February 13, 2010

Modernisation, not neoliberalisation

Modernisation, not destruction .... via

An excellent post at Lenin's Tomb, on Channel 4's recent, dreadful commentary on the Royal Mail, and on the response of the pseudonymous postal worker Roy Mayall to the progamme. As Lenin points out, Mayall's book Dear Granny Smith is a wonderful read. It's a great companion piece to Capitalist Realism, in fact, and anyone who has enjoyed Capitalist Realism's account of the immiseration of public service labour will get a lot from Dear Granny Smith .

Actually, another dimension of capitalist realism came into focus after reading Roy Mayall's response to the Dispatches documentary, and his reply to the producer's defence of the documentary. This kind of "undercover filming"-style documentary is one version capitalist realism. It presents us with an apparently unmediated, ostensibly depoliticised "reality", our perception of which is in fact shaped by the (misleading) "context" provided by "experts". Barnes writes:

    Mayall ... complains about the lack of genuine postal workers' voices in the film. Is he suggesting the employees we featured didn't actually work at Royal Mail? That the hundreds of posties we encountered over the six years of investigation somehow weren't real? ... [b]y its very nature, undercover footage is full of genuine voices, employees talking and behaving uninfluenced by the presence of a camera crew.

In at least one sense - and here we return to the perennial problem of the inadequacies of naive empiricism - the undercover footage isn't "real". The decontextualised behaviours shown onscreen certainly aren't as real as the abstract processes which engendgered them, but which can't be captured by an undercover camera. In the film, "bad industrial relations" were implicitly treated as something akin to bad weather (the kind of bad weather, we had to conclude, however, that only afffects public organisations). In the lack of any proper explanation, the behaviour of the postal workers could only look like senseless truculence or abject dilatoriness. It was as if the labour disputes had nothing whatsoever to do with the corporate management - none of whom were seen at any point in the documentary (all we saw were harassed low-level managers, themselves no doubt forced to implement directives imposed from above).

As Mayall argues, what the documentary singularly fails to address is any of the key questions. No-one, least of all, Roy Mayall is denying that Royal Mail service has deterioriated over recent years - this, in fact, is one of the themes of his book. The question is why this has happened. One problem was that the documentary rested on an equivocation of the meaning of the "Royal Mail"; the "Royal Mail as currently run" (which everyone can agree is below par) was equated with the Royal Mail per se. What the documentary perforce had to screen out was antagonism. The fact is, the "Royal Mail" does not exist as unitary entity, only as a site of struggle. The antagonism couldn't be entirely edited out, of course - but it was made to appear absurd, almost comedic, a nonsensical war of attrition. Again, we were implicitly invited to draw the conclusion that this kind of thing only happens in the public sector. The documentary traded on an unjustified series of equivalences, most of them unstated (and all the more powerfully informing what we were seeing because they were unstated, just part of the ambient ideological fabric) : the Royal Mail = publicly owned company = inefficient = lazy workers = poor service. But Mayall's book makes it plain that the reasons that the Royal Mail service has declined is not because it is some publicly owned dinosaur, but - very much to the contrary - because of the way it has been neoliberalised:

    "Modernisation" is a euphemism for privatisation, and for an attack upon our wages and conditions at work. The company has shed 60,000 jobs in the last 7 years, while mechanisation has not taken up the slack. In other words, the remaining 120,000 RM employees have been doing a third more work for the same wages. It has been becoming harder and harder to do a proper job. We've watched our status as workers go down. We’ve listened to endless propaganda from the government and the management. We’ve heard them telling lies about us. We’ve been threatened with the loss of our pensions. We are carrying more and bulkier mail while being pressurised to do the job ever faster, doing longer rounds, all for the same money. Is it surprising then that some postal workers have become surly of late and that industrial relations are strained, to say the least?

The documentary highlighted the problem of casual labour, and, indeed, as Mayall observes, how can poorly trained casual workers be expected to have the same level of probity or motivation as properly employed postal workers? But, once again, the documentary told us nothing about why Royal Mail is using increasing amounts of casual labour - and, of course, it neglected to point out that casualisation of labour is only likely to increase if RM leaves public ownership. Bizarrely, the removal of a skilled, permanent workforce and its replacement with transient, casual labour is always presented as a way to increase "efficiency", but, here as elsewhere, "efficiency" doesn't mean a better organised, higher quality service; it is another euphemism for the same process of getting fewer workers to do more work, with the inevitable consequence that, (surprise, surprise) the sevice becomes shoddier even as the executive salaries increase. But, no matter how many crappy call centres people have to deal with, the illusion persists that private companies are more "efficient" and provide "better service" than anything publicly owned. Of course, this perception has been managed and shaped by the kind of self-serving "experts" who provided the commentatorial context on the Dispatches documentary:

    During the course of the programme we were offered the views of three commentators. There was Richard Hooper, author of a report that provided the basis for Peter Mandelson's suggestion last year that the Royal Mail be part-privatised. There was Dr Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute, which last year published an article suggesting that the universal delivery obligation should be abandoned. And then there was Jonathan DeCarteret who, in the words of the programme, "helps companies switch from Royal Mail to rival operators".

    All three of the "experts", in other words, had a commitment to privatisation of mail services.

There was an implicit class distinction here: the experts were allowed to speak for themselves and to offer an "overview", whereas the postal workers were like anthropological specimens, trapped unawares by the camera, and not given a chance to explain their actions or what had motivated them. (Why weren't Hooper, Pirie, and DeCarteret filmed secretly in their offices? Seeing them planning the running down and carve-up of the Royal Mail with Mandelson - that's the kind of undercover camera show I'd like to see ...) Well, shock horror, the casual workers had a casual attitude to work; told by their bosses that "Granny Smith [i.e. public service] doesn't matter any more", they act with a contempt towards the concept of public service ...

During the postal strikes last year, some of the postal workers carried placards saying "Modernisation, not destruction". Yet the strike was given a neoliberal narrative in much of the mainstream media, where the postal workers were presented as struggling against modernisation. That's because - as capitalist realism silently but implacably insists - it is unthinkable that any workers' struggle could be on the side of modernisation. But it's necesary to reclaim the public sphere and public services as achievements of modernity (much as they was celebrated by the GPO Film Unit), and, therefore, to re-narrativize their dismantling as acts of barbaric anti-modernisation. Think about it for a second: what is "modern" about the standard neoliberal package of outsourcing, a poorly motivated and casualised workforce delivering a poorer quality service, and exorbitantly overpaid executives? Wasn't the postal service more modern when you could post a letter in the morning and quite often have it delivered by a well motivated worker the same day? (And funnily enough, they managed that without mission statements, performance reviews and management consultants.) The new apsects of the neoliberal (dis)organisation of work are its deployment of technology and globalization, neither of which are intrinsically corporate-capitalist. But capital's globalization can only be countered by something like the plasticity that Alex wrote about recently:

    new form of solidarity must be capable of fluidity and rapid response, able to exploit weaknesses within systems and structures opportunistically and with a global purview, one which crucially can mirror the rapidity and fluidity of international finance. This is solidarity as plasticity, rather than the static brick-like form of Fordist labour solidarity, capable of flowing and shifting, yes, but also of fixing into position and assuming a hardened form where necessary. This form of solidarity must be inclusive of the new protest and occupation movements which have emerged in recent years, which although they have been largely ineffectual to date, have certainly led to new and interesting configurations of interest groups. What has been lacking however are the necessary cybernetic coordination systems to effectively enable these disparate and fragmentary groups to achieve the status of a counter-hegemonic power, a “class” power in the broadest sense of the term, one which is capable of counter-balancing effectively the rapacious if discredited centres of neoliberalism.

Is this unimaginable? Absolutely not.

Posted by mark at February 13, 2010 05:27 PM | TrackBack