The mounting burden of work in our lives is what fuels the rise in inequality. We work so they get rich, but the answer is collective resistance, argues Orlando Hill
Peter Fleming, The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself (Pluto Press 2015), 215pp.
Reading Peter Fleming’s latest book, The Mythology of Work, while commuting to work was very depressing. Right at the beginning, he reminds us of the banal fact that ‘the first hour of the working day is simply paying for that day’s commute’ (p.4).
The neoliberal policy of shrinking the state to the minimum has passed the onus of reproducing labour from the corporations to the worker. Work is no longer a vehicle for avoiding insecurity, but a source of subsidy to the governing elite. ‘We work, pay taxes, take care of the bills and commuting costs for one single reason: not to “survive” but so that the governing elite gains its privileges for nothing’ (p.3). The cost of training, education and even office stationary and uniform is placed upon the employee. ‘In this sense, work is no longer a source of income but closer to a rentier logic extraction, whereby our struggle to make ends meet forms an outward payment structure that has no return benefit’ (p.4). The more the ruling elite shrink away from the social system, the more we have to work.
Privatisation is another form of passing the burden onto the working class. According to J. Meek, ‘if a payment to an authority, public or private, is compulsory, it’s a tax. We can’t do without electricity; the electricity bill is an electricity tax. We can’t do without water; the water bill is a water tax’ (p.17). We pay tax to subsidize privatised businesses who deliver substandard service at extortionate prices. ‘We work not to earn a wage but to pay “relief” and “welfare” to the capitalist rich who now operate as rentiers, most of whom have inherited their wealth’ (p.17).
With the increasing inequality of wealth the more work becomes an inexorable way of life and not just something we do among other things. Technology has enabled the neoliberal ideology to spread and blur the boundary between work and non-work. We no longer check in and out of work. Work has become a way of life. The free-market principles of competitive individualism and performance incentives have created a totally dysfunctional working environment. Work never starts and never ends. We reply to emails from home late at night. We check our work emails before we go to work. That is what makes the idea that some corporations have adopted the policy (among them Virgin Group) of letting employees take holidays whenever they want, provided that the work they were performing is complete, a joke. Work is never completed. This phenomena isn’t new. Marx pointed out the tendency of appropriating labour during 24 hours of the day as inherent to capitalist production. Fleming uses the term ‘I, Job’ to describe work as an inescapable way of life.
Fleming offers an escape route out of this ‘planet of work’: the sickie. It is the paradox of not feeling well, but feeling relived that you can call in sick so that daily duties and responsibilities can be temporarily suspended. We can look forward to doing nothing, maybe catching up with the pile of books and boxsets by our bed. As long as it’s nothing serious, the unrelenting pressure to produce can be forgotten for a while. Neoliberalism has driven us to relish being ill or even courting death as an escape route. At least, I won’t have to face going back to the hell hole of my office.
However, in a recent article in The Guardian, Fleming warns us that even this escape route might soon be closed by the government. The work and pension secretary Ian Duncan Smith is seriously considering debating the idea that workers should fund their own sick pay if they happen to fall ill. After all it is everyone’s responsibility to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Why should employers have to pay?
Fleming’s focus on the individual’s relationship with the corporation and work is the weakness of this book. There is no escape route because the worker is left on his own to face neoliberal work ethic. There is no mention of how suspending work through industrial action can be liberating. Anyone who has taken part in strikes and marches understands this feeling. Another world is possible, but only through collective action. To go down the path of calling in sick as an escape route is self-defeating. Capitalism atomises the worker and makes them feel as there is no escape but death. The book is a good description of the work place today, but it offers no solution.
Another problem I had with the book is that many times it feels like being in a dinner party where the host drops names of authors and books you should have read, and films you should have seen.
Fleming concludes the book by stating that: ‘Only once we depart the universe of neoliberal rationality … can we begin to act collectively again and rediscover our common agency’ (p.194). But isn’t it true that we can only depart the universe of neoliberal rationality by acting collectively? How do you get people to confront the logic of the current system if not by collective action? We can only break neoliberal rationality by campaigns such as People’s Assembly, Stop the War, Scotland’s Yes campaign and Corbyn’s recent leadership campaign. It is the surge of social movements which will build the platform in which we can discuss the points Fleming mentions in the end of his book: a surplus living wage, post-state democratic organizations, the transfer of all monopolistic enterprises into public hands, a three-day working week and demonetarizing incentive structures.
Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.
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