Friday, 10 February 2012

Cornish men are fishermen…

A Cornish song, famously turned into a graffiti challenge on a mine's wall, ran 'Cornish men are fishermen/Cornish men are miners too/When all the fish and tin are gone/What are Cornish men to do?'.

I thought of this last night while listening to Paul Uppal MP, Emma Reynolds MP, Ken Harris and Jane Nelson debate employability. They - and we - all support further education for all, apprenticeships, transferable skills and all the other current jargon. Emma, Ken and Jane also spoke up for the humanist values, very hearteningly.

But we still have a problem. Not everybody can be a web developer or a graphic designer. Economies can't run on serving each other coffee, cutting each other's hair and doing people's nails. I've found my personal solution: 4 degrees and I'm in the 12th (yes, 12th) year of temporary contracts. The current one expires in June. No contract, no mortgage, no planning for the future.

But I'll be OK. It's what used to be called the working class that's bothering me. What's the point of apprenticeships if there are no jobs out there? The UK abandoned investment in industry after WW2: no innovation, no specialisation, no energy efficiency - then affected to be shocked when the metal-bashing jobs went abroad, quickly followed by the highly-skilled manual jobs which could have replaced them. In recent years, the Labour government provided mass higher education, but didn't develop an economy to take advantage of these skills, leading to degree-holders colonising the jobs traditionally taken by the less-educated. It made HE look like a way of massaging the unemployment figures rather than a serious plan.

Some sections of society will be fine: bankers, hedge-fund traders, shareholders and especially the executives who've diverted what should go to shareholders into their own profits by way of bonuses and what they disgustingly term 'compensation' (for what?).

We have a problem. In the old days workers sold their labour, and owners profited from it by selling physical goods. The UK has abandoned goods in favour of intellectual work - rather than ripping stuff out of the ground, business monopolises the fruit of state education and workers' ingenuity. This makes executives rich, but it privatises intelligence and - more pressingly - leaves massive swathes of the country not just unemployed, but unemployable. What are they to do? In the boom times, taxes from the City covered the benefits payments and we left these people to a life of not-very-pleasant indolence. Now that cash has gone and the government's suddenly discovered that these people are 'benefit scroungers', feckless, idle people 'too comfortable on benefits' (as Uppal and one hysterical audience member claimed last night).

I don't think they are. The problem is that there are 60 million people in Britain and we've abandoned mass employment. They aren't unemployable because of their individual failings: they're unemployable because our economic structure is designed to exclude them. Capitalism relentlessly replaces workers with machines and - in the modern period - physical work with mental work. We used to pity those with arduous jobs: now millions of people envy those lucky enough to be struggling along on the minimum wage in some dead-end drudgery.

Governments used to be 'for' the people, at least in theory. Now they operate in the interests of capital without any qualms. They shrug their shoulders and point at China: how does the British worker compete with a billion people ready and willing to work harder, for longer and for massively lower pay? The government's answer, of course, is that we should join the race to the bottom: safe in the knowledge that the political class and their children will never have to suffer personally. It's ludicrous anyway. Those jobs aren't coming back. When the Chinese demand too much money, the British, American and European corporations which control industry will move the factories to somewhere willing to accept even less. The needs of the workers here and in China will be left far behind in the pursuit of even greater profit margins. We're used to thinking of unemployment as a temporary, shocking aberration which happens on a mass scale at moments of crisis: we need to start thinking of it as a permanent and necessary condition of successful capitalism. Lots of unemployed = ever lower wages. Increasing mechanisation = ever-increasing unemployment = permanently declining wages.

But what should we do? Is there meaningful, non-exploitative work to be done? I think there is: our infrastructure is, you may have noticed, knackered. The problem is that nobody wants to pay for it. The corporations which depend on the transport, education and health system to provide decent staff (this is how they privatise the common wisdom or what Marx called the 'general intellect') spend their time exporting jobs and hiding profits from the taxman, while citizens have been encouraged to see taxation as extortion rather than the subscription we pay to join a civilised society. The Greeks bought off their middle classes with massive state employment - and now the bond markets are taking their revenge. In the meantime, billions of people sit around, unwanted. In first world countries, contraception slowly reduces their numbers, but that's a very long-term and quite sinister solution. In developing countries, poor health care, high mortality and manual labour encourages large families - reducing the chance of developing an educated society in a vicious circle of deprivation.

The logic of this is the total abolition of international proletarian solidarity, and the dissolution of national solidarity too: the upper classes are walling themselves into gated communities, living off their bonuses and share options, hating and fearing the not-wanted-on-voyage poor: many of whom have been educated just enough to understand what's been done to them. This is of course quite useful: as Paul Mason frequently points out, the conditions of revolution require a vanguard which is educated, articulate and excluded - all those graduates suddenly finding that they're poorer than their parents.

How the state buys off these potential revolutionaries is as yet unclear. Apprenticeships and internships might help a tiny minority, but the fervent hope of the ruling classes is that the education system is so dedicated to the maintenance of the hegemonic elite that the disenfranchised youth won't have the tools to elucidate their situation. I disagree: it will take a long time, but consciousness will return.

National Unemployed Workers' Movement

What seriously depresses me is the passivity of the long-term unemployed. In the 30s, across the US and Europe, militancy rose quickly and gloriously - perhaps because unionisation was prevalent, and because the workers knew that mass employment was the normal condition in industrial societies. Now, mass unemployment is a fundamental element of the capitalist structure. They've got used to it, and nobody has any trust in governments any more: the state works for the banks and the City, everybody can see that.

The working poor aren't going to strike - it's been made legally difficult and self-harming. When the university staff went on strike recently, virtually all the picket-line crossers were the lowest-paid: cleaners, caterers, security guards. Why? Because they're desperate to retain the tiny stake they have in society, however oppressive. They're all on zero-hours contracts: sackable in an instant. During the academic holidays, they're left to fend for themselves, unpaid. We teachers, conversely, have pensions and contracts (however temporary): we're not yet proletarianised and we're fighting desperately to stay that way. For the cleaners, the battle's over and they've lost. If a university can't treat its staff properly, what hope for contract cleaners at merchant banks or supermarkets? The militant student isn't fighting alongside the ex-working class: s/he's fighting to avoid joining it. When the underclass does revolt - as in the riots last August - the mode is one which horrifies or baffles the rest of us. Smashing up Snappy Snaps and nicking water bottles might seem stupid to us, but it's a mark of the depoliticisation and dissolution of a class which in the 1930s was capable of sophisticated analysis and concerted action.

Instead of meaningful work, we've become the willing servants of the information economy: every time I blog, and every time you add something to Facebook, we're handing over a free product to be sold to advertisers and corporate interests. They know that information is a commodity: we haven't yet caught on. The old solution was to kick out the bourgeoisie and circulate the profits of industry amongst the actual workers: now there's no work and the profit is in intangible, low-employment activity. I suppose we could all work in Farmville or playing MMORPGS to generate online goods like magic swords for sale to talentless rich kids (as featured in Ready Player One) but it's a minority pursuit and not good for social cohesion.

I don't know what to do about the millions who would have once made things. We're in the process of taking away the benefits designed to keep them calm and obedient: is the government sure it knows what to do when these people start to lash out?


The Red Witch said...

Ever read Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut?
People are too busy playing Angry Birds and debating if the Kardasshian marriage was real to bother with politics.
I am staggered at the cost of houses in Toronto. And how quickly they sell at that price. Who is buying them when we all have McJobs?
Almost every kid in high school has an ipod touch or smartphone. How do people afford this stuff?
I laugh when I see people talking about how Steve Jobs changed the world for the better. Yeah by taking American jobs and shipping them to China where the working conditions are so horrible that workers regularly commit suicide by throwing themselves off the roof. Ignorance is bliss, eh.

Anonymous said...

When all the fish and tin are gone/What are Cornish men to do? Well if Port Kembla and Wollongong are anything to go by they will stop being Cornish men, and move on like the thousands who have fled the Illawarra over the past thirty years. The coal, coke and steel that they made are all still here, in increased volumes, but the people who made them are long gone, except the elderly, the people who used to make those things. The people have left, replaced by other people who travel on the train up to the Sydney to work, selling things they don’t make mostly. Those who’ve been squeezed out by automation have followed the employment bread crumb trail and headed north and west where the mineral boom goes on like an endless frontier. By and large only the old and the disabled have stayed here, resigned to a pensioned life, the rest have gone. I reckon they do the same thing they’ve always done, work at whatever crumbs capitalism let fall from the giants table and do the business before going home to watch the football. It doesn’t, and hasn’t really, mattered too much what the work is –it is all demeaning and is never self esteem boosting. The flotsam and jetsam of Australia’s working poor still follow the jobs from fibro shithole to fibro shithole. I can’t imagine that, in the end, there will be any other option but to move on, survive as best as can

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks for the comments you two - from opposite ends of the globe. Have to say I agree with you wholeheartedly.