Zero Books, 2011
Six million British workers are in low-paid jobs; nearly one in four is on a wage below the minimum income standard of ¬£7.60 per hour. Two and a half million people are registered as unemployed. Those currently in work are increasingly afraid that they will lose their jobs within a year and so accept significant reductions in wages and conditions just to stay in work. Overtime is a given, not an exception. That organ of unreason, the Daily Mail, actually celebrates the fact that our people are the third most overworked in the EU, toiling for an average of 40.6 hours per week. In Non-Stop Inertia, one of the latest in a succession of sharp and accessible critical works from publisher Zer0 Books, Ivor Southwood investigates this situation. Having been employed in an assortment of casual jobs amid spells of unemployment, Southwood knows first hand the dispiriting cycle of unemployment and precarious, short-term employment.
Contemporary British society, Southwood argues, valorises the work ethic (Protestant or otherwise), and stigmatizes those who happen to be out of work as personally culpable. There is increasing popular acceptance of the Daily Mail portrayal of the unemployed as “scroungers” and undeserving of welfare: a 2006 poll showed that only 23% of those surveyed thought that “benefits are too low and cause hardship”, compared with 49% in 1987. The supposed virtue of the work ethic is one of the few articles of faith left in British society; this idea has paralleled the rise of modern capitalism since the Reformation. At certain moments in the 20th century, even people of the Left concurred with the principle; at a time when most industrial workers regarded work as a necessary evil to provide a wage, the left wing genuflected before the cult of “workerism” and idealised back-breaking blue-collar jobs. Meanwhile, the right wing attempted—and continues to attempt—to portray blue- and white-collar public sector workers as lazy and self-serving, comparing them unfavourably to idealised financial service workers: “Blue Stakhanovites” who toil unceasingly at the coal face of commerce.
Unemployment used to be seen as a public problem, but now it is a private one. The onus is on the “jobseeker” to attend courses and to take the first job offered, however irrelevant or inappropriate it might be. Job centres were once “Labour Exchanges” which offered support; now they are increasingly designed to provide a cheap workforce for “Welfare to Work” providers—companies who stand to profit from employing people on meagre short-term contracts with no requirement to keep them on. Society, as Southwood argues, no longer has sympathy for its citizens.
The modern precarious workplace, that hellishly banal space, is imagined in Non-Stop Inertia as a sort of retail park wilderness. The de-personalisation of the open plan call centre, Southwood argues, is practically Stalinist in its uniformity, in its anxiety to erase unproductive individuality: “In an environment of hot-desking, weak social ties and short-term projects, it seems that any evidence of attachment to place or identity is regarded as a form of bacteria which must be regularly swept away to keep the work surfaces clean and hygienic.” In comparison to more settled professions where autonomy is central, skills and previous work experience have little place in precarious labour: “blending in” is all. In this environment, an English literature degree is “valued not for its evidence of critical thought but because it shows that the applicant has word processing experience”. Southwood identifies the absurdity inherent in staff “looking busy” in quiet periods and in the manner in which contractual loopholes are used to elicit unpaid overtime. In these ways and others, casual labourers are exploited with virtually no likelihood that “playing the game” will be rewarded with more secure employment.
For Southwood, the virtual assistant typifies the British precarious worker in the new economy. Virtual assistants are personal secretaries to private sector companies, but rather than being given a place in the office, these precarious workers operate from home on a freelance basis. Whilst the job is portrayed as autonomous and rewarding, there is little human contact and no access to company equipment; they are at the beck and call of their distant managers. In this context, “home itself becomes a kind of non-place in which we are all either willing or reluctant jugglers”. This practice is merely the starkest instance of the current paradox where businesses promote “a positive lifestyle discourse” while operating a “ruthlessly lean business model”. A discourse full of terms like “empowerment”, “mobility”, and “flexibility” masks a form of wage slavery that deprives employees of a steady wage and employment rights.
Public sector institutions are not immune from this trend of casualisation; increasing numbers of staff are employed on “part-time-occasional” contracts and their goodwill is exploited to obtain unpaid overtime. Southwood evokes a climate in which departments cut corners rather than serve the common good, and in which private sector consultants are employed—using public money—to “train” staff in an attitude of “rictus positivity”. In the context of government funding cuts, management promotes the mood of precariousness to instill fear in the workforce. Contracts and pay—for those fortunate enough not to be made redundant—are downgraded, and managers are able to offload the blame onto government cutbacks. Southwood provides a frightening dissection of George Osborne’s plans to reverse workers’s hard-won rights; in his persuasive and frighteningly envisioned prediction of the future, sick pay, holidays, and notification of redundancy, among many other things, are likely to become obsolete.
This analysis of such a pervasive and important phenomenon serves not only the unemployed or fearful public sector workers, but everyone who works too many hours, too few, or simply feels insecure. It serves the millions of citizens who experience “a precariousness which does not register on the scrolling news tickers but is nevertheless felt as an internal pressure nudging at the ceiling of the skull”. Southwood concludes that we “must resist the pressure to go with the flow” of “compulsory positivity and flexibility”; he proposes that we use the Internet to have meaningful debate on the nature of work, wresting it away from the forces of “workplace conformity” and “pseudo-participatory leisure”. Taking his cue, exploited casual workers and increasingly casualised public sector workers must find common cause, first sharing experiences, followed by organised opposition to the ideology and experience of work under neo-liberalism.
Tom May is a Lecturer in Further Education at Newcastle College, and has MAs in English (Cambridge) and Film Studies (Northumbria). He records music as Dream Cargoes and blogs at Where Shingle Meets Raincoat  and A Window on the World .