Saturday, 12 November 2011

We taught ourselves the right from wrong, Ms. Mensch

A thatcher is someone who makes a roof
or used to, when things were quieter,
was someone who sheltered people
from the rain, when things were quieter.
A thatcher took folks from the wind
and layered the skin of a human weather.
Now a thatcher exposes the dwellers,
rips off the roof in the skinning wind,
hurls down the roof on the dwellers,
who for cover snatch at the straws
the roof-makers rains
on their rainwashed heads ruthlessly
and in their teeth and in their eyes
like a war
that the thatcher unnaturally makes
on the dwellers. And the luckier,
snatching more straw cover of the undoing
thatch, despise the unluckier, the colder ones,
so that some see but many don't
or do see but not why, and think it
the way of a brave wise thatcher
that their fellows are icy and cold
in an inhuman country.

- Judith Kazantzis, 'A Thatcher' (1984), Red Sky at Night: an anthology of British socialist poetry (Nottingham: Five Leaves, 2003, p.204)

How odd to accuse someone of being 'deranged' after you have made the most simplistic, smug attack on protestors imaginable?

Baker, Hislop and Merton are presented with an open goal to demolish an inept 'argument'. Of course, it is not as if she is any more diligent in her role on the Media and Communication select committee. As well as her partial attendance and supplying of Murdoch with facile questions, she is campaigning to reduce workers' employment rights: Mensch is indisputably following in the path of Baroness Thatcher. A well-to-do middle-class smugness may seem far apart from the protestant work-ethic mania of her idol. However, same mean-spirited prejudices, same inequitable policies.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The way things stand as of July 7th/8th polling

A bit of amateur psephology here, looking at how the parties are doing, region by region, according to a YouGov poll published today. While of course there are myriad variables in politics, there seems to be a gradual trend against the government; clearly, it will be key whether David Cameron is mired in the sewer by his News International associations, as Peter Oborne so astutely pointed out here. It will interested to observe whether the trend continues and Labour gain a regular 10-15% lead; if the economy falters, then I would expect leads of 15-20% Anyway, here we go... The figures in brackets are the change in voting intention from the General Election result last year.


CON 41% (+6.5)
LAB 41% (+4)
LD 9% (-13)
GP 1% (-1)
UKIP 4% (+2)
BNP 1% (-0.5)
OTH 3% (+1)

Government Approval 33% Disapproval 50% (-17)
Cameron Approval 45% Disapproval 47% (-2)

An area where the Tories have been polling perhaps surprisingly well since the GE. Clearly as much of the LD vote of 2010 is as willing to consider the Tories as Labour, in contrast to much of the rest of the country. Not that I would expect many Tory gains, mind. A near three-way tie like Hampstead and Kilburn will be an interesting one to watch next time, though I wouldn't be anticipating a Tory gain. Sad that institutions like the Richard Steele has been given a corporate makeover, and the excellent Tricycle Theatre is under threat due to Arts Council cuts.

The UKIP are doing surprisingly well in an area that I would not count as natural territory, and fairly lacklustre for the Greens, clearly.

Approval for the government is low at 33% and yet the Tories seem to be doing so well as people are just about giving them the benefit of the doubt and Cameron remains relatively popular (though down from +1 in February).

Admittedly, another recent poll put Labour 6 points ahead in London, but then ones in May showed the Tories 6 ahead. As ever, London is the key... in 1992 it stuck with the Tories; in 2010 Labour did crucially well enough here - gaining an unexpected 2% lead over Cameron's Tories - to avoid an outright defeat.


Con 44% (-3)
Lab 33% (+16)
LD 11% (-17)
GP 3% (+2)
UKIP 7% (+3)
BNP 1% (-)
OTH 1% (-)

Government Approval 33% Disapproval 51% (-18)
Cameron Approval 46% Disapproval 47% (-1)

Almost straight transfer from the LDs to Labour and the Greens. Not necessarily bad news for the Tories, who can probably go on to pick up some LD seats on the strength of the calamitous LD decline. A 9.5% swing from Con to Lab, however, would surely put Essex and Kent seats into play, and Labour will be able to gain a clean sweep in more urban places like Bristol, Luton and Slough. The key battles will be the aforementioned seats East of London and places like Exeter, Norwich, Plymouth and Swindon. Cambridge, as ever, will be fascinating and not necessarily typical...

UKIP do very well across the South, but a 3% transfer from Tory to UKIP is hardly going to move seats to the Farage column. It may just hamper the Tories in their battles against Labour and the LDs, however... There is increasing evidence of right-wing anger against the perceived 'leftism' of this government; whilst this is a grotesque misunderstanding, it clearly means that Cameron and others will struggle to keep all of the 10.7 million voters of 2010.

A recent poll of just the South West showed: CON 42%(-1), LAB 28% (+13), LDEM 16% (-19), GRN 5% (+4). A strong performance for the Greens, who are likely to do well in Stroud, Bath and other such places. Disastrous for the hapless LDs, as this is one of the heartland areas; these results are back to 1950s/60s levels, where Labour was the clear second party - and indeed could be a strong player on the sort of Devon council featured in the Norman Wisdom film, Press for Time (1966). While the Tories would be likely to gain from the LDs, it is crucial just how big a swing Labour achieve in Tory-held marginals.


CON 32% (-5)
LAB 50% (+18)
LD 8% (-12.5)
GP 1% (+0.5)
UKIP 5% (+2)
BNP 1% (-2)
PC 1% (-2)
OTH 2% (-)

Government Approval 25% Disapproval 60% (-35)
Cameron Approval 37% Disapproval 57% (-20)

For me, the crucial region alongside London. At least on this poll, Labour look let to win big. They currently hold 65 seats to the Tories' 72; many of those 72 would look very vulnerable to an 11.5% swing. This polling suggests a Midlands & Wales result similar to 1997/2001. A poll before the News of the World scandal broke showed the Tories on 39% and Labour on 44% suggesting a mere 5% swing. Even this would take things back to 2005, where Labour did just well enough in these regions to win. The reality is probably somewhere inbetween - a probable 7-9% swing. Midlands and Wales voters' approval figures for the government and Cameron must be deeply worrying to Downing Street: down by 12% and 6% respectively since February.

As always, the Midlands is a crucial battleground, and it is going to take a significant political turnaround for the Tories to do better than they did in 2010, or even get back to par here. Having said all that, the Midlands should never be taken for granted; its voting behaviour in 1970 and 1974 was crucial in both the defeat of Wilson, and then Heath, and it then swung very heavily to Thatcher and Blair... The recent news about job losses in Derby will hardly help the government, and, of course, future economic developments will be important. The region to watch...


CON 32% (+1)
LAB 52% (+13.5)
LD 6% (-16)
GP 3% (+2)
UKIP 5% (+2)
BNP 2% (-1)
OTH 0% (-1)

Government Approval 24% Disapproval 63% (-39)
Cameron Approval 36% Disapproval 58% (-22)

I am willing to predict we will see a minimum of a 15% Labour lead in the North, come the next election, representing at least a 3.5% swing. Polls in late May/early June showed swings of 6-11.5% Labour is clearly performing well, winning most of the collapsing LD vote, along with a strong Green showing. In Sunderland, the Greens outpolled the Liberal Democrats in all bar one of the council wards in which both parties were standing.

There were several seats only just gained by the Tories, such as Stockton South and Carlisle, which will almost definitely revert to Labour. Just as the South is a Tory stronghold that will always return a solid phalanx of blue-rosetted automatons, so will the North return Labour MPs - and I would estimate Labour should make a minimum of 15-20 gains across the North.

The LDs hold 11 seats in the North; Clegg's will be a fascinating, possible 3-way battle, if indeed he stays to fight it in 2015. Without Alan Beith, it is entirely possible the LDs could lose Berwick Upon Tweed to the Tories, or even Labour in what could be a close three-way battle. The Tories will clearly hold Hexham and Penrith and the Border, but many other of their 42 seats could be vulnerable. Westmorland and Lonsdale should be a LD hold, given the popularity of independent-minded Tim Farron.


CON 13% (-4)
LAB 48% (+6)
LD 5% (-14)
GP 2% (+1)
UKIP 1% (-)
BNP 0% (-)
SNP 29% (+9)
OTH 2% (+1)

Government Approval 18% Disapproval 69% (-51)
Cameron Approval 29% Disapproval 64% (-35)

Some polls this year have shown the Tories as high as 23% - which must be rogues, more clearly so than their surprisingly strong numbers in London. Absolutely terrible for the LDs - who could stand to lose most if not all seats barring their Highland fringe. Clegg's leadership has undone all of the good work Kennedy achieved for the Party in Scotland, and could take them back to the days when Jo Grimond was one of a handful of LD MPs. This poll is terrible for the Tories and the LibDems, showing the LibDem voting halving from 11% compared with February, and government and Cameron approval around 10 points more into the negative.

Scotland, like London, saw an unexpectedly strong Labour performance, and other 2011 polls have shown Labour even as low as 35% north of the border; come a General Election, however, I would not expect them to go below 40%

The SNP are the prime gainers from the Lib Dem fall, though I wouldn't expect them to challenge Labour much in a Westminster election; only a 1.5% swing is indicated here, and the recent By-Election confirmed this. I do think they could gain one or two seats where they are close behind Labour, but this would depend on the SNP administration in Edinburgh still being as popular. Salmond is clearly playing a canny social-democratic game - gaining many previous left-of-centre Kennedy voters - but then hatred of the Tories might limit the gains his party can make at Westminster.


CON 35% (-1)
LAB 44% (+15)
LD 8% (-15)
GP 2% (+1)
UKIP 5% (+2)
BNP 1% (-1)
NAT 3% (+1)

Government approval 28% Disapproval 57% (-29)
Cameron approval 42% Disapproval 52% (-10)

Labour were only 49 or so seats behind the Tories at the last GE. Even given boundary changes slightly favourable to the Tories, an 8% swing to Labour would clearly lead to a majority Labour win and the end of David Cameron's political career, without him ever having won an election. The key is clearly for Labour to appeal to non-ideological voters nevertheless interested in fairness, who may easily be convinced that David Cameron, tainted by association with the most depraved elements in our media, is 'not one of us'. Of course, Gideon Osborne's great economic gamble will be crucial too; at the moment, it seems the deficit is likely to increase with sluggish if any growth and rising unemployment - and under-employment, with many having to work part-time against their will.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

'Unaffordable' pensions and Dunkirk fetishism...

So, public sector workers are likened to Nazi Germany in 1940. Nice to see that the "Daily Mail" maintaining its usual perspective and attention to reality. Of course, it's not the case that Gove and the Tories are picking a fight with teachers; no, it's rather that the striking workers are THE ENEMY WITHIN. With the right-wing media, it is always Dunkirk, always the 'Spirit of Dunkirk' that is invoked to keep people in their place - in abeyance to the forces of conservatism, this time represented by the government. It is presumptuous in the extreme to use the memory of Dunkirk in such a way to quell dissent, and to imply that all involved in Dunkirk would have been against decent pensions for teachers.

The point is: the Tories and their media cheerleaders are as wrong on this issue as there are on so many others. Evan Davis exposes Franny Maude's distinctive interpretation of the National Audit Office's data. The Independent presents empirical evidence to cut the decetiful 'golden plated' myths to shreds:

Then there was Michael Gove's ludicrous call for parents to act as strike-breakers by stepping into the classroom to teach. Forgetting 'formalities' such as CRB checks and indeed whether the parents have any relevant training or knowledge. Presumably a working grasp of the philosophy of a Peter Hitchens or Toby Young is enough! Even the Cameron favoured pressure-group 'Mumsnet' disagreed with this, although one poll found 37% public support for the idea - neatly correlating with current levels of Tory support.

A trade unionist speaker at Thursday's strike rally at Grey's Monument in Newcastle upon Tyne made the excellent point that public sector pension provision is placed into stark relief by the tax-breaks given to private pension funds for the wealthy.

Fellow ex-Trinity Haller, Daniel Elton, makes the point that public sympathy is rather finely balanced and not conclusive either way, although Labour's leader has taken the absurd step of alienating an important section of his vote - as lamented by Alex Niven.

The most detailed arguments for the strike were given by Nigel Stanley of the TUC at False Economy; for instance this: 'So even before anything done by the coalition government or recommended in the Hutton Report, public sector pensions had been both reformed and made sustainable. This is not union assertion, but the hard-headed view of the National Audit Office.

On top of these negotiated changes, the coalition has made a further attack on the value of public service pensions by replacing the Retail Prices Index that has always been used to uprate pensions with the lower Consumer Prices Index. This will further reduce the value of public service pensions by 15 per cent – so we have a cut of 25p in the pound if you combine this with the negotiated changes.'

The right-wing media won't even engage in logical, defensible arguments to defend their position, they will insult and smear working citizens. I was personally proud to have gone on strike on the 30th, in order to oppose compulsory working until 68 to receive a state pension, plus significantly higher contributions. All within a context of zero job security, caused by government cuts which are an ideological decision. I could make the broader economic arguments about the wisdom of Osborne going down the Irish route, of course... A few people being mildly inconvenienced for a day is nothing next to significant redundancies being imposed on people who have not caused this crisis - or indeed when compared with the wider social impact of cuts on charities / vulnerable people / the majority in society who use public services.

These videos provide a taster of the issues at stake in Further Education Colleges, often forgotten in the media with its focus on schools and universities - though The Guardian give some focus here.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Germans do it better, again

This... infinitely better than this:

'That Again' has that imperiously wistful Cardigans/Stereolab feel about it. 'The Shield and the Sword' lacks any such sense of delicacy, with its strained striving for bombast and uplift.

Maguire's album is unyielding in its one-note, over-compressed sameness; the music does not breathe, but stifles in its general monotony. Lena's album tends to be much more engaging and tactile; not always compelling, but affable and sparky.'A Good Day' is winningly good-natured, with Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band brass and 'Come to Milton Keynes' inflections; 'Talking to a Stranger' was one of the few excellent Eurovision songs of this year, exceeding her 2010 winner with its artful, electronic austerity and icy vibraphone.

Political music in the present tense, Part II

MC Nxt Gen - 'The Andrew Lansley Rap'

MC Nxt Gen - 'Stuff the Cuts'

Bars for Change project

Akala - 'Fire in the Booth Freestyle'

Dream Cargoes - 'We're in this Together'

Monday, 20 June 2011

"Non-Stop Inertia": additional thoughts on the subject of work

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.’

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.

Questioning assumptions

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

Mr Alleyne to Farrington in Joyce’s Dubliners, 1914:
“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:
‘Courage, physical strength and presence of mind can be shown by anybody, man or woman, who really needs a job. In a few days the woman became a man, in the same way as men have become men over the millennia: through the production process.’

Southwood illustrates his case with relevant, varied examples from across the culture – he explains how the fraudulent, relentlessly upbeat mantra of ‘flexibility’ is satirised in electro-pop band Client’s ‘In it for the Money’. He goes further back to discuss Bartleby from Herman Melville’s 1853 short-story as a textbook example of resistance to dulling labour. The detachment of management is demonstrated by the recent film Up in the Air. A further film example of the workplace as site of perpetual acting and corruption is Office Space, as analysed by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism. The work environments experienced by Southwood are akin to the 'retail park wilderness' identified previously by Owen Hatherley and the filmmaker Chris Petit (Content, More4, 2010).

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 – 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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Cool Hand Luke (dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79), BBC
The League of Gentlemen (1999-02), BBC
The Office (2001-03), BBC
Office Space (dir. Mike Judge, 1999)
One Fine Day (dir. Stephen Frears, 1979). London Weekend Television
People like Us (1999-01), BBC
Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman, 2009)
Upstairs, Downstairs (1970-75), London Weekend Television
When the Boat Comes In (1976-81), BBC


Camberwell Now – ‘Working Nights’ (1986)
Saint Etienne – ‘Got A Job’ (2005)
Darren Hayman & the Secondary Modern – ‘Compilation Cassette’ (2009)
The Durutti Column – ‘They Work Every Day’ (1988)
Jake Thackray – ‘I Stayed Off Work Today’ (1977)
Donna Summer – ‘Working the Midnight Shift’ (1977)
Mick Jagger – ‘Let’s Work’ (1987)
The Smiths – ‘You’ve Got Everything Now’ (1984)
Pet Shop Boys – ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’ (1985)
Luke Haines – ‘Never Work’ (2002)
Michael Jackson – ‘Workin’ Day and Night’ (1979)
Scritti Politti – ‘Don’t Work That Hard’ (1985)
The Wake – ‘Everybody Works So Hard’ (1984)
Amerie – ‘Gotta Work’ (2007)
Client – ‘In it for the Money’ (2004)