We Need New Thinking On Work

I haven’t been a fan of Nick Cohen for a long time.  He’s back on form a bit with this piece – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/07/government-cuts-poor-legal-action

I am no fan at all of lawyers, most of whom I regard as scum.  They are OK in cricket teams, passable colleagues in universities and so on, but as solicitors, barristers, judges and bureaucrats they are scum, essentially stealing good livings in a system they should change almost entirely.  We now have only legal systems, not a justice system.

What Cohen has noticed, is that government works by putting its business outside decent and rational systems.  It outsources.  Doctors have long been problematic in attempts to reduce invalidity benefits,  and it’s long been the case that many appeals have been successful.  This has long been standard knowledge, so much so that entirely useless PhDs focusing on it can be found.  People are not on invalidity benefits because they are scroungers; it’s because their jobs were taken away and we have no way of putting the jobs back.  Living on the dole is crippling and mentally being sick is easier than just being such a waste of space you can’t get a job.

We should be very wary of government by outsourcing, yet it can be very effective.  Most people in organisations tend to be very defensive about them and think they do a good, rather vital job.  Our cops are fairly typical.  The truth is that much of their work could be done by cheaper, imported people doing long shifts, living in barracks and sent home after 5 year spell with gratuities rather than accruing expensive pensions and other on-costs.  I’ve worked like this abroad, with South Asian colleagues getting less than a third my rate, and even less outside the academic field.  Typically, people in organisations come up with all kinds of reasons why they are worth more than a few South Asian mercenaries, our cops suddenly becoming warm, friendly, non-bureaucratic, tolerant and so much better than the cheap imports it’s probably racist.  We should note the quality of cars and motorcycles has hardly collapsed since British manufacturers were trashed.

In fact, we could do everything cheaper by using cheap labour.  And better – remember when we thought imported stuff was inferior crap?  Now we drive foreign, drink foreign, eat foreign … so why do we bother with our own doctors, cops, lawyers or road sweepers?  The Gulf Countries do not.

I don’t advocate we give up work and let ‘slaves’ do it.  On the contrary, we should remember just how slave-ridden history is, recognising it in the Athenian Democracy and Magna Carta; amongst peoples of all races.  Only a fool would really believe I am training Laotians in Zambia to take over all uniform policing in the UK.  Yet we are fools not recognise the dangers of government outsourcing; not to notice even “objective” people with years of medical-scientific training start to declare people fit for work when under financial pressure to do so (with as many as 80% of appealed decisions ‘wrong’).

What we should be doing is changing the way we have been made to think about work.   This is not hard intellectually; but it is radical, so most will not be up for or to it.  Most undergraduates have higher than average intelligence (of the IQ sort), but are mostly sheep with no ideas or thinking of their own (we academics spot the ones who are different and beat it out of them).  On issues like work ethic, the whole population needs to move.  Imagining we can do this rationally is a rationalist fantasy.

Work, in much of history, was for scumbags – for the bronze people, whose souls it scarred, or slaves, who might not have souls to scar.  Huge numbers of people in Greek city states or Rome did not work – the idle sods were fed on bread and circuses.  Socrates hung around waiting to molest young men, not to fuel a rebellion to free slaves.

My first question on work is whether you would do any if you had no need of money?  I can imagine 80% of you saying you would.  Put to the real test of winning the lottery and being asked if you were working 2 years on, my guess is nearly 100% of the 80% would be proved hapless liars.  I guess it is possible to track down such winners, and I guess none of them are working, other than a few who pissed it all up the wall.

If you get the drift of the above ‘question’, it is that we are currently deluded on what work is, and much of our sense of it is ideological.  I can tell you precisely how much work a steam-engine had to do to drag itself and ten carriages up a hill (and teach most who don’t know how).  You cannot tell me how much work you need to do to establish a home, water, food, security and a viable family unit; and I can’t either.  Money does this work for us, but I suspect at great cost.  My guess is that all my family basics could be achieved through 10% of the work I’ve done in 40 years, including realistic continuance through pension.

Some people are greatly alarmed to discover that 90% of their efforts have been wasted.  I go back to the pint of cider – 2.8 pence at the factory gate and yet £3.40 to swill in the pub – but one could think of a bwanker pressing a few buttons to make an insider bet worth millions.  Only 4% of the world’s GDP is agriculture.

One of my favourite places to hear about work is Dubai.  Sitting in a magnificent club, built by South Asian labour (regularly not paid as promised – a Middle eastern form of HRM) at cheap rates, swilling a New Zealand lager from a chilled glass served by South Asian labour prepared to bet on the England – Sri Lanka Test, one’s company states that the White Cliffs of Dover only look good on the way out, Britain is a shit-hole full of idle crooks and wogs, and that this is the paradise of the free, the self-made.  She looked good, but turns to find an empty glass and me gone off to play beach cricket with my concierge and his kids.  He speaks English, Arabic and some Sri Lankan patois; he is paid a fifth the salary of the dumb blonde; his kids are roaring I am out LBW and are dispatching me to field, ankle deep in the sea, at midwicket.  There is almost no indigenous working class where there is oil wealth in the Middle East (Bahrain is a part exception).  What is work in this description?

I’m not advocating idleness.  If we stripped work of its ideology, we’d find we need to do less of it.  We might also be able to transform work-money-living relationships for the better.  If I ask my students how money works, most are banging their heads against the wall in a few minutes – or would if they weren’t so idle, so put off thinking through education.

We tend to forget most people could do our job.  I work part-time now and fill in teaching all sorts of crap I once thought I knew barely nothing about, compared with subject specialist colleagues.  200 Chinese paying £11,500 p.a. each to listen to me  reading death by Powerpoint notes and marking them between 40 and 90 on the basis of what I pick up of my own voice?  Not quite – I don’t do lectures like this, though it’s difficult not to when your audience barely speaks English.  Gadget is no doubt equally ‘vital’ on his shift.  The CPS ‘vital’ and so on.  Even hospital staff may not be as ‘vital’ as they think.  Most of us could be replaced by a Plasticine clone that could talk, and certainly do someone browner-skinned and cheaper.  No one really stays in my lectures because of my knowledge, jokes or encouragement to think –  it’s because I can pass them, and at least in principle fail them.  I have a whole class that should fail at the moment, but all this will do is lead to me not working there next semester, and some bureaucrat shuffling to change my results.  I’ve already arranged alternative work, but it’s not even this easy to fail students now.  Our jobs are more interchangeable than we think – which may be why we set up so many restrictive practices around them.

If we could do some ‘deconstruction’ (not that foul Derridean stuff) on work, we could come up with some really valid ways of doing it and paying ourselves.  Instead, we are hamstrung by economics and personal vanity – the latter often established by deriding an evil poor and imagining one’s own virtues in comparison.  Things are about to get much, much worse in Britain.  About October next year is my prediction – I’m offski around then.


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