- with all best wishes for happy holidays and a peaceful 2018 December 11, 2017
- Not such good work, Matthew Taylor July 11, 2017
- and more on the future of work April 11, 2017
- The future of work January 29, 2017
- Universal basic income and women’s liberation January 22, 2017
- The key criticisms of basic income, and how to overcome them January 22, 2017
- Not in a shy way January 21, 2017
- Best wishes for 2017 December 14, 2016
- How global IT companies screw up your daily life – another example December 2, 2016
- All that suffering. For what? November 24, 2016
- The end of the middle November 9, 2016
- Being got. Or not. October 29, 2016
- Varieties of xenophobia July 5, 2016
- A manifesto for hope June 29, 2016
- The unmaking of the English working class June 25, 2016
- The hardest nettle to grasp June 24, 2016
- 6 Reasons for Brexit June 15, 2016
- So what sort of state do you want to be in? June 10, 2016
- A lightning conductor for anti-neoliberalism June 8, 2016
- Expats, migrants and the global division of labour January 29, 2016
- Ellen Meiksins Wood – her importance to me January 15, 2016
- Happy holidays December 19, 2015
- If passengers were the commodities December 8, 2015
- The road from Damascus September 5, 2015
- The creativity of bar tenders August 11, 2015
- Intellectual jamming July 25, 2015
- Uber and under May 18, 2015
- Wisteria April 22, 2015
- Rung sweet rung April 7, 2015
- More on the Citizens Income – a quick update February 14, 2015
- Environmental challenges in the inner city February 8, 2015
- The importance of the minimum wage January 7, 2015
- Left and right libertarianisms: where will we swing next? January 7, 2015
- The income tax taboo January 5, 2015
- Don’t attack the baby boomers January 1, 2015
- Corny seasonal greetings December 13, 2014
- An unconditional citizen’s income December 12, 2014
- So what’s wrong with tax credits? December 11, 2014
- A workhouse without walls December 10, 2014
- Everything must go June 6, 2014
- Submission May 31, 2014
- Spring March 9, 2014
- Wishing you a fruitful 2014 and happy holidays December 19, 2013
- Weeds April 14, 2013
- 1963 – the great unbuttoning January 6, 2013
- Starting the new year with a bit of decay January 4, 2013
- you’ll never know unless you try December 18, 2012
- Happy Christmas, Corporations! with love from George Osborne December 6, 2012
- Size Queens, consumption work and the unpredictable paths that ideas travel November 7, 2012
- Found Art (or the delights of negative entropy) September 1, 2012
The long-waited Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices is now published, under the title Good Work and it is, I am afraid, very disappointing indeed. In terms of its concrete recommendations it goes beyond being a missed opportunity, out of kilter with its times, to posing an active threat to workers’ rights and undoing past advances.
As might be expected from a lead author who was appointed head of Tony Blair’s Number 10 Policy Unit in 2005, it is not short on spin. It speaks repeatedly of ‘enduring principles of fairness’, nods often to the idea of good work as an essential ingredient of happiness and wellbeing and claims to be focusing ‘not just on new forms of labour such as gig work but on good work in general’. Pious mission statements, such as ‘We believe work should provide us all with the opportunity to fulfil our own needs and potential in ways that suit our situations throughout our lives’ sit alongside nods to the inevitability (and benignity) of technological progress. In the classic contradictory formula of centre-left neoliberalism it manages simultaneously to say that ‘Good work is something for which Government needs to be held accountable’ and ‘The best way to achieve better work is not national regulation but responsible corporate governance’!
Why was it no surprise to discover this morning that Taylor’s co-investigator, Greg Marsh, was a former investor in that most visible of gig economy companies, Deliveroo?
Out of kilter with the time
In light of recent events, the report seems oddly old-fashioned. It is little more than six months since the Inquiry was established (in October 2016) but during that period there have been unprecedented developments on the ground, with an upsurge in organising by casual workers in the UK (and elsewhere). New trade union organisations, such as the UPHD (United Private Hire Drivers) and the IWGB (International Workers of Great Britain IWGB) have sprung up to represent drivers for platforms like Uber and delivery workers for companies like Deliveroo as well as casualised workers in other sectors, such as outsourced cleaning workers, porters and foster carers. A series of test cases brought by these organisations, sometimes with the support of traditional trade unions like the GMB, have established in case after case that workers for companies like City Sprint, Uber and Pimlico Plumbers are not the ‘independent contractors’ these companies claimed they were but ‘workers’, entitled to such rights as the minimum wage and paid holidays. As a result of these, and other well-publicised cases of exploitation of low-wage workers, such as Sports Direct, there has been a sea-change in public attitudes to fairness at work evidenced by the popularity of the demand for an end to zero-hour contracts in the Labour Party Manifesto.
The British public seems, at last, to have seen beyond the rhetoric that elides what is ‘flexible’ for the employer (in the form of a just-in-time workforce, waiting to be summoned at short notice by an app) with the older demands raised fifty years ago by the Women’s Movement for a ‘flexibility’ that responds to the unpredictable demands of family. Having lived it in their own lives, or watched their kids do so, most people now see only too well that being available on demand makes it very hard indeed to manage your own life, especially when childcare is involved. But the report shows no awareness that workers and employers may have different interests, merely stating vacuously that ‘Encouraging flexible work is good for everyone and has been shown to have a positive impact on productivity, worker retention and quality of work’.
While public opinion seems to have been saying ‘enough is enough’, the court judgements have been saying, in the words of Jason Moyer-Lee, General Secretary of IWGB, ‘”gig workers” already have rights – all we need to do is enforce them’.
A rational response to this situation – the opportunity that this report misses – would take the existing principles as a starting point and work to ensure that there are clear guidelines for their implementation, putting the onus of proof not onto vulnerable workers but onto those who dictate their working conditions and profit from their services. But this is very far from the Taylor approach.
The report quite rightly recognises that the employment status of casual workers is confusing and poorly understood. This is partly because it is dealt with separately under the tax system and in employment law. Under the tax system, unless you have some other legal status such as being a limited company or a partnership, you are either an employee or self-employed. Many workers living hand-to-mouth think it is preferable to be self-employed because that way they can defer the payment of income tax and set expenses against it. Under employment law being an employee brings a range of rights and protections, including such things as maternity and paternity pay, sick pay, parental leave and pensions coverage. These are probably worth much more to most workers in real terms than whatever tax savings they make by being self-employed, but of course can only be claimed if your employer actually agrees that you are indeed an employee and fulfils his or her part of the bargain. There are however some rights, guaranteed under employment law to all workers regardless of whether they are formally classed as employees. These include the right to the minimum wage and to paid public holidays.
The difficulty of establishing employee status is not new. Back in the 1970s and 1980s when I was doing research on homeworking this issue came up again and again. Frightened women, unaware of their rights, were told firmly that they were not employees (often believing – usually wrongly – that what they were doing was not quite legal and that if found out they would become liable for tax or national insurance payments and fined for being in breach of health and safety or tenancy regulations) so they would accept that they had no rights. The law had then no single test for being ‘genuinely self-employed’. Tribunals or courts were supposed to weigh up a lot of different factors such as who determined what work should be done and what should be paid for it, whether or not the worker had the right to employ somebody else to do it, how continuous it was, who paid for the materials and so on. Little has changed since then, although the case law has moved on. The most crucial principle is whether a relationship of subordination can be said to apply.
In the case of most platform companies, there is little doubt that the workers are indeed subordinate. Although practices vary from company to company, workers are usually told precisely what to do, with each ‘task’ well defined and costed. Not only is their pay and work process laid down, there are also typically detailed rules about quality standards to be met. While there may be some limited right to turn a few jobs down, there are usually strong penalties for doing so repeatedly. They do not have the right to pass the work on to others. And in some cases (Deliveroo being a case in point) they are even required to wear uniforms or sport company logos.
The report could have laid out clear guidelines for defining genuine self-employment and spelled out the obligations of employers of subordinate workers. But what it has done instead is muddied the waters still further by proposing exceptions to the existing principles which could be detrimental not only to workers who are currently working casually but also to other workers, including those currently defined as employees.
How could its recommendations make matters worse?
- Establishing a new intermediate kind of employment status – the ‘dependent contractor’
The report proposes setting up ‘an intermediate category covering casual, independent relationships, with a more limited set of key employment rights applying’. Although this approach has been rightly resisted by British legislators in the past, this is not a particularly original response. Indeed it something of a knee-jerk reaction by neo-liberal ‘modernisers’ to the development of new forms of work. It was, for example, strongly promoted in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s (for example by the Belgian labour lawyer Roger Blanpain) as a way of encouraging teleworking without bringing it completely within the scope of existing employment protection laws. Italy provides a particularly extreme example of the ways in which different forms of ‘parasubordinate’ status and sub-categories of self-employment have been created to cover workers, such as call centre workers, who fall outside traditional sectoral agreements and regulatory categores. The overwhelming evidence is that when such new kinds of status are established they do not just result in reduced coverage for the ‘new’ kinds of workers who fall under them but, even more importantly, are then extended across the workforce to bring other more traditional forms within their scope, resulting in a worsening of conditions across the board. In other words, what they do is provide employers with a new tool for casualisation and erosion of existing rights, whatever well-intentioned language is used that purports to prevent this.
- Undermining the minimum wage
The report also proposes a change in the way that the National Minimum Wage (NMW) is applied: ‘In re-defining ‘dependent contractor’ status, Government should adapt the piece rates legislation to ensure those working in the gig economy are still able to enjoy maximum flexibility whilst also being able to earn the NMW’. What it proposes is complex, and difficult to summarise here. At the headline level it looks like a proposal to increase the NMW by a modest amount for workers with the proposed new ‘dependent contractor’ status. Howeverthe report also wags a stern finger at those who think that workers should be paid for all the time they spend waiting for jobs to come up, which is, they say unreasonable and open to abuse. Given that many workers in the gig economy spend half their time or more logging on in the hope of work that does not arrive, this could in practice lead to a fall in the time eligible for payment.
There is more in the report. I have only scratched the surface here. But am about to board a flight for China so will postpone further discussion for another day.
In the new spirit of reblogging here things I have already blogged elsewhere, here is a piece that appeared today on the LSE blog at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/2017/04/11/future-of-work-taking-the-blinkers-off-to-see-new-possibilities/
(their headline not mine).
On the other hand, employment levels in the UK are at an all-time high of 74.6 per cent, with the unemployment level, which averaged over 7 per cent from 1971 to 2016, having fallen to just 4.7 per cent in January, 2017.
So, are we facing mass unemployment or not? Here we are, nearly a decade after a major financial crisis that led to job losses, austerity and waves of corporate restructuring including bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions, seeing the emergence of new winners, with new business models and the birth of new industries, with new technological applications playing a key role. If we take a broad historical view, this is actually quite a familiar story.
We could look, for example, at the development of new industries based on the spread of electrical power and mass entertainment after the 1929 crash, or of computerisation after the 1973 energy crisis, or the explosive growth of the Internet in the decade after the infamous 1987 Black Monday. Each of these technologies was also, of course, instrumental in displacing large numbers of jobs in older industries. And with each wave, livelihoods were irrevocably damaged, because the new jobs were not created in the same areas, or for the same people, as the old ones.
The elderly look on in amazement at the desirable new labour-saving appliances their grandchildren buy, remembering the back-breaking drudgery of the old methods. But for every gleaming new factory in one part of the world, there are piles of rusting machinery in others, along with devastated lives and communities. Such ‘creative destruction’, as Schumpeter called it, is, surely, part and parcel of capitalism as usual.
So why, in the second decade of the 21st century, are so many commentators, on so many different parts of the political spectrum, convinced that this time things will be different: that we are, in Paul Mason’s phrase, moving into a period that could be described as ‘postcapitalist’?
Part of the explanation might lie in the way that capitalism is often seen, especially by the young, as a single, monolithic system that embraces all aspects of life. Perhaps a more useful way of understanding it is a somewhat messy assemblage of different capitalists competing with each other, scrabbling for market share, experimenting with new business models and often failing. In times of crisis, when many are going to the wall, technologies (including some that have been around for a while) may be seized on, not as part of an orchestrated general plan, but in much more piecemeal ways, by particular firms looking for means to restore profitability: to reduce labour costs, develop new products or services or enter new markets.
Obvious first targets for automation are processes where labour costs are high, usually because they require scarce skills or workers are well organised. So it is not surprising that skilled print workers were first in the firing line for digitisation, or auto factories for robots. The first companies to introduce innovations can make a killing – getting ahead of their competitors with a step change in increased productivity.
But such advantages do not last long. Once the technology is generally available, it is open to any competitor to buy it at the lowest market price and copy these production methods. A race to the bottom is started, which can only be sidestepped by firms that continue to innovate. It is fanciful to imagine that it would be possible to populate the world’s factories with 2017 state-of-the-art robots and then just leave them to get on with production. Leaving aside the question of how these robots are to be assembled and maintained, there is no conceivable business model that would make this profitable over any sustained period of time.
A much more likely scenario is that vast new industries will grow up to manufacture these new means of production which, like today’s laptops and mobile phones, will rapidly become obsolete and need replacing. These industries will also give birth to new service jobs, involved in their design, distribution, maintenance and in dealing with the unintended consequences of their widespread adoption (such as cyber-crime and new safety hazards).
Current technologies do not just create new kinds of jobs, they also change the way work is organised, managed and controlled. My research has shown that 2.5 per cent of workers already get more than half their income from online platforms. These new organisational models do not just change the way existing jobs are managed but also bring new areas of economic activity within the direct orbit of capitalism, for instance by drawing into the formal economy the kinds of cash-in-hand work done by window-cleaners, dog-walkers, baby-sitters or gardeners. They may not be jobs in the traditional sense, but they are work, with the potential to be organised differently in the future, that can form the basis of profitable new industries.
Another factor that blinkers thinking about the future of work is a failure to see beyond the boundaries of the existing industrial structure and imagine where other new industries will emerge from. Whether it’s the DNA of plants, the human needs for entertainment, sociality and health or outer space, the universe is full of new opportunities for commodification. The question is, can the planet sustain them?
Each time there is a wave of technological change, similar questions are raised about the future of work. Pessimists fear that robots will take all the jobs, leading to mass unemployment and a population too poor to buy the products of the new automated factories. Meanwhile optimists hold out seductive visions of a world with leisure and plenty for all, where automation frees us from routine chores, so everybody can release their creativity.
The pessimist view comes easily to victims of change. If your income depended on looking after horses then you would have seen the coming of the automobile in the early 20th century as a direct threat. Even if you had a crystal ball that enabled you to see how many jobs would be created in the auto industry in the future, you might have still thought: ‘So what? How does that help my family?’
History shows us that each new wave of technological innovation both destroys and creates jobs. The trouble is that the new ones tend to be created for different people, in different parts of the world, and under very different working conditions from the old ones. The job of an assembly-line worker in Detroit in the 1920s was very different from that a rural stable-hand in Somerset, just as work in a washing-machine factory was different from that of a laundry-maid.
New machines may eliminate some old jobs but new ones are needed to mine the raw materials, make and assemble the components, and maintain them, as well as designing the next generation or robots, drones or 3-D printers. But there are also unintended consequences. Who would have guessed that some of the earliest adopters of mobile phones would be drug dealers, fraudsters and pimps, that one of the earliest commercial uses of the Internet would be for pornography, or that drones would be used for smuggling contraband into prisons? As society struggles to keep up with these new forms of technology-enabled crime, more new jobs are created – to deal with cyber-fraud, remove unwanted content from social media sites and other functions our grandparents would never have dreamed of.
They may be right about the disappearance of many familiar jobs, but pessimists are surely wrong when they speculate that robots will bring permanent mass unemployment. But might the optimists be right in thinking that artificial intelligence can take the back-breaking toil out of mundane tasks releasing time for more satisfying activities?
The evidence suggests that technology is failing to deliver these benefits, with technology used, not to shorten but lengthen the working day, with expectations of round-the-clock availability.
Neither are machines taking over the boring and repetitive activities, leaving the more creative and satisfying ones for human beings to carry out. Often it is cheaper to use human labour for the most mundane tasks, as evidenced by the growth of online platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk and Clickworker that enable a dispersed human workforce to carry out micro-tasks deemed not worth automating, such as labelling colours, verifying fuzzily-scanned numbers or clicking ‘like’ on corporate websites.
Human labour is also used in warehouses, with workers instructed via headsets where to run, with every action timed and monitored. A visitor from another planet watching them at work might think that humans are servants of the technology, rather than technology serving the people.
Being monitored and paced digitally is not unique to manual workers or casual ‘click workers’. Nurses, teachers, truck drivers and software developers are just a few of the workers who have to work to numerical ‘performance targets’ and log their working time using online ‘apps’.
How is it that apparently liberating technologies seem to enslave workers ever more tightly to the demands and rhythms of the global economy? We must ask who is developing them and for what purpose.
The corporations that dominate that global economy have somewhat contradictory needs. They need a stream of new ideas to help them stay one step ahead – and to provide these ideas they need bright, motivated, well-educated creative workers. But once these ideas have been implemented, then the best way to stay competitive is to cut costs to the bone, minimise responsibilities to a permanent workforce and find workers who can be deployed efficiently to provide only the tasks that are needed.
Digital technologies make it ever-easier to manage these ‘just-in-time’ processes. But the flexibility they offer is all too often just for the employers. For workers, it may mean being unable to plan ahead because you never known when that smartphone will ping, summoning you to the next task.
Are we entering an era when the majority of workers will be ‘on call’ in this way? Or is there still time to harness the new technologies for the benefit of people rather than profit?
I quite often write blogs for sites other than my own. It has been suggested to me that I should post them here too, to make life easier for followers who like to see things in one place, so here is one that was published on the Open Democracy website on 14th December.
How can a universal basic minimum income be made compatible with socialist principles and avoid inadvertently furthering a neoliberal agenda?
More than one in five UK workers, over seven million people, are now in precarious employment according to this analysis of official figures by John Philpott. Since 2006, the numbers on zero-hours contracts has grown by three-quarters of a million are and over 200,000 more are working on temporary contracts. My own recent research has found that some two and a half million adults in the UK may be working for online platforms like Uber, Taskrabbit or Upwork at least once a month, with about 1.2 million people earning more than half their income from this kind of work. A growing proportion of the population is piecing together an income from multiple sources, in many cases making even the concept of a fixed occupation anomalous.
Large numbers of worker do not know, from one day – or even hour – to the next if and when they will next be working. Yet we still have an anachronistic benefit system based on the principle that any fit adult (and, under the current regime, many who are less than fit) must either be ‘in work’ or ‘seeking work’. The old Beveridgean welfare state model is, in short, bust. What is left of the old welfare safety net is fundamentally incompatible with a globalised just-in-time labour market in which workers are increasingly paid by the task.
The victims of these incompatibilities are among the most vulnerable in our society – forced to take any work that is going but often unable to claim benefit when none is available. They are caught between the rock of harsh sanctions regimes and the hard place of capricious and unreliable employers, often with no dependable source of income whatsoever. And the numbers of these people missed by the safety net keep growing. The use of food banks has increased more than forty-fold since 2008, the estimated number of rough sleepers has risen by 55% since 2010 and the number of children in poverty rose from 3.7 million in 2014-2015 to 3.9 million a year later – an increase of 200,000 in just one year. Something is clearly terribly wrong and the increasingly urgent question is how to fix it.
This is part of the problem to which the concept of a universal basic income (UBI) now presents itself as a solution to an expanding range of analysts. UBI is not only promoted as a way to update the benefit system to bring it into line with new labour market realities. It is also seen as a way to reward carers and others who carry out unpaid reproduction work in the home, to support artists, enable lifelong learning or give more autonomy to disabled people. This once-marginal idea is now seriously espoused in the UK by the Green Party, the Scottish Nationalist Party, some trade unions and sections of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and Plaid Cymru. Further afield is also actively promoted (including setting up experimental schemes) in Finland, the Netherlands, India, South Africa and, at the neoliberal end of the spectrum, by high-tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
At the headline level, indeed, UBI can seem to represent some sort of magic bullet that will solve all these problems simultaneously, and is often promoted as such. But a closer examination of the various models proposed reveals considerable differences between them. If these are not recognised, attempts to operationalise it could lead at best to risks of unintended consequences and at worst deep political fissures that could even exacerbate some of the problems UBI is intended to address. Most attempts to model how UBI could be implemented in practice in the UK (for example by Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley, Malcolm Torry and Gareth Morgan) have looked at it in what might be called a policy-neutral context, in which all other features of the economy and the tax system remain unaltered. But of course the reality is that any change in government policy that could lead to the introduction of UBI would be part of a much broader political upheaval that would transform many of these other features. Abstracting UBI from its broader setter in this way makes it harder to see such potential hazards.
For people who believe that the world’s sixth largest economy should be able to protect its citizens from penury, and are committed to (re)developing a welfare state that reduces social inequality and enhances choice and opportunity for its citizens, perhaps the time has now come for a serious debate, not just about the pros and cons of UBI in the abstract, but about which other policies it should be linked with to ensure that these objectives are met. This involves grappling with some difficult questions. Here I look at four of the risks that could arise if a UBI is introduced without such policy safeguards.
The risk of driving down wages
In the abstract, the relationship between a UBI and wage levels can be argued to be either positive or negative. Some argue, quite plausibly, that a guaranteed minimum income would enable people to be much choosier about which jobs they accept, giving them options to turn down really exploitative wage rates and perhaps even providing them with the equivalent of strike pay to enable them to negotiate more effectively with employers without their dependents suffering.
An alternative view draws on the experience of tax credits (and now, universal credit) to point out that providing an income top-up is, in effect, a subsidy to employers who pay below-subsistence wages. In 2015-2016, this subsidy was estimated at about £30 billion. Had this been paid out by employers as part of their wage bill then this would also have led to an increase in national insurance and tax revenues. These credits therefore represent a factor which, whether inadvertently or not, increase inequalities between those who rely on their wages for their livelihood and those who derive their incomes, directly or indirectly, from corporate profits.
If a UBI is not to exacerbate this state of affairs, it is imperative that it is linked to a high minimum wage and one, moreover, that can be linked to systems where workers are paid by the task, not just to hourly rates.
The risk of undermining collective bargaining for employer-provided benefits
An important argument against UBI comes from social democratic parties and trade unions, especially in parts of continental Europe with a strong tradition of sector-level bargaining, who argue that its introduction would undermine their efforts to make employers pay into schemes that provide negotiated benefits, such as pensions, health insurance or childcare. A UBI provided by the state would, they contend, shift the burden of paying for it from employers to the general taxpayer. As Richard Murphy has shown, ‘the poorest 20% of households in the UK have both the highest overall tax burden of any quintile and the highest VAT burden’. This shift would therefore exacerbate inequalities, rather than reducing them, at a societal level.
To avoid this risk, it is therefore important that the introduction of UBI should be accompanied by measures that support trade unions’ abilities to bargain with employers at company and sector levels for benefits for their members, by protection for existing company pensions schemes and by other measures that ensure that employers continue to contribute their share of the cost, for instance through employers’ contributions to National Insurance.
The risk of undermining collectively-provided public services
By giving everyone cash, neoliberal models of UBI play along with the grain of an increasingly marketised economy in which services are individually purchased from private providers. There is therefore a risk that UBI could become a sort of glorified voucher system, undermining collectively provided public services that are designed by bodies democratically answerable to the communities they serve, under the guise of offering individual choice. Quite apart from the considerable risks that this poses to democracy, social cohesion and the quality of services, this could disadvantage individuals with special needs who require more expensive and/or specialised services than the average, exacerbating inequalities even while purporting to offer everybody the same.
It is therefore imperative that the introduction of a UBI should be embedded with policies that protect the scope and quality of public services and their collective and universal character.
The risk of creating racist definitions of citizenship
If a UBI is defined as a right of citizenship, then this raises the question of entitlement: who is, or is not, a citizen? And on what basis is their right to UBI established? A final serious risk associated with the introduction of UBI is that it could become linked to a narrow definition of citizenship from which some people (for example refugees, asylum-seekers or residents who do not hold UK passports) are excluded. In addition to the support this could give to racism and xenophobia this could also lead to a two-tier labour market in which people who are not entitled to UBI become an exploited underclass.
The introduction of UBI must therefore be integrated with humane and well-thought-out policies on immigration and citizenship, perhaps by linking entitlement to the place of residence, rather than nationality.
I have highlighted here what I see as four major challenges that need to be confronted if UBI is to be introduced as a genuinely progressive initiative that can restore some dignity and security to the most vulnerable members of our society, enable a flexible labour market to function in ways that avoid exploitation while encouraging entrepreneurship and creativity and reduce social inequality. In doing so, I do not wish to pour cold water on the very idea. On the contrary, I think that, at this moment in history, it is crucially important – so important that what is needed now is a debate, not about the abstract idea of a UBI, but about how it could be introduced in the real world in a way that is genuinely compatible with social-democratic and feminist ideals and starts to rebuild the train-wreck that is currently all we have left of the 20th century welfare state that so many people worked so hard to create.
It was entirely predictable that Trump’s first dance as president of the United States would be performed (with some cartoonish mouthing of the words) to the tune of ‘My Way’, playing out in a manner beyond irony the triumph of braggadocio in 21st century public life.
It is hard for anyone with any degree of self-awareness to believe that this is entirely serious. Surely, we think, that degree of ostentatious and clichéd vulgarity must be enacted with a tongue lodged firmly somewhere in a jowly cheek: two tiny fingers raised to the good taste of those who manage the world; the jester releasing his evil-smelling trump (in the colloquial British sense of the word) in the deodorised boudoir of the establishment.
Then comes the awful realisation that this is absolutely for real. The foot-stamping toddler really does want his own way. The occupant of the gilded throne-room really does believe he has a right to rule and annihilate what stands in his path.
What has happened to the world in which modesty is a virtue, lights are hidden under bushels and, whatever you’ve got, it’s unladylike to flaunt it? Even to ask such questions, for someone on the left, is difficult. It puts us on the side of gentility, privilege, convention. It aligns us with that very establishment we thought we were critiquing. And it makes us vulnerable to accusations of snobbery – of being, Heaven help us, ‘North London intellectuals’, deploring the vulgarity of the working class (to a soundtrack of classical music) even while we purport to be placing its interests first.
Its conflicted relationship to popular culture is, perhaps, one of the factors that has contributed most to the intellectual paralysis that seems to have overtaken many on the British left in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Vulnerable to accusations of elitism, many are uncomfortable talking about the cultural pleasures of cosmopolitan connectedness. They would rather parade a connoisseurship of punk music than of Baroque ceilings, of real ale than of wine, just as it is easier to write a PhD on Eastenders than on Jane Austen if you want to keep your socialist credentials. While some are happy to subject aspects of popular culture to detailed deconstruction (often in impenetrable language), others are afraid of losing touch, or seeming pretentious, anxiously submerging themselves in activities that reconnect them with their roots, from football to rock and roll. But even such immersion can be accompanied, as the late, lamented, Mark Fisher described so eloquently, by a haunting sense of inauthenticity – of being a fraud who has ‘somehow faked his way through’.
In these days of social media, there is perhaps, no innocence left when it comes to the experience of culture: no experience that is unmediated by the thought – even if resisted – of how it can be captured, reproduced, tweeted, misrepresented, mashed up. In a representational world in which just about everything can be both aligned and opposed to just about everything else, the logic of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ comes adrift. This makes even the sense of belonging ambivalent, and fraught with risk.
It may no longer be possible to recreate the kinds of social spaces that were available for earlier generations of critical misfits to occupy – the Bohemias (whether in the form of physical districts or literary circles) where intercourse took place between artistic, political and sexual transgression and it was equally OK to criticise the ruling class and consumerism. But perhaps new ones will emerge. In the meanwhile, if we want to communicate beyond our own small circles we have to shout, over the cacophony of social media in which everybody else is doing the same, in the hope that somewhere out there will be another voice that responds to ours, in doing so breaking all those taboos against showing off and opening ourselves up to the accusation of not listening properly to others. We have, in short, to engage in precisely the sort of trumpet-blowing our democratic instincts (not to mention our desire to be liked) warn us against.
The question facing us is how to emerge from this paralysis and start moving again. This requires not only putting weight on limbs we may not entirely trust (and letting go with others) but also deciding whose hand to hold and in what direction to move: to find a way of substituting ‘our’ way for ‘my’ way. And even, maybe, finding some way to do it in a shy way.
2016 was a year in which the world turned upside down in so many ways. And nothing seems to sum it up better than this shop window display I spotted this morning in Belgrade with its astonishing juxtaposition of icons. Hoping 2017 will be better for us all. Onward and upward!
I have been seriously thinking for the last six weeks or so that I am developing dementia, after repeatedly finding that entries I had made in the diary feature on my iphone (on which I have relied for years) were appearing on the wrong day. I now discover that this is caused by a horrible redesign – made with no warning to users whatsoever. Before the last (unasked for) upgrade if you were trying to fix an appointment you could see (in calendar mode) which days did – or did not – have some activity in them. You could then click on any given day to see what appointment was already there (suppressing the minor annoyance that Apple might have chosen to mark something like St Andrew’s Day, or Valentine’s Day and that it was in fact free even when it didn’t look like it) or you could add a new appointment. The software, in other words, took you straight from the month view to the day view via a click on the date. There used also to be an intervening week view that showed each day consecutively so you could see details of what was on for each day. Since the last upgrade they have introduced a quite different intervening view that does not list all the days consecutively but lists every diary entry. If there is more than one thing on any given day, each item is given its own entry, but if there are days with nothing entered it simply skips them. I thought this was just a visual change but now realise that the functionality has also completely altered.
Yesterday I was trying to make an appointment in January. Looked at the month view and found that there was nothing on from the 11th to the 15th and clicked on the 11th to add the new appointment. But the software didn’t take me to the 11th – the page it opened was the 16th – the first on which I had another appointment already entered. The only way to add the new appointment was to enter the new date manually as a changed start time. It has clearly been doing this ever since the last upgrade. This explains why at least four appointments I have made in the last month have ended up appearing on the wrong dates. There are many more set for the future and I can see that I am going to have to go through them all, checking each one to make sure it is entered for the right date. Hours of my time wasted all because some little geek working for Apple (probably in dreadful conditions in Bangalore) didn’t think this thing through, and nobody bothered to offer customers a choice. This same upgrade, I may say, also unilaterally took it upon itself to assume that an appointment I made in Toronto needed to be adjusted by 5 hours to bring it into line with UK time – resulting in another huge diary disruption.
I could manage my diary just fine on a Nokia communicator 20 years ago. But now we are in an era where our every labour process, paid or unpaid, is determined by these global corporations. An activity as simple as jotting a note in a diary electronically, rather than on paper, now involves effectively filling in a form. And this form is not designed to enable independent individuals to manage their lives autonomously but to facilitate corporate control of time management and maximise rental incomes to software companies, telecommunications suppliers and their ilk.
In the last four or five years I have been struck by the spread of those practices whereby messages are sent directly to your diary by other people using Outlook. An alert will suddenly pop up asking you to accept or reject a meeting request from someone you may or may not know. At first these came from other people in the university I work for, and were, I assumed, linked to the fact that we were all on the same email system, but now they come from all directions – neighbours, people I have agreed to do talks for, and even, the other day, somebody inviting me to a party that way. Intrusion into other people’s time management has been appified and normalised. If you fail to ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ or, worse, fumblingly press the wrong button, which has interecepted your urgent attempt to do something else, there will be social consequences, as well as potential financial ones (like those that occur when you do not realise that, lurking in a website from which you have purchased something, there is a hidden area where you are supposed to deactivate automatic renewal).
Last night I spoke at a book launch in Oxford for this remarkable book by Bob Hughes and the audience discussion turned to the question what to do about it (‘it’ being the toxic effects of technology more generally). Two ‘solutions’ stand out as the most obvious.
The first of these is to resist the new technology and go back to the old. In this particular case this would mean going back to lugging around a heavy address book and diary and pen wherever I go. With my low haemoglobin and bad shoulder this would be an increasingly painful solution as well as doing little to reduce the world’s consumption of paper. it would additionally, in these days when arrangements are made by text and email, require a lot of cross-referencing with other sources of information. There is also the reality that my handwriting is not the most legible and a note made, for example, on a moving bus, is liable to be open to several alternative interpretations. And the ever-increasing risk of physical loss or damage, from absent-mindedly leaving it behind somewhere or having the bag stolen, or spilling coffee over it.
The second ‘solution’ – the one that, over the years, I have heard proposed by more (usually young and male) techies than I could count, is to develop alternative applications, using open source software. This means having to invest a huge amount of personal time and effort (unpaid of course) in learning how to use this software and, if you are not a denizen of any hackerspace, simply swapping dependence on one lot of techies (poorly paid by global corporations) to another (apparently working for free but actually, of course, with their time subsidised by rich parents or spouses, day jobs paid for by others or some form of rent or taxpayer subsidy).
In the here and now neither of these is an attractive option for me.So I guess that, until the workers of the world unite to build a better society, I am just going to have to grit my teeth and keep learning the new codes and filling in the forms and installing the new apps at the diktat of these global corporations, rendered dumber (and angrier) by the day by their Taylorisation of my daily life.
I cannot have been alone in my reaction to yesterday’s Autumn Budget announcements from Philip Hammond in which the government promises that underpinned the austerity agenda for the last six years were at last pronounced officially dead. What I couldn’t stop thinking about was the huge toll of human sacrifice those false promises had brought about: the elderly people hounded out of their council homes because there was one bedroom too many, the dying people deprived of benefits because they turned up a few moments late for a Jobcentre appointment, the disabled people put through humiliating and painful tests, the defeated expressions on the faces of proud people forced into demeaning make-work jobs, the shame of having to turn to a foodbank to feed one’s kids. So much pain. Then, all unbidden, the words came into my head from that Stanley Holloway comic monologue, so often requested on the radio in my childhood, called Albert and the Lion, in which the mother of Albert (who has been eaten by a lion at the zoo) is consoled by a magistrate with the thought that she can always have more sons and replies, indignantly, ‘What, spend all our lives raising children. To feed ruddy lions? Not me!’.
Whether those lions are seen as stand-ins for war or for capitalism, the joke, certainly understood by most people in the self-deprecating 1950s when I first heard it, hinged on the fact that of course, people always DO go on raising children, whatever the cost, whatever the sacrifice. In fact for most people, having children is the best and most altruistic thing they ever do in their lives. Having children, or grandchildren, or nephews and nieces, or loving the children of others, gives you a stake in the future, in peace, in public order, in a society that values more than just making money. It is actually society’s main protection from nihilist destructive rage, crime and greed gone mad.
Against all rational self-interest, in the knowledge that it will make them poorer, deprive them of sleep, of chances to go out in the evening, of holidays, people just go on having babies, drinking in their smiles, saving up to buy them treats, then later worrying themselves silly every time they fail to come home on time, trying desperately to protect them from pain and, yes, putting up uncomplainingly with horrible jobs just to try to assure them a secure future.
It was reported at the end of June this year in the Guardian that the number of children being brought up in poverty in the UK had risen from 3.7 million in 2014-2015 to 3.9 million – an increase of 200,000 in just one year of austerity programmes. If you listen to the way the parents of these children are described in the right-wing media, or see how they are treated by the Tory state, you would think that choosing to procreate is an act of pure selfishness, embarked on to jump the queue for social housing, or claim a bit more benefit. Rarely is it recognised that what parents are actually doing, often at great cost to their finances and their own bodily wellbeing, is bringing up the next generation of workers and taxpayers on whom the economy depends. Instead of being rewarded and praised for this, they are demonised.
If there is one single argument, above all others, for the need for a universal basic income it is this: to secure a future for our children – social reproduction – that does not have to be bought with such suffering (I was going to write ‘needless suffering’ but of course in this unequal world we know that there are those who benefit from it).