Some feelings on the world of work
So, this will be a bit of a rant… apologies for that 😉 Or perhaps you like rants?!
Anyway, I came across a jobs website the other day and some of the personal stories posted as comments here got me thinking, both about how unemployment is generally perceived and stigmatised within our society, and the psychology behind employment in general. In my opinion, full-employment and waged labour is a concept of 19th century economics that had its day a long time ago, but that’s not what I want to go into here [for anyone that wants a subsequent blog post on this topic, ask and ye shall receive].
Instead I want to talk about the uncritical acceptance of the idea that the unemployed only have themselves to blame for their situation, that they need to buck up their ideas and do more “positive thinking” (watch an interesting take on this here ). Also, the related notion that those with jobs should simply be quietly grateful for whatever they currently have.
First of all, young people today have spent their entire lives being told that if they worked hard at school and university they would be able to get “a good job”. Now, with unsustainable economic systems possibly collapsing all around us, this is being shown to be a lie, and we are understandably a mixture of confused, upset and angry.
Secondly, this is not a recent development but has been ongoing for the last 30-40 years. Taking a detour into the economics behind the current job market, the story begins with a top-down drive towards “globalisation”. Now I ask you, in the real world rather than the imaginations of economic theorists, why is it more profitable to outsource manufacturing to the third world, so that first world workers trained in these practical skills can’t find jobs anymore?
It has nothing whatsoever to do with the “free-market” – the fact is that in the third world wages are lower in real terms is because, for the most part, you can be imprisoned or murdered there for organising to demand basic worker’s rights. (often by dictatorships in power thanks to us!) Of course, this used to be the case in the first world countries as well; only centuries of struggle established limited but important rights for workers here. Fortunately for the super-rich, the ideology of neo-liberalism [which has little to do with classical liberalism if you have ever read any – this actually cared about people] found a clever way to incapacitate some of these achievements. Globalisation is not Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, rather it is a state and corporate fist acting in concert to smash the living standards of workers everywhere.
Anyone affected is smugly advised to learn the “new skills” demanded to adapt to a globalised economy. The idea that maybe people don’t want to live under an economic system where they have to completely restructure their lives every few years is not considered to be of any particular relevance. For the most part there was nothing wrong with the old skills they had, which are still being gainfully employed elsewhere. But why would a profit hungry trans-national corporation pay through the nose to guarantee first world worker’s rights and safety standards when millions of third world wage-slaves are ripe for its exploitation free of such standards?
So people of the first world must learn “new skills” in order that the poorest and most vulnerable people of the third world can continue to be in-humanely exploited in its sweat-shops. And moreover, we should be overflowing with exuberant “positive-thinking” about these wonderful new opportunities to prove our worth in a dynamic modern economy, no doubt evolving at ever-quickening pace to a thrilling climax of free-market euphoria for all, and not an ecologically or monetarily induced collapse.
I am left wondering, what does recognition (conscious or sub-conscious as it may be) of all this needless suffering and futility do to us as people, psychologically? Work should provide a social function, it should help give purpose and satisfaction to ones life. The stress associated with unemployment for many people, is probably borne out of this desire to be useful, to contribute to communities meaningfully. The employed don’t have it much better, since their employment is provided by the rich, those with the most substantial vested interest in the system of global exploitation I have just described. As such, their remit is not to offer jobs aiming to change the world in positive ways.
So the current job situation is pretty much bad for everyone. It’s psychologically bad for those first world workers who know they are merely being exploited by the super-rich to prop up a system that oppresses the world’s most poor and vulnerable people. It’s far worse for third world people themselves, who are little more than slaves – work or starve is not a meaningful “choice”. And it’s bad too for the growing number of unemployed, who are simply branded as socially useless, tossed on a rubbish tip designated for failed human beings and left to rot, while the traditional social support systems for them are dismantled under austerity.
I think Jiddu Khrisnamurti captured the dilemma we face rather well when he said that “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”. Perhaps our various mal-adjustments stem from unease at our complicity in this sickness? Do you feel you “fit in” in today’s profit and personal gain driven society, or share its values? I don’t. I feel more affinity for the Lowell Mill Girls and their characterisation of “the new spirit of the age: gain wealth forgetting all but self”. That our “profoundly sick society” demands we be well adjusted to it, to don our “positive-thinking” caps and clamber over one another in the scrabble to be “winners” in a cynical game to exploit others, seems like a bad joke.
One can worry that a system founded on the near total exploitation of a global “under-class” of poor is gradually bottling up the resentment of billions of people across the world. We should not blithely assume that this resentment can be contained indefinitely. I see the graffiti “eat the rich” around a lot these days – by fans of H.G. Wells rather than Motorhead perhaps?!
I believe passionately that human beings are capable of better than this. Perhaps a new civil rights movement is required, for young and old to demand recognition of the rights of all citizens of the world; rights to basic standards of human decency and to participate in work of meaning to themselves and their communities, and not merely the bank accounts of mostly un-accountable plutocrats.