A world of labour

Work and its depoliticisation

Imagine a future, but a not-too-distant future. In this time, your employer has been nationalised – taken over by the government, perhaps in response to one of the economic crises that economists seem habitually shocked by. Your employer is no longer the boss you were used to but a bureaucrat from the new Ministry of Labour, created by a new political party that took power during uncertain and turbulent times.

This sounds ominous. It gets worse. You are informed that you have been ‘relocated’. Your new place of work is an extra 30 minutes travel from your house. That’s another hour of your day gone. Your new building is a low-rise office unit in an out-of-town ‘business park’, removed from the amenities that you have got used to in your former work habits. You are informed that you will not be compensated for your extra travel time and as you are introduced to your new offices you notice how much easier it is for your superiors to monitor your actions: there are less opportunities for a bit of chat with colleagues or some stealth web browsing. Some of your colleagues on lower pay grades are not sure that they can afford or manage the public transport to and from work and feel that they have been put in a precarious position. The Government Boss emails the details to you, then meets with you and makes it clear that this is a decision already taken at the top level and that there is no consultation in the matter.

In another town, the Government has taken over another company and is introducing sweeping new technologies of vigilance, micromanaging people’s productivity and generating detailed employee statistics largely to maximise people’s work. The walls are decked with ideological slogans about commitment to work, about fulfilment through achieving set goals, about the Government’s great aspirations for a better future and the workers’ role within those aspirations. These slogans, the close monitoring of work and the constant evocation to achieve more seem to you like the darkest premonitions of an Orwellian totalitarian one-party state.

Now, imagine that this new authoritarian ruling party imposing increasingly draconian control over your working life was called Capital. If you do this, you would not be weaving a future dystopia but actually describing present-day realities. With some rhetorical licence to generate the twist in the tale, I have actually drawn these two vignettes from my own reading about labour regimes and the experiences of people I know. Employers – members of the ruling Capital Party if you want to stick with the analogy – constantly dominate our working lives in ways like these: moving workplaces and expecting people to absorb extra costs, imposing new routines on people’s work, monitoring people extremely closely – in some workplaces down to the exact number of minutes taken for toilet breaks. I have a cushy job but I – and many of my colleagues – work way over our allotted hours throughout the year in order to deal with the requirements of the job, which has seen the ratcheting up of workloads under increasingly intense managerialism.

The vast majority of the world’s ‘productive’ adult population spend the majority of their waking lives working. It is also within work that we use our senses, develop skills, push ourselves, negotiate all manner of complex social interactions in the name of a project or common goal. Work is a very important part of our lives. And this aspect of life is characterised by forms of governance that – if practiced by a state – would hardly be seen as democratic, unless one believes the vapid ‘stakeholder’ speak of Human Resources. For a great many, those who control work do so in ways that would be characterised as authoritarian or even tyrannous if they were practiced by government. Isn’t that remarkable?


A world of labour

The Capital Party has branches everywhere. I have researched peasant livelihoods in East Africa, and this is a good place to start because for many, small-scale agricultural livelihoods are the best evidence that not everyone is a worker or part of the capitalist labour force. How can they be? East African peasants are subsistence farmers and they do not earn a wage. But, this distinction between a full-time wage-earning labour force and a range of non- or semi- capitalist forms of labour is doubly mistaken. It takes what now appears to be a quite specific form of labour – the permanent labour force in large industrial firms in developed countries – and assumes that this is what proper capitalism looks like. It universalises a historically and geographically specific regime of work that has been eroded since the late 1970s. Secondly, it mistakes a slender economic autonomy afforded by a field for the property of being ‘uncaptured’ by the disciplines of capitalist labour.

So, to return to East Africa: in all of the research on peasant farming it is entirely clear that peasants are not autonomous subsistence farmers. They produce cash crops for sale, they migrate to earn seasonal and/or casual wages, members of the household seek wages in cities and remit cash, others set up small businesses. Some farmers employ other farmers; some farmers commandeer other farmers’ land. Manufactured goods find their ways into the smallest of local markets; traders seek out crops to purchase for retail in cities or export. Governments try to compel farmers to work harder and in more disciplined ways to generate national economic growth. Agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies purchase land and introduce new, more expensive and higher technology forms of cultivation. ‘Outgrower’ schemes contract peasant farmers to produce specific crops in very specific conditions for large scale commercial farms. Microcredit and microfinance models re-engineer peasant farmers into petty entrepreneurs. Where is the non-capitalist subsistence peasant amidst all of these powerful dynamics? He or she exists only in the minds of neo-Rousseauian romantics.

I start with the most difficult case – the quintessential ‘African peasant’ – which fortuitously enough is something I know a bit about. Beyond this, the world of work is only more clearly a realm dominated by capital. For tens of millions, new geographies of industrialisation generate more stable but extremely harsh regimes of ‘sweated’ wage labour defined by seventy-hour weeks. Beyond this tens of millions more are integrated into ‘chains’ of production as contracted labour to produce specific components or goods for the massive retailers and brand owners at the top of the chain. And, beyond this diverse and insecure contracted labour sector there are further millions on the margins, livelihoods profoundly shaped by a work obsession: ‘multiple modes of livelihood’ in which temporary and/or informal wage work is combined with small-scale entrepreneurship, artisanal production, small-scale trade, taking on loans in return for work obligations, engaging in illicit economic activities, sex work, and so on.

The common way of seeing globalisation and global capitalism is through tropes that derive from hyper-mobile trade, high finance, highly-integrated retails markets. But, capitalism is at heart a social relation of labour; it makes no sense at all to imagine capitalism’s dynamism without starting with its historically unprecedented ability to put people to work. There has never been a system like it; it has created a world of work in its own image.


Political studies and the marginality of work

This massive and unprecedented change surely deserves more attention that it receives within Politics research. ‘Politics’, it seems, starts when the working day is done. The almost-exclusive focus on governance, the state, political parties, and civil society bequeaths an image of work as a marginal or residual human activity which does not involve the core concerns of the discipline: relations of power, collective agency, contestations around the meaning of (in)justice, the meaning of authority and legitimacy. Not only this. There is in fact no separation between labour and other aspects of human life, something that feminist theory has argued and substantiated better than any other tradition of research. Work creates political subjectivities; it generates constraints and opportunities for people to become active in collective political endeavours; it produces obedience and hierarchy, as well as rejections of these disciplines; it has ‘commoditised’ the family through the provision of increasing levels of domestic service.

To sum up: capitalist globalisation is at heart a universal project to put people to work in very varied settings but unified under the will to accumulate. This has meant that work has colonised more of people’s lives through longer hours, more intense work, and less security. In all particular instances of these processes resides an increasingly muscular and authoritarian politics, a mode of domination, that is strikingly under-recognised within politics research that remains the art/science of studying governance and public institutions. In the rest of this blog I will explore one way of understanding labour politically.


Wage labour and the spectrum of domination

I should start with a clarification. My argument about capitalist labour is not one that assumes mass impoverishment. I think the general patterns are more complex. Industrialisation in countries with mass poverty has produced considerable material improvements in peoples’ lives. Global poverty reduction has been more an outcome of the expansion of wage labour than it has development aid and all its accoutrements of goals, priorities, and institution-building. It seems like a sensible general strategic starting point for any government that aims to reduce extreme poverty to think about how to generate more wage labour and better conditions within which forms of capitalist labour take place.

But, thus far, the ability of industrialisation to reduce poverty is limited. It seems a good way to reduce the extreme poverty of those in the ‘multiple modes of livelihood’ category mentioned above. It is less effective in generating well-being, a condition within which work is tolerable and incomes are minimally sufficient to take the worry out of securing life’s necessities. Indeed, it is the case that poverty research identifies all sorts of ‘new poverties’ within developed capitalist economies and wage labour forces, or within ‘middle income’ economies that are not the target of aid. Capitalism intrinsically aims to minimise the costs of labour and in doing so it deploys all of the substantial power it has to keep wages down, lower wages, work people harder, and replace labour with capital. Capitalism’s ‘modern poverties’ are everywhere, although they are ignored by the international development project.

Nevertheless, it is the case that many of those embroiled in precarious and excessively diversified livelihoods would leap at the chance of a regularised wage income in return for working in a ‘formal’ company. In the words of one of my former lecturers, the diverse informal economies of labour are ‘vibrant’ in the way that a person hanging on to the edge of a cliff by her fingertips is ‘vibrant’. In another related aphorism: if there’s one thing worse than being exploited it is not being exploited. Perhaps more accurately (but less wittily): it is better to be exploited in a harshly stable way through a contract even if you get paid very little. After all, one might suppose, no-one is forcing people to work in global factories to produce the goods and services of the world’s consumers, right? Well…

In fact, work is increasingly defined by direct and unmediated force. Unfree labour exists throughout the world. The use of gangmasters in agriculture, the barracking of workers in company dormitories, the employment of immigrants (legal or illegal) without contracts, the delay in wage payments, the running up of debts to employers that allows them to coerce more work and impose penalties on workers, and the rise of new forms of trafficked, bonded, and chattel labour mean that millions of wage labourers are not even minimally ‘free’ within the wage labour relation.

Beyond this stark unfreedom, bullying, regimes of penalisation, overweening surveillance, and the threat of dismissal (‘there’s plenty of others looking for work you know…’) all create a disciplinary within workplaces that far outdoes the carceral systems so beloved of those who write of biopolitics and governmentality. And, this might be the best place to mention that the two are combined in any case in the rise of the prison work-camp, the modern chain-gang.

Rather than setting up dichotomies between the ‘working class’ and ‘informal economies’ or ‘peasant farmers’, we could consider a spectrum of work in which different regimes of labour are characterised by different degrees of domination. I have suggested that starkly unfree labour is both a central aspects of capitalist globalisation (and in fact has always been). I have also suggested that the intensification of formally ‘free’ work has generated new technologies of vigilance, performance monitoring, punishment and reward; and a menu of ideological projects within which workers are bombarded with productivity, ‘vision’ and ‘mission’ mantras. These experiences of work seem closely analogous with authoritarian forms of government that monitor citizens’ behaviour, propound great ideologies of state, and fill public spaces with entreaties to be a model citizen.

Beyond this there are all kinds of work that involve relatively high levels of formalised training and qualification where things are a lot better. This is where I work. But, it is also the case that in these ‘skilled’ sectors of work there is a widespread anxiety about the purloining of autonomy by human resources and financial management discourses, both of which are based in efficiency drives and embedded in ‘corporate’ models of governance. This is a relatively luxurious struggle, but a struggle nonetheless, and it relates to the contestation of control over the nature of work.

There are other forms of work which have high levels of autonomy and wealth (the world of ‘consultancy’ is one of these) but the spectrum as set out encapsulates the vast majority of workers and is open for people to locate themselves where they wish. I don’t want to argue that all workers are oppressed although I would insist that they are all exploited. The key point is that where one is located matters a great deal because it substantially determines the ways in which you experience the exercise of power upon the activities that are likely to take up a great deal of your time, creativity, and energy; and your location will also determine what options you have to respond to this power. If this isn’t political then I don’t rightly know what is.

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