You Don’t Have To Be Mad to Work Here, But It Helps

by Eleanor Penny

10 April 2014

This much is clear: work is maddening. It’s the truth we’ve cut our teeth on.

In the dull light of austerity, the freedom we were promised from the forty-year Fordist drudge of previous generations begins to look a lot like the personal chaos of precarious work. Depression, anxiety, and suicides are on the rise throughout the global economic north – a trend consistently linked to the global economic downturn. So in the spirit of all that’s bleak, let’s take a look at the madness of work in a time of austerity; how it makes us mad, how it depends upon our madness.

The Price of Precarity.

The number of workers on zero-hours contracts has more than tripled in the past four years. An increasing number of UK jobs are classified ‘low-skilled’; requiring skills that can be picked up in anything from a few minutes to a few days. The standard use of short-term contracts and unpaid intern labour combines to remind to employees that, while their job may be necessary, it is not necessarily they who need do it. A morass of unemployed and underemployed people are forever waiting in the wings for a job such as theirs, ready and capable.This is the work settlement wrought in the dust of Fordist production model; a state of increasing precarity in which work is ultimately flexible, and workers ultimately replaceable. The psychological trauma associated with of this kind of work is well documented. GPs are recording record numbers of patients reporting stress, anxiety, depression since 2008 – indeed, 77% of those surveyed felt that this glut of new cases was linked to ‘worries about job security’ and the stresses of the economic climate. Little wonder. When welfare no longer acts as the promised ‘safety-net’ to cushion capital’s cast-offs against destitution, people’s ability to even scrape by is contingent on how useful they happen to be to capital. These anxieties are easily leveraged by employers to  discipline those on their payrolls – demanding that we work for less money, for longer hours, in worse conditions, demanding that we smile as we do it. We give our all to maintain our existence in a climate of radical uncertainty: this is the lifeblood of post-Fordist exploitation, and the definition of anxiety.

Never a Good Crisis Gone to Waste.

So, capitalists have always tried to get away with paying people as little as inhumanely possible. This much is about as subtle as a skull fracture.  But the particular idiosyncrasies of the crisis in the UK means that it’s even more urgently in the interests of employers to cultivate a culture of precarity in which wages can be easily repressed and profit margins protected. Despite the dubious triumphalism of recent growth forecasts, overall production is flat-lining, with industrial production floundering at 0.1%. The export market continues to contract. In this context, rampant exploitation seems like a rather nifty strategy to protect profit margins and maintain the overall illusion of sustainable growth. In this context, short-term and zero-hours contracts seem to rather helpfully pad out employment statistics. Make no mistake, this is calculated. The government is consciously courting a ‘hire-and-fire’ culture by deregulating employment laws and charging upwards of a thousand pounds for employment tribunals (which have subsequently plummeted by 55%). All this in the name of ‘competing on the global job market’. Presumably, this is the same international job market that sees working conditions so abysmal, so depressing, that Foxconn is obliged to wrap its high-rise dormitories in ‘anti-suicide nets’ to prevent further workers from hurling themselves to their deaths. Perhaps in some twisted neoliberal cartwheel of logic, the solution to misery somewhere is misery everywhere.

In Your Own Kitchen No-One Can Hear You Scream.

If it wants to create value, capital needs workers. It needs them produced, reared, fed, educated, nursed back to working health if they fall ill. This is the basic domestic labour without which all life would grind to a sudden halt. Unending, unedifying, and emotionally demanding; it’s a largely female, largely unpaid task that feminists have long since identified as a psychological malaise. Whether performed as precarious low-waged service work, or as unwaged work to sustain yourself and those around you, this type of labour comes neatly packaged with its own risk factors for psychological suffering: precarity, stress, overwork, under-remuneration, poverty, alienation. The boredom and depression of the women interviewed in the original ‘wages for housework’ movement is alive in the accounts of contemporary parents and carers, for whom the double-burden of waged labour and domestic labour is more of a pathology than a lifestyle choice. The child support, the social workers, the shelters and the breakfast clubs of the welfare state marginally ease this burden. But austerity settlements in the UK and across the global economic are set to sweep away these brief and partial glimpses into the world of unremunerated or under-remunerated labour which the produces and sustains a working population. Behind closed doors and lace curtains, it is much easier to conceal the everyday stresses and insanities of the domestic labour upon capitalism depends.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.