It seems somehow fitting that we began writing this editorial on the day that Margaret Thatcher died. After over thirty years of neoliberal governance, we are now being subjected to the next malevolent mutation of the state she revolutionised. The neoliberal project has rewritten many of the rules that British society took for granted during the Keynesian consensus of the preceding four decades: equal access to common public services and utilities; the right to a free education; guaranteed support in times of ill health. Equally embedded in this social contract was the understanding that a day’s labour would be paid for with a wage.
With the implementation of the latest tranche of austerity measures in the UK, we’ve seen a fundamental shift in the nature of work. This wasn’t instant. Accelerated by the crash of 2008, a series of incremental changes has led us to the situation we now find ourselves in.
Work under capitalism is increasingly disciplinary. It reproduces a relationship that holds the employee as servant to their employer, and has often exacerbated the precarity of both. As the thumbscrews of capital are tightened, and as welfare is eliminated, employers and employees are caught in a web of dependencies that disciplines both. Wage stagnation has (for most) been a reality since the 1970s, although it has been veiled by an increased reliance on credit and crippling levels of personal indebtedness.
The line between our working lives and our personal lives is increasingly blurred, with the discipline of wage labour now occurring almost entirely outside of the traditional factory setting. There is no clocking off at the end of a working day. Work emails, phone calls, or simply the thought that you are still on call, follow you around the clock. We are perpetually plugged in to the possibility, threat, or stress of work. We may not always notice it, but whole areas of leisure time are also now taken up by our work for capital: promoting agendas and brands across social media, creating vast, harvestable piles of data and social capital.
Our personal lives also feed back into the workplace. Zero-hour contracts leave even the employed in a state of quasi-unemployment: permanently precarious, without access to benefits, yet uncertain of a stable income. Finding work has itself become a form of employment: The number of hours the DWP now demand from “job seekers” (on pain of sanctions) is indistinguishable from the requirements of a low paid, full time job.
The Italian theorist Maurizio Lazzarato talks of neoliberalism as being characterised by a combination of both labour and ‘work on the self’. The effects of this are evident in the obsession over CVs, the onus on the individual to ‘sell themselves’, and the moral judgements on people’s lifestyles – especially those claiming benefits – that pervades political rhetoric and popular culture. Indeed, this new morality of work has individualised our relationship with public services and undermined the notion of the welfare state as a collective provision. Welfare now exists only as a multitude of separate contractual obligations. The postwar settlement of rights and responsibilities (itself flawed) has morphed into a world of social debts – surely only a brief stop-over before entirely private insurance. People are made to feel guilty for claiming the right to sustenance, even when in indisputable need. They are made to feel that they owe “the taxpayer”, regardless of the fact that they also pay taxes. As a consequence, reliance on benefits now implies exposure to the state’s disciplinary apparatus, something supported by many.
In an email recently leaked to The Guardian from the Jobcentre Plus in Walthamstow, middle manager Ruth King described how Jobcentre staff could look to short-change claimants:
“Do not accept the same job search every week, do not accept ‘I dropped off my CV to shops like Asda or Sainsbury’s’, listen for telltale phrases ‘I pick up the kids’, ‘I look after my neighbours children/my grandchildren’ or just ‘I am busy’ – all of which suggest that the customer may not be fully available for work…”
Yet these “excuses” are the fundamentals of social reproduction: the day-to-day carrying out of all the caring, maintaining and providing roles that make the continuation of human life possible. Historically, this work has been, and still is, carried out predominantly by women, but its value has never been counted by standard economic indicators like GDP.
Instead of valuing this kind of work, we now rely on market solutions to globalise care-giving. Women travel from poor to rich countries, where they are paid to cook and clean for other people’s families, often having left their own at home. Many women have simply subsumed the responsibilities of both social reproduction and working for a wage, working twice as hard and still being paid less than men. This contradiction is not resolved simply through labour-sharing arrangements agreed upon by members of a private household. Far more crucial is a move toward a more fundamental reconceptualising of work, value and gender.
Social reproduction is about social goods. The system cannot abide social goods, it has to discipline their function. If only there were legions of “workshy scroungers”, as newspapers claim! That would surely be less damaging to society than participating in an economy that has little to no social value and in fact does a great deal of harm. What would be better for society and the planet: a person of 60 working ten more years for BAE Systems, or a person retiring to the hard graft of informed leisure: growing their own food; reading; babysitting; creating and sharing knowledge?
Often enough, work today is more about the reproduction of global administrative capitalism than it is about the production of socially beneficial commodities. While pockets of manufacturing remain, the bulk of the nation’s work takes place in the service industries: marketing, research, consultancy and so on. Little labour time is invested in the production of food, life essentials, education, and community. Rather, we produce (and reproduce) a dying structure predicated upon outsourcing to the Global South, where health and safety regulations are easily ignored and labour comes cheap. Meanwhile, workers in the offices of our cities become a second-chain precariat.
The labour movement in the UK has utterly failed to keep pace with these changes. The institutional weight of the big unions has made them slow to respond, if they are even trying to at all. Despite the Parliamentary Labour Party’s fatal embrace of neoliberalism, institutional representatives of labour still attempt to represent a labour force of the past, betraying a nostalgia for the time when unions still held sway in the political economy.
Talk emerging from the anti-privatisation campaign at Sussex University was much more promising. ‘Pop up’ unions show an understanding of the changing nature of capital. You can’t sit still and wait capital out; it will flow right past you. The key lies in horizontally networked organisation around labour exploitation. Indeed, capital has created prime subjectivities around which the Left can organise: the unemployed, the precarious, the “workfared”, the indebted. These identities transcend more traditional lines of organisation, which often operate on the basis of traditional industrial sectors. A network like Boycott Workfare has the capacity, if it so wished, to become a truly post-Fordist union. It focuses on a key relation in this disciplinary phase of work and creates a harmony around it.
Perhaps most crucial of all is the debtor subject: our collective guilt, and our collective power, lies in our role as debtors. This reality intersects the lives of all our identities: the worker, the unemployed, the welfare claimant, the consumer, people from different classes and background. The creditor/debtor relation is the key power divide that underpins the neoliberal project, ever more deeply since the crash. The wage relation acts more and more as a form of social control, ordering our time and our social relations. Labour remains crucial to neoliberal discipline, but is no longer the main source of our power – nor is it as integral to the creation of value. Our debts are what the capitalist class use as leverage to inflate their bubbles of “wealth”. Debt should therefore be a key site for organisation and the building of subjectivity. Debtors’ unions and coordinated debt strikes pose a greater threat to the capitalist class than any TUC March or one-day public sector strike. They have the potential to change not just the “conversation”, but the very rules of the game.