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14 April 2021

Why work lost its worth

The shared moral project of the next decade will be restoring the link between labour, community and a meaningful life.

By Rowan Williams

One of the most vacuous idioms we use about our moral and social debates is the idea of being “on the side of history”. The plain meaning of this is that “history” – the record of human actions – has an inevitable trajectory, and we had better get on board with it or suffer the consequences.

Readers of this magazine will know from John Gray’s regular and well-aimed ­diatribes on this subject that such language is a clumsy adaptation of religious notions of a purpose at work in human affairs. In this world-view, the only significant question is who is predestined to win, so that we can align ourselves safely with tomorrow’s orthodoxies and power systems.

One thing in common between the two very different books under review is that they both – despite occasional lapses – implicitly challenge any notion of history having a “side”. They chart stories of gain and loss, good choices and bad, good things lost for the sake of short-term advantage, crises that rally people to fresh efforts. They both firmly declare a strong and specific view of what makes a liveable, desirable, reasonable and contented human life. And they both depict a future that is to be desired and worked for, since it is one that does better justice to who we are as human agents. They are clear that, without such an ­orientation, we condemn ourselves to ­slavery and unhappiness.

For all sorts of understandable reasons, we have become very wary of public and social norms. We are conscious of the legacy of appealing to such supposed norms in the context of gender and sexuality, conscious also of the persistent marginalising of persons who are neurologically atypical or living with learning challenges. The truth, however, is that without some language about what is good and fitting for human beings, what emerges is not a ­paradise of uncontrolled self-fulfilment but a new tyranny: the global market in which human identity is systematically reduced to purchasing power, and the ­material environment is reduced to a store of dead stuff that can be processed through the exchange mechanisms of ever-more competitive trading.

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Jon Cruddas, a thoughtful and idiosyncratic Labour politician, has some hard words for the kind of progressive politics that envisages a future of subsidised leisure, in which guarantees of economic security – perhaps through some version of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) – make actual labour unnecessary. (I should add that Cruddas’s hostility to UBI rather underrates the recent evidence from the US that some schemes of this sort have a good record in motivating searches for work and restoring a positive shape to lives of mingled struggle and low expectation.)

Cruddas sees this as an aspect of the ­“decoupling” of labour from politics and argues that it is significant (and ought to be worrying) that this utopian vision finds advocates on the right as well as the left – which might well prompt us to ask exactly whose interests are ultimately served in such a world, and where power would lie.

Looking back on the policies of the last two Labour administrations, Cruddas identifies their engagement with problems of labour and employment as essentially “remedial”. The Blair and Brown governments, he argues, created a set of damage limitation exercises to make sure that traditional working populations – having ended up on the “wrong” side of history – would have some kind of practical safety net, as patterns of employment shifted towards a mixture of high-tech service industries and a nimble capacity to leap between the ice floes of a torrentially unstable market in “low-skilled” jobs.

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What makes this unsatisfactory is not that it was imperfectly worked out (and all too easily dismantled): it is that “people value work over welfare”, as Cruddas bluntly puts it. Despite the mythology of an innately idle underclass who will always prefer handouts to employment, Cruddas argues with some passion that the experience of “traditional” working communities is one in which people share an experience of agency, and so of dignity and meaning, even when working conditions are grim and relations with management are sour and conflicted.

This is explored in the context of the history of Cruddas’s own Dagenham and Rainham constituency, framed in his account by two films – Nigel Cole’s 2010 Made in Dagenham, chronicling and celebrating the seamstresses’ strike at the Ford plant in 1968, and Andrea Arnold’s 2009 Fish Tank, a bleak picture of a contemporary landscape without work, family stability or much in the way of basic solidarity. Both films were largely shot on the same estate. They serve Cruddas as symbols of how a struggling but basically humane and robust culture has been eroded by an assortment of economic and political betrayals.

In one way, of course, this is a familiar enough picture; some would dismiss it as just another wistful reflection on the ideal of communitarian virtue, craft guilds and cooperative welfare, which can be traced back to Richard Hoggart and William Morris. But there is more edge to the argument than that might suggest. Cruddas is able to deploy the wider philosophical perspectives of Michael Sandel and Richard Sennett to pose a challenge that goes beyond nostalgia.

The two most salient issues he raises are these. First: if collaborative labour, the shared work of making an environment habitable and human-friendly, is part of what makes human beings feel worth and security, the fantasies of a post-work world are not only shallow but dangerous, leading to fragmentation, passivity and, ultimately, political stagnation. And second: if labour and politics are “decoupled” in the new world, then in future power is likely to shift irreversibly towards an ever-narrowing elite who never have to negotiate with flesh-and-blood workforces about what might be good or nourishing or emancipatory for all in the community.

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Setting this alongside the much larger and more technically detailed work of the American political thinkers Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, we can see how Cruddas’s protests map on to the bell-curve they describe. The Upswing traces a trajectory in US society over the last century or so. The destructively individualistic, competitive, polarised environment of America’s “Gilded Age” at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries gives way to a steadily increasing sense of common identity and mutual responsibility – and then rapidly reverts to something eerily similar to the US of the 1890s.

It is what the authors call the “I-we-I” curve. They measure it in granular detail through statistics about popular education, voluntary “fellowship” groups, language about and attitudes to the relative importance of belonging or conformity and free self-expression – and even preferred names for babies (the prevalence in certain periods for familiar or familial names over eccentric or specially devised ones, and vice versa).

Two substantial chapters on race and gender usefully and realistically complicate the picture. The “we” of American identity was never as fully inclusive as some would have liked to believe, and Putnam and Garrett note the disagreeable fact that ­“progressives” at the beginning of the last century could be indifferent or worse where racial issues were concerned (as in the UK, with the co-option of vulgarised Darwinism by “enlightened” eugenicists such as John Maynard Keynes and HG Wells).

Yet what happened was that a process evolved in black American society in parallel to what was going on in the dominant white world, whereby levels of education and political participation grew at a steady and rapid pace until the 1970s. At this point, they begin to decline again; somehow a foot was taken off the pedal, as the authors put it.

And with the status of women, there are similar patterns – though with a less marked reversal. Putnam and Garrett argue very persuasively that the 1950s represent ­something of a blip in the story: increasing levels of female education and paid work plateaued in that decade, partly because of the postwar increase in male college education, partly because of changing employment opportunities that were not particularly favourable to women. Early marriage, strong cultural signals about the sanctity of family life, and increased purchasing power within marriage lessened the pressure for change.

The feminist revolution of the 1960s and after was not a bolt from a clear sky of domestic conformism, but a revitalisation of what had been an increasingly strong social trend from the 1920s onwards. But as with race, the foot came off the pedal and stayed off; and today there are signs of real regression – limited but disturbing reiterations of 1950s stereotyping.

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Since his 2000 classic, Bowling Alone, Putnam has been an authoritative chronicler of the growing anomie of American society. He is able effectively to debunk some convenient fictions – the idea, for example, that “big government” is some long-term plot to disenfranchise the ordinary citizen (timelines show that government interventions regularly follow popular demands for more communitarian structures in society), or the claim that immigration is a major cause of wage stagnation or the fragmentation of civic solidarity. “The greater the solidarity of a society, the more open it becomes to immigration and diversity,” the authors claim: it is when solidarity is already fractured that threats are more readily identified and amplified.

If historical processes are not automatically benign and one-directional, we have choices to make. Putnam and Garrett point to signs that American society may be close to the kind of watershed that generated the steady advance of shared value, equality and inclusivity in the first half of the last century – the moment when a sort of collective self-disgust prompts a turning away from individualism. Generational change, along with the striking renaissance of activism around race, gender, climate crisis and justice for migrants that has been galvanised by the Trump presidency, promises new perspectives. But for these to be fleshed out in another “upswing”, there needs to be effective coordination between such grass-roots and issue-focused politics and a cohesive ­national vision.

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Both books are manifestly uncomfortable with identity politics; and one of the conundrums the reader is left with is how a renewed politics of solidarity and meaningful labour avoids the trap of reverting to monochrome or conformist patterns. Part of the answer, though, is in Putnam and Garrett’s formulation just mentioned. Security and solidarity – not at all the same thing as burgeoning GDP – can ground generosity; insecurity breeds the fatal environment in which all identities menace and threaten to undermine one another.

What “security” really means is central to these books, and any politics that works for an equitable future. Cruddas is surely right to underline the utter inadequacy of purely remedial approaches to poverty and exclusion: the right method requires a desire to make a lasting and significant difference. William Morris was not wrong about this in his News From Nowhere. But we are now more conscious than we used to be of what Morris understood very well: some forms of labour are unsustainably damaging to both persons and ­environment, and there is no merit in a Trumpian reclamation of ecologically murderous industrial activity.

Cruddas partly acknowledges this, but one aspect of the book that needs development is exactly what a new affirmation of the dignity of labour would mean in a radically “greened” economy. He gives a good overview of policies that might revitalise the link of politics with labour, but there is a certain vagueness about the Green New Deal and its potential for new working opportunities. Putnam and Garrett likewise make the right environmental noises but veer away from specifics – and they exhibit the very typical American suspicion of anything that could be labelled “socialism”, seeing this merely as a destructively extreme distraction from the building of a new “progressive” consensus.

Neither book quite grasps the nettle of how we should think about growth in a new politics and economics. Two significant works are absent from the bibliographies: Robert Skidelsky’s book, Enough is Enough, written with his son Edward, which very effectively dusts off the Keynesian idea that there is a point of maximum economic growth in a national economy beyond which the need is for stabilisation not expansion, and Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth, which details what a resetting of economic activity would involve.

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If it is true that solidarity requires a communal or national shared project (without which there can be no shared culture), it will not do to imagine this simply in terms of working for an ever-increasing GDP. This is to slip back into the slavery of an economism that overrides actual social, humane values. We need a project concentrating on how we work to keep one another safe and to ensure a shared stability for the next generation. It is an elementary deduction that greening the economy is essential to this task. If we are searching for the shared moral project of the next decade and more – seeking ways to re-set the balance between “I” and “we” – this must be a central concern.

These two timely, engaging books prepare us for that rallying call, but never quite articulate it. Yet the things they most care about and long for will not be realised without confronting our addiction to an unfocused “growth” and our illiteracy about the effects of living, as we do, in a world of finite resources and vulnerable ecosystems.

The Dignity of Labour
Jon Cruddas
Polity, 216pp, £14.99

The Upswing: How We Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again
Robert Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett
Swift Press, 448pp, £25

This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people