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!

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The creativity of bar tenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The income tax taboo

This is the fifth 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  and the fourth here.

There seems to be an unshakeable conviction shared by all the major political parties that the surest way to lose an election is to suggest in your manifesto that you might want to raise income taxes. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps most British people really believe that paying more income tax is the worst thing that could happen to them financially. But if they do believe this, we should ask why they do so, because it flies in the face of just about all the evidence.

The belief seems to be rooted in the idea that there is some terrible unfairness in taking a slice from the incomes of hardworking individuals and spending it on general social goods and services. But this kind of logic is rarely applied to other taxes.

Take, for example, Value Added Tax (VAT). This was introduced into the UK in 1973, as a condition of joining the European Common Market. What it replaced was purchase tax, which was levied on selected goods, at the point of production, from companies, although of course the costs were passed on to consumers. With a few exemptions, VAT is applied to all sales and purchases of goods along the value chain, with companies able to claim back the VAT they have spent on purchases and set this amount against what they have charged to customers. The tax is therefore funneled inexorably towards the final consumer, who, needless to say, cannot set anything against it and must pay the full whack.

As the excellent work of Richard Murphy has shown, unlike income tax, VAT is strongly regressive. In 2010, before the VAT rate went up from 17.5% to 20%,  he compared direct taxes (income tax) with indirect ones (VAT) and concluded that:

Direct taxes then rise steadily as a proportion of income as incomes rise and both VAT and all indirect taxes combined do the exact opposite, falling as a proportion of income as income rises. So marked is the trend that the overall progressive effect of income tax is not enough to counter the fact that the poorest households suffer such a high rate of overall indirect tax that they end up with the highest average tax rates in the economy as a whole. The message from this data is unambiguous: the poorest 20% of households in the UK have both the highest overall tax burden of any quintile and the highest VAT burden. That VAT burden at 12.1% of their income is more than double that paid by the top quintile, where the VAT burden is 5.9% of income. (Taken from Is VAT Regressive and if so why does the IFS deny it?, Tax Research UK, July 12, 2010)

Five years later, with VAT at 20%, this inequality between the poorest fifth of the population and the richest fifth has undoubtedly worsened. Yet we find very little in the public discourse decrying this unfairness. It is overwhelmingly the redistribution of income tax that is denounced, implicitly or explicitly, generally in the form of a rhetorical question on the lines of ‘Why should the hardworking taxpayer subsidise ____ ?’. There are many ways the blank can be filled in: single parents, students, child benefit, winter fuel allowance, bus passes, cosmetic surgery on the NHS, education for prisoners … you name it. But I cannot recall ever hearing a sentence starting ‘Why should the consumer subsidise ____ ?’.

Such discourse both obfuscates and distorts reality. Let us take the example of benefits paid to parents of young children. The rhetoric implies that having children is a selfish pleasure that should only be indulged in by those who can afford it, and that those who are usually described as having ‘chosen to remain childless’ are unfairly penalised if a portion of their taxes is diverted in the direction of feckless parents. This ignores the larger reality that what parents are actually doing is bringing up (with very little support from the state) the next generation of workers (and taxpayers) whose labour will support them in their old age. Parents are thus providing what should be regarded as a public service in which it makes pragmatic instrumental sense for everyone to invest.

In other cases, the taboo against defending the principle of income tax extends even to cases where it is manifestly the best and fairest solution to the problem it is purported to create. Student loans provide a clear example of this. They were introduced to replace student grants using the argument that it was unfair for the hardworking taxpayer to subsidise the higher education of people who were eventually going to end up earning more money because of their higher qualifications. Let us leave aside the fact that this is not necessarily the case. The value of an undergraduate degree on the labour market has in fact deteriorated in proportion to the extent to which university attendance has spread across the population (increasing from 3.4% in 1950, 8.4% in 1970, 19.3% in 1990 to 33% in 2000*) and many graduates end up doing low-paid menial jobs, often with little relation to their qualifications. More importantly, for the purposes of this argument, the loan system manifestly does not work on its own terms. It was announced in November 2014 that three quarters of students won’t be able to pay off their debt (see this report in the Independent). To those who can’t pay must be added those who won’t. Loan repayments can, for instance, be avoided by the simple expedient of moving abroad. Students (and their parents) are in effect being asked to pay in advance for something that might or might not happen (in the process enriching the financial services industry). The logic that those who earn more should pay more has been stood on its head.

If the ‘problem’ is that graduates end up earning more than other workers, then the solution to that problem seems glaringly obvious. If and when they start doing so, let them pay it back in the form of income tax. Such a solution (tried and tested as it was in most developed countries in the latter part of the 20th century and still working in some) is undoubtedly simpler to run and more efficient in achieving the stated objectives of the policy that gave us those disastrous loans. It also has another benefit in that it recognises that the value of a university education does not only lie in the financial rewards it leads to. As I already discussed in this blog here, producing a well-educated population has general social benefits that accrue to everyone – not just those who receive that education –  in the form of art, culture, charitable work, the quality of public debate and political life, imaginative and better-informed parenting and what is currently known as ‘social innovation’.

As with child benefits and student grants, so it is with many other forms of social redistribution. Not only do they provide efficient solutions to managing economic and social reproduction, they also enrich the commons and provide the foundations of a civilised culture. So let’s grasp the nettle and start promoting income tax as a good thing.

to be continued

*figures taken from here

An unconditional citizen’s income

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

In these straitened times, the idea of a basic income, granted unconditionally to every citizen, from cradle to grave, feels utopian. How on earth could it be paid for?, we wonder. Wouldn’t everyone just stop working? Where would we be then?

I first came across it, in the optimistic late 1960s, in a form that materialised in the so-called ‘fifth demand’ of the Women’s Liberation movement (formulated in 1971) that called for ‘financial and legal independence’ for all women. This had an enormous appeal: not only is it degrading for anyone to have to beg or manipulate someone else for their means of subsistence, and materially damaging to that person if the money is not forthcoming; it also destroys the character of human relationships if they are embedded in relations of dependency. Unequal power relations like those between a husband and a dependent wife, parents and dependent teenagers, able-bodied providers and their disabled dependents can lead to a festering mess of guilt, gratitude and unexpressed anger. The results can range from dishonesty and depression to emotional and physical abuse. In a money-based society, an independent source of income is a pre-condition for human dignity.

Before going any further I should declare my personal position on this question. I have written intermittently about the idea of a basic minimum income since the 1990s, and would class myself as broadly in favour of the principle, though with some important reservations. In the 1990s I wrote a report* on the subject for the Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT), the UK affiliate of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), but then backed away from it for a while, for reasons that I will spell out later (under ‘risks’). Since then I have come back to the idea and am now (albeit not as active as I should be, and with some reservations I will come on to) a trustee of CIT. But I am writing here in a personal capacity and my opinions do not necessarily reflect the CIT’s position.

What I have written below is based on the assumption that a benefit would be paid unconditionally to all citizens, regardless of age, replacing most existing welfare benefits but also the personal tax allowance (at present, the first £10,000 of income for each person is disregarded for income tax, providing a ‘benefit’ of £2,000 per person in tax not paid at 20%). Whilst each person would receive the benefit, therefore, they would also pay tax on all income. The level of the benefit, the rate of tax, and the degree to which that tax is graduated would of course be political decisions and I am not going to make detailed proposals here. But my assumption is that the level of benefit would be enough to keep body and soul together and take care of basic needs but not more.

THE ADVANTAGES

  • It would save the state a huge amount of money, currently spent on processing claims and policing benefit claimants and would eliminate the need for many of the present complex array of benefits (child benefit, sickness benefit, pensions, maternity benefits etc.).
  • Because children would be eligible for it, as well as adults, it would be broadly redistributive towards households with children and thus help to alleviate the shockingly high levels of child poverty in this country.
  • Because there is no household unit of assessment it might well encourage people to live more collectively, sharing resources with friends and extended families, which would also have environmental benefits and take some pressure off the housing market.
  • It would enhance inter-generational solidarity.
  • It would make it possible for people to change their working hours flexibly and combine more than one job much more easily than at present.
  • Life would become much smoother and simpler for freelancers.
  • It would make it much easier to manage illnesses and disabilities and juggle caring responsibilities with work.
  • It would also make it much easier to move in and out of education.
  • The judgement about what is, or is not ‘work’ would no longer be made by a bureaucratic authority but by the individual. If you want to live on very little and devote your life to art, music, prayer, blogging, archaeology, chasing an elusive scientific concept, conserving rare plants or charitable work, that would be your choice. This is not just good for those individuals but spiritually enriching for society as a whole.
  • The labour market would become a little less one-sided. Employers might have to offer a bit more pay to entice people into unattractive jobs. Though, on the other hand, they might find people queuing up to fill the ones that offer high levels of personal satisfaction and reward.

THE RISKS

  • Giving everybody money plays along with the grain of an increasingly market-based economy. The risk is that individual purchases made in the market will drive out collectively-provided services. Recommodification might obliterate decommodification.
  • Globalisation raises serious questions about what constitutes citizenship. It is perhaps no accident, at least in Europe, that the countries with the most generous welfare states also tend to have the most tightly-controlled borders (think of Denmark). Combining a basic citizen’s income policy with non-racist immigration policies presents some serious challenges.

CONCLUSION

Although, in my opinion, it would bring huge benefits, an unconditional citizen’s income is not a magic solution to all political, social and economic problems. I believe that it could be one ingredient in the development of a kind of welfare state that is deserving of the name. However it is only one ingredient among several. In particular, it would have to be combined with:

  • an increased minimum wage;
  • increased investment in universally available public services that are free to the user, including health, childcare, education and social care;
  • a recognition that the housing market is so distorted that continuing extra help will be required to house the poorest people in many parts of the country;
  • a reformed tax system.

*Ursula Huws (1997) Flexibility and Security: Towards a new European balance, London: Citizen’s Income Trust.

1963 – the great unbuttoning

As 2013 begins, I am reminded that it marks the 50th anniversary of 1963, the year when, in most people’s reckoning, the 1960s really started.

Last night, I had dinner with Liz Heron*, whom I first met when she invited me to contribute to a remarkable award-winning book she edited in the early 1980s called Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the 1950s. We were talking about the ways that their parents’ experiences in World War Two had marked so many of our friends, brought up in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, France, or as refugees elsewhere, as well as our contemporaries in Britain. And it struck us that many people of our generation, perhaps even the majority, were brought up in households where the dominating atmosphere, so taken-for-granted that it was like the weather, was one of deep and chronic – and largely unspoken – depression.

Perhaps these days it would be referred to as survivors’ guilt or post-traumatic stress syndrome. Among people who had seen active service, it sometimes took the form of anxiety, like that of an uncle of mine, who was captured after the fall of Tobruk and subsequently escaped to Switzerland from the prisoner of war camp where he was held in Italy, who had constantly to check the back door was really locked, that there was enough air pressure in the tyres of his car and that you had arrived home safely after a visit. Only forty years later, when he was dying, did he voice his nightmare memories of the last days in the desert before his capture. Though sometimes the urge to get back to some sort of normalcy took the form of refusing to mention the war, sometimes, conversely, it involved repeating the same anecdotes over and over again, perhaps in the unconscious hope that this would empty them of painful associations. Among people who hadn’t directly fought, who knows what kinds of guilt swirled about? Whatever the precise form this behaviour took, it coloured the air their children breathed, profoundly shaping their sense of what is normal.

These patterns must have contributed not a little to shaping that 1950s culture, portrayed (it seems now, caricatured) in so many British war films of the period in which what mattered most was to avoid self-indulgence. Men were supposed to keep calm and carry on, keep a stiff upper lip, protect the women and children in their lives from direct knowledge of violence, death or passionate extra-marital sex. Comradeship and solidarity were expressed through handshakes, clipped understatement (‘rotten luck, old chap’) or an occasional hand on the shoulder signifing much more, we are supposed to think, than could be conveyed by the shallow verbiage of effete intellectuals. Linked with these values were strong prohibitions against ‘showing off’, ‘being greedy’ or ‘not pulling your weight’.  These values were of course continuously being undermined not only by working class resentment of the patronising snobberies of the officer class usually represented in such narratives but also by an intense introspection, expressed in the fashion for Freudian analysis and in many novels of the period (as well as ‘psychological’ films, noir or otherwise, with plots that centred on simplistically portrayed forms of mental illness). Nevertheless, these stiff-upper-lip, take-it-on-the-chin, keep-your-troubles-to-yourself values had a hegemonic hold in schools, the BBC and other institutions that taught us what was normal.

Most children growing up in this period did not, of course, see it that way. The older generation were ‘repressed’, ‘square’ or (a bit later) just ‘a drag’. They could not talk about their feelings, were hypocritical about sex and tried to box children into artificial cages of childhood innocence and adults into crippling gender roles. But these adults were just brilliant at inducing shame. Whether one’s  transgression involved betrayal of class values, contempt for what older people found precious, consumerist wastefulness or simple carnality, guilt seemed to bounce down the generations. Only the most impermeable armour of brashness could deflect it.

I am of course over-generalising disgracefully. I can only speak for those people I know, 0r think I know, and I am sure that many counter-examples will be thrust at me. But I cannot but think of the atmosphere of the period as one of extreme emotional tautness. Even as shades of grey gave way to colour and people learned to enact a kind of larger-than-life technicolour normalcy with increasing conviction, there was always a feeling that some dark, held-down rage might burst through the thin stretched surface skin. It was not accidental, perhaps, that the first post-war generation of British writers were known as Angry Young Men. Or that teenage girls were taught to step warily around male lust – seen as an uncontrollable force the poor boys had terrible trouble reining in. You had only yourself to blame if you engaged in the dangerous sport of prick-teasing. (Though of course, in a classic double bind, it was also unthinkable to define yourself in any other way than in relation to masculine desire).

Another powerful disincentive to expressing any aspiration to equality with boys was the constant reminder that it was men who had done the fighting in the war. And boys continued to be conscripted until 1960. Interestingly 1963 was also the year the last conscripted soldiers were released; the first that boys could let their hair grow long and enter adulthood unshaped by parade-ground drill.

Such was the sense of suffocation that it is hardly surprising that the post-war baby boom generation needed to burst out. 1963 was the moment they did so. And it seems to me now not so much the beginning of something new as a great unbuttoning of the heavy greatcoat of the 1950s, exposing the body within (and its internal tangle of contradictions) to fresh light.

At this distance I am not sure if this is something to celebrate. A lot of adjectives can be used about our generation, not all of them complimentary: foolhardy, selfish, naive, narcissistic, destructive, to name a few. We are often thought to have changed the world irrevocably (though, thinking about it, what generation doesn’t do this?). If I have a complaint it is that we didn’t change it nearly enough.

*whose blog you can find here.

Size Queens, consumption work and the unpredictable paths that ideas travel

Last week I received an email saying,

‘My band, The Size Queens, are about to release our 5th album, in part due to your work. The cybertariat was the inspiration for it — though we’ve been progressively moving in this direction, to try and understand why the economic promise of weightlessness seems heavier than before. Our entire project, to be released on Election Day in the States, is a song cycle and accompanying video …  no guarantee you’ll like the project at all. But we like you. .. The new record [is] “Consumption Work: Tammy, Cybertariat, At The Aral Sea.” I hope you’ll find it edifying to see that your work in economics has inspired those of us working in music.’

I’m not sure that ‘edifying’ is quite the word, but I was certainly very pleased and flattered. And this reminded me that the concept of ‘consumption work’ that played such an important part in my thinking in the late 1970s first came to me as a result of listening to music. So the idea could really be said to have come full circle.

The original inspiration, so far as I remember it, was Lord Buckley’s Supermarket. His work seems little known now, but, although he died in 1960, so I never had a chance to hear him live, for me, and for the group of friends (I have now forgotten which) in whose company I  first heard his records he was an important figure, not least because he first introduced us to a kind of Black American hipster slang we had not come across before, although much of it later entered the hippy mainstream. I think he was the first person I heard referring to the police as ‘the fuzz’ and mentioning in public, in various lightly-coded ways, the smoking of marijuhana. There was something irrestistably cool – intelligent and funny in equal parts – about his semi-improvised verbal riffs, performed against a jazz background. I suppose nowadays he would be thought of as a performance artist, or even a proto-rapper. In his eloquent monologues, Jesus was resurrected as ‘the Nazz’, Shakespeare as ‘Willy the Shake’ and Gandhi as ‘the Hip Ghan’. With a typical touch of genius, in Supermarket the store owners are referred to as ‘Greed heads’.

The observation that stayed in my head described the experience of self-service in a supermarket, a phenomenon that must have been pretty recent in the 1950s when he performed it.

‘Remember the first supermarkets?’ he asks. And, after describing the process of getting a cart he says,

‘And there you are pushin’ in the supermarket with the cart.
You grab the cart and you go strolling up and down the aisles
and you load up all your jazz
and you’re working for them, see?’

At first, he explains,

‘It’s alright, because you’re getting –
this is the beginning –
very, very, low, low, low, low prices.
Saving, you see.
So you don’t mind, you know, pushing a little bit.’

But then, after the prices have risen (or, in his immortal words, ‘Prices – whhhhooooo!’)

‘you’re still pushin’ the mother cart.’

This idea that employers save money by getting consumers to carry out, without payment, the work that was previously done by paid workers lodged somewhere deep in my brain. Nearly fifty years later, I can still summon up the exact intonation, rhythm and self-parodying sexiness of tone of his ‘You’re working for them’.

The phrase ‘consumption work’ came from a 1976 article in Monthly Review by  Amy Bridges and Batya Weinbaum, called ‘The other side of the paycheck: monopoly capital and the structure of consumption’, a socialist feminist analysis of the relationship of housework to capitalism.

These two insights came together for me when, in 1978, as a member of a study group on new technologies, organised by the journal Capital and Class, I was trying to solve two intellectual puzzles. The first of these was how it is that the amount of time people spend doing housework carries on going up despite the ever-increasing number of ‘labour-saving’ products they buy. The second was how it is that prophecies that automation will lead to permanent mass unemployment have never been fulfilled.

The resulting article (reprinted 25 years later in my 2003 book, The Making of a Cybertariat) made singularly little impression at the time (it was not included in the book the group produced). In fact I had more or less given up hope that anybody would take the idea and run with it*. Though, of course, it remains an active part of my thinking and I have developed the idea further over the years. If ever I find time to write it there will be a book….

So it is a really wonderful surprise to discover that the idea has spread so far, and helped inspire such creativity. And these guys make good music too.The video, which can be found here is a knockout! Their main site is here: http://thesizequeens.bandcamp.com/ .

*The term was taken up by one academic who did not acknowledge my work at all, although I had given her quite a bit of my material. (I should have been suspicious when she asked me ‘who knows your work?’. But I was feeling very intellectually lonely at the time and anxious to discuss the concept and its implications with someone at last, and I misread the clues and thought, in my naiveté, that perhaps she was asking this because she wanted to help promote my ideas. I was more or less unemployed at the time and she had a senior academic post and it would certainly have helped my career). I was in two minds about stating this here. It does sound a bit bitter and paranoid. But I discussed it with a friend this morning who thought I should put it on the record, so here it is. Thinking about it again now I realise that I am myself partly to blame: for acting like a kid in a playground holding out my toy saying ‘please play with me’ to the other kids and then being hurt when they grab it and make off with it; for not taking sufficiently into account the incredible damage done to any idea of sisterhood or collaborative working by three decades of attempts by neoliberal governments to destroy the radical tradition of British social science and discipline its practioners into habits of competition and commodification and marketisation of intellectual property; and finally for neglecting to play the game of self-promotional publishing in A-list academic journals.