and more on the future of work

In the new spirit of reblogging here things I have already blogged elsewhere, here is a piece that appeared today on the LSE blog at

(their headline not mine).

Future of Work: taking the blinkers off to see new possibilities

Anybody relying for their information on the current headlines would find it hard to make sense of what is happening in the labour market. On the one hand, the news media are awash with apocalyptic forecasts, often backed up by studies from reputable organisations such as the US National Bureau of Economic Research , the Oxford Martin School or the Bruegel think tank, that robots, machine learning, drones, d3D printers, driverless cars and other applications of Artificial Intelligence are going to eliminate very large numbers of jobs, not just in manufacturing but also in service industries, ranging from low-skill tasks like picking and packing in warehouses and home delivery right up to high-skill professional tasks like legal research or stockbroking.

On the other hand, employment levels in the UK are at an all-time high of 74.6 per cent, with the unemployment level, which averaged over 7 per cent from 1971 to 2016, having fallen to just 4.7 per cent in January, 2017.

So, are we facing mass unemployment or not? Here we are, nearly a decade after a major financial crisis that led to job losses, austerity and waves of corporate restructuring including bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions, seeing the emergence of new winners, with new business models and the birth of new industries, with new technological applications playing a key role. If we take a broad historical view, this is actually quite a familiar story.

We could look, for example, at the development of new industries based on the spread of electrical power and mass entertainment after the 1929 crash, or of computerisation after the 1973 energy crisis, or the explosive growth of the Internet in the decade after the infamous 1987 Black Monday. Each of these technologies was also, of course, instrumental in displacing large numbers of jobs in older industries. And with each wave, livelihoods were irrevocably damaged, because the new jobs were not created in the same areas, or for the same people, as the old ones.

The elderly look on in amazement at the desirable new labour-saving appliances their grandchildren buy, remembering the back-breaking drudgery of the old methods. But for every gleaming new factory in one part of the world, there are piles of rusting machinery in others, along with devastated lives and communities. Such ‘creative destruction’, as Schumpeter called it, is, surely, part and parcel of capitalism as usual.

So why, in the second decade of the 21st century, are so many commentators, on so many different parts of the political spectrum, convinced that this time things will be different: that we are, in Paul Mason’s phrase, moving into a period that could be described as ‘postcapitalist’?

Part of the explanation might lie in the way that capitalism is often seen, especially by the young, as a single, monolithic system that embraces all aspects of life. Perhaps a more useful way of understanding it is a somewhat messy assemblage of different capitalists competing with each other, scrabbling for market share, experimenting with new business models and often failing. In times of crisis, when many are going to the wall, technologies (including some that have been around for a while) may be seized on, not as part of an orchestrated general plan, but in much more piecemeal ways, by particular firms looking for means to restore profitability: to reduce labour costs, develop new products or services or enter new markets.

Obvious first targets for automation are processes where labour costs are high, usually because they require scarce skills or workers are well organised. So it is not surprising that skilled print workers were first in the firing line for digitisation, or auto factories for robots. The first companies to introduce innovations can make a killing – getting ahead of their competitors with a step change in increased productivity.

But such advantages do not last long. Once the technology is generally available, it is open to any competitor to buy it at the lowest market price and copy these production methods. A race to the bottom is started, which can only be sidestepped by firms that continue to innovate. It is fanciful to imagine that it would be possible to populate the world’s factories with 2017 state-of-the-art robots and then just leave them to get on with production. Leaving aside the question of how these robots are to be assembled and maintained, there is no conceivable business model that would make this profitable over any sustained period of time.

A much more likely scenario is that vast new industries will grow up to manufacture these new means of production which, like today’s laptops and mobile phones, will rapidly become obsolete and need replacing. These industries will also give birth to new service jobs, involved in their design, distribution, maintenance and in dealing with the unintended consequences of their widespread adoption (such as cyber-crime and new safety hazards).

Current technologies do not just create new kinds of jobs, they also change the way work is organised, managed and controlled. My research has shown that 2.5 per cent of workers already get more than half their income from online platforms. These new organisational models do not just change the way existing jobs are managed but also bring new areas of economic activity within the direct orbit of capitalism, for instance by drawing into the formal economy the kinds of cash-in-hand work done by window-cleaners, dog-walkers, baby-sitters or gardeners. They may not be jobs in the traditional sense, but they are work, with the potential to be organised differently in the future, that can form the basis of profitable new industries.

Another factor that blinkers thinking about the future of work is a failure to see beyond the boundaries of the existing industrial structure and imagine where other new industries will emerge from. Whether it’s the DNA of plants, the human needs for entertainment, sociality and health or outer space, the universe is full of new opportunities for commodification. The question is, can the planet sustain them?


The hardest nettle to grasp

It is still early in the morning as I write this and some people will not have heard the news yet, while others who have been up all night still haven’t even had breakfast, but already the finger-pointing has started.

And there are, of course, many easy culprits to blame for the devastating outcome of yesterday’s referendum vote on Britain’s EU membership.

Most obviously there is David Cameron. A taxi driver of Pakistani origin I spoke to yesterday (who insisted – perhaps like many others –  on seeing the referendum as a choice between Cameron and Boris Johnson) kept repeating, ‘Why? Why did he have to do this? There was no need. Politicians are always breaking manifesto promises’. And it is a common view that this most shallow man was prepared to risk Britain’s future simply as a lazy way of dealing with the Tory Party’s right wing to bring about some semblance of unity and marginalise UKIP in the run-up to the last general election (which, it is widely thought, he wasn’t even expecting the Tories to win). It is also widely believed that Boris Johnson was playing an even more cynical game: wanting Cameron’s job as Tory leader and gambling that the majority of Tories would vote to leave the EU (leaving him as the most popular potential successor) but that Britain would be held back from the brink by Labour, Lib-Dem, Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru voters. This would leave him as Conservative leader without any real challenge to the technocratic neoliberal global regime with which he still identifies.

Alternatively we can blame the populist right, whipping up xenophobic hatred (in alliance with the toxic popular press) to take advantage of the gullibility and disillusion of the working class victims of neoliberal globalisation to redirect their anger at refugees and immigrants.

Or – and this is a heavy weight for its recipients to bear – we can blame the Blairite centre left for identifying its interests with that same technocratic neoliberal globalisation project, contributing directly to that disillusion and anger and leaving traditional Labour supporters with nowhere else to go, with compromises that continued under Miliband’s leadership (Remember those ‘controls on immigration’ mugs produced as part of Labour’s campaign in the last general election – a campaign that also failed to challenge austerity?).

This anger undoubtedly led to the huge wave of support for Corbyn in last year’s Labour leadership campaign. But his leadership is not immune from blame either, albeit from several different contradictory directions. I woke this morning to the sound of Kate Hoey on Radio 4 blaming him for not taking the lead in a Labour Brexit campaign. Others think he did not campaign strongly enough for staying in the EU.

It seems to me that, whoever is blamed, the predicament that we are now in results from a fundamental contradiction in the nature of capitalism that social democratic parties and the trade unions have shied away from addressing directly over many decades,  whose full horrors are only emerging now,  in what might be regarded as the full maturity of globalisation.

This contradiction relates to what Marxists call the ‘reserve army of labour’ and how it is deployed under capitalism. I will be brief now (breakfast calls) but in essence the problem is this: the only way that workers can exert any control over their circumstances against a capitalist employer determined to extract as much profit as possible from their labour is to organise: to protect their safety; to be able to say ‘enough is enough’; to earn enough to survive. And the only way this organisation can lead to results is by ensuring some solidarity: if everybody agrees not to work more than a certain number of hours, or not to accept wages below a certain level, then the employer can be obliged to abide by these terms. From such beginnings trade unions grew. For employers, the easiest strategy to circumvent these requirements – especially important during periods when their profits are squeezed – is to bring in different workers who will accept poorer conditions and lower wages.

When Marx and Engels were writing, these workers were, by and large, drawn from an indigenous pool of unemployed people desperate for any means of earning a livelihood – the ‘reserve army’. Historically this reserve army has always extended beyond national borders. The canals and railways that provided the infrastructure for the expansion of British capitalism were largely built by Irish navvies; the South Wales steel industry in the 19th century drew in workers from as far afield as Spain, and of course the British Empire was built on slave and plantation and ‘coolie’ labour across the world. The reserve army also extended into the household, drawing in the labour of women and children, paid below the level of an adult male, so that the entire family had to work to survive.

The logic of the way this reserve army is deployed pits worker against worker. It is objectively in the interests of organised groups of workers to keep out any outsiders who will work for less, or, if they are admitted, to ensure that they are only admitted on terms that do not allow them to undercut the existing workforce. And this same logic, of course, disadvantages those whose starting position is as outsiders, whether because of gender, ethnicity or some other factor.

Nevertheless, in historical periods when the nation state was dominant, and most capitalists nationally based, it was possible for socialists to overcome this contradiction. The means for doing so was to go beyond making demands for particular groups of workers, represented by particular trade unions, to making general demands for the working class as a whole. In the 20th century this took the form of developing national welfare states: creating universal health and education services and social protection systems that would mean that the unemployed were never so destitute and desperate that they would take any work that was going, to the detriment of organised labour.

In our current era of neoliberal globalisation it is this pattern that has unravelled. Since the end of the cold war, employers have been able to access a reserve army that extends across the world, an army that can be accessed in multiple ways. They can do it by exporting the jobs to parts of the world with cheap labour, or by bringing in the cheap labour to the sites where the jobs have been traditionally carried out. The losers from this process are the native working class.

And this referendum vote can be seen as the revolt of these losers. The tragedy is that although they know what they are against they do not seem to have any clear vision of what alternative they want or how it will be achieved. The danger is that someone will reinvent National Socialism as a ‘solution’.

To categorise them as racist is to miss the point. But solutions can, nevertheless, not be found until racism has been tackled.

This is the painful nettle that Labour has to grasp. Urgently!

A lightning conductor for anti-neoliberalism

For several weeks I have been trying not to join the debate about whether the UK should remain in the EU. I had an accident in March, in which I smashed up my right shoulder, depriving me of the use of that arm and hand, and reducing my productivity quite considerably so wanted to put my limited writing capacity to other uses.

My relationship with current affairs during this period has been somewhat oblique: BBC Radio 4 coming in and out of focus through the painkiller fog; conversation with taxi-drivers, chiropodists, hairdressers, physiotherapists and other people who have so kindly helped me manage my bodily needs; occasional dips into Facebook and Twitter. But almost no conferences, dinners with friends or the other sorts of occasions where opinions are usually calibrated and decisions swayed.

I expected that there would be a lively public debate in which anything I might think would be said articulately by others, better-informed than me, probably many times over. And it is quite possible that this is actually happening in spaces I am not frequenting. Which would make this short blog quite redundant. But what I am hearing from the fractured messages that reach me is that the content of the debate is so ill-informed, the spirit in which it is expressed by politicians so deceitful and malicious,  the reaction from the public so angry and flummoxed  that I feel impelled to set down a few thoughts in the hope that they just might help a few other people make some sense of what’s going on. If it seems to you to be so blindingly obvious as not to need saying, then all I can say is sorry, blame it on the cocodomol.

The first puzzle that presents itself is the appeal of Brexit. There seem to be many people who genuinely believe that a decision to leave the EU would take us back to a Britain with  coherent communities, shared values and ‘sovereignty’: a reimagined orderly version of the third quarter of the 20th Century characterised (with details depending on your political persuasion) by proper jobs, a functioning Beveridgean Welfare State, being able to leave your door unlocked at night, hearing only English spoken on buses,  trade unions getting together with the CBI for cosy talks at 10 Downing Street over beer and sandwiches, a Commonwealth grateful for independence, immigrants and women knowing their place, the Beatles playing on the radio and Morecambe and Wise on the telly. In this nostalgically reconstructed world you knew where you were: fuel bills were paid to the local electricity and gas boards, telephones were installed by British Telecom and you did not have to do confusing research to organise a pension or an insurance policy or remember a pin number to access what was yours. Life was safe and predictable; you felt respected; you had dignity.

Wanting a return to such a condition should not, in my view, be simply written off as racism, jingoism or little Englandism (though it may contain elements of all of these) but rather regarded as a genuine expression of anguish at the devastation that has been brought to people’s lives in the last four decades by the neoliberal world order: a howl of rage at what has been lost.

It is, of course, delusional to imagine that leaving the EU could bring it back. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, we will wake up on June 24th to a world where Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Uber still hold sway, where jobs are still fragmented into discrete tasks, cultures trivialised and commercialised, and populations, increasingly regarded as consumers rather than citizens, atomised and set competitively against each other in global markets.

Britain’s membership of the EEC, and later the EU, more or less coincided with the global spread of neoliberalism. And European institutions, like national governments around the world, can be regarded as complicit in it. But this complicity should not be confused with causality. Yes, there has been a burgeoning of standardisation and regulation. And yes there has been a more or less continuous process of institutional restructuring, with bewildering acronyms replacing each other at a pace dictated, it seems, by the need to ensure that no organisational innovation stays in place long enough for anyone actually to be held accountable for it. But these are part of the very mechanisms by which neoliberal policies are enacted, with complex mutual dependencies, tensions and interactions between global corporations, national governments, supra-national bodies, consultancies and lobbies. These are visible not just in the intersecting cogs of the various bureaucracies but by actual movements of individuals between these spheres (e.g.former ministers sitting on corporate boards and former CEOs advising governments).

Brussels represents a particularly dense node in this ecosystem but – like national governments – is better viewed as a site of negotiation and conflict between different economic and political actors than an autonomously functioning source of power. In other words, the EU is not itself to blame for globalisation, though it has played a role in the  mutual shaping of global capitalism and individual human subjects.

Let’s take regulation – a feature of European governance that is much fetishised in the debates. It seems to me that this can usefully be divided into two, albeit overlapping, categories. The first of these relates to the standardisation that is a necessary underpinning of world trade, but also of global divisions of labour. The second relates to politically-negotiated rules that represent compromises arrived at in democratic systems to protect citizens’ rights and lay down agreed procedures that are deemed to be fair.

To start with the first, it is clear that the smooth operation of global trade relies crucially on interchangeability. Ensuring that shipping containers are all the same size makes it possible for goods to move frictionlessly from factory to ship to warehouse anywhere across the world. Lightbulbs made in China have to fit sockets in Norway. An IT qualification gained in Bangalore should be recognisable to a customer in Toronto. However most such standards are not set by the European Commission but by bodies like the Geneva-based International Standards Organisation (ISO) which as its website proudly announces ‘has published more than 21000 International Standards and related documents, covering almost every industry, from technology, to food safety, to agriculture and healthcare’. The ISO was actually founded, in 1946, in London so, although it was by definition international from the beginning, if it can be blamed on anyone that would actually be us Brits – certainly not the Eurocrats.

Standards are also laid down by the World Trade Organization and in a range of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, which could be seen as embodying the aggressive hard cutting edge of neoliberalism: instruments by which the imperatives of international trade are forced through politically. The EU certainly plays its part in the negotiation of these agreements but it is quite wrong to see it as the prime instigator. It is not so much a single monolithic entity as a terrain of struggle.

The crucial problem here, as I see it, relates to the increasingly unbridled power of multinational corporations vis a vis national states. A hundred years ago it was possible, at least for large colonial powers and major states like the USA, to exercise some discipline over companies that operated within their shores, for instance by making them pay tax, and by breaking up monopolies. Now, under conditions of globalisation, no one state has this power. This leaves something of a vacuum at the supranational level, a vacuum into which the EU’s bodies have to some extent been drawn. However the balance of political forces is such that it has rather little real authority. Its protracted actions to constrain the monopolistic powers of Microsoft and Google have had only very limited impact. Attempts to tax financial transactions have been headed off. Nevertheless, the EU has arguably achieved more than any single Member State acting on its own, for instance in bringing pressure to bear on the mobile phone companies to reduce roaming charges.

The second category of regulation is often confused – perhaps disingenuously – in public discourse with the first. Outrage at the interfering meddling, as it is portrayed, of Brussels in defining the straightness of cucumbers, what is, or is not ‘jam’, or the imposition of metric measures can be redirected seamlessly to outrage at Directives covering things like health and safety rules, the 40-hour week or the rights of temporary agency workers. The two types of regulation have, however, developed in very different ways, building on different traditions and reflecting the interests of different stakeholders. The concept of ‘social dialogue’ can be traced back to the the original Treaty of Rome, which established the European Community in January, 1958. It has evolved since then in a number of ways but, at least from the British perspective, can be seen as shifting to an international level a range of regulations that were already agreed nationally during the 1970s (when the Health and Safety at Work Act, Race Relations Act, Equal Pay Act, Sex Discrimination Act and Employment Protection Act  were enacted). Their European equivalents were hard fought for, by Social Democratic Parties in the European Parliament and, where they were in power nationally, in the European Council where the national governments meet, and by the trade unions. [It should be noted, by the way, that many of these European Directives are currently under threat with the proposal of a diluted ‘Social Pillar’ that will replace firm regulations with feebler recommendations or good practice models, and require ‘evidence’ to justify new regulations.]

These European Directives are, in other words, an enshrining of basic rights, already present in most countries, in a form that is designed to create a floor below which levels cannot fall in a context of international competition which would otherwise lead to a race to the bottom.

The debates about these Directives are particularly mealy-mouthed. Conservatives who are leading the ‘remain’ campaign, like Cameron and Osborne, clearly have no commitment to them and have in the past been linked to attempts to opt out of them, create loopholes or get them watered down. But even this hypocrisy is trumped by the pretense by the Brexit conservatives that they are on the side of workers and the vulnerable.

Can anyone seriously believe that Iain Duncan Smith, who has spent the last few years inflicting the Atos reign of terror on the sick and disabled, has the best interests of the NHS at heart? Or that Michael Gove, or Boris Johnson, or Nigel Farage will stand up for workers’ rights?  Apparently yes.

The pain and anger that neoliberalism has unleashed in the working class has gathered energy like a thunderstorm. And the European Union has become the lightning rod. What a pity this energy cannot be directed against the real architects of disempowerment, which operate at a global level.

Whatever our distaste of the fellow-travellers, on either side of the debate, it seems to me essential that as much attention as possible is focused on this effort of redirection. However neoliberal European institutions may be, they are no more so than most national ones. And if there is to be any hope of curbing international capitalism this has to involve not just local action but joining forces with others internationally. Sentimentalising a lost past will not get us anywhere, but maybe, just maybe, that past has lessons we can learn from.

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 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.

The importance of the minimum wage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Left and right libertarianisms: where will we swing next?

My recent post on an unconditional citizen’s income has sparked quite a bit of correspondence, reminding me of an article I wrote 20 years ago for Red Pepper, published as ‘Contesting Liberty’,  in which I discussed the way in which the idea of a citizen’s income (along with various other concepts such as ‘liberty’ and ‘flexibility’) had been adopted at various times by libertarians both of the left and of the right.

The article started off as a review of Saturn’s Children: How the State Devours Liberty, Prosperity and Virtue, (Sinclair-Stevenson, London, 1995) by Alan Duncan and Dominic Hobson, two enfants terribles of the Tory Party then in vogue, which proposed an extreme right-wing version of citizen’s income.

Re-reading it now I see that it took me quite a long time to get to the discussion of how to distinguish this version from those advocated by feminists, greens and socialists. The first part of the article is mainly a reflection on cyclical changes in political thinking, exploring the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset’s idea that new patterns of hegemonic thinking become dominant as new generations come into power, at intervals 15-yearly intervals. Previous tipping points, it was argued, had been in 1903, 1918, 1933, 1948, 1963 and 1978 so the next such sea-changes should have taken place in 1993 and 2008.

What is striking in retrospect is how, although I was looking for evidence of such a change around 1993, I failed absolutely to spot any of the many significant changes which now seem so glaringly obvious: the launching of the Internet and the formation of the single European market in 1992, the bringing into being of the World Trade Organisation in 1994 … in short a whole range of things that consolidated the hegemonic power of neoliberalism, created the conditions for a new global division of labour, and established a new phase of capitalism that some have labelled ‘Digital’. (I have written about this in my new book: Labor in the Global Digital Economy: the Cybertariat Comes of Age). However I do not think my myopia at the time invalidates this approach, which perhaps has a new relevance right now. I doubt if there is anyone who will dispute the significance of 2008 as a historical watershed. As 2015 dawns we are, so to speak, in mid cycle so perhaps it is time to start thinking about what contradictions are playing themselves out in this present phase, and how the next generation will try to resolve them.

So in case it is still of interest to some people, and since it doesn’t seem to be available online, I have reformatted the only version of the article I could find (probably not the precise version that was published in 1995 by Red Pepper, but near enough. I added one footnote but otherwise left its contents intact). At six pages, it is rather long to post as a blog entry so I have uploaded it as a pdf file here.