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Jobs: making light work of capitalism

A new book about how working under capitalism is bad for us all reminds Conrad Landin of a personal experience...

29 July, 2021 — By Conrad Landin

Artwork: www.johnsadlerillustration.com

AT the tender age of 18, I was offered a Christmas job at HMV’s flagship Oxford Circus branch.

“You’re here because you love the music, you love the games, and you love selling,” the manager told us in the training session – in between detailing how few rights we had according to our zero-hours contracts. “We want you to be proud to be part of our family.”

On Christmas Eve, with HMV reporting losses of £40million, all the temps were laid off early. So much for the family, I thought on my long walk home to Tufnell Park. Then again, what’s Christmas without some family drama?

In Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism, Amelia Horgan suggests we recognise the constant edicts to love and be grateful for our jobs for what they really are: cynical attempts to increase profit margins and quash dissent.

“This isn’t just a book about crap jobs,” Horgan tells us. “It’s a book about how work under capitalism is bad for all of us.”

Horgan, a philosopher and researcher at the University of Essex, rightly identifies that when it comes to understandings of work, there is now a yawning chasm. Managers, retirees and those fortunate enough to have always been in secure employment “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,” she says.

Amelia Horgan

This book incisively dissects what counts for received wisdom about work, in a country whose newspapers no longer deem it necessary to report on industrial relations.

Technological progress is steadily automating manual work, right? Horgan takes the example of automatic car washes, which have largely disappeared from garages, replaced by hand-washing stations run by exploitative gangmasters.

“When labour does not have much power, particularly in the context of low wages, there is little pressure to automate jobs,” she concludes.

Amid this factual but conversational narrative, Horgan – who grew up on Tufnell Park’s York Rise estate – occasionally weaves in her own experience. Awarded a private school scholarship at 11, she went from “the group least likely to make it to university – those on free school meals – to the group whose future is set in gilded stone”.

Discussing the discombobulation that such a journey through the class system can inflict on a child, she reflects on the codes of speech and behaviour which “give those who possess them the ability to move more easily between jobs and to gain status and material support in times of hardship”.

Yet in discussing this language “of ‘outcomes’ and ‘going-forwards’ and ‘as-per-my-previous-emails’”, it is a pity Horgan did not examine the sectors where it is most pervasive.

As well as the profit-hungry worlds of marketing and management consultancy, jargon is central to the operation of large bureaucracies like the NHS and local government.

These sectors are rare in still offering career progression – and sometimes educational development – to employees from working-class backgrounds.

By speaking and acting in these exclusionary ways, workers can overcome “impostor syndrome” and assert their right to belong – and by necessity, pull the ladder up after themselves.

Lost in Work is not just an indictment of capitalism – it is a call to action too. Individual resistance can be inspiring but, Horgan argues, ultimately falls short. Hiring domestic help can indeed liberate women from housework, but it normally involves working-class women picking up the slack for lesser reward.

Instead, Horgan makes the case for re-building trade unions, asserting workers’ power and mounting a serious challenge to the capitalist model of company ownership.

“A consciousness against capitalist work, a class consciousness, is something that needs to be developed, rather than something that appears automatically,” she asserts.

“Translating widespread frustration with individual jobs or individual bosses into frustration with the entire system of bosses and work requires this kind of consciousness.”

Books about the world of work are too often based on anecdote and conjecture – or, alternatively, they are academic in the worst sense. In contrast to both, Horgan has applied Marxist theory to everyday life with alacrity. In so doing, she has armed her readers to fight back.

  • Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism. By Amelia Horgan. Pluto Press, £9.99

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