Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: work

Cursed Work

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on May 15, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/cursed-work

Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.

I have just finished reading David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs. Graeber makes a distinction between “bullshit” jobs and “shit” jobs. I have done both in my time but in my old age have the privilege of not having to work at all.

Adelphi

Graeber defines a bullshit job as “jobs that don’t seem, to the outsider, to really do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers, or the sort of people (very familiar in academic contexts) who spend their time staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees.”

My most depressing job was in the luxurious environment of The Adelphi (an elegant art deco building just off The Strand in which much of David Suchet’s Poirot was filmed). I had a funny and congenial boss, friendly , witty colleagues and a glamorous St Lucian lady who took an interest in me and draped herself across my desk in fishnet stockings. In spite of all that I used to arrive at Charing Cross station every morning wondering if I should throw myself in front of a train. What was wrong with me?!

I regret that I do not have a photograph of the opulent lady in her fishnet stockings, but here is a picture of the opulent Adelphi instead.

 

David Graeber writes: “Once, while serving time in exile at a Siberian prison camp, Dostoyevsky developed the theory that the worst torture one could possibly devise would be to force someone to endlessly perform an obviously pointless task.”

The main problem at The Adelphi was that I knew, and all my colleagues knew, that overseeing staff training policy for Department of Social Security HQ was not a proper job for a grown man still possessed of most of his faculties . I was neither use nor ornament. There was nothing to do except draw up futile “memoranda of understanding” in which no-one was interested.  And to ogle Margaret in her fishnet stockings. The need for such MOUs had been created by the pointless fragmentation of public services through privatisation and outsourcing that was part of the voodoo philosophy of neoliberalism. I had been recommended for promotion a number of times and was usually able to make a good case to the interview board for the usefulness of the work I was doing at that particular time. I could not do that as overseer of DSS HQ training policy. That interview was a humiliating experience and a step on the way to the early retirement that liberated me.

Graeber writes: “A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Gloucester Royal Infirmary

One of the many shit jobs I did was hospital porter at Gloucester Royal Infirmary in 1969. The building had once been a brewery. It was built in 1755 from a design by Luke Singleton and was financed by gifts and legacies. The timbers were donated by King George II and came from the Forest of Dean. It was demolished in 1984. My duties including cleaning lavatories, scraping out the incinerator in which amputated limbs had been burnt, carrying patients up and down stairs when the lifts were being replaced, assisting at operations and postmortems, taking corpses to the morgue in the middle of the night by myself. On the whole, I enjoyed the job. I got invited to parties by doctors and nurses and was given a lot of leftover food before the pigswill man came to take it away. The main satisfaction was that it was a necessary job, and I could feel the direct satisfaction of the patients for my efforts. The hospital manager persuaded me to apply for an administrative job and was angry with me when I fluffed the interview. I sensed even then that he was trying to steer me into a bullshit job.

Stakhanovite

I lived and worked through that awful time in the 80s and 90s when you had to be a Stakhanovite and work all hours to the detriment of family and personal life.  One particular job I had involved travelling all over England staying in seedy hotels and missing meals, working long hours with little social contact. The awful nature of that life was eptomised by one incident. I was at home working on a report in the small hours of the morning. My bosses had given me a tight deadline which I was determined to meet. The phone rang. It was a nurse at Gloucester Royal Infirmary calling to tell me that my mother had died. I put the phone down and finished writing my report. When dawn broke, I set off for the station to go to Gloucester to make funeral arrangements. I stopped off at the office and placed the report on a boss’s desk. When I returned to the office about a week later after my mother’s funeral I was angered to discover that no-one had looked at my report.

My  first marriage broke up while I was doing that job. I cannot blame the job but it did not help. My boss at that time was a strange character who seemed to really like me on  a certain level. We were both working class lads from an Irish Catholic background who shared the same taste in music and politics. We often got on well socially but that did not stop him bullying me relentlessly and brutally when it suited him. He was very supportive when my wife left me. “Mikey Boy, it’s a good job your mother died, because this would have killed her.”

 

There was one good aspect to that job. We did not have mobile phones or iPads. We were not under constant surveillance. I recall downtimes when I could escape and wander around an art gallery and nobody knew where I was or what I was doing. Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming argue that work today exploits workers not only during their time in the workplace, but also but in their very lives: “our authenticity is no longer a retreat from the mandatory fakeness of the office, but the very medium through which work squeezes the life out of us.”

Passionate Overworkers

Miya Tokumitsu writes in Jacobin: “The ceaselessly productive worker, with little time for rest, let alone any need or desire for it, stands today as a heroic icon, particularly in the high-strung white-collar milieus of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The desired persona is one that transcends needs for sleep, care, relationships, and any other obligation that might distract from work and profit.” Journalist Sara Robinson traces this culture back first to the cold war defense industry and then to the tech industries in late twentieth-century California. By the 1980s, “passionate” overworkers like Steve Jobs became icons to the culture at large. We all had to try to be passionate overworkers but did not get the financial rewards of a Gates, Jobs, Bezos  or Zuckerberg.

We all know people who are tiresome in their constant boasting about how busy they are. As Tokumitsu puts it, “Passion is all too often a cover for overwork cloaked in the rhetoric of self-fulfillment.” Kierkegaard was only thirty when he wrote this: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.”

Less Pay for Useful Work

Health workers (other than doctors) seem to be thought of as people who should accept low pay because they get moral satisfaction from doing useful work. As Graeber writes: “There is a sense, it would seem, that an ethos of collective sacrifice for the common good should fall disproportionately on those who are already, by their choice of work, engaged in sacrifice for the common good. Or who simply have the gratification of knowing their work is productive and useful.” Lying politicians encourage the public to applaud NHS workers and then saddle them with what is effectively a pay cut.

Keynes

The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that advances in technology and automation would lead to a situation where people would have more leisure time and work a fifteen-hour week. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher destroyed manufacturing industry so that she could emasculate  the trade unions. The UK does not actually make much anymore; that task is left to China, Japan and South Korea. Productive jobs have, as Keynes predicted, been automated or outsourced. However, technology has been exploited to make everybody work harder.

Shirking

There is an old saying, “work is the curse of the drinking classes”. Graeber notes that the art of skiving has a long tradition in England “but proper shirking does seem to require something real to shirk. In a truly bullshit job, it’s often entirely unclear what one is really supposed to be doing”. The kind of people who complain about welfare benefit cheats generally assume that most people would be happy to be parasites and, like me, be paid to do nothing. I am certainly very comfortable with getting paid to do nothing but I am old and have served my time. . Graeber concedes that many are not cut out for a nine-to-five routine but, “Human beings certainly tend to rankle over what they consider excessive or degrading work; few may be inclined to work at the pace or intensity that ‘scientific managers’ have, since the 1920s, decided they should; people also have a particular aversion to being humiliated. But leave them to their own devices, and they almost invariably rankle even more at the prospect of having nothing useful to do.”

Precariat

I do feel somewhat guilty about my own current privileged position. It easy for me to revel in the fact that I do not need to work to earn a living. There are many today who are desperate to work and cannot do so because of the pandemic. I do my humble best to help out where I can. Employment is becoming increasingly unstable. Privatisation of government services, short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages undermine job security. The British economist Guy Standing has coined the term precariat. Professor Standing argues that the dynamics of globalization have led to a fragmentation of older class divisions. The precariat consists of temporary and part-time workers, interns, call-centre employees, sub-contracted labour – those who are engaged in insecure forms of labour that are unlikely to help them build a desirable identity or career or guarantee them secure accommodation.

Automation has not made life pleasant for workers in Amazon’s warehouses. Workers are scheduled by algorithm, their tasks timed automatically, and their performance supervised digitally. Going to the toilet is seen as theft of company time. Workers are expected to produce more without expecting their productivity to be reflected in their pay or to expect any job security. The precariat has to endure the humiliation of demeaning work that does not enable them to secure a decent home or the welfare of their children, while the “risktakers” pile up obscene amounts of profit.

The idea of a post-work world has proved to be an elaborate con-trick. Collaborative human-friendly labour is part of what makes people feel they are valued and secure. The current order means fragmentation, passivity and political stagnation. The present order has brought us a distracted, demoralized culture of compliance. The global market, privatisation, the dominance of data-mining behemoths has reduced human workers to automatons staring into their smart phones.

Work – Blessing or Curse

 A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday November 12 2014.

Colman's Column3

Work is the curse of the drinking classes. ― Oscar Wilde         

I have a t-shirt, which bears the legend on the front: “Work has ruined my life”. The label that would normally give washing and ironing instructions says: “When this garment is dirty give it to your Mum to wash”.

In his poem “Toads” Philip Larkin asked

 

Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

And drive the brute off?

 

Six days of the week it soils

With its sickening poison –

Just for paying a few bills!

That’s out of proportion.

 

 

Ah, were I courageous enough

To shout Stuff your pension!

But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff

That dreams are made on.

What Does “Work” Mean?

It is quite difficult to define the word “work”, which has come down from the Old English noun weorc and the verb wyrċan. The large Oxford English Dictionary has 34 meanings for the noun and 39 for the verb. The modern word is a general term for doing something, or the product of that action. Contemporary usage has tended to modify the idea of activity, effort or achievement to a narrower concept of doing something for money.

Sometimes the concept is narrower still and confined to physical labour for a wage. Basil Bunting has The Chairman telling Tom that writing poetry is not work:

It’s not work

You don’t sweat

Nobody pays for it…

 

What you write is rot.

 

Bunting neatly combines the idea that real work has to be unpleasant as well as remunerative.

 

Travail, Labour, Pain

 

The word “labour” has connotations of pain, as in the pain of giving birth. “Toil” came from a Latin word meaning crushing, and first came into English as a synonym for trouble,  before it acquired the meaning of arduous labour in the 14th Century. Similarly, the French for work is travail, which has come to mean trials, tribulations and torment.

 

The specialisation of the word work to mean mainly paid employment is a consequence of capitalist productive relations. To be in work came to mean being in a relationship with an entity that controlled the means and financing of productive work and paid the worker’s wages. The meaning of the word then shifted again to mean not the physical or mental activity itself but the relationship between employee and employer. So the “Mum” who is expected to wash t-shirts is not considered to be in work until she leaves the home to work for an employer for a wage.

 

Religion and Capitalism

Work has long been thought a curse- humankind’s punishment for Adam and Eve’s crime in the Garden of Eden. Work is a sacred duty and a remedy for vice. During the Reformation, Protestants denounced monks as idle parasites because the elect did not consider contemplative life as proper work.

In his book, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (1904), German sociologist Max Weber wrote that capitalism in Northern Europe evolved when the Protestant work ethic persuaded many to engage in work in the secular world, and accumulate wealth for investment.  RH Tawney (whose ideas contributed to the welfare state in Britain) explored the relationship between Protestantism and economic development in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In his book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), Tawney “bemoaned the division between commerce and social morality brought about by the Protestant Reformation, leading as it did to the subordination of Christian teaching to the pursuit of material wealth”.

In Victorian times, commentators as different as Ruskin and Samuel Smiles extolled the virtue of work and saw it as man’s highest earthly calling. “One more day’s work for Jesus!” A popular book of Victorian sermons was called Blessed be Drudgery.

Leisure and Idleness

The other dimension is what happens when one is not working. The positive word is “leisure”; the negative word is “idleness”. However, even the word “leisure” is morally tainted as it comes from the Latin word licere, which means “permit”. The root is the same as it is for “licence”. Leisure is freedom to put aside rules and obligations. The devil finds work for idle hands.

Rabanus Maurus, Abbot of Fulda (c780-856), wrote: “The idle man grows dull in carnal desires, is cheerless in spiritual works, has no joy in the salvation of his soul, and does not become cheerful in helping his brother, but only craves and desires and performs everything in an idle fashion. Acedia corrupts the miserable mind which it inhabits with many misfortunes, which teach it many evil things…May the servant of god never be found idle! For the devil has greater difficulty in finding a spot or temptations in the man whom he finds employed in some good work, than in him whom he encounters idler and practising no good”.

The development of capitalism makes possible a clear distinction between work and “free time”. Working for an employer enables or even compels one to have a structure to one’s life, the rhythm of weekends off and an annual holiday. The word “holiday” comes from the old word for a religious festival.

Others have seen something positive in idleness. Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can most easily obtain, not only escapes labours which are often fruitless, but sometimes succeeds better than those who despise all that is within their reach, and think every thing more valuable as it is harder to be acquired.” “Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what

Busyness can even be pernicious. Bertrand Russell:”I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached”.

 Precariat

 sEven in the 19th Century, the most usual contract in Britain was terminable at a week’s notice or less. In the 1870s, hiring fairs gave way to employment bureaux but the commonest way to find work was through family or personal connections. The distinction between skilled and unskilled workers was blurred and came to rest upon lack of organisation rather than lack of skill. Wharfingers and stevedores who were organised into unions were seen as skilled while unaffiliated dock labourers whose work was irregular were seen as unskilled casual labour.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the end of the 20th Century, technology would have advanced sufficiently to cut the working week to 15 hours. What has happened is that many are living in poverty because of unemployment; others are complaining about being stressed out by overwork. Huge armies of people in Europe and North America, spend their lives performing pointless tasks for unseen and unknown employers.

David Weil explains in his book, The Fissured Workplace that corporations have used “subcontracting, franchising, third-party management, outsourcing” to fragment employment. They have maintained the quality of their brands and products (and their enormous profits) at the same time as shedding the cost of maintaining an expensive workforce. Workers have seen their remuneration stagnate and have lost benefits.

Employment is becoming increasingly unstable. Privatisation of government services, short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages undermine job security. The British economist Guy Standing has coined the term precariat. Professor Standing argues that the dynamics of globalization have led to a fragmentation of older class divisions. The precariat consists of temporary and part-time workers, interns, call-centre employees, sub-contracted labour – those who are engaged in insecure forms of labour that are unlikely to help them build a desirable identity or career or guarantee them secure accommodation.

Whereas in the past, one might have hoped for (often vainly) some reciprocal loyalty between employer and employee, that is no longer the case. There is little chance these days of working for the same employer for forty years and getting a gold clock at the end of it. Today, there is no single, easily identifiable employer but a web of intermediaries. The outside contractor demands high performance, at the same time as driving down wages, job security, and benefits.

In these circumstances, there is scant opportunity to organize or join a union. These are the conditions that the EU deems helpful to “ease of doing business”. The entire structure of worker protections and benefits legislated beginning in the New Deal in the US , and the social contract of the post-war UK, is predicated on the assumption that the employee is on the payroll of the company that makes the product. “The modern employment relationship,” Weil writes, “bears little resemblance to that assumed in our core workplace regulations.”

As the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution no longer provided employment, investors and traders gained power over managers in the era of financial deregulation that began around 1980. New technologies made it easier to outsource work while retaining control over worker performance. Fissuring became the new employment norm, because capital markets, the new masters, demanded it.

Disaffected Youth

Alice Goffman was raised by professional parents in one of white Philadelphia’s upper-middle-class neighbourhoods. She wrote a book called On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City based on her first-hand experience of spending years associating with black families in Philadelphia. She started off tutoring some black children while she was at Penn State, became friends of the families and then lived in the 6th Street area for another four years. She took notes on everything she saw while pursuing a doctorate at Princeton. The book has been hailed as a potential ethnographic classic.

Goffman describes the world of young jobless blacks who had almost all served time in prison. The police constantly harass these black young men. Older residents want violent crime and drug use to be reduced but do not believe standard police methods can achieve this. While Goffman accepts that the police are doing what they were hired to do she also recognises that the young men are doing what they have to do in order to eat.  They are usually short of money Their womenfolk support them up to a point.

Economic dependency humiliates them, fuelling anger and resentment that easily turns to violence. Crime, in particular drug dealing, is their job. Even the men who spend months looking for work seldom find even part-time or short-term work. A prison record does not help them to find work.

When I lived in Bandarawela, I sometimes felt uncomfortable to see groups of Sinhalese youths hanging around looking menacing and seemingly without gainful occupation. One remembers that youth unemployment was one of the factors leading to the JVP uprisings. Where I live now, I have similar anxieties about Tamil youths. I have given many of them employment with generous pay when I could and they are friendly and respectful to me, in general. However, one of the most respectful and skilled of them robbed me and seems to have gone off the rails with drink and drugs. I do feel insecure sometimes in this remote spot and one does hear tales of burglary and violence.

RECESSIONAL

 

In Mayhew’s time, purefinders hunted dogturds

For the Thames tanneries. In London’s interstices

Today, lurk practitioners of queer trades.

Some sell flesh to serve obscure perversions.

Others lease their souls to corporate perversities.

                                                               

Grimy-nailed commuter, feet a foot above the floor.

Seething under his warty dome, recondite arcana,

Incunabula of redundant costings-lore,

Depreciation value of cabinets, the best deal on staplers.

Good and faithful servant homeward,

To supper alone on  a cold pork pie.

                    

In Whitehall, mandarins pander to ministers

In the morning, dissipate afternoons

Restructuring, rightsizing, diminishing.               

Producing no good, only paper and ‘policy’.

 

In Sofia’s streets, old men with scales,

Wait for citizens willing to pay to be measured.

Be-suited men in Lima  with open-air typewriters,

On park benches, type legalities for the illiterate.

 

Raped Congo women succumb to heavy sacks of cassava

Or squat to sell single tomatoes. Vicious  commodity wars,

Fragmenting nations, flotsam of refugees.

Globalisation drowns Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay.

 

Kipling’s “Lesser breeds” shrewdly subsist

Under imperial global mammon’s awful hand.

In the city of dreadful night, deformities displayed for cash.

At ancient Vijaynagara, the guide’s right-hand man

Demonstrates the pillars’ musical properties.

Con brio, he smites the columns to achieve a melody.

Confident to smugness, he has status.

His hand is bent, swollen and covered in calluses.

 

In concert with worms, I prepare soil for sowing.

The ponies tame the meadow and give manure for hoeing.

The wounded earth affirms the atavistic cycle still.

In the indigo sky, a double rainbow joins hill to hill.

Under every rock toils a society of ants.

Oregano quivers Gregorian with bees’ monkish chants.

 

 

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