Thursday 14 April 2022

Immaterial Labour and its Discontents

Returning to the French presidential election and venturing an explanation how younger layers could vote for fascist candidates in large numbers - in defiance of the theory of immaterial labour long peddled here and its relationship to the growing dominance of socially liberal values - some corrections are in order.

First of all, the numbers did align with electoral results in the UK, Germany, the US and most other Western liberal democracies. France was not an outlier. In the under 35s, Jean-Luc Melanchon for the left won. He was just shy of 35% in the 18-24s, with Macron sitting on 25% and Le Pen 18%. In the 25-34s, the left just edged it with 31% versus Le Pen's 26% and Macron's 22%. Unfortunately, among the older working age population Le Pen won with 29% in the 35-49 and 50-64 age groups. Macron was 22% and 25% respectively, and Melanchon 20% in each. It was the retirees who saved Macron's bacon with 41% of the vote, and his far right and left rivals plodding along at 16% and 11%.

This means the YouGov poll cited previously was junk. 34% among the 18-24s for Éric Zemmour? Either it was a typo or a particularly heavy session at Paris HQ. In the end his attempt to out-right Le Pen mustered around seven per cent for the age group. Combining the fash vote with Valérie Pécresse of the centre right Soyons Libres and their total was well short of Melanchon. Eggs on the faces of team YouGov, and yet more empirical proof of the relationship between immaterial labour and, for want of a better phrase, 'progressive' voting behaviour.

Yet the thorny issue remains of the final round. According to the FT, about half of Melanchon voters will move from supporting him to staying at home. Over a quarter will put the nose pegs on and support Macron, while just under a fifth are going for the Front National. The liberal pearl clutchers here in England look on aghast, but there is no mystery as to why socially liberal young people under the boot of Macron's hapless, authoritarian rule might punt for Le Pen. For one, he appears hesitant to offer left wing voters anything. If one cannot be arsed to to win people over, then what right do you have to their votes? Second, Macron has presided over his own cost of living crisis while scapegoating young unemployed people for his failures, and has done next to nothing to address the climate crisis. His record damns him. And third, as appalling as Le Pen is, she does appear to offer solutions (of a sort) to bread and butter issues. However, it is the drop out rate, as an expression of a collective attitude, that is more significant for trying to understand the political preferences of young people and immaterial labour generally.

First, a few words on the elision between the young and immaterial labour. As explained many times before, the move to immaterial labour marks a structural transformation of work in advanced capitalist economies. While this has always been a crucial aspect of capitalism, and particularly with regard to the reproduction of labour power in the home - historically the province of women, after the Second World War it took on an increasingly formalised, public aspect. As public services and the state expanded, millions of workers were drawn into work that did not directly produce surplus value but whose role was the administration, maintenance, and reproduction of capitalist relations of production. The expansion of the civil service and local government, the growth of state education and health sectors not only provided safety nets, but also a substantial apparatus of economic planning and role socialisation. The production of relationships was simultaneously the production of people. With the onset of deindustrialisation from the 1960s onwards, the coming of mass consumer cultures, and the privatisations of the 1980s and 90s, and the IT and telecommunications revolutions, immaterial labour was increasingly commodified and harnessed for profit. Retail dominated cities where factories used to pollute the skies, the office replaced the workshop as the culturally hegemonic workplace, and social and intellectual aptitudes are what the person specs of job vacancies demand. Brains and sociality are the key forces of production.

This was not the result of capital's grand plan, or a 'great reset' before it became a thing. The growing dominance of immaterial labour was born of necessity, to manage growing populations while protecting class relations. Of post-war affluence and mass consumption, of the privatisation of social life and leisure, of shifting assumptions about the good life, and the flood of capital into meeting these lifestyle demands - all to the point where the British economy is in no small measure comprised of people selling overpriced coffees to one another. The expansion of immaterial labour was enabled by the economic boom, and then took up a dynamic of its own. Cultural mores changed, the 'new' social movements of women's liberation, anti-racism, LGBTQ rights, and environmentalism grew in breadth and depth, and helped foster a new common sense of tolerance and acceptance. And each passing generation have become progressively more embedded in socially liberal attitudes. Immaterial labour demands not cold intellects but emotional intelligence, empathy, and social competence. It demands cooperation in which the 'product' is a service at its most caring, hands-on end, or information and data at its most abstract. The objects of both are social dynamics, social interactions, relationships.

The two main consequences of this is as immaterial labour expands, socially liberal socialisation grows. Lefty teachers are not responsible. Therefore, what we commonly see in value surveys is what the theory would predict: the younger someone is, the more likely they are to have a career spent entirely in jobs characterised by immaterial labour, and conversely are going to share socially liberal values more than older generations of workers. Second, even if right wing governments didn't hold down living standards - particularly of younger workers - their positions in the culture wars would likely alienate young people, and conservative stratagems of playing divide and rule along lines of race, nationality, sexual orientation, and class falls increasingly flat among them.

But they are attacking the young. Nothing on rising prices. Nothing for housing. Nothing to tackle underemployment and precarity. Nothing on petrol. Nothing on the environment. And the Tories are putting up taxes, and slapping increased interest payments on student loans. Even without the spread of social liberalism, younger people have few reasons to vote Tory and plenty of them to carry a life-long antipathy. Something that later property ownership, higher salaries, and job security for those lucky enough to get there is unlikely to erode in short order. After all, it took decades of home ownership before working class retirees were prepared to switch away from Labour.

The future's looking good for centre left, green, liberal, and radical politics then? Yes, but only if they actively court this ever-growing constituency. The expansion of immaterial labour, particularly after the 1980s, took place in the context of labour movement defeat and its subsequent weakness. Therefore their relation to the established centre left is not, for the most part, embedded in a residual collectivist loyalty. Any identification is slight, precarious, and conditional. And it doesn't require an abstract schema to show this is the case: recent history will suffice. During the New Labour years, Blair and Brown's lack of concern with the rising working class saw younger layers disproportionately attracted to the Liberal Democrats. They offered policies that spoke to their concerns, and were able to affect a centre left pose in the run up to the 2010 elections. When they betrayed this new base by going into government with the Tories and spectacularly reneged on their tuition fee pledge, this support evaporated. Not even tilting to a hard remain position could win them back in anywhere near the same numbers. We have the experience of Scotland, where Labour's case for remaining in the union was framed almost entirely in right wing, establishment-friendly terms. They showed what should be their natural constituency how it was quite prepared to trample over their aspirations and hopes for a better future. And so immaterial labour switched en masse to the SNP, leaving little but a residue behind. Over on the continent, grave yards are full of centre left parties destroyed by similar levels of hubris. At night the tomb stones echo to the screams of careers that never were, their phantasms still ignorant of why they were snuffed out.

What political experience teaches us is if a party crosses their interests, they don't stick it out because they have nowhere to go - as per the supposedly timeless advice of Peter Mandelson. They will cast around for an alternative vehicle, something that Keir Starmer would do well to heed. Or in the case of France a not insignificant amount will vote for FN purely because they have more to say, and arguably offer, on the cost of living. Or they will simply vote with their feet and stay at home. Immaterial labour does not feel obliged to support the least worst among several options and, rightly, expects a quid pro quo in return for its votes. If Macron wants to be sure about the second round, he has to reach out to Melanchon supporters with something that would speak to their interests. Perhaps, just perhaps, it might win over some younger FN voters on that basis too. Similarly, Labour here needs to do the same: its faith, flag, and family rubbish and dependence on the Tories being awful is not the prospectus for winning an election outright. If Macron and Starmer refuse to listen, these voters will stay at home and the advantages Le Pen enjoys among older layers of workers, and the pensioner bedrock Johnson has will play to their respective advantages.

In other words, discontent in mainstream politics will express itself in (seemingly) radical forms if there are parties available to channel it, but if not nihilism awaits with its inky black emptiness. Immaterial labour can be the saviour of progressive politics. But if our teeming millions are ignored, crossed, or denied, it will be its ruin.

Image Credit


gastrogeorge said...

The failure of the centrist economic settlement has accentuated the migration of capitalism into a more pure extractive form. It's now dominated by financialisation and rents.

In contrast, "immaterial labour" represents ... civilisation. Who should care if we exchange over-priced coffee as long as the overall economic structure enables us to organise a civilised society.

These are our two near end points. No prizes for guessing which one we are veering towards.

Phil said...

Perhaps the gilets jaunes per se are old news, but it does seem relevant - if we're talking about the voting patterns of people who have been shaken loose from old party identifications or never acquired them in the first place - that the second round will involve one candidate who's expressed support for them and one who's only expressed support for the riot police. Which would also have been the case if Mélenchon had been the runner up, of course - what might have been eh.

Robert said...

It isn’t as straightforward as that. New Labour could have veered to the left and gained some votes but it would have lost others and there is a difference between trying to ‘speak to their concerns’ and actually being able to do so. If Macron or Starmer promise things they can’t deliver then they might win some new voters but anyone who doesn’t believe them will be put off.

I suggest the real problem is that there are limits to wealth redistribution under liberal democracy so there is a guaranteed anti-establishment vote. New Labour could have veered to the left and gained some votes but it would have lost others and there is a difference between trying to ‘speak to their concerns’ and actually being able to do so. If Macron or Starmer promise things they can’t deliver then they might win some new voters but anyone who doesn’t believe them will be put off. Meanwhile Macron has been trying to ape Le Pen’s immigration policy.

So what is behind Le Pen’s growth in support? Her anti immigration policies or uncosted promise to not tax the under 30s? I don’t know but does anyone? I suggest this is all down to the limits of redistribution in a liberal democracy which will always guarantee an anti-establishment vote. Before 1991 this vote disproportionately went to the populist Left (although the word ‘populist’ wasn’t used back then much). Now it goes to the populist (far) right. Which is why Mélenchon gets stuffed by Le Pen every time. The demise of trade unionism is the elephant in the room. Once toilers get though unions and the left couldn’t improve their lot they looked towards people who blamed their poverty on immigration.

Blissex said...

«I suggest the real problem is that there are limits to wealth redistribution under liberal democracy»

Several trillions of wealth and incomes have been redistributed upwards in the UK, a few hundred billions per year for decades, through higher property prices and rents mainly; plus the few trillions consequent to the bailout after 2008. Similarly on even bigger scale in the USA.

It seems therefore that the “limits to wealth redistribution under liberal democracy” are not that small, at least for upwards redistribution.