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Mental Illness, or Social Alienation

A row has broken out between psychologists and psychiatrists, reminiscent of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 60s and 70s, over the exact cause, and less obviously the exact nature, of what we call ‘mental illness’.

Much like all human behaviours, to be ‘mentally unwell’ carries value judgements, and social judgements, that impact hugely on the social treatment that those who exhibit such behaviour can expect. Because it is such a loaded term many have pointed out that a Guardian article called ‘Does mental illness really exist?‘ is incredibly unhelpful. Mental illness certainly does exist, and to deny that it does risks suggesting those who find themselves excluded, attacked, or minimized, do so somehow as a result of their own moral failing. That explanation is the easiest route in an individualized society, because of the prejudice surrounding mental illness – but it is not the only explanation possible. We need to ask, is mental illness what we think it is?

Scarfolk

Scarfolk Council’s ‘Don’t’ Campaign

The main question in the debate for the two professions is over ‘medicalization’, and therefore the use of medication. Like any industry, the pharmaceutical industry has an interest in finding new markets, and new products to satisfy existing markets. What is less commonly understood is that it is just as important to create new markets, new desires, and thus new needs for products which are profitable to produce.1

The easiest way for the health industry to create new needs is to latch onto currently existing social behaviours which may not look like an ‘illness’ yet, and find a way to change those behaviours. Solving a problem you didn’t know you had – the solution to the problem creates the ‘problem’ in the first place. If  a new drug gives you some sort of ‘competitive edge’, the lack of that competitive edge soon comes to appear as a disorder.

The key new disorders featured in DSM-5 – the new handbook for psychiatrists – concern hyperactivity and depression. These are behaviours which have increasingly commonplace medicines used to treat them – Adderal, Dexadrine, Ritalin; Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Xanax etc. I am certainly not suggesting that no one suffers from hyperactivity and depression – I question whether medication is the best way to solve what is increasingly a society-wide series of ‘disorders’.

There need be no debate over the issue of whether people are ill, or whether they are suffering – they are, and this suffering should be minimized. People should be able to receive the best treatment – free at, and beyond, the point of use – possible2.  Nor at question is whether these medicines are rebalancing a chemical imbalance in the brain, they certainly are. The question we should be asking is whether this imbalance is an accident of birth or genetics, or whether there is an environmental factor. In many cases it will be the former – a genetic issue. But people are not simply born, they are also made: for example, a “review of 23 studies shows that schizophrenics are at least three times more likely to have been abused than non-schizophrenics”. As a thorough-going materialist, I don’t consider emotions or ‘minds’ as separate from brains. How we feel is part of the operation of an electro-chemical brain, and how we feel links into our relationships, our food, and our social environment:  I’m with the psychologists on this one3.

Medicine relies on the ‘medical gaze’, the ability to separate having a body from being a person. There is in fact no separation.  There is something odd happening when we are told to ‘love our bodies’ (something they are grappling with at ‘Project Naked‘) – especially when it is linked to a new hair-removal cream or odd yoghurt. What we should be doing is trying to collapse the logic whereby we believe our bodies are something seperate from ourselves, something which we can take or leave. The temptation to do so is huge, especially when we are constantly being told our bodies are faulty.  It is not a fault if some-people are less social than others, less interested in studying, have body hair or are heavier than others – it is the fault of society’s value-system.

Crazy People, Crazy World

I often deliver the post to the house where R.D. Laing was born 75 years ago. It is in a working class area of Glasgow, Govanhill. Laing, as part of the anti-psychiatry movement, simply pointed out that it is not necessarily our selves that are ‘unwell’, but that it may be society which has got it wrong:

Our civilization represses not only ‘the instincts’, not only sexuality, but any form of transcendence… A man who prefers to be dead rather than red is normal. A man who says he has lost his soul is mad. A man who says that men are machines may be a great scientist. A man who says he is a machine is ‘depersonalized’ in psychiatric jargon. A man who says that Negroes are an inferior race may be widely respected. A man who says his whiteness is a form of cancer is certifiable.

A little girl of seventeen in a mental hospital told me she was terrified because the Atom Bomb was inside her. That is a delusion. The statesmen of the world who boast and threaten that they have Doomsday weapons are far more dangerous, and far more estranged from ‘reality’ than many of the people on whom the label ‘psychotic’ is affixed.’

(R. D Laing, The Divided Self, London: Pelican, 1960, p.11-12)

2704152_07c7f587

R.D. Laing: he, Michel Foucault and many others, were major critics of psychiatry and medicalization as forms of social control.

Laing realised that it is not simply what is ‘inside us’ that makes us ill, but it is the difference between our understanding of the world, our abilities to cope with it and our ability to change it that produce behaviours which society finds it hard to cope with. Of course, the way societies deal with difficult behaviour is legion – exclusion, ghettoization, prison, EST, lobotomy, execution.  Looking historically, this seems like common-sense to me – remember that many things, including worker and class insubordination, homosexuality and female sexuality, were all considered ‘mental illnesses’. At work we are asked to behave like rats, and when as Jimmy Reid said, this “entails the loss of your dignity, and human spirit” and causes depression, alienation and rebellion, we are then branded unwell. The refusal of work is increasingly being classed as the biggest social obscenity.

What did prove to be in [the bourgeois’s] interest, and what it did invest, was not the fact that [the mad and the masturbaters] were excluded, but the technique and procedures of their exclusion. It was the mechanisms of exclusion, the surveillance apparatus, the medicalization of sexuality, madness, and delinquency, it was all that, or in other words the micromechanics of power that came at a certain moment to represent, to constitute the interest of the bourgeoisie…
(Michel Foucault, Society Must be Defended, Picador, 2003, p.32)

Do we want to treat depression to get ‘back to normal’, back to work at the depressing job that caused the depression in the first place, or should we make the job of living less awful?

This process is going even further in academia, where medicines like ritalin and modafinil are used by nominally healthy students to gain an intellectual advantage on their peers – but what happens when enough people are medicated in order to change the common perception of ‘normal abilities’, much like has happened in professional sports? In some high-ranking American Universities over 50% of students report using such ‘cognitive enhancers’ – entire subcultures and industries are growing around their use.

provigil

Provigil – another name for modafinil – cartoon from userfriendly.org.

Soon those considered mentally unwell – or ‘intellectually subnormal’ – will be all those who are not taking psychologically enhancing medicines.

We are changing the human body, and the very concept of humanity itself, in order to meet the needs of a social world that will endlessly find new, tougher and more grotesque demands of us. It is no surprise that it is attentiveness, and ability to stay happy, which are the major ‘illnesses’ of today – these are the result of social alienation, these are the very demands that service and education-sector economies puts on us: stay alert, and smile at the customers. There are even a series of medicines availavble to treat ‘shift work sleep disorder‘. Traditionally service-sector workers self-medicate with alcohol and weed, soon we might be required to actually be happy in an unhappy world, rather than simply zone out, or act out. Emotional labour is being made more efficient through what amounts to bio-engineering. As one review of modafinil puts it:

There is truly one nasty side effect of coming off of modafinil: You go back to normal. And normal is pretty shitty compared to mighty.

I’m fine with us getting better, with making ourselves better – but better for ourselves, not the better for our bosses. We should be changing this society, not ourselves, before we get any worse.

References

  1. It seems strange when people say that you don’t need a new product, you simply desire it. This always came up with mobile phones, televisions, or internet  - especially when blaming ‘the poor’ for their own poverty – in today’s society, to be part of that society, you need these things. []
  2. the problem is that the ‘best treatment’ is not necessarily the most profitable treatment []
  3. I also believe that feelings are material – but a thorough explanation would take more space than this article has available []

UKIP and Political Coding

"Only racists talk about immigration..."

 

Labour, like the ‘Cameroon’ Conservatives, are terrified of talking about immigration. They fear that any oxygen given to the subject will mix with the heady gases of prejudice and lead to the bad old days of Enoch Powell and the National Front.

The nature of our political landscape over the next few years will boil down to a simple choice: translating the anger at stagnant wages and living standards into action against one of two targets, either 1) foreigners, or 2) industrial relations and the labour market.

Gillian Duffy

Gillian Duffy: just because you refuse to offer an explanation of why everything is getting worse, doesn’t make people bigots when they make up their own minds.

Within the current toolbox of political debate, there is only one way it is going to go. There are two solid potential narratives which can be constructed around growing insecurity and poverty – but current economic common sense is clear: we cannot possibly criticize the basic ‘freedom’ of workers to accept low wages, to lose their jobs, to be put in danger at work, to be exploited.

So the strategic success of UKIP is down to the assumption that flexible labour laws, with increasingly ‘at-will’ employment and few rights, are non-negotiable.  When there is no appetite to explain falling living standards in terms of an imbalance between the power of employers and employees, the only available explanation is the emotional one – other people are coming and stealing our jobs, our standard of living, our England1 away.

Normally UKIP, and other devotees of ‘entreprenurialism’ and market economies, believe that losing out to other jobseekers is your own moral failing – we don’t begrudge others their success, try try try again! It is only by racializing and ‘othering’ a group of jobseekers that it is made morally acceptable to hold a grudge against them, and articulate this as an external imposition or ‘invasion’.

UKIP Policy

This is from their policy documents:

UKIP would put an end to most legislation regarding matters such as weekly working hours, holidays and holiday, overtime, redundancy or sick pay…

It would be up to each employer to decide whether to offer parental leave…

UKIP proposes…  to amend the Race Relations Amendment Act (2000) so that it is much less intrusive into the affairs of companies and organisations, in particular, by removing the need to positively promote ‘diversity’ in the workforce which many see as divisive. The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations (2003) and the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (2003), which each implement EC directives imposing duties on employers to positively promote social engineering policies, will be repealed as a natural consequence of leaving the EU.

In essence, UKIP has nothing to offer workers other than a return to a pre-1975 political system – but of course, one which will lack the strong unions of the time.

Von Mises Free People

Enough already…

Their 2011 manifesto for the Scottish Parliament was a riot:

Repeal the Climate Change (Scotland) Act, which is pointlessly wrecking our world-famous landscape with wastefully-subsidised, useless, bird-killing wind-farms.

End all subsidies to monstrous, climate-irrelevant, cost-ineffective wind-farms.

Subject all wind-farms to democratic planning procedures. Owners of existing wind-farms rejected by planning committees will pull them down at their own expense.

Stop the proposed wind-farm projects that will ruin Scotland’s forestry land.

Aim to make Scotland a low-tax, small-government nation.

Scrap State promotion of multiculturalism. We are Scottish and British.

Obviously wind-farms that kill migratory birds are fine.

UKIP represent a strain of Conservatism that believes in a certain British exceptionalism – and that this exceptionalism must be replicated at a political and legislative level.

A quick recap on Capital and Labour

A large population of surplus labour places huge power in the hands of businesses when it comes to negotiating wages. Capital is hugely mobile, people are less so. People are tied to place by family, culture, language and habit. Even the managers of capital – the global elite, e.g. bankers, CEOs etc – choose places to live based on these sorts of values. Capital, on the other hands, has no family and no sentiment – it can be moved around at will.

The problem for capital is that many of its opportunities for profit are in communities where people wish to live, ones which don’t necessarily have the lowest costs – if a house needs to be wired for a Londoner, you can’t wire it in Guangzhou, even if you can get the wires made there. This problem is solved by increasing the mobility of labour – although this marginally increases the power of labour, is greatly increases the flexibility available to capital, and lowers the wages it must pay.

Large business and the banking industry were the major funders of the ‘Yes’ campaign for the 1975 referendum for  the UK to continue its membership of the European Economic Community – as an increasingly globalized financial elite they saw an opportunity not only to simplify and broaden labour markets, but to gain access to larger markets – larger volumes of consumers, and greatly increase the mobility of capital in its search for ‘moments of profit’. This ‘rationalization’ has been of great value – as has the increasing role of the EU  in enforcing ‘fair markets’ in areas, such as the NHS, which previously ran under non-market logics.

The Right and Left, and Europe

This is the context in which the National Front, the Left of the Labour Party, and the Morning Star, were against entry to the European Community in 1975. Both saw a common symptom of the loss of power for the British worker – the difference is that one blamed immigration/foreigners, the other blamed the increased velocity of capital/financial power.

Blame Ca-pital!

Who is to blame? Blame Ca-pital!

We find ourselves in the same debating position today – but because there is no loud leftwing explanation, the easy route is taken – blame immigration – and currently immigration is always coded language for ‘foreigners’.

The BNP fell apart as an organization because their message fell on fallow ground – a lot of this was down to anti-fascist campaigners and street politics, but its also true that you can’t get the general public to be racist without putting in a lot of ground work. UKIP is not an explicitly racist organization quite yet – though everything they argue enables racism – but that doesn’t mean they are in complete control of the arguments they’re making. Before long, if they can stabilize their support, there is only one direction their message is going to go. Already when they say immigration, people hear ‘foreigners’ – and at the very least a racist discourse is primed for use. UKIP are setting us up for far more sinister developments. Its not just UKIP, but the Tory party, the constant narrative over ‘Islamic extremism’, Gordon Brown’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ – the stage is set. It will only get worse. UKIP will be pushed to constant widen what is acceptable within the British political debate, and will drag the other middle-ground fetishists with them. But the edge they push is into the territory of communitarian and racial division, rather than the nature of how the social wage is determined.

At some point this growing strain will show, with a clear ideological differentiation and a collapse of the current generation of ‘consensus’ (post-Thatcherite) politics. However, this may not take place before the political debate is shifted in a highly regressive direction.

We need to hear explanations, narratives, for why we all feel worse off – the ‘left’ have a deeper, and more true option they refuse to use. We need to discuss the role of Europe, of course, but more importantly we need to talk about our labour markets, and industrial relations.

 

UPDATE, May 5th: It seem’s the BNP have a very similar analysis to mine, in an article called ‘The Crossroads’2 Nick Griffin gives this takeaway:

“Join us – or do this!

If, for whatever reason, anyone who thinks of themselves as a nationalist isn’t prepared to join us and lend a shoulder to our wheel, then there is one other useful thing they can do:

That is to join UKIP or to put in effort in the social networks to find and `influence those who have. Over the next few months, UKIP will sign up thousands of new, mainly newly politicised, members. Most of them are not merely patriotic, they are also instinctively, though at present totally incoherently, nationalist and racially aware. They don’t really belong with Farage and his internationalist big business set at all.

It will not take many people within UKIP to set about the quiet, careful promotion of genuine nationalism in order to create an underground ideological tendency. Done systematically, this can bear big, juicy fruit for real nationalism in the future. UKIP is growing too fast to be stable and it contains too many fundamental contradictions to avoid explosive divisions in the future.

Those nationalists who are not willing to be with us in the BNP should take note of this massive medium-term opportunity and get to work to seize it. We’ll be doing our bit too, but the more who move in and spread nationalist groundbait in the expanding UKIP pond the better.

Because, one day in the not too far off future, the Powers That Be which have created the Farage Mirage are fated to discover, too late, that their creature has merely helped wreck their old order, woken people up, legitimised the core messages of genuine nationalism, and created a giant pond in which to nurture fish which will feed the true nationalist movement.

It won’t happen tomorrow. It won’t happen next year. But it will happen. And we will be ready.”

References

  1. UKIP are a largely English phenomena – one of the major reasons that such an alignment doesn’t appear in Scotland is that the SNP has occupied the nationalist debating space with a far more benign species of patriotism – English BNP/UKIPism is largely a result of the difference between self-conceptions of Britishness and Englishness []
  2. I am not linking to the article due to a policy of no platform for fascists []

Royal Mail Privatization – A Worker’s Inquiry

So, Royal Mail is getting privatized. Those of you who’ve met me won’t be surprised to hear that I’m a postperson. So here is a critical account of the job, having worked mostly in one large office in Glasgow, and sometimes in various others – I’ve attempted to explain how it seems to me from a subjective position, rather than repeating the description of the organizational structure presented by management. There’s one thing we don’t often analyse about ‘work’ – preferring to view it as a concept – and thats what it actually requires us to do. It’s tough trying to get interested in work, but here we go.

Please note that this is a generalized account written in a personal capacity, and does not refer to specific individuals, and does not represent the opinion of Royal Mail or any of its employees.

What the Job is Like

So, if Royal Mail is to be gone in 2014, what was it like in the heady days leading up to the end of almost 500 years of history?

I started work with Royal Mail in the summer of 2009 after leaving University. The first round of the interview process started with an online ‘sorting game’ which tested your basic ability to recognize combinations of letters and numbers. i.e. postcodes. It was about as much fun as it sounds. The second round was an interview at the office I had applied to work for, with the office manager. I started on a 25-hour a week contract at a delivery office – the front-line, i.e. putting stuff through doors. My training consisted of:

  1. a video warning us that’d we’d get the jail if we stole anything
  2. not to leave our bag unattended because we’d get the jail if someone stole anything
  3. to use our bag to defend ourselves from dogs
  4. not to put our fingers through letterboxes (because dogs)
  5. to pick up rubber bands (because Daily Mail)
  6. shadowing an experienced postman for a couple of weeks
ADAB

“Oh don’t worry he won’t touch you…” Until recently our office had had more cat-related injuries than dog-related ones.

At various points I’ve had anything from full-time hours with overtime at 45+ a week (though never with a full-time contract), down at times to a standard ‘Saturday Contract’ of 5 hours a week. Currently I am on that 5 hour a week guaranteed permanent contract, but with a long-term unofficial arrangement whereby I get 10-12 extra hours ‘scheduled overtime’  - i.e. at the normal rate – a week. I work Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays – which are the busiest delivery days.

This arrangement suits me – however many other staff are unable to get enough hours to support their families.

Royal Mail delivers 6 days a week, Monday – Saturday1. Most staff work 5 days, with a rotating day off. If you are part-time this is a 25-hour a week contract. There are various sorts of contracts and working practises that make up the front-line labour-supply within the organization – it is always unclear exactly who is doing what – a cynic would say this is useful for management, but I’m not always sure they’re fully informed either.

Duty Holders: I am not a ‘duty holder’ – duty holders are permanent staff, 50-50 part-time to full-time, who are responsible for the same ‘walk’ (a delivery route, often called a ‘duty’) every day.

Floaters: Nor am I a ‘floater’ who has a set rotation of walks, working when the duty-holders have their day off.

Spare: I am a ‘spare’ – this means I cover sickness, and generally do ‘dig outs’ – that’s where certain walks have a unusual volume of mail or packets, and need digging out (literally pulled out from under the weight of mail) in order to deliver within their target times. When I am not needed to deliver any of the mail in my office, I do tidying and preparation for the next day, or might be transferred to another office within the city to cover a shortfall there.

From my perspective there is just enough slack that un-forseen problems can be solved. Management rely on pride in the job, goodwill and some bribery in order to get the work done. Most staff have to carry out some unscheduled overtime on a weekly basis, and this requires good relations – and sometimes we finish before our time on light days. Our office has never failed to deliver a duty while I have worked there – apparently it has happened elsewhere in the city. A failure on this scale would likely come down on management.

Not delivering to an address when you can is ‘delaying the mail’ – gross misconduct. Despite this, a lot of mail is returned to the office everyday: a mixture of undeliverable (wrong address, addressee gone away) and ‘shuts’ – i.e. the address was inaccessible, usually because a tenement or block of flats couldn’t be accessed: it always gets re-attempted the next day.

Many postpeople will do an extra 30-60 minutes unpaid every day, often in the morning in order to finish in time – especially if they are less fit than the average. This is sometimes tacitly recognized by management, but is largely an unspoken resentment. It represents a large amount of unpaid labour: required and ‘standard’ timings are always set based on the abilities of the fittest member of staff. Corners get cut. For example, you are officially not allowed to walk and read the addresses at the same time. This is done all the time – somehow in my case it resulted in me falling in a pond. Again, never been bitten by a dog.

Not me. But similar.

Not me. But similar.

My standard workday looks like this when I’m covering a whole duty – most part-timers will have similar days:

  • 8.00 – 8.10 – (Indoor) Arrive in the office, sign in. Check to see if I’m on the rota to take a whole walk out, and which walk. Check the preparation frame for that walk, find out who I’m partnered with.
  • 8.10 – 9.00 - (Indoor) ‘Throw up’ the frame. This means:
    • a) taking unsorted and sorted mail and placing it in order in a work-frame. All of this should be done by a full-timer before I arrive – it often isn’t. Full-timers have been working from around 5.30
    • b) collecting packets and parcels from the sorting frames, and sorting them into the right locations.
    • c) ‘Re-directing’ mail to new addresses where someone is a ‘gone away’.
    • d) putting up ‘Door-to-Doors’: i.e. advertising mass-mail-outs
    • e) processing ‘gone-aways’, this involves endorsing every letter with an incomplete address, or where the resident has gone-away without arranging a redirection.
    • d) ‘Tie-down’: pull the mail off the frames, stack it into bundles and tie them together with the ubiquitous rubber bands. Put them together with parcels into bags.
  • 9.00 – 9.30 Collect van keys, scanner and special deliveries. Load the van. Get going.
  • 9.30 – 13.30 (Outdoor) Deliveries
  • 13.30 – 14.00 Return to the office, file away undeliverable mail and packets. Return keys, scanner, etc. Sign-out.

Volumes / Weights

  • We work in 2-person teams, delivering 2 separate ‘walks’ in succession.
  • A walk is a geographically contained area – it can include anything from 300-1000 ‘delivery points’ depending on the density of the housing. Walks with houses featuring long driveways have fewer delivery points – it can take an hour to do 50 addresses. If you’re doing a block of flats you can do 300 addresses in half an hour.
  • These walks are bagged up into ‘loops’, with a standard 8-loops per walk. Each postman will usually deliver 8 bags in a day. The maximum loop weight is 12kg for the first bag, dropping to 10, then 8, for subsequent bags.
  • We also deliver over-sized packages and special deliveries in between delivering our loops. Specials have to be delivered by 1pm so sometimes we break our route order to get them done in time.
  • We have anywhere from 1-6 ‘Door to Doors’ or ‘households’ to do each week. These are unaddressed marketing leaflets that no one wants, must be delivered to every address, and which represent a huge extra weight, though not much extra time. They are really really really really really really really demoralizing.

What My Workmates are Like

The office I am assigned to employs around 120 staff. There are 4 women working, the rest are men. Not just predominantly male – overwhelmingly male. There is an even spread of ages, though notably very few beyond mid-50s.

Though its a good job, it doesn’t pay especially well any more. The work is hard, I am often tired – but I’m relatively young, and fit, and can recover easily as I only work 3 days. Many of the others, especially full-time staff, are worn out.

There is a surprisingly high proportion of graduates who have been unable to find work related to their qualifications, or do not wish to – this is increasing noticeably.  Many people use it as a part-time job while studying – and often end up staying on. There are many house-husbands who make sure to finish before 2pm so they can pick their children up from school.

Most people there would consider themselves working class. There used to be (30+ years ago?) football teams, fishing groups, cycling groups – these have all gone. There’s the odd whip-round for retirees, but generally people are here to work. Old staff come in now and again to say hello.

Its not a job for life – but many will spend their whole lives doing it. Some postpeople work in the evenings, often as taxi-drivers. Previous jobs include: retail managers, warehouse workers, sailors, nurses, other delivery companies, BT, binmen etc. There is a notable number of people who used to run their own small businesses, which have collapsed over the last few years.

What We Get Paid

A weekly paycheck2 looks something like this  - note, this is my first paycheck of the financial year, and I’m not earning enough to be taxed at the moment:

Payments Amount Deductions Amount
Basic Pay @ 5 hours 47.71 Employee NIC 0.89
Delivery Supplement 2.77 RMDCP 5% EE 8.02
Weekday Overtime 11.48 hours 119.13 CWU Opt Out 0.97
Gross Pay 156.41 Total Deductions 9.88
Net Pay £146.53

A couple of clarifications:

  1. That RMDCP is employee pension contributions, matched with an employer contribution of 7%. Its a defined contribution scheme (boring!). I’m not in The Plan which was/is the defined benefits pension scheme George Osborne messed around with during the budget to balance his books. The Plan was closed to new entrants in 2008. The defined contribution scheme I’m in provides far lower and unguaranteed benefits based on stock-market performance.
  2. The CWU ‘Opt Out’ is payment of my union dues, but without the default £1 political divvy that would have gone to the Labour Party.
  3. I work another job, which is 6 hours a week, roughly at the same rate. I have no other income, or in-work benefits.
  4. The ‘Delivery Supplement’ replaces a ‘Door to Door’ supplement, which was paid based on the volume of advertising you were asked to deliver on top of the ‘real mail’. Around 2 years ago this was abolished and the workload was rolled into normal duties. Looking at my old paychecks, this could be up to £30 for a delivery of 5-6 adverts per address –  its end represented a sizeable wage cut.

Rubber BandWhat Management are Like

Line managers are generally ex-postmen promoted from the shop floor. There is one office manager who is a grade above them, but he also comes from the shop floor. There is a clear visual distinction between managers and postpeople – managers wear their own shirts and suit trousers/jeans, postpeople wear Royal Mail branded uniforms. They also get paid more, and eat more crisps.

Generally there is a robust atmosphere: postmen are pretty combative about their customary rights – ‘the job’ as defined by a combination of what feels right, and what we’ve always done –  and will negotiate continuously over the volume of work to be done. Managers generally understand the job, and when there is friction it is usually because they are being asked to implement some novel new-and-efficient-world-class-service idea from up the command chain.

The basic job of being a postman can’t really be changed – it is defined by the nature of the geography you work on.

Very little is seen of any senior management on the shop-floor. They’re all up at the Mail Centre (‘upstream’ where all the major sorting and distribution happens – we’re a ‘Delivery Office’, though we still do a lot of sorting.)

Some postpeople have additional responsibilities such as staffing the customer desk, working in secure areas, or doing collections from pillar boxes. This represents a hierarchy of sorts.

Royal Mail Shoes

My last couple of pairs of Royal Mail shoes

What’s been happening over the past few years: Working Practice Revisions

Over the past few years Royal Mail have been paying off experienced full-time postpeople (aged 40+) with the equivalent of 2.5x their yearly wage in order to encourage them to take early-retirement/voluntary redundancy. When this began the claim was that we’re over-staffed. However there has been a subsequent round of new hires, resulting in a near replication of labour resources, but at a lower cost. The staff who took retirement had legacy contracts and pension rights, usually negotiated at a time of higher union strength, which are now unavailable.

I believe this is largely how Royal Mail has managed to return to profitability – reduced labour costs. This is just the latest of a series of massive revisions, layoffs and reconfigurations over the past decade.

This and other revision processes have largely resulted in a breaking of the link between postpeople and local areas – meaning staff are more often moved around and have to deliver to routes they don’t know. When you’re delivering to up to 1000 delivery points then mistakes are made, and quality decreases. People also hate not recognizing their postperson.

They’ve invested in one new van for every 2 postpeople (50 vans in my office3) supposedly in order to increase efficiency – what it has done is create 2-person working where they work at the speed of the slowest person. We also don’t have enough drivers in what is the city in the UK with the lowest car ownership. This has also ended the practise of ‘job-and-finish’, where you could end your round and return home early (usually half an hour or so) if you worked harder to get your duty finished. As far as I can see, as well as lowering morale, this has increased overtime costs in those cases where postpeople still attempt to claim it.

Management seem to be constantly fire-fighting ‘no shows’ (i.e. people going sick on the day) due to people with injuries, stress and sickness. Indoor working has decreased due to increased mechanization of sorting, and heavy outdoor working has gone from 3 hours/day up to almost 5/hours for some routes – this is an intensification of working. Many postpeople work more slowly in order to avoid burning out, and dare not claim overtime for fear of being pushed out.

A few months ago there was a group of agency staff brought in. Generally they didn’t know the job, weren’t vetted for security or criminal records, and thrown straight out on the street. It seemed to be a stop gap in-between the voluntary redundancies and the new hires: it resulted in an increase in complaints.

There is an explicit commitment to the Dutch model, where posting is a part-time job you do in the morning before going to college or uni – not something you can live on or bring up a family on any more. Even this idea is breaking down as delivery times get later and later, for no other reason than reducing supplements for late-night and early-morning working.

The Union

P739 - Because posties are miserable and so should you be.

P739 – Because posties are miserable and so should you be.

The Union is the Communication Workers Union (CWU). I have been a member of the Union since I started the job. There is no shop-steward at my office – in fact it was a manager who suggested I join the union. Some offices seem to have far more active union presence.

The Union focuses its negotiations during each round on protecting the rights of ever-dwindling numbers of full-timers on old-style pre-90s contracts (i.e. the contracts Union reps have). Within my office the main form of worker-management negotiation takes the form of unofficial discussion and negotiation over customary rights, and a general belligerence.

Privatization

The Tories are pressing ahead with privatization. Labour began it with their ‘market liberalizations’ which are the proximate cause, though of course the logic dates back to the mass privatizations of the 80s.

I have no high hopes for this 30-pieces-of-silver share scheme the Tories seem to be pushing, even if I were to accept the ideology behind them. We’ve just had a previous attempt a profit-sharing (ColleagueShare) totally written off as without any value after years of contributions. This was meant to compensate for increased intensity of working – obviously this represents another wage cut, but one hard to quantify.

Posties are the last link many older people have to the outside world – and we are delivering more items than ever before, especially with Amazon packets etc. Some think that because it says ‘TNT’ in the top right corner they have their own delivery people. In fact Royal Mail has to carry these based on common downstream access (last leg) legislation – priced at a level where TNT, UKMail and others can undercut the RM’s own service. The same companies which will gobble up whatever parts of the Royal Mail distribution chain they think they can make money from – and the same companies Channel 4′s ‘Dispatches’ showed abusing people’s packages.

Of course the logic of privatization has been a proven failure, so I’m not going to go into too much detail.

Do we want competition in this ‘market’? 30 different carriers stomping up your drive everyday? For a start it’d wear your letterbox out! Its a natural monopoly – like electricity, gas, railways.

Postpeople want to do a good job, under reasonable conditions: I see no evidence of crime, or laziness – just overworked men and women doing their best to get through a tough week, every week. Preparations to become a private company are making this increasingly impossible. Under total privatization, things will only get worse.

Fightback

Bring Back Royal British Mail Rail sorting Trains!

Bring Back Royal British Mail Rail sorting Trains! (Maybe without the Royal or the British.)

I’m not sure, and I’m worried, about what scale of fightback is possible. The Union isn’t visible, there is little cohesion in the office or consciousness about the possiblity of resistance. I wouldn’t put too much faith in the official campaign.

On the otherhand, we went out on a wildcat strike a week after I joined. There is a low-level endemic rebelliousness about posties that comes from seeing close up how people live, of being able to see deprivation wax and wane from years of walking the streets, and a deep understanding of community and its contradictions. Check out Roy Mayall, who was active a few years ago with articles for the Guardian.

Who knows? Strategy is all for a later article. Welcome to the bad new times.

References

  1. It used to be twice a day except Sundays when there was only one delivery []
  2. a weekly paycheck is one of the things the union has managed to maintain. There are many good reasons for them: it stops you running out of money at the end of the month (you just run out at the end of the week), it allows you to check whether you’ve been paid overtime before any arguments have settled down []
  3. directly increasing the ratio of constant : variable capital []

Notes From Arika 13: Episode 5

Last weekend in Glasgow ARIKA put on a range of events themed around the radical black arts tradition, under the title of Freedom is a Constant Struggle. It was good, and the best events were free. I’ve typed up some initial notes below, I’ll return to them all at some point in more detail.

Arika Participants

Participants: Amiri Baraka, Wadada Leo Smith, Sonia Sanchez, Henry Grimes, John Tilbury (Made by JA).

 There’s a good piece here by Harry Giles: ‘Madness, Freedom, Resistance: Three Stories’, talking about a necessary intervention he made after Fred Moten referred to G. W. Bush and other politicians of his generation as ‘mad’. As the article recalls, Moten’s response was subtle and correct – ‘lets not give them the power of madness, we may need madness for our own ends’ – ‘lets call them out by their name: bosses‘.

What I’ve outlined below is, as usual, simply another configuration of the perennial issues to be worked out if it is going to be possible for the arts to involve themselves (again?) in political change. I fall back on the idea that the best thing aesthetics can do is get rid of any delusion that it can act at all within or against politics. Rather it should be given over to the task of propaganda alone – which of course most art already is, propaganda for (or a tactic celebration of the values of) the bosses.

As for the claim that ‘art is always already political’ (just like ‘the personal is political’) well, sure, but only if you make it so.

There was, as always, some worrying naivete surrounding an ethic of expression – one that very quickly devolves into an individualistic vitalism focused upon the sanctity of experience and the body, along with the unconsidered pacifism that seems to follow from such a focus. Combine this with the elision of critique with rebellion, and we’re left with a carnival. As usual we need to be reminded: lets not be too enamored with ourselves, today is fun, but what do we do tomorrow when we wake up and nothing has changed?

The festival programming hinted and at times explicitly stated all this. The problem tended to be an audience which appeared overwhelmed and silent. There was no space for a considered and productive reaction – apart from the pub. No real problem with pubs mind. Despite all this, it felt important and forward looking, one of the best things I’ve seen in Glasgow in 7 years: Fred Moten was especially impressive.

This has been on repeat in my house for a week:

At one point there was an attempted re-configuration of the title Freedom is a Constant Struggle to Freedom is a Constant, Struggle. Its semi-profundity gave a ho humming aha! of support. Personally, I find this adjustment jarring. ‘Freedom’ (whatever we may mean) is not prior to the struggle. Constant freedom is a struggle, perhaps – but not even that. We may struggle, but it doesn’t necessarily make us free – sometimes it just gets worse.

One of the key discussions was around whether US radicals should vote for Obama after his increasing boss-ification: never in doubt, but surprisingly explicit with the ramping up of drone strikes (the UK government is also using drones), indifference to Palestine, and belligerence towards the Western targets of the day. There was a split between the older and younger generations over what should be done – especially in the light of the violent and traumatic struggle for the franchise in the Civil Rights era.

When we struggle we resolve our struggle into that for an object of desire, rather than for the possibility of desire itself. Was winning the vote really the nature of the of the Civil Rights struggles? Similarly, is the right to work and equal pay the sole target of the feminist movement?

Moten also commented that this event could not (or would not) have happened in the USA? Can this really be true? And for what reasons?

Notes from Freedom is a Constant Struggle: ‘Existence is Resistance’

  1. Initial horror: It’s not just that we don’t understand the world; the horror is that we are everyday building it against ourselves. We are using ourselves up on behalf of that which oppresses us.
  2. Art: Translating anger into art is exactly the sort of self-censoring activity which we should avoid – making art is not a slip up, a need, an outpouring: this conception is a liberal romantic affectation – it is a conscious activity involving the production of values, working within a constellation of valorization.
  3. Social horror: we believe we understand the intentions of our actions and the immediately accessible actions of our associates – but once these begin to act against and alongside each other they produce effects – first and second order – which are completely alien.
  4. Aleatoric art: what is the smallest (and largest) components of discourse (art, language, politics) which can be ‘random’, and what form or aspects of ‘randomness’ will it mobilize?
  5. Mazlo bullshit: art is a method of self-actualization.
  6. Social contract bullshit: ‘the vote’ as a mediation of the demands of a generation between revolution and conservation of the existing order. In the UK especially it is a translation of absolute monarchy into absolute parliamentarianism which was inadequate in its initial birth. Do we really have an obligation to vote because of the struggle – and blood – that has been fought in order to win it?
  7. Viability of art: Beckett/Bersani: should we try to construct a culturally non viable [valorizable] art?
  8. Recuperation: everything is potentially recuperated.
    1. Is everything potentially recuperated?
    2. Are those objects which it is possible to valorize (structurally, the structure of valorization vs. the structure of the object) and reproduce always valorized and produced?
    3. Is that which resists valorization destroyed? Immediately?
    4. What is the unnameable?
    5. What violence is done in order to name it?
  9. In the break: but it takes time and space for the ‘cultural dominant’ to recuperate objects – and the tactical technique – like a street-battle – must be to compress the structural and spatial space available to the cultural dominant and organs of recuperation – to negate their resources or overwhelm the productive capacity.
  10. Stability and Crisis: in a cultural/political economy which isn’t in crisis or contradiction – which is functioning properly – nothing that cannot be valorized is produced, and everything that is produced is valorized. Capitalism is the ability for contradictions to maintain and develop while value persists.
  11. Delusions: anti-careerist academics/artists are still providing a service for capital even when they avoid providing a commodity – one of entertainment and dissent-limitation.
  12. $£: cash articulates.
  13. Ensemble revolutions: the ‘ensemble’ as a cut-rate vanguard that dares not name itself: the most developed form of the ‘creative class’. Leninism.
    1. If you’re not in the mass you’re a bourgeois individualist.
    2. If you’re not in the ensemble you’re lonely.
    3. Find the self and kill it.
    4. You amplify within the ensemble, you do not dominate it.
    5. Rise within your class, no above it.’
    6. Class/ensemble aspirations are always recuperated as individual aspiration.
  14. Being serious: the bomb is the voice of the unheard. The riot is the joy.
  15. Armrests: churches have pews with no division between you and your neighbours arses. The social history of cinema is the history of the increasing individuation of seating arrangements. Arts spaces have individual cinema-style seats, but they’re never as comfortable as those in a multiplex. Small blessings.

 

where the theoreticians will become senses in their practice

where the theoreticians will not be seeing, hearing
where the theoreticians will sear, the theoretician is a seer
where the theoreticians will be seen and heard in their practice

where the theoreticians will touch themselves
where the theoreticians will become sensual in their practice

where the reverse will always be in excess
where the sequence is for nono and maxine
where reading and recite this scene to John Gwin, my daddy

where they go plot paradise, blue bolivar, boll and marvel
where mask and boll and cut and fry and groove

where the senses will become theoreticians in their practice

— Fred Moten, “where the blues began,” in Hughson’s Tavern

Work! Minimum Wage Machines

Minimum Wage Machine - 1 penny every 4.97 seconds

Minimum Wage Machine, which produces a $USD penny every 4.97 seconds when you turn the handle.

From October the hourly minimum wage will be increased by 1% in the UK.

  • £6.31 for those over 21
  • £5.03 for 18-20 year olds
  • £3.72 for those younger
  • £2.68 an hour for apprentices.

The suppressed war of work in society – over what work needs doing, who should do it, and how it should be compensated – is ready to break out into the open. The febrile environment following Margaret Thatcher’s death has brought out the old questions about our changing workplaces, in a context where the governing parties of the UK are attempting to symbolically re-integrate large groups of people back into the workforce with lower and lower compensation, trending towards zero. The class war in the UK, where the end of the class structure – the end of bosses, managers, workers – has rarely  been plausible, has always instead taken the form of a struggle between how socially necessary work, and social rewards, will be divided up. Rarely has it been posed as a question over the nature, and the necessity, of work itself.

In fact there is a thorough-going conservatism from all over the nature of work, and it follows from the way we view people and the morality of effort and reward. As cynical as I am, I do not believe that the coalition’s welfare reforms are solely aimed at punishing the unemployed – there is a sincere worldview, based upon the idea that people are rational economic beings1 , behind the policy choices. Iain Duncan Smith believes that the lack of work approaches a state of disloyalty to the ‘taxpayer’ – the ‘taxpayer’ taking the place of the nation in the patriotic constellation. Ask not what your GDP can do for you, but what you can do for our GDP.  Some of the key assumptions are:

  • Individuals attempt to maximize their income, and will change their behaviours in order to do so.
  • Reducing the cost of labour (human resources) will increase the number of people employed.
  • Supplying more capital investment to an economy will increase the volume of productive activity.
  • Supply and demand set the price of labour.
  • Those that do not work, shall not eat2.

This is the ‘common sense’ of neoclassical economics. The always symbolic goal of full unemployment has long been abandoned in rhetoric as well as practised, and instead we rely on a ‘liberalized’ labour market to find a level at which investors, enacting supply and demand, are willing to ‘create jobs’, leaving a structural surplus of labour. That is, a permanent surplus of people. Supply and demand, the cycles of overproduction and glut followed by underproduction and famine – when applied to those who hold on to labour – real live people – results in homelessness and hunger.

Unemployment and incapacity benefits subdue the fullblown social disaster that occured during times of high structural unemployment prior to the introduction of the welfare state – the hungry years of the 1930s or 1840s – and to some extent in the 80s, where visible homelessness reappeared on UK streets. Zero-hour contracts, constantly in the news and somehow re-valued as ‘flexible’ for the worker, are a re-invention of the factory door – this time the lines of people waiting to find if they are going to earn any money this week are at home on the end of a telephone rather than strung out down the street.

sept-16-yosser

Gizza Job

The masking of under- and unemployment – through out-of- and in-work benefits – has resulted in a real imbalance, whereby the increasing productivity of business practices, rather than being used to reduce the amount of hours worked by all, has been used to increase the proportion of the social product received by the rich (by those with capital investments), and to keep a large proportion (11.47 million people3, excluding pensioners) of the population ‘inactive’.

Barring the whole-sale return to the post-1945 welfare state, with its assumptions of full employment – and with the reintroduction of younger ages of death to make pensions affordable, and the return of women to housekeeping roles that the model implies – the old solutions will not work. There needs to be an alternative to work as currently understood.

What We Do When We Work

The problem today is the sheer lack of work in a world where every signal and sign demands that we work. The ‘protestant ethic’, which Max Weber suggests is the basis for the emergence of capitalism in the West, prioritizes the nobility of labour. This contradiction is played out every day in jobcentres across the country where claimants are increasingly forced to work at their worklessness - like Kafka’s hunger artist – the ritual of signing on is the respectable face of unemployment, any other activity – watching TV, drinking, smoking – is increasingly viewed with disapproval. Living becomes a luxury, everyone else must make do with bare existence. There is a permanent scarcity of work, and a permanent abundance of goods available for purchase for decreasing numbers of wage-earners. This contradiction is played out each evening when supermarkets dispose of huge volumes of unbought food, while soup kitchens struggle to feed the hungry in our community.

There is a huge volume of capital set beside a huge amount of need and labour: yet they are not put together by the current system of production. The result is an increase in stress, depression, suicide. It is important to be able to link these macroeconomic issues with their social results. There are a few tens of thousands of people in the country who live in a state of huge luxury but need not work – who can even choose work which they enjoy, many millions who are working longer and longer hours, and many millions more who cannot find work of any kind4.

The glorification of labour is not solely a right-wing discourse – it is one of the biggest misunderstanding of Thatcherism, or more broadly what is lazily reffered to as the ‘neoliberal consensus’, to suggest that it wished to destroy jobs. Rather, it is a re-organization of what it means to work and to produce value from work. The ‘protestant ethic’, in today’s jargon, is that those who would not work on behalf of a certain mode of production shall not eat. This is embedded in both the practise and the ideology of the left – the power of the worker to withdraw labour. What of the unemployed? The idea of social labour – work in the home, community building, artistic practise – has been noted by the labour movement, but apart from a few experiments it has never been fully engaged with or analysed. The focus solely on industrial labour and workplace struggle was never sufficient, and is only sustainable at time of full employment, or when full employment is a possibility.

Stressed out at Work? Its Getting Worse

“Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking.”

- John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, 1980

While it was sustainable – during the period that the productivity of labour was increasing, producing tax reciepts that could be used to support out of work benefits – the unemployed could be supported, at the bare minimum level, without a complete social collapse. Now that a period of crisis has been entered this bargain is being undone in an attempt to increase the profitability of exploiting labour by pushing down its cost. If a solution is to be found, it will have to be another solution to the 1973 crisis – profitability increases, this time alongside a socially viable level of compensation for wage-earners who see no sign of an increase or survival of their living standards. Any solution must be solved in a different way to the Thatcherite re-calibration – the ability of workers (labour) to demand a higher proportion of the social product has been broken, the link between increased productivity and increased income no longer exists as a restraint on profits. That fix – breaking the power of labour to demand increases – has dissipated. All that remains is to push the working and workless poor into destitution.

‘Thatcherism’ was a technical and geographical fix – it recognized the broken power of industrial capital within the UK, and the rising power of financial capital. Industrial capital fled abroad where it could find production costs that would allow it to profit. Failing a new geographical fix – where quickly industrializing countries can push down the cost of essential products – and a technological fix like that of financialization or Just in Time manufacture there are few signs of any new methods of increasing the rate of profit.

Not quite, there is one candidate: new technologies which combine the data revolution – which so far has failed to produce the sort of returns expected – with new genetic, bioengineering and nanomanufacture techniques. Where Marx once made the distinction between manufacture and machinofacture, we may have to add the idea of biofacture.

Speculative strawberry.

A speculative strawberry plant that also produces black lace.

The Refusal of Work

In a situation with no work – where work is structurally unavailable – and where the work available is unpleasant, grinding, unrewarding, wearing, hard, we have to support the demand not to work. The right to work campaigns of the near and far left buy too easily into conservative and liberal moralism. If we demand work, then either it will never begin, or it will never end. If any right is asserted, it should be the right to exist.

“I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I had to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food which tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was still the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast.

- Franz Kafka, A Hunger Artist, 1924

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References

  1. ‘Homo Economicus’ []
  2. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.
    - 2 Thessalonians 3:10, King James []
    • The unemployment rate for November 2012 to January 2013 was 7.8% of the economically active population, unchanged from August to October 2012. There were 2.52 million unemployed people, up 7,000 from August to October 2012.
    • The inactivity rate for those aged from 16 to 64 for November 2012 to January 2013 was 22.3%, down 0.3 percentage points from August to October 2012. There were 8.95 million economically inactive people aged from 16 to 64, down 118,000 from August to October 2012.
    • Labour Market Statistics 2013

    []

  3. In capitalist society, free time is produced for one class by the conversion of the whole lifetime of the masses into labour-time. - Marx, Karl, Capital Volume 1, (Penguin/NLB 1972), p.667 []