Why A Recession Is Like Getting A Coffee Enema Or Something

Last week I inquired of myself:

Could it be because we have newspapers that represent people in terms of their consumption patterns, rather than in terms of what they face as workers?

Today, in the Irish Times, an evaluation of the effects of recession on shopping habits:

TV fashion dictator Gok Wan and his slashing scissors will have nothing on the effect of the wallets vandalised by developments such as Bord Gáis’s 20 per cent price increase.

And that might be no bad thing. A bit of stripping down, back-to-basics, a lessening of the accumulation of the unnecessary, would be purgative and purifying.

Tell you what, why don’t you volunteer to go on the dole for a year or so? That might be purgative and purifying too.

Or maybe not. Here is Michael Perelman, from the draft of his new book:

Losing access to what one considers a normal level of consumption can be a wrenching experience for the entire family. Social pressures suggest that workers should also create their identity around consumption. Children and spouses suffer embarrassment when they are unable to afford the kind of consumption befitting their earlier station in life.

Status in a market society is often bound up with employment. “Hello. Glad to meet you. What do you do?” Not surprisingly, unemployment takes a heavy toll on people’s psyche. In fact, being unemployed is more stressful than divorce or marital separation (Clark and Oswald 1994, p. 658). People can get over the pain of divorce or separation, but the psychological toll of unemployment lingers.

Psychologists have found that people who have lost a limb are naturally unhappy about their condition, but after a while they return to their previous level of happiness. Richard Layard, a highly respected British economist who recently turned to the subject of happiness, observed:

‘So unemployment is a very special problem. Moreover, it hurts as much after one or two years of unemployment as it does at the beginning. In that sense you do not habituate to it (though it hurts less if other people are out of work too). And even when you are back at work, you still feel its effects as a psychological scar. [Layard 2005, p. 67]’

Psychologists also know that dread anticipatory fear of a likely experience can be even worse than the event itself. So long as workers feel the dread of unemployment, the extent of unemployment necessary to make workers compliant will be less.

And also, a comment on Democracy Now! the other day. The comments are about the US, but are equally applicable here:

A second thing, I think the nation, by and large, hasn’t paid enough respect to workers as workers. You know, all the attention is about, you know, the Bill Gateses, the Warren Buffetts, the A-Rods, the Paris Hiltons, and not enough about workers. I think workers, in many ways, have become invisible as workers. They’re seen as Bud drinkers or Oprah watchers, but they’re not really seen as workers who, you know, bust their derrieres day in and day out, you know, making the trains run on time, you know, cleaning hotel rooms. And I think if the news media or if politicians really started paying more attention, more respect to workers, that might discourage corporations’ CEOs from squeezing their workers so much.

That’s from Steven Greenhouse, labor reporter for the New York Times. Fat chance of that happening here.


9 Responses to “Why A Recession Is Like Getting A Coffee Enema Or Something”

  1. 1 David July 31, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Michael Moore tried to give the worker the Paris Hilton treatment when he edited Mother Jones, it wasn’t received too well…

    “Moore claims that Mother Jones fired him because of the publisher’s refusal to allow him to cover a story on the GM plant closings in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. He responded by putting laid-off GM worker Ben Hamper (who was also writing for the same magazine at the time) on the magazine’s cover, leading to his termination.”

    Moore’s forward to Ben Hamper’s book ‘Rivethead’…


  2. 2 copernicus August 1, 2008 at 2:13 am

    “the extent of unemployment necessary to make workers compliant will be less.”

    This is where I part company with this kind of analysis. Nobody arranges for a particular level of unemployment. The real republican stumbling block for working people is propaganda drivel like “meritocracy”, not that they are exploited per se. Even under the dictatorship of the proletariat, someone will end up sweeping the streets. And it’s a dictatorship. And the local shopkeeper will have sold all the steak to his mates. Or poliburo types.

  3. 3 Hugh Green August 1, 2008 at 7:16 am

    No-one arranges for a particular level of unemployment, sure, but there are plenty of situations in capitalist economies where higher rates of unemployment are desirable from the point of view of particular business interests. If I can get away with paying someone one-tenth of your wages for worse conditions somewhere else, it is rational for me to do so. In fact, since I’m the CEO of a corporation that employs you, it is my legal obligation to do so. Nothing to do with my own wishes or interests, you understand. And I’ve got Wall Street on my back: I need to make my firm attractive to investors. You can complain about it to me all you like, but there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s a problem we have at the moment. Of course, you could always make yourself part of the solution: why not knuckle down, increase your productivity, perhaps come up with creative solutions for outsourcing someone else’s job first?

    The only reason you have propaganda drivel like meritocracy in the first place is its function as an alibi for exploitation anyway: meritocracy means literally that those who rule do so because they deserve it.

    Even under the dictatorship of the proletariat, someone will end up sweeping the streets. And it’s a dictatorship.

    I think the original point about the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat was made in opposition to a prevailing idea of the state as an instrument of bourgeois society. What was at stake was the creation of a democratic republic: not its destruction.

    But if what you’re saying is that USSR-style state capitalism would be a bad idea, well, yes.

  4. 4 copernicus August 2, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    This probably requires a proper post. I think fundamentally that the language being used above is obfuscatory and misleading.

  5. 5 copernicus August 2, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    I have been drunk for three days, so it’s not that I’m copping out.

  6. 6 Kevin August 4, 2008 at 8:15 pm

    Much more to come, ladies and gentlemen. But, by the looks of it, it looks like Copernicus has the Most Cool round wrapped up already.

  7. 7 Hugh Green August 4, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    Sorry, I’m confused. This requires a proper post…from whom? And whose language is obfuscatory and misleading? Le mien?

    There was a Most Cool round? Has that something to do with drinking?

  8. 8 copernicus August 5, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    I was drunk for the third day running when I read and posted above. The “this” which required a proper post was my response. If that was unclear, it was because I was drunk. I meant I should probably not simply leave a comment.

    And it was my response, inter alia, to this “But if what you’re saying is that USSR-style state capitalism would be a bad idea, well, yes.”

    I didn’t say or mean to imply that; capitalism (of any stripe) not being a political system and the dictatorship of the proletariat not being reducible to that single objection.

    Whether or not I can summon sufficient audacity of hope to presume upon the blogosphere’s attention – now that
    the booze has left my system – is far from certain.

  9. 9 Hugh Green August 6, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Ah right. Well, alcoholidays are ok in my book. Perhaps fortunately, drink drives me to lose all interest in using a computer.

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