Post work politics is creeping into debate on the left – Nina Power has written and spoken about it, but stated that perhaps at this time of high unemployment, it seems perverse to do so. Owen Hatherley laments that we do not seem to have the will anymore to abolish work. But surely, with millions unemployed, millions labouring for free (in internships and workfare), and millions working under rapidly worsening terms and conditions – the myth of work-as-saviour will no longer hold. Now is the time to talk about work and how we can move beyond it.
Alongside the increasing unemployment statistics there is the intensified attack being led by politicians and the media on those who find themselves out of waged work. Young people cannot dress themselves and ‘sit at home…glued to the TV’, disabled people are ‘languishing on benefits’, ‘benefit scroungers’ are everywhere. With European unemployment at 25 million, for politicians and the media that translates to 25 million people doing absolutely nothing.
Anyone who does not conform to the ‘ideal’ of the waged worker is vilified – they are seen as unproductive and valueless. (This sadly is often true of some of the left as well as the right with so-called ‘radicals’ looking to the ‘workers’ to lead us to the promised land). Yet, as the feminists of the 1970s pointed out with the ‘Wages for Housework’ movement women in the home work too, often in caring duties for children or the elderly, and deserve financial remuneration for their labour. As we shouted outside Parliament at the Welfare Reform Bill protests – ‘every mother is a working mother’.
Their argument encourages us to see the other forms of work that are hidden and unrecognised such as that done by disabled people in caring for themselves in a society that is organised without them in mind, and by those people who simply cannot find a job. These people conduct daily activities that are immensely valuable to society however they find themselves demonised for apparently not working. Importantly, Wages for Housework’s argument was not just about recognition of hidden work but was a direct challenge to the nature of work under capitalism.
Yet, decades later these forms of work, that are based around living, are not only still unrecognised but are under intensified attack – the government is set on forcing the poor and vulnerable, regardless of their mental or physical health and of whether they have dependants, and regardless of the actual state of the labour market, into what is often low paid waged work. When there is no low paid waged work to be found, the government has workfare schemes with which to force people to work for free.
However, the government’s enforcement of work within the labour market, when there is so little paid work to be found, has begun to look quite pathetic and defensive – take the image of Chris Grayling re-opening the burnt down Job Centre in Tottenham recently. Or of Ed Miliband trying to outdo the Tories on sanctions if someone refuses his ‘Job Guarantee’. What sort of ‘guarantee’ is it when you have to back it up with the threat of destitution. What are they so scared of? That we may discover an existence that doesn’t involve sitting in front of excel spreadsheets or cleaning up other people’s shit for exploitative wages.
The feminists of the 70s – and the contemporary twitter account Dole Cat Adventures @wrongtowork – raise an important point; one which is even more significant for our present time as those outside the labour market are coerced inside and as conditions for those already inside the market are being rapidly eroded. What is all this fuss about work? As a ‘job-seeker’, a title/mission given to me by the state which I resent more and more each day, I can’t see what all the hype is about. The job adverts are hardly inspiring, I mostly flick through for lulz and to see what I’m not missing out on. I recently saw a job advertised that seemed to take capitalism’s preoccupation with ‘efficiency’ to new levels by requiring the applicant to have an ‘efficient face’. There was one unpaid internship that was looking at suicide statistics for 6 months. Even a job with the thoughtful and inspiring online blog ‘Our Kingdom’ fatuously declared that ‘It is not so much a job as a creative, entrepreneurial role’.
Work is viewed as a natural state – but there is nothing natural about it whatsoever; this is adequately proved by an experience of my childhood. When I was 16 we all went off on work experience for two weeks. After the first morning of filing I rushed to the nearest phone box at lunchtime and cried down the phone to my mum. When it was time to return to school I told my peers excitedly how much I loved and appreciated school; a teacher overheard my eulogy and warned us to make the most of it.
As we challenge the idea of work, we can start to articulate and imagine ways of organising our society in which we do not exploit and devalue ourselves and each other. Post work politics takes us beyond the fetishisation of the ‘workers’ and values everyone in its attempts to re-think and re-make our present situation.
It may seem difficult to imagine what a post-work society would look like, but there are many moments in our daily lives in which we do rebel against and live beyond work – these seem like a useful starting point. Located outside the job market I am able to enjoy some of the aspects that a post-work society might include – a real sense of freedom, the ability to decide what I want to do with my days, variety, no boss – yet within the confines and limitations of our work-based society which means that the unwaged must also deal with pitiful benefits and the related money worries and stress, stigma, bullying at the job centre, and threats of workfare.
Work is so valorised by our society, yet most people are willing to admit to pulling sickies, counting down to the weekend and holidays, feeling brain numbed – surely there are better ways for us to live our lives…With waged work being so difficult to come by, now seems to be the perfect time to re-think work and debate and imagine post work politics. This seems much more appealing to me than wasting time filling out yet another job application form.