I heard the historian Peter Linebaugh speak at the Struggles in Common discussions in Dublin yesterday and it triggered some thoughts on one of the key talking points of austerity, the need to make sure everyone works harder. Its a point you hear again and again on talk radio and which is made in internet debates whenever talk of cutting public services comes up. Even those working in public services often feel the need to agree that there is too much 'dead wood'. Yet at the same time increased automation means that there is less need for labour that there used to be. What is happening here?
Peter is a wonderful speaker, I've heard him 3 or 4 times over the last 15 years. He has a technique that is a surprise first time around. Given his deserved standing you expect a standard sharply delivered academic lecture scattered perhaps with powerpoint slides illustrating key points. Instead you initially hear a hesitant and it seems unprepared set of anecdotes. The initial effect can even be annoying but then you start to realise these anecdotes are actually laying out an unexpected way of looking at familiar historical events. I always emerge with a piece of paper covered in short scribbles and circled and underlined terms reflecting a mind set on fire by the Satanic Light*.
Peter's talk yesterday concentrated around the idea of prison as a form of commons, starting with what appeared to be a random mention of Bobby Sands and the 1981 H-Block struggle. A struggle I realised as the talk went on that could be looked at as being about preserving a right to the commons in the form of the right to political association within the prison. Peter then related a story from the London of the 1790's, a time when all around the atlantic radical republican movements were challenging power and being suppressed for doing so. He described Newgate prison in London as as 'encuentro' of radicals imprisoned but somewhat free to associate, discuss & scheme within its walls.
Peter's talk focused around four of the theoreticians of enclosure - the process under which the common lands & customs which enabled the mass of the population to get by without wage labour were put behind laws & walls, forcing them into the factory & plantations. One of these theoreticians, Jeremy Bentham, argued to 'enclose' the prison through isolating prisoners from each other in a regime of labour & constant surveillance. Which is as much as I want to say for now about the talk (I believe an audio should be available soon) because it was this aspect of enclosure that got me thinking about attitudes to work in a time of austerity.
Many of the changes the ruling class in Ireland and elsewhere are imposing on us, citing the crisis as the reason, are quite counter intuitive. Chief amongst these is the question of work & unemployment. One of the most socially destructive aspects of the crisis is the mass unemployment it has created, particularly among the young. In parts of Europe unemployment of those in the 20-30 age group is reaching 50% - it would have done so in Ireland were it not for the resumption of mass emigration. Technological changes in the form of ever increasing automation also means new areas where human labour was required can be replaced by machines, the technology to do so for planes & cars is already around us .
The contradiction is that one of the central talking points of austerity is the need to make people work hard and work longer hours. Of course this is dressed up in the language of efficiency and reform but as the end result of both is the need for even fewer workers then it can only lead to greater levels of unemployment.
Few of us want to work longer hours, or for that matter to work harder as an end in itself. On the ideological level the 1% have quite successfully pushed this working harder and longer agenda though submerging it on attacks on public service workers. They know that as the public service sets a baseline for acceptable working hours that driving up working hours in the public service will allow working hours everywhere to be increased.
But beyond ideology, here working as a carrot, to actually force us to work longer and harder they also need a stick. When they first needed to drive us into the factories enclosure was the stick. Not only was access to common land taken away but countless laws were introduced to combat 'vagrancy' and prevent those driven from the land from wandering in search of alternative ways of living freely. There was a huge expansion of punishments for 'theft' - theft that in many cases consisted of people continuing to practise customs like gleaning that were now outlawed. Tens of thousands were literally executed at Tyburn to enforce this regime and greater numbers transported to the new worlds. More brutally still the slave trade forcibly depopulated much of Africa, transporting tens of millions of people to work as unpaid labour under the most brutal conditions on the plantations and in the mines of the new world.
The extreme brutality of that period is often separated from the reason why it existed - the creation of what became modern capitalism. As are the similar processes that took place in 1920s & 30s Russia and 1950's China to accumulate capital on the back of massive peasant populations. Beneath these miracles of economic growth lie the slavery & death of millions.
But to return to the present day. The obvious stick to make us work harder and longer is the traditional one of unemployment. If we don't obey the dictates of our rulers than we shall be thrown out of work and replaced by those who will. A threat that seems all the stronger in this period of mass unemployment where a huge 'reserve army of labour' waits in the wings. But austerity has another stick as well - and this one in some ways resembles the enclosures.
Austerity has been used as the reason to transform the way tax is gathered. In Ireland as elsewhere while a significant part of tax has always been flat rate, levied regardless of income, that proportion has soared. The introduction of the so called 'property tax' (actually a home tax), the introduction of bin charges and soon to come water charges mean that we know need to find a couple of thousand euro to pay these taxes regardless of our income. The effect is that of the enclosures, if we had found ways to subsist without waged labour or keeping it to a minimum this is now eroded as we have to find the cash money to pay these taxes. Before you might perhaps have been able to live frugally without selling your labour through cultivation of a large suburban garden or allotment, exchanging labour with others and the occasional odd job. That is a 'good life' fantasy extreme that few could actually live under (but some did) but at a lesser level many could exchange living frugally for working fewer hours.
Now those precious hours of life are to be forced to become hours of work. And not only do most of the 99% accept this, many argue for it. Internet discussion of austerity in relation to public services are full of stories of lazy teachers with long holidays for instance. Or in one anecdotal case of someone contracted to do a job in a public sector office who related how one women working there had obviously had a breakdown and was unable to work but how her colleagues were covering this up so she could reach retirement age and get a full pension. Far from this being related as a wonderful show of solidarity with someone in desperate circumstances it was related as an inefficiency in the machine that needed to be ruthlessly eliminated.
We need to think about this demand for 'hard work'. In this time of mass unemployment the only logic remaining to demanding harder work is the appeal for a return to the magic engine of growth. If more human labour can be poured in perhaps the growth engine can be restarted - and our descent into environmental catastrophe escalated - we easily forget that growth is no longer a good thing in itself.
The need of the 1% for the resumption of growth in order to maintain social order through the carrot seems further from our needs than ever. We need to work fewer hours, not more. In all probability a 20 hour week with full employment, resource redistribution and production for sustainability could fill our needs at the current level. And our work needs to be more fulfilling, certainly not harder in some sort of masochistic race to the bottom. The interesting question here is why this is almost never said, not just in their media but also in ours.
WORDS: Andrew Flood (follow me on Twitter)
* what if there is no evidence at all for the historical figures you are studying, because they were either illiterate or too busy to produce documents expressing their views and experiences? The latter was in fact Thompson’s conundrum because the object of his study were English workers, plebs, and peasants whose “discourse,” he said, were “almost beneath the level of articulacy, appealing to solidarities so deeply assumed that they were almost nameless, and only occasionally finding expression in the (very imperfect) record which we have” (Customs 350). Not given to long, and often impractical and reified, theoretical disquisition on procedural questions on how he practiced history, Thompson only states en passant and very briefly what his solutions might be: to make “comparative enquiry into what is ‘the moral’ (whether as a norm or as a cognitive structure)” and, employing an antinomian term from the tradition of English religious dissent, to decipher extant elite “literature” on the said subaltern discourse in “a Satanic light and read [it] backwards if we are to perceive what the ‘Jolly Tar’ or the apprentice or the Sandgate lass thought about Authority or Methodist preachers” (Making 58) from "Rectification of Human Names”: E.P. Thompson and Contemporary Debates on Historical and Epistemological Discourse / Manuel Yang