Take care!

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Pondering the strange period we are living through, I have several times been reminded of these memorable words by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. Despite the many horrors, some of the ‘best’ features of these unsettling times have been the way that the pandemic has stimulated forms of neighbourliness and mutual help that had lain dormant for far too long in many communities, as well as awakening some big discussions about what sort of post-COVID society we want to live in.

Thanks to the valiant efforts of left publishers, this unique set of circumstances has created an opportunity – and an appetite among readers – for books that, instead of focusing on the minutiae of social developments and policies, start to address some of the big political questions that confront us in the search for alternative ways of managing our society and economy. Into this category I would place Ann Pettifor’s clear and compelling The Case for the Green New Deal and my own Reinventing the Welfare State as well as the marvellous Care Manifesto: the Politics of Interdependence, also published this week.

The Care Collective: Andreas Chatzidakis, Jamie Hakim, Jo Littler,
Catherine Rottenberg and Lynne Segal
The Care Collective (left to right): Jamie Hakim, Jo Littler,
Catherine Rottenberg, Andreas Chatzidakis
and Lynne Segal

The authors of this concise, beautifully-written book have put their finger precisely on our collective pulse. In one word, they have identified what is both the key deficit in our current society and the key component in any alternative future: care. What has been so deeply troubling in the way that our government has treated the most vulnerable members of society during the pandemic and in the years of austerity leading up to it has been, in a nutshell, it’s failure to care. The realisation that ‘they really don’t care’ has been a painful shock to many, especially those who grew up believing that Britain had a welfare state that would look after them ‘from cradle to grave’, but there it is. We live in a world that the Care Collective characterise as ‘careless’ and this book is an idealistic call to design an alternative future that puts universal care at the heart of its vision.

The authors define the word broadly as ‘our individual and common ability to provide the political, social, material, and emotional conditions that allow the vast majority of people and living creatures on this planet to thrive – along with the planet itself’ and discuss the ways that this goal has been thwarted at every level starting with interpersonal relationships and building up via kinship networks, neighbourhoods, communities and nations to the world itself. They draw on a wide range of research from the fields of psychology, sociology, political economy and environmental science to build their argument but, more importantly, illustrate their points with inspirational examples from around the world of social experiments that have shown how it is possible to do things differently.

I particularly like their emphasis on developing pilot schemes at a local level that can then be scaled up, perhaps because it is the approach I favour in my own new book where I suggest developing publicly-managed local platforms for delivering care services and organising local food distribution strategies. This has several advantages. It is something that can be done straight away, into which people can put their energies without waiting for a change of government. It builds on neighbourly initiatives that are already there, which have sprung into life during the pandemic. It demonstrates that alternative futures really are possible. And it can give us hope in these bleak times.

If only to lift your spirits, I urge you to read this book.

As to our government and its manifest failure to care, I am put in mind of that gruesome nursery rhyme:

Don’t care didn’t care,
Don’t care was wild:
Don’t care stole plum and pear
Like any beggar’s child.

Don’t care was made to care,
Don’t care was hung:
Don’t care was put in a pot
And boiled till he was done.

PS Just after I finished writing this blog, I looked out of the window beside my desk and this is the shocking sight that confronted me. How desperately we need the lessons from The Care Manifesto!

For the sake of the economy

In most of the countries where the first wave of the coronavirus epidemic has already crested, and even in some where it has yet to do so, we are being urged back to work ‘for the sake of the economy’. Yes, people are told, you may be worried about catching the virus, or conveying it home to your family, but aren’t you being just a wee bit unpatriotic? Look at these photos of boarded up sandwich bars in the City of London and whited-out shop windows on the high street. Unemployment is going up, GDP is falling, and if this sort of thing goes on it will be YOUR FAULT!

The ‘economy’ referred to here is a slippery thing. You, the consumer, are supposed to keep it going by emerging from lockdown and queueing outside Pret a Manger for your takeaway lunch, or pawing your way along the clothes rails at Next for a new outfit to wear for your next promotion interview. But you haven’t exactly been starving, or going naked during the lockdown either, have you? While some sectors of the economy have been suffering, others have benefited mightily. As one survey report put it ’62 per cent of 2,000 Londoners surveyed increased their online shopping habits during lockdown, helping add £5.3bn to the UK economy during lockdown as high street shops remained shuttered for months’. Another UK survey found that ‘nearly half said they have become “obsessed” with buying things online since lockdown began on 21 March, while 39% admitted to buying something they “wouldn’t normally buy.”’ Losses for bricks-and-mortar city centre service firms thus translate into substantial gains for their online equivalents. Furthermore, the more business is transacted online, the greater the opportunity for other companies to take their cut, whether this is from providing you with wifi or arranging the delivery.

If (like many members of the current Tory government in the UK) you belong to the capitalist class, keeping your income high is just a question of adjusting where you invest your funds. It is no accident that, according to the US Institute for Policy Studies, during the first three months of the lockdown, the wealth of the top five billionaires (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison) grew by $584 billion, in a period when $56.5 trillion was wiped off the value of household wealth. The pandemic may have been bad for the airline industry (Buffet shrewdly sold off his airline holdings early in 2020) but, with a sizeable portion of the population working from home, reliant on online links, it has been boom time for the likes of Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.

Once again, we are witnessing tectonic upheavals in global capitalism, in which some firms are winners and some are losers but the system itself remains intact. This time round, the main losers seem likely to be small and medium sized firms, many of the sort that have in the past provided employment that is relatively stable and paid their taxes and business rates diligently. The winners seem likely to be large global corporations, many of whom provide only precarious, digitally-managed employment with little security, and many of whom are expert tax evaders. When Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, speak of ‘the economy’ now what exactly do they mean? Their rhetoric suggests concern for the firms that are losers, at a national level, but all their past practices suggest that the interests they seek to protect are those of the winners, at a global level. What seems certain is that the interests of the people who actually produce all that wealth – the workers – are most definitely not their top priority.

Caveat auctor

Oh Auctor

You with your desire to please

You with your bright ideas

You with your joy in solving a problem

You who have observed green shoots coming through the soil to learn how to recognise the good plants from the bad

You who have laboured to cultivate them for food and find ways to make them delicious

You who have learned which are good for healing and which can kill

You who have fashioned instruments to make music

You who have sung songs into being and taught them to others

You who have calmed children with your stories

you who have crafted clothes from plants and animal pelts and made them beautiful

You with your ingenuity that has spanned rivers, moved boulders, channelled streams, calculated the distance to the stars

You with your deft fingers

You with your strong arms

You with your charm

You with your endurance

Beware

It is your skill and your generosity and your strength and your knowledge and your bright ideas that make you prey

To those who want to appropriate what you make, capture you and farm you and your children to make more

What you produce travels a long and tangled circuit before it meets its user, with booby traps all along the way. With a predator waiting at every twist to take a rent, a toll, a duty, a tithe, a tax, a charge, a cut, a levy, a fee, a fine, a royalty, a profit, ‘a few minutes of your time’.

What has been made by you belongs to others. You must buy it back, duty by duty; cut by cut.

Caveat auctor*.

*Auctor is a Latin word meaning originator, creator or author. It can also be used to denote a distinguished scholar or scientist. Caveat comes from to the Latin verb for warning, as in the phrase ‘caveat emptor’ meaning ‘let the buyer, beware’.

Crunch time for the platform management model

In what may come to be viewed as a historic court case, a group of UK Uber drivers from London, Birmingham, Nottingham and Glasgow have launched a legal action against Uber in the Netherlands, supported by the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU), the International Alliance of App-based Transport Workers (IAATW) and Worker Info Exchange.  The complaint against Uber, which is headquartered in Amsterdam, centres on its failure to provide access to data on drivers or explain its algorithmic management practices as required by the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Meanwhile, two other members of the ADCU, Yaseen Aslam and James Farrer, will be appearing in the Supreme Court in London tomorrow to defend themselves against Uber’s challenge against earlier landmark rulings that when they were working for Uber they should have been treated as workers rather than independent contractors, and should therefore have been entitled to paid holidays and the minimum wage.

ADCU outside court

ADCU Members outside the Supreme Court on July 20, 2020

The coincidence of these two cases exposes very clearly the contradiction that lies at the heart of the platform management model – which seeks to control workers with a minuteness of detail unprecedented in the history of capitalism while at the same time denying that they have any relation of dependence at all. Like Schrödinger’s cat, which is simultaneously both alive and dead, they are simultaneously both managed and not managed, forced to live out their working lives in a stressful borderline state in which they are denied both autonomy and security.

Platform labour has to be seen as part of a larger continuum of precarious, on-call work that also includes a range of different temporary, on-call and zero-hours contractual arrangements. As  recent research I carried out with colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, funded by the European Foundation for Progressive Studies (FEPS), the trade union confederation UNI-Europa and – in the UK – the TUC, has shown, not only has it been growing exponentially over the last few years, but the algorithmic management practices associated with it have spread widely across the labour market.

Between 2016 and 2019 in the UK the number of working age adults who said they did work obtained via an online platform at least once a week doubled from an estimated 2.8 million people to an estimated 5.8 million (from 4.7 per cent to 9.6 per cent of the adult population). The proportion of people using an app or website to be informed of new tasks, more than doubled, from 10% to 21% of the working-age population, but barely half of these were platform workers. The use of apps or websites to record what work had been done rose over the same period from 14.2% to 24.6%. Again, most people reporting these practices were not platform workers. Nearly a quarter (24%) of UK adults surveyed in 2019 also reported having their work rated by customers, of whom nearly half (11.7%) were not platform workers.

Platform workers are part of a growing army of what I have elsewhere called ‘logged’ workers, logged in three senses of the word. First their work has been chopped up into separate interchangeable tasks, as a tree is cut into standardised logs, making it possible for them to be paid by the task. Second, they have to be logged on to the app, constantly alert for a new task to be notified, waiting thumbs-poised to ‘accept’ it in order to obtain work. And third, they are logged in the sense of being closely monitored and recorded,  with every action captured digitally, whether this is through GPS tracking, keystroke counting, webcam capture or voice recording, with a digital registration of anything from the speed with which brakes are slammed on to the emotional content of a customer service call, subjecting workers to an unprecedented level of 360 degree surveillance. The results of this logging can be combined with data from other sources, including customer feedback, and analysed using complex algorithms (whose exact nature is hidden on the grounds that it is commercially sensitive) guiding decisions that may have life-changing implications for those workers – but against which there is no appeal.

The outcomes of these two cases will therefore have huge ramifications for very large numbers of workers: not just Uber drivers and couriers but also groups as diverse as non-tenured university lecturers and care workers.

The ADCU is a recently certified union, too new to have yet affiliated to the TUC, and with few resources. They need all the help they can get. You can contribute to their crowd funder for the international case here.

The force behind the form

When you ask somebody to fill in a form the message you are actually giving them is as follows: I am in charge; My time is more valuable than yours; I get to decide what is important and what is not; I have a right to information about you; I control what sense is made of this information.

Most of us have learned that filling in a form is a precondition for getting most of the things we want in life, whether this is a job, a bank account, a passport or an online delivery and have learned, with reluctance, to weigh up the value of gaining this benefit against the cost (in terms of time, effort or loss of dignity) of filling the wretched thing in.

Yet the underlying power relations are ever present. The injunction to fill in a form is experienced as particularly pernicious and coercive when it is embedded in a larger relationship of control, for example when it lies between you and being able to claim a state benefit, or is commanded by an employer. It becomes an important way of reinforcing that power, sometimes giving it, in addition to the sanction of withdrawing entitlements if its requirements are not complied with, an additional symbolic ritual force that becomes evident when the filler-in is required to provide (often in duplicate or triplicate) documents whose contents are already known to the form-setting institution or a repetition of information that is already available. The overall effect is to humiliate and demean.

gender questionThe disrespect for the time of the filler-in is amplified when set in the context of other imbalances – when, for example, a young fit bureaucrat requires an elderly or disabled person to go through processes that are painful or time-consuming in order to supply the requested information (to sort through years worth of records to find old payslips or contracts or receipts; to find the reference number in tiny print below the bar-code on the base of the appliance; to knock up a neighbour to witness a signature; to plead with a doctor to provide a letter). The excuse is mistrust. How can they know that you are really you, really live at your address, really own the object or policy in question, without such evidence? In other words the assumption is that you are guilty unless proven innocent. In the telephone version the call centre workers need you to confirm that you are you even when it was they who initiated the call. The French authorities (for example) do not just require copies of innumerable documents (already held on file in sister departments) to accompany an application but also, if these are foreign, require them to be translated and stamped by a government-authorised translator, for whose services a fee has to be paid. Similarly, they don’t just need a copy of your birth certificate each time but this has to be a copy that has been issued within the last three months (again requiring the payment of a fee).

The illusion of impartiality created by the standard nature of the form, and the mistrust that refuses to recognise one as anything other than a potential criminal with intent to defraud often falls apart in subsequent face-to-face encounters with the bureaucrats, who make it clear by their speech and body language what pplease treat our staff with respectarticular prejudices they hold against people of your age, weight, sexual identity, ethnicity, dress style or accent. Usually this personal encounter with the bureaucrat does not mitigate the effects of the impersonal form-filling that preceded it but makes it worse, adding yet another dimension of disempowerment to the experience. The recipient may end up feeling not only unheard and misunderstood but also guilt-tripped – the silenced victim of a peculiar kind of unfairness that cannot be named as such because of the way that it is dressed up as fairness. A fairness that is, moreover, often cemented in place as part of a broader equality agenda that includes protection of workers’ rights, proclaimed for example in notices that remind customers not to use abusive language to staff. Service users are thereby positioned as anti-social, or, worse, racist or sexist, if they try to express their anger or frustration at the way they are treated. The anger therefore remains suppressed and unspoken, though liable to be redirected explosively into who knows what unexpected irritable outbursts against who knows what innocent scapegoat.

So far, so familiar; these are assertions that would have been recognisable in the early 20th century, say to Max Weber, or Kafka. Digital technologies have multiplied them and added extra twists but the role of the form in propping up existing hierarchies is still fundamentally the same.

What is exercising me today is the way in which the form also provides the means to introduce new hierarchies or (to coin a phrase) formalise existing ones or – even more perniciously – to strip relationships of the mutual respect and understanding that they traditionally entailed: the way its relentless expansion is smuggling these power relationships into areas of life that were previously the preserve of free, open and often creative communication. This is especially outrageous when the underlying relationship is one in which one the form-filler is someone who is being asked for, or generously offering, a service as a favour: to review an article, to provide a character reference, to volunteer to help out in a charity, to give up one’s intellectual property for publication (unpaid or poorly paid) or one’s time to contribute to a public event.

There are probably many different ways this comes about. For example you might get somebody who is new to his or her job who is frightened or bored by the prospect of having to have open-ended conversations with each one of a group of colleagues, clients or subordinates with whom he or she will have to deal. This person might be wondering Where might these conversations lead? Might they expose my lack of experience? How can they be managed in a way that preserves my authority? Then comes the brainwave. I know, I’ll design a form for them to fill in. That will really look good as far as my boss is concerned; it will present me as efficient and innovative and, furthermore, provide me with standardised data that I can use to measure the progress I am making and make into charts that will look good in powerpoint presentations. Or the pressure to standardise may be imposed from above – by an employer or funder or the need to comply with a new regulation. But the consequences are similar. A new level of bureaucracy has been created. Real time human interaction has been removed from the relationship. Opportunities for the communication to become the basis for developing new ideas have been removed. Form setters (with all the prejudices, inexperience,  ignorance and arrogance they may have) have claimed a right to dictate the terms of interaction to form fillers (however much wiser, more experienced or more insightful they may be) in the process depriving themselves of any opportunities for real learning and development. And in the process left an awful lot of people mightily – and often needlessly – pissed off. This is how social solidarities are destroyed. And this is how the voracious algorithms that increasingly shape our lives are fed with data. (At which point I should inform you  that the next issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation, the contents of which I delivered to the publisher last week, will be on ‘the algorithm and the city’)

 

 

 

Scentless in Dalston

We can use the word ‘silence’ to convey instantly the experience of the lack of sound, or ‘darkness’ to denote the lack of vision, but there is no generally used word in the English language for the lack of scent, despite the fact that its very name is closer than any of the four others (touch, sight, hearing, taste) to the parent category ‘sense’. Hard to categorise  in many ways, it is also one that sparks our emotions most deeply, with the power to summon up enormously powerful memories and associations quite unexpectedly, sometimes knocking us sideways with the surprise of the impact.

In these strange times, when senselessness (used in another – yes that versatile word again – sense) seems to characterise so much of the behaviour around us, the anosmia which is one of the symptoms of covid-19 seems to be acquiring a metaphorical force which is as hard to describe as scent itself, along with the even more strangely named ageusia which accompanies it.

It is now four weeks since, after a weekend of exhaustion which, at the time, I ascribed to the after-effects of the surgery I had had the previous week, I awoke with a strange metallic taste in my mouth accompanied, I soon realiswisteria april 2020ed, by a complete loss of any sense of taste or smell or indeed appetite. After four days of fever and flu-like symptoms I became breathless enough to call the NHS helpline number 111 for advice and they sent round two brilliant paramedics in an ambulance, who administered a lot of tests and then told me that (given the way my heart and lungs were performing) I was better off staying at home using my CPAP machine to help me breathe than going back into hospital, and predicted that the effects of the virus would probably peak in two to three days time. 

Sure enough, a couple of days later I did indeed start feeling a bit less tired and breathless and was able to get out of bed for a few hours a day. The appetite started creeping back and it looks as if I have survived the virus (if that’s what I had. This was the one test they were not equipped to give me). But there is no sign of any return of smell or taste.

So I can’t wake up and smell the coffee. Nor can I enjoy the scents of the wisteria which is in full bloom up the front of my house (see picture) or the jasmine running amok at the rear which would normally be wafting in through the windows. On the plus side, neither can I smell the characteristic Dalston odours of decomposing restaurant rubbish or grilling kebabs that these plants were in part planted to combat. But, sequestered as I am indoors and without these smells to guide me, are those odours even there any more? Surely most of the restaurants and bars and clubs in the neighbourhood must be closed (though a few may be supplying takeaways to be delivered by brave platform workers, for all I know) and I have viewed rats scuttling across the rooftops, perhaps suggesting that the dustbins they normally feed from are empty.

This scentlessness affects daily life in unexpected ways. There is nothing to signal that I need a shower, that the toast is starting to burn, that the rubbish needs to be put out. I suppose if I had visitors I might worry about an unpleasant stink that would put them off. But there are no visitors, though the occasional key worker enters the front door in my absence to leave a delivery in the hall and the tenant of the flat upstairs goes backwards and forwards carefully wiping handles and switches with the disinfectant we keep by the front door on her unwitnessed way (we communicate by email. I have not seen her in person since before she moved in in February).  But even if there were visitors I suspect they might prefer to be hit by the honest pong of organic decomposition than a chemical miasma of artificial deodorants. Who knows?

Taste is another matter. In line with what the textbooks say, I can just about discern sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness and the hit of chilli. But wine, reduced to these elements of its flavour, tastes quite disgusting. As does most food. Some of the then-fresh truffles my nephew sent me from France in February (one of the most luxurious gifts I have ever received) are languishing, carefully wrapped in tissue in a kilner jar, at the bottom of the fridge in the hope that I will be able to enjoy them before they are completely dessicated. Mostly, I am resigned to eating what might as well be cardboard.

When will these senses return? Who knows? Perhaps, I was told by my GP, they never will. Anosmia and ageusia may sometimes be permanent and very little is known about the role they play in covid-19. One theory is that the virus works its way in through the nose via ACE2 receptors to infect the nerves, in much the same way that it enters the lungs via the mouth, and nobody yet knows what long-term damage will remain.

This renders the future mysterious, giving it an unknown character at the personal level that is analogous to the equally unknown effects of the pandemic at a broader social level. How will life change? Will we go back to some sort of replica of the taken-for-granted normalcy of life under conditions of neoliberal capitalism, returning to our consumption patterns based on global supply chains, our labour markets based on the atomisation of work and competitiveness among workers, our disdain for the future ecology of the planet? Or will we enter some new reality, based on different values, in which it is possible to create new social and economic institutions based on solidarity and respect for each other and for nature? There are encouraging signs that, in the crisis, embryonic forms of organisation are developing that could prefigure a change to saner and more humane values. But can they withstand the larger context of political senselessness? Such questions are hard to answer from a position of isolation (sometimes, in more paranoid moments, I wonder whether the UK Government’s refusal to test the population is deliberately designed to keep us locked away and inactive). But let’s try to keep hope alive.

 

Self-isolation and the dialectics of mobility.

The day before yesterday I had surgery to repair some fractures on my wrist and hand and was discharged from hospital with my left arm completely numb, hanging uselessly like a warm log, encased in plaster, with which I whacked myself if not careful.  The condition I returned home to was one I have got very used to since 2016, when another accident deprived me of much of the use of my right arm and hand, leading to three more operations: the condition of confinement.

During the last four years I have become habituated to the kind of self-isolation now being imposed on so many fellow citizens around the world. And it is a condition that brings into sharp relief the polarisation in the labour market that I described in 2006 in this article  between  ‘fixed’ and ‘footloose’ work and workers. In a trend that has grown enormously since I wrote that article, the needs of those of us who are immobilised, whether through incapacity, old age or the risk of contamination, are increasingly met through the hyper-mobility of workers who must deliver us the goods and services we cannot fetch for ourselves, or transport us to and from the locations (such as hospitals, those most emblematic spaces where the materiality of our bodies is crushed up against the rigidity of bureacratic abstraction) where we need to be treated in person.

The first concrete sign to me that the ranks of the self-isolated had swelled yesterday was when I tried to order a home delivery of groceries and found that there were no delivery slots available for a week.  A relatively minor inconvenience for me, but think what it means for the hard-pressed van-drivers who do the deliveries. And, along with them, the workers who deliver ready meals and packages containing goods ordered online that might otherwise have been shopped for in person.  And the harried care workers who have to make their way from one 15-minute assignment to the next providing personal care to the most vulnerable. And all the other service workers with uncertain employment status whose work takes them to other peoples’ homes: cleaners, babysitters, gardeners, handymen and meter readers. And the taxi drivers.

In one of the nastiest contradictions of the neo-liberal global economy, these workers, who, by a further twist of irony, are much more likely than average to be migrants, are exposed to the greatest risks while also being least likely to be protected by employment rights (including sick pay, job protection, minimum wages etc.). Depending on their citizenship status, some may well not even have the right to treatment on the NHS if they get ill.

It looks very much as if their safety is being sacrificed for the sake of that of the rest of the population. In the coming days and weeks, as more and more people are confined to their homes, it seems inevitable that ever more workers will have to be recruited into these precarious mobile roles.  What’s the betting that, once the crisis has passed, they will remain in them?  Thus do the new fault-lines develop in our fractured labour market.

 

 

 

The Brexit aftermath: NAFTA or bust?

It is Christmas Eve, and both in the world of personal communication and in the media the last ten days have been a curious mish-mash. Messages of hope and goodwill vie for our attention with post-mortems on the UK general election (including virulent attacks on potential Labour leadership candidates), evidence of acute climate crisis, huge popular protests in Iran, India and Latin America and, rumbling in the background, half-apprehended accounts of the latest developments in trade policy featuring China, the USA and the now increasingly sidelined World Trade Organisation. Meanwhile the British people are at last coming to terms with the reality that the UK really is going to leave the EU, something about which so many have been in denial for the last three and a half years (to the day!) continuing to hope that some sort of educated rational Deus ex Machina is going to step in, wave a magic wand, bring everyone to their senses and leave us in Europe after all.

So, under the tired tinsel, there is mourning, there is blaming, and there is fear. And to the extent that people are thinking ahead they are mostly thinking about the immediate future. How will we cope with five more years of Tory austerity? What lies in store for ethnic minorities in the UK? What should be the future of the Labour Party? What kind of exit deal will Boris Johnson be able to negotiate with Europe? Or, in the slightly longer term, might Scotland become independent and might we see a united Ireland? (Pity the poor Welsh, divided between aspirations of independent nationhood on the one hand and, on the other, a connection to England that is reinforced  by the still strong impacts on Wales of British deindustrialistion and the resulting commonality of experience with English workers who have had similar experiences, as well as by its role as a retirement home for English Tories).

But where are we headed in the longer term? Most of the visions on offer represent fairly extreme political pipedreams, ranging from the Brexiteer fantasy of a new golden age of British imperialism in which the glories of empire are somehow reincarnated without any economic basis to visions of socialism in one country (about which I wrote here in a blog post written a couple of weeks before the 2016 referendum).  In the reality of a globalised economy (albeit one whose governance is increasingly fractured and contradictory) it becomes necessary to start envisaging what alternatives might be available.

If we rule out, for the purposes of argument, cataclysmic wars and/or successful revolutionary uprisings, we are left with the prospect of an economic (and hence political) landscape shaped by agreements between trade areas, agreements that may be arrived at by means of convoluted negotiations and enforced by supranational bureaucracies, or, as seems to be a growing trend, imposed by the foot stamping of autocratic presidents. The EU is only one of these trade areas. With varying degrees of integration and success, most of the larger national economies around the world rely on their links to NAFTA, Mercosur, ASEAN or the African Free Trade Agreement. Without such protection, they have little choice but to be strong-armed by more powerful nations into bilateral agreements that are to their detriment.

And where will the UK sit in this landscape after Brexit? It seems likely that Boris Johnson will not favour the ‘Norway’ option, promoted by the Labour Party, in which the UK remains a member of EFTA and enjoys some of the protections of the EU. That level playing field involves conceding too much in the way of workers’ rights, minimum safety standards and human rights more generally to appeal to the now triumphant Tories. But it is also clear that, whatever the protestations to the contrary, the UK, acting alone, will be unable to stand up to the USA or China on anything like an equal basis in bilateral negotiations. The World Trade Organisation, meanwhile, is increasingly ineffectual, currently paralysed by Trump’s blocking of the appointment of two judges without whom no international trade dispute can be resolved. So where does that leave us?

About a week ago after half-listening during the night to various radio programmes which included discussions of world trade intermixed with discussions about Brexit, I woke to a sharp conviction that where the UK is now headed is NAFTA. We are, after all, already situated in the North Atlantic and have strong cultural connections both with the USA and with Canada. And the general direction of travel of the UK Conservative Party is towards ever closer ties with the USA – but in a relationship in which the UK will inevitably be the lesser and more vulnerable partner. As Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin point out so brlliantly in their Making of Global Capitalism this kind of reverse imperialism by the US state in partnership with global capitalism has been long in the making. And the ever closer incorporation of the UK into this American nexus seems like by far the most logical next step.

One of the choices facing the British people in the 2016 referendums and the last two general elections was between differing solidarities: with European ‘foreigners’ or with the English-speakers of North America with their shared patterns of cultural consumption. Workers’ rights or Disneyland? Welfare state or free market? Uncontaminated food or cheap food? Good health care or low taxes?

This is not the place to rehearse all the many factors that led to the choice they made (disillusion with neoliberal policies, racism, the biased media, Tory lies) but it is abundantly evident that the British working class have, by a majority, rejected the option of deepening their solidarity with the working classes of other European countries. Does this mean that, in the future, they will be able, more successfully, to develop ties with those of the USA, Canada and, let us not forget, Mexico? And, if so, how can these solidarities be developed? And, more specifically, can this be achieved without jettisoning what remains of the pre-existing European solidarities? These are big questions.

With that unseasonal thought, let me wish you a Merry Christmas.

 

The unwoke are awake

For many on the British left, now in deep grief as the implications of last Thursday’s general election results sink in, the most abiding memories of the Labour Party’s campaign in this, and the 2017 election, will be those stirring videos, featuring music by Emeli Sandé and Lily Allen and directed by towering talents like Ken Loach showing a romanticised view of the British working class, in all its diversity, its suffering, its historical values and its hopes for the future. Many freely admit to being moved to tears by them. They connect deeply with the aspirations behind the slogan ‘for the many, not the few’, allowing us all to feel part of a larger community of the oppressed and vulnerable as well as part of the solution to its problems.

But could it be that the concept of ‘the many’ is actually part of the reason why Labour did not win these elections? In its vague all-embracing character it echoes other categories that have been popular among sociologists as well as activists of the left in the post-modern period: the ‘99 per cent’, the ‘multitude’, the ‘precariat’. As I argued in my last book, Labour in Contemporary Capitalism: What Next?, these categories do very little to explain the specific positions that workers occupy in the complex global division of labour and risk suggesting that there are simple political solutions to what are, in reality, very complex problems. Real divisions within the working classes, based on structural as well as cultural differences, cannot be wished away so simply by glib sloganising.

For the tens of thousands of active Labour supporters, such reservations must seem unthinkable. Their attitudes are the products of decades of education and nurturing of class consciousness. Some of this education has taken place within the institutions of the working class – trade unions, the Labour Party, local working peoples’ clubs. Some has taken place in the workplace, especially in the public sector, where vigilant HR policies have emphasised the importance of avoiding discriminatory and abusive behaviour and the need to treat all clients with equal respect. Some of it has come from growing up in large, and increasingly multicultural, cities, where at least two generations have now attended comprehensive schools in which their fellow pupils come from a range of different ethnic backgrounds, and they have got to know them personally and often intimately.  Those who grew up outside the seething metropoles who were able to progress educationally may have encountered diversity first when they went to University, or when they travelled abroad, but they have certainly met it. Wherever they came from, ideas of tolerance and equality of opportunity serve as common taken-for-granted values for a high proportion of the British population, especially the young, many of whom, in the current jargon, regard themselves as ‘woke’.

The difficulty is that the very creation of the category ‘woke’ sets up the counter-category of the ‘unwoke’. People who do not share the ‘woke’ values are likely to be characterised as racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic. Not only are they considered stupid and unenlightened; they may even be demonised as proto-fascist ground troops, vulnerable to any siren call from the far right that is directed towards them.

And therein lies the problem. Nobody likes to be labelled stupid or ignorant. Or to see their culture demonised.

To try to understand what it might be like to be unashamedly ‘unwoke’ it is perhaps useful to think back to one’s schooldays, the school playground being, perhaps, one of the places in which the social division between the cool and the uncool, the popular and the unpopular, the woke and the unwoke, is most nakedly evident.

There can be few of us who did not in our childhood know, or at least observe, what life was like for kids who were laughed at or bullied for wearing the wrong kinds of clothes, failing to appreciate the irony of oblique cultural references, liking the wrong kinds of music, speaking with the wrong kinds of accent, having parents who were embarrassing because of their lack of education, lack of a job, lack of the funds to pay for a school trip or nerdy tastes.

Uncool they may have seemed to the cool kids, but they were not necessarily unaware of the situation. Talk to them in private and you might find a nuanced analysis, sometimes very contemptuous of the values of those cool kids. No, they actually did not like that kind of music. No they did not see the point of trying to court their favour. They were actually quite proud of their parents’ values and culture even if there was no way to express this at school. They could not wait to grow up to get away from this environment into a situation where they could find themselves among like-minded friends. Sometimes they saw the cool kids as weak followers of fashion, desperate for popularity and approval. Sometimes they saw them as bullies.

There are many grown up versions of these kids across the country. They include people who chose to leave London in the 1980s and 1990s to settle in parts of Essex where they could try to recreate the culture of the closed (and largely white) working-class communities in which they had grown up. They include the inhabitants of single-industry towns in South Wales and North-East England struggling to maintain the solidarities that had been built up by their parents’ generation. They include many people who simply dislike the way that popular culture has developed in the post-modern period with its sneering reality TV documentaries and mashed-up talent show music and bricolage culture. For every person who delights in the way that Stormzy supported Corbyn there are probably several more who feel that they do not understand his sort of music at all and, indeed, hold it, along with other genres of music they do not ‘get’, partly responsible for the disappearance of the sort of music they do like. For every person who is moved by Loach’s depiction of the British working class there is another who remembers cynically how the nostalgic music and setting of the ‘boy on the bike’ advertisements were used to sell them Hovis bread.

What these people emphatically do not want is to be sneered at, patronised, preached to or told what to think by people who (they suspect) see themselves as morally and socially superior: people who, for all their sentimentalisation of working class life, are essential voyeuristic. Rightly or wrongly, they regard the ‘woke’ as superficial and manipulative: survivors who have managed to be nimble enough to negotiate the shifting terrain of the neoliberal labour market to gain themselves a foothold in it, whether in the media or in politics; shifty manipulators of public opinion; or, at best, naïve kids who do not understand their own privilege.

What do they want? These unwoke people who woke up enough to brave the horrible weather the day before yesterday to queue at a polling booth so they could vent their frustration? I’m only guessing here but suspect that many of them (like some parts of me) just want it all to go away. Please, please, please leave me alone to get on with my life, however constrained. Stop lecturing me, stop telling me I’m stupid. Don’t presume you know better than me. And, perhaps, lurking under the surface, at least for some of the older people, the demand that they know in their hearts cannot be met, take me back to the safety of the world I grew up in. Please.

Of course we know that this is wishful thinking. But we ignore at our peril the emotional place it is coming from. In the longer term we will have to start the patient work of building a new movement, based not on simplistic notions like ‘the many’ but on a recognition of the specificities of the positions that different groups of workers occupy in the global division of labour, their cultures and the real conflicts of interest that exist between them. This is heavy work, requiring a lot of careful listening and building from the bottom up. In the meanwhile, I guess many of us will end up, as we did after Thatcher’s election in 1979, reduced to wearing badges that say ‘Don’t blame me. I voted Labour’.

PS. For context (and arguments not made explicitly in this post) here is what I posted the morning after the Brexit referendum in 2016: ursulahuws.wordpress.com/2016/06/24/the-hardest-nettle-to-grasp/