What does ‘work’ mean today? Anyone looking for work, anyone in low-paid or non-permanent work, or being pressured into one of the five kinds of workfare that Boycott Workfare identify (Mandatory Work Activity, The Work Programme, Community Action Programme, Sector-based Work Academies and Work Experience) will have firsthand experience of the relentless anxiety generated by an uncertain relation to employment. Ministers recite endless variations of the Thatcherite ‘on yer bike’ attitude, while conveniently overlooking the fact that in parts of the country (Hull and Stoke-on-Trent, for example) there are 70-80 people chasing every job. If you can’t find employment, the message goes, the fault lies with you: if you’re depressed, jobcentres will bypass doctors to refer you for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). If you don’t look, speak or act the part of a perky jobseeker, there are TV shows to boss you around and reinforce class stereotypes (like The Fairy Jobmother).
Work, despite being an omnipresent imperative, is strangely obscure. As Kathi Weeks, author of 2011’s The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries puts it, “the privitisation of work” means that we often “experience and imagine the employment relation … not as a social institution but as a unique relationship.” Work, whether we’re in it or out of it, is ubiquitous yet oddly personal. The significance of recent successful campaigns against workfare, where pressure from campaigners led to several companies pulling out of the scheme and others suspending their involvement, is a victory in many ways (though there is much still to be done of course): the battle against workfare is a battle against the more general brutal and speedy devaluing of human life and labour. If employment is increasingly characterised by low pay, insecurity, lack of pensions, long hours, dull content, invasive surveillance, and unemployment (or as the rebranding of time would have it, “jobseeking”) is characterised by vanishing benefits, endless jobcentre meetings, unpaid placements, anxiety, and the threat of government-sanctioned psychological ‘help’, there is little that separates one situation from the other. Campaigns against workfare, low wages and precariousness, and for security, pensions and a living wage, reveal the structural dimension of labour. This must be our starting point, if we are ever to think beyond work under capitalism.
On one level, everybody knows that the vast majority of people have to work in order to pay rent and eat; those able to live off inherited or self-made wealth and/or the money they make from renting property are a tiny minority. Yet the idea that one must work to “ ‘earn a living’ is taken as part of the natural order rather than as a social convention”, as Weeks put it. ‘Work’ in practice is an ideological mess: part moral-imperative, part religious-overhang, part psychological ‘responsibility’. Its brutal economic necessity for the majority of people is something all-too-rarely mentioned.
But it is relatively easy to imagine a situation ever-so-slightly tweaked that would be quite different: full employment, pushed by several governments since World War II is now a distant memory (current unemployment in the UK stands at around 3 million); or a guaranteed basic income where people can work more if they want to; or even a world where what we understand by ‘work’ now has completely vanished. Today we find ourselves compelled to work longer for ever less, and mass unemployment is a structural feature. Competition for jobs allows ministers, employers and newspapers to draw ever-deeper divisions between people. What we need now more than ever is championed by many groups protesting against workfare and everything the scheme reveals about the de-valuing of human labour – a combination of resistance against being reduced to nothing, with a rethink of the alternatives to work as such. We need better conditions now, but completely different conditions in the future, a world where work is no longer a form of economic exploitation, the site of depression and false competition, but something one does because one wants to, not because one must.
by Nina Power