Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Is your job killing you?

Most of us are defined by the job we do. It’s usually the first thing strangers ask: ‘What do you do for a living?’ We used to talk about pride in our work too, but now with Britons spending more time toiling than ever, and stress levels at record levels is this still the case? The average working week in the UK is now three hours longer than the European average according to TUC figures.

You only have to look at recent surveys and sociological investigations to recognise that people’s job satisfaction levels have also plunged. Alienation in the workplace is the most characteristic and chronic symbol of the present phase of capitalist development. And, on top of that, take home pay is at its lowest since 1981 according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

Alienation was an aspect of capitalism that Marx highlighted, but it receives little exposition. Battles till now, particularly those waged by the trade union movement, have been fought over the need for jobs and the right to work, rather than the issue of what sort of jobs we want. Of course, having a job is still the bottom line as far as survival is concerned, but perhaps we should now be addressing more strongly what sort of jobs we want in a civilised society.

The logic of capitalism is to squeeze out of the worker as much surplus value as possible. This is done by forcing down wages, by making us work longer hours and by using fewer workers.

Perhaps some readers will remember the Harold Wilson era when the government talked excitedly about the impact of technology and how it would free us from mundane work and we would need to be educated to utilise the enormously increased leisure time that would be generated. Books and learned articles were written about the issue. Today we have a technology far more sophisticated and labour-saving than those gurus of the Wilson era could have dreamt of, but what has happened to all the leisure promised? We are now working longer hours and more intensively than ever. Jobs have become even more routine and robotic. We now have more part-time working and a massive increase in low-skilled service jobs; workers are increasingly placed under electronic surveillance, their every move observed and monitored. Even the most mundane control over our daily working lives is being taken from us. Even the promises of a proper work-life balance seem to have been forgotten.

Work, as Marx so eloquently expressed it, should not be like that and in a better organised society, ‘Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. ... Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.' Alienation and stress at work takes an enormous toll on the lives of workers and their families. The resultant ill-health is also a drain on the health service, and it shortens as well as destroys lives.

Stress has consistently been the second most commonly reported type of work-related illness, according to the HSE. In 2009/10 an estimated 435, 000 working people in Britain suffered stress caused or made worse by their work. This equates to 1,500 per 100, 000 people (1.5%). But these figures only cover illness, not stress itself. Work-related stress is one of the biggest causes of sick leave. In a 2006 HSE survey, one in six working people in the UK reported that their job was very or extremely stressful and that figure will no doubt be even higher today.

Diana Holland, assistant general secretary of Unite, underlined the consequences of stress at a TUC disability conference in May: 'This time of cuts and fears about the future is causing tremendous anxiety for working people. For many workers these are very uncertain times. Higher targets, increased workloads, more pressure and less staff are placing an unbearable strain on workers.' She added: 'The good news though is that stress at work is avoidable. If management carry out risk assessments and act swiftly to put action plans in place, work-related stress can be tackled. This is why Unite is calling on all its workplace representatives to conduct Stress at Work surveys.’

Even mild stress has been proven to lead to people being unable to work, health experts say. Research carried out by the University of Bristol and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden reveal that even mild stress increases the chance of someone being on disability payments for physical problems by 70 per cent, and more than doubles the likelihood they will suffer psychiatric problems. It also found a strong relationship between increasing levels of psychological distress and the likelihood of being awarded a disability pension within five years. One in four benefits for physical illness, such as high blood pressure, angina and stroke, and almost two-thirds for mental illness, were attributable to stress.
The TUC has said that jobs are the single biggest cause of stress, and this can be caused by a variety of factors, such as overwork, bullying, low job satisfaction, job insecurity, new ways of working, poor management, pace of work and lack of control over the job you are paid to do. Mental symptoms of stress range from sleeplessness and listlessness through to clinical depression and suicide. The physical effects range from appetite loss and nausea through to heart damage and stroke. Stress is, above all, a symptom of alienation.
Cary Cooper, Distinguished Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University Management School, says that the growing long hours culture is symptomatic of unmanageable workloads and that the stress of this is directly related to medical problems and long-term absence form work.
Research on effects of long-hours working among civil servants reveals that working more than 11 hours a day increases the risk if heart disease by 67%. The increase in retirement age being brought in by this government will mean even more people becoming ill while at work
Returning to Marx once again, he says, alienation is a systemic result of capitalism. His theory is founded on his observation that, ‘within the capitalist mode of production, workers invariably lose determination over their lives and destinies by being deprived of the right to conceive of themselves as the director of their actions, to determine the character of their actions, to define their relationship to other actors, to use or own the value of what is produced by their actions.’ Workers become autonomous, but are directed into activities dictated by those who own the means of production in order to extract from them the maximal amount of surplus value. ‘Alienation in capitalist societies,’ he says, ‘occurs because workers can only express this fundamentally social aspect of their individuality through a production system that is not collectively, but privately owned, a privatised asset for which each individual functions not as a social being, but as an instrument.’
In response to the present coalition-imposed job cuts and lower wages, we need to challenge the whole concept of work in this context. We are not born to be wage slaves all our life. We must demand humane working conditions, jobs that provide satisfaction and allow adequate time for leisure. The technology and know-how is there to make this possible immediately. Only the system needs changing!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Marx Was Right
By Terry Eagleton
Pubs. Yale University Press
Hdbck £16.99

This is no abstract argumentation, but an eloquent, fact-based rebuttal of the usual criticisms of Marxism; Eagleton buttresses his own arguments using Marx’s own texts. He takes aim at ten of the most standard criticisms and systematically shoots them down like an accomplished clay pigeon marksman. Leavened with Brechtian wit, his argumentation is succinct and to the point.

‘Rather as a bout of dengue fever makes you newly aware of your body,’ he writes, ‘so a form of social life [capitalism] can be perceived for what it is when it begins to break down. Capitalism is uniquely in crisis, the system has ceased to be as natural as the air we breathe, and can be seen instead as the historically rather recent phenomenon it is.’

Eagleton stresses Marx’s dictum that the collapse of capitalism will not automatically take us to socialism, but could just as easily lead to barbarism if we are unable to build strong political, socialist movements. In confronting reformism, he quotes R.H. Tawny - very apposite given the shambles social democracy now finds itself in – ‘you can peel an onion layer by layer but you cannot defeat a tiger claw by claw!’

Referring to Lenin, Eagleton points out that unfortunately revolutions are most likely to break out in places where they are hardest to sustain, as in Tsarist Russia or feudal China. He underlines that people will only be prepared to undertake revolution when they indeed have ‘nothing to lose but their chains’. As long as capitalism can offer a measure of satisfaction and fulfil many of our needs, there will be no clamour for changing the system.

He knocks down the well-worn argument that ‘Marxists believe in an all-powerful state’. Marx’s ideal model of government, he points out, was the Paris Commune. Workers cannot, in any case, simply take over the state, as its structure has been refined for the purposes of the ruling bourgeois class. Marx writes that ‘instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes.’ The Commune, Marx concludes, was essentially a working-class government.

Eagleton knows the writings of Marx inside out and also doesn’t ignore Engels or Lenin, in his argumentation. Unfortunately he does, though, continue to peddle the myth of Engels as a ‘philanderer’. He needs to remember that it was Marx who made his housekeeper pregnant, not Engels! But that is a minor quibble about a volume that is thought-provoking, optimistic and which you can chuckle over. He is a writer who believes passionately in what he writes. His words often slash like razor blades, and with dialectical panache he can suddenly illuminate dark corners with unexpected bolts of lightening.