Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Unnatural Conditioning of Worker (A)

'The CBI has demanded the retirement age be lifted to 70, in order to help tackle Britain's growing pension crisis and increase the state pension.' 
Source BBC News Online July 19 2004

Any chance you could do an extra shift?

Much is being made in the media of the axing of the retirement age which is officially set at 65 in the UK. Few could deny that ageism is endemic in British society. Many see the scrapping of the official retirement age as being a progressive move, that will stop unscrupulous employers from dismissing or refusing workers over the age of 65 work. The Coalition government's move is thus seen as a victory for elderly workers and a significant step towards fighting discrimination by some charities. According to the BBC News website, the charity Age UK said it was a "huge victory", while Nesta, a body which runs 11 projects tackling the issue, said older people contribute "immeasurably" to the economy and society.” Without being accused of being a vile discriminator against the elderly the question must be asked as to whether the scrapping of the retirement age really a progressive move.

Although possibly the most handsome viking in the picture,
is the chap third from the left a vile discriminator?
British Workers - the donkeys of Europe

British workers on average work some of the longest hours in Europe. So it would seem odd that ordinary people in the UK would choose to work longer than is necessary. Yet it's clear that some do. The question is why? Some may see the new changes as a way of avoiding the 'scrap heap'. Others may see it as a means to potentially prolong and thereby lead a healthier life. Indeed, it's being sold to workers by the press precisely this way. For many approaching or who have passed the age of retirement, the social aspect of work is important. Equally, a feeling of having a purpose in life is also a significant factor for many who choose to continue working past retirement. Yet the decision of many people to continue in employment is not necessarily charted by a desire to achieve all these things but is dominated by a simple material reason - lack of money. Even those who herald the extension of the working life, root the decision of the retiree to continue working in the lack of financial provision to enable elderly people to enjoy a decent standard of living once retired. In contrast to those who argue that working longer promotes health and longevity, there might be far better ways of achieving this. An OECD report makes a simple correlation: the higher pension levels are, the longer people tend to live.

Is your nest egg this big?
Moreover, there is a wealth of research that indicates that those who work in manual occupations are more likely to die younger particularly those who 'choose' to work past the official retirement age.

"For most working people, life expectancy has only risen by less than two years since the 1970s. Life expectancy for the average female hospital cleaner, for example, has not increased by one day since then...Many people, especially manual workers, are still only predicted to live until the age of 65 – meaning they’re likely to die before they get any pension whatsoever." Socialist Worker, 26 June 2010

Savery, Luks, Lawson and Alan conclude that 'it seems that people who work in such occupations as labourers, plant and machine operators and tradespersons and apprentices are the most likely to have work-related accidents and/or illnesses than other occupations and many of the people in the high injury incident occupations appear to be males.' We might therefore suppose that the bulk of the resistance to extending the retirement age or shortening the life of workers would be led by the official labour movement. Yet opposition to ditching the official retirement age at sixty five comes from an unlikely section of society.

The bosses are on your side... aren't they?

Although around two thirds of employers would like to see the retirement age lifted some employers appear to be resistant to extending the age of retirement. Now without wishing to impart an atom of undeserved cynicism to this article, their opposition might appear to be based less on an inherent genetic proclivity towards altruism and more on a deep-seated form of self-interest known colloquially as 'the bottom dollar'. Why on earth would employers wish continue to pay high wages to established employees who would also retain their long-established, secure contracts? It's much better surely to employ younger employees on precarious contracts and lower rates of pay isn't it?

The time-limited worker

Despite the adverts with Michael Parkinson or June Whitfield that impart into the subconsciousness of the individual a warm afterglow of post-retirement bliss and a free pen, capitalism continues to be an acutely punitive and calculating system. If you don't save up enough for your old age - tough! It offers very little in the way of comfort or security for billions of people who are seen as past their sell by date and treated accordingly.

Why the glum look?
For many, retirement conjures up an image of living purgatory. In this context, the workplace can seem like a haven in a hostile post-retirement world, particularly when what is on offer is a retirement where pensions and benefits are so low as to make every day life a struggle for survival. Factor into this the acute isolation that is often the hallmark of retirement, and the rationale for working on seems perfectly understandable and compelling. Yet at the root of this isolation is a characteristic - alienation - one of the central pillars of Marx’s analysis and understanding of capitalism. It is in the exploration of this alienation that we are offered a tantalising glimpse of a future world free of want and of free association, where the 'being' in the social human being becomes fulfilled and truly in control of her own destiny.


As capitalism has progressed and aged so has it insinuated commodification - or reification - into virtually every aspect of our lives. At the root of alienation stands the fundamental relationship between worker and employer. To live - to eat and sustain ourselves - means entering into a contractual obligation with an employer. Despite the entrepreneurialist nonsense pumped out in television programs such as Dragons' Den, propaganda that desperately tries to convince worker A that she can be her own boss, the reality is that few become petit bourgeois go-getting parasites and most of us have little choice but to sell our labour. Why? Well the local borough assizes await those foolhardy enough who enter a baker's emporium and leave with a loaf of bread without first exchanging the precise cash value of that loaf with the owner of the shop. Yes bread costs bread. And like billions of other workers around the world, worker A is locked by compulsion and the dread of poverty into selling her labour in return for wages. For eight hours a day, five days a week (if she's lucky) her labour power becomes the property of the capitalist - she becomes commodified.

“The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general." Karl Marx , Estranged Labour, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

You are er..... free of a sort
Thus, at the root of alienation lies a fundamental un-freeness dressed in the apparel of freedom. Under capitalism the worker is free - free to sell their labour to the employer. There is of course another choice: Hobson's choice. They are also free to choose to wallow in the poverty of life on the dole or to starve should they choose penury. This compulsion means that entering into a relationship with the capitalist employer is fundamentally unequal. It's also unequal in another way. It is after all the capitalist who owns the means of production: the workplace - the factory, the supermarket, the office and suchlike. He also owns all machinery within as well as your labour power for eight hours a day. As worker A finds that she really has no control in deciding whether to work or not she also realises very quickly once she has signed on the dotted line that, that she has no control over the tempo of the working day. Why not contextualise this a little and imagine an everyday sort of scenario.

The conscience of worker A

Worker A is keenly interested in the plight of ordinary people in Africa. She works in the baking industry, daily producing bread for our tables. Indeed so productive is she as are her colleagues due to the huge levels of mechanisation and technology involved, that every day she produces a massive surplus of bread. Now because of their astonishing productivity, this surplus cannot be released onto the market. If the capitalist employer were to do this, it would lower bread prices. Dearth raises prices whilst a glut drives them down. The owner of the Hitler Bakery decides that it's best to bin the surplus in order to maintain stable prices and a decent profit.

In her own oppression, worker A feels an innate sympathy with the millions going hungry in Sub-Saharan Africa that she watches on her TV. Yet she feels utterly powerless to do anything about this terrible state of affairs despite working in a bakery that could feed thousands of hungry people daily, for very little. Closing her eyes, she imagines a world where all the bakeries pool their over-produced bread and she envisions an African sub-continent of healthy thriving smiling children. Yet in the real world of 8am, she cannot influence in the slightest the distribution of the commodity she produces. She cannot direct the surplus loaves away from the filthy bins towards the hungry mouths of starving children. For worker A it is food. It is life. For her boss the capitalist it is objectified money. It is profit. And it's his.

The democracy of the workplace

Worker A is a skilled baker having trained for many years to gain her skills. Yet through technological progress and the introduction of modern production line methods which mean imposing a division of labour on the overall process, she now finds she produces only one component of the whole - the roughly kneaded dough and no more. Her skills are no longer relevant or required.

There's little democracy
in the Hitler Bakery
Moreover, because of the obvious limitations of democracy in the workplace - there is none - she finds she has no automatic right to exert any control over the intensity of the labour process - how fast the line moves. This division of her labour (and of all her fellow workers) and the rate of exploitation is again determined by dictat from above. Even if worker A is a member of a militant trade union who successfully fight back against any increase in the rate of exploitation, neither she nor her colleagues have any rights over the final product as it rolls off the production line. That right belongs to the capitalist and he alone. For all the combined efforts of worker A, her colleagues and their powerful trade union, the end result is that their labour has produced not a use-value - something that is directly useful to her or to society - but a commodity to be exchanged for money. For worker A its manufacture is the means to nothing more than to earn a wage in order to be able to then purchase her own bread and/or other commodities. For Marx, the cleaving of the producer from the direct production of commodities for use - her alienation - is unique to the capitalist mode of production. And under capitalism this alienation has expanded and deepened on a scale never before seen in history. Consequently the tendrils of alienation and the negative consequences of this alienation, have insinuated themselves in every individual and many of the relations we take as natural within society.

Raising the sell-by-date

What is conveniently ignored in the discussions concerning extending the sell-by-date of the worker is the essence of what it is precisely that the worker imparts into that which they produce. The division of labour has resulted in previously unknown and unimaginable levels of productivity.

They're extracting the piss among other things
but you'll do it all over again tomorrow
Yet for every joule of energy the worker produces, this energy is affixed within the product of their labour no matter what that product may be. Capitalist production draws from the worker vampire-like the very essence of their life. They can rest and present themselves anew tomorrow but they literally have expended their life in the employ of the capitalist. And it is non-refundable. The product of their labour consumes them. The harder they labour the younger they die. For the capitalist this is of no concern as there are many keen workers-in-waiting, in a very long queue ready to take the place of the worn-out worker.

You did ask for something that would stretch you more
Capitalism through a process of constant modernising necessary to compete effectively, shapes society and seeks to shape the consciousness of the worker. If you live in a working class area, you will among the inhabitants, witness more illness, deformities and lack of education as well as extraordinary levels of social decay. The health of the population of middle class and wealthy areas stands in complete contradistinction. Capitalism shapes the physical geography and the human geography of towns and cites, bringing millions together in order to toil and worship in the shrines of capitalist production. The division of labour in the workplace is reflected in the social division in the towns and cities between the leafy wealthy suburbs and the run-down estates. The production process is full of inherent contradictions that are constantly exploited by worker A and her compatriots. It is the everyday struggle of her class against the undemocratic dictat and exploitation of the owner of Hitler Bakeries.

Although workers are socialised in order to produce within the workplace, they are however dissuaded from socialising in the workplace. To the capitalist, each one of is seen as a valuable and necessary single cog in his bigger machine. Massive conurbations of cheap housing ensure an on-the-doorstep workforce for the capitalist. Everyday he witnesses a magical manifestation in his factory more real than the endeavours of a room full of medieval Florentine alchemists on piece-work rates. Through the collective endeavours of his workers, unrefined raw materials - the fruits of nature - are converted as if by some other worldliness into things of intrinsic value to the capitalist. Yet although worker A produces loaves in their thousands, standing between these valuable and often necessary consumer goods and her empty stomach stands the capitalist with his outstretched hand ready to fill her stomach but empty her wallet. Her labour owned by the employer, worker A is alienated completely from that which she has with her skills produced. And she finds she can only access this good by an exchange of values: cash for goods.

Surrounded yet alone
Yet alienation doesn't halt only at this lonely stop. For the first time in history we have the productive capacity to build a world of plenty where no single person wants for anything. Starvation could be consigned to history with warfare. Social life in the early 21st century should be ideal. In the most intensely exploited societies such as the UK and US, the opposite is the case for the vast majority of poor workers. Working the longest hours in advanced western industrialised nations UK and US workers are also some of the poorest and have the worst quality of life. Stress is common as are stress-related illnesses. Not content with seeking to mould our minds during the eight hours they take from us, the owner of Hitler Bakeries and his small clique of enlightened profiteers, through the wonderous mechanism of modern information dissemination (owned by the capitalist), millions are persuaded, through fear and images of rampaging anti-social youths shown almost nightly on TV screens, that the best way to address these issues is to ensconce themselves in their prettified laminated brick prisons. The worker is socialised in the workplace yet individualised within the process of production and at home. Worker A is increasingly a frightened, atomised individual within wider society ready to be remade in any image the capitalist sees fit - an individual consumer at the mercy of the ever predatory advertisers. Witness the farrago of advertisements that interrupt her evening enjoyment of the TV with increasing frequency. Witness the programs designed to make worker A feel unhappy about the shape of her body. Yet even this for a price, can be changed. Steeped in the alienation that capitalism imbues within the individual and through wider society, the singular identity of the individual worker is elevated to new heights, promoted as such in the shit-on-the-competiton, X-factorised post-modern world. In academia and beyond, postmodernism has extended its services to this late capitalist creed in providing theoretical justifications, and terrified former Marxist critics into eager submission and more than willing apologists for identity realpolitik.

The world according to price

"But there must be an escape" I hear you bellow over the top of the auto-cultured Jeremy Clarkson's laddish grammar school car-salesman's patter as he convinces over 1,000 Zoo readers to purchase the latest BMW and massively pump-up CO2 emissions and BP's profits into the bargain. Even the sane majority who reject the modern so called 'phenomenon' of the fame-istas, capitalism inexorably insinuates itself throughout virtually every sphere of their lives apace. Those areas traditionally considered and perceived of as ‘their own’ are reified as everyday social activities are ever more drawn into capitalist market relations. Enjoying a pint, eating out, the cinema, holidays, all pastimes that involve the purchasing of enjoyment. Even the enjoyment of music and downloading it has a price tag. Laws recently introduced protecting intellectual copyright (the rights of multinational entertainment corporations) are particularly punitive for the individual. Worker A ignores this at her own peril.

I happen to own the intellectual copyright on the song
you lot are singing en masse... please desist
or your vocal chords will be seized!
Museums had until recently an entrance price as do most national heritage sites. It is likely that museums will reintroduce an entrance fee under the cost-cutting coalition government. Indeed, those areas of social interaction that traditionally catered for workers in the late 19th and early 20th century, are portrayed in the press and media as anachronistic or are subsumed by a deluge of ‘buy your own happiness’ advertising. If they can't turn a reasonable profit they're closed. It's all about 'added value'. The free and public areas traditionally enjoyed by the masses such as parks are allowed to fall into disrepair or become places of perceived danger and no-go areas for the young and elderly alike. They are then sold off for development. Traditional pastimes such as bowling greens, cricket grounds, playing fields, and public gardens are abandoned to the winds or the private sector due to cuts in funding by local authorities. The initial alienation imparted to the worker through the simple relationship of capitalist production, now stretches its tendrils through every walk of life.

Taking responsibility for your own idiocy

If this wasn’t enough, the process of production (whether that be in directly producing commodities/goods or labouring within the service sector or industries) does not enhance the intellectual life of the worker. It retards the worker's intellectual capacity.  How? This comment from a postal worker epitomises the impact that capitalism has on the intellectual and creative capacities of workers: “I would like to retire soon, and I could on paper,” said Henry. “The problem is that when I hit 60 I will get £95 a week – that’s all I get for working for 35 years. I can’t live on that. I would like to take up art. But I won’t have the money.”*

But how can this be so when in the West it appears obvious to any capitalist-induced simpleton that educational attainment for the mass of people has improved dramatically? "Compare the education levels of an ordinary worker now to his 19th century counterpart and you'll see a dramatic and consistent improvement" you scream brandishing the empirical evidence; the stats as proof. Consider one moment the role of state education in objective terms, and a different picture emerges. The basis of state education is to provide the individual with an education to enable them to compete effectively for employment. State education also provides a level playing field, providing employers with a workforce imbued with a standard level of skills. Few employers would today contemplate employing individuals without certain educational qualifications. Average levels of attainment among workers are absolutely necessary for capitalism to compete effectively with other capitals competing for the same general markets nationally and internationally. For more specialist, knowledge-based or technologically advanced production, enhanced skills are required and these are provided through access to further education or higher education. Oh and by the way, we have to pay for that as individuals now as Higher Education is also now a commodity.

The innate ability of the toffs on the left was the
important thing, not their privileged backgrounds
Almost every month, the shrill, persistent crow-like caws among sections of the right wing press are heard demanding that University degrees be replaced for some students by vocational courses and training in order to produce the right sort of employees for industry or the ‘employment market’. By this, they of course do not mean vocational training for the sons and daughters of the powerful and wealthy of worker A. Few employers would consider an undergraduate, Masters degree or PhD as essential for work in manual production, till work or burger flipping. Similarly, employers based in the sciences or in fields of research and development such as pharmaceuticals and IT, would not consider simple GCSE’s on their own as sufficient. The division of labour seen in the workplace is replicated in colleges and universities. Capitalism through its requirements limits the full intellectual development of the individual particularly for those employed in the manufacturing or lower grades of the service sector.

I work therefore I am an idiot

Moreover, the process of production - the working day - does in itself mitigate against the development of intellectual capacity. Most physically demanding repetitive work is intensive enough to ensure that the individual has to afford it a level of concentration or application that does not allow for free thought and the development of higher knowledge. Physical labour is also physically tiring. For many millions of workers, physical exhaustion means that only limited numbers of the most committed will embark upon gaining extra knowledge after work or at the weekends. Television is portrayed and can be useful as an alternative means in which the worker might gain useful education. But its utility is limited as even the most educational programmes on offer do not offer a complete or holistic approach to imparting knowledge. Instead it offers a fragmentary menu form which the passive recipient can dip into, imparting facts and figures, yet not providing the tools or framework with which to understand the world, never mind trying to change it. The advent of cable TV almost confirms Marx's words:

“It is true that labor produces for the rich wonderful things – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labor by machines, but it throws one section of the workers back into barbarous types of labor and it turns the other section into a machine. It produces intelligence – but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism.” K Marx, Estranged Labour, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

It is telling that few workers wish to remain any longer than is necessary in their place of work during the day. Indeed they see the workplace as a prison and home as their place of sanctuary. Although rarely recognised as such, work becomes the real barrier to self-fulfilment and realising the intrinsic potential of every worker. The yearning for self-realisation and fulfilment is diverted through all manner of mechanisms. Capitalism does not encourage the active participation of the individual in society but passive participation in the act of active consumption:

“First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague.” K Marx, Estranged Labour, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

For the worker approaching retirement, the future does not look at all bright nor does it look orange. For many retirement appears as dark as that area just beyond the event horizon of a black hole. In their twilight years, no longer seen as a productive unit within the overall capitalist schema, deprived of the necessary financial resources to access the marketised world of real life, for the elderly, this long drawn out process of complete alienation is complete.

Lower not higher

When the owner of Hitler Bakeries and his friends call for the scrapping of the official retirement age we should resist. When they drag out a few grey haired trumpeters of modernisation who in their younger days probably killed time crossing picket lines at pensioner-piss parties we should give them the two-finger salute. They steal enough of our lives already. Not only should we not give them any more, we should demand that they give some back and that the age of retirement is reduced to 60 for men and 55 for women. The state pension should be set at a decent level, a living pension. The retirement of all workers should be one of plenty not poverty, of self-realisation not of self-denial.

This is no victory for workers nor will raising the retirement age end age discrimination by employers. Anti-discrimination legislation has not removed discrimination on the grounds of sex or race in the UK and beyond. Women are paid much less than men for equivalent roles and black and Asian workers are more likely to suffer unemployment than white workers.

Ultimately, the key to removing the horror of poverty in old age must be tied to consigning the system that creates and perpetuates this state of affairs - capitalism - to the yellowing pages of the history books. 

See you on the barricades comrades if my back's not too bad!

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