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.




Dilemma for democracy

referendumIt was pointed out to me over Christmas that I only posted once on this blog in 2018. And like that one, this post was also triggered by reflections on current debates on the left: this time the fraught discussions about what MPs should do to avoid the trap set by Teresa May of having to choose between a no-deal Brexit and the disastrous dog’s dinner of a Brexit deal that she has negotiated. I would love to be writing about something else, but this is what feels most urgent.

Withdraw Article 50, engineer another general election, hold another referendum. I am surely not alone among my friends and contemporaries in being happy to embrace any or all of these options if it would get us out of this horrible, horrible mess. But what has been occupying my thoughts has not been the advantages of one over another, but rather the deeper questions which this whole debacle has raised. In particular, the very delicate issues it touches on relating to democracy. which can be awkward for socialists to air in public.  And in the depths of this do-not-probe-too-deeply-or-stamp-too-hard quagmire sits the political mechanism of the referendum.

The referendum is often hailed as the ultimate expression of democracy, though many question its compatibility with parliamentary democracy. Parliamentary democracy of course has many faults, but it is does incorporate two important principles that are negated by a referendum. First, the results are always reversible. You elect your MP for a limited period and can then change your mind if you don’t like what she or he has been doing and elect somebody else after the term is up. Second, it recognises that the public does not have perfect information or prescience about unexpected new developments. Although you take account of what policies your parliamentary candidate stands for, you vote for a person, not a policy, on the basis that, once elected, the MP will make informed decisions on complex issues based on a combination of her or his political views, the latest information and expert advice.

A referendum does not just force a choice between crude binary options; its result is also deemed irreversible, however ill-informed the basis on which people made that one-off binary choice. Once the people have spoken, goes the rhetoric, what they have said should stand for all time.  And because the logic underpinning the holding of a referendum is fundamentally populist, any criticism or second thoughts about it must be regarded not only as anti-democratic but also elitist. And what socialist wants to go around sporting those two labels?

It is perhaps no accident that Switzerland, the country that makes most use of referendums was just about the last in the world to give women the vote, or that in Germany, with its first-hand experience of the horrors that crude populism can lead to, the referendum is viewed with great suspicion.

We have all known for a long time that a lot of public opinion, shaped as it is by right-wing media scaremongering and misinformation, is profoundly reactionary. It is no secret that at any time in the second half of the 20th century if there had been a popular vote on it the British people would have wanted to bring back capital punishment, for example. However there was a quiet consensus at the time (which some populists might consider elitist) that they should not be given the chance to do so. And – at least in the Labour party – that there was a responsibility to try to educate the general public in the interests of encouraging more humane values.  Parliament was often ahead of public opinion on many  issues such as the legalisation of homosexuality, the prevention of violence against children and religious tolerance.

Had Cameron, in his desire to throw a bone to the rabid right of the Tory Party, organised a referendum not on Brexit but on bringing back hanging, and had the public voted for it, I wonder, would we still hear Labour MPs saying ‘the people have spoken’ and investigating ways to bring it back in a nice, moderate form?

The same could be said for any number of other issues, including race and immigration. Any referendum runs the risk of establishing such (uninformed) views as ‘the views of the people’ and casting them in concrete for all time. The parliamentary system,  despite its many defects, does at least allow for mutual education and, as already noted, presupposes that informed politicians will modify their views in the light of new information in the knowledge that if their constituents really don’t like the decisions they make then they always have the choice to vote them out next time round.

The nettle that has to be grasped by the Labour party is this: at what point should socialists come out and insist that we stand for certain values which the majority may well not yet hold but we nevertheless think are important enough to keep campaigning for? In other words, at what point do we prioritise leading over following? Faced with an unpalatable opinion poll result, should we just kowtow to dominant opinion and change the manifesto to accommodate it? Or make a principled case for the other view, and campaign to change people’s minds?

Avoiding grasping this nettle has led to a great deal of fudging over the last two and a half years, not helped by nasty in-fighting within as well as between parties. The horrible mess we are in seems to me to be a direct outcome of this. It is going to be extraordinarily difficult for parliamentary democracy to survive.

What should the strategy be? I am no wiser than when I started writing this blog. Two wrongs don’t make a right and, having written what I have about referendums it would seem profoundly illogical to say let’s have another one. But if this is the only way to avoid a nasty Brexit then I would personally go for it as the least bad option. If you are stuck in a stinking bog, sinking by the minute, you grab any rope that is thrown to you.

Thoughts on anti-Semitism

It is a long time since I wrote in this blog. There is a repeating pattern whereby a period of illness (in this case recovering from some surgery just before Christmas) sets me back in my ‘proper’ writing, rendering me too guilty to indulge in non-commissioned work until I have cleared the backlog. But eventually I feel so strongly about something that I have to break the self-imposed taboo. Something similar happened a couple of years ago when I found myself compelled to break the silence during the build-up to the Brexit referendum because of concerns about how it was reported. Today’s impulse also comes from a kind of horror at what is going on around me politically but this time the context is the whisked-up media attention currently being paid to anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, which, it appears to me, wearing my Cassandra hat, may be leading us towards something that is profoundly harmful, political and socially. (even though it might in the long run have some positive impacts by bringing what is hidden or taken for granted to the surface).

Despite (or perhaps because of) the huge media coverage, there seem to be important questions that are not being asked, or answered, adequately. There is of course a lot of discussion about where the attacks are coming from and why now: smoking guns aplenty for conspiracy theorists. The Tories, looking for any ammunition to use against Labour in the run-up to the local elections; the Israeli Government, happy to have pro-Palestinian voices silenced while they shoot unarmed civilians in Gaza; Blairites in the Labour Party who seize on any opportunity to attack Corbyn, regardless of its impact on Labour’s election chances; the mainstream mass media, drifting ever further rightwards with the BBC (fearful of the axe) rivalling the Murdoch press in its pandering to the Tories. This morning, on the Today programme, the fact that Corbyn had attended a meeting of Jewdas (‘a left-wing Jewish group critical of more mainstream Jewish organisations. organisations’, as the BBC put it) was treated as evidence that he was failing to address anti-Semitism in the Party in a piece of doublethink worthy of Orwell. The question that, it seems to me, is not being addressed sufficiently is how and why this particular charge is so difficult for serious socialists to counter. How is it that the energetic, resilient left, which has successfully fought back over the last couple of years against so many anti-Corbyn smears, can be so easily silenced when accused of something which that very socialist left has, over the years, done more than any other political grouping in this country to counter? What notions of good and bad, what intersections of fear and shame, what confusions, what extremes of guilt-by-association, have brought us to this pass?

So here I am again, adding yet another voice to the conversation.

Like last time, when I wrote about Brexit, I have been very hesitant about putting my thoughts online. On both topics there are many people much better-informed than I am. I feel a bit like the fool stomping in, in my muddy wellies, onto a polished parquet floor where even the angelic dancers hesitate before taking a tentative step. Not only is it likely that my generalisations will be quibbled with and my attitudes questioned as old-fashioned, badly informed or politically incorrect, but, in the case of anti-Semitism, there is also the undeniable fact that I am not Jewish, and therefore, perhaps genuinely insensitive to what is going on.

So I will start with a self-interrogatory personal narrative of what Jewishness means to me. I grew up with a strong awareness that anti-Semitism existed and was not easy to fight. My father was a student in Vienna in the 1930s and witnessed extreme forms of it first hand. He was a close friend of Muriel Gardiner (who became Muriel Buttinger after her marriage to Joseph Buttinger, the leader of the Austrian Socialist Party). Taking advantage of her family’s wealth and her US passport, Muriel played an active role in sheltering socialists wanted by the police from the Nazis and helping find ways for Jews to get out of the country safely, a role that was lightly fictionalised in the 1977 film, Julia, where her part was played by Vanessa Redgrave. My father played a small role in this (including helping to acquire British passports that could be used to get people across the border) and Muriel remained a life-long friend of his and, later, an inspiration to me. I have vivid memories of the last time I met her, over dinner in an Italian restaurant in Bloomsbury in the 1970s, in the company of my father and my friend Nick Redgrave, where she talked about her American socialist youth, collecting money for the defence of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1920. It was on this occasion that, when I admired the chunky Venetian baroque pearl necklace she was wearing, with typical impulsive generosity, she immediately took it off and said, ‘Here, have it!’.

Anyway, suffice it to say, this experience cemented for me an association between Jewishness and socialism. Like the rest of their generation (my father was born in 1902, my mother in 1907) my parents were by no means free of racial stereotypes. For them, Jews were clever, sensitive, musical and studious. They were good fathers but unlikely to be interested in sport or the consumption of alcohol. Some of these stereotypes were challenged when applied to the complex personalities of Jewish people I knew personally but many were not. I really did meet a lot of Jewish psychoanalysts, writers, university lecturers, publishers, musicians and artists. And an awful lot of them really were socialists. Most were also part of a shared culture which was secular and humanist and their Jewishness did not seem particularly important.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Jewishness, like other identities, felt to me like part of a historical legacy that would become less and less important with the progressive advance of universal education, and the spread of democracy and egalitarian welfare regimes. Religions, it seemed then, formed part of superstitious heritages designed to bolster hierarchies (including patriarchal ones), reinforce obedience to power, provide hope to people facing intolerable adversity and give them spiritual sustenance in their sorrow. While of course their practices should be tolerated and their rituals celebrated, their roles would increasingly be taken over by other communitarian agencies in the brave socialist future we imagined.

But I was sometimes reminded of the strength of Jewish identity, even among secular Jews. I remember a conversation with Michael Kidron (then my editor at Pluto Press) in which I was describing how international my family had become (my siblings’ spouses were, variously, Polish-German, Japanese, French and Palestinian – which extended in the next generation to Indian, Chinese and US spouses) and his immediate reaction was ‘Yes, but you’re all Goy’. I was also struck, living in Yorkshire in the 1970s, by the bonds that stretched across the Jewish community there, crossing party-political boundaries. When the National Front wanted to march through Leeds City Centre, this was stopped, so I was told, by Irwin Bellow, the Tory leader of the City Council, former owner of a company that made sewing machines (subsequently knighted for his services selling council houses as a minister in the Thatcher government) after a phone call from Lou Baruch, the communist leader of Bradford Trades Council (‘the textile workers’ champ’) – the anti-union capitalist and the trade union leader cheerfully colluding to thwart anti-Semitism.

In the early 2000s, when organisations like Jews For Justice in Palestine were formed in the UK, it came as quite a surprise to me how many friends I had up to then simply thought of as fellow socialists and feminists decided to identify themselves publicly as Jews. It had never even occurred to me in many cases that that’s what they were. I actually found it quite difficult to place myself, as a non-Jew, in relation to such campaigns, which seemed to construct people like me as outsiders. If one was campaigning on the basis that everybody was equal and religious distinctions should not matter, then it seemed on one level contradictory to insist on such distinctions. On another level, of course, it was very understandable. In a world where every non-Jew runs the risk of being (consciously or unconsciously) anti-Semitic, just as all white people run the risk of being (consciously or unconsciously) racist, then Jewish voices that stand against Israeli state policy have a unique chance of being heard out. Nevertheless, it left me, and perhaps others, with a sense of having nowhere to put my solidarity, a silencing of sorts.

This is not the whole story, of course. The atrocity of the Holocaust hung like a pall over my childhood, as I suppose it did for most of my generation. I didn’t even realise how deeply it affected me until I became a mother and found myself haunted by detailed and very concrete imaginings of the experience of deportation and the death-camps. What did you do, I kept wondering, crammed, standing, into a cattle-truck with nothing but the clothes on your back, when your baby needed a nappy change? When it cried? When it wanted to crawl? How did you cope with the leaking breast-milk when that baby had been snatched from you? Such questions, I realised, had formed part of the mental sound-track of my life since childhood, breaking their way into consciousness only at moments of emotional stress or vulnerability and playing who knows what convulsive riffs while they remained unconscious.  I can still remember, with great vividness, an experience at my North Wales primary school in the mid-1950s. Two boys were approaching kids in the playground with knowing ‘I’ve got a secret’ smirks, asking if anyone wanted to see their pictures. One by one, we were shown two well-thumbed black-and-white photographs, cut from a magazine, of the piled-up emaciated bodies that were found at the liberation of Belsen. It is hard to exaggerate the shock of this – not just the obscene reality that was represented in those pictures but also the voyeuristic frisson that these two boys seemed to experience, as if it were pornography, and the air of secrecy, as though these images revealed something so shameful that children were forbidden to view them. I am sure I am not the only person whose nightmares were invaded by these images. Such experiences confirm the idea of the Holocaust as something uniquely awful, incommensurate with other atrocities. Even to mention it in the same breath as other genocidal massacres can feel like somehow trying to diminish its importance. Small wonder that denying it is a criminal offence in many countries.

And then there is Israel. My early view of Israel was partly shaped by second-hand accounts of kibbutzim, which provided gap-year experiences to many more or less idealistic kids in the years after National Service was abolished for young British men. They seemed like a foretaste of socialism – sexual freedom and communal living amongst the orange groves. Israel was, in this view, the happy ending that awaited those who were lucky enough to have survived the horror and brave enough to fight for freedom, a view that was reinforced by the 1960 film Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger, one of the first I ever saw on a wide screen.

Since then, I have become only too aware of how necessary it is to unpick such facile narratives and explore their contradictions, not least through my first-hand contact with the descendents of Arabs for whom the foundation of Israel meant being turfed off their ancestral lands. But such unpicking is extraordinarily difficult to do when the narratives are so highly-charged, both emotionally and morally.

I became acutely aware of this when I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. By coincidence, this, my first (and so far only) visit to Washington, took place only a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. I was on one of the first flights into a city where at least one of the other airports was still closed. There was a strange jumpy hysteria in the atmosphere, with military aircraft zipping overhead and people with their heads down hurrying to get home. Flags fluttered everywhere. Streets were almost empty. My academic hosts had arranged for me to have dinner with their Dean in a fashionable restaurant that served up expensive versions of poor peoples’ foods (things I had only ever read about, like hominy grits). The restaurant was almost deserted and the Dean wanted to spend the minimum possible time there, departing in the middle of the main course after asking the waiter to box up his food so he could take it home with him, ratcheting up the already high level of awkwardness for those of us who had to sit it out until dessert had been consumed.

Rejecting polite offers to entertain me, I decided, in the free day before my seminar, to visit the Holocaust Museum, about which I had heard a great deal. The experience was  immersive. As you entered, you were given a card with the details of a Holocaust victim with whom you were encouraged to identify (I am using the past tense here because things may have changed in the sixteen years that have elapsed since this visit). The first spaces that greeted you gave a historical account of Hitler’s rise to power, with photographs of mass rallies, the swastikaed flags in the photographs uncannily echoing all those stars and stripes waving outside. It was made clear that the Nazis attacked socialists and trade unionists, as well as Jews but the main story was about anti-Semitism. The next section of the museum reinforced this, with a historical account of anti-Semitism in Europe and lots of artefacts showing the rich cultural heritage of European Judaism. Then you were taken, step by harrowing step, through the detail of the Holocaust – the roundings up, the transport, the conditions in the camps, the death chambers. Incidental mention was made of  non-Jewish victims (the gypsies, the gays, the mentally handicapped, the socialists) but overwhelmingly the story was about Jews, and hatred of Jews, and the unspeakable consequences of that hatred. It was all made concrete and vivid, not just through identification with the avatar-victim on one’s personal card but also by the volume of material evidence. Everyone I have ever spoken to who has visited that museum remembers the enormous pile of worn, discarded shoes, heartbreaking in its very banality. Emerging, trembling from the emotional impact of all this, you entered the final part of the permanent exhibition, intended, I suppose, to be uplifting, covering the liberation of the camps and the resistance. The last room celebrated Israel.

I came out into the glare of the Washington sunlight feeling shaken and moved. But also, confusingly, a little bit tricked. It took a lot of thought to unravel this feeling and I ended up concluding that it was the result of the slow elision of oversimplified dualistic oppositions, a slippery my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my friend/if-you-are-not-with-me-you-are-against-me logic that, when extended, led one along a path that was too narrow, too exclusive and not quite where one intended to go. This is a logic that conflates the political and the moral and, by virtue of the power of that morality, creates a stage in which everyone must be a victim, a villain or a hero (not unlike Stephen Karpman’s victim-rescuer-persecutor ‘drama triangle’). It is a world of goodies and baddies with very little scope either for shades of grey or for personal change.  The logic goes something like this: Hitler = evil; Jews = victims; Allied troops = heroes. Since Hitler was bad, Jews must be good, therefore Israel must also be good. Anybody who is against Israel must therefore be bad (like Hitler) – including Arabs. Socialists fit very awkwardly into this logic. According to the Nazi logic, they are as bad as Jews (indeed they are often assumed to be Jews, or manipulated by them) who must be stamped out, which makes them, by anti-Nazi logic, victims and/or heroes. Their historical role as opponents of anti-Semitism and racism in many European countries also renders them good. However if they use the same reasoning that enabled them to identify dispossessed Jews as victims to recognise dispossessed Arabs as victims too, that makes them anti-Israel which renders them bad. They become like those optical illusions of which the eye can only see one version at a time, toggling wildly between good and evil.

There is a sense in which we all want to be heroes of our own biographies, casting others as fellow victims or persecutors, allies or opponents. But in a political landscape so shot-through with moral righteousness and outrage it is extraordinarily difficult to step forward with confident conviction of one’s own heroism, especially if one is not a central protagonist in the story. Indeed, the greater one’s self-awareness and knowledge of history, the more difficult this becomes.

I had a Catholic upbringing which impressed on me the importance of the nightly ‘examination of conscience’ in which you reflected on everything you had done that day and, if any of it was bad, resolved how you would put it right tomorrow: a sort of memory-scan for shame. This kind of self-examination is of course not unique to Catholics. Variants of it can be found in the practices of psychotherapy, for example, or the consciousness-raising that went on in women’s groups in the 1970s.

Many of us, perhaps especially on the white left, are acutely aware of our own inadequacies. When it comes to racism and anti-Semitism, there are few, I suspect, who can put their hands on their hearts and proclaim themselves entirely not guilty. My generation was brought up in a culture that was profoundly racist and homophobic. Did we really never snigger at the camp gay stereotype played by John Inman in ‘Are You Being Served?’ or laugh at the jokes in ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ or ‘Love Thy Neighbour’? And how much of it washed off on us? We have had to admit that, even if we never consciously discriminated against a black person ourselves, we probably owe our relatively advantaged social positions in the British middle class at least in part to the history of slavery and imperialism. Even as we try to uncover our own hidden racism, we become more and more aware of how our society is steeped in it, how it takes myriad forms and changes over time, how difficult it is to disentangle concepts of cultural difference from those of discrimination, how complicated are the interactions between the past and the present in the formation of identities.

As with so many things in life, the more you know, the more you understand how complicated something is, and the more hesitant you may become about laying down the law to others. Yet alongside this growing comprehension of the complexity of human group inter-relationships, also comes an increasing awareness of how much unfairness and suffering and injustice there is out there. The impulse to remain silent is countered by an equally important impulse to do something about it (that’s what makes people join organisations like the Labour Party). But the interplay between these two impulses might create a sort of paralysis, or at least wrong-foot those who try to enter the public debate without having thought out their position carefully.

Justice is not a card game in which one kind of victimhood trumps another, rendering it irrelevant. We need a broader moral frame that recognises the co-existence of different forms of oppression, even the possibility that the same person, or group of people, might be simultaneously both an oppressor and a victim.

But articulating such a programme requires a degree of nuance that is beyond the binary logic of the mass media to cope with. And which of us, we might ask, has the right to propose such a programme? We seem to have arrived at a situation where non-Jewish socialists feel both unentitled to do so and held back by their very awareness of their own imperfections. I am not sure I am right about this but am wondering how much this might be the explanation for the diffidence (or perhaps even cowardice?) which non-Jews on the left feel about speaking out in the current debate. But speak out, I believe, we must. Somehow.




Universal basic income and women’s liberation

Here is a blog post I wrote for Compass, originally published on their site on January 13th, 2017.


From 1971 to 1978, the UK women’s liberation movement held ten national conferences at which it formally adopted a total of seven key demands. The fifth of these demands, added in 1974, was for financial and legal independence for women, accepted with widespread support across all wings of the movement. It is indeed difficult to imagine a form of feminism which does not, in a money-based society, insist that women have their own means of financial support as a way of avoiding being trapped by economic dependence in coercive, perhaps abusive, relationships.

It is therefore perhaps ironic that the question of how this financial independence should be achieved played a role in the bitter disputes within the movement that led to the decision that the 1978 conference would be the last. Although it was by no means the only reason for the split, the espousal by many radical feminists of the demand for ‘wages for housework’ (developed in 1972 by the International Feminist Collective which included Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Brigitte Galtier and Silvia Frederici) was for many socialist feminists the last straw. Housework, they said, should not be institutionalised as women’s responsibility. It should be shared equally with men or, better, socialised, in the form of state-provided nurseries, laundries and canteens. And what would happen if women refused to do the housework for which they were paid? Would the husband, the father, or the state, taking on the role of the employer, discipline them and decide that they should not get it? Meanwhile radical feminists argued that reproductive work was for the benefit of all society and, since women did most of it, they should be rewarded for this. Why should they be forced into the labour market just for economic survival, when this important caring work took up so much of their time?

More than forty years later, some of the wounds inflicted in those debates still fester. But could it be that the demand for a universal basic income might be a way of healing them?  Instead of posing women with the option of, on the one hand, aiming for full participation in paid work supported by public (or market) services and, on the other, an income for staying at home and taking responsibility for caring, could it, perhaps, offer them a basis for greater choice and autonomy, substituting a form of ‘both/and’ for a false ‘either/or’ dichotomy?

In order to do so, several important preconditions need to be in place. First, it is crucial that the basic income should be provided not just to women, or, more specifically, to people carrying out reproductive labour (parents or carers) but to everybody, regardless of gender or social status. Second, it should be provided as a right of citizenship or residency and not as a reward for carrying out work that would otherwise be unpaid. And third, it should not be seen as a substitute for the provision of public services.

With all these conditions in place, a universal basic income could become a means of offering both women and men freedom to choose how to divide their time between reproductive work, paid work in the labour market and other activities, and decide what proportion of their income to spend on buying in services rather than providing them in kind, in the knowledge that the welfare state is available as a safety net when things go wrong.

It could also go some way towards addressing the less obvious bur more deeply corrosive personal effects of economic dependence: the way that it can lead to ‘breadwinners’ feeling trapped in their roles and resentful of their dependents’ apparent freedom from the constraints of the employer’s clock, as well as leaving their dependents struggling with guilt, obligations to show gratitude or feelings of pressure to engage in coercive sex, or even put up with violence or abuse to keep a roof over their heads and those of their children.

A universal basic income might, in other words, actually lead to better relationships as well as a more equitable society, providing a genuine basis for liberation.

Forty years after the demand for financial independence was first raised, have we at least reached a moment when mass support might be available for actually achieving it?

The key criticisms of basic income, and how to overcome them

I quite often write blogs for sites other than my own. It has been suggested to me that I should post them here too, to make life easier for followers who like to see things in one place, so here is one that was published on the Open Democracy website on 14th December.


How can a universal basic minimum income be made compatible with socialist principles and avoid inadvertently furthering a neoliberal agenda?

More than one in five UK workers, over seven million people, are now in precarious employment according to this analysis of official figures by John Philpott. Since 2006, the numbers on zero-hours contracts has grown by three-quarters of a million are and over 200,000 more are working on temporary contracts. My own recent research has found that some two and a half million adults in the UK may be working for online platforms like Uber, Taskrabbit or Upwork at least once a month, with about 1.2 million people earning more than half their income from this kind of work. A growing proportion of the population is piecing together an income from multiple sources, in many cases making even the concept of a fixed occupation anomalous.

Large numbers of worker do not know, from one day – or even hour – to the next if and when they will next be working. Yet we still have an anachronistic benefit system based on the principle that any fit adult (and, under the current regime, many who are less than fit) must either be ‘in work’ or ‘seeking work’. The old Beveridgean welfare state model is, in short, bust. What is left of the old welfare safety net is fundamentally incompatible with a globalised just-in-time labour market in which workers are increasingly paid by the task.

The victims of these incompatibilities are among the most vulnerable in our society – forced to take any work that is going but often unable to claim benefit when none is available. They are caught between the rock of harsh sanctions regimes and the hard place of capricious and unreliable employers, often with no dependable source of income whatsoever. And the numbers of these people missed by the safety net keep growing. The use of food banks has increased more than forty-fold since 2008, the estimated  number of rough sleepers has risen by 55% since 2010 and the number of children in poverty rose from 3.7 million in 2014-2015 to 3.9 million a year later – an increase of 200,000 in just one year. Something is clearly terribly wrong and the increasingly urgent question is how to fix it.

This is part of the problem to which the concept of a universal basic income (UBI) now presents itself as a solution to an expanding range of analysts. UBI is not only promoted as a way to update the benefit system to bring it into line with new labour market realities. It is also seen as a way to reward carers and others who carry out unpaid reproduction work in the home, to support artists, enable lifelong learning or give more autonomy to disabled people. This once-marginal idea is now seriously espoused in the UK by the Green Party, the Scottish Nationalist Party, some trade unions and sections of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and Plaid Cymru. Further afield is also actively promoted (including setting up experimental schemes) in Finland, the Netherlands, India, South Africa and, at the neoliberal end of the spectrum, by high-tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

At the headline level, indeed, UBI can seem to represent some sort of magic bullet that will solve all these problems simultaneously, and is often promoted as such. But a closer examination of the various models proposed reveals considerable differences between them. If these are not recognised, attempts to operationalise it could lead at best to risks of unintended consequences and at worst deep political fissures that could even exacerbate some of the problems UBI is intended to address. Most attempts to model how UBI could be implemented in practice in the UK (for example by Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley, Malcolm Torry and Gareth Morgan) have looked at it in what might be called a policy-neutral context, in which all other features of the economy and the tax system remain unaltered. But of course the reality is that any change in government policy that could lead to the introduction of UBI would be part of a much broader political upheaval that would transform many of these other features. Abstracting UBI from its broader setter in this way makes it harder to see such potential hazards.

For people who believe that the world’s sixth largest economy should be able to protect its citizens from penury, and are committed to (re)developing a welfare state that reduces social inequality and enhances choice and opportunity for its citizens, perhaps the time has now come for a serious debate, not just about the pros and cons of UBI in the abstract, but about which other policies it should be linked with to ensure that these objectives are met. This involves grappling with some difficult questions. Here I look at four of the risks that could arise if a UBI is introduced without such policy safeguards.

The risk of driving down wages

In the abstract, the relationship between a UBI and wage levels can be argued to be either positive or negative. Some argue, quite plausibly, that a guaranteed minimum income would enable people to be much choosier about which jobs they accept, giving them options to turn down really exploitative wage rates and perhaps even providing them with the equivalent of strike pay to enable them to negotiate more effectively with employers without their dependents suffering.

An alternative view draws on the experience of tax credits (and now, universal credit) to point out that providing an income top-up is, in effect, a subsidy to employers who pay below-subsistence wages. In 2015-2016, this subsidy was estimated at about £30 billion. Had this been paid out by employers as part of their wage bill then this would also have led to an increase in national insurance and tax revenues. These credits therefore represent a factor which, whether inadvertently or not, increase inequalities between those who rely on their wages for their livelihood and those who derive their incomes, directly or indirectly, from corporate profits.

If a UBI is not to exacerbate this state of affairs, it is imperative that it is linked to a high minimum wage and one, moreover, that can be linked to systems where workers are paid by the task, not just to hourly rates.

The risk of undermining collective bargaining for employer-provided benefits

An important argument against UBI comes from social democratic parties and trade unions, especially in parts of continental Europe with a strong tradition of sector-level bargaining, who argue that its introduction would undermine their efforts to make employers pay into schemes that provide negotiated benefits, such as pensions, health insurance or childcare. A UBI provided by the state would, they contend, shift the burden of paying for it from employers to the general taxpayer. As Richard Murphy has shown, ‘the poorest 20% of households in the UK have both the highest overall tax burden of any quintile and the highest VAT burden’. This shift would therefore exacerbate inequalities, rather than reducing them, at a societal level.

To avoid this risk, it is therefore important that the introduction of UBI should be accompanied by measures that support trade unions’ abilities to bargain with employers at company and sector levels for benefits for their members, by protection for existing company pensions schemes and by other measures that ensure that employers continue to contribute their share of the cost, for instance through employers’ contributions to National Insurance.

The risk of undermining collectively-provided public services

By giving everyone cash, neoliberal models of UBI play along with the grain of an increasingly marketised economy in which services are individually purchased from private providers. There is therefore a risk that UBI could become a sort of glorified voucher system, undermining collectively provided public services that are designed by bodies democratically answerable to the communities they serve, under the guise of offering individual choice. Quite apart from the considerable risks that this poses to democracy, social cohesion and the quality of services, this could disadvantage individuals with special needs who require more expensive and/or specialised services than the average, exacerbating inequalities even while purporting to offer everybody the same.

It is therefore imperative that the introduction of a UBI should be embedded with policies that protect the scope and quality of public services and their collective and universal character.

The risk of creating racist definitions of citizenship

If a UBI is defined as a right of citizenship, then this raises the question of entitlement: who is, or is not, a citizen? And on what basis is their right to UBI established? A final serious risk associated with the introduction of UBI is that it could become linked to a narrow definition of citizenship from which some people (for example refugees, asylum-seekers or residents who do not hold UK passports) are excluded. In addition to the support this could give to racism and xenophobia this could also lead to a two-tier labour market in which people who are not entitled to UBI become an exploited underclass.

The introduction of UBI must therefore be integrated with humane and well-thought-out policies on immigration and citizenship, perhaps by linking entitlement to the place of residence, rather than nationality.


I have highlighted here what I see as four major challenges that need to be confronted if UBI is to be introduced as a genuinely progressive initiative that can restore some dignity and security to the most vulnerable members of our society, enable a flexible labour market to function in ways that avoid exploitation while encouraging entrepreneurship and creativity and reduce social inequality. In doing so, I do not wish to pour cold water on the very idea. On the contrary, I think that, at this moment in history, it is crucially important – so important that what is needed now is a debate, not about the abstract idea of a UBI, but about how it could be introduced in the real world in a way that is genuinely compatible with social-democratic and feminist ideals and starts to rebuild the train-wreck that is currently all we have left of the 20th century welfare state that so many people worked so hard to create.

Not in a shy way

It was entirely predictable that Trump’s first dance as president of the United States would be performed (with some cartoonish mouthing of the words) to the tune of ‘My Way’, playing out in a manner beyond irony the triumph of braggadocio in 21st century public life.

It is hard for anyone with any degree of self-awareness to believe that this is entirely serious. Surely, we think, that degree of ostentatious and clichéd vulgarity must be enacted with a tongue lodged firmly somewhere in a jowly cheek: two tiny fingers raised to the good taste of those who manage the world; the jester releasing his evil-smelling trump (in the colloquial British sense of the word) in the deodorised boudoir of the establishment.

Then comes the awful realisation that this is absolutely for real. The foot-stamping toddler really does want his own way. The occupant of the gilded throne-room really does believe he has a right to rule and annihilate what stands in his path.

What has happened to the world in which modesty is a virtue, lights are hidden under bushels and, whatever you’ve got, it’s unladylike to flaunt it? Even to ask such questions, for someone on the left, is difficult. It puts us on the side of gentility, privilege, convention. It aligns us with that very establishment we thought we were critiquing. And it makes us vulnerable to accusations of snobbery – of being, Heaven help us, ‘North London intellectuals’, deploring the vulgarity of the working class (to a soundtrack of classical music) even while we purport to be placing its interests first.

Its conflicted relationship to popular culture is, perhaps, one of the factors that has contributed most to the intellectual paralysis that seems to have overtaken the British left in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Vulnerable to accusations of elitism, many are uncomfortable talking about the cultural pleasures of cosmopolitan connectedness. They would rather parade a connoisseurship of punk music than of Baroque ceilings, of real ale than of wine, just as it is easier to write a PhD on Eastenders than on Jane Austen if you want to keep your socialist credentials.  While some are happy to subject aspects of popular culture to detailed deconstruction (often in impenetrable language), others are afraid of losing touch, or seeming pretentious, anxiously submerging themselves in activities that reconnect them with their roots, from football to rock and roll. But even such immersion can be accompanied, as the late, lamented, Mark Fisher described so eloquently, by a haunting sense of inauthenticity – of being a fraud who has ‘somehow faked his way through’.

In these days of social media, there is perhaps, no innocence left when it comes to the experience of culture: no experience that is unmediated by the thought – even if resisted – of how it can be captured, reproduced, tweeted, misrepresented, mashed up. In a representational world in which just about everything can be both aligned and opposed to just about everything else, the logic of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ comes adrift. This makes even the sense of belonging ambivalent, and fraught with risk.

It may no longer be possible to recreate the kinds of spaces that were available for earlier generations of critical misfits to occupy – the Bohemias (whether in the form of physical districts or social milieux) where intercourse took place between artistic, political and sexual transgression and it was equally OK to criticise the ruling class and consumerism. But perhaps new ones will emerge. In the meanwhile, if we want to communicate beyond our own small circles we have to shout, over the cacophony of social media in which everybody else is doing the same, in the hope that somewhere out there will be another voice that responds to ours, in doing so breaking all those taboos against showing off and opening ourselves up to the accusation of not listening properly to others. We have, in short, to engage in precisely the sort of trumpet-blowing our democratic instincts (not to mention our desire to be liked) warn us against.

The question facing us is how to emerge from this paralysis and start moving again. This requires not only putting weight on limbs we may not entirely trust (and letting go with others) but also deciding  whose hand to hold and in what direction to move: to find a way of substituting ‘our’ way for ‘my’ way. And even, maybe, finding some means to do it in a shy way.

All that suffering. For what?

I cannot have been alone in my reaction to yesterday’s Autumn Budget announcements from Philip Hammond in which the government promises that underpinned the austerity agenda for the last six years were at last pronounced officially dead. What I couldn’t stop thinking about was the huge toll of human sacrifice those false promises had brought about: the elderly people hounded out of their council homes because there was one bedroom too many, the dying people deprived of benefits because they turned up a few moments late for a Jobcentre appointment, the disabled people put through humiliating and painful tests, the defeated expressions on the faces of proud people forced into demeaning make-work jobs, the shame of having to turn to a foodbank to feed one’s kids. So much pain. Then, all unbidden, the words came into my head from that Stanley Holloway comic monologue, so often requested on the radio in my childhood, called Albert and the Lion, in which the mother of Albert (who has been eaten by a lion at the zoo) is consoled by a magistrate with the thought that she can always have more sons and replies, indignantly, ‘What, spend all our lives raising children. To feed ruddy lions? Not me!’.

Whether those lions are seen as stand-ins for war or for capitalism, the joke, certainly understood by most people in the self-deprecating 1950s when I first heard it, hinged on the fact that of course, people always DO go on raising children, whatever the cost, whatever the sacrifice. In fact for most people, having children is the best and most altruistic thing they ever do in their lives. Having children, or grandchildren, or nephews and nieces, or loving the children of others, gives you a stake in the future, in peace, in public order, in a society that values more than just making money. It is actually society’s main protection from nihilist destructive rage, crime and greed gone mad.

Against all rational self-interest, in the knowledge that it will make them poorer, deprive them of sleep, of chances to go out in the evening, of holidays, people just go on having babies, drinking in their smiles, saving up to buy them treats, then later worrying themselves silly every time they fail to come home on time, trying desperately to protect them from pain and, yes, putting up uncomplainingly with horrible jobs just to try to assure them a secure future.

It was reported at the end of June this year in the Guardian that the number of children being brought up in poverty in the UK had risen from 3.7 million in 2014-2015 to 3.9 million – an increase of 200,000 in just one year of austerity programmes. If you listen to the way the parents of these children are described in the right-wing media, or see how they are treated by the Tory state, you would think that choosing to procreate is an act of pure selfishness, embarked on to jump the queue for social housing, or claim a bit more benefit. Rarely is it recognised that what parents are actually doing, often at great cost to their finances and their own bodily wellbeing, is bringing up the next generation of workers and taxpayers on whom the economy depends. Instead of being rewarded and praised for this, they are demonised.

If there is one single argument, above all others, for the need for a universal basic income it is this: to secure a future for our children – social reproduction – that does not have to be bought with such suffering (I was going to write ‘needless suffering’ but of course in this unequal world we know that there are those who benefit from it).