Skip to content

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

.

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 []