The morality of work in contemporary politics

Do we work too hard? - Flickr/Tahir Hashmi
Do we work too hard? – Flickr/Tahir Hashmi


The Department for Work and Pensions may not be the first obvious place one might turn to for moral instruction. But since 2010 under Iain Duncan Smith, it has been behind a ratcheting up of an increasingly moralising campaign against the fecklessly work-shy and benefits scroungers. If such a language is to be believed, the causes of poverty and workplace exploitation are in the individual moral defects of the poor themselves.

Yet whilst a powerful emotive rhetoric of ‘toughness’ and ‘fairness’ has been mobilised as a political trojan horse since the Coalition’s original plans to cut back welfare expenditure, new noises suggest that this campaign may take a sinister step further.

Internal DWP plans seen by the Guardian reveal that up to one million people earning between £330-£950 a month – just under the minimum wage for average full-time hours – may be deemed ‘not working enough’ by the government. In these bizarrely complex and expensive propositions, already-overstretched job centre staff will be additionally charged with interviewing, and if necessary punishing, individuals on low-incomes for insufficiently working. The transformation of unemployment from social assistance to social control is almost complete.

To moral disciples of the DWP, this won’t be new. In its November 2010 paper, “Universal Credit: Welfare that works”, IDS blamed welfare-provision and the unemployed themselves for causing their own poverty, rather than, say, deindustrialisation, or regional pockets of unemployment and lack of educational opportunities. Whilst characteristically blaming others for his own mistakes, he lambasted the previous government, as ‘welfare dependency took root in communities up and down the country, breeding hopelessness and intergenerational poverty’.

Whilst the connection of ‘breeding’ and ‘intergenerational’ gives a eugenic gloss to poverty, there is no mention here of any collective responsibility to provide employment or education. The only suggested interventions are the re-assessment and reduction in benefits eligibility, a cap reducing the overall total an individual can receive, plunging many in poverty particularly in high-rent areas, and the establishment of a new IT system for managing this universal credit which, in the two and a half years since the report, has risen grossly over budget.

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To work is the only moral injunction in contemporary politics. Not working, or not working enough, have become so socially reprehensible that governments now seek to discipline and punish the poor without fear of electoral backlash. Indeed public opinion on welfare has taken a significant slide to the right since 1997, with the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey detecting a growing hostility to giving benefits to the disabled and unemployed; and with anotherrecent poll finding that Britons systematically overestimated the scale of benefits fraud, crime and the like.

Both reports paint an ugly landscape of pessimism, fear, selfishness and declining civil values. In this sense, the overdetermination by the right-wing press and its political allies to demonise benefits-recipients and the unemployed poor for the last couple of decades has been a marked success.

Politicians of all parties seek to appeal to and reward ‘hard working’ voters, with cynical promises of tax breaks for individuals in exchange for a pentennial pencil-mark of assent. In the process, even well-meaning voices on the left reinforce this individualising morality of work through talk of the honour of labour and the glory of the ‘working-classes’. Such a language can quickly turn the social collectivity into a work-house population.

What about employers not paying enough (or not paying at all)? Or not merely creating new jobs, but creating socially useful jobs, and rewarding them fairly?

Perhaps we should also ask where this morality of work came from. After all, J.M. Keynes, economist and architect of the social democratic welfare state, dreamt over 70 years ago of British citizens working less and living more, as improved forms of production rendered many tasks superfluous.

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Today, politicians and employers are hounding us to work longer and for less pay in increasingly de-skilled service-sector jobs. Zero hours contracts have exploded, possibly affecting up to 5.5 million workers according to a recent survey. In working lives, it’s reflected in the intangible sense of fear of a looming restructure, or performance review, or the sheer relief and guilt of having, for the time being, a job when so many others do not. We increasingly work from home and well into our leisure hours, as influential norms of ‘drive’ and ‘dedication’ and work-addicted managers continue to bombard us with emails throughout the night.

With the rising costs of housing, bills, or the civil slur of food banks never addressed in the causes of poverty – or in making overworking even more necessary – this week’s stories of miraculous economic growth deny a catastrophic social decline.

Whilst the DWP initially cited the importance of cutting the welfare bill, the latest language of changing the ‘culture of work’ smacks of a deeper ideological motivation to which the centre-left is increasingly silent. Not working enough doesn’t simply reflect the value of working for its own sake, either in bringing freedom, moral improvement or rigor like what Weber termed the ‘Protestant work ethic’.

Instead, work is the socially sanctioned means to ‘earn’ what one desires. Want, work, earn. Working oneself, working for oneself, is the individual valour of the entrepreneur of oneself, the heroic and justly egoistic homo economicus, to which neoliberal charlatans like HayekFriedman and Rand have all inspired Western business-leaders and politicians.

In turn, poverty is the punishment of those individuals who fail to work hard enough. Only fear and discipline will motivate them. This moral standard of productivity, hard work and getting results is deployed to justify the privatisation of healthcare, education and security more broadly. The ideology fits.

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In the pursuit of a growingly pessimistic public opinion, Labour and Liberal Democrats overlook perhaps the first question asked of politics. For Aristotle, to establish a good society, we must first have a definition of a good individual life. If one’s social value is defined by one’s ability to work hard enough to pay one’s way, then what does that say for when we can’t work, or are tired of only working?

The growing problems of anxiety disorders, ill-health, alcohol dependency and isolation are played out on a collective scale of worsening social inequality, apathy and xenophobia. So where’s the political case for a basic quality of life, one that involves decent work (and defining work as including carers and domestic work) and fair pay, and a right to leisure and learning, as Keynes imagined?

Too much is already invested in this contemporary morality of work. Increasing labour and its rates of productivity create more wealth for employers, better results for managers, and render workers too exhausted and stressed to challenge their material conditions. Yet despite all this, power remains with those who either can or do work. This power belongs to the public, and every five years political parties are terrified by it.

Two possibilities open up: what if the left were to present clear proposals about fair work and pay that might be implemented and regulated by public society, through the civil state? This may require hard proposals for an economic reorganisation from financialisation to production. Or, if economic productivity is the only value, what would resistance look like? What of the retaking of power through economically destructive, or at least unproductive, activities? In the second comes a glimmer of the sovereignty – and danger – of rioters, protesters, criminals and, increasingly, the unemployed. Work is a four letter word.


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