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Notes: Wageless Life


At our last reading group we discussed “Wageless Life” by Micheal Denning. This article describes how twentieth-century social democracy and state organisations established the wage-earner as the default, the norm, thereby turning the vast majority of people worldwide into an anomaly that’s invisible to society’s perception of the working class, including the workers movement. This article reverses this normalisation of employment, and recentres those people who are not formally employed. It describes how the invention of the “unemployed” came about in the process of formalising work into a specific form that’s recognisable to the state.

Written in 2010, it’s an article that’s of particular relevance while the unemployed are being specially demonised, as well as offering a very insightful view of work and capitalism in general. Though, as if to illustrate the endurance of this demonisation, Denning even quotes Hobson who in 1896 was driven to write “Personal causes, no doubt, explain in a large measure who are the individuals that shall represent the 10 per cent “unemployed” but they are in no true sense even contributory causes of “unemployment”.” A sentiment which, though blindingly obvious, is still unacknowledged as we see mass redundancies correlate with sudden rises in the number of “lazy” people.

We noted the similarities between blaming the unemployed for the existence of unemployment, and blaming rape survivors for the existence of rape. In both cases the real causes are unacknowledged and individuals are held responsible for the predicament themselves. It’s not “Where does this come from?” and “How can we live in a society without this?” but “What could you have done to avoid this happening to you?” and “What personal failings set you apart from the people this doesn’t happen to?”. Ending rape culture, and ending dispossession aren’t part of this narrative.

We found Denning’s discussion of the role that colonisation has played in the formalisation of work useful, and his writing on the forms that work takes globally further called into question the construction of the formal-informal economic dichotomy. It also drew attention to the racialised nature of “surplus labour”, and how entwined racism is with the disrespect handed out to people not considered to be in “proper” jobs. His writings on the way the state appropriates jobs that were previously part of the informal economy, and positions, for example, self-organised healthcare in developing countries as a threat to it’s hegemony, was particularly interesting.

We discussed how normalising and regulating the market and labour eg with Uber being banned or regulated, means defining unemployment so you end up with “the unemployed”. Denning also writes about the role that trade unions have played in marginalising many workers that aren’t formally employed. He writes

“The modern notion of unemployment depended on the normalization of employment, the intricate process by which participation in labour markets is made ordinary. As employers make rules, workers insist on customary practices, while courts, legislatures and factory inspectors set standards.”

In the drive to set standards for working conditions as well as pander to state recognition, officially recognised trade unions reinforce the dichotomy between being “in work” and “out of work”. This clearly disadvantages workers who fall outside of this. He quotes Ela Bhatt of the Self-employed Women’s Association who writes

“The hard-working chindi workers, embroiderers, cart pullers, rag pickers, midwives and forest-produce gatherers can contribute to the nation’s gross domestic product, but heaven forbid that they be acknowledged as workers! Without an employer, you cannot be classified as a worker, and since you are not a worker, you cannot form a trade union. Our struggle to be recognized as a national trade union continues.”

One thing that this article repeatedly touches on is the gendered nature of work, the fact that reproductive labour is disproportionately done by women, and that this figure that’s been created to be representative of the dispossessed, the wage-earner, is a man. Traditionally housewives are compensated for the domestic work they do in the form of the marriage contract or family ensuring their survival, but this work isn’t recognised and they’re seen as piggy-backing on other people’s paid labour and not participating fully in society. While the article did discuss women’s paid work in the informal economy, specifically the Self-employed Women’s Association, at some length, we’d have appreciated it going into more depth regarding the reproductive sphere.

This lead us on to discussing reproductive labour further, and questioning what it meant for something to be considered “work” at all. If reproductive labour isn’t compensated, to what extent is it work? And what about workfare, or volunteering? If we define work as being only an activity that you do for money, irrespective of whether you enjoy it and irrespective of whether it is in any way useful, then we aren’t including, for example, housework. Also what position does that put us in to demand payment for activity which we’re compelled to do but aren’t adequately compensated for, if it’s by definition not work? However, defining work merely as things which need doing, causes as many problems. Many of us have worked in jobs – and many of us have worked only in jobs – that are utterly pointless, sometimes even detrimental, where the only reason for doing them is because we’re being paid. The notion of work as a productive virtuous activity, flies in the face of our experience of paid work. We agreed that it would be better to have different terms describing these conflicting categories, and in the absence of neologisms, to at least be specific about what we mean when we describe something as “work” in a certain context.



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