By David Frayne
17 May 2021
The Dignity of Labour – the new Starmer-endorsed book by Labour MP Jon Cruddas – is bookended with references to Fish Tank, the 2009 film by Andrea Arnold. The film focuses on the volatile teenager Mia, as she passes the time drinking cider and rehearsing dance routines on the Mardyke council estate. The way Cruddas presents it, the film is a “redemptive story about the dignity of human labour”. Mia is liberated by the appearance of her mother’s new lover Conor, who works as a security guard at a local DIY store. His example as a “strong confident desirable worker” imprints upon and civilises Mia, revealing in her “a latent capacity for love and the fraternity she has never experienced” (p.189).
Does the film say that? Conor has many qualities, including a job and an income, but he is also handsome, attentive, knows about music and how to catch a fish with his bare hands. Later we find out that Conor has lied about his situation and already has a home, a wife and a child. Then, in a difficult scene to watch, he gets drunk and has sex with the 15 year-old Mia while her mother lies asleep upstairs. When Mia jumps in a car headed for Cardiff at the end of the film, it is unclear whether she has been redeemed by Conor or is simply running away.
Whether Fish Tank represents a morality tale about the civilising power of work is questionable. At best, Cruddas offers a smash-and-grab reading of the film, taking the bits that complement his worldview and leaving the rest behind. This perhaps reflects the general approach in The Dignity of Labour – a scathing assessment of the contemporary Left that is based on a pretty reductive view of the territory.
Cruddas opens with a social diagnosis that has a lot in common with other critical interventions on work. It pinpoints the gap between what people hope to get from employment and what the labour market really delivers in the context of unemployment, precarity and flatlining rewards. This is not simply an economic crisis, but a social and spiritual one, given the historic role that employment has played in the identity and cultural life of communities like Cruddas’ constituency of Dagenham.
Cruddas also draws on the wonderful Michael Sandel, who has argued that today’s economic hardships have combined in a lethal fashion with the ideology of meritocracy – the individualist value system that says people get what they deserve. This means that on top of poverty and scant opportunities, those at the bottom are also enduring the widespread belief that their hardships are self-inflicted – brought about by their own deficient values and choices. Sandel refers to this as ‘meritocratic humiliation’ and Cruddas knows how combustible this kind of shame can be, arguing that it has fueled working class despair and the rise of right-wing populism.
Cruddas’ stage-setting is humanist and sincere. Even if his language is often florid (the post-industrial Dagenham is one of “mental decay”, “wretchedness”, “nihilism” and “empty lives”), he understands the void left by the disappearance of unionised jobs from the UK’s former industrial regions. The book becomes more controversial, however, when it moves into political terrain. Cruddas’ central thesis is that the principles and vocabulary of the contemporary Left have lost the ability to speak to the hardships of the British working class. Democratic debates have either been swallowed up by the technocratic register of economics, or else co-opted by a new Left political class of “young urban educated cosmopolitan winners” [phew!] (p.190), who peddle a fashionable “post-workerism” in the place of labour struggles. The problem with youngsters today, Cruddas argues, is that they speak in “liberal abstractions”, hooking their arguments on universal principles such as rights and fairness. Cruddas suggests that this has pulled political discourse away from “the life, times and experience of people” and led the Left to turn its back on “the moral and cultural questions of the lives we wish to live” (p.14). This, he argues, is reflected in the contemporary preoccupation with distributive justice (or more specifically, basic income) at the expense of a politics that upholds what truly matters to people: the dignity of labour.
Cruddas’ argument strides along breezily, with a mostly declarative tone and sparse reference to supporting material. The debate is staged mainly as a conflict between two broad signifiers: the aforementioned ‘fashionable’ Left (who have ruined politics) and the ordinary working class ‘we’ (represented by the cover image of male hands, dirty with mechanical grease). This makes The Dignity of Labour a challenging book to review. Evaluating its contribution means untwisting its genuine concerns from those based on projections about the contemporary Left. Ultimately, two questions emerge: is Cruddas’ portrait of the Left a fair one, and is it clearly the case that re-centering ethical questions about the good life should lead us to valorise employment as the focal point of our hopes and demands?
The post-work boogeyman
Cruddas’ main concern is that a youthful Left has withdrawn “from theoretical and political interrogation of the character of work under modern capitalism” (p.10). He praises the earlier work of figures such as Harry Braverman, whose study of the factory popularised the concept of Taylorism, exposing how the profit-driven capitalist fractured the labour process into a set of discrete, unskilled tasks. Braverman’s study educated us about the drudgery of production line work – a humanist critique of work that Cruddas insists “did not last” (p.88). To hold this position, he has to overlook a whole body of valuable work, from Jamie Woodcock’s study of Taylorism in the modern call centre, to Callum Cant’s Riding for Deliveroo. The journal Notes from Below has been breathing new life into the tradition of Workers’ Inquiry, and remarkable progress has been made on workplace issues by organisations like Game Workers Unite. No author can be expected to keep up with everything, but Cruddas’ confidence in the death of the “labour interest” on the Left is fairly uncharitable.
Rather than explore the material on the realities of contemporary work, Cruddas turns his lasers on a highly specific reading of what he terms “post-workerism”. Helen Hester and Will Stronge have written previously on the common fallacies surrounding the nascent field of ‘post-work’ debate. These fallacies stem partly from the failure of proponents to rigorously define their terms, although Hester and Stronge also locate the blame among critics, who have often refused to engage in earnest with the relevant literature. Whether out of confusion or craftiness, The Dignity of Labour is no exception here, reproducing what is now a fairly standard set of misreadings.
Cruddas’ version of “post-workerism” involves “a very specific, optimistic reading of technological change and its opportunities” (p.81). He is generally opaque about the sources that inform this reading, but at points hones in on Paul Mason and Aaron Bastani – parts used to represent a whole. Cruddas explains how the Left has been contaminated by the idea that the mass replacement of workers by automated technologies is imminent and inevitable. The solution is to introduce a basic income, disconnecting income from employment and delivering society into an imminent jobless nirvana – an “automation-led ‘end-of-work’ thesis” (p.128) based on submitting to the fact that “we must adapt our politics to the march of the machines” (p.163). Cruddas is troubled by the technological determinism of this position, as well as its dismissive attitude toward the personal significance of work. The trouble is that, outside a few excitable op-eds and utopian provocations, it is not a position that carries much actual weight on the Left.
As Hester and Stronge have noted, to view the ‘full automation’ trope as a concrete prediction misunderstands the more jocular role the idea has played in key post-work texts, where it has usually functioned more like a rhetorical device, designed to provoke critical thinking about the significance of work. As such, it cannot be ‘disproven’ in the way Cruddas thinks it can, by debunking the (already thoroughly debunked) popular statistics on automation.
Cruddas’ sketch of a technological determinist Left is also puzzling given that technology is almost always approached as a governance issue in modern debates. His big idea that “human decisions will determine the future of work” (p.126) is entirely uncontroversial in these circles. Authors on the contemporary Left have highlighted the uneven impacts of automation within and between sectors, the possibility for automation to create new forms of low-skill labour, and automation’s lack of desirability in some areas of work. Whatever the precise focus, Srnicek and Williams, Aaron Benenav, André Gorz and many others have converged on the idea that power and interests are pivotal in shaping our technological future. Whether new technologies can help reduce necessary work always boils down to a question of whether development is dictated by capitalist or more democratic purposes.
Whilst it is certainly true that post-work thought focuses on expanding autonomy outside employment, this has rarely been envisaged as the result of a dramatic automated revolution. It is a demand that must be incrementally realised by building collective power around a range of policies. Depending on who you read, this might include investments in automation and a basic income, but it also includes a shorter working week and a social redistribution of working time, designed to share out the labour of collective reproduction. It might also include proposals to enhance agency outside employment, such as new collective care arrangements, reducing the stigma of unemployment, and developing new kinds of communal spaces, to encourage production and fraternity outside the factory and the office. Rather than offering a genuine challenge to the thinking in these areas, Cruddas expends his energy chasing a post-work boogeyman.
This chase comes to a head in Cruddas’ confrontation with universal basic income, in the final chapter of the book. He opens his section with an even-handed account, noting the ideological diversity in the history of basic income advocacy, from libertarian arguments for freedom from state bureaucracy, to the socialist case for a basic income integrated into “radical economic, social and democratic packages” (p.169), where it has the potential to mesh with other forms of public provision, protect against poverty, and enhance the bargaining power of workers. When it comes to his conclusions, however, he once again reverts to a boogeyman version. This combines visions of an “atomised neoliberal endgame” (p177), where all needs are met through private consumption, with assumptions refracted through his previous construction of ‘post-workerism’: “most support [for basic income] comes from deterministic assumptions of technological change and the end of work” (p.171). In line with this, he writes that basic income disrespects “the intrinsic value of work in the lives of people” (p.173) and “the significance that contribution should play in building a just society” (p.168).
Having worked alongside campaigners and citizens who support basic income, I would suggest that today’s really-existing arguments are more prosaic. Basic income is not generally envisaged as a grand replacement for employment, but as a policy that can exist alongside employment, safeguarding people against poverty and labour market instabilities. Instead of dismissing the significance of productive activity, advocates often see promise in basic income as a platform for collective bargaining, plus as a resource to allow people without a job to do something useful with their time, instead of struggling to make ends meet and fulfil Job Centre requirements. Cruddas’ suggestion that basic income advocates eschew questions of moral obligation also overlooks the policy as an emphatic attempt to rethink the meaning of ‘contribution’. Many basic income advocates are driven to respond to today’s regime of job-focused benefit conditionality, troubling the way it sidelines the contributions people make with unpaid efforts, including care work, volunteering, and other civic or creative contributions. Cruddas wants to show that basic income is inferior to a state job guarantee, but what he really shows is that it is easier to construct and demolish a boogeyman than engage with the debates in earnest.
These young people today, with their liberal abstractions…
The above misreadings aside, aspects of Cruddas’ book do revolve around an interesting question concerning how today’s Left ought to frame its policies and demands. Cruddas questions the capacity of universal or abstract principles such as rights and fairness to sufficiently enchant today’s voters. He is worried that such a language is “too underpowered in its ability to capture people’s feelings” (p.163). Once again, he is clearly influenced by Michael Sandel, who wrote in his book Justice that:
To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life… It is tempting to seek a principle or procedure that could justify, once and for all, whatever distribution of income or power or opportunity resulted from it. Such a principle, if we could find it, would enable us to avoid the tumult and contention that arguments about the good life inevitably arouse. But these arguments are impossible to avoid… Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things.
This concern about the Left’s ‘abstract liberalism’ – what Cruddas sees as a desertion of questions about the good life – arises in a context where the Right has excelled at promoting virtues such as work, community and nation. By comparison, Cruddas describes a contemporary Left without a clear telos or sense of what matters to people – a movement that is losing because it “flattens questions of meaning, identity and purpose” (p.19), replacing questions about the good life with aspirations for a “non-judgemental state architecture” (p.146) and a technocratic focus on distributional issues.
Assessing this claim involves a couple of questions – one (again) about the accuracy of this sketch of the ‘post-workerist’ Left, and another that involves asking whether there are reasonable grounds for liberal abstractions in debates about the future of work.
Even if they do not feature in Cruddas’ book, thoughtful arguments have been made in favour of more ethically neutral vocabularies and approaches. It has been argued, for example, that a preoccupation with ethical reflection on work’s role in the good life may eclipse more pressing questions of ‘contributive justice’: how to fairly distribute the satisfying versus lousy work, currently split along lines of class, race and gender.
The demotion of questions about virtue is also consistent with Kathi Weeks in The Problem With Work. Weeks follows in the footsteps of historic labour organisers who argued for work-time reductions based on the right to autonomy or “time for what we will”. This is in explicit contrast to the ‘work-family balance’ campaigns of the early 2000s, which were prepared to question the work ethic, only to replace it with an equally exacting ethic of family values. Weeks is wary of the paternalism that arises when political campaigns valorise specific goods. Free-time is instead conceived as an abstract resource, which each citizen can use to pursue and revise their own ideas of the good.
This is also echoed in Work Want Work, the recent book by Pfannebecker and Smith, which is critical of post-work texts (my own included) that have been too forthcoming about the author’s own ideas of worthy activity. In an interesting reversal of Cruddas’ feelings about the ‘abstract’ Left, they suggest that ‘post-workerism’ is actually over-concerned with ideas about the good life – too quick to tell us to engage in quiet contemplation, play with our children, go to a protest, or whatever it may be. Although Pfannebecker and Smith align themselves with the goal to reduce working time, they worry about “the speed with which naming something a possibility for the good life we could pursue, turns into a prescription about what it is we should be doing”.
This prescriptive danger is one Cruddas ought to consider, because between the lines of his insistence on labour as an expression of our “essential humanity” hides another ethical idea – one we have heard time and again from figures on the Right: the shame of joblessness. Cruddas never pauses to consider the possible exclusionary consequences of a call to reorient politics around employment as a specific good. This is dismaying given the extent to which such consequences are already blindingly apparent. Unemployed and disabled people in recent years have been forced to contend with a conditional benefits system organised precisely around the virtue of employment, and we have seen the results in the form of poverty, institutionalised stigma and suicides. This problem – along with the significant organised struggles against it – receives no attention in The Dignity of Labour. When Cruddas speaks on behalf of the people, these are presumably not the people he has in mind.
In the end, his insistence that the Left should embrace the ethical content of politics seems like little more than an excuse to smuggle in his own views about the virtues of performing a job. For Cruddas, rediscovering the ethical priorities of the Left means rediscovering the dignity of labour, although he never explains why the former should inevitably lead to the latter. By conflating the two, he overlooks another possibility: that the young voters and movers on the contemporary Left have reflected on the good life, and simply reached different conclusions. As Andy Beckett wrote in his recent review, it is unclear that Cruddas has a solid understanding of who the contemporary Left really are. Perhaps they are not the ‘cosmopolitan winners’, but a composition of people who – unlike The Dignity of Labour – have taken a concerted look at the drudgery and precarity of modern jobs, and questioned whether these should be the container of all their hopes and demands. As Beckett writes:
…today these urban radicals often are the workers: making drinks all day in cafes, riding delivery bikes in the rain. They may be well educated and cosmopolitan, but with poor wages and no job security, bad rented housing and student debt, they’re not our economy’s ‘winners’.
There are, in the end, reasonable arguments in defence of ethically liberal approaches to the future of work. Such approaches hold that although the state should ensure fair access to the means for citizens to realise their ends, it should reserve its judgements over precisely what these ends should be. What Cruddas skewers as ’liberal abstractions’ may allow for a greater sense of pluralism and inclusion in our philosophies and demands – a way to move beyond Cruddas’ vision, based on invoking the shared identity of a particular (masculine, industrial, suburban) working class subject. Of course, what is more philosophically robust is not always the most politically enchanting, and Cruddas’ convictions about the failure of liberal concepts to connect with the heart provide good food for thought, asking the Left to reflect on how it frames its principles and demands. It is an interesting topic. It is just a shame that Cruddas seems more invested in trashing the contemporary Left for being ‘fashionable’ than genuinely diving in.
After the post-work boogeyman has been chased away, what concrete proposals emerge from The Dignity of Labour? Cruddas argues that policies must be designed to “nurture good quality work and challenge and democratise the organisation of the labour process itself” (p.174). His vision of good work includes a roll call of job quality indicators, including fair treatment, fair reward, autonomy in the workplace and opportunities to participate in the shaping of the labour process, as well as legislation to ensure the employment rights of platform workers. He also includes a call to protect ‘mental privacy’ at work – a refreshing alternative to recent human relations approaches, focused on improving work by pressuring employees to discuss their mental health.
This broader vision of initiatives to improve job quality is a positive one, even if it ultimately remains unclear how companies can be persuaded to “adopt a corporate purpose beyond the pursuit of shareholder value” (p.179) to a degree sufficient to produce dignified work for everyone. The faith in this statement does not adequately address the extent to which degradation has become central to modern workplaces, some of which make a mockery of human capacities. In today’s semi-automated call centres, warehouses and fast-food kitchens, the degradation of work is less an aberration than a central component of the business model. It is hard to see how a “common interest” (p.179) between shareholders and workers could be found.
Finally, the book culminates in a call to put “work at the centre of government” (p.183). This will not be an abstract politics of liberal ideals, but a concrete politics of virtue, designed to reward participation in employment. As an overall vision of liberation, it is a limited one. Cruddas promotes a restricted idea of autonomy that ends with workplace democracy – an idea of liberation divorced from questions about the goals of work, the distribution of free-time, and the moral and economic constraints that govern citizens’ choices around work. It is a vision that does not extend to those who now seek solidarity and meaning mostly outside the workplace, nor to unpaid carers, disabled people and the unemployed – who operate outside the workplace but nevertheless remain constrained by the norm of work. In Cruddas’ vision, even dignity is now something that has to be earned and realised through employment. It is this limiting context – not careless visions of automated revolutions – that represent the true starting point for post-work debate. Cruddas’ commitment to a better world of work is commendable. But why stop there?
David Frayne is an independent researcher who has previously held research positions at New York University and Cardiff University. He is the author of The Refusal of Work (2015), editor of The Work Cure (2019) and one of Autonomy’s Research Affiliates. He can be found on Twitter, @_davidfrayne