Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Work, Labour and The New Economy

There's a big idea creeping up on us, though it's something that has always been there (well, for a couple of centuries at least) and never really gone away. We've just chosen to forget about it. It goes back to the French Revolution, and possibly to the Wars of Religion. It was submerged in the nineteenth century as the plundering of empire accelerated growth in Europe. It reared its head in the early twentieth century and triumphed in Russia, then briefly in America after world war two, and persistently in Europe, underneath the shallow veil of the European Project, it lingers still. Today, amidst our global economic crisis, in our interconnected, smaller world, the labour movement is about to roar once more.

Ever since the abandonment of agrarianism, and the industrialisation of production and work, there has been a tension between the employer and the employee, between the rick and the poor, and a concertina over time as the gap between them has repeatedly shrunk, and grown large again. At each stretch there is a suspicion that perhaps it might snap, that some revolution somewhere will topple the ancien régime and celebrate the ascension of the new King. Today's tensions are represented in the Occupy movements around the world, in campaigns for fairer labour conditions in developing markets, and in both left and right wing extremism, the former seeking greater social justice and fairer resource redistribution, the latter (perhaps more ominously) seeking restrictions on immigration and social welfare in order that those who contribute more are more fairly compensated.

A number of themes persist today that should be understood better. The notion of a full time job is going away - save in the state sector, though even in public service there are fewer and fewer guarantees. Entrepreneurialism - which used to be about starting companies - is now a seriously desirable trait within companies. The reason for this is excessive market demands for growth rates that are insane, and in order to drive and incetivise workers to deliver the kind of productivity that such demands require, companies are isolating departments and leaders with their own budgets tied to performance, in what could be called business pods - where the company gets the benefit of innovation upside, while the employee gets fired (in the form of a budget cut) if the growth rates are not delivered.

At the same time, people are eschewing companies as preferred sources of work. In a sense, it's a little like a return to agrarian structures, within an industrialised, urbanised society, with small, off-net businesses trading data, information, and micro-goods (SIM cards, electronics, etc). One economist estimates that two thirds of the world's workers will be in this kind of work by 2020. I'm going to say that again. By 2020, two thirds of the world's workers will be employed in off-net micro businesses.

The tension - the concertina - seems to be close to breaking point in Hungary. This is partially because people remember with some fondness some of the certainty of pre-1989 life. Sure, you had the hypocrisy, censorship and conformism that the old communist system embraced, but as Le Monde Diplomatique reported recently it was 'a morally and culturally conservative welfare state which had introduced relatively modern living standards, from indoor plumbing to literacy and - usually forgotten - a liberation from enforced deference towards the aristocracy and representatives of an old-style authoritarian state with its scary gendarmes, bureaucrats and military officers.' Memory is a poor historian, and the soft focus makes it seem a happier time. But it is undeniable that the perceived fairness of the current system bears an unfavourable comparison. Today's Hungary is youth-oriented, right wing, anti-immigrant and virulently nationalist. It is also failing. People who can't work are perceived as inferior, as less deserving. The welfare state, if it ever existed post-1989, is crumbling. The middle class is getting wealthier and smaller, while the ranks of he poor and the very poor are swelling. Unemployment is rising.

Where now is the future for work? And - by extension - the labour movement? I am instinctively repelled by trades unions. I don't think that employees should organise themselves to counter other forces in society, as a poorly thought through exercise that fosters corruption. But I am increasingly of a view that the powerful in society - primarily the Government and Corporations, and in some countries the Church - need to be kept in check somehow. Conventional democratic structures - the judiciary, the legislature, local government - are failing to have any impact on the advancement of the power institutions, and therefore on increases in inequality. If people don't work in companies any more, how does labour organise itself? How do citizens line themselves up as the counterweight to civil society's power structures?

I'm going to try to examine some of these themes. We'll take a deeper look at Hungary, a country in Europe and the East, looking both backwards and forwards, with aspects of growth markets and mature. We'll look at India, and South Africa. We'll look at the state of the labour movement around the world. And we'll try and understand from history what some of the options - what some of the labour futures - might be.

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