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BOOKS What is to be done in the workplace

GORDON PARSONS recommends a book proposing a break with the neoliberal shackles on organised labour, which explores ways things could be different

Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism
by Amelia Horgan
(Pluto Press, £19.99)

ESCAPING Capitalism, the subtitle of Amelia Horgan’s dissection of the nature and role of work within society, underlines that her book is not “just about crap jobs.”

Work under capitalism — wage labour is, she contends, “a curtailment of the possibilities of our lives.”

Although since the 2008 financial crisis commentators have begun to talk publicly about capitalism, even questioning the Thatcherite mantra that “there is no alternative,” however much we may complain, we will not be able to begin to change the system without understanding its essential nature.
Echoing basic Marxism, Horgan initially demonstrates lucidly just how it all works by exemplifying the process of the cloth and garment industry from feudal times through to its industrial market development, whereby the worker was separated from the means of production, a process of alienating denaturalisation.    

If the development of new labour-saving technologies might be seen as alleviating the exploitative power relationship between worker and employer, the question is who owns the new technologies and in whose interests are they run?

Horgan demolishes the myth of work as a natural propensity of humanity and, consequently, central to the individual’s sense of identity.

The contemporary worker may no longer resemble Chaplin’s factory slave in the film Modern Times but “free” wage labourers are just as much beholden to the market economy based on accumulation and profit at all costs, what Microsoft’s Bill Gates terms “friction-free capitalism.”

The challenging problem of unpaid work, notably the largely if not exclusively women’s role in housework — “the unfair and gendered distribution of tedium,” Horgan argues — must be addressed by anti-capitalists and recognised as producing value and treated as a part of any effort to reassess social responses to work.  

The main thrust of the book explores strategies of resistance against neoliberalism’s determination to break the power of organised labour and to explore ways things could be different.

Definitions of “work” determine legal rights for whole sections of an increasingly precarious and privatised workforce.  

There have been victories in the resistance, such as the Uber drivers’ battles.

Represented by the GMB union, they took their case right through to the Supreme Court against the company, which fought unsuccessfully to deny them workers’ rights to the minimum wage and paid holiday leave.

Horgan ranges widely from the physical and mental stresses of work whether on the building site or under the time pressure of firms like Amazon to how universities are now in permanent recruitment mode, chasing student grants for survival.

It is just possible that a combination of the climate and Covid crises may force society to recognise that while “work can be dangerous, exploitative or even just boring, all work under capitalism harms workers because of the coercion that pushes us into it, and the lack of control we face doing it,” as Horgan argues.

And that’s why we must transform and democratise work, basing it on principles of socially valuable, environmentally friendly production.  

Idealistic perhaps, but the alternative is unthinkable.


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