Friday, 24 May 2013

What is work and what is it really for?

What is work, what is it for, and what is it going to look like in the future? Do we need to work and how much work should we do? These are increasingly important questions, particularly in an age when we have to build a sustainable economy, adjust to climate change, and capitalism is unable to provide people with work. It's worth enlarging on that last point, what exactly do I mean by 'unable'? We can see that capitalism is unable to provide work for millions of people in Europe and America because of the failure of austerity. But austerity itself is simply a means of making the 99% pay for the failures of financial capitalism which culminated in the great crash of 2008.  Western Governments, the implementers of austerity, are working in the interests of the capitalist class, the 1%, and have no intention of returning to 'full employment', which was the policy of governments in the 1960s. Nowadays, we have to hope we can get a job, however low paid, or we have to create one for ourselves, or we have to suffer the indignity of being treated like a scrounger, on benefits, because governments aren't actively going to intervene to create jobs like they used to. Given this current neoliberal approach to employment, we could end up with high levels of unemployment, and underemployment indefinitely, and there are good reasons for thinking that this will be the case. In other words, there will be never be a return to the days of full employment and decent pay and pensions - unless we do something about it.

Neoliberal austerity is a response by the capitalist class, and their supporters in government, to the falling profitability of capitalism. So was the massive financial boom, fueled by deregulation, which started in the 1980s. The global economy is now dominated by financial capitalism and there is still an ocean of debt, and dodgy bust banks. In addition, there is the tendency in modern monopoly capitalism towards economic stagnation. In short the system is bust, and without deep seated reform, there will be no real recovery.

So lets get back to the subject of work itself. What is it? Put simply work is what people do. It is all the things that we do to maintain our existence, build and make the things we need, and make our lives fulfilling. It includes the raising of children, housework, gardening and caring for others. Raising children, for example, creates the next generation of workers and consumers, that is 'work' that we do for capitalists unpaid - for free. Work should not be slavery, wage slavery or drudgery. Even hard physical work can be rewarding and satisfying if it produces useful things that we need. So why is so much work that we do dull and filled with drudgery? Karl Marx had a compelling explanation. He said that work in a capitalist mode of production created alienation. A succinct explanation can be found here:
"In a capitalist society, the workers alienation from his and her humanity occurs because the worker can only express labour a fundamental social aspect of personal individuality through a privately owned system of industrial production in which each worker is an instrument, a thing, not a person."
Karl Marx: understood the alienation of workers

There is nothing natural about working in an office or factory from 9 to 5. In the early days of industrial capitalism workers had to be schooled into working hours and into conditions they had never experienced. We have all been trained to believe that this, or some modern variant, is what 'work' is. But work should be satisfying, creative and produce useful things, and be an activity that we can enjoy with a strong measure of control over what we do. In a capitalist economy only a relatively few people are able to produce things that they own. The abandonment of the full employment policies of the past is driving more people to create their own work. 'Free' market ideologists would have us believe that this is a success, and that people are be becoming more 'enterprising'' but it is really a failure of the system.

If there is less 'work' available, can we divide it up? There has long been a debate about the amount of work there is to go around, and some people have proposed that the available work should be shared out, with people working a shorter week. The New Economics Foundation have suggested in a report that the normal working week should be reduced to 21 hours, which the average amount of time people in the UK work. One of the key findings of the paper was that -  "If time devoted to unpaid housework and childcare in 2005 was valued in terms of the minimum wage, it would be worth the equivalent of 21% of UK GDP" - which would account for a lot of the unpaid work that is carried out.

There are no easy answers, but at least three things need to happen; we have to build a green, sustainable economy which can help us adapt to climate change; we must give people control over what they produce through economic democracy and we must recognise all the socially necessary unpaid work which people do, and that means paying people to raise their children. As for the latter, there is a way of doing this which is fair and equitable, and helps to deal with issues of social security which people face - pay everyone a basic income. I'm not going to discuss how a basic income would work in great detail here because that would be a post in itself but it has been successfully tried as this example from India shows. There are various ideas about how it would work and be funded but essentially it is an unconditional payment to every adult in society. In the UK it could be used to replace benefits. One sensible way of paying for it would be via a land value tax

Finally, I was interested to read an article in the Guardian by Guy Standing about job insecurity in a global economy. He suggests that job security is a thing of the past and that we need a better welfare system. Whilst I wouldn't disagree that we need a better welfare system the real answer is to take the economy out of the hands of capitalists and put it into the hands of the people through economic democracy. That is the way to create job security. We can do that by 'occupying' our economy as I have suggested in this post. And for a start, we need a Green New Deal to create one million climate jobs, a national investment bank to fund co-operatives and we need to look at providing people with a basic income. 

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