The War over Work

New books by Jon Cruddas and Amelia Horgan exploring work share much common ground, but come to radically different conclusions – exposing a deep generational divide over the future of the workplace.

It took years before I even knew what it was my dad actually did for a living between the early 1970s and the mid 1990s – not until he casually mentioned a couple of years ago how eventually became sick of ‘bending a piece of metal every night’. In those decades he was a sheet metal worker, often working night shifts, at Vero, an electronics company based in and around Southampton. He never talked about what he actually did at ‘the fun factory’. What he would talk about is the trade union activity – the ‘cut and thrust’ of the arguments, the battles, the strike actions. After he finally took the offer of a job in the office he would often talk about how much he missed trade unionism, and absolutely not once about missing the sheet metal work that made his activism possible.

I was thinking about this a lot when reading Jon Cruddas’ The Dignity of Labour, a new, Keir Starmer-blurbed study of contemporary work from the MP and post-New Labour policy thinker. Cruddas comes from a working-class family in Portsmouth, just down the M27 from where the Vero factory used to be (it’s a housing development now, of course). While my Dad was bending that piece of metal, the slightly younger Cruddas would have been just round the corner, at least when he was on his holidays from writing his PhD on value theory at Warwick and then teaching at the University of Wisconsin.

I say this not to be bitchy – I know very well where he’s coming from, quite literally. Writing as someone from the Solent urban area with a working-class background, a Labour Party membership, and a PhD, I might even feel a certain affinity with the man. But the book has written all over it that it’s the product of writer who knows his trade union history and his labour legislation, and knows the stories of his family and his peers, but has absolutely no idea what it is like to work in the actually existing labour market of the 2010s, any more than I have any idea what it was like to be a metalworker in the 1970s.

This is a bit of a shame. In the moribund late years of New Labour, Jon Cruddas was the first prominent figure to criticise the rampant inequality that government was presiding over, and because of that he was the trade unions’ overwhelming choice when he stood for Deputy Leader in 2007. He was a leading force in the thinktank Compass, who started bringing left-wing intellectuals back into the Labour Party’s fold – with that strange organisation publishing a rum list of pamphlets that ranged from Chuka Umunna and Lisa Nandy to Mark Fisher and Jeremy Gilbert. Much of the Labour programme in 2017 and 2019 read like the Compass programme of renewed social democracy finally making it into a real-world manifesto.

But like a lot of that cohort, he sat out the Corbyn years, and nominated the preposterous Owen Smith for leader in 2016. The paradox of 2017 was that it took a radical socialist to actually have the gumption and courage to stand on a radical social democratic programme, which poor old Ed Miliband wouldn’t dare do in 2015. The response from far too many of those people was to sulk.

Actually-Existing Work

The Dignity of Labour sometimes feels like the intellectual expression of that sulk. Cruddas has decided that the central problem of ‘Corbynism’, especially at the intellectual level, was its obsession with automation, ‘accelerationism’, and ‘post-work’. It is this, he argues, that has alienated ‘the traditional working class’, and produced the 2019 debacle. Explaining the title, Cruddas tells us that ‘when I was young, I was taught about the dignity of labour. For my devout mother it was part of our catholic teaching. As a teenage union member, I heard talk of it from the same guy who told me to read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists‘; his epigraph, from FDR, speaks of ‘the joy and stimulation of work’.

He knows, of course, that work today falls short of this ‘joy’. What he wants to argue is that labour is not some relic of the past that is about to be automated out of existence, but a crucial part of being human, and a source of pride – and the underrating of that pride, he argues, links New Labour to Corbynism in a continuum of metropolitan obsessions with either ‘the knowledge economy’ in the former or ‘the networked youth’ in the latter.

He uses the outpouring of gratitude towards workers during the Covid lockdowns as evidence of the real importance of real labour. Because of this radical stripping down of human needs to what was really important, ‘we (could) recognise the dignity’ of many service jobs, those ‘performed by those considered part of the ‘left behind”. Here he mentions not just health service workers but also ‘tube, bus and lorry drivers, cleaners, teachers, delivery drivers, supermarket operatives’.

Through a set of detours through New Labour policymaking, the cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Andrea Arnold, the Christian socialism of the young Tony Blair, the history of Dagenham, his constituency, the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Catholic social teaching, and Marxist value theory, he arrives at the conclusion that while Corbynism relied on ‘educated metropolitan winners’, Labour now has to return to the real working class and to its ‘traditional attempts to regulate employment and respect the dignity of human labour’.

Where to start with this? One thing that we could mention is that the opposition to Corbynism did not at all come from ‘essential’ workers, or, by and large, from people in employment at all – if only the working-age population had voted in the 2017 election, Labour would have won easily and Jeremy Corbyn would now be in his fourth year as Prime Minister, PLP pending. It is also an exaggeration to argue that the influence of Paul Mason (a particular obsession in this book, rather ironically as they’re now politically in much the same place), Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, David Graeber, or Aaron Bastani was ‘a whole strategy for the radical left’ so much as the strategy of one part of it – a well-networked part, to be sure.

The radical policies on work tentatively endorsed by John McDonnell, such as a Four-Day Week and potentially a Universal Basic Income, did not suggest the abolition of work so much as its reduction, and an attempt to rebuild workers’ bargaining power; the much more prominent Green New Deal imagined new forms of ‘dignified’ work, not its abolition. It was ignored, and one reason why it was ignored is that it had little appeal to people who had only memories of another era’s labour market and lived off their pension or their house.

Cruddas’ sometimes acute digs at the post-work ideology show a lack of interest or knowledge of the source of its re-emergence since the financial crisis. He roots it in a theoretical deviation—a peculiar reading of Marx’s unpublished Grundrisse—rather than as a response to the empirical reality of the appalling labour market for young workers, with such one-time certainties as sick pay, holiday pay, or union representation all increasingly hard to imagine.

But he does glance at some realities. The fact is that the removal of unionised, secure jobs from much of this country has left a terrible void. And yes, the rhetoric of Full Automation Now waves away too much, and a great many jobs—especially those that have kept people alive over the last year—are those it would be neither desirable or plausible to automate. We could go further. At the top level Corbynism’s decision-makers and spokespeople have far too often been academics and journalists rather than nurses or bus drivers, just as they were under New Labour. At Tribune we’ve done our best to start to redress this, but it’ll be a long slog.

What Cruddas can’t admit, either out of ignorance or deliberate obfuscation, are the ways in which work and class have changed, and the facts that a real divide has opened up between people who live from assets and pensions (however paltry and mean they may be) and those who live from work and benefits (often at once). When Cruddas says that ‘people desire good work’ he is right, but he can’t connect that desire with the realities of the actually existing labour market, when more work means more drudgery and more anxiety.

So in amongst this book’s engagement with the history of labour relations—grounded in a convincing if conservative interpretation of Marx—is an unconvincing argument that New Labour, at least early on, was not truly ‘neoliberal’ because it imagined the state having a role in workplace disputes; this account is strikingly limited by seeing the carrots of New Labour’s workplace reforms (the ‘Fairness at Work’ agenda) and not the sticks (the workfare programmes, the gross attacks on ‘benefits scroungers’, and the introduction of the now rightly notorious work capability assessments).

Similarly, Cruddas’ use of ‘educated’ to mean ‘privileged’ is odd for a former New Labour policymaker, who surely knows that higher education has been massively expanded, and marketised since 1997, with half of all young people going to university; a degree is seldom the passport to affluence it might once have been. Again, this is unsurprising if your experience of the labour market in the 2000s and 2010s comes from working in government policy units rather than doing shit jobs or claiming benefits that were calibrated to push you into those shit jobs, often for your shit dole.

The Essential and the Networked

Cruddas’ account of the socialist intellectual left of the present day is equally partial. Aside from Paul Mason, he seems to have been mainly reading writers of the same tendency as his – that is, fellow ‘why as a socialist I cannot support Jeremy Corbyn’ figures such as James Bloodworth or Frederick Pitts, which helps him to argue that the contemporary left has neglected the workplace.

So he entirely misses, for instance, the survey of contemporary jobs in Joanna Biggs’ All Day Long; the account of temporary work and benefits in Ivor Southwood’s Non-Stop Inertia; Jamie Woodcock’s Working the Phones, on call centres; Callum Cant’s Riding for Deliveroo; or in the US, writers on work such as Sarah Jaffe, Gabriel Winant, Eric Blanc, or Megan Erickson; not to mention countless articles in this publication – which is probably the most ‘workerist‘ of the lot.

Cruddas mentions, as if in passing, that the jobs of the under-25s have been hit hardest by Covid, but otherwise, here people in their 20s and 30s are not the under-employed and insecure ‘essential workers’ themselves, they are merely Mason’s ‘networked youth’, and their overwhelming support for Corbynism—and the overwhelming opposition of pensioners—is explained as a mere culture war between the ‘networked’ and the ‘traditional’, rather than something that can itself tell us about changes in work.

With its caricaturing of the ‘metropolitan’ left, its lack of any mention of housing or property and its avoidance of discussion of what it is actually like to do insecure, underpaid, under-represented, un-unionised work, The Dignity of Labour is pretty typical of the current Labour leadership’s oddly relieved response to the left’s defeats. With actual change looking more and more distant, intellectual discussion in the Labour Party can go right back to normal: that is, endless abstract chat about ‘dignity’, ‘community’, and ‘fairness’. This is then a ‘transmission belt’ for the policy: in this case, ‘JOBS JOBS JOBS’.

One book from the ‘educated’ left that Dr Cruddas might benefit from reading is Amelia Horgan’s Lost in Work. The latest in Pluto’s series of short polemics ‘by young people for young people’, Outspoken, it fairly well represents the Corbynism he scorns throughout The Dignity of Labour; yet there are some surprising points of agreement. Not only is there a grounding in some of the same theorists and writers—Marx, Richard Sennett, Huw Beynon—Horgan similarly has no time for ‘full automation’ arguments or the notion of a ‘post-work’ economy. In every other respect, this is a strikingly different book – not least in its prose, where her humour and anger is quite a tonic after wading through Cruddas’ combination of thinktank and value theory verbiage.

There is a much wider definition of ‘work’ here, which takes in housework and other forms of labour sometimes described as ‘social reproduction’, and much more attention is given to the complexities of race and class – as there should be, given that the combination of overcrowded housing and ‘occupational exposure […] meant that Black people died of Covid-19 at nearly twice the rate of white people’; as much as it revealed the importance of undervalued and scorned service jobs, the pandemic ‘revealed the prevalence of bad new work’.

Employers were given discretion over whether or not to class their work as ‘essential’, meaning that the most at risk throughout have been young people in work. In some cases the increase in ‘bad new work’ can be directly linked to locations where there were sudden surges in Covid cases – Leicester, for instance, where fast fashion led to garment production coming back to the city in the 2010s.

Intergenerational solidarity across class would be a nice thing to have, but there are structural blockages that make it difficult: not least the fact that ‘those who have not experienced the new benefits system (or) have enough seniority in their workplace to have avoided zero-hours or temporary work, or have retired and left the jobs market, may well not have any idea how bad it is, how quickly and totally the rug has been pulled out from under people’s feet’; this is partly reflected in the idea that there is a norm called ‘standard employment’, which was exemplified in the Ford factories of Dagenham – repetitive and dull work to be sure, but unionised, predictable, and long-term, closely tied to a community and a welfare state of council housing and paid holidays.

Similarly, there are structural reasons why workplace organising is difficult for the new left – the fact that many young workers go from one insecure job to another, rather than staying somewhere that they can build up friendships, class consciousness, and confidence. Cruddas knows all this of course, but he implicitly blames those on the receiving end.

Talking about ‘the dignity of labour’ in an era when, as Horgan notes, workers in non-essential jobs were considered to be ‘addicted’ to furlough and had to be ‘weaned off’ it (in Matt Hancock’s words) is faintly absurd. That belief—which was, according to opinion polls, widely shared by the public—that furlough was somehow ‘cheating’ is surely one of the reasons for the belated December lockdown, and the thousands of deaths that resulted.

The most obvious solution to many people’s failure to self-isolate—instant, easily available, and liveable sick pay—has seldom even been considered. A lot of the value in this book is its reminders of the constant propaganda for work that suffuses our politics, where not working is a dereliction of duty, even if you yourself know how pointless your job is, and even if you know that working might cause you to spread a deadly virus. Socialists should not be echoing that propaganda.

What is equally memorable in Lost in Work is the way it weaves together an introduction to the abundant—whatever some might argue—recent socialist writing and theorising on work, and puts it alongside accounts of being up against it. As Horgan puts it, ‘when you tell people you’re writing a book about work, about what might be wrong with it, and how we might change it, people start telling you about their jobs’.

The most vivid moments in this book come from this: from the cleaner reminded by an employer and ‘friend’ mid-way through an argument ‘you clean my toilet!’ to the tube workers told by concession operators to write an inspirational quote on the board by the ticket gates every day – something they’d previously done of their own volition for fun. These are snapshots of ‘the jobification of everyday life’, where the divide between paid labour and leisure is forcibly erased.

After 2019

One way of understanding the difference between these books, aside from age, is in their descriptions of the 2019 election; for Horgan, it was the tragic defeat of an ‘attempt to hot-wire the immense power of the British state, through a social democratic party that was itself hostile to socialism’; for Cruddas, it is an opportunity to tell us he told us so.

But in the end, there is a common thread here that could, were the left not quite so bitterly polarised, be drawn out. Both books are aimed against tendencies that would concentrate not on the realities of work but on a lotus-eating future of endless leisure and communist consumption; both are centred on the belief that ‘unskilled’ labour and unskilled labourers matter, and should at the very least receive security and comfort in return for their efforts.

Where the real difference lies, perhaps, is in the idea of whether serious change in work is possible. Cruddas imagines us turning the clock back to 1970s Dagenham, and concludes with the strange claim that the actually-existing Barking and Dagenham council is helping this happen through its regeneration programme. Horgan argues for not defining ourselves through work, and a process of political education, where we demand more control over our time, and more ‘possibilities for human cooperation and joy’ – because for now, that joy is not going to be found in our jobs, any more than is dignity.