Self-isolation and the dialectics of mobility.

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

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

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

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

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




The Brexit aftermath: NAFTA or bust?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The unwoke are awake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PS. For context (and arguments not made explicitly in this post) here is what I posted the morning after the Brexit referendum in 2016:

Remote management, coercion and masculinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



London mob, where are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Cassandra or stuck record?

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

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

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