Intellectual jamming

When the news of B B King’s death reached me earlier this summer, I turned, as I’m sure many others did too,  to Google and Youtube to find recorded performances to remind me of the greatness of this inspirational blues guitarist. I had known that he was extraordinarily prolific and catholic in the company he kept but it was still astonishing, in this overview, to see the range of people he performed with over his long and hard-working career: singers ranging from Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt to Tracey Chapman, Susan Tedeschi and Chaka Khan not to mention other guitarists influenced by him, like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood (and even the likes of U2 and Mick Hucknell).

What shines through from many of these performances, as well of course as King’s talent, is an extraordinary generosity of spirit that is always open to new dialogue: that attentive, respectful listening and voicing, breathing in and breathing out, call and response, giving the other people the right amount of time to express themselves before answering, that musicians call jamming and that characterises not just human communication at its best but also how other forms of art are made co-operatively.

I suppose this represents some sort of ideal of collaborative creative creative labour, exhibiting how new wholes can be made that are so much greater than the sum of their parts. For it to work, each participant has to have skills that are recognised and admired by the others, but such interdependence, especially when it involves taking unrehearsed risks in public, also entails making oneself very vulnerable and has to be underpinned by strong mutual trust. It set me thinking about how rare this kind of jamming is in intellectual work these days.  Rare but not non-existant.

I remember it very clearly in my teens and early twenties, in long profound conversations that went on till dawn about the meaning of life in which each insight from one person seemed to spark an even brighter response from the other. The morning afterwards, of course, many of these insights were forgotten, or understood to be clichés, or at least less original than one had supposed, but they nevertheless left residues that led to further thought, or reading, or even works of art. But it was not just private conversations that had this quality. In my first ‘proper’ job, at Penguin Education, which I joined in 1970, I was lucky enough to work with a team of people who collaborated in a way that was more characteristic of a film crew than many publishing projects. Here, series editors, commissioning editors, copy editors, authors, picture researchers, graphic designers, typographers, photographers and illustrators, each with a clearly defined role but also willing to learn from each other, collaborated on several series of illustrated books and audio-visual materials for schools several which were groundbreaking at the time.

One of the most famous were the Voices (and its supplement for primary schools, Junior Voices) anthologies of poetry, prose and pictures (here is a link to a recorded version of some of them). Another was Connexions, published, under the editorship of Richard Mabey, when the leaving age for secondary school pupils was raised from 15 to 16 in 1972, to introduce these final year students to contemporary discussions in a groovy way. Celebrated here, it was probably the first time the technical potential of offset litho printing was used (by designer Arthur Lockwood) to bring the ‘feel’ of a magazine to what was still in theory a school text book. The first time a kid was spotted reading one on a bus, as I recall, a bottle of champagne was cracked open. Whilst there were of course hierarchies in the organisation of work what I remember most clearly is a strong sense of joint endeavour and shared satisfaction.

It is a model that does not guarantee success. There are always risks: of creative disagreements; incompatible personalities; competitiveness overpowering collaboration; sharp-elbowed scrambling for recognition;  the usual tensions between democracy and efficiency;  all combined with the pressures of time and budget. Some of these have been addressed in the film industry by strict mechanisms of attribution (though invisible power battles underpin even those endlessly rolling credits).  But it is clear that, despite these many difficulties, our culture would be very much poorer (if, indeed, it could be said to exist at all) if people were not prepared to open up their imaginations to each other in this free and generous way in the faith that, by doing so, they will create something that no individual could accomplish alone. Each has taken the personal risk that the gesture might be seen as a clumsy, the solo might dissolve into incoherence, the joke be unfunny, the sentiment mawkish, or the whole thing met with blank incomprehension; all this has been braved in the hope that if it all works, something glorious will emerge.

I could write at length about the complicated relationship between being alone, and being with others, reflecting and expressing, that is entailed in so many creative processes, but that is not what i want to do today. Nor do I want to get too deep into a discussion of the ways in which ‘project-based working’, whilst drawing on many of the traditions of how teams work together in creative industries, is also used a an instrument of casualisation, keeping workers in a state of perpetual insecurity, with a constant need both to beg and to brag (I have a chapter on ‘begging and bragging’ in this book). No, what prompted me to write this post was the simple regret that this collaborative spirit is so singularly lacking in academic life, despite the rhetoric of collegiality that still haunts university campuses.

Far from being places where colleagues freely share ideas and inspire each other to generate new collective understandings, many universities now feel more like prisons for ideas, where they are corralled into separate schools and disciplines – places where non-competitive behaviours and disrespect for hierarchies and boundaries may actively be punished. The unsuspecting new entrant may arrive with a starry-eyed vision of common rooms and high tables where ideas are aired for general appreciation, to be met with wit, informed debate, recognition and a sense of having contributed to the development of a larger body of knowledge. But, like a cow discovering the limits of a field through a series of shocking encounters with electric fences, you will soon learn the reality. Send an article unsolicited to a senior colleague for an opinion? FSSSTTTT-KKK*! You didn’t really expect them to have time to read it, did you? Co-author an article with a student for publication in a non-ranked journal? FSSSTTTT-KKK! What’s that going to do for your department’s ‘excellence’ score? You do realise you have performance targets to meet, don’t you? Talk about some ideas at a conference that you haven’t yet published in an article? FSSSTTTT-KKK! You have given valuable intellectual property away to your department’s rivals, what were you thinking of? Put your deepest thoughts into a research report that is a ‘deliverable’ for a collaborative project? FSSSTTTT-KKK! You just gave that well-known professor from a Russell Group university the material for his next article! Do you seriously think you’ll be properly acknowledged? Discover that there is someone in a different department of your university whose ideas really chime with yours and suggest a joint project? FSSSTTTT-KKK! You have started a major row between warring Deans about who will own the outcome. How COULD you? Explain what you mean in really, really simple language? FSSSTTTT-KKK! Oh, come on. Be serious!

People being the curious, creative, idealistic beings that they are, there is clearly now a continuing hankering for alternative spaces in which intellectual jamming can take place. It is evident in the profusion of blogs and postings on mailing lists by young scholars, in the setting up of new networks and attempts to find ways of organising conference sessions that go beyond the sequential delivery of over-rehearsed pre-prepared texts. Not least, I see it in the enthusiastic participation of large numbers of, mainly young, researchers in the events organised by the Dynamics of Virtual Work  network I am currently leading.

But these opportunities for dialogue increasingly feel like small gaps in the electric fences through which hands can be grasped occasionally and a few ideas at a time can be smuggled. Where is the wide open landscape, the public realm in which an independent intelligentsia can converse openly? We are all, of course, free, within certain circumscribed limits, to make use of the means put at our disposal by global corporations to express ourselves, but, with no independent source of livelihood, this is increasingly looking like Anatole France’s famous freedom to sleep under bridges and beg in the streets. Apart from a lucky few, those inside the academy have no time, and those outside it no money to create opportunities for unhurried, focussed collaboration. The intellectual common, such as it is, is now a  minefield of contradictions. On the one hand it provides the main means for expression and collaboration for an exponentially growing proportion of the world’s citizens, but on the other it is also increasingly a site for the accumulation of new capital. We navigate it at our peril.

* Several people have asked me what this strange acronym represents. It is actually my – clearly rather feeble – attempt to evoke the sound that is made when living flesh comes into contact with an electric fence. Here is a recording of what it actually sounds like.

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Uber and under

In recent weeks I have been doing a lot of travelling (involving taking a lot of taxis) and speaking at various events about the so-called ‘sharing economy’, so Uber has been much on my mind.

I am never quite sure how much various different audiences know about the topic so one of the things i sometimes do is show a powerpoint slide with various phrases people might have come across ( ‘crowdsourcing’, ‘cloudsourcing’, ‘sharing economy’, ‘peer-to-peer networking’ etc.) and then show them the logos of various online platforms which they might have heard of to see what glimmers of awareness emerge. Last year, with a bunch of students I thought would be quite savvy about such things, I asked them to put up one hand if they had heard of the company or recognised the logo and two hands if they had used it. One admitted to having heard of Airbnb, two people had heard of Uber and one (a lecturer sitting in on the class) confessed to having used it. Of the dozen or so other companies (including several – like Elance, Peopleperhour, and Taskrabbit) that might have offered them a source of supplementary income, none kindled a spark of recognition. I was astonished by their ignorance.

brussels taxi

With typical Belgian understated style, Brussels taxi drivers respond to ‘clandestine taxis’ with a cultural reference to Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’.

European academics tend to have heard of Amazon Mechanical Turk (partly, perhaps, because it is used a lot to find samples for surveys, as well as having been much studied in the USA) and a few have also heard of ‘clickwork’ but not of the German company of that name. Some make use of online platforms that provide cleaning, household repair or construction services without putting much, if any, thought into how their workers are treated. And many are enthusiastic customers of Airbnb and Etsy.

A couple of months ago at the European Parliament I didn’t ask the question formally, but it was clear from the discussion that quite a few people were familiar with both Airbnb and Uber, though less so with the platforms that co-ordinate things like construction work, cleaning, hairdressing and so on. This suggests that the topic has begun to appear at least at the periphery of policy debates about the ‘Digital Single Market’.

The politicans’ concern is not trivial. Uber vowed in January 2015 ‘to create 50,000 jobs in Europe as part of a “new partnership” with European cities’*. And this is welcomed by many in some cities, where taxi drivers are regarded as a privileged elite (and taxi licenses cost a small fortune). One Italian participant at the meeting spoke eloquently of the way that working class people in her city welcomed affordable taxis, regarding the existing drivers as a kind of mafia-like closed shop. There was nobody there who spoke to represent the taxi drivers as organised workers represented by trade unions, which better reflects the reality in many countries. It is clear that much popular opinion is not on the side of the official taxi drivers but welcomes what it thinks will offer cheaper alternative taxi services (though Uber’s ‘dynamic pricing’ policy suggests that this is sometimes not the case, and, if official taxis are driven out of the arena, may become less so in the future). Even leaving such qualifications aside, it is clear that the policy response has to be more sophisticated than a simple knee-jerk defence of the existing regulations.

On my way back from the European Parliament building to the train station, with Uber on my mind, I was amused to see how the Belgian official taxi drivers were responding to this threat to their dominance.  In what I can only presume to be a conscious and witty reference to the famous Magritte painting of a pipe, captioned ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’, but with reversed significance, they have added stickers to the sides of their cabs proclaiming ‘ceci n’est pas un taxi clandestin’.

Cut to Berlin, where, a month later, I was doing a talk, also on the sharing economy, for a conference organised by Die Linke, the Left Party, and the situation is very different. I was expecting a high awareness of Uber, given the news stories that went around the world in september 2014 about a ruling by the Berlin court upholding a ban on Uber in the German capital. It was reported at the time* that this had come about as a result of heavy lobbying by the German taxi drivers’ associations.

uber ad on taxi in germany

Berlin taxi in rank outside main rail station advertising Uber.

Yet when I gave my presentation nobody in the audience admitted even to having heard of Uber. And when I left the conference, outside the nearby railway station in the official taxi rank, what should I see but taxis actually advertising Uber.

What’s going on here? I cannot pretend to  know anything about the background to this. Has some huge administrative or legal sea-change taken place in the last six months? Is Uber now running official taxis? Have the organisations that represent official taxi drivers capitulated to such an extent that their members are now forced to drive around advertising the very service that spells the death-knell of their bargaining power? Has Uber adopted the kind of bullying strategy that the forthcoming TTIP will open up to many more international corporations – to sue any body that prevents them elbowing their way into any market, including the market for advertising on taxis?  Whatever the case, there seems to be a huge disconnect  between what is going on in the streets and what is going on in the perceptions of German left-wing intellectuals.

A week later, in Toronto, I was confronted with a different sort of disconnect. Many North American intellectuals are only too aware of the changes in work organisation signalled by the advent of the ‘sharing economy’ and this is starting to become evident in that most reliable of indicators, the topic of a growing number of PhD theses. Yet I found absolutely no evidence that this awareness is being translated significantly into political positions that inform daily practice. One leading US socialist intellectual with whom I had a conversation about how we had both got to central Toronto from the airport told me that although he had taken a regular taxi on the way in, he was planning to use Uber on the way back because it was so much cheaper. I detected no sense that he felt any matter of principle was involved.

Thus are wedges driven into the working class, with the USA, as so often, showing us in Europe what lies ahead of us: with workers acting as service users placed in a position where every act of consumption runs the risk of worsening other workers’ positions as service producers, with ever-expanding proportions of transactions mediated by increasingly powerful global corporations.

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Wisteria

wisteriaI am never sure how much my love of wisteria is visual, how much to do with its exotic literary associations (The pillow book of Sei Shonagon, the first Japanese book I read in translation, positively drips with them) and how much simply because of the sound of it: the way the word compresses ‘wistful’ and ‘hysteria’ – two such different stereotypes of femininity – into a surprising in-out gust of energy that mimics the vigour of its growth.

I had always wanted to live in a house with a wisteria up the front, like the lady in the pillow book, and planted this one in  2010 or 2011 (I can’t remember which) when the house was still at the mercy of builders, and it has flourished ever since, and now brings joy to me (and I hope the neighbours) every April.

There is obviously something in the Dalston terroir particularly conducive to wisteria growth. Nurtured by the droppings of rats with a protein-rich and chemically-enhanced diet of fried chicken and chips, the cocaine-infused urine of hipsters, the delicate hints of amyl nitrate wafting in the night air, and the beer – Oh the beer! – how can it not thrive?

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Rung sweet rung

Dalston development 5 c

One of the most striking features of last week’s televised leaders’ debate was the extent to which it displayed a common vocabulary among the party leaders, regardless of political persuasion. In this new policyspeak,  citizens have been transformed into ‘hardworking families’ (when they are not ‘customers’ or ‘taxpayers’) and homes are invariably ‘the first rung of the housing ladder’.

These rungs are only too evident in Dalston.  Despite valiant attempts by local groups, such as Open Dalston, to save some of the area’s cultural and architectural heritage, the ‘town centre’, as the planners call it, has become a giant building site. Cashing in on Dalston’s hip reputation, the hoardings show images of the young and cool and feature slogans like ‘see it, be it, love it’ placed strategically where they can catch the eye of people leaving the nearby Arcola Theatre and Cafe Oto and late night clubbers staggering their giggling way towards the Overground Station.

Dalston development 3Dalston development 4

Yet it is hard to imagine a larger cultural gap than that between the edgy, self-ironising hipster aesthetic that made Dalston cool in the first place and the bland mass-produced blocks produced in their thousands by Barratt and Taylor Wimpey who are currently the two main developers in the area. They also happen to be two of the largest construction companies in the country. Even the staunchly Tory Telegraph regards Taylor Wimpey as a predatory company that is bringing undue pressure on public bodies to allow it to develop where it likes (see this article for an indignant expose of construction companies’ attempts to pressurise politicians to let them develop the Green Belt) while Lawrence Barratt (founder of Barratt Homes) is a well-known donor to the Conservative Party).

The evidence is that the overwhelming majority of buyers of these flats are not the young ‘creatives’ referenced in the images on the hoardings. Many are investors from countries like Russia, China and Pakistan (and more recently from crisis-hit economies in Southern Europe) wanting to park some of their money in the London property market. Such has been the increase in value in recent years that many do not even bother to rent them out – the flats are earning so much money (and, no doubt, helping their owners avoid so much tax and/or financial scrutiny back home) that there is no need for the hassle. In other cases they are bought by buy-to-let landlords. Their tenants are often people who work in the City of London, which is just a few bus stops down the road. Few, if any, are people from the local authority’s list of people with a real and desperate need for shelter. It could also be (but I have no firm evidence of this) that we are beginning to see a phenomenon that is already statistically visible in New York, whereby single people or couples who cannot afford the rent take a 2- or 3-bedroom flat that is too big for their requirements on the basis that they can boost their income by renting out the spare bedroom (or even in extremis the whole flat) through Airbnb – a process that drives up the market rents in an area, while depriving the local housing market of affordable rental properties for families

What is clear is that these flats are not intended for long-term occupation by people who want to put down roots in the area. A couple of years ago I actually went and viewed a show flat in the Barratts Dalston Square development on behalf of a friend of mind who is disabled and was looking for somewhere she could buy that had a disabled parking space and full wheelchair access.

dalston development 2 The disdainful young woman who showed me around was completely unprepared for such a request. All the glossy documentation she showed me featured graphs  demonstrating the return on capital over various different time periods according to a range of different economic scenarios, carefully differentiated to show both capital appreciation and potential rental income. When I asked her which flats were actually wheelchair accessible she told me that only two floors (four flats) in one 13-storey block (out of several blocks for which they were selling apartments ‘off plan’) came into that category. I noticed that the show flat had a lip over the threshold of the front door that was difficult to get a wheelchair over and asked her if the ‘accessible’ flats were available without this. She didn’t know. I also asked whether it would be possible to get kitchen units with the lower height worktop that wheelchair users need and she said ‘You’d have to talk to the architects about that’. It would definitely ‘cost extra’. How much? Again, she didn’t know (and clearly didn’t give a damn). When I said that I thought the point of buying off plan was to be able to customise such things she said that it wasn’t part of the normal package, had to be dealt with by a different department and – when pushed hard – admitted that ‘it wouldn’t be less than £20,000 extra’. The disabled parking space would also add £20,000 to the cost of the flat. She couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. The last thing they wanted, it was clear, was to have owner-residents actually living there who might make real demands on them as freeholders.

Dalston residents have fought long and hard to try to get the planning applications for these developments amended, but with rather little success. After strong lobbying, the number of ‘affordable homes’ in one development (a vast tower block that will go up beside Dalston Kingsland Station and cast its shadow down Ridley Road Market when the sun shines from the west and all the way across the borough boundary into Islington when it is in the east) was increased to 14 (11%) out of the total of 125 flats. When questioned about this policy of allowing these huge private developments, Hackney Councillors on the Planning Committee explain that there is a requirement for a certain number of homes to be built in the borough imposed by government policy and that they have designated this area (which has also been designated as a retail area and a centre for the night-time economy – uses which might seem to clash with each other) as one of the places this quota will be met.

But this policy seems to have absolutely nothing to do with meeting the actual social needs of Hackney residents. These flats have no gardens and no childrens’ play areas. They typically contain a mix of one, two and three bedroom flats (with the 3-bed ones only conceded very reluctantly after pressure from local objectors). They are not designed even for small nuclear families, let alone extended families. To the extent that they meet people’s housing needs at all (as opposed to the needs of global property investors) these are the needs of those emblematic ‘hard-working people’ who want to get their feet ‘on the first rung of the property ladder’. These people, if we are to believe the propaganda, are childless singles and couples who work in central London (and like a bit of partying). We can presume that they are expected, very soon, to move up to the second rung, which, if the likes of Barratt and Taylor Wimpey have their way, might be a 3-bedroom ‘town house’ in a suburb (in another Barratt or Taylor Wimpey development). In the next stage, they can move up to the third rung, one of those new-build 5-bedroom houses one spots from trains in the home counties or the edges of provincial towns, with an anonymous Disneyesque architecture that strips them of any association with the local soil (although no doubt the interiors feature those all-important en suite bathrooms attached to the master bedrooms and open-plan kitchen-diners that feature in the daytime TV property programmes): houses that really could be anywhere. Probably by this time these third-rung people will have children who, if they have artistic pretensions, will run screaming as soon as they are old enough to the nearest inner city location with enough poor people left living in it to offer some illusion of cultural authenticity, and the whole wheel will start turning again. In due course their parents will downsize and move onto further rungs, before making their final investment in a managed retirement community (releasing the capital for their offspring to start on rung one, having tired of bohemian squalor). But wherever they move, the benefits will accrue to the property developers and the new rentier class.

In the meanwhile, something priceless has been destroyed: the idea of a home as a home: somewhere to live, and for your children to live, as part of a stable community, knitted together through the generations. Whether it is owned or rented, what should matter is where it is, who the neighbours are, who is involved in the local school, the local political parties and the other organisations that make up the fabric of social life. Of course we should not idealise the past. Most London boroughs, for example, have a long history of appalling slum landlords, overcrowding, homelessness and vagrancy, coexisting with privilege and polarisation between the servant-employing classes and their servants. Nevertheless, much of the history of the twentieth century was a history of struggles to ameliorate this: to create decent public housing, education, health services and provision for the sick and destitute and to place these things in the hands of elected and accountable public bodies. To the extent that this succeeded, it created bodies of citizens, rooted in particular geographical areas (often through secure long-term jobs, as well as secure tenancies), who were able to exercise some leverage in their local communities,  in the knowledge that they belonged there and the faith that commitments they made to their neighbours and local institutions would be reciprocated. Thus are communities built.

This is not the place to rehearse those arguments, endlessly repeated since the 1980s, of how the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ brought about the destruction of the communitarian and solidaristic values that had been created through such processes. But, with a crucial election looming, it is worth remembering that what we are seeing now, a culmination of this, is a dual process: not only does it place huge and growing proportions of our housing stock, as well as other commons, into the hands of enormous corporations; it also atomises and fractures communities, scattering people willy nilly to wherever the idiosyncracies of the market leave spaces for them.

In this process, Hackney, to stick with this local example, ceases to be a cluster of communities and becomes an unstable and temporary staging post in a myriad atomised trajectories made up of competing individuals fighting for a foothold, one rung at a time. Once designated as an area for the first rung and not for families, it starts to implode socially. People who have been brought up here have to move out. And incomers make little more commitment to the area than they would to the surrounding location of a motel they have booked into for a night or two. Who are the losers? Well interestingly enough, they are quite a diverse set of bedfellows: several communities that have made their homes here in successive waves of immigration; the British people who settled here because they liked this multi-ethnic environment and wanted to use its interesting shops and restaurants and bring up their children here; the later waves of students and artists and assorted hipsters and their gentrifying hangers-on; but also the institutions of local democracy. Hackney is a safe Labour parliamentary seat and Labour also has a majority on the local council. But in allowing the property developers to ride roughshod across the borough, the party is running the risk of kicking away the basis of its own support: the rungs of its own ladder; its electorate.

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More on the Citizens Income – a quick update

Since I wrote about it here in December there have been quite a few developments in the debates on an unconditional citizens income in the UK. These were partly triggered by an unfortunate television interview with Green Party leader Natalie Bennett on Sunday Politics, in which, when aggressively questioned by Andrew Neil,  she failed to provide a convincing argument that it was affordable. Subsequently, Green MP Caroline Lucas, who was also grilled about this on the Radio 4 Today Programme, stepped onto the back foot, saying that although the Green Party was still committed to this demand it would not be in their election manifesto.

A lot of the damage was done by an article in the Guardian by Patrick Wintour, misleadingly stating that ‘The Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT), which has given advice to the Green party and been repeatedly cited by the Greens, has modelled its scheme and discovered it would mean 35.15% of households would be losers, with many of the biggest losers among the poorest households.’

The model referred to here is Euromod, a tax-benefit microsimulation model developed by Holly Sutherland at the University of Essex. Like all such models, the results it produces depend on what assumptions you feed in in the first place.  Whilst it is perfectly true that some early attempts to model the impact of the Green Party’s proposed Citizens Income did produce results that showed that some poor households could be net losers, more recent studies, like this one, based on more sophisticated assumptions, have been done that show conclusively that, in the words of Malcolm Torry:

It is perfectly feasible to implement a Citizen’s Income of £72 per week for every adult, with lower amounts for children and young people, and higher amounts for pensioners, by reducing to zero the personal tax allowance, abolishing higher rate tax relief on pension contributions, and taking households’ Citizen’s Incomes into account in the same way as other income is taken into account when their means-tested benefits were calculated. This scheme would be revenue neutral, it would impose no losses at the point of implementation on low-earning households, and it would impose few losses on all households. All means-tested payments would be substantially reduced, every household would experience much lower marginal deduction rates or current MDRs on much reduced earnings ranges and then reduced MDRs on the rest, and about half of all households currently on working tax credits would be floated off them.

There is, however, a larger and more important point to be made here. And this is the insistence in all the media discussion that any innovation has to be ‘revenue neutral’. This is the default assumption adopted by any journalist interviewing any politician about any demand. Each change has to be justified on its own merits, independent of any other change, on the assumption that all other things remain the same, in a kind of parody of the experimental method.

In reality, of course, any new government would introduce a whole range of changes, all of which would interact with each other. Inevitably, microsimulation models like Euromod, are better able to deal with ‘givens’ that are clearly set out in government policy (such as tax and benefit rates) than with changes arising in the market (such as changes in wage levels, prices or unemployment levels) and cannot hope to model the full complexity of these interactions. Any government that came to power wishing to introduce a citizens income would undoubtedly also want to make other changes, such as raising the minimum wage, changing the rates of income tax, creating some extra taxes, abolishing others and so on. These would radically alter the sums, as, of course, would changes in employment levels related to the dynamics of the world economy. But even leaving these points aside, it is clear that a government committed to redistribution would not find itself short of resources to redistribute (just look at the tax evasion by HSBC customers currently being uncovered).

Such considerations did not feature in the debates following the debacle of the Bennett Sunday Politics interview. In fact several commentators seemed to grab the wrong end of the stick in ways that, perhaps unconsciously, seem willfully counter-intuitive.

Here, for example, is  Zbigniew Tycienski (blogging as ‘Tychy’) gleefully reflecting on Bennett’s ‘car crash’ interview, in a post called ‘A flagship sunk’.  He quotes my earlier post on Citizens Income (the part where I say that, given the choice, some people might like to ‘live on very little and devote your life to art, music, prayer, blogging, archaeology, chasing an elusive scientific concept, conserving rare plants or charitable work’) and describes this as ‘anti-social’.  What an extraordinary conception of society this is!  In his view it is anti-social to contribute to the general cultural, spiritual and scientific good of humankind, but, presumably, not at all anti-social to devote your life to competition, the acquisition of material goods and the pollution of the planet with the resulting detritus. Thus has the neo-liberal logic been absorbed and internalised and become part of a grotesque new Orwellian common sense in which the common good has become the common bad.

The more I hear arguments like that, the more committed I feel to the need to challenge these inside-out ethics. The question is, how?

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Environmental challenges in the inner city

You need nerves of steel to be an environmentally responsible consumer in this part of London. Take the question of recycling carrier bags. At the local Tesco Express the checkout operators already have the plastic bag ready and open to pack for you before you have even had a chance to plonk your basket down beside the till. They are manifestly in a zone of their own, their hands engaged in an automated rhythm that enables them (while abstractedly greeting the customer) to  swipe the goods and pack them without disturbing whatever inner chain of thought or inwardly hummed music gets them through the nearly intolerable stress of the job. If they can stay in the zone, they don’t have to engage consciously with whatever kind of psychopathic personality the customer might have or be reminded of the haraam nature of the food they have to handle which, however hermetically sealed in plastic, must be gross to think about if you are a strict Muslim.

So when you rock up with your sturdy cloth bag from Daunt Books saying ‘I have my own, thank you’ you are disturbing the swing of the labour process and jolting them unpleasantly into the reality of their situation (the long impatient queue of people grumbling into their mobile phones; the eye-to-eye stand-off in the doorway between the security guards and the drunks they are supposed to prevent from being served alcohol; the prickle of just-avoided contact between people whose class and gender and ethnic diversities are such that they would rather not touch each other; the smell – Oh that olfactory entropy, made up of layer after innumerable layer of chemicals, intermingled with the manifold varieties of animal and vegetable decomposition they are supposed to conceal or enhance. Don’t get me started).

You are usually met with a glare that says ‘Do you really think I want to TOUCH your manky bag?’ and left to pack it yourself. This is a challenge because what little spare space there is on the surface of the workstation is on the other side. If you aren’t buying very much, you can squeeze the bag, not properly open, into the half of the wire basket that doesn’t have shopping in it. More usually you have to prop it precariously onto the small triangle between the basket and the credit card reader, taking the items one by one from the exasperated checkout operator and trying to fit them in whilst also holding your purse. The only alternative is to hang it over your arm while filling it. Not recommended. Unless you have exceptional dexterity, you end up with a display of fumbling which irritates the people in the queue behind you as well.

Today I discovered yet another hazard. When I got home I found in amongst my shopping a small cardboard container packed with luridly coloured little sachets which, on inspection, turned out to contain ‘2015 Premier League Socker Stickers’*. They must have been on display by the checkout to entrap exhausted parents into spending even more (‘Every little helps’). Priced at 80p each. I must have inadvertently shoved around £100 worth of them in with my shopping.

I returned them, of course. Expecting at least, perhaps, a smile or an ice-breaking moment. ‘Silly me’. Or ‘Fancy those security guards not spotting I was shoplifting’. But no. The young woman who had served me was not at her workstation but I recognised her from behind by her hijab, attracted her attention and handed them back. She took them politely but without a flicker of interest or amusement. Like the other checkout operators and the people in the queue she seemed to think I was quite mad. No words were spoken (other than by me) but what the expressions said, loud and clear, was ‘Why on earth did you bother to bring them back?’.

Why indeed?

* an illustration of capitalism’s seemingly infinite ability to generate new commodities. it would be interesting to know how that 80p is distributed among which economic actors along what must be a bizarre value chain (paper manufacturers? football clubs? printers? the factory- or home-based labour of packers? writers? designers? photographers? transport workers?) all for a coloured sticker whose raw materials must be almost worthless and which will bring, at best, only moments of pleasure to the child who, presumably, gets to stick it in a sticker book, swap it with a friend or discard it as a duplicate.

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The importance of the minimum wage

This is the sixth in a series of posts on what sort of welfare state we might want. The first can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here and the fifth here.

Although it is still widely believed  that raising the minimum wage would damage the  economy, a great deal of good work has been carried out in recent years by a range of academic researchers, campaigners and the trade union movement to promote the idea of a living wage in the UK*.

It definitely seems to be an idea whose time has come. The Green Party and Plaid Cymru have signed up to the principle of a ‘living wage’ but (although a number of local authorities, Labour-controlled and otherwise, have done so) the Labour Party has done so only timidly. According to the Labour website their commitment is only ‘to increase the NMW from 54% to 58% of median earnings by 2020 following consultation with business.’

That last phrase – ‘following consultation with business’ – speaks volumes, uncomfortably reminding us of the fudging of the last Labour government which (as I discussed here) found itself caught between the pressures from its constituents to introduce a national minimum wage for the first time and the pressures from neoliberal consultants and business interests to replace existing benefits with tax credits. Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor, ended up with a compromise: introducing a minimum wage which was too low to provide a living wage for many sections of the population, with tax credits used as an income top-up. As the years have gone by, the value of that wage has fallen in terms of its buying power, while the bill for tax credits has grown inexorably. This has of course been in the interests of business, with employers benefiting immensely from being able to pay below-subsistence wages in the knowledge that they will be subsidised by the state.

It will be no surprise, therefore, if the proposed consultations provoke a stream of arguments that raising the minimum wage is not a good idea. The most usual argument put forward by business is that it will ‘destroy jobs’. Employers, will, they say, simply not be able to afford the higher wages and, depending on their size and strength will at best stop recruiting, or, worse, start firing people. Before the introduction of the minimum wage in 1998 the media were flooded with dire warnings along these lines. In the event, no such impacts were detected.

A very thorough recent survey of existing studies by Hristos Doucouliagos and T.D Stanley concluded that ‘with sixty-four studies containing approximately fifteen hundred estimates, we have reason to believe that if there is some adverse employment effect from minimum wage rises, it must be of a small and policy-irrelevant magnitude.’ In other words, research shows that introducing a minimum wage has absolutely no discernible effect on employment whatsoever.

So arguments like these from the employers can be largely discounted. But what about other objections to the idea of a statutory minimum wage coming from other quarters? Two of these arguments deserve special attention.

The first is that statutory minimum wages are incompatible with free collective bargaining. In the past, this argument was typically put forward by trade unions representing workers in well-organised sectors who were able to bargain successfully for above-average wages and, in the process of such bargaining, built strong, class-conscious organisations that could (and sometimes did) use their collective muscle to campaign for broader social benefits for the working class as a whole. It was such voices, above all, that prevented the national minimum wage being placed on the Labour Party’s wish-list until the 1990s, despite some weaker dissenting views from trade unions representing low-paid workers, women and freelance workers. Such views still prevail in a number of European countries where the trade unions remain relatively strong and the coverage of collective agreements broad. Denmark, Finland, Italy and Sweden, for example, only have minimum wage rates set through sectoral collective agreements while Austria has more or less the same system but sets a low minimum wage in sectors where no collective agreements exist. Given that it is always possible for trade unions to negotiate something that is higher than any statutory minimum, it is not always easy to tell to what extent such arguments are driven by instrumental factors – the belief that the only reason people join unions is to get pay increases and a fear that members will become apathetic if they see this role being carried out by non-union organisations.

In any case, such objections are declining in importance. This is partly, perhaps, a reflection of the dwindling of union influence in an economy dominated by anti-union multinational corporations who can use the existence of a global reserve army of labour to bring downward pressure to bear on wages and conditions, and the industrial restructuring that has shrunk manufacturing employment in the West. But it is also a reflection of the growing importance of non-wage issues in the collective bargaining agenda. Across all industries, unions find themselves having to take up issues like job security, health and safety, equality, pensions, protection against casualisation and outsourcing and these are often the reasons people join. In the public sector unions are under growing pressure from their members to campaign against privatisation and austerity. In the creative industries, there are burning concerns about the use of unpaid internships, the ownership of intellectual property and – brought into sharp relief today by the horrific events at Charlie Hebdo – the safety of journalists. With all these other things to worry about, having at least a minimum level of pay guaranteed becomes, one suspects, something of a relief. For trade unions, a minimum wage is a floor below which wages cannot fall. Incorporating it into collective agreements provides a way to ensure that it can stay in place and cannot be removed by government dictat (something which cannot be said about the level of tax credit). Though of course this does not mean that there is not a continuing need to make sure it rises in real terms in line with increases in the cost of living.

Another argument against the minimum wage sometimes heard, including from some people broadly on the left, is that it is incompatible with a basic minimum income, or ‘citizen’s income’. I must say I fail to understand the logic of this argument. Let us suppose that the citizens income (CI) is set a fairly low level, as it undoubtedly would have to be. Then most people will want to work at least part time and many, I would surmise, will want to do so full time for much of their working lives. Their motives for doing so will in most cases include a financial one – they want a higher income so they can improve their standard of living, buy luxuries, take holidays or whatever. They will pay income tax on everything they earn and this income tax, along with the proceeds of other taxes, will be redistributed to pay for public services and, of course, for the CI itself (however it should be emphasised here that the CI will not represent a new cost for the state; it will simply be substituting for benefits, tax credits, tax allowances that people currently claim by different means). The wage and the CI thus bolster each other.

Because there is rather little evidence of how CI actually works in practice there is no way of testing hypotheses that, if the market is left to its own devices, the tendency would be for wages either to rise or to fall. A kind of common sense logic suggests that at the very bottom of the wage spectrum, employers offering unpleasant jobs would have to raise the wages on offer because workers could no longer be forced into them out of desperation. Similarly, we can presume that trade unions representing low paid workers would find their bargaining power with employers strengthened by the fact that CI would offer the equivalent of strike pay in industrial disputes. However it is possible that where jobs are more attractive, people might be prepared to do them for lower rewards. But this is conjecture. In the meanwhile, it seems only prudent not to leave things to the market. I can see no fundamental incompatibility between CI and a statutory minimum wage (though the definition of ‘living’ in ‘living wage’ might have to be adjusted). However I do see a number of other strong arguments for retaining the principle of a statutory minimum wage. These include:

  • bolstering the principle of equal pay for work of equal value;
  • countering gender and other forms of segregation on the labour market;
  • ensuring that vulnerable groups (such as people with learning impairments) can be integrated into work without being exploited;
  • ensuring that migrants who may not yet have been granted the full citizenship that would entitle them to CI are not exploited or used to undercut other workers.

Another big challenge for the minimum wage is how it can be adapted to address the situation of people working online, on crowdsourcing platforms which are unanchored from any national regulatory control. This is something I am currently doing research on but is beyond the scope of this blog post. Watch this space.

*The Living Wage Foundation is a useful source of information on this.

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