In memory of Len Morris, 1931-2015.
“Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?”
Philip Larkin, ‘Toads’ (1954).
There is a phrase my father likes to use in respectful acknowledgement of anyone whose achievements he knows will torture me: “He’s done well for himself”.
More often than not it refers to one of my friends who has just bought a big house, or the son of one of his friends who has just bought a big house. Sometimes it refers to my business-minded brother. Clearly the jury is out on whether I will do well for myself. Right now, as an unemployed house-husband in his mid-thirties, it looks highly unlikely.
It has become increasingly clear that I am incapable of securing employment through the interview process. Of the scores of interviews I have had for a variety of roles, each has been unsuccessful. In an increasingly competitive market defined by countless strong candidates, I am evidently the least competitive and weakest – or the least capable of sufficiently honing my interview technique. (The only job I secured by interview, it later it transpired, I only got when the first choice candidate turned the job down. How did I find this out? My line manager, and former interviewer, told me.) Most recently, I applied for an events internship at an academic institution, something which ought to be a cinch given my decade of events experience. Unfortunately, the interview panel disagreed.
The truth is, I’ve always worked. Notwithstanding the multiple chores I had to undertake as a child to earn my pocket money (mowing lawns, chopping logs, trimming hedges, pruning trees, washing cars) I had my first job aged thirteen. Every Thursday after school a troop of barely-pubescent, bumfluff-chinned boys trudged down to Sandbach market to help the traders collapse their stalls. (A market, incidentally, which is a fraction of that size today.) Small, slightly-built and of insubstantial strength, I would laboriously lug boxes of fabric, bedspreads, net curtains into the back of a van for a man whose name has been lost to the mists of time. It took me over an hour to load the yawning space – for that, he gave me three quid, which I invested in sweets for the journey home. During that hour, we exchanged barely a word: he was, I recall, slightly put out by my unwillingness to do the early morning set up. Eventually, he let me go.
At 16 years of age, I worked for one Easter fortnight at the Roadchef southbound services on the M6. Roadchef southbound was an appalling, spirit-sapping shit-hole to visit, never mind clock in at. In 2004, it was rated the worst of 61 service stations inspected on the entire European continent for cost and quality of food, and hygiene standards. (Even French stations, where families crotte into fetid holes in the ground, were deemed superior.) The common room on a night shift was an anthropological Twilight Zone: a real-time play in the Beckettian mode, where the intellectually and developmentally stunted products of the Sandbach school system faced the bare facts of their grim existence. I didn’t last long. After naively asking for a pause in employment to revise for my mock A-levels, Roadchef let me go.
That summer, I started working for my father’s building firm. It was no cushy number, but tough work, physical and honest: digging foundations, pushing around wheelbarrows loaded with earth and cement, dressing bricks by the pallet-load, unblocking sewage pipes, knocking down walls, collapsing ceilings, installing drains, battening insulation, laying York stone patios, breaking rubble into hardcore, tiling, underpinning, painting and decorating, endlessly sweeping sawdust and dirt. We worked in all weather, developing callouses and biceps of equivalent size, back aching from the constant bending and lifting. That it helped fund my fun at university was motivation enough: it was a route to another career.
On occasion we did some work installing foam perlite insulation, a retrospective fireproofing product for commercial and residential properties. It was a highly specialist service, one which took us across the UK: to Liverpool, Manchester, Lewisham, Kendal, Ilkley, Swanage, Bromley, Windsor. Up at 5am to travel to the site (back at 8pm) or staying overnight for a week at a time. It was dirty, dusty and exhausting work that necessitated the wearing of overalls, a facemask, rubber gloves and a hard hat all day, often in the height of summer. One team-member worked the perlite mixer, while the other shuttled back and forth, tipping buckets of the cement-perlite mix into a pump which squirted grey foam between the exposed floor joists. Come home time, my eyes were filled with grains of perlite, your body throbbed from running bins full of the pumping mixture up flights of stairs, your wrists were scorched by burns from the bonding cement, you could have slept standing.
Despite all this I realise now, with scant romance, that I have been a rather feckless son. It must have been profoundly frustrating for my father, who perhaps hoped I would one day join the family business, to watch me instead burying my head in books. Part of me wishes I had gone into the family business and skipped all that knowledge bullshit, although at that time I had other ambitions and dreams, albeit without the means – financial, intellectual, psychological, or otherwise – to actualise them. I was ambivalent about the building business: I recognised the value of the work, the life it had created for our family and respected those who did it, but my admiration was tempered by the understanding that I was largely incapable of doing it for real, while also being tolerated and a little mistrusted as the boss’ son. Besides, I was committed to joining my friends who had left for the Big Smoke, at a time – now inconceivable – when finding a part time job and affordable accommodation was still a realistic proposition. (During this time I also applied for any number of administrative jobs in London. I wasn’t invited to an interview once.)
At times I feel a sense of enduring disappointment in myself; or the aftermath of a conflict between duty and independence; of having done ‘the right thing’ by myself, and not by him. My father didn’t have the same luxury I did: in his early twenties he had to take over the running of his father’s firm. What will happen to the business when he retires is unclear. Most likely it will fold into non-existence, and his small workforce will go it alone. SR Williamson and Sons Ltd will disappear into memory, and our family history. My children will not know, nor indeed will they care, that it ever existed.
“It’s not all work, work, work.”
NatWest television advertisement (1991)
We live in an age of precarity. An era of McJobs, bullshit jobs, zero-hours contracts and unpaid internships. Info-labour has blurred the separation between work and leisure, while diminishing the connection between work and wages. Neoliberalism forcefully isolates the individual from secure and meaningful work patterns, and a sense of common purpose. According to Franco Berardi: “Precariousness is no longer a marginal and provisional characteristic, but it is the general form of the labour relation in a productive, digitalized sphere”. If you work in the info economy, while you may believe yourself liberated, you are in fact fucked. Regrettably, my specialisms to date have been marketing, communications, events and public relations: bullshit and precarity squared.
Angela Mitropoulos goes further, viewing precarity as the “standard experience of work in capitalism”: “when one has no other means to live than the ability to labour…life becomes contingent on capital and therefore precarious.” For Mitropoulos, this precariousness has always been lived experience for migrant and Third World labour, and “a more or less constant feature of domestic work, retail, ‘hospitality’, agriculture, sex work and the building industry” in the west. Mitropoulos and Berardi concur that the term 'precarity' has only risen to prominence as a consequence of its movement into info-labour, as more members of the middle class become exposed to the pernicious and problematic influence of neoliberalism identified by Wendy Brown and others. (Witness Guy Standing's prominent 2011 study, which lags considerably behind French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's work on the subject in the 1990s.) For Berardi, this is empirically and anecdotally evidenced by the technical and cultural conditions of the twenty-first century work patterns:
The technical conditions are those of digital recombination of info-work in networks. The cultural conditions are those of the education of the masses and the expectations of consumption inherited from the twentieth century and continuously fed by the entire apparatus of marketing and media communication.
The rise of neoliberalism, according to Paul Mason, was predicated upon the “suppression of wages and smashing the social power and resilience of the working class”. Through this cultural atomisation, as Wendy Brown attests, neoliberalism installed “a governing rationality through which everything is ‘economised’”, where people are cast as “human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future value”:
Market actors – from individuals to firms, universities to states, restaurants to magazines – are more often concerned with their speculatively determined value, their ratings and rankings that shape future value, than with immediate profit. All are tasked with enhancing present and future value through self-investments that in turn attract investors. Financialized market conduct entails increasing or maintaining one’s ratings, whether through blog hits, retweets, Yelp stars, college rankings or Moody’s bond ratings.
The individual – homo oeconomicus – exists solely to serve capital, “not as a creature of exchange, production or even interest”, but as a willing (or unwilling) servant to neoliberalism’s demands. “The person has disappeared” asserts Berardi. What remains is an “inert object, irrelevant and useless”, whose work-time is fractalised, fragmented and minimised as a means of capital installing economic, emotional and psychological insecurity. The tools we use to shape our identity and distance ourselves from the demands of info-labour are cast as the reinforcing product of the neoliberal economy: our blogs, our Instagram feeds, our twitter accounts; our iPhones, Kindles, Macbooks; creativity, hipster culture and gentrification. Commenting on capitalism’s appropriation of time without sanction from the individual, Berardi further observes that we live in a “regime of slavery”, reflecting that “capitalism must be absolutely free to expand in every corner of the world to find the fragment of human time available to be exploited for the most miserable wage”. This chimes with Danny Dorling's observations about the rise in the national minimum wage. Dorling determines that the Chancellor's much vaunted living wage reflects the ongoing development of a new servant class in London, as it provides just about enough income for people to work and live in the London, so long as they don’t have children or want to buy a house. It installs and guarantees the permanent presence of an easily-tapped market of insecure underlings for the uber-rich elite.
More pertinently, according to Brown, neoliberalism’s structures, codes and normative rules are disseminated and reaffirmed by through institutions both public and private, and “above all the novel political-administrative form we have come to call governance”:
It is through governance practices that business models and metrics come to irrigate through every crevice of society, circulating from investment banks to schools, from corporations to universities, from public agencies to the individual. It is through the replacement of democratic terms of law, participation, and justice with idioms of benchmarks, objectives, and buy-ins that governance dismantles democratic life while appearing only to instil it with ‘best practices’.
We see it in the workplace through the tyranny of targets, key performance indicators, milestones, gant charts, appraisals, probationary periods. These are the lingua franca of corporate bureaucracy’s fascistic tendencies. We see it in the application process, commanding the slavish commitment of the hopeful candidate. We see it in the multiple stage application process, the processes and procedural nature of recruitment consultancy, the accepted inconvenience of consecutive appointments, the ceding of intellectual property without remuneration through presentations. The individual’s employment record is scrutinised in fine detail, while the employer’s commitment to the candidate is conditional at best, negligible at worst. We see it in the description by academic institutions of candidates as ‘competitive’, ascribing economic value to supposed free thinkers. We see it in the lack of desire to invest in candidates who have proven adaptability in favour of square-peg candidates.
It is impossible to opt-out of precariousness: opting-out simply means opting-in. The possibilities of finding employment diminish the longer you remain outside the system, out of circulation in the networks which reinforce the corporate structure. What constitutes work has now become completely separated from the material, the tactile and the tangible: “every concrete and individual particularity”, to quote Berardi. The ability of individuals to determine their “labour power” has been dissolved into market-determined concepts of competitiveness, strength, flexibility, entrepreneurialism and so on. Commentators upon the perceived disintegration of the Labour Party believe its decline can be traced back to the actions of one or two individuals. Blairite Labour blames Ed Miliband, socialist Labour blames Blair, those in between take aim. As The fate of the centre-left in European politics lies in the structural changes in the latter stages of the twentieth century, the deliberate shift under neoliberalism from recognisable work patterns to fragmentary flexicurity outlined by Berardi, or the spread of political pluralism addressed by Mitropoulos, which has stripped the precariat of the power to organise and oppose the flattening of living standards. The centre-left’s rhetorical retreat into ‘issues-based’ politics offers nothing less than an ideological substrata to the structural dictates of neoliberal dogma. Pluralism and post-Fordism combine to co-opt the revolutionary act, the possibility of democratic action, the liberty of labour.
Mason’s recent essay in the Guardian Review – an extract from his forthcoming book Postcapitalism – echoes Berardi’s call for “spatial proximity of the bodies of labour and an existential temporal continuity with”. As we move further into the post-Fordist future, Mason believes, centre-left commentators and political leaders will continue to call for a “retreat towards national forms of capitalism that can only tear the world apart”. In a passage which recalls Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, he writes “it is the elites – cut off in their dark-limo world – whose project looks as forlorn as that of the millennial sects of the 19th century” and that the future lies in the “ideal life, built out of abundant information, non-hierarchical work and the dissociation of work from wages”. However, as we have seen, neoliberalism's ability to co-opt peripheral, non-conformist modes of production and consumption, combined with the powerlessness of western democracies to shrug off capital’s demands, suggest that any shift from capitalism to its post-incarnation will be dictated, undermined or mediated by its governing structures. The separation of work from wages while neoliberalism continues to endure is profoundly problematic. Capitalism will inevitably head postcapitalism off at the pass.
I do not share Mason’s optimism that postcapitalism has the capability to liberate us from our what he dubs our parasitic masters. We have to negotiate and negate a set of monopolistic, entrenched vested interests first. Instead we may see the emergence of a neo-feudal dystopia governed by corporate conglomerates which control the citizenry by generating economic, social and psychological terror on a daily basis. The geo-political crises that climate change stimulates – rising sea levels, scarcity of food, unstable migration, political upheaval, increased austerity – will necessarily stimulate new methods of control. This is where it is taking us: into a bleaker future, with the precariat as pioneers of the new global order.
"Arbeit macht frei."
German phrase: ‘work makes (you) free.’
When I worked for my father, I was often paired up with a casual labourer he occasionally employed, a grunting older gent named Len. Doubtless we made an odd couple. He was in his sixties when we first worked together. He was about five foot five, slightly stooped, blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, with shoulders like the trunk of a tree and arms like the gnarled bough. Labour was etched into his body, his hands the colour of earth. He would smoke a cigar and chew the stub, tobacco juice dribbling from his mouth while he bent to a task. He talked incessantly, sometimes about his past, often about politics. He was the living embodiment of the precarious worker.
He’s still working in his eighties. Sometimes when I visit my parents I see him, crawling down the road in his ancient Vauxhall Astra, towing a trailer full of tools, wheelbarrow tied on with a ratty piece of string. He was always happy to be working. When he is eventually forced to stop, no doubt he’ll die.
It is a careworn wisdom that most parents work so their children will have the future they didn’t. Today, this paradoxical platitude is a post-Fordian impossibility. My father worked to give my brother and me the opportunities he was denied. His hard work ethic runs through both of us like the mortar in a course of bricks. But when I look at my children I have no idea what will become of them; on occasion I encounter stark terror. The old employment orthodoxies are disintegrating so rapidly that in twenty years’ time there may be no manual, technical or clerical jobs to speak of. It’s speaks volumes about the contradictions of neoliberalism – a supposedly progressive creed – that they may find themselves like Len: out in all seasons in their later years, casting around for bits and pieces of work, labouring to stay alive.
As for me, when the time comes to apply for another job I don't think I will bother to send my CV with a fawning covering letter. I'll simply send this essay. in the meantime I'll be here: thinking, reading, writing. Working.
Franco Berardi, ‘Info Labour and Precariousness’ <http://www.generation-online.org/t/tinfolabour.htm> [Accessed 29 June 2015].
Wendy Brown, ‘Booked #3: What Exactly is Neoliberalism’ - interview with Timothy Shenk in Dissent (2 April 2015) <https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/booked-3-what-exactly-is-neoliberalism-wendy-brown-undoing-the-demos> [Accessed 29 June 2015]
Danny Dorling, ‘London and the Servant Wage’ (panel discussion with Zoe Williams and Tony Travers at ), <http://www.dannydorling.org/?p=4809> [Accessed 21 July 2015].
Paul Mason, ‘Welcome to a New Way of Living’, The Guardian (18 July 2015).
Angela Miropoulos, ‘Precari-Us?’ <http://eipcp.net/transversal/0704/mitropoulos/en/print> [Accessed 29 June 2015].