Work That Body

One thing that the radical political reformerators and the maverick centre-right economist dissidents have in common, apart from a sanguine acceptance that there is nothing wrong with the economic system being under private control, is a total obliviousness to the matter of work.

Political reform does not mean requiring short hours in order to enhance democratic participation. The people’s economy has nothing to do with people exercising control over the means of production.

In any expert-led discussion of politics and economics, any questions of what happens to us when we are at work, our physical and mental exertions, whether in paid or unpaid labour, and what happens when we have no paid work, are left at the door, consigned to the place known as ‘out there’, as in ‘there’s a lot of anger out there’.

The dominant assumption for these people is that people’s economic agency, beyond the realm of consumption, is confined to their entering work as part of a voluntary exchange between employee and employer.

People’s political agency has nothing to do with organising campaigns of resistance in defence of working conditions. It’s all just a matter of the unitary bourgeois subject doing its thing, maximising its utility under conditions that everyone has always-already agreed. It starts here? Actually, it ended a long time back.

Fintan O’Toole said the other day that people are voting freely for the EU-IMF bailout. If so, this is a Hobbesian idea of freedom, where if the highwayman points a gun at you, you hand over your money freely.

If most of your day is taken up trying to keep your nose clean and your head above water in work, and when you get home you have kids to look after and a house to maintain, and the only sources of information you have at hand to help you decide about political matters are the ones most easily available, you’re probably quite susceptible to accepting to some degree the parameters and objects of inquiry set by media institutions that serve ruling class interest. So how free is your choice? The response, when people do point this out, is often an accusation of elitism.

This accusation is usually part and parcel of a phony ruling class populism, according to which things are the way they are because that is how everyone has willed it, and the real snobs are the ones who will not bow to the reality that the people are smart enough to know their priorities, and those of Tony O’Reilly and Michael O’Leary, are one and the same.

But as CMK says in the comments to the previous post, there is nothing condescending about pointing this out. I know myself that there are all sorts of ways in which news and reporting messes with my mental processes. I turn on the RTE news or Prime Time or whatever, and they’re talking about tens of billions of euro getting ploughed into such and such a bank, and my head spins. Trying to conceive of ten billion euro, and the full ramifications of paying it to private bondholders, is an act of labour. It takes concerted effort.

Where your efforts get you depends on how the information is presented to you. The more exhausted you are, the more susceptible you are, either to concede defeat and disconnect from politics completely or take some leap of faith into the ability of technocratic elites to sort things out on your behalf.

Normally, when it comes to news and current affairs programmes, basic moral considerations -like whether it is a good idea to dispossess the poor to satisfy the rich-are left ‘out there’, and what people are geared toward confronting is always a matter of ‘pragmatism’, i.e. how can we optimise the satisfaction of the rich? The fundamental questions of power: who owns what, who controls what, who benefits most from this or that- are simply ignored.

For instance, as kenoma points out in the comments in the previous post, there is nearly a tacit acceptance of the need to maintain corporation tax at 12.5% because that’s what is needed, it is assumed, to keep jobs. And the consequences of this, when it comes to power in society, are left completely unquestioned. Having ordinary workers pay more tax while corporations pay the same amount, or less, is a net transfer of power to corporations: it allows them to dominate workers more easily.

No mainstream news outlet -or political party, certainly not the one that calls for the ‘One Ireland of Employers and Employees’- these days will ever adopt a critical view of conditions faced by workers -apart from those of footballers and other sports stars- unless the conditions violate legal norms, and even then it would take a concerted campaign to get notice taken.

But when there are no norms violated, the place of work, as a site of struggle and competing material interests, and its effect on political agency, are ignored completely, unless it is a matter of attacking union rights or demands.

To give one example. There is no attention given to the working conditions of the firms that the state seeks to attract and retain through sweetener and subsidy. The basic assumption is that these are good quality jobs and sure aren’t they lucky to be getting them? But I know of people employed on 20 grand a year by multinationals where the state is paying 9 grand of the wage bill. And then the firms, which are making massive profits, pull stunts like cut canteen subsidies and complimentary bus services.

The withdrawal of a two euro subsidy per day in the food you’re buying doesn’t seem like much, but it is equivalent to a 2% pay cut to someone on 20 grand a year. Since there are no unions, these people have to suck it up. How much would you pay someone to walk for 50 minutes a day in the absence of a bus? Minimum wage? For someone on 20 grand a year, that would be labour equivalent to 15% of their annual salary.

The point here is that these are always the companies presented as the good firms, the standard-bearers for the post-union, post-ideological, smart economy, Ireland 2.0 workplace. And -since keeping them sweet is a key component of government strategy- they are never the object of any critical inquiry in terms of their effect on working conditions in the country (they are a powerful bulwark against union recognition).

The only time working conditions in these places ever swing into view is when someone floats the idea of raising income tax on high earners. When this happens, an imaginary cadre of senior managers from overseas are conjured up, who will shut down operations at the very idea that they might have to pay taxes closer to the rates in Narnia, or Atlantis, or wherever it is they are supposed to come from.

And yet we are driven to think about the economic system as though none of this happens, and we are driven to think about the political system as though none of this matters. This is all part of donning the golden straitjacket insisted upon by ruling parties, oligarchs, and sado-monetarist technocrats. It is not enough that politics be excluded from the workplace; the workplace must be excluded from politics.

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February 2011

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