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Let’s change the world, not ourselves: Laurie Penny on a new New Year

The idea of making and breaking new year's resolutions is wearisomely counter-revolutionary.

New year custom requires us to repent our seasonal overconsumption and embark on a round of dieting and overhauls of personal hygiene. A couple weeks ago, the editor of this magazine called, asking New Statesman writers to submit their new year's resolutions for the edification of our valued readers. I had a think and came up with the closest thing to a mantra I've fixed on for this year: following recent travails, upon which I shall not elaborate, I will no longer be involving myself romantically with any young man who does not own at least two pairs of shoes and who has lived for more than a week in a skip in Camberwell. One must have some standards.

In truth, though, the idea of making and breaking new year's resolutions is wearisomely counter-revolutionary. It is tragic that a significant proportion of us will be quitting smoking, starting a diet or revamping our wardrobe this January, not only because smoking, snacking and wearing strange clothes are all perfectly decent things to do but because the whole ritual of making resolutions yokes us back into the pernicious cycles of consumption and guilt that sustain corporate profit and make most of us miserable most of the time.

I'm quite happy to be an unfit, dishevelled and socially awkward roll-up smoker if it means that I have extra time to devote to more important things. I could promise to become a better person, to do everything in my power to help smash the global crypto-capitalist oligarchy and to stop biting my nails to the quick like an agitated toddler -- but I do that every day anyway.

Binge and purge

Every day and in every way, we all could change ourselves for the better and become cleaner, more productive, less monumentally messed-up individuals. The question is, why should we? Why should we improve ourselves? Wouldn't it be a lot more useful -- and a lot more liberating -- finally to accept our own filth and fallibility and try instead to change the world for the better? Very few people who make new year's resolutions stick to them but that is hardly the point. The ritual is all about setting individual goals and missing them, all about the orthodoxy of self-improvement.

The inevitability of failure is part of that orthodoxy. You are supposed constantly to be trying and failing to become a healthier, less weird version of your imperfect self and, when you fail, there will always be consumption to console you in your lonely guilt.

It's as if we are no longer allowed to celebrate something as joyously and collectively human as the turning of another year without promising to isolate ourselves yet again within the cruel, binge-purge cycle of private consumer neurosis. The spiritual logic behind these liturgies of self-indulgence and self-denial -- their place within old religious schedules of fasting and feasting -- has long since lost emotional relevance for most of us, but, in fact, the rituals have only become more frantic. Most of us don't gorge on chocolate on Christmas Day because of Baby Jesus or give it up for Lent because of Zombie Jesus, but we need only the barest of excuses to starve and stuff ourselves, wasting our energies and atomising dissent.

So let's do something useful this year. Let's decide that we're OK the way we are, after all, and that we don't need to try to become thinner or prettier or more productive. Let's refuse to make ourselves better, and make the world better instead. In this critical year, in which the very nature of politics and citizenship could change utterly, there is only one resolution that we should be making. It's the same as last year and the year before that: be brave, be kind, speak truthfully and fight the power. Apart from the one about not dating tramps, it's the only promise to which I'll ever hold myself.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.