Whenever I come across a longer article via Twitter, Zite, Feedly, Google+ or the other places that I browse headlines, I add it to my Pocket account. The advantage of doing this is not only that I can read those articles at my leisure (such as when I’m on a train journey) but also that the app formats them in a way that’s actually readable.
A while ago I added an article entitled Time Wars to my Pocket account. It’s by ‘leading radical blogger and professor Mark Fisher’ and is about the neo-liberal assault on time. I found it fascinating. You should go and read it.
In the UK at the moment we have the situation where the government has declared war on public sector pay and pensions. It’s dressed up to look like something different, of course, but even a quick peek behind the curtains reveals how ministers manipulate the levers in a futile attempt to make taxpayer-funded institutions cost the government less.
Unfortunately, the ideology of the Conservative government (let’s face it, the Liberals aren’t doing much despite their coalition) is predicated upon a lazy idea of the market as the solution to every problem facing society. Climate change? Carbon trading! NHS costs rising? Bring in private providers! Educational ‘standards’ not improving fast enough? De-regulate everything!
The logic of Capital is everywhere. One very prominent and obvious effect of this is the increasingly casualised and temporary jobs on offer. Who has a permanent job with a guaranteed final salary pension these days? Which of us spend more than five years with the same employer? Where are the ‘good’ jobs (the ones that my Grandmother talks about) for graduates?
At the most simple level, precarity is one consequence of the “post-Fordist” restructuring of work that began in the late 1970s: the turn away from fixed, permanent jobs to ways of working that are increasingly casualised. Yet even those within relatively stable forms of employment are not immune from precocity. Many workers now have to periodically revalidate their status via systems of “continuous professional development”; almost all work, no matter how menial, involves self-surveillance systems in which the worker is required to assess their own performance. Pay is increasingly correlated to output, albeit an output that is no longer easily measurable in material terms.
Of course, there are massive benefits to the casualisation of labour. For example, I now work variable hours from home as part of a team that spans at least five timezones. I get to choose when to take my holidays. My performance is based upon my output rather than the number of hours I spend at my desk.
But, there’s a creeping performative element to all of this. When you can work any time of the day, it’s tempting to work more, not less – especially when you’re dealing with things you’re interested in. I’m fortunate in that I work for Mozilla, whose politics and communitarian approach correlate strongly with my own. But if I didn’t work for a non-profit (or a forward-thinking organisation such as Valve) then I think I’d be looking over my shoulder all the time. Self-regulation and censorship, as George Orwell showed in 1984 is regulation and censorship of the worst kind.
The casualisation of labour is great for those working in what is loosely (and imprecisely) defined as ‘the knowledge economy’. Give me a laptop and an internet connection and I can work anywhere. Others, however, depend upon being physically co-located with others to earn their money. Whilst the uncertainty that goes hand-in-hand with casualisation is great for those working in the knowledge economy, it’s a definite downside to those who can’t decide where and when they’re going to work. In fact, all they get is the downside, the uncertainty.
Uncertainty is a negative side effect that some of us are willing to live with because of the positives on the flip side of the coin. But that flip side largely doesn’t exist for those who rely on physical co-location to do their jobs. I’m thinking teachers. I’m thinking doctors and nurses and hospital staff. I’m thinking pretty much every job in the public sector. These aren’t occupations that we should be looking to casualise: we should be making people in these positions feel more secure, not less:
The neoliberal attacks on public services, welfare programmes and trade unions mean that we are increasingly living in a world deprived of security or solidarity. The consequence of the normalisation of uncertainty is a permanent state of low-level panic. Fear, which attaches to particular objects, is replaced by a more generalised anxiety, a constant twitching, an inability to settle.
Everything that can be outsourced to the market in our brave new Big Society is packaged up and sold to the highest bidder. Witness the G4S Olympic security debacle, for example. At the same time, training and career development is also outsourced to the market. Instead of taxpayer-funded institutions such as hospitals and schools developing and keeping experienced, knowledgeable staff we’re increasingly faced with uncertain, temporary workers representing third-party organisations. Any ‘innovation’ within such organisations by necessity has to be top-down, as the mechanisms for grassroots innovation are stymied by HR practices:
The reality, however, is that innovation requires certain forms of stability. The disintegration of social democracy has had a dampening, rather than a dynamic, effect on culture in highly neoliberalized countries such as the UK. Frederic Jameson’s claims that late capitalist culture would be given over to pastiche and retrospection have turned out to be extraordinarily prophetic.
I’m not arguing for full communism now. Nor am I advocating a King Canute-style position against the incoming tide. What I am questioning, however, is whether the logic of Capital and private enterprise should be applied to the institutions of our state. Some things, after all, are public goods.
I’ll end where Mark Fisher’s article starts, commenting only that we live in an increasingly polarised society where the haves get to choose what the have-nots get to do with their time:
Time rather than money is the currency in the recent science fiction film In Time. At the age of 25, the citizens in the future world the film depicts are given only a year more to live. To survive any longer, they must earn extra time. The decadent rich have centuries of empty time available to fritter away, while the poor are always only days or hours away from death.
Go and read the article. It’s worth it, trust me.
Image CC BY-SA Mr. Theklan