Thursday 7 September 2023

Exiting Work

When I used to work for Sainsbury's, we had to fill out an "availability matrix". This specified what times you were available for work, and from week to week your shift could vary dramatically. You might do a 10-1 stint one Saturday, and a 9-7 one the following week provided they were inside your contracted hours. If, however, you hadn't been given a shift this Wednesday but staffing was short, there would be much huffing and puffing from down the phone if you said you couldn't come in because you had other plans. "But it's on your matrix and so we have a right to expect your availability" was a common refrain, and one that undoubtedly dragged many a sullen and resentful employee in against their will. And trying to change one's availability was a struggle in itself. It was always very clear, the "needs of the business" came first and J Sainsbury Ltd felt entitled to their employees' time.

Fast forward 20 years and the tectonics are moving in the other direction. According to the latest world values survey of 24 countries, Britain is the country least likely to put work before everything else. 73% believed work was rather or very important to their lives. Just 22%, however, think work should come first - above only Australia (21%), Canada (19%), and Japan (10%). Far below France (39%), Italy (55%), and Norway (56%). The UK is in the top five for agreeing that it would be good if there was less importance placed on work (43%). Despite decades of "anti-scrounger" scapegoating, the UK is second from bottom in believing that not working makes people lazy (40% - at 32%, only Sweden is lower). Lastly, and most interestingly only 39% believe hard work leads to a better life. It's enough to make conservatives of the right and left break out into massive sweats. Work is not the be-all and end-all, and attempts by government to make it so are doomed.

However, it's the trend that's important. And here, despite all the evidence that social mobility is a fairy tale that's grown stronger as upward movements in the class structure have slowed right down, the numbers believing luck and connections are more important for advancement than hard work is in decline - down from 21% in 1990 to 12% in 2022. The negative perceptions of people not in work is only slightly down on the 1990 figure (though this, perhaps unsurprisingly, peaked in 2009-10 at 54% during the midst of economic crisis and renewed attacks on welfare). And the decline on 'work should come first' is relatively slight - it stood at 26% at the turn of the century. In general, there has been a lot of movement on attitudes since the mid-point of the period covered. It's as if the pressure of the credit crunch and the rubbish pumped out by the media-politics complex sharpened attitudes, but since then they have lost their bite and are returning to the pre-crisis background.

Still, plenty for mainstream politics to get worried about. Barely a day goes by when the Tory press aren't fretting about working from home and what employees do when they're on the clock. Millions of words have been written worrying about "quiet quitting" and what this means for "productivity". There's all that office space sitting idle, leaving small and large property investors out of pocket, and city centres are suffering because no one's buying coffee from Starbucks any more. What this really amounts to is an anxiety hyper-class conscious Tories have nursed since the beginning of Covid. That firstly the job guarantee scheme, the (temporary) bump in social security and suspension of conditionalities, and the movement of work from the workplace to the home would weaken the hold employers have over their employees. Not being able to see them or supervise them means workers might be spending time doing other things, and discovering that life outside of work is often more pleasurable and worthwhile. Not great for the every day disciplinary class politics of managing the relations of production. The fact the trend is hardly threatening and, indeed, those who view work cynically is in decline doesn't matter. The success the powers-that-be had in inculcating (work-based) neoliberal governance has been reversed inside of a decade. Taking on groups of organised workers is one thing, but fighting a generalised attitudinal trend is something else. As the Tories are just discovering.

This process was extensively discussed in Hardt and Negri's work. Bound up with the predominance of immaterial labour, as capital has grown more dependent on labour's intellectual, affective, and social capacities, on one level the balance of forces is tilting away from the bosses. The content of immaterial labour is fundamentally ours, and cannot be converted into machines, as muscle power transmuted into the spinning jenny, the internal combustion engine, the conveyor belt, and robotic assembly. As such, Hardt and Negri argue that "exodus" presents capital with a problem. I.e. its dependence on the qualities of the worker affords employees more leeway in the commission of immaterial labour, and this freedom can be the freedom to spend work time doing their own thing. This is a major headache for managers, and the dominance of task-based working and the standard issuing of unmanageable and always-growing workloads are efforts designed to fix workers in place and prevent them from slipping the disciplinary leash. In one sense this is nothing new - previous generations of industrial workers used their weight of numbers to carve out autonomous and collectively managed spaces within the workplace - but paradoxically, the smashing of union power now presents labour discipline new sets of difficulties. Whether it's more metrics of performance, more supervisory staff for direct observation and "accountability", or the outright replacement of cognitive tasks, this aspect of class struggle effectively sees capital chasing and attempting to corral workers. And this is very unlikely to change. Especially when, for Hardt and Negri, it's "product" of the comparative freedom of immaterial labour that capital captures and derives surplus value from.

The consequences of this for the next decade in this country will not only be more media and official complaints about workers "not working", it's possible establishment politics are going to try and tie more aspects of everyday life to working life. The Labour stress on "working people" is more than just a focus group-derived flex, we can expect to see access to social security tied to employment. More of an emphasis on vocational education and the reduction of everything to employability and work ready skills. It's going to be a tremendous effort, cause a great deal of unnecessary pain and misery, and do nothing whatsoever to arrest the drift away from the popular validation of capitalist work.

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