Remote management, coercion and masculinity

Sometimes it takes an accident of synchronicity to make a connection between two very different forms of research that sparks a new insight.

This has just happened to me. I am in the process of editing the next issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation which will include an article by the brilliant French sociologist Marie-Anne Dujarier. I do not feel too bad about revealing some of its contents prior to publication because it is based on research that has already been published in France in Le management désincarné. Enquête sur les nouveaux cadres du travail.  It is a remarkable study, based on large-scale quantitative research as well as in-depth individual and group interviews and an analysis of management literature carried out over more than a decade.

The research focuses on managers. Not just any old managers but the specific sub-set of managers and consultants whose jobs involve introducing new systems and processes that affect the working lives of others. The new systems and models (or, as the French call them, dispositifs) they work with are increasingly standardised – often branded and sold by international consultancies and referred to by catch-phrases such as ‘KPI’ or ‘Lean Management’ (as it happens there will be an article by Sabine Pfieffer on one of these – ‘Agile Management’ – in the same journal issue). A number of scholars, including myself, have studied these new forms of (often algorithmic) management but have tended to do so from the perspective of the workers whose lives are transformed by their impacts. Dujarier’s originality is to look at what is going on in the minds of the managers who are introducing these changes, and the cultures in which their work is embedded.

By coincidence, I have also just been reading another book which also switches its focus from the more usually examined perspective of the victim to that of the perpetrator: Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does he Do that? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling MenBancroft is a psychologist whose book draws on fifteen years of in-depth work with abusive men. It is deservedly a best seller because it demystifies a number of widely-held views about how and why some men become abusive and, in the process, helps abused women to understand why a lot of the strategies that they are often advised to turn to (such as couples counselling, mediation or anger management courses) are not only unhelpful but may be actively dangerous, simply providing abusers with new weapons to use against them.

The parallels between these two very different perpetrator-focused studies do not stop there. Dujarier describes the way in which change managers typically operate at a physical and cultural distance from the people whose work processes they are redesigning. They make it clear that they know nothing about the details of the lives their work is affecting and are typically based in a head office or consultancy surrounded by others doing similar work, with a shared culture. In this shared culture, empathy is strongly penalised. Although many are aware that what they are doing is ‘dirty work’, they do not express guilt about this but find ways of making the work enjoyable. They get considerable job satisfaction (and praise from co-workers as well as enhanced promotion prospects) from being able to keep things abstract, finding elegant solutions to technical problems. They avoid finding out too much about the people affected by their work, which they see as making life too complicated and slowing them down. Their pleasure in the work comes from treating it as a game, and their language is full of phrases like ‘winning the race’, ‘annihilating the opposition’, or ‘striking a blow’. They become committed to the work as a pleasurable intellectual exercise but without any emotional attachment.  This is propped up by endogamous socialisation – they tend to mix only with their peers, who provide reinforcement and support for these values.

Switching now to Lundy’s abusive men, we find some very similar patterns. They are highly narcissistic with a notable lack of empathy. They also often bring a gaming attitude to relationships, speaking about ‘winning’ and ‘showing who’s the boss’. Furthermore, although they often claim to have lost control of themselves when they resort to physical intimidation or violence they actually demonstrate a strong ability to remain firmly in control. Bancroft quotes numerous examples of men who, while claiming to be under the sway of uncontrollable rage while hitting their victims are nevertheless careful not to leave any bruising that would show, or who are able to switch off their aggression and transform themselves into concerned victims of provocation the moment the doorbell rings. He also writes about the way they seek out the company of other men who share and reinforce their values. Like the remote managers who, one must assume, can generally rely on the support of top management to push through their reforms, however unpopular they are, these abusive men are also often able to rely on their misogynistic culture being shared by those in positions of power, such as police officers and judges.

Both groups seem sealed into hermetic worlds that mirror back their prejudices and expand and legitimise their sense of entitlement, while objectifying and belittling those who are the victims of their actions.

I am not of course suggesting that all managers are abusers. Or even that changes in work organisation may lead to a growth in abusive behaviour. Far from it. But these parallels do point in the direction of some larger social issues that are not currently being addressed by academic research in a very coherent way, probably because of the fractured disciplinary landscape (for example, management studies, labour sociology, psychology and gender studies are worlds apart, barely even sharing a common language). Dujarier’s managers and Bancroft’s abusers are two very different symptoms of much larger problems but by no means the only symptoms. It would be equally possible, for example, to look at mass killings, the hunting of endangered animals or the pornography industry through similar lenses.

The lesson I draw from these parallels is that we should be asking much deeper questions about the connections between new forms of work organisation, alienation among workers at different hierarchical levels, the loss of empathy that arises when there is no face-to-face communication and the development of toxic subcultures and coercive forms of behaviour. In particular, we should look at the structures that enable and perpetuate abusive forms of masculinity, allowing coercive and violent men, as well as those who insist they are just doing their jobs and don’t want to think too hard about the consequences, to inhabit worlds in which their attitudes are mirrored and reflected back to them and in which they are never confronted with the real emotional consequences of the damage that they inflict.

 

 

London mob, where are you?

From Charles I to Margaret Thatcher, when British governments have got above themselves and tried to do what is contrary to most public opinion, they have been brought to their senses by the same powerful force: the London mob.

Taking to the streets is the last weapon available to an infuriated populace – visible as I write on the streets of Hong Kong and Puerto Rico and in the past in so many other places: the 2011 Arab Spring; the 1989 ‘Autumn of Nations’; and of course the 1848 ‘Spring of Nations’ referenced in that name.

Yet here we are, faced with an un-representative British government with less legitimacy than any in living memory, making decisions without popular mandate with a potential to affect many more people  much more seriously than Thatcher’s poll tax, and there is no mob to be seen on the streets of London.

There have been some polite demonstrations against a no-deal Brexit, which have been boycotted by many on the pro-Brexit left on the grounds that they are middle-class, neo-liberal and Blairite. There have also been some demonstrations calling for a general election but, so deep is the rift among former labour party supporters, in a kind of mirroring, many on the anti-Brexit left have failed to support them because they are ‘too cross with Jeremy Corbyn’. This polarisation on the left has been accentuated by the unpleasantly engineered charges of anti-semitism, in which the BBC has played a disgraceful role, matched only in political irresponsibility by the way in which it has conferred the ‘oxygen of publicity’ on the likes of Nigel Farage, Ann Widdecombe and Boris Johnson over the years, presenting them to the British public as entertaining eccentrics rather than the dangerous threats to democracy they actually constitute.

One of the most depressing aspects of these divisions is the claim by both sides in the debate on the left that they speak for the working class. If we look at voting patterns in the 2016 referendum it is clear that the urban population (where most of the working class, especially its black and ethnic minority members, resides) was largely in favour of remaining in the EU. The the average majority for ‘remain’ was 55.2% in the 30 largest cities. All the largest UK cities (apart from Birmingham) – London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Bristol, Cardiff, Belfast – voted with substantial margins to remain in the EU. Other than in Birmingham and nearby Coventry and Wolverhampton, the urban ‘leave’ majority was concentrated in what Americans call ‘rustbelt’ areas – where local populations have been hit hard by deindustrialisation, such as Sheffield, Bradford, Wakefield, Sunderland, Nottingham, Derby, Stoke-on Trent and Hull. Sadly these areas are likely to be among those hit hardest by any no-deal Brexit.

Surely, a future historian might think, it is precisely in these large cities that one might expect people to take to the streets. Look at Manchester, with its brave tradition of popular protest going back to Peterloo in 1819. Or London, where in 1641 the London apprentices and their supporters took to the streets to prevent the bishops from entering the Houses of Parliament to thwart Charles I, and the Gordon rioters shook the establishment to its core in 1780. Not to mention the 1990 poll tax riots that are often credited with bringing Thatcher down. But so far, no sign.

What can explain this? Perhaps it has something to do with race and racism? Certainly a reaction to racism played a major part in triggering some of the most recent urban rioting, for example in  London’s Brixton,  Liverpool’s Toxteth and Leeds’s Chapeltown in the summer of 1981, and the so-called London riots of August 2011. But racism has, if anything, intensified considerably in recent years, fuelled by May’s ‘hostile environment for immigrants ‘ regime in the Home Office and the sense of entitlement of far-right racist parties in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Have people become too afraid to protest? Or lost faith in the solidarity of the white left? Have they succumbed to the kind of social paralysis that affects people with long-term depression? Or are they simply too busy scratching a living in the precarious gig economy to be able to take time off for the comparative luxury of political self-expression?

Of course I do not want to place the responsibility for leading us out of the mess that is obviously not of their making on any members of the urban proletariat, black or white. In puzzling over why they are not taking to the streets there are also other factors to be taken into account. Is it a question of culture? I seem to remember that some of the impetus behind the poll tax riots came from the anarchist group Class War, linked to a kind of punk culture that was consciously anti-racist, including mixed punk/reggae bands like UB40. I am no expert on popular music these days but it would seem to me that Stormzy’s popularity among Labour Party members follows in such a tradition. Nevertheless, it is one thing to have middle-class Glastonbury-goers applauding the music and quite another to have them out on the streets in solidarity with victims of racism in Lewisham or Moss Side. Or, for that matter, with food bank users in Brent or South Shields. Is it a question of leadership? On the principle that a mob is not a mob until it’s mobilised. Who knows? What seems clear is that there is now in London as in other cities across the land a bubbling cauldron of anger that seems overdue for an overflow. But where will it go? And who will be scalded in the process?

 

 

Cassandra or stuck record?

As I continue to work my way through the detritus of half a century’s worth of intellectual activity, I come across things that are surprising only because I have forgotten them. This morning, in a folder dating from the early 1990s that included some yellowed press cuttings, correspondence, reprints of academic articles, statistical printouts, a Socialist Society pamphlet and an ILO report, I came across this 25-year-old article for dummy edition of red pepper 1994 which, for all I know, never even saw the light of day.

Of course some of the specific details are out of date (the numbers; the technologies in use) but there are very few details of the actual analysis that I would change if I were writing it now (though I would probably go into a lot more critical detail about the idea of a basic citizen’s income mentioned at the conclusion). In fact it is probably a lot more succinct than anything I would put together now.  My discovery of it this morning was made all the more poignant by the fact that last night I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 about a shorter working week  in which several of the arguments I critique in the article were put forward as if they were brand new. 

Which leads me to a depressing question. Have I just been repeating myself like a stuck record all these years? Or has my career been more like that of a Cassandra, predicting the future but fated never to be listened to or believed?  Either way, there’s little to be done about it.

 

INTO THE BIN (the impact of EU membership on regional economies)

Sorting through old papers deciding what to throw out has to be one of the most disspiriting activities there is. With financial information, there are clear rules about how long you have to keep records for tax purposes but not, as far as I know, for old research materials. I am always haunted by the fear that, long after a report has been published, somebody will demand to see the evidence. If I can’t produce it, will I be forever deemed guilty of having made it all up?

I have never experienced the supposedly cathartic effects of decluttering; my motivation for doing it now is rather more negative: partly to open up some space and partly not to inflict it on anyone else after I am gone. The stratum I reached today is even more depressing than usual but I suppose it has a certain topical poignancy, although the past labour processes it recalls could not be more old-fashioned. Dating from around 1990 this batch comprises box after box of computer print-out (on that wide green-and-white striped paper with sprocket holes down the edges for engaging with a dot matrix printer), yellowed faxes with fading brown text and a curiously sweet chemical odour, first drafts of reports printed more readably from a daisy-wheel printer with graphs (generated in Harvard Graphics and printed out separately) laboriously glued into manually-calculated gaps in the text, overhead projector slides printed out on thick cellulose, and innumerable photocopied comb-bound reports sporting now-defunct acronyms on their covers..

Quite a lot of this material relates to research about what the impact of joining the EU would be in Britain at a local level (the exact reverse of the situation we face now). We looked at which sectors of the economy were growing and which were shrinking, which might be able to take advantage of new opportunities to export freely across Europe and which might be threatened by competition. And then we looked at how these were distributed across UK counties and combined that information with other information about things like educational qualifications, levels of unemployment, the extent to which businesses were locally owned as compared with being branches of multinationals (this I remember being a huge exercise, only achieved with a lot of help from the late lamented Henry Neuburger). And then we did various analyses (including a cluster analysis which in those days was not a very respectable thing to do) to see how these things correlated with past trends in each county and mapped it all, trying to identify which sectors in which parts of the country might be winners or losers as a result of the UK joining the single European Market and which policies might help to address the risks. It has all gone into the recycling now. I did not give in to the temptation to reread any of it, but I do remember that one of the more surprising findings was that one of the best predictors of having a resilient local economy was having a strong public sector. This could be because the existence of good local public sector jobs gave workers a degree of insulation from the ups and downs of the business cycle, especially in areas with a lot of manufacturing industry. It could also be that having large universities, hospitals etc, acts as a magnet for relatively high-earning graduates and helps keep local economies diverse. I honestly can’t remember the detail.

As I lug the recycling bags downstairs it is of course sad to think of all that dead labour (and all the fun things I might otherwise have done with the time if I hadn’t needed the money so badly) but sadder still is the thought that the political results too have been wasted. Maybe there are people out there now doing similar analyses of what Brexit will mean for local communities around Britain, but I see no sign of them. Into the bin goes ‘The Impact of the Single European Market on the Economy of Mid-Glamorgan’ and its more upbeat sister report on ‘The Impact of the Single European Market on the Economy of South Glamorgan’ (the former, I seem to remember, recommended that Mid Glamorgan’s economy would be much improved if it could be persuade to move its administrative offices into its own territory, rather than leaving them in the middle of Cardiff where they conferred the right to discounted rugby tickets on councillors). And all the reports on Sheffield, and Leicester and so many others. All that reading and writing and consultation with now-gone experts and local political representatives. All that proof reading….into the bin.

And as I listen to the supporters of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt try to explain their increasingly deranged plans for a no-deal Brexit it is hard not to think of our collective futures going into the bin too.

Recognition and visibility in the platform economy

Today the TUC press-released a recent piece of research I directed which they co-sponsored (along with FEPS and UNI-Europa who were the main funders). It’s quite a strong story – the number of people in the UK working for online platforms has doubled in the three years since the first survey we did. But of course, not being about the Tory leadership contest or anti-semitism in the Labour Party (that extraordinarily assymetrical attempt at ‘balance’ the British media seem to be engaging in), did not result in the usual requests to rush down to Broadcasting House in the small hours to talk about. Which is just as well because I am currently too incapacitated to get out of the front door.

But what is really striking about the coverage (including that of the TUC and previous reports of our related research) has been the way that the image almost invariably chosen to illustrate the ‘platform economy’ is that of a cyclist (usually white and male) sporting the logo of a food delivery delivery company such as Deliveroo or Uber Eats (or very occasionally, carrying an insulated food delivery box from which that logo has been carefully photoshopped out).

What our research shows, however (and this is even quoted in some of the coverage, like this from the BBC) is that food delivery riders represent only a very small proportion of people working for online platforms. Indeed, even if they are amalgamated with the people working for driving platforms like Uber (the other great stereotype of the ‘gig economy’ worker) they are greatly outnumbered by other platform workers, working in more hidden ways. The largest group, by far, are people working for online platforms like Upwork, Fiverr or Clickworker in global markets doing anything from low-skilled ‘click work’ to higher-qualified professional work like software development, graphic design or editing. Then there is another huge group (also exceeding the driving and delivery workers) doing a variety of household work including cleaning, babysitting, assembling flat-pack furniture, plumbing, gardening, building and repair.(for platforms like Helpling, Taskrabbit, Mybuilder or Findababysitter).

Even if we concentrate just on the food delivery workers, the white guy on a cycle is not necessarily typical. In the part of London I live in the vast majority of takeaway food comes on a scooter (usually with an ‘L’ plate) driven by somebody who is black or from an ethnic minority, often speaking very little English. There are some women cyclists but they are rare compared with the scooter-driving men from Latin America, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and, less frequently, Eastern Europe who until recently congregated outside my house every day and deliver my dinner on days when I am too ill or tired to cook. (This is based on personal observation rather than research evidence, but has been confirmed in discussions with other researchers and trade union activists in the field. And is certainly not contradicted by the survey results).

But in the context of the larger picture this is neither here nor there. What is extraordinary is the way that this white male cyclist has become the emblematic figure not just of the gig economy in general but also of the ways that workers are starting to organise against online platforms.

Part of the explanation (though I am not sure how big a part) has to lie in their visibility There they are, on our streets, parading the logos of the companies that are also advertised on our screens, presenting the perfect photo opportunity for the lazy journalist looking for an image that says it all without a lengthy caption. And, to be fair, how easy would it be to explain how an image of somebody mopping a floor, or mowing a lawn or pounding a keyboard represents platform labour? But these workers are not only visible to random observers; they are also visible to each other, making it relatively easy to compare notes, discuss grievances and get together to formulate strategies to improve their situations. And, connected with this, they are also visible to researchers and, being in a form of employment with low entry barriers, offer attractive opportunities to find workers to interview and to carry out ‘participant observation’ of what may seem like an exciting new form of worker organisation – or at least the potential for it. I have lost count of the number of PhDs in progress based on just this form of research, usually (but not always) being carried out by white men. They remind me very much, these young men, usually committed socialists, of their equivalents over half a century ago who went to work in auto factories to collect the material for the first book that launched their careers as Marxist labour sociologists.

And far be it from me to knock them.There is something heroic about the way that, in city after city around the world, these riders are coming together, taking part in colourful protests, joining trade unions, taking on the platforms in the courts and, in 2018, even forming a new international organisation – The Transnational Courier Federation. In these pessimistic times, what socialist does not rejoice in the thought that precarious workers really can organise, and want to partake vicariously in their successes? And what labour market researcher does not want to find a topic that seems timely and politically important and likely to lead to publishable results (and, dare I say it, goes a step beyond the knowledge of the PhD supervisor)? These workers are living proof that the spirit of trade unionism is not dead and that the impulses for solidarity and collaboration can resurface even in situations of extreme atomisation and competition between workers.

They remind us of past struggles, like those of the East London dockers in the 19th century who organised to bring dignity and fairness to a situation described by their leader, Ben Tillot in the following words ‘We are driven into a shed, iron-barred from end to end, outside of which a foreman or contractor walks up and down with the air of a dealer in a cattle market, picking and choosing from a crowd of men, who, in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other under foot, and where like beasts they fight for the chances of a day’s work’* . While the physical shed is lacking, we have interviewed platform workers describing the equal desperation with which they wait, thumb poised, to click ‘accept’ on a newly posted task before somebody else gets it. Who could not applaud these 21st century equivalents of the casual dockers, with similar goals, exhibiting similar courage?

Yet I do find myself worrying that, in our appreciation and admiration for these actions, we may fail to learn from history, or take the wrong lessons from it. The dockers, like today’s delivery riders and taxi drivers, were out there in public spaces, waiting together in the places where there was likely to be the greatest demand for their services and, as a result, well placed to organise. And their efforts clearly led to results – results which over time became integrated into the institutional landscape, for example in the development of the National Docks Labour Scheme or (in the case of the London taxi drivers who set up the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association) agreements covering standard charges, licenses etc. This very success, of a type repeated across the labour movements of the world, might provoke in some a belief that this form of organisation is all that is needed. Whatever new form of work emerges, it may be thought, so long as the workers get together and follow the example of other trade unions they will sooner or later be able to bargain their way into a situation that conforms ever more closely to the standard employment model.

And yes, that is partly the case, and yes, that is certainly something to support and strive for. But yet, but yet.. What about all the workers who are not visibly present in public spaces, who do not get a chance to meet each other in person? What about those who aren’t even competing with compatriots but bidding against competitors across the world in economies where wage levels, laws and working conditions are very different?

In late 19th century London the dock workers managed to organise, and so did some factory workers, including women. But there was very little organisation among the tens of thousands of domestic servants, skivvying away in private in other people’s basements during the day and sleeping in their attics by night. Their 21st century equivalents are not usually provided with a bed but are expected to work in equally hidden circumstances, under extremely tight time pressure, with the constant threat hanging over them that a bad customer review might lead to being dropped from the platform with no right of appeal. Domestic workers around the world have managed to organise effectively, from South Africa to Hong Kong to California, often against appalling odds. But the circumstances in which they work create huge obstacles to being able to identify and meet each other (very often, the only way for workers to contact each other is via ethnic or community-based organisations).

It is when we come to such vulnerable groups, often women, often migrant workers, that we come up against the limits of sector-based or occupation-based collective bargaining as narrowly conceived and, in the same spirit as the 19th and 20th century trade unions, need to start campaigning for society-wide measures that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are signed-up members of particular unions. Not just the right of cycle couriers, for example, to have a particular employment status or a particular level of minimum pay but generalised rights for all workers to have employment protection and a national minimum wage.

The challenge, then, is for the efforts of the visible workers to be channelled in support of those who are less visible, in forms of solidarity that should ultimately benefit all. But in order for this to happen the existence of those invisible workers has first to be recognised. Easier said than done.

*Ben Tillot (1910) Dock, Wharf and Riverside Union: A Brief History of the Docker’s Union, London.

Sisters and brothers can we please, PLEASE make up not break up

It is nearly three years now since that fateful referendum but the wounds it opened up on the left are still festering. Indeed it seems that some horrible sort of political septicaemia may be setting in.

I know many people who are principled, intelligent socialists and feminists who are equally appalled by the damage that has been done to our welfare state under the coalition and Tory governments, by the rise of racism, by the devastation caused in Africa and the Middle East by cynical warmongering, by the speed with which inequalities are growing… I could go on. Yet there they sit, in two camps, hands over eyes and ears, demonising each other. The chasm that currently separates them is the question of a second referendum.

In one camp are those who saw the Brexit vote as an authentic expression of the rage of working class people at their abandonment by the political class. For them, many close to the anti-war movement and the Corbynite left of the labour party, who have been on the receiving end of some nasty attacks by Blairites, anybody who disagrees with them is an apologist for neoliberalism. The 6 million people who signed the petition for the revocation of Article 50 and the million who marched in London for a ‘people’s vote’ are all dismissed in the same breath as Bairites; the European Commission is categorised as simply and unproblematically neoliberal and, so, by association, are any socialist members of the European Parliament or social democrats from other European countries. The people have spoken, we should leave Europe and move on to a socialist future and any further discussion is a distraction.

In the opposite camp are those, many of them working class, especially in multicultural cities like London and Manchester, and many who joined the labour party in 2016 and 2017 to support Corbyn against his attackers, who see anybody who voted for Brexit as either ignorant or racist or both. Just as they are demonised by Lexiteers as neoliberals or deluded followers of Blairites, so they demonise Brexiteers as deluded followers of Farage and his ilk. And they often seem equally incapable of listening. Many are very angry at the position the Labour Party took in the last general election. They felt obliged to vote Labour – indeed passionately wanted to – but also felt betrayed that their desire to stay in Europe was unrepresented by the leadership. ‘What could I do? I’m a socialist. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the Lib Dems’ was a common complaint. As May’s Brexit negotiations have unravelled and the lies told by Farage and Johnson in the last referendum campaign become apparent, their feeling that it was all a terrible mistake becomes stronger and stronger. They may not like the leadership of the People’s Vote campaign but who else is there to represent them?

Despite the delicate tightrope the labour leadership has been walking, positions seem to have hardened further now. People who have voted labour in every general election they can remember are saying sorrowfully that they cannot do so again if the party does not support another referendum.(I heard on the news this morning that Labour’s leaflets for the European election campaign may be being rewritten to address this, but for those who think the ‘the people have spoken’ this will no doubt be seen as a climb-down).

What can be done? I may be being very naive here, and I certainly do not have access to the kind of polling information that would make it possible to predict the likely outcome, but it seems to me that the question of the referendum has to be opened up into something that is less binary. Although, as readers of my earlier blog post on referendums will know, I am pretty sceptical about referendums, I am starting to think that one way forward might be to have a referendum which, instead of offering a simple yes/no choice offers instead a choice of, say, four options. These could be: leave with no deal, the May deal, the proposed Corbyn deal and remain. The exhaustive transferrable vote could then be used for people to give their first, second and third options. There is a precedent for the transferable vote in this country, after all. It is used in European elections (although in a form that favours the two main parties).

Such a solution would help address the concerns of those who think that the ‘people have spoken’. Even if you believe that the British people are in favour of Brexit, it is still legitimate to allow them to choose what sort of Brexit they want – something that was not addressed at all in 2016. It should also satisfy those who want a people’s vote and those who think it important to hear the views of people who were too young to vote last time round. It could be run on a free vote principle, enabling different factions in different parties to campaign for different options. It would even allow Corbyn to remain on the fence, if that’s where he feels he needs to be. Could it be a way to start bringing socialists together again?

As I said earlier, I have no idea what the outcome might be but even if it produced one that I would personally be saddened by (I do not want to rehearse the arguments here but I have been writing on and off about this since before the last referendum here, here, here, here , here, here, and here) it might nevertheless start to heal some of those wounds on the left. These are dark times, though there are also glimmers of hope. Those of us who want to see a fairer, brighter more equal future really MUST start working together. Please, sisters and brothers, try to find a way a way to recover the kind of mutual respect and attentive listening that we need to move forward together.

 

bookended

Yesterday I delivered the final manuscript of a book to the publisher. It represented quite an important moment for me, bringing together the insights gleaned from half a century of research on labour.

The last time I remember finishing a complete book in this way was back in 1981, in that burst of energy that high blood pressure produces in mid pregnancy. That one was never intended as a magnum opus, with a title (‘Your job in the Eighties’) that screamed that it had a sell-by date as well, of course, as a write-by date, imposed by the impending birth.

Little did I realise then how pressured the ensuing decades would be. I published edited collections and wrote an awful lot of book-length reports but the only really serious writing I did was in the form of relatively short essays, produced in the brief intervals between the pressing demands of meeting the deadlines for the work that paid the bills.

Thanks to Monthly Review Press, some of these essays, originally written for very different audiences, and with the first dating back to 1978, were published together as a book in 2003, and another collection followed in 2014. But the essay format does not really allow you to build an argument slowly from the beginning and follow it through. On the one hand you cannot presuppose that the reader has read anything else you have written beforehand so you have to go back to square one to explain certain things each time (leading to repetition if they are read sequentially) and the length limit means you cannot go into as much depth and detail as would ideally be nice.

I was constantly urged by friends to ‘write a proper book’ and, indeed, told that I only had myself to blame for any lack of recognition or acknowledgement because I had not done so.

So at last, I bit the bullet and decided to write one, hoping that it might be my last word on this subject that has occupied so much of my time and allow me to move on to other things. I found it quite hard to write in some ways. Partly because, as ever, there were other demands on my time (among others the need to babysit my grand-daughter) but mainly because of the difficulty of avoiding self-plagiarism. If you have been saying something for fifty years (even if this is to very small or uncomprehending audiences) it does not feel fresh when you repeat it. As John Berger memorably said, ‘the first time you say something, you’re discovering a truth. The next time, it’s a little less true’. I would spend hours trying to find a new way to write something only to discover that I had put it much more succinctly, years ago.

Nevertheless, and despite a little bit of (duly acknowledged) recycling here and there I did, I think, manage at least to build a coherent argument starting in Chapter 1 and ending in Chapter 8, with a clear conceptual framework that I hope will be useful to other researchers and students (and maybe even some general readers) in years to come.

But Oh!, as they say, the irony.

However there was one thing I was not prepared for. Even after a working lifetime of playing Cassandra, I was still taken by surprise by one thing: the way that this ‘book’ is going to be published. In a particularly ironic twist, this provides one of the most vivid (and cruel) examples of precisely the kind of fragmentation (of thought processes, of labour processes, of social interaction…) that I have been writing about all these years and, indeed forms part of the book’s subject matter.

Palgrave Macmillan, the publishers, who are now part of the Springer empire, are in the process of introducing a new way of publishing books online, one that integrates them with the way that academic journals are increasingly published. While hard-copy ‘proper books’ printed on paper will no doubt remain, albeit increasingly expensive, they expect the majority of readers to purchase their contents online. And with that in mind they are putting together packages that enable subscribers to pick and mix from a suite of content. Instead of buying a whole book they will be able to download chapters, one at a time, and bundle them together with chapters from other books. Thus, at a stroke, destroying that coherence it has taken so long for me to craft and introducing all sorts of new scope for incomprehension for the reader who comes in at, say, chapter 5.

In this new environment, I suppose that old derided essay format, so criticised by my friends and blamed for my relative invisibility in the academic world, at least in the UK, will turn out to be the best way to communicate after all. Assuming that readers are credited even with the attention span to read 6,000 words consecutively, I fear that the future may be even worse: with the literature made up of individual nuggets, each with an abstract that will be all that most people read, arranged interchangeably in a two-dimensional mosaic in which the genealogy of ideas, the logical sequence of an argument, deep scholarship and, yes, even the quality of writing, are flattened out of existence.

It will be a world where the relationship between reader and writer, that sharing of ideas which matters so much to me, in both capacities, is reduced to a purely instrumental one. Writers are expected to produce a series of discrete, easily explained ‘contributions to knowledge’ (as the reviewers for the academic journals like to put it) which can be harvested as quickly as possible by readers whose only interest is in assembling them, along with others, like so many lego bricks, to produce their own, equally simplified, ‘contributions’. In a process that resembles nothing so much as a dating website – something I wrote about, as it happens, only a couple of weeks ago in my last blog entry.

Researchers, be warned. The fragmentation fairy is waving her wand and you are about to be transported to Academic Tinder. Where, if you have done your homework, you will know that the only successful swipes are those that go to the right.