Expats, migrants and the global division of labour

Earlier this week, while waiting for the dinner to finish cooking, I turned on the television and caught a programme that seemed to say so much about the international division of labour in the world today that I felt I had to write something about it. Inspired by the success of the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the programme makers had taken a group of British B list celebrities to an up-market former private mansion (‘The Real Marigold Hotel’) in Rajasthan with the ostensible aim of helping them decide whether they would like to retire to India.

Shown on a day when it was being reported that asylum-seekers entering some European countries were having their jewellery confiscated while those being refused entry to Britain were being tear-gassed in Calais, the contrast was vivid. These British migrants were waved easily across the border, with nobody questioning their right to enter the former colony and help themselves to the benefits of living there. And of course allowed to travel by air – no rubber dinghies on choppy waters for them.

This comes at a time when the baby-boomers in the UK are entering retirement, boosting the elderly population, while social care budgets are being savaged. The question of how to survive in old age has come into sharp focus for a generation brought up to believe they’d never had it so good. In an era of globalisation, if politically-imposed constraints on immigration make it increasingly difficult to bring the world’s poor to Britain to care for them in their old age, why not export the elderly to their home countries instead, where they can be looked after in a state where somebody else picks up the cost of bringing up the next generation?

India has long been swelling the ranks of the global servant class: its call centre workers patiently taking abuse from irate English-speaking customers of global corporations, its hotel workers providing tourists with luxuries they could never afford at home, its ex-pats providing nursing, child-care and cleaning services as well as a myriad technical and professional services across the world. But, as this programme clunkily underlined, it also has a special place in the baby boomer imagination as a site of spirituality and exoticism, romantically counterposed to the consumerism and materiality of the West.

In the part of the programme I watched, this was voiced most explicitly by the dancer Wayne Sleep who said that, after a brush with cancer, he ‘wanted to get in touch with his spiritual side’. The group was taken to a temple and introduced to a guru, traipsed round various beautiful and exotic locations and and taken to meet, first a poor but upwardly mobile man from a Dalit caste and then a Maharaja who had cashed in on the family history by turning the family palace into a luxury hotel. They were then encouraged to mouth platitudes about the extreme contrasts between rich and poor and how different this was from the egalitarian society they were used to back home in Britain. No mention, of course, of how that imagined equality, which had some basis in reality in the post-war period when they were young, has now given way to growing social polarisation back home in Blighty too (and may in fact be diminishing in India with its growing middle class – though India too has a large share of the world’s billionaires).

Thus was denial piled on denial. Airbrushed out of the story was not only the appalling contrast between the free movement of capital, services and rich tourists across national borders on the one hand and, on the other, the savage constraints placed on the free movement of workers and refugees, but also the dramatic growth in inequality within the developed world. And no mention of the destruction of the welfare state and how that might form their choices about seeking alternative places to be cared for in their declining years.

I did not watch to the end of the episode and will miss future instalments because I will be travelling pretty continuously for the next few weeks, and I am not sure anyway that I could contain my anger long enough to see the series right through, but if any readers of this blog have enough self control and semiotic curiosity to do so, I would be interested to learn how it turns out.


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Ellen Meiksins Wood – her importance to me

I was extraordinarily saddened to hear last night of the death of Ellen Meiksins Wood and it took me a while to work out why. After all, I hardly knew her. We met a couple of times and I can recall in some detail only one conversation with her (in a taxi in New York). And I haven’t read nearly enough of her writing – though enough to recognise her brilliance, acuity and principle.

It is so often in retrospect that one realises someone’s importance – too late to tell them about it. There is a Welsh song about a harpist in the Vale of Llangollen who dies a lonely death ‘without a morsel to eat or a drop of water’ but then, when the news of his death gets out, his mourners  bring enough food and drink to the funeral feast to have kept him alive. Ellen was not lacking in love and appreciation, I am happy to know, but I still wish I’d sent her a fan letter.

Why was she so important to me? First, and most obviously she was a shining, original political economist, combining an over-arching grasp of the theoretical landscape with the intellectual confidence to address the big questions directly, without feeling she had to tiptoe along in the footsteps of everybody else since Marx who had inquired into them, nodding politely or scowling, as appropriate, at each of them before venturing her own conclusions. (Which is not to say she was not well-read or scholarly).  Second, she was a woman. During a period when more and more women were entering academic life, it was still extraordinarily rare in the field of political economy for a woman to be recognised and respected as a towering intellect with a grasp of the whole – and NOT just someone who writes about gender. In fact it is hard to think of anyone since Rosa Luxembourg who achieved this status on the academic left. The third remarkable thing about her that was personally important for me was her milieu.

The two aspects of this that I had first-hand contact with were the School of Political Science at York University in Toronto, where she inspired several generations of students and Monthly Review, which she edited for a while. I am wondering now how much of a coincidence it was that these were the two places where I first gained some recognition as serious political economist.

During a period when most critical theory was drowned in the tsunami of post-modernism that swept through universities more or less in parallel with the tsunami of neoliberalism that swept through the world economy from the 1980s on, they kept alive a tradition of serious, thoughtful, grounded, historical materialist theory that was open and unsectarian, and carried out not for the sake of academic plaudits but as part of a serious political project: to understand the world with the aim of helping change it without trying to preach to working people, dictate their strategies, chide them for their inadequacies or substitute for their leadership. This was achieved by multiple means, including Leo Panitch’s inspirational editorship of Socialist Register, and a stream of clever PhD students, generating a critical mass of Marxist scholarship that was large enough to renew itself – too many names to list here.

I felt welcomed and understood in these mileux as never before. For decades I had thought maybe I’m wrong, maybe nobody’s interested, maybe what I’m saying is just too obvious to be worth noting. And suddenly I felt recognised. Wow! somebody actually got it! Maybe it really is worth persevering with some writing. Maybe I do have something to contribute.

But as I reflect on it now, I wonder to what extent this recognition was only possible because of Ellen. Nobody who knew her work could possibly have put her in the box marked ‘women’s issues’. So, perhaps even without being conscious of it, her colleagues must have just taken it for granted that women can be political economists too. And I was the beneficiary of that.

So thanks, Ellen. May your work be long remembered and celebrated. May others follow where you led. May your insights be understood. And may your politics be vindicated some day in a better world.



Posted in Autobiography, In memoriam, personal memoir, political reflection | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Happy holidays

xmas 2015 j

Hope 2016 will be a corker!

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If passengers were the commodities

With yet another international trip imminent, I start to steel myself for the nightmare I know the journey will be. To an abrupt stop-go rhythm you will puff your way along endless corridors, then stand in a zig-zag line for security checks, shifting the weight from hand to hand, or hand to floor. This will be followed by the urgent rush to remove shoes, coat, belt, glasses and watch, unpack one’s laptop and jostle to arrange everything in those grey plastic trays, all the while urged on by impatient security staff who lack only the cattle prods to make the experience pretty much identical to that of a cow in an industrially run farm. Though arguably the farmyard smell (even allowing for the presence of silage) would be more pleasant than that of the olfactory hell that is the duty free shop you are herded through having run the security gauntlet.

The experience is both mind-numbingly boring and stressful, with few peaceful in-between moments for quiet contemplation. If your body is as infirm and unfit as mine, it is subjected to an experience that feels like somebody savagely flicking a switch between two states: Rush, wait, rush, wait, rush wait. Or in my case: pant, gasp, slump; pant, gasp, slump.

Prior to this, of course, you have purchased your own ticket, paid extra for the privilege of checking in your bag, completed the online check in,  entered your passport details, printed out your boarding pass, then, at the airport, having waited in line to do so, printed out your baggage label, weighed your bag and heaved it onto the conveyor belt.

In order to maximise their profits by minimising the paid time of their poor harassed staff, the companies involved in running airlines and airports have managed to externalise as much labour as possible onto the customers who, to add insult to injury, are not only milked of this labour but also of even more cash. Encouraged to turn up early, they are left with little else to do but consume, captives in the shopping malls that airports and stations have increasingly become. Having had their liquids confiscated before the security check, they even have to pay for a drink of water. The labour processes involved in this unpaid work are not freely chosen. They are dictated by the corporate logic of maximising the productivity of the paid workers. The Taylorisation of the workplace is externalised to shape the processes of consumption labour.

It has been a gradual development. When I first started writing about ‘consumption work’, back in the 1970s, people thought that the idea of doing your own check-in at the airport was a dystopian fantasy. But, as I predicted, we have been eased collectively along this road  (even when we haven’t wanted this) by the lure of cheapness. Practices developed by the low-cost airlines have become mainstream in a competitive race to offer the lowest prices. And, as in other industries, providing bargains for the customer has gone hand in hand with ratcheting down wages and working conditions for the paid workforce. Once self-service has become the established norm, the price of paid-for services rockets. It becomes an unaffordable luxury for all but the super-rich. Business travellers used to be reimbursed to travel business class. But no longer. Increasingly the rules of universities and public bodies like the European Commission stipulate that you must travel by the cheapest means possible. So the terms of your travel are dictated by the same rules as those that guide the choices of fit young back-packers, or retired people who travel twice a year to their second homes, with quite different stress thresholds and requirements for promptness. To bemoan this situation is tantamount to a declaration that you are anti-democratic. Cheap travel, you are told, has opened up new vistas of opportunity for deprived people around the world, giving them access to what was once the privilege of the rich. What right have you to expect to be waited on hand and foot? How elitist can you get?

What I like to imagine is travel under an alternative economic system: one in which the passenger is the commodity. As with any other commodity, it would be in capitalism’s interest that it should be hurried on its way as quickly as possible so that it can reach the market before the competitor’s product. It is in this gap between value creation (when the commodity is produced) and value realisation (when it is paid for by the customer) that capitalism takes its greatest risk (the risk that the product will never be sold at a profit). So the impetus to get this commodity (in this case the traveller) to its destination with minimal delay or damage is paramount. Making the customer the commodity would turn the logic of the present system inside out.

Assuming that the technology stays more or less the same (which, I grant you, is doubtful) in a system like this, the customer would be carefully picked up and placed on a conveyor belt with her baggage safely taken care of. She would be moved along this belt while a series of machines scans her passport and ticket. Waiting workers would remove shoes and accessories and unpack briefcases while she is whizzed through the scanner, and their colleagues further down the belt would then restore them. Food and drink would be brought to the belt (think of the time that would be wasted were she to wander off) and in due course her seat would be automatically shunted onto the waiting plane or train, ready to be removed by the same means at the other end. Her time and labour, far from being something to be co-opted and wasted at will, would now become precious. We wouldn’t want the goods to be damaged, would we?

You could think of this as a mad fantasy. But perhaps it is also a parable that warns fledgling political economists against muddling up production and consumption. ‘Prosumption’ remains a fashionable word in some quarters. But to imagine that it can increase autonomy under a capitalist system is a dangerous delusion.

Posted in Autobiography, Labour in the 21st century, personal memoir, political reflection, Political theory | 1 Comment

The road from Damascus

What a year it’s been, so far. Back in January, I suspect like many others, I felt that mine was a very small voice in a very large wilderness. I wrote a series of posts on this blog about the future of the welfare state, in the hope, which I knew to be forlorn, of trying to influence the debates in the run-up to the general election that now seems so long ago. Even people who admitted to agreeing with me privately gave the impression that they thought that such views were too off-the-wall and old-fashioned to be taken seriously – even that it would damage Labour’s prospects in the election to express them at all.

Over the years those labels – ‘loony left’, ‘man-hating feminist’, ‘bleeding-heart liberal’, ‘politics of envy’  – have left their sticky imprints. We (I imagine my experience is not untypical) got used to being marginalised, seen as unrealistic, quaintly old-fashioned and irrelevant. Before we even opened our mouths, people knew what they expected to hear and their eyes glazed over and they stopped listening. Yadda, yadda, yadda, we heard them think, even if they were too polite to roll their eyes to the heavens or drum their fingers. The neoliberal common sense that says it is naive to care, and that any policy not based on appealing to homo economicus’s self-interest is deluded and bound, in the end, to do more harm than good had become so taken for granted a part of the ideological air that everyone breathed that questioning it seemed, well, mad. And we got habituated to this, in some cases self-righteously so, gaining a sense of being on the moral high ground, of not having sold out, even in situations where we were manifestly in a minority of one.

Now suddenly this has changed. I am still confused about what pronoun to use because the merging of the I with the we is so sudden, but will revert to the singular because I do not want to falsely over-generalise. Over the last few weeks, and particularly the last few days, I have had a growing sense of being in synch with huge numbers of other people. When Jeremy Corbyn decided to stand for the leadership of the Labour Party I immediately became a supporting subscriber and donated some money, to discover a few hours later via social media that thousands of other people had done the same. Last week I felt impelled to do something personally to support refugees and even as it occurred to me discovered that there were hundreds of other people out there with the same thought – starting petitions, raising money, organising convoys to take donations to the camp in Calais, setting up websites to share your spare room, organising demonstrations.

We are, it seems, part of a huge collective moral sea-change. Earlier visible in the surge of support for Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, it has spread and can be seen too in the unexpected wide appeal of such figures as Pope Francis, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. And it is now broader still: a veritable tsunami.

It is fitting that the symbolic turning point in public opinion was that heart-rending photograph of a drowned toddler on a journey from Syria. At a stroke, refugees were converted from alien ‘others’ into people with whom anyone who has hugged a child could immediately identify. It was, after all, on the road to Damascus that Saint Paul experienced the sudden revelation that converted him from a persecutor of Christians to a Christian himself, symbolism that will surely not be lost on theologians.

If there is one word that encapsulates the new sense of connection between people that seems to be emerging it is ‘humanity’. The common outrage is overwhelmingly directed at its opposite – inhumanity. We want to dissociate ourselves from what is being done so heartlessly by politicians in our names to refugees, to the homeless, to benefit claimants, to the Greek people, and in doing this we claim a sense of common belonging to the human race and open ourselves up to empathy.

Among the last people to ‘get’ what this is about are the neoliberal politicians – the Blairs and Camerons – who increasingly remind me of Bob Dylan’s Mr Jones (‘Because something is happening here. But you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?). I wonder to what extent, at least in Britain, this lack of awareness of any common humanity on their part may have been instilled in childhood. One of the ways the British ruling class has perpetuated its ruthlessness through the generations has been by tearing its little boys from their parents at an early age and putting them in the hands of sadistic and abusive strangers. No hugs for their inner toddlers. No opening for empathy to leak through.

Whatever the reason for their moral obtuseness, the awakening of a collective moral sensibility more broadly is something to celebrate. And, for those of us who suddenly find ourselves part of a crowd, so too is the dawning of new hope. (Go, Corbyn!)

PS. Rather to my shame, the last time I remember this sudden feeling of being part of a much larger crowd than I previously knew existed – of being, so to speak, on the right side of history – was at the 14-hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace in 1967. ‘Oh my God, there are thousands of us!’. Perhaps if more of our generation had spent less time grooving and devoted ourselves to the serious things in life – as Corbyn evidently did – then the world wouldn’t be such a mess now. But this may be our chance to redeem ourselves.

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The creativity of bar tenders

I have just experienced one of those disruptive moments when different aspects of life come into headlong collision with each other. And, now, in reflecting on this, I am adding yet another interruption to the ever-lengthening to-do list for August (which is, in principle, meant to be my quiet writing/editing month).

One of tasks I am in the middle of is writing an article on what i have referred to as an emerging new paradigm of work (OK, I know that sounds pretentious, but wait till you read it before passing judgement) which is itself a distraction from a book I am also supposed to be writing.

But in the middle of all this I was called upon in my capacity as secretary of a local residents’ association in Dalston to intervene in an ongoing debate about Hackney Council’s  consultation about its licensing policy. I thought I had done my bit by attending various meetings, responding formally to the consultation process, encouraging other local residents to fill in the online survey and speaking to various local journalists. But no. An obviously well-funded and well-organised aggressive campaign has been launched aimed at convincing young people that Hackney is trying to close down the local ‘creative’/’night-time’ economy and stop them having fun. After a series of phone calls and emails asking me to say something I posted this piece on the residents’ association website designed to correct some of the inaccuracies in their arguments.

I did a bit of background research to demonstrate that recent attempts to limit the numbers of new alcohol licenses granted have had absolutely no effect, and pointed out that recent government policies have actually made it easier than ever before for clubs and pubs and bars to get one-off all-night licenses. Then I turned my attention to the sleight of hand by which  the concepts ‘creative’ and ‘night-time’ are elided and, once this has happened, the employment figures relating to the estimated size of the ‘night-time economy’ are then used to claim that this is creating thousands of ‘creative’ jobs in the borough.

At this point I suppose I went into auto-pilot mode. I have been doing research on local economic development, on employment statistics, on the growth of the service economy, and on creative industries on and off since the 1970s and am familiar, to a yawn-provoking degree, with the statistics on pay and occupational change and the literature on ‘good jobs’/ ‘sustainable employment’/’decent work’. So without thinking much about it, I summarised what I and others have written umpteen times before – and presented the conclusion that most of the jobs generated by the night-time economy are not ‘good’ by most conventional standards.

(impatient readers can skip this bit, intended only to illustrate some of the complexity) To be a bit technical about it, the rough estimates of employment in the ‘night-time economy’ that economists can produce will be based either on counting the number of establishments in a given area that come into certain planning categories (Class A3, ‘food and drink shops’, Class A4 ‘drinking establishments’, Class D2 ‘premises for entertainment and leisure purposes’) and making certain assumptions about how many people each of them employs on average and multiplying the two together or taking the figures on employment by industrial sector (in this case ‘food and beverage service activities’ and  ‘creative, arts and entertainment activities’ )  which tend not to be broken down to much level of detail at the scale of single London borough, let alone a ward, or taking certain occupational categories (e.g. waiters, bar staff, doormen, entertainers etc. – I won’t bore you with the many four-digit codes involved) for which the most recent census figures would date back to 2001 and 2011 (you need two dates to see a trend). Each of these is riddled with problems, not least defining what constitutes a ‘job’ when many of the workers in question (such as cleaners) may work for a number of different organisations and others (such as dishwashers) may be employed on an extremely ad hoc casual basis, and taking account of the fact that people who live in the borough and those who work in it are not necessarily the same people.

Of course it is not appropriate to inflict a lot of technical stuff like this on a casual blog reader with an attention span of a few seconds but I did not want to let the assertion go unchallenged. If, I thought, these people are using the language of local economic development in making their claims about job creation then they must at least be familiar enough with the basic principle (local economic development 101) that when talking about new jobs one should speak about their quality as well as their quantity, so felt entitled to comment on this. And how is job quality usually judged? By the answers to such questions as: is it well paid? is it secure? is it permanent? are the hours compatible with family life? does it entail health hazards? how stressful is it? what are the promotion prospects? what kind of pension does it offer? is it likely to expose the worker to aggression, bullying or harassment on the grounds of gender, sexuality or ethnicity? And so on. And it seemed to me glaringly obvious that, on the basis of the available statistics and innumerable studies, most of the jobs in the ‘night-time economy’ score very poorly on most of these factors, so I did not bother to quote chapter and verse.

Well, how wrong can you be? The post provoked a storm of protest and viewing figures went up from the normal two digits a day to four . There was quite a flurry in the twittersphere and my inbox was deluged with abusive comments. Above all, the point that they all took exception to was the comment about job quality (I have since then amended the post in an attempt to make this point more clearly).

It was interesting  that most of the tweets were not from individual twitter accounts but those of particular bars and clubs. So at first I thought it was their proprietors reacting defensively to what they saw as accusations of being bad employers. I also thought perhaps they had picked on this point because it was the only one that was not incontrovertibly substantiated and therefore the easiest to deny. But then I realised that something else was going on. A lot of these young people really did seem to feel personally outraged that their jobs had, as they saw it, been denigrated. They could not see the distinction between critiquing the working conditions and critiquing the worker forced to put with them. They obviously had a huge personal investment in their work: in disparaging their jobs they thought I was attacking them as human beings. How dare I (snooty, middle-class property-owning nimby as they obviously saw me) so belittle them? For them, working in a cool venue in Shoreditch or Dalston clearly represents something to aspire to – a job at the heart of the ‘creative economy’, in touch with the newest fashions, rubbing shoulders with the famous. What could be more glamorous? For job satisfaction, and for image, it certainly beats working in a call centre, or totting up figures on spreadsheets in an office, sitting behind a cash desk in Marks and Spencer or whatever else a Job Centre might have directed them towards had they been uncool enough to try to find work the conventional way.

Numerically, of course, such people are a tiny minority of the sum total of people in Hackney doing menial jobs connected with preparing and serving food and drink and cleaning up after customers. I doubt if it would occur to them for one moment to identify themselves with this larger group of cleaners and waiters and dishwashers (although there is often a great deal of day to day contact, which I witness from the rear window of the room where I am writing this now, between the staff of the cool night club that more or less backs onto my house and the Turkish kebab restaurants that neighbour it, who share a common alleyway  for disposing of the rubbish, wringing out mops and stealing quiet moments to smoke and text).

Yet, untypical though they may be of these larger occupational groupings, these articulate media-savvy young workers do represent something important in the changing landscape of labour, something which is perhaps not new but certainly growing in importance – a sensibility in which the labouring self is the locus of a deep contradiction. On the one hand it is highly individualised (in the sense that each person has a need to present him or her self as a unique, highly stylised personality in the way that Gina Neff describes so well in her wonderful book Venture Labor). On the other hand, this personal identity is merged into the larger identity of the ‘scene’ in which the employment is located (in this case Hackney’s cool nightlife) from which it derives its sense of importance. The individual can thus be seen as simultaneously both a separate entrepreneur and part of a collective enterprise  into which his or her labour is co-opted (and within which power relationships may or may not be explicitly visible). Whether this identification with the larger entrepreneurial project forms the basis of these workers’ insistence that they are part of the ‘creative economy’ is unclear to me, but is a question I would like to investigate further. It is also possible that, like many before them, some of them do not identify directly with their jobs but see them as temporary roles that provide an income until they emerge into their ‘real’ creative identities, as actors, film directors, singers, photographers or whatever. The impoverishment of ‘real’ creative workers in the current conditions of a global digital economy makes this only too likely. This too demands much more research and is something we are giving attention to in yet another activity that is claiming my time at present – this research network.

To which kaleidoscope of mutually refracting mirrors of changes in labour in I must now return.

Posted in Autobiography, Dalston, Labour in the 21st century, life in Dalston, Political theory, Theoretical musings, Work Organisation Labour and Globalisation | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 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.

Among 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, 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.

Posted in Art, music, self, Autobiography, commodification of knowledge work, Labour in the 21st century, political reflection | Leave a comment

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, and with ever-expanding proportions of transactions mediated by increasingly powerful global corporations.

Posted in Autobiography, Cybertariat, Labour in the 21st century, political reflection | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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 stories, 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.

Posted in Britain, Dalston, life in Dalston, political reflection, Politics | Tagged , , | 6 Comments