Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Who is Work Really For? And Who are the Real Scroungers?

On the eve of George Osborne’s pre-budget report, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published the report "White working-class views of neighbourhood, cohesion and change” This important testimony of an often neglected and despised group in society should not be overlooked through the divisive, false assumption that the interests of white British workers are fundamentally different from workers as a whole.

The report found that “Residents emphasised the importance of values based on hard work, reciprocity and support. This was very different from the popular stereotype of being stupid and benefit dependent, which residents resented”. Many in power evidently fear that, given the choice, ordinary people would idle their days away like Onslow from Keeping Up Appearances (pictured left) rather than toil in virtuous servitude.

Yet all the evidence is that most people need work for self-respect and meaning. Many are cynical when employers or other authorities preach the value of work. The misunderstood ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ has played its part in creating the idea that the best years of our life ought to be spent in backbreaking work, to be compensated later by eternal heaven and/or ‘retirement’!

It is a different if people view work as intrinsically valuable. A country or culture with a strong work ethic is not superior to one that prioritises different values, but its Government should reflect its character. Britain has long been a country associated with hard work, innovation and the personal sense of achievement that goes beyond racial and religious boundaries and has been enriched by centuries of immigration.

But what is the use of a culture of hard work if there are no jobs? Or if society forgets that work is meant to express humanity's material and spiritual needs and creative aspirations. Instead, business leaders seem to prize efficiency and 'growth' which benefits only the elite and is little better than wage slavery.

In all the wrangling over the budget, two key facts are liable to be ignored because combined they do not serve the self-interested ideologies of the three main political parties.

Contemporary technology and society mean there is enough to go around. The richest could easily share their wealth to enable all UK citizens to have – not just a punitive ‘dole’, but a Basic Income or Citizens Income. Perhaps the discontent of Occupy and even the London riots testifies to the inescapable fact that there is sufficient wealth for all to have a tolerable life, and this is withheld by choice, by those who would lose so little in enriching others so much.

On the other hand, all the evidence suggests that the British people want to work, and believe that work should be rewarded. Yet this does not mean that many value the absurdly unequal system capitalism currently promotes.

We urgently need to separate work from the struggle not to starve, first conceptually and then in reality. A Living Wage is an essential step. But a Citizens Income– a basic right to adequate resource – would free people from the need to take a job - any job - or starve. Who knows what creativity and innovation could then be released? When wage slavery is no longer a reality for most people in the world, talk of the dignity of work will lose its false ring.

People could still have the right and opportunity to earn more. Some would choose to subsist, others to amass wealth. Some might even work longer and harder but keep less personal wealth. This decoupling of work and money-making, which some call ‘scrounging’, is already routine for the rich – through tax evasion and avoidance, living on interest and speculative banking. But most people need meaningful work for their fulfilment and self-esteem.

But there is an even more fundamental issue than rethinking economic distribution. If Government recognised meaningful employment as a full human and legal right, decisions about industry and employment would start from maximising the quality of life of citizens. In the UK, this would mean rebuilding work culture to serve the many not the few. It would mean asking people, not a minority of bosses, what makes work valuable and fulfilling. We might predict workers' cooperatives and John Lewis-style mutuals to inform fresh thinking about how work should be organised. But even more important is what work we do, why, and for whom.

The consequences of breaking the taboo on people having a say in the meaning of their lives could be radical. Most likely this would mean reversing all the major economic decisions of the last 30 years: rebuilding industry neglected for financial services and services industries, no longer allowing private multinational corporations in effect to set national policies, not using liberal immigration policies as a cover for importing cheap (often illegal) labour.

Rather than Welfare Reform, and a society whose consumerism is enabled by sweat shops somewhere in the world, social justice campaigners should prioritise policies that promote jobs worth doing. Politicians would need the courage to stand up to corporate blackmail, and their success would be bad news for international capitalism, but it would be good news economically and socially for the 99%.