Notes From the Margins…

Does Work Make You Free?

  • April 16, 2014
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Work is good for you.     We know this because our politicians never cease to remind us of the fact.   Whether singing the virtues of ‘hard-working families’, or introducing punitive benefits caps and sanctions in an attempt to ‘get people back to work’ or ‘make work pay’, they constantly present work not simply as a way of making money, but as a morally-uplifting and virtuous activity in itself.

This was the implicit meaning of David Cameron’s response to Archbishop Vincent Nichols in February, when Nichols denounced the ‘destitution’ caused by Coalition’s ‘punitive’ welfare reforms as a ‘disgrace.’       Quite wrong, insisted Lord Snooty.   First of all there was no destitution.   Secondly the government’s reforms were neither punitive nor disgraceful.   In fact they were part of a ‘social and moral mission’ aiimed at ‘ giving  new purpose, new opportunity, new hope and yes, new responsibility to people who had previously been written off with no chance.’

And how are these outcomes achieved?     From work of course.     This is why Ian Duncan-Smith once compared his ‘reforms’ to the abolition of slavery and declared on another occasion that ‘work makes you free’ – seemingly unaware of the historical origins of the phrase.

For our politicians, it seems, the ideal British society would look a lot like an ant-hill, with everyone dutifully working ten to twelve hours a day or more regardless of the job, and unencumbered by EU restrictions on working hours.   In that way we would all contribute to the ‘great race’ that Lord Snooty loves to remind us we are part of, and also make ourselves better and more virtuous people in the first place.

This early 21st century version of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ doesn’t consider another possibility, namely that work might not be an inherently uplifting activity, not only because of the quality of the jobs on offer, but because the conditions under which people work have dramatically worsened over the last six years.   In the past week week there have a number of reports that provide a very different version of the salutary benefits of work to the Coalition narrative of moral uplift.

First there was the Scottish Trade Union Council’s   report that as many as 85,000 Scots were on ‘zero hours contracts and insecure employment contracts’ which oblige them to be available for work, even though there is no guarantee that they will get any.   A report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) suggests that one million people may be on similar contracts throughout the UK.

‘Zero hours’ contracts are only one manifestation of a general drift towards insecure, temporary, part-time ‘flexible’ labour which has been accelerated by the crisis.   Increasingly, it seems, the fear of unemployment – and the punitive benefits regime that goes with it – has been used to discipline the workforce and oblige workers to accept working conditions that are heavily weighted in favour of employers – to the point when many people who are in work don’t even know if they will be working the next day or the next week.

It is difficult to see how anyone can extract ‘new purpose, new opportunity, new hope’ from living under such conditions.     And what about the more permanent jobs that, at least at one time, were supposed to be emotionally and professionally rewarding?   Last week a Unison poll of 3,000 nurses found that nurses were being placed under ‘unsustainable pressure’ as a result of staff shortages, which have obliged them to do unpaid overtime during their breaks and after their shifts, and cut back on patient care.

And another poll by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has found that 58 percent of respondents suffered from mental health problems as a result of their work, that 80 percent reported feeling stressed, that 70 percent were suffering from exhaustion and 66 percent suffered from sleep disturbances.

So the evidence suggests that work – or at least the kind of work that is increasingly on offer – doesn’t make you free at all, but is trapping more and more people in an arid and desultory world of low-paid exploitation, drudgery and permanent insecurity, overseen, in the public sector at least, by tyrannical micro-managerial structures and Ofsted-style bullying and intimidation.

And such jobs don’t necessarily make people better or more virtuous, unless their virtue lies in subservience and a willingness to do more for less, and they certainly don’t make people happy.     And they may even be driving more and more people bonkers.





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1 Comment

  1. Paul Seligman (@PaulMSeligman)

    16th Apr 2014 - 7:13 pm

    The ultimate message of Arbeit Macht Frei is, perhaps,that only death truly frees you.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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