The Rat Race is for Rats!
Ask anyone in work today whether they enjoy it and you won’t find many who reply: ‘yes, it’s great fun and rewarding’. Enormous numbers of people find their work stressful, pressurised, certainly not much fun and often poorly paid. Of course, for generations, work, particularly hard manual labour or monotonous office drudgery was never much fun either. For past generations, though, a sense of comradeship often bound workforces together; while work was hard and hours long, there was still time and opportunity for banter with colleagues and work mates, there was even room for creativity, innovation and individual input. That feeling alone of being part of a substantial workforce, of building or making things together or providing a vital public service gave many workers a sense of dignity and worth.
The work process today has been rationalised, intensified and the opportunities for individual input largely eradicated. Robots don’t deviate from the commands given them nor do they fall ill, take holidays and maternity leave. For employers, if they can turn their workforce into quasi robots, so much the better, and that’s what most employers today are trying to do. Look at Amazon’s warehouses for a prime example. Every minute of the working day workers’ movements are tracked, time taken for each task measured and behaviour monitored, so that every single minute is accounted for. No time for a chat with a workmate, a short tea break or a quick scan of the newspaper on the toilet. These employment practices dehumanise the workforce and demonstrate how employers see their workers as units, as robots. There is no dignity here, no job satisfaction and certainly no joy.
Workplace stress has become the defining factor for many workers with serious implications for mental and physical health and family life. A major study whose results were published this month by the Institute of Epidemiology in Munich, followed 5,337 men and women aged between 29 and 66 who were in full-time work.
It found that those under the most strain at work are 45 per cent more likely to fall ill, with increased risk of heart disease, strokes, blindness and amputations.
Stress at work 'raises diabetes risk by 45%. One in five are affected by high levels of stress at work, and raised levels of stress hormones upset the body’s glucose levels, which can damage the body's circulation and major organs
The study also found that those under the most strain at work are 45 per cent more likely to fall ill with the condition, which increases the risk of heart disease, strokes, blindness and amputations, and strain is a factor even among the slim.
Some three million people in the UK are currently affected by diabetic symptoms, but if trends continue this could rise to four million by 2025 and five million by 2030, with type 2 accounting for 90 per cent of cases.
Marx memorably described the alienation that capitalism imposes on workers, by robbing them of a meaningful relationship with the products they make, but even he could hardly have envisaged the cruel and ruthless perfection of the present system. Over thirty years ago, Jimmy Reid, one of the leaders of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in, memorably remarked that ‘the rate race is for rats, not human beings’. But that rat race is not even a race anymore, but a cage fight with a pre-determined outcome.
Capitalism has always involved the alienation of working people because they are robbed of control over their working day and the work process itself. But the same transformation has since been imposed on the public sector too. While this sector was often characterised by lower pay than in the private one, that was compensated somewhat by higher job satisfaction. Public service workers were rewarded by seeing how their work helped and supported thier fellow citizens and there was also a highly motivating public service ethos and sense of social purpose. All this has been eroded, dismissed and ridiculed by successive Blairite and Tory governments which have portrayed such services as bloated, inefficient and second-rate. So that today we have a totally demoralised workforce in most areas of public service.
Work is at the centre of our lives, it largely determines who we are and what we are. Work denotes our place in society, we obtain satisfaction from contributing to society. Those without work suffer even deeper depression, a sense of being worthless and a loss of self esteem; we need work, just as we need food and drink. The workplace should be where we can express ourselves creatively, where we find companionship among like-minded people and where we readily devote our energies. It should also be a place of happiness. Under capitalism all that is impossible, where workers are seen merely as a means of profitable exploitation. Working people are, for the capitalist, merely a means to an end - to make more money.