bookended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Oh!, as they say, the irony.

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

How global IT companies screw up your daily life – another example

 

I have been seriously thinking for the last six weeks or so that I am developing dementia, after repeatedly finding that entries I had made in the diary feature on my iphone (on which I have relied for years) were appearing on the wrong day. I now discover that this is caused by a horrible redesign – made with no warning to users whatsoever. Before the last (unasked for) upgrade if you were trying to fix an appointment you could see (in calendar mode) which days did – or did not – have some activity in them. You could then click on any given day to see what appointment was already there (suppressing the minor annoyance that Apple might have chosen to mark something like St Andrew’s Day, or Valentine’s Day and that it was in fact free even when it didn’t look like it) or you could add a new appointment. The software, in other words, took you straight from the month view to the day view via a click on the date. There used also to be an intervening week view that showed each day consecutively so you could see details of what was on for each day. Since the last upgrade they have introduced a quite different intervening view that does not list all the days consecutively but lists every diary entry. If there is more than one thing on any given day, each item is given its own entry, but if there are days with nothing entered it simply skips them. I thought this was just a visual change but now realise that the functionality has also completely altered.
Yesterday I was trying to make an appointment in January. Looked at the month view and found that there was nothing on from the 11th to the 15th and clicked on the 11th to add the new appointment. But the software didn’t take me to the 11th – the page it opened was the 16th – the first on which I had another appointment already entered. The only way to add the new appointment was to enter the new date manually as a changed start time. It has clearly been doing this ever since the last upgrade. This explains why at least four appointments I have made in the last month have ended up appearing on the wrong dates. There are many more set for the future and I can see that I am going to have to go through them all, checking each one to make sure it is entered for the right date. Hours of my time wasted all because some little geek working for Apple (probably in dreadful conditions in Bangalore) didn’t think this thing through, and nobody bothered to offer customers a choice. This same upgrade, I may say, also unilaterally took it upon itself to assume that an appointment I made in Toronto needed to be adjusted by 5 hours to bring it into line with UK time – resulting in another huge diary disruption.
I could manage my diary just fine on a Nokia communicator 20 years ago. But now we are in an era where our every labour process, paid or unpaid, is determined by these global corporations. An activity as simple as jotting a note in a diary electronically, rather than on paper, now involves effectively filling in a form. And this form is not designed to enable independent individuals to manage their lives autonomously but to facilitate corporate control of time management and maximise rental incomes to software companies, telecommunications suppliers and their ilk.
In the last four or five years I have been struck by the spread of those practices whereby messages are sent directly to your diary by other people using Outlook. An alert will suddenly pop up asking you to accept or reject a meeting request from someone you may or may not know. At first these came from other people in the university I work for, and were, I assumed, linked to the fact that we were all on the same email system, but now they come from all directions – neighbours, people I have agreed to do talks for, and even, the other day, somebody inviting me to a party that way. Intrusion into other people’s time management has been appified and normalised. If you fail to ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ or, worse, fumblingly press the wrong button, which has interecepted your urgent attempt to do something else, there will be social consequences, as well as potential financial ones (like those that occur when you do not realise that, lurking in a website from which you have purchased something, there is a hidden area where you are supposed to deactivate automatic renewal).
Last night I spoke at a book launch in Oxford for this remarkable book by Bob Hughes and the audience discussion turned to the question what to do about it (‘it’ being the toxic effects of technology more generally). Two ‘solutions’ stand out as the most obvious.
The first of these is to resist the new technology and go back to the old. In this particular case this would mean going back to lugging around a heavy address book and diary and pen wherever I go. With my low haemoglobin  and bad shoulder this would be an increasingly painful solution as well as doing little to reduce the world’s consumption of paper. it would additionally, in these days when arrangements  are made by text and email, require a lot of cross-referencing with other sources of information. There is also the reality that my handwriting is not the most legible and a note made, for example, on a moving bus, is liable to be open to several alternative interpretations. And the ever-increasing risk of physical loss or damage, from absent-mindedly leaving it behind somewhere or having the bag stolen, or spilling coffee over it.
The second ‘solution’ – the one that, over the years, I have heard proposed by more (usually young and male) techies than I could count, is to develop alternative applications, using open source software. This means having to invest a huge amount of personal time and effort (unpaid of course) in learning how to use this software and, if you are not a denizen of any hackerspace, simply swapping dependence on one lot of techies (poorly paid by global corporations) to another (apparently working for free but actually, of course, with their time subsidised by rich parents or spouses, day jobs paid for by others or some form of rent or taxpayer subsidy).
In the here and now neither of these is an attractive option for me.So I guess that, until the workers of the world unite to build a better society, I am just going to have to grit my teeth and keep learning the new codes and filling in the forms and installing the new apps at the diktat of these global corporations, rendered dumber (and angrier) by the day by their Taylorisation of my daily life.

Being got. Or not.

Earlier this month I gave a talk in Toronto reflecting on how the role of women as public intellectuals changed (or did not) over the last century. The starting point for this discussion was the life of my aunt – Jacky Tyrwhitt (1905-1983) – who, amongst many other achievements, was for a while an important member of what is now called the Toronto School of Communication (the theme of the conference at which I was speaking). She was a major figure in the development of urban planning, building connections from the garden cities movement in the early part of the 20th Century via post-war reconstruction as Keynesian welfare states were being built, Modernist architecture, the development of low-cost housing in South Asia, to the futurism of the 1970s, taking in environmentalism, and garden design en route, not to mention links with major figures in the development of modern art and music, and training several generations of planners. As someone said, perhaps one of the most important people you never heard of.

It was a very interesting and revealing experience for me to research her life (which, as far as I know, has been the subject of only one biography – Jaqueline Tyrwhitt: A Transnational Life in Urban Planning and Design by Ellen Shoskes). And humbling to discover how much I did not know about her work, and how much it must have cost her to devote so much time, effort and money to rescuing me (as well as siblings and the sons and daughters of many of her friends) from the various youthful predicaments we found ourselves in while managing her stressful working life. In retrospect, I am ashamed both of how nasty I often was to her – nasty as only a teenager can be who takes a degree of unconditional love for granted – and how unthinkingly I rejected many of her values as part and parcel of a kind of establishment thinking I regarded myself as in rebellion against.

jacky-in-1938-enhanced

Jacky Tyrwhitt in 1938

One of the things I spoke about in Toronto was the public invisibility of much of her work. She seemed largely content to be a power behind the scenes, acknowledged only by a few key figures in the know. Much of her work was what I now call ‘intellectual housework’. She brought people from across the disciplines together in networks, organised conferences, designed courses, wrote textbooks, put together grant proposals, edited and translated other people’s work, negotiated with publishers, founded and edited journals, intervened tactfully to bring peace between warring egos, encouraged young scholars and artists, introducing them to potential employers and patrons, and generally facilitated the flowering of others’ work. Much of her career was precarious, slipping from one short-term post or freelance contract to another, denied tenure and dependent on the goodwill of male sponsors.

Although she sought out the company of strong women as mentors, collaborators and friends – a by-no-means-exhaustive list includes Ellen Willmot (garden designer), Eva Taylor (first woman professor of geography in Britain and, for all I know, the world), Innes Hope Pearse (doctor involved in setting up the Peckham health experiment), Ruth Glass, (sociologist), Catherine Bauer (US public housing activist), Margaret Mead (anthropologist), Ruth Benedict (another anthropologist) and Barbara Ward (economist and pioneer environmentalist) – a huge amount of her intellectual effort went into promoting and bringing to popular notice the work of male stars. An early example of this was her monumental Patrick Geddes in India, published in 1947. In this book she self-effacingly knitted together a range of the writings of this pioneer planner from disparate sources to assemble a coherent account of his thinking  and make it accessible to a wide audience. She also took on the role of translating from the German and editing the huge doorstoppers (Space Time and Architecture and Mechanization Takes Command) of another Great Man, Siegfried Giedion,  as well as oiling his relationships with global communities of scholars and architects. Although Giedion acknowledged in private correspondence his many debts to her for helping him clarify his ideas and, indeed, writing large chunks of these Great Works, he neglected in public to acknowledge her as anything more than a translator and editor. Her considerable originality of thought was rarely acknowledged – her thoughts expressed through the lips of others, who all too often took credit for them, and much of her writing nestled invisibly in what we would now call ‘grey literature’ (official reports and policy documents, briefs, grant proposals and the like).

The more I researched her life, the more I saw parallels with my own career and that of other women contemporaries. Even while I thought I was rejecting her example, it seems that I might have have been absorbing it unconsciously as a role model. Or perhaps we are all shaped by larger patterns which have persisted over the last century despite the huge changes that have been made in women’s public positions.Which led me to meditate, not for the first time, on how it is that women’s original ideas come to be publicly recognised (or not).

The day after doing this talk, I gave another lecture in Toronto, this time at York University, on a topic that lies close to the core of my own research interests. On the face of it, this could be taken as perfect proof that things have changed. Leo Panitch gave me a glowing, highly flattering, introduction as a leading Marxist theorist. The audience was attentive and respectful. I felt understood and acknowledged, as I rarely do.  The fact that this happened (thanks, in great measure, to the generous patronage of Panitch and his colleagues on the editorial board of Socialist Register and at York University’s Department of Political Science and its Global Labour Research Centre) gives me permission, so to speak, to discuss the many occasions when such recognition has not been forthcoming. Like people from other groups that are under-represented in the Academy and in public life, neglected women are always vulnerable to the suspicion that they may simply be second-rate and deserve to be ignored. Counter-factual narratives that imagine how different the story might be if one were masculine or white must remain at the level of speculation. And however much we find our stories confirmed by others who share our gender or ethnicity, while our white male friends look blank and ask ‘Are you sure you aren’t just being paranoid?’, a kernel of self-doubt remains.

So I am hoping that I can put to good use my kind reception at York and its vindication of my right to be heard to share with other women (and men) by setting out some of the things I have observed over the years, in the expectation that these observations will be heard as credible testimony, not just sour grapes. All I can offer here are descriptions of some of the ploys  (no doubt largely unconscious) I have seen being adopted in the past in relation to my own contributions, and those of others, to scholarly or public discourse. I cannot give advice on strategies for dealing with these ploys because I have failed to find any, at least any that are ethical,  that work effectively. No doubt some do exist because there are, thank goodness, some women out there who have achieved public recognition for their original ideas. But I don’t know what they are. Maybe somebody with the time to do so could investigate what these might be and share as a general service to womankind. In the meanwhile, this is the best I can do.

Not being got

One of the most common experiences is simply not being understood. A woman puts forward an idea and it is ignored or misclassified under some pre-existing category. If it clearly departs from received wisdom in that category it may be reclassified as a feminist critique of it (safely filed away in the ‘gender’ box, which means it does not need to be absorbed into the canon but may be awarded an occasional footnote reference). In some cases it may be seen as quaint or quirky, a light subjective take on a serious subject, to provide a moment’s amusement before the audience’s attention moves back to the Important Issues. If what is being proposed is an idea about how to proceed, perhaps in resolution of some generally recognised problem, it will most likely be dismissed as impractical or irrelevant – unless or until it is picked up by a male champion, in which case it will be seen as his idea. (The male champion then has it in his gift to offer the woman the chance to do the work of developing and implementing the idea, under his name and authority, as an alternative to simply stealing it. She has the choice of gratefully accepting whatever small acknowledgement is offered or walking away, leaving him in possession of the idea. Here, a lot will depend on the extent to which she feels ethically committed to seeing it implemented as a socially good thing. And also on her financial circumstances. Can she afford to walk away if this will deprive her of a source of income?).

Being got but gobbled

Which leads me on to the next type of experience: being ‘got’ only too well, but not acknowledged as the owner of the idea. There was a small example of this at the end of my lecture at York when a member of the audience came up to me afterwards and said, no doubt intending it as a compliment, ‘everything you just said is exactly what I say to my students’ (to which one can only, while nodding politely and asking what he teaches – it was of course a he – silently answer ‘so where is the article in which you have published these thoughts that are so identical to mine?’). More usually this kind of response is more overtly patronising, or even aggressive.

One variant, particularly prominent on the Troskyist left, used to take the form of a sentence starting ‘While you are correct in what you say about x, you are incorrect when you do not also argue y (y being, typically, a statement of the need for a revolutionary workers’ party). In other words, ‘we already knew what you said because it is part of our party “line” –  or will be from now on if I have anything to do with it’. These days the same sentiment is more likely to be expressed as a simple statement, from the (usually youngish and male) commentator to the effect that he agrees with what you have just said, as a preamble to a lengthy speech in which he states the rest of his party’s opinion. This is often delivered with a lordly air that reminds me irresistibly of the Man from Del Monte in the old TV commercials who would descend on a village and sample the fruit, while the villagers looked on anxiously, to be greeted with rapturous gratitude when it passed the test. ‘The Man from Del Monte said yes!’ they would scream in delight as they launched into a frenzy of colourful local dancing. The hidden message is crystal clear: no woman could possibly have any motive for presenting an idea other than that of seeking masculine approval. Once this approval is granted, the idea becomes part of the general property of the approval-granting young idealogue-arbiters, no more to be acknowledged than if it had fallen from the sky (or indeed a fruit tree). And you are supposed to be really grateful that you have been privileged with this seal of approval. That you may not give much of a damn whether or not some callow youth  agrees with you or not, but are more interested in opening up a general debate in which ‘lines’ are set to one side in the interests of creative and open dialogue seems to be beyond their comprehension.

Among mainstream academics, the forms of appropriation are somewhat different, though no less pernicious. Let me give you one example (I will try to keep the details vague to avoid publicly naming and shaming the gentleman in question). I developed a concept that I had been using for a decade or so for analysing an aspect of the global division of labour. This concept was then taken up by various people in national and international government departments. An academic from an Ivy League university with whom I had been in contact (including finding funds in a tight budget to invite him to a conference I was organising in Europe and putting him in touch with some important figures among those aforementioned bodies) then published an article in which he claimed ownership of this concept. When I pointed out, quite gently in an email, that this was a concept I had developed, and that my role in developing it had indeed even been acknowledged in print by one of those government people, his response was not to make any attempt to reference my work but to say ‘Well I would have come up with the idea  sooner or later anyway’.  In other words, anything that a woman like me could dream up must, de facto, be supremely obvious and not worth acknowledging as an original idea (Whether he would have acknowledged it if I had been a man is one of those counter-factuals that can never be verified).

A subtler version of this strategy involves taking ideas from conference presentations and grey literature, claiming them as their own, and not citing the originator of the idea because this originator has not published it in a high-ranked peer-reviewed journal. But even publishing in the agreed ‘scientific’ way in such journals is no guarantee of being cited. This 2013 study by Daniel Mailiniak, Ryan M.Powers and Barbara F. Walter found that women are systematically cited less than men (after controlling for a large number of other variables) with articles by men cited on average 4.8 more times than articles by women. So, sisters, if you want to be publicly known as the owner of your ideas, beware of people who come up to you at conferences and ask ‘has this been published anywhere?’ or ‘could you give me a copy of that report you mentioned?’. Alternatively you might just be altruistic enough, or committed enough to being a teacher,  to want to share your knowledge with the world and wait for the thanks that might come, you never know, twenty years later from a grateful mid-career researcher you helped to get launched.

Another related strategy is a little more preemptive. It involves talking the people who commissioned you to write the ‘grey’ report into giving them an advance copy, and then publicly announcing your results as theirs while you (in accordance with your contract) are still respecting the embargo. On one occasion a report I had written was to be launched at a big international conference. I was asked by the organisers to suggest someone to chair it and (thinking I was doing a favour to somebody whose profile up to then had been distinctly national) I suggested a man who asked for an advance copy of the report but then, instead of introducing me to the assembled multitude, proceeded to take up some 50% of my allotted time presenting my main conclusions as his own generalisations that were ‘setting the context’ for my presentation, which was thereby reframed as a bit of empirical research slotted into his grand theoretical overview. On another occasion a consultant who saw himself as a rival actually took the charts out of an about-to-be-press-released report  I had written for a government department (of which he had managed to wangle an advance copy) and put them into a powerpoint presentation which he showed to the press the day before the launch date. The publication of another report I wrote for a different government department got held up by over a year but, in the meanwhile, somebody gave a copy to an academic who used its contents as a ‘case study’ in a very well-funded research project. Is this out-and-out theft? or just a kind of opportunistic version of ‘finders, keepers’? And does it happen to men too? Who knows?

Message massaged into medium

Finally I come to the strategy which, I suspect, was the one most used against my Aunt Jacky. She herself warned me against one aspect of it when, in the 1960s, she repeatedly told me ‘It is really useful to learn to touch-type. But when you apply for a job don’t on any account let them know that you can do it. If you do you will always be treated as a secretary’.

secretary

Illustration from a 1960s secretarial training textbook

For readers too young to remember, I should explain that this was a period when any office worker (including myself as a junior commissioning editor in the mid-1970s) was allocated the services of an individual secretary, or access to the services of a pool of typists who took shorthand notes, worked from your long-hand draft or, a bit later, from an audio recording of your words, and typed it up on a manual (later an electric) typewriter, with several carbon copies, each of which had to be corrected separately in the event of a typing mistake. The typed letters or other documents were then returned to the ‘author’  for correction and signature. The only people who were not specialist typists who had typewriters on their desks were writers and journalists, considered an eccentric and specialist breed. Most secretaries did a great deal more than typing. They assembled random utterances into coherent sentences, corrected grammar and spelling and adjusted  the form of address according to rules of etiquette. Secretarial training manuals from the period are  enlightening. They include things like how to address a Member of Parliament or a Bishop, how to dress and how to serve coffee as well as technical tricks like how to centre text (find the middle of the line then count the number of characters in the heading backspacing once for each two characters), when to use a semi-colon, how to lay out an invoice or calculate compound interest and how to communicate with the post office. The ‘skills’ of typing, editing etc. were elided into a bundle of other roles, many of them strongly gendered, and ended up becoming almost invisible as skills, just part of a taken-for granted set of feminine attributes that no more deserved to be publicly credited than the labour of ironing shirts or cleaning the floor.

This kind of elision also takes place between writing and editing and a range of other technical skills. In these days when everybody is supposed to type their own articles there are still things that only some people know how to do well, such as inserting tables of contents, formatting charts, putting headers into the correct style, adapting templates, uploading documents to websites,  and, of course, still those old tasks of putting everything into good English (or whatever other global language is required), correcting the spelling and grammar and, to use the current jargon, ‘pulling out the key messages’. And it still seems to be the case that when women do these things they are seen as nit-picky technical details that are too unimportant for the Great Male Author to bother himself with that do not merit attribution (although when men are required to do so them it is suddenly pointed out that they take up a huge amount of time). I will end with just a few examples from my own experience (I am really not exaggerating or making these up).

‘Well we (two guys) are the real authors. Ursula just did the writing’ (about a co-authored book for which they had contributed – very – raw drafts of two and a half chapters, out of a total of thirteen).

‘Would you mind taking your names off the report so I can submit it as my dissertation’ (addressed to me and another woman who between us had done about 97% of the work on the report and added this guy’s name as co-author for form’s sake).

‘Well I really must insist that I am named as co-editor’ (from a guy who had negotiated some changes with one contributor out of 12 to a journal special issue).

‘Yes I know you did a lot of the work but I really need to claim this as my publication because my university is putting a lot of pressure on me to generate impact’ (self-explanatory. of course this was also a guy).

I could go on, but I won’t.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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.