An old ethic for a new economy

It was the 19th century social philosopher Karl Marx who famously coined the idea of a “reserve army of the unemployed”. For Marx, the existence of such a large number of workers would act as a weapon that could be used by employers to discipline workers. Obviously, Marx was concerned about and opposed to this kind of situation as it would further enable the owners of production – the employers, to exploit the producers – the workers.
There are those in this early part of the 21st century who would consider that Marx’s idea and concern is somewhat anachronistic.
However, it is indisputable that in contemporary UK the number of “core workers” (those in settled employment, enjoying full-time hours and decent pay/salaries and conditions) has shrunk, whilst the number of “contingent workers” (those who work situation is uncertain, conditional and dependent) has risen. In a real sense, these “contingent workers” reflect Marx’s “reserve army of the unemployed”.
Of course, it is true that there are many who are not in any form of employment or who, in part-time work, are not actively seeking full-time work. Therefore, these persons cannot be numbered amongst Marx’s “reserve army”. Nevertheless, there are also many who can be included.
In this “age of austerity” it is worthwhile to be reminded of this. Stephen Haseler, Emeritus Professor of Government and Director of the Global Institute at the London Metropolitan University, is one writer who so reminds us. He does so towards the end of his book The Grand Delusion: Britain after sixty years of Elizabeth II, in a section called “Jubilee Year: Celebrating an illusion”. I acknowledge Professor Haseler as a source of inspiration for what follows.
The economic conditions of our times are notable for the increase in the price of housing and the necessary household goods, fuel and transports costs, indeed, the cost of most things. So, at a time when more income is required in traditional households, when there is a growth in single-parent families and persons, including the disabled, who are living alone, it seems that particular action is required from those who control the strings of the national economy. What has been happening seems, however, to be the very opposite of what is needed.
In the present economic climate, it is counter-productive to, for example, freeze wages, permit “revenge evictions”, curtail welfare spending, permit the increase in cost of a wide range of necessary goods, give tax cuts to those more able to afford the cost of today’s living, and to allow a situation that requires people to work for a minimum wage instead of a living wage.
Economists inform us that the growth in unemployment in the western world has been rising since the 1970’s. It has been, more or less, a constant factor in society and not one dependent on economic cycles during that period. Full-time employment has gone down, but there has been a growth in part-time employment. Governments have used the growth in the latter to mask the situation overall.
The reasons for the decrease in full-time employment and the subsequent “jobless growth” are many and varied – structural factors such as changing technology, corporate downsizing, the machinations of global capital, the search for low production costs and increasing profits all contribute to the mix. It is incontrovertible that, even when the level of a country’s economic activity (GDP) has increased, employment has fallen.
It is difficult to argue against the fact that the contemporary situation with respect to employment – and its opposite – has generated a legacy of profound insecurity. Day after day we hear about and read of widespread hardship brought about by the economic conditions in the UK. People are going hungry as they decide between food or other necessities; food banks are increasingly being resorted to – out of necessity; household rents in forfeiture and disgraceful practices in the rental market; children’s educational requirements and family recreational pursuits being severely cut back; caring for the disabled and elderly becoming more difficult; huge numbers of people, and not only the young, being offered zero hours and no guarantee of work whilst being tied to a single employer and receiving no holiday allowance or sick pay.
Such a situation is bound to develop indecision and a sense of insecurity. Though difficult to prove at the statistical level, their effects can be seen in the stories that people tell – and in the faces and life situations of those who tell them!
It is relatively straightforward to witness the signs of anxiety in the work force – longer time spent in the office for no increase in remuneration; flexi-time; increased competition between workers for work space and higher salaries; misery caused by the need for extended years in the work force in order to realise pensions and other benefits; jobs and salaries justified by an increase in useless paperwork and procedures. At the very least it is arguable that a major consequence of the foregoing is a less efficient workforce.
The economic consequences of the present-day labour market have been, and continue to be, well argued in the newspapers, political programmes on television, and in a plethora of books on the market. There does not seem to be anywhere near the same amount of words, both verbal and written, on the personal, moral and social consequences of what Stephen Haseler has described as “the new, flexible labour market”.
With this in mind my attention was drawn to a review of Richard Sennett’s book The Corrosion of Character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism. “In the brave new world of the ‘flexible’ corporation,” Richard Sennett observes, “workers at all levels are regarded as wholly disposable, and they have responded in kind, ceasing to think in terms of any long-term relationship with the organizations they work for.” Sennett, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, proceeds to argue that this situation has tremendous negative consequences for workers’ emotional and psychological well-being.
A major part of Sennett’s argument is devised from anecdotes of worker’s experiences, drawn from both sides of the Atlantic – from bartenders to IBM executives, bakers to bankers, janitors to advertising agents.  In line with what has been said earlier in this article, Sennett is of the view that the increasing flexibility amongst workers and within the workplace “does not allow people to shape their experiences or build a coherent narrative of their lives”.
Work and the workplace, both of which occupy so much time in the lives of people, are amongst the major factors that shape their characters. So, and most importantly, it is a required conclusion that the new adaptability in business places and practices, and the insecurity that goes with it, militates against the formation of a worker’s character. This has major implications for the vast majority of the population.
Since ancient times, philosophers have advocated that honest and respected work can lead to the development of virtues such as loyalty, trust, mutual helpfulness and commitment (the sustaining of purpose). However, for these virtues, hence the human character that can be shaped by them, work requires motivation, stability and genuine reward.
In modern parlance, a “career” is a major shaper of self-image. It is to be regretted, therefore, that, rather than giving workers greater freedom, “the modern flexibility model, with its emphasis on short-term, episodic labour; projects and flexibility, allows another kind of power to be imposed from the top”. In short, this is the kind of oppressive situation opposed by Marx – and he was not the first and, no doubt, will not be numbered amongst the last of the opposition.
In speaking about the task of raising children, family values such as loyalty and short-termism at work, Stephen Haseler tells the tale of the management consultant who “told me he felt stupid talking to his children about commitment, since at work he does not practice it”! Karl Marx and numerous social commentators since him have had much to say about the contradiction in employment values and ethics that this kind of comment highlights.
In recent years in the UK, there has been much criticism of the ethics of the work force, especially those at the lower end of the wage scale. The time is surely now when that criticism needs to be applied to those who do the employing and those who legislate the conditions of employment.
I am convinced that the old ethic, the ethics of virtue, has relevance to the new economy. But virtuous living does not come naturally, it needs to be taught and then practiced – by the owners of production as well those who produce. Therein rests the challenge.

About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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