Toil As Citizenship

This was a piece I originally wrote for the Bella Caledonia blog – the original entry and context can be viewed here.

George Osborne at the October 2013 Conservative Party Conference outlined fresh plans to force long-term unemployed social security claimants to undertake mandatory unwaged work. The specific details may have been relatively new, but the tenor of these proposals is in keeping with an increasingly widespread approach in our culture to the notion of work, that ongoing welfare reforms being pushed through by recent successive Westminster governments have routinely typified.

What is notable and concerning about these reforms and the many variations on the by now well-worn theme of the ‘striver/shirker’ inflected rhetoric that accompanies them, is that they aggressively promote and rely upon a general public accepting a view of human beings as fundamentally predisposed to ‘shirking’ unless someone looms over them wielding a big metaphorical stick.

Furthermore, they promote a view that work (as specifically defined and designated by our dominant corporate-interest led, Westminster-dominated political discourse) is a virtue and worthwhile end in and of itself. Not only this, but that work and the willingness or ability to undertake it, is the utmost measure of human value. This in turn has hugely damaging ramifications for how vulnerable social groups are perceived by wider society, and not least for chronically ill and disabled people, many of whom already face significant barriers to finding and maintaining employment, whilst also having to contend with the effects of frequent cruel and inaccurate portrayals in mainstream media narratives as a bunch of workshy fakers and scroungers.

These portrayals both arise out of, and also help to further bolster this apparent growing public acceptance that work must at all costs be undertaken for its own sake, as a moral duty, regardless of your impairments, and without expectation of either an adequate living wage or basic job security in return. Doesn’t there come a point when we have to ask ourselves: is this really a direction we want to continue to be headed in?

Meanwhile it seems we’re also in danger of rapidly losing sight of the notion of work as being worthwhile if, and only if it can provide the following essential elements: basic security, adequate remuneration, social inclusion, human cooperation and personal meaning as well as preferably ongoing value to our wider communities. After all, these are usually the kinds of ingredients which allow work to be at the very least bearable, or perhaps satisfying, and even, if we’re really fortunate, enjoyable too. If we’re prepared to continually surrender these values on behalf of people already struggling with the various unenviable array of social, economic, health, and self-esteem issues which typically accompany long-term joblessness, we’re also contributing to the steady erosion of these values for the majority of the rest of us in the longer term.

Or might it just be that some of the apparent populist voter appeal of coercive and punitive unwaged labour initiatives such the latest unveiled by Osborne derives from the fact that work in its current form as experienced by significant numbers, often isn’t all that marvellous either, falls short of meeting our basic human requirements, and thus encourages us to be both terrified and secretly envious of the idea of anyone else being potentially ‘let off the hook’ too easily? But if this is the case, does clamouring for the some of the UK’s lowest status and most socially excluded individuals to be forced to do unwaged labour really do anything at all to raise the bar for employment conditions across the UK generally? It would seem incredibly unlikely that this could ever be an effective strategy, that is if promoting better and fairer working conditions is to remain any sort of priority for us as a society anymore.

On the contrary, any tacit acceptance of, or overt support for, the rise of coercive and punitive welfare practices on the one hand– only has the effect of encouraging us to fatalistically resign ourselves to the proliferation of precarious and exploitative employment conditions such as unpaid internships, casual and zero hour contracts on the other. Of course, market logic is ensuring that workfare is already replacing paid positions. What’s more, there’s little compelling evidence it’s been successful in the US, its country of origin, either.

The consequences of accepting this ongoing redefinition of what work should mean to us, on the terms set out by our Westminster-enabled corporatocracy, at the expense of society’s most vulnerable, whilst using incessantly distorted statistics to justify themselves along the way, and accompanied by this continual rolling back of the baseline standards we’re prepared to accept are both immensely damaging and far-reaching.

There have been and continue to be appalling casualties: in the period between January 2011 and November 2011 alone, more than 10,000 people died shortly after being forced to undergo the Atos Work Capability Assessment, the degrading and dangerously inept test used by the government supposedly to assess the ‘fitness to work’ of people receiving benefits related to disability and ill health. What could be more symptomatic of a thoroughly debased approach to how we value other human beings in relation to the ever-intruding demands of work worship?

And it is, after all, pretty disturbing that we’re allowing ‘work’ to be defined as the ultimate virtue and measure of personal value especially whilst so many with current jobs maybe aren’t all that wild about what they do to either. And no, not due to any innate propensity to idleness, but more to do with a healthy and justifiable wish to resist encroaching, enforced meaninglessness.

We need to have the courage to explore and generate solutions which don’t begin with a cynical view of human beings as fundamentally feckless if not sufficiently coerced. When it comes down to it, people generally don’t ‘shirk’ wanting to have increased financial independence, or improved living standards, or a sense of purpose, or to meaningfully contribute to and be included in their wider communities when those opportunities are presented to them and can be chosen freely. If you want to motivate people, at the very least try and persuade them that what they’re doing matters, not just insist they present themselves as busy looking busy in order to satisfy some distorted and misguided sense of spite-fuelled propriety.

As it is, any welfare policy approach that proceeds from the idea that people are inherently disinclined towards meaningful and rewarding work is always going to look an awful lot like an exercise in bad faith.

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2 thoughts on “Toil As Citizenship

  1. An excellent and timely piece; I thoroughly agree. I think too that the current crop of politicians are attempting to demonize anyone for whom competition is not a top priority. It seems to me that being competitive is now valued in our society even more highly than the content and nature of the activities themselves. It’s as if being the best at something useless, or even damaging’ is valued more than co-operating with others in a worthwhile activity. Consequently all our top politicians tend to be very competitive but not always very sincere or concerned about outcomes. But that value-system is also much swayed by the desire for a large pool of cheap labour to keep the system running, so social engineering by capitalists is hugely conflicted by internal inconsistencies that further disengage politicians from the electorate.

    • Thanks very much for commenting – yes I agree, and I think that the situation is only going to get more extreme the longer we do nothing to confront it. We can’t really afford to ignore it and hope it will just go away.

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