August 04, 2010

"Contributing to society"


Essential reading on work and non-work: Owen, Digital Ben, Nina and Lenin.

In respect of The Fairy Jobmother, it's worth noting how much more pernicious it was than Benefit Busters, the original programme from which it was a spin-off. Despite its title, Benefit Busters allowed viewers to come to a critical judgement about the initiatives the government were using to "get people back to work". The first part of the programme, the one featuring Hayley Taylor, was like some grim parody of a reality TV talent show, in which the glittering prize on offer was not a million pound record deal but an unpaid work trial at discount store Poundland. Taylor was clearly a dupe of the ideology rather than its cynical author, credulously believing all the New Age pyschobabble she pushed along with the facile advice ("brush your teeth before an interview"). There's no doubt that some of the women were happier after being on the six-week "course" - but that was less because they were working for Poundland and more because they were not isolated in their own homes any more. Meanwhile, the programme showed us the home belonging to Emma Harrison, the boss of A4E, the consultancy for which Taylor worked. To say that Harrison's house was a mansion would be a massive understatement. A4E employees such as Taylor were invited to Harrison's house for "a cup of tea and a chat", because Harrison is so informal and she just loves get feedback from her workers. Faced with the extreme opulence of Harrison's house, viewers were at least invited to question who the real parasites scrounging off the state were. The excellent Watching A4E blogspot does invaluable work exposing the realities of A4E's schemes. Its latest entry quotes a description of Harrison: "Emma's approach is to work with people: 'I walk by their side, hold their hand and we go on a journey resulting in them getting a job that transforms their lives.'"

Subsequent parts of Benefit Busters allowed viewers to form even more negative views of the government's schemes to get people back to work - we saw the long-term unemployed cynically forced off benefits for a job that would last only a few days, and a poor young lad with severe back problems sustained after falling out of a window being told that he was fit for work.

There was none of this critical perspective in The Fairy Jobmother, which presented the reality TV "journey" back to work without any irony. As Digital Ben puts it:

    The show’s very title gives us an idea of what kind of strictly limited conclusions will be drawn at the end. Taylor’s steps did improve the family’s situation, but it was made clear that these ‘fairy godmother wishes’ were miraculous and unexpected, a break from the normal order of things. The idea that they be distributed on a wider basis, or even structuralized as part of the benefits system, is never on the table. The majority of the working class unemployed are expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps - become mini-Hayleys and fully valid humans without any outside help. So what exactly was the moral of the show? That finding work is easier when you have a well-known, well-connected recruitment specialist in your corner? Shocking. And even then - if Taylor fails to find work for the family next week, we can expect blame to be diverted to them. There is no systemic analysis. Blame falls solely upon the individuals (and, yes, their families.)

One can hardly underestimate the role that reality TV plays in generating this lottery thinking, which is the other side of what Alex calls negative solidarity. The persistent message is that any situation can be rectified by the application of dedicated self-improvement. (C4 is to be given some credit for showing some programmes which resist this agenda: its series The Hospital and Our Drug War show the real hopelessness of the NHS and the war on drugs. The Hospital gives a grim picture of youth in the UK. Class was the unspoken factor here: there weren't any middle class kids being filmed arriving in hospital pregnant, or catching HIV, or getting involved in knife crime. In the first part, about the impact of unprotected sex, anti-authoritarian defiance came out as self-destructive bad faith: "they can't tell me what to do", "I'm the sort of person who has to do this". There was a desperate joylessness about the mandatory pleasure-seeking; another side to the hedonic depression I talk about in Capitalist Realism.)

One of the things that irritated me in the last part of Fairy Jobmother was the moment when Taylor talked about someone getting back to work so they could "make a contribution to society" again. (My mentioning this on Twitter sparked a brief exchange with this character, who said "you can do what you please but not with my cash. You don't want to work that's fine - just don't expect me to pay"). As if there are no other ways to "make a contribution to society" than paid work (what is the Big Society if not about the value of such unpaid contributions?) ; as if those in work didn't depend, in numerous ways, on those not being paid for work ...

Like many people I know, I spent my twenties drifting between postgraduate courses and unemployment, encountering many pointless and demoralising "helping you back to work" initiatives along the way. There wasn't much difference between what I did on an average day when I was a student and what I did when I was unemployed, and there isn't a great deal of difference between what I was doing then and what I do now. But now I'm fairly confident that I "make a contribution"; then I wasn't. For a number of reasons, during my twenties I believed then that I was unemployable - too feckless to do either manual work or retail, and nowhere near confident enough to do a graduate job of any kind. (The ads for graduate jobs would fill me with despair: surely only a superhuman could do the job as described?) I won't deny that eventually getting employment was important - I owe so much of what I am now to getting a teaching job. But equally important was the demystification of work that gaining this employment allowed - "work" wasn't something only available to people who belonged to a different ontological category to me. (Even so, this feeling wasn't rectified by having a job: I had a number of depressive episodes when I was convinced that I wasn't the sort of person who could be a teacher.)

But surely the importance of Virno and Negri's work is to have undermined the distinction between work and non-work any way. What precisely counts as non-work in post-Fordism? If, to use Jonathan Beller's phrase, "to look is to labour" - if, that is to say, attention is a commodity - then aren't we all "contributing", whether we like it or not? As Nina argues, "[i]t is as if employers have taken the very worst aspects of women's work in the past – poorly paid, precarious, without benefits – and applied it to almost everyone, except those at the very top, who remain overwhelmingly male and incomprehensibly rich." In these conditions - in which unemployment/underemployment/perpetual insecurity are structurally necessary, not contingent accidents - there's more case than ever for a benefits saftey net.

At this point, I must plug Ivor Southwood's forthcoming book, Non-Stop Inertia. It's about the miseries of "jobseeking", and it's one of my favourite Zer0 books to date, combining poignant and funny observations derived from experience with theoretical acuity. The book is sure to be of interest to most people who enjoyed Capitalist Realism (indeed, Ivor writes about whole dimensions of capitalist realism which I didn't touch upon). Here are a couple of paragraphs:

    The endless unpaid duties assigned to the virtuoso jobseeker cast him as the postmodernised inversion of the 1980s “gizza job” persona, which confronted the employer directly with the physical reality of the reserve laborer and his family. Now, rather than proclaiming his jobless status the career jobseeker hides it, like something obscene, behind a screen of training courses and voluntary work and expressions of rictus positivity, and he becomes ever more complicit with this concealment in proportion to his desperation. The jobseeker must have an alibi ready to explain away every gap in his employment history, while the most mundane experience becomes the occasion of a personal epiphany – “working in a busy café really taught me something about the importance of customer service.” Skills are valued over knowledge. Non-vocational qualifications are almost a liability, unless they are emptied of content; a degree in literature is valued not for its evidence of critical thought but because it shows that the applicant has word processing experience.

    What are we not thinking about during all those hours of jobseeking, networking and CV-building? What interests, worries and fantasies might we otherwise have? What books might we read (other than self-help manuals), what conversations might we have with colleagues and friends about topics other than work? How differently might we perceive our current jobs without this constant needling insecurity? What kind of dangerous spaces might open up, in what kind of jeopardy might we put ourselves and this dynamic system, if we resigned from our jobs as jobseekers?

Posted by mark at August 4, 2010 06:24 PM | TrackBack