairly well the situation described in “Fragment on Machines”; in other words, it fits a situation in which labor time presents itself as a “miserable residue…the disproportion takes on two different forms. In the first place, it is revealed within every single working day of every single worker. The worker oversees and coordinates (labor time) the automatic system of machines (whose function defines production time); the worker’s activity often ends up being a sort of maintenance. It could be said that in the post-Fordist environment production time is interrupted only at intervals by labor time.”
Virno writes elsewhere how such changes mean that the distinction between work and life becomes increasingly ambiguous,
“ It could be said that: unemployment is non-remunerated labor and labor, in turn, is remunerated unemployment. Working endlessly can be justified with good reasons, and working less and less frequently can be equally justified. These paradoxical formulas, contradicting each other, when put together demonstrate how social time has come unhinged. The old distinction between “labor” and “non-labor” ends up in the distinction between remunerated life and non-remunerated life. The border between these two lives is arbitrary, changeable, subject to political decision making.”
As Robert Shiller has pointed out any potential ‘stimulus’ that might hope to work in the present context would focus on job creation rather than GDP. This would include, but would not be exclusively limited to, the remuneration of previously unpaid work – such as care work and unpaid internships. Do we see within such a proposal a tacit recognition of the necessity of an ever expanding sphere of ‘free labour‘ within what has been variously described as ‘post-fordism‘ and ‘network culture’ as highlighted by Virno and Terranova? Is this phenomenon of free labour an extension of the crisis of the value form as argued by Gorz, Negri and others?
With a critical understanding of the present conditions of production – network culture and post-Fordism – we can perhaps see within workfare an imminent possibility to begin the argument for a guaranteed social wage – an argument more evident in the Financial Times than the policy prescriptions of the TUC. Such a demand is built upon the observable and ever growing gap between production and work and the ‘unhinging of social time’ as Virno puts it. If one has become decoupled from the other it in fact borders on murderous to expect people to reproduce their lives solely under conditions of wage labour. This is something I have already mentioned with regards to rather banal and myopic understandings of the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ and ‘unsourcing’.
Any forthcoming process of ‘re-industrialisation’ will be jobless. It strikes me that the major extension of workfare programs represents the precise moment where we should begin to discuss the possibility of a guaranteed social wage and its arguable necessity under conditions where production needs the input of human labour to an ever diminishing extent. This is not offered as a solution that might ‘save capitalism’. Indeed any potential decoupling of the wage from work could lead to a profound transformation of society.
This critique is adverse to both workfare and calls for ‘full employment’ and a return to collective unemployment insurance of the post-war variety. It is offered so as to provide a platform from which discussions over a maximum working week (such as the 21 hour week advocated by NEF) and the guaranteed social wage might be launched. A start might even be that ‘workfare’ placements should pay the median income (£26,000 per annum) for a 21 hour working week and that in fact this is a plausible outcome for anyone who is currently unemployed and underemployed. Furthermore placements could be chosen by those undertaking them and might include, as Robert Schiller has touched upon; social care, teaching, coaching, presently unremunerated journalism and cultural production. Indeed it would naturally include much of the presently unpaid work that is inherent to Network Culture. Cat Reily could have stayed at the museum where she was volunteering rather being forced to work at Poundland stacking shelves. While Iain Duncan Smith claimed that shelf-stacking is more important than geology (a discipline which is central to mining the minerals essential for fertilisers, obtaining metal ores, discovering the fuel which transports produce to the store etc) – stacking shelves is in any case quickly being, you guessed it, automated.
These are just suggestions and for any of these propositions to be worthwhile large numbers of people in society would need to be discussing and examining them as feasible alternatives. A good place to start with such a discussion is with those 850,000 people who are reckoned to have been ‘processed’ through the work programme in 2011/12 – a figure which will stand at 2 million before 2015. What is required is the weaponisation of workfare and the acknowledgment that neither workfare nor ‘full employment’, in the ‘full-time’ sense of the word, are the solution to the crisis.
Aaron Peters is a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London investigating the changing nature of social movements and political contention in the ‘Network Society’. As co-editor of Fight Back! and a student activist he is interested in the role of new technologies and online organising in the anti-cuts movement.
Republished under Creative Commons