Friday, July 30, 2010

The right to work (less)

Nina Power applies the scalpel of socialist feminist critique to the Right to Work campaign in today's Guardian. This is most welcome, because the campaign against the cuts, and against unemployment, should be the topic of urgent debate in the press - which otherwise shows little interest in the concerns of the working class. (Ask yourself this: all newspapers have a 'business' section, overwhelmingly concerned with the doings of chief executives, financiers and multinationals, so why is there no labour section?) Power's basic point is that the slogan 'Right to Work' is problematic because of the way in which it suggests that access to waged labour is itself a sufficient solution, and secondly because of certain connotations that it may have in participating in a discourse that elevates work to "the ultimate mark of a man or, in more recent decades, a woman too."

Indeed, while I don't completely agree with Power's analysis, there's a real problem here. We have a Tory government that is determined to cut the welfare state, slashing benefits, driving more and more of the disabled off benefits. (On this latter, see Christopher Read's disturbing article for the New Left Project). One of the ways in which this is justified is by means of a moralistic, coercive appeal to work as the alternative to poverty and 'dependency culture'. Work, in this reactionary trope, confers dignity and respectability. Indeed, it is put to us that if we truly respect our elders, we have to find a way to 'allow' older people to stay on in work for a few more years before claiming their pension entitlement, even as youth unemployment soars, and even if this means millions of people die before seeing a single penny of their deferred wages.

To the extent that asserting a 'right to work' could be seen as colluding in this idea, I can see the virtue of Power's alternative 'refusal to work': the right to be lazy, as Lafargue put it. A central component of socialism in its marxist variant is the drive to reduce the burden of compulsory labour on people, using productivity gains to shorten people's working lives and elongate their living hours. Concretely, in the context of a recession with mass unemployment, we can see how this might translate into a real demand: share the work around more equitably, give us a shorter working week with no loss of pay.

So, here's where Power's argument becomes problematic. A central campaigning demand of 'Right to Work' is a 35 hour week with no loss of pay, as affirmed at the 2010 conference. This is not especially radical. The New Economic Foundation goes farther, demanding a 21 hour working week, spread over four days. But given that the average working week in the UK is the longest in Europe at some 41.4 hours, and given that the average worker in the UK performs two months of unpaid overtime each year, a compulsory 35 hour week would be a good start, and constitute a relief for millions of workers. It would, in the marxist lexicon, reduce the rate of exploitation, as well as giving people more leisure time and reducing the demonstrably adverse effects of over-work - the physiological effects described by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in The Spirit Level, and the psychological effects described by Oliver James in Affluenza.

The Federation of European Employers, of course, sees things differently. They believe that regulations and social benefits, giving people the right to holidays and sick leave for example, is costing EU businesses too much, and they want to see such entitlements removed so that more time is spent at work and thus more surplus extracted. The CBI, for its part, is committed to maintaining high working hours and its successful lobbying to maintain Britain's opt out of the EU Working Time directive is one of the politico-legal bases for Britain's over-long working week and high rates of exploitation and inequality. So, the Right to Work campaign positions it against the employers, the government, and their moralising drive to force people to work more. We are for the right to work - for access to waged labour - but we are also for the right to work less for the same wage. That can't be accomplished unless the work is shared more equitably, and unless unemployment is systematically attacked.

The demand for the right to work is also a demand to end the ruling class policy of maintaining a certain rate of unemployment (typically 5% in growth periods) to weaken the bargaining power of labour, reduce wage claims and thus supposedly control inflation. It's a demand, tacitly, to increase the share of the social product going to labour. This is important because, as Power points out, the mass entry of women into the workforce in the last forty years or so has coincided with wage stagnation and attacks on welfare, such that the amount of work being done by men and women has increased while the share of the social product going to labour has diminished. New Labour's adaptation to neoliberalism meant that Gordon Brown embraced a definition of 'full employment' as the maximum employment that will place no upward pressure on inflation. That has actually involved consistently high rates of unemployment and is thus inconsistent with the right to work. This means that women in particular are suffering: with the dual burden of domestic and workplace labour increasing the total amount of work performed by women, both the social wage and the market wage have stagnated or declined for millions. Defending the right to work is therefore an important weapon in defending the income of workers, especially the most precariously employed, lowest paid women workers.

Now the Tories' attack on welfare will adversely effect women in two ways. It will drive up unemployment by relieving hundreds of thousands of public sector workers - disproportionately female - of their jobs. It will also reduce help for working mothers and children, further depress the social wage, and make it less easy for mothers to seek paid work. That's why they're pushing the 'family' agenda, as if restoring Victorian patriarchal values will sweep up the social mess created by these cuts. This is why a defence of the welfare state is an essential component of Right to Work's strategy, and is also a vital element of women's liberation.

Lastly, do we need a new slogan to escape the pharisaical connotations alluded to above? I don't know that we do. The right to work is not coextensive with the obligation to work. On the contrary, asserting the right to work is essential for the purpose of reducing the amount of work that people have to do, and increasing the share of the social product they receive for their labour. It is also synonymous with defending the welfare state, so that unwaged work is paid in some sense. It does not entail "working even harder for less so that those at the top can keep more" - quite the reverse. Most importantly, I think, the slogan cuts through the hypocrisy of the Tory cuts agenda. As much as they bluster about the redeeming powers of waged work, they are engaged in a programme that systematically attacks the right to work which we defiantly assert. What we need, I daresay, is not a new slogan, but a militant application of the current slogan. There lies the real basis for a movement to liberate ourselves from the burden of compulsory, soul-destroying, exploitative labour.