Making hard work of it: Allusions to work in the party manifestos

I’ve believed for a while that the advanced capitalist economies are likely to enter a period of reduced demand for labour (economically speaking, that is… demand for the big-L variety dried up circa 2008). It isn’t inevitable – nothing ever is – and the evidence is still quite sketchy. But there is a fairly strong likelihood that the post-industrial expansion of employment fuelled by domestic, financial and technology-related services has already reached its historical peak.

In one way, the party manifestos back this up. Governments just don’t do employment strategies anymore, and there is nothing to suggest otherwise at this election, despite the recent and upcoming rise in unemployment following the recession. On the other hand, the parties don’t seem to get it. They actually talk endlessly about work – even though in some sectors, and in some areas, the jobs simply do not exist. Ultimately, work has been individualised (i.e. our leaders talk about our capacity to work, not the organisations we could actually work for), and as such is presented as central to our identity as human beings and our citizenship.

The Labour and Conservative manifestos bang on and on about welfare-to-work policies and providing training for young, workless people. Labour also champions its record on the National Minimum Wage and its employment-based model of individual rights. The Conservatives go even further: their manifesto talks about the social evil of workless households and how immigrants are taking jobs that homegrown NEETs could be doing. It suggests we should work longer – i.e. raise the state pension age faster than already planned – and even the creation of ‘local work clubs’ where people meet up to talk about jobs, recruitment, etc. The latter is indicative of the Conservative’s ‘big society’ shtick: not only do they want us working ‘til we drop while we’re at work, they want us running the country in our spare time. Is it just me, or does the whole thing feel a bit like a really lame version of Mao’s cultural revolution?

The Lib Dems are perhaps the least guilty in this regard. They emphasise flexible working (a slight acknowledgement that there is an over-supply of labour) and how an Obama-style green economy would create jobs (thus in a minimal sense creating more labour demand). Moreover, while their (much shorter) prospectus has less on training the NEETs, they are the only ones to offer some serious government money for apprenticeships. Nevertheless, all the parties refer far too much to vocational education (why not education for its own sake?) and we should all become worker-managers in mutual and co-operatives (gimme a break). Work/life balance, anyone?

We’re in a situation where the political class have privatised the pursuit of social justice. It is only through paid employment that we are truly empowered. Of course, this ideological trick has been influenced by the fact the state can no longer afford to do social justice, even if it wanted to. So the state does more with less by getting us to pick up the slack. I’m no statist, but given the trends in labour demand and the huge potential for new economic lifestyles that could result, it is an intellectual move that seems to be coming at precisely the wrong time.