February 28, 2010

NuBureaucracy Round-up

Just a series of links and responses, pending a proper post once I get through the current blizzard of commitments.

1. Things are clearly hotting up, as Nina's report from Take Back Education indicates. In respect of Jim Wolfreys' demand that senior management appy for their jobs, a recent UCU newsletter at King's reports the following:

    According to the College’s latest Financial Report, 202 staff currently earn over £100 000 a year at a total annual cost of over £29m. Of these, 17 earn over £200 000 - more than the prime minister, who is on £197 689. We do not believe that such salary levels are acceptable in the public sector today. A £100 000 salary cap would save the College over £9m a year.

But why should anyone working in public sector education get anything like as much as 100 000? 60 grand is enough for anyone to live in extreme comfort - and if they don't like it, by all means head for the private sector...

2. I'll be going right into the heart of the malestrom, giving a talk next week at King's, entitled "Kafka 2010: Capitalist Realism after the crisis". It's at 6.00pm, 11 March 2010, The Old Committee Room, King's Building, Strand Campus, King's College London. All are welcome, but if you want to attend, please drop me line so we have an idea of how many people are going to come.

3. The podcast of the Goldmsiths NuBureaucracy event has been uploaded - at amazing speed, it was up the date after the event - by the superb Rene Wolf and his Back Door Broadcasting. If you've read the book, skip to Alberto's talk (in which, amongst many other things, he introduces the priceless concept of precognitive capitalism) and the discussion, in which a number of important issues came up.

Here's the response of one attendee:

    Reading your book over the last couple of days I have felt more sane than in the last six months of teaching in further education. The situation at my college is exactly as you describe it: lecturers are conscripted into performing endless bureaucratic procedures which and have nothing to do with their ostensible function (to improve teaching and learning) and everything to do with the concealed function of improving the ‘representation’ of the college through the abstract mechanisms of paperwork and statistics. This has served to create a ‘virtual’ college, which is prioritised over the ‘real’ college in every conceivable way; or as you said in Capitalist Realism ‘all that is solid melts into PR’.

    Another hidden function of the bureaucratic processes in which lecturers are constantly embroiled is to control them. An example of this is the disciplinary system at my college. If a student is late the lecturer is supposed to issue them with a late slip, which is an official looking piece of paper with designated spaces for the date, time on entering the class, number of minuets late, course, course code, learner name, learner code, teacher name, group tutor name, a reason for the lateness, and, finally, a space for both the student and the teacher to sign and date it. Three late slips result a misdemeanour, another form that demands all of the previous information (times, dates, course, course code, reasons, etc) be repeated. After three more late slips you issue the student with a misconduct form. Here, again, the same information is repeated almost as though it were possible to change behaviour simply through repeatedly recording these facts. Three more late slips result in the student being issued with a gross misconduct form, which is meant to be the point at which their commitment to the course is seriously called into question. At any point in the process the lecturer can perform a what is know as a ‘board of study’, during which they sit down with the student and discuss the reasons for their lateness (of course any lecturer genuinely concerned about a students progress will have been doing this already).

    The problem with all of this is that it can go nowhere. The unofficial policy of the college, which is deliberately leaked to the teaching staff through various channels, is that the college cannot afford to lose a single student. Each student on a full time course is worth £5,000 to the college (more if they have specific learning disabilities) and the statistics for retention are closely tied to course funding for the next academic year. The students know this, they are aware that they will be kept on the course no matter what their level of punctuality or attendance drops to. They are aware that they can take off weeks at a time with impunity and some of them take full advantage of this knowledge. However, it is too simplistic to conclude from this that the college’s disciplinary procedure is dysfunctional; rather it is that the real function of the procedure, its true subject, is concealed.

    So who is the real subject of the college’s disciplinary procedure? The answer is of course the teaching staff. If they fail to strictly adhere to a disciplinary procedure that they know to be meaningless and which arguably places a barrier of contractual formality between them and the students, which inhibits rather than facilitates communication, it is they themselves who stand to be disciplined. When a student’s attendance and punctuality are audited, if the lecturer cannot produce all of the accompanying paperwork (which serves the virtual college) then they will stand to account for it, because, unlike students lecturers can be got rid of.

    The same logic runs throughout the system, with lecturers being made culpable for every aspect of the students’ performance as well as their physical and emotional wellbeing. It is not that lecturers shouldn’t be concerned about the wellbeing of their students, but the college makes it their responsibility to monitor these pastoral aspects without any recognition of the time it takes to do so effectively, let alone to complete the attendant paperwork that evidences their actions and serves the virtual college.

    For students in further education the onus for every aspect of their education has been taken away from them and instead foisted onto the lecturing staff. That the sector is largely a provider of ‘post compulsory’ education hardly seems to matter, targets from central government and a lack of meaningful opportunities mean that the element of genuine choice has largely evaporated. Furthermore, every aspect of provision is warped and constricted by necessary compliance with reactionary and contingent initiatives, which are implemented through methods of funding allocation. This is how young people are conditioned either for higher education and ‘independent study’ or for the world of work, or what is left of it. It seems symptomatic of society, which seeks to strip individuals of their agency and incorporate them passively into a system of decentralised control.

    Which brings me to the aspect I found most striking about Capitalist Realism, how you use current initiatives in further education as an illustration indicative of the effects of the imposition of a business ontology throughout every aspect of the public (and private) sphere. My own experience in the sector, which your book has enabled me to conceptualise, has enabled me to perceive this shift acutely in a wider context. I have yet to read a more concise diagnosis of the poisonous atmosphere which capitalism has engendered for all but the wealthiest of citizens.

4. On NuBureaucracy and health care, Michelle writes:

    I've made it my business to read all of the inquiry findings into this story:

    Actually I'm now reading the enquiry report itself and last week I found myself reading every single board meeting minute from the Trust itself, some of which can be found here since 2006, many of which seem to have disappeared from the site in the interim.

    Anyway it's some pretty shocking reading, and plenty of blame to go around. The usual tales of absurd government targets combined with cost-reductions to be sure, but what struck me was the sheer amount of reference to "auditing" by everyone concerned. The nurses, having been forced to adhere to government-set targets which they knew would endanger patient safety, routinely lied about achieving these targets (and falsified records to do so) only so that they could get on with taking care of patients. They were also led to believe that not "achieving" them would lead to sacking. The hospital trust/management seemed to know nothing about any of these targets, nor whether they were being met. Somewhere along the line, the hospital board were all hyped up to achieve "Foundation Status" and instituted cost-reductions in order to do so. When they applied for it, there was another external audit conducted in order to grant it (likely by a different body with a totally different set of targets) and when the trust passed this audit, they were convinced that since they had been audited and deemed good enough to be a Foundation Trust, that everything was fine. It clearly wasn't. (Not only this, but upon becoming a Foundation Trust (i.e. a fully privatised one), the governors decided that all their meetings must henceforth be held in secret, "since matters of a commercial nature were to be discussed" there on in.)

    My point is that everyone on the board of governors believed that since they had been "audited" there was no way that there could be a problem. And they still can't believe that there was poor care at this hospital for over 2 years, even when faced with hundreds of families telling them that their parent died screaming in a pile of their own filth, their son died because their heart condition was undiagnosed, etc. More than one professed himself as "astonished" at hearing these horror stories, many still express the view that these stories cannot be true. (One interesting thing: the news agencies are widely reporting that patients were forced to drink from vases since no other drinking water was available. The enquiry stated that they heard no evidence to support this particular claim, but I can assure you that the other evidence on display in the enquiry report is far, far more shocking than drinking from vases.) Oddly, it appears that the hospital trust never even noticed that though there were several external audits conducted every year, there was never an internal audit conducted. Whether they would have accepted the results from such is debatable, I suppose, but it seems that they were genuinely surprised to discover this.

    Anyhoo i guess my point is several: a) people are apt to invest so much Big Otherness into external audit results that they can go to work every day on a nursing ward known to every nearby hospital as "Beirut" and believe that all is well. b) audits, targets, etc are ideal psychological setups for buck-passing and general dereliction of personal responsibility c) getting "good" results from audits is probably a lot worse on the whole than getting "poor" ratings d) nuBureaucracy is not only psychologically destructive, it can actually kill people. But you know all this already I am sure.

Yes... At the height of the scandal about the death of Baby P, some were bewildered about how it could be that Ofsted reported that Haringey's children's services were 'improving', even though it later emerged that there were serious systemic problems with the services. These problems, mysteriously, were not detected by Ofsted until after the Baby P scandal had blown up. There is no mystery here: it seems to me likely that it was not an accident or an oversight that led to the systemic failings which contributed to Baby P's death going undetected. No - it is likely that the very fact that Haringey was "complying" with Ofsted's requirements that meant that there were systemic failings in the first place.

5. Great to see Capitalist Realism mentioned in the THES by Sarah Amsler.

6. Owen on the Kickstart scheme. Owen also draws my attention to this campaign by Sussex students, which is based around not completing the National Student Survey - is this "not the first revolt using form-filling/auditing as the battleground?"

7. Finally, threre's an interview with me at Ready Steady Book.

Posted by mark at 11:45 PM | TrackBack

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 05:27 PM | TrackBack

'... the same old effluent...'

Interesting response from Cold Calling to the Precarity and Paternalism post ....

    I have some experience of the world of cable/satellite broadcasting through my day job. TV companies are constantly jittery, fiddling and fussing with schedules to improve the ratings (and therefore retain/increase advertising revenue) while mostly just shifting the same old effluent around the schedules, or exchanging it amongst themselves (“You’ve seen every episode of ‘Friends’ over a hundred times – but have you seen it on our channel?”); re-branding channels without making any significant changes to the actual content, coming up with diminishing-returns format ideas that are always X (a series that rated well) meets Y (another series that rated well) or X with a twist; wasting money and energy in months of work for half-baked celebreality series that might be canned after two episodes if they don’t rate well. Ask people involved what their idea of good TV is, though, the paragon, and they’ll say ‘Mad Men’ or something along those lines. (But they’ll respect the makers of awful programmes that get high ratings). It’s not that they don’t know what good TV is (as opposed to ‘good TV’ –ie populist, gets the ratings), it’s just that “bless them, it’s what the Freeview viewers (or whoever) go for.” And all of this useless activity is largely colluded with by TV journalists and celeb mags.

More here...

Posted by mark at 01:12 PM | TrackBack

My friend in the North

An update from my anonymous correspondent:

    Oh irony of ironies -

    Just spotted the quote from my original email. Since then I was fired (without warning, representation, 'appraisal' or even any meetings since the first week of employment).

    Reasons given:

    - I wasn't spending enough time with the 'trainees' - I explained the absurd audit/CRB/risk assessment/evaluation trail that I had to keep up with, but apparently this meant I should have worked about ten more hours than contracted, like my far more desperate, scared and eager to please counterpart did. Or failing that, I wasn't related to the staunchly 'socialist' bosses like most of the employees (and quite a few trainees) were. 'Activism' or 'professionalised' left-wing politics does often seem to descend into crude nepotism, lazy corruption and the idea that wooing westminster purse-carriers is the way to emancipation. But maybe that's just a Northern thing (this hasn't challenged my political beliefs, just any faith in those who claim to 'lead' them). Yes - new networks (even 'orthodoxies') are required for the left to lift itself above the level of a deeply compromised 'club' in this country.

    - I kept 'asking too many questions' - I asked about a question a week (no meetings or appraisals, right?) and usually only to clear any policy/legal muddiness (that wasn't really answered anyway). Yes - 9 to 5 did feel like Jason Bourne in a Kubrick movie written by Kafka - my failure was not pretending to 'know'.

Posted by mark at 01:01 PM | TrackBack

February 12, 2010

NuBureaucracy room change

There is a room change for the NuBureaucracy event at Goldsmiths tomorrow. It's now been moved to a bigger room that's easier to find - Room 137a in the Main Building...

Posted by mark at 12:09 AM | TrackBack

February 11, 2010

Precarity and Paternalism


The recent discussion of elitism (a topic also broached by Adam Curtis's film on Charlie Brooker's Newswipe this week) brings me back to the question of what - in the continuing lack of any alternative term - I must still refer to as "paternalism". I think Taylor Parkes got to what is at stake in these discussions in his rather moving Quietus piece about Trunk's Life On Earth release:

    Hard to credit now, but there was once something paternalistic, almost philanthropic about the Beeb, spreading the cultural wealth of the educated classes through housing estates and comprehensive schools. This kind of evangelism rarely sits well with self-conscious champions of the lumpenproletariat, whose right to live in shit, they believe, outweighs their right to not live in shit - for some, being patronised is worse than being brutalised. But then people can be very naïve about the motivations of those who give the people what they want, relentlessly and remorselessly. And while the Corporation was sometimes guilty of gross assumptions and a very real stuffiness, I don't like to think how I might have grown up - stomping around in the middle of nowhere - had it not been for Life On Earth, or Carl Sagan's Cosmos, or James Burke's Connections, or the gentle guidance of the BBC Childrens' department. Years ago, I interviewed the men in charge of "youth programming" at Channel 4, goateed and bereted and utterly insistent that their race to the bottom was a noble crusade; they railed against the BBC's "eat-your-greens" approach, and spoke of gallons of liquid effluent, coursing through the pipes of British culture, in terms of freedom and some strange colour of egalitarianism. Here was the future, banging its drums, and even then it made me blanch. As controller of BBC2 in the late 1960s, David Attenborough had a different vision, rooted in what was, for all his personal privilege, an (enduring) belief in inclusivity. If the so-called Golden Age of Television could boast its fair share of shoddy, overlit crap – and my God, it could – at best it was truly empowering, and its passing has screwed us all to some extent. We can still choose to watch BBC Four, I suppose (assuming it's not another show where ex-NME writers smirk at Mud's trousers), but then this is an age of choices, few of which have much to do with freedom in the long term. No one's going to stumble onto culture any more, not like I did, or my dragged-up mates did. It's worse than a shame.

It's worth reminding ourselves of the peculiar logic that neoliberalism has successfully imposed. Treating people as if they were intelligent is, we have been led to believe, "elitist", whereas treating them as if they are stupid is "democratic". It should go without saying that the assault on cultural elitism has gone alongside the aggressive restoration of a material elite.

Parkes touches here on the right way to think about paternalism - not (just) as something prescriptive, but in terms of the gift and the surprise. The best gifts are those we wouldn't have choosen for ourselves - not because we would have overlooked or rejected them, but because we simply wouldn't have thought of them. Neoliberal "choice" traps you in yourself, allowing you to select amongst minimally different versions of what you have already chosen; paternalism wagers on a different "you", a you that does not yet exist. (All of which resonates with J J Charlesworth's illuminating piece on the management of the ICA in Mute, with its attack on the assumption that "what the audience wants is merely what the institution should do.")

Neoliberalism may have been sustained by a myth of entrepreneurialism, a myth that the folk economics of programmes like The Apprentice and Dragon's Den have played their part in propagating, but the kind of "entrepreneurs" that dominate our culture - whether they be Bill Gates, Simon Cowell or Duncan Bannatyne - have not invented new products or forms, they have just invented new ways of making money. Good for them, no doubt, but hardly something that the rest of us should be grateful for. (The genius of Cowell was to have plugged a very old cultural form into new machineries of interpassivity.) And for all the bluster about entrepreneurialism, it is remarkable how risk-averse late capitalism's culture is - there has never been a culture more homogenous and standardized, more repetitive and fear-driven.

I was struck by the contrast between Parkes' piece and an article by that Caitlin Moran wrote in the wake of the announcement that Jonathan Ross is to leave the BBC. "After [Ross's] £18 million contract," Moran wrote,

    ... endless fretting pieces were written, asking whether the BBC should ever try to compete with ITV1’s salaries.

    The real question, however, is “what would happen to the BBC if it didn’t?” If the only people who work for the BBC are those in it for the sheer love of it — those who would piously turn down double the wages from ITV — the BBC would rapidly become the middle-class liberal pinko panty-waist institution of the Daily Mail’s nightmares, and, I suspect, fold within five years.

Really? ITV's high salaries, when they could afford to pay them, were hardly guarantees of quality; and the idea that Ross is "one of us" because he was "quick, edgy, silly nerd-dandy, into Japanese anime and rackety new guitar bands" presupposes a model of the "alternative" as shopworn and discredited as New Labour. Note that Moran fully accepts the neoliberal logic whereby "talent" is only motivated by money. (The return of the concept of "talent", with all its depunking implications, was perhaps the most telling cultural symptom of the last decade; while the application of the word to bankers was its sickest joke.)

As Moran suggests, the BBC's real rival now, evidently, is not the ailing ITV but the Mail and New International, and if public service broadcasting is to defend itself against what an assault that will only increase in ferocity, it will need rather more than Ross's sexual suggestiveness, warmed over hipness and occasional wit at its disposal. (It's far harder for the Mail to attack the likes of Attenborough than trivamongers such as Ross or Graham Norton; and did Attenborough ever get the equivalent of Ross's 18 million I wonder?) It's not only unjustifiable that public money be spent on exorbitant salaries for presenters and executives: it also plays into the Mail's agenda, which is all about maintaining the negative solidarity which has been crucial to neoliberal hegemony. Call me old fashioned, but I firmly believe that only those who would work for the BBC for the sheer love of it should be in the job. More than that, being motivated by money ought to be a reason for people not getting senior public service appointments. This is not, grotesquely, an argument for low wages - but it is an argument for the more equitable - and creative - redistribution of money in the public sphere. Imagine if Ross's 18 million were instead spent - risked - on what British television most sorely lacks, writers. You could pay scores of writers a good wage for years ... The BBC ought to be in a position to cushion its creative staff from the pressures of producing immediate success - and, contrary to the neoliberal logic which insists that people are best motivated by fear and money, it is that cushioning which facilitates a certain kind of cultural entrepreneurialism.

The non-paternalist elite hobnob at the ICA, via

After all, people will do worthwhile things if they are not paid or if they are paid poorly. The interesting side of Web 2.0 is just this - not the vacuous "debates", but the impulse to share that is a significant part of the motivation for writing blogs, uploading material to YouTube and and updating Wikipedia. If anything is the work of the multitude, it's something like the salvagepunk archive that is YouTube. It's intriguing that capitalism realism co-exists with the emergence of new forms of culture which can be commodified only very incompletely. At one level, commodification is total, and, in Jeremy Rifkin's phrase, all of life is a paid-for experience; yet there are whole areas of culture which are effectively being decommodified (does anyone seriously think that any recorded music will be paid for at all in a decade?) As a cultural worker, this is something I am ambivalent about, to say the least ... I seem to achieve success in things at the very moment that it's not longer possible to make money from them....

When I was in Dublin a week or so ago talking about Capitalist Realism, a member of the audience asked why I was talking about public service workers when my own situation has shown that it's better to leave full-time employment and enter the precariat. This is a reasonable question on the face of it, since I've done pretty well since being made redundant from my FE teaching job. Yet in some respects all that has happened is that I've swapped the NuBureaucratic stress of public service employment for the perpetual anxiety of hyper-precarity, and had my income massively cut in the process. One of the ways in which negative solidarity plays out is by exploiting the opposition between permanent employees and precarious workers. Permanent employees tend to be quietist to keep (what they think of as) their job security, whereas precarious workers, being expendable, have no power at all. A while back, Tobias van Veen gave a very powerful account of his own experiences of precarious labour:

    there is an ironic yet devastating demand being placed on the labourer: while work never ends (as one is never out of touch, and always expected to be available, with no claims to a private life or other demands), you as a worker are nonetheless completely expendable (and thus a member of the precariat: and so one must sacrifice all autonomy from work so as to keep one’s job). ...

    This contemporary condition of on-call ontology or on-demand da-sein produces an emotional economy of stress. To live under such instant-demand duress is stress-inducing indeed. Life becomes a series of panic attacks in the face of never being able to live up to such workplace demands without completely dismantling ‘life’ itself as distinct from ‘work’. The managerial class uses techniques of guilt/loyalty to enforce workers to labour at a moment’s notice, scheduling with less than a few hours or days time, without hope of a raise, without benefits or reward, and all for a minimum wage.

The precarious worker is doubly punished: not only do they have no job security, they also get paid less than the permanent employees for doing the same work. When I switched from being an hourly paid lecturer in Further Education to having a permanent contract, I was doing exactly the same work, but suddenly I was both paid hundreds of pounds more a month and got paid for holidays too. Back in the precariat, my total income since the tax year that began in April - for all the teaching, supervision, writing and editing I've done, when I doubt there's been more than two weeks that I've worked less than fifty hours - is the princely sum of eleven grand, which works out at significantly less than minimum wage. All the work I've done depends upon my not being in full-time work, so, no matter that my hourly rate for some work seems quite high, in effect I'm always working for minimum wage. (Much writing only pays mimimum wage any way.) All this, in conditions where it's impossible to turn down any commission, no matter how short notice it is given to me, where I'm on-demand at practically all times and there are no guarantees that I will keep getting the work. The kind of hustling I'm required to do involves a kind of "creavity", I suppose, but "getting creative" about how I can monetize my activities doesn't seem like the best conceivable use of my time. What the broken, piecemeal time of precarity precludes is engagement in long-form projects. It's very hard for me to devote any time to finishing my next book for Zer0 because I will always privlege any work that pays immediately. But full-time employment also precludes the engagement in long-form projects: Capitalist Realism, for instance, was written after work or at weekends.

I say all this not because I want sympathy - I still think I'm incredibly fortunate to be making any sort of living out of what I do - but more because my situation is symptomatic. And now that the high-rolling, business ontology-driven model of cultural provision is finished, surely there's a better way to fund cultural work?

Posted by mark at 06:31 PM | TrackBack

February 10, 2010

'Autocratic without being clear ...'

A few people have emailed about the NuBureaucracy event on Friday at Goldsmiths with Matt Fuller and Alberto Toscano. I want to confirm that the event is open to all, no registration required, and that it is definitely taking place between 2 and 4.

Speaking of NuBureaucracy, a reader who would like to remain anonymous writes:

    At around the same time I read your book, I took dubious employment for Brown's typically cack-handed 'Future Jobs Fund'. The centre 'facilitiating' (pimping) this money basically delivers minimum wage, part-time, six-month contracts for several job roles, some of which offer semi-worthless NVQs, others pathetic certificates in 'self-esteem' or 'confidence-building'. I was interviewed on the understanding that it was a training/education programme, but its emerged as a cack-handed pool of easily-disposable labour.

    The 'community' centre is run by ageing militant councillors/activists - in my experience, often the most desperate and manically obedient accesors of 'project' funds (and somewhat Stalinist to anyone who points out logistical contradictions etc.). It may even be perversely 'socialist' in that every F.J.F. employee is paid the same regardless of experience, age, education, skill or job title. Although intended for unemployed 'youth', the DWP and Job Centres have taken an almost sadistic glee in referring single mothers of very young children and the middle-aged (they adjusted the goal posts after realising 'youth' can still get access to free education or training here and there, rather than cleaning corridors for six months).

    The obsessive auditing (largely guessed at, because the DWP's stipulations were vague and poorly thought through, as is typical of New Labour) has made it impossible to actually 'train' or 'mentor' the employees as required. For those taken on, the auditing has trickled down from job centre referral (all personal details must be recorded - even of those who are informed of vacancies but decline to attend) to interview (70% forms, 30% questions) to CRB check (this takes up about half the week, explaining the ridiculous levels of surveillance and questioning required for a Mcjob and demanding forms of ID not easily accessed by the poorest people in the country).

    The clincher is the timesheets - the FJF employees are mainly based all around the city as 'placements' (as classroom assistants, drivers, receptionists etc. etc.) - but all 200 workers' timesheets must have three signatures accounting for each week handed in by Friday, otherwise pay isn't processed. This is overseen by three supervisors and one administrator. It was recently announced that the timesheets previously used were 'wrong' as they had the wrong logos (!) and certain boxes to be ticked weren't printed on them. Now we have to backtrack several months of timesheets, from all around the city (they ALL need the placement supervisors' signatures accounting for every single hour worked since October). The timesheet issue became particularly absurd during Xmas and the snow chaos that followed, as we had to determine who was 'genuinely' off or just using the holidays or snow as an 'excuse' (by using the minibus driver to tour us round so we could check every signing in book).

    Did I mention that along with timesheets, CRB, job centre 'liaison', interview, contract, and signature required for various 'policies', I also have to check each and every workplace down to its insurance provider and fire hose details? Needless to say, those I expected to 'mentor' (monitor) have become an indiscriminate blur to me as I spend the first three hours of every day working out what forms they/I haven't filled in yet. No one ever seems to check them, and when the government auditor comes, he only seems to need one afternoon. However, every 'senior' employee here spends the week in a blind panic babbling about the 'audit trail'. The management is autocratic without being clear, aggressive without any target, and insistent that numbers and places are filled immediately - which itself has threw up certain problems when we're pressured to 'hire' people before CRBs or references are checked.

    Its an ugly, confusing, desperate place to work and I'm looking for an escape route that won't mean benefit suspension (each job I've had seems to accelerate the rate of auditing to a dizzying degree, the shorter the contract the more forms I collect). The levels of bewilderment combined with blind obedience at all levels is a worrying microcosm of 21st century Britain in so many ways. The general ineptitude and overworked martyrdom is so ingrained that the only 'social' contact remaining is very childish feuds, gossip and mysterious, defensive glares when anyone asks a question about how something is done.

    Funnily enough, the government has just given the go-ahead for my centre to 'deliver' 200 more jobs with the same staff overseeing it! Get me the fuck outta here...

Meanwhile, Ben Jeffery, who is writing a very interesting book on Houellebecq for Zer0, remarks:

    CR made me think of a panel discussion I attended at the Guardian postgrad fair last summer. It was on media in the digital-age, and one of the panellists was Conor McNicholas, the longstanding editor of NME. He was easily the most impressive speaker, very cogent on the methods NME has used to adapt to a changing economy and on their necessity (according to him NME makes a six-figure profit). But his bit could have come straight out of Capitalist Realism: outsourcing, staff being required to multitask (‘introvert’ writers, as he put it, have generally been forced out by ‘extrovert’ members of staff, those willing to make podcasts and web-clips – not for any greater wage, he added, “But hey, those are the breaks.”), tapping up alternative streams of revenue (tickets, T-Shirts), expecting a DIY attitude from anyone writers interested in joining the staff (they should already have a blog audience they can bring with them into NME), etc. What was most striking, I found, wasn’t that Mr. McNicholas never mentioned anything about loving music or NME having a role as a public organ, but, on the contrary, how pointless it would be (would feel) to bring it up as a point against him – i.e. to attack NME for being cynical, commercial, sugary trash. Like, how often must this guy have heard soft-headed people shriek that NME have betrayed the music, sold out, whatever…. If someone in the audience had used the roving mic to say so, they would have seemed like a tit and been laughed at. I’m sure of it.
    Your recent posts on the problems of working with dead or dying terminology also got me thinking. I wonder if there isn’t a way in which even the term ‘capitalism’ has lost its sense. Most people would, no doubt, agree that we live in a capitalist system if asked, but ‘capitalism’ as a political system does (to some degree) lose its meaning in the absence of viable political alternatives – need I point out, e.g., how soiled the term ‘socialism’ is? How few people register it as a viable political option? I know that I, reflexively, often switch off a lot of the time when I hear it or read it – it’s a dying, if not totally dead, slogan. I do think that when many, many people in the West say ‘We live under capitalism’ they don’t mean ‘As opposed to socialism (or whatever)’, they mean it like ‘We live on planet Earth.’
Posted by mark at 01:00 PM | TrackBack