Emotional labour and the paradox of ownership

The late, lamented, David Graeber talked about emotional labour in his book Bullshit Jobs. We live in a society that’s in thrall to ownership. If you own an enterprise, or are a director of it, you don’t have to make any effort to understand what your employees want, or even think. On the other hand, they have to understand you, because in a real sense their lives depend on it and you could discard them if you felt like it.

Of course, this is taking the idea to an extreme that’s probably not been as evident since Victorian times. But if you think how power hierarchies work it’s a very cogent thing. If you look how corporations work, with the lower-ranking employees scurrying around to avoid offending their masters and avoid showing initiative that could result in being wrong, it’s still very apparent. Particularly now, when trade unions and collective approaches to running society have been so traduced and neutered compared to the ridiculous cult of the individual and the leader.

It also explains why so-called leaders in corporations are always bemoaning how they can’t get people to own problems and solve them for the company. Well, bluntly, why the fuck should you? The owners keep the rewards and you get the ulcers. Doesn’t sound like a good deal to me.

This forced, insincere, emotional labour, pretending to give a shit about what some dickhead boss wants, is at least part of what Marx called alienation. I believe that it’s what is causing the rising tide of mental illness in the West.

Marx pointed out to us that we are slaves. Wage slaves. Instead of being fully owned like the chattel of old, we rent our labour out for fixed periods of time in exchange for tokens that we can use to get the necessities of life. If you aren’t a member of the owning class (and very few people are) then this is where you sit despite all the freedoms you have on paper. As an individual you have very little power. This is why our society makes a cult of the individual, it means the powerful few keep control while the rest of us wander around with nothing. The freedom you have is the freedom to own things, or the freedom to starve if you don’t and can’t get to place where you can rent your labour to someone who does.

The paradox

If you’re human you can’t help being emotionally involved with the enterprise you work for. You identify with it, and even feel that you want it to succeed. This is why being made redundant can hurt so much, part of your humanity is being thrown away by people who don’t value it. It’s also why the saying it’s not personal, it’s business is such a load of crap. It’s personal all right, business won’t work without both kinds of labour. Now we arrive at the point of the title of this essay: the paradox of ownership.

Say if you work for a company that’s very successful, that you put a lot of effort into, and it’s bought by someone, your contribution does not belong to you. Your owner has taken it and turned it into money, but it has nothing to do with you any more. Unless the original or new owners decide to acknowledge you with some kind of thank you (financial or even just verbal) you may not even have a job. You own your labour, and emotional labour in particular is hard, separating your feelings from what you do is damn near impossible.

The ownership of the company and the ownership of the work mean different things. The emotional labour you may have put in is necessary, may even have built something that can be sold by your employer, but if the company is itself sold it’s been taken from you to make a commodity. This is the quintessence of capitalism, everything you have, even the things that make you feel human, perhaps even love, become things.

A company is all of the people who work there, all of the things they did to make it better and help their customers. All the folks you enjoy working with and want to succeed. All that stuff, that human stuff, can be sold from under your feet and you will get nothing unless there is some kind of contract or the owners are willing to share.

A cynic would say that you shouldn’t give too much, if anything, to avoid being hurt. Just the time you’re paid for and that’s that. Is this what will work for you, though? It’s right to want human contact, and right to want to help others. Neither of these things is pathologically bad. However we live in a society with a bad pathology. Where the accident of ownership means you can do what you like to the people that work for you and they can’t do anything about it. An owner isn’t even obliged to understand the thing they own and how it works – think about it, it is absolutely mad when you get down to it. This bad pathology hurts us inside and out, it dehumanises and makes hurting other people seem acceptable. This is why dangerous nonsense like the enterprise destroying concept of shareholder value is acceptable if all you want is to play games with money – what the enterprise does, what value it brings, is overriden by who owns it.

This is why the rest of us need collectivism, and why we need each other. It’s why we need to reject the cult of the individual, the arsehole, and work together on things. It’s also why our owners have spent the last fifty years undermining trade unions, why the legal recourse for discrimination has been so restricted, why things like zero hours contracts have been created, and why the billionaire press is so hell bent on persuading us to hate even the idea of unions or collectivism and be suspicious of each other. The destruction of the post-war consensus was deliberate. It’s now almost impossible to remember what it was like when virtually everyone was in a union of some kind and your employer couldn’t pick on you if they felt like it. It happened so slowly nobody noticed, but the world is fundamentally different.

If an enterprise is sold, then there is a really weird assumption that the workers go with it. But what was sold, really? The mechanical thing. A business is a means of organising people and materials in such a way as you put resources in, turn a handle, and profit comes out of the process the handle initiates. So what the new owner bought was the process and the handle, possibly the brand if there is one. But they didn’t buy the workers, the physical labour was bought. Selling time for the use of your hands doesn’t mean you’re obliged to do the emotional labour as well, that would mean you worked for some kind of cult. So a business being sold generates a deeper conflict in the people that work for it. After all, chattel slavery finally disappeared a long time ago. They didn’t buy your heart, but they like to pretend that they did.

The other strange import from the USA, at least if you live in the UK, is this bollocks about family. Somehow the accidental combination of the people you work with and your employer’s limited largesse has created a family and you’re automatically a member. People you choose to be with vs. people you need to hang out with so you can earn a living. Bosses that assume you will go to out of hours virtual meetings and play pub games with strangers you didn’t choose as friends, whom you may not even like particularly.

When I worked for a big database company and 9/11 happened the billionaire boss sent an email round saying the folks we knew who died trying to take down the planes where all family. Maybe this was the harbinger of a new attitude where we all pull together and the wealth is shared along with the risk etc. etc. Six weeks later he was back firing people and doing all the aggressive stuff the MBAs told him to do to make even more money. It wasn’t a lie, as such, it just wasn’t a sentiment that lasted more than a week. Well, we aren’t dogs, our loyalty isn’t automatically given when someone shows even slight affection, and why should we pretend? Hey billionare narcissist, it’s just business and we don’t love you.

The cult of the individual also serves to isolate us from one another. You can find yourself in a situation and not realise that most of the people you work with feel the same. It’s what Marx talked about, what a class actually is, a group of people united by having the same needs and circumstances having the same perspective on what matters. Our owners are outnumbered and very weak, so they have to pretend our class does not exist. They have to turn us into individuals because it makes us easy to control. They create bureaucracies to hide from us so we can’t see their hands behind the puppet show.

This is also where the whining about people wanting free stuff comes from: nope, workers demand recognition of who they are and what they do. Their interests do not coincide with the owners. In fact the owners’ interests don’t necessarily coincide with those of the enterprises they own, they just want the profit and don’t care how it happens. This is why capitalism is destroying the planet – profit-driven ownership, rather than stewardship, is a very stupid idea when it becomes world-spanning monopolies that are wrecking the environment.

But if you look carefully it’s pretty easy to see, and then the paradox resolves itself by taking the ownership back from the people who only ever borrowed it, whatever they may pretend to.

The great reckoning

Various loons on Facebook and Twitter a pushing yet another narrative where they promote a helplessness in the people that follow it. They call it the great reset. Essentially Covid and the climate crisis are a deliberate thing that comes from yet another inaginary cabal far away and a great many people are going to die to keep the cabal in power.

Like a lot of these narratives you can’t do anything about it. It’s related to the whole QAnon farce, where shadowy forces are taking over the world. Lunacy with a nice side-order of anti-semitism and hate directed at places where it can do no harm to the established order.

To be honest, I don’t want to talk about this any more than I already have. It’s brain-melting rubbish designed to keep you afraid and passive. You can google it if you want to go down the rabbit hole.

Instead, what do we actually have?

As I live in the UK, let’s start there:

  1. We now have the highest per-capita Covid death rate in the world, largely down to idiots trying to save christmas and not even attempting to implement a zero Covid strategy. More infections also mean more opportunities for the virus to mutate, which is a great win, for the virus. At the time of writing over 1,000 people a day are dying.
  2. A government department openly and blatantly bullied the people who work there to keep turning up for work even if they’d been told to isolate. People were also ordered to turn off the track and trace app or ignore it.
  3. Brexit restrictions mean that food is rotting before it gets delivered, but the government is trying to spin that into a story about Covid even though there weren’t any problems last year when there wasn’t any Brexit paperwork.
  4. Our crony-driven government still doesn’t have a working track and trace system, which makes even attempting zero Covid almost impossible. It has managed to channel millions to its failed private sector friends, though.
  5. Thousands of jobs in the fishing industry are probably already lost due to Brexit.
  6. The benefits system, in particular the murderous farce that is Universal Credit, pays too little, discriminates against people with larger families, and is designed to trap people in poverty. Who can forget the picture of the former minister exhulting when the former Chancellor announced even greater cuts? UC was temporarily increased to help people during the pandemic, and it has been reduced again even though the pandemic hasn’t gone away.
  7. UC is structured to give the money to the male partner in any relationship. This is because the fruit loop in charge wanted to keep families together, no count has yet been made of the number of women killed or injured because they couldn’t escape abusive partners. It also infantilises women, which is an amusing irony for a man who married money.
  8. There is evidence that 130,000 people may have had their lives shortened by inadequate benefits and benefit sanctions. This is disputed, but what is not disuputed is that it has cost lives, the argument is about how many. The department stopped collecting the figures to make it harder to work out.
  9. Our leaders continue to allow the supply of weapons to the ongoing war in the Yemen, despite being asked to stop and recently being able to vote on the policy. The humanitarian disaster is entirely man made, and our rulers’ bloody hands are all over it, including our arms-dealer queen.

These are merely a few examples of the ongoing murderous catalogue of actions and policies, from the bogus nonsense that they called austerity to the hard-faced attacks on the poor that have resulted in the deaths of thousands, both in the UK and elsewhere in the world. We are losing our jobs, having our health service privatised under our noses. We have been lied to over and over again, about everything, no-one believes a word our leaders say any more.

9/11 caused the death of around 3,000 people. The benefit “reforms” have already cost around 40 times that before we even start adding in the Covid deaths. People at the bottom of the socio-economic pile in this country are dying at an unprecedented rate, particularly if they are BAME people, who tend to be clustered in low-paying, low-status jobs where employers are particularly nasty.

The Western powers wrecked Afganistan over 9/11. So where is the outrage here? Why aren’t we going to war with these killers? Why are they still walking free, their lies unchallenged?

The killer isn’t at the gate. The killer lives in your house and eats at your table. You let them in, and let them lie to you and sing you to sleep.

The Great Reckoning

We need a great reckoning, forget the nonsense about the reset, or the racist crap about the replacement of white people with what is in fact their descendents who may have darker skin.

Every one of the dead should be counted, every politician involved in their deaths should be accountable.

Some people say that you sometimes have to make decisions that may result in resources being allocated in a way that means people will die and it’s unavoidable.

That’s true, but not in this case.

  • There are other places in the world where the UN hasn’t come into a nominally rich country to feed poor children.
  • There are other places in the world that correctly implemented track and trace and zero Covid strategies and have almost no cases now.
  • Others didn’t take the austerity pill and their economies recovered very quickly
  • There are other places where an advisory referendum is advisory
  • A large majority of the population want to see their NHS properly funded, not cut past the bone and sold
  • Other countries haven’t had the number of food banks go from a half dozen to out number the number of McDonalds in 10 years

There is no excuse for this, but at the moment our owners think they won’t face any consequences.

We need to start campaigning to disabuse them of that delusion.

The great reckoning needs to happen, or all of the nonsense about unity and healing is no more than hot air.

Footnote (March 2021) Naomi Klein has a great article on the Great Reset from the perpsective of the Davos group. A group which has itself made just about everything far worse.

The strange cost of victory

Centrists often tweet at me saying that supporting the Corbyn project was a mistake. Blair is the only Labour leader who consistently won elections, and, of course, socialism won’t work.

Just saying stop talking bollocks doesn’t help. Everyone who knows realises that Corbyn was sabotaged and it’s hard to say what might have happened if there had been a fair election and the poor man hadn’t been continually undermined by factions in his own party. Of course, that was never going to happen and it’s not worth arguing about. The curious double think, where the sabotage is ignored and Corbyn’s Labour were always going to fail because some pundit said so, is part of the story these folks tell.

The other thing they do is harp on about Blair’s victories. But was it though? Let’s think about this some more.

All the way back in 279 BCE a king won a battle. His name was Pyrrhus. His victory was so memorable that it has become a phrase often used in English, as in Pyrrhic victory, this being victory that costs so much you have little left. This short piece will look at some of the lasting consequences of the Blair regime and question whether the winning so much lauded by some centrists was anything of the sort. After all, it is predicated on Blair being some kind of progressive, and even that is now easily recognised as debatable.

Labour was founded in part by the trade unions. They were unhappy with not having enough of a voice in the British Parliament and wanted a party they could have direct input into. This relationship was often used by Tories to pretend that Labour was beholden to the unions. The answer to this is so what? If you think about it, is it any different from being beholden to the people who think they own everything and everybody like the Tories? Who controls the trade unions, at least in theory? Their members. So in reality is there a divide with working class people as preached by our dead from the neck up media?

Thatcher defeated the miners and the other strong unions (Railways and Engineering) by using extreme violence and in part a variety of anti trade union legislation that her goverment introduced. Earlier Tory governments had tried to introduce similar legislation this and were roundly trounced in the late 70’s.

So, one of the things that Labour promised to its founders was a repeal of the legislation when it got back into power.

This never happened and has been conveniently forgotten.

The recent lack of support for the teaching unions over the attempts to force schools to open during the pandemic is more of the same. Support for trade unionists is dubious and partial at best, the middle class centrists who now run the party are terrified of people working collectively to protect themselves because they don’t understand it, it’s not sufficiently aspirational.

So, when we’re talking about winning with Blair this is the first win.

Next, let’s talk about the organisation of the NHS. Thatcher inherited a monolithic organisation that was run nationally and financed centrally. It was not something that could easily be privatised. That said, there are strategies and techniques in place that allow the break up of such monolithic organisations. These are very similar to ones used by businesses that are planning to off shore their manufacturing arm.

  • Create a management layer that splits the comissioning of the work
    from the doing of the work
  • Break large national organisation into smaller regional ones
  • Allow external companies to bid for pieces of work now they are small
    enough to be manageable.
  • Transfer the staff to the external companies so they lose their rights
    and are cheaper to employ. In the case of the NHS this is how
    companies can make money from a service that was designed to not have any kind of surplus, by attacking workers’ pay and conditions.

This is broadly what happened to the NHS. It’s why we now have a whole bunch of care commissions and service delivery groups in the NHS. It’s why there is a market in the NHS, allegedly to foster competition, but in fact to give external companies a way to take over the operations. A useful side effect of this is it’s easy to make cuts and give the reconstituted bureacratic layers less money to work with without it being too obvious. The tories also played games with VAT so on paper external companies were cheaper, because they could reclaim their tax, when the NHS itself was not able to. This effectively gave the external companies a 20% subsidy. As well as this, of course, the delivery parts of the NHS were never intended to make a profit. So if you allocate the same or less funds to a private company that is intended to make one the service will suffer. This isn’t rocket science.

The so-called NHS deficit (which means chronic underfunding in plain English) almost exactly matches the cost of the bogus internal market. This is no coincidence as extra funds weren’t allocated to pay for it.

Again, undoing the internal market, and removing these reforms were promised and never happened. Blair’s government did put a lot more money into the NHS, but they didn’t undo the privatisation preparations. All the tools and structures to destroy the service and replace it with a US style insurance system with the care being commissioned was left in place. All the Cameron government had to to was pick it up and run with it.

This is the second great win, of course.

Now let’s move on to the next great victory, which is the nonsense that is the Public Finance Initiative (PFI). Blair’s chancellor, Brown, had promised that he would stay within Tory spending targets. Putting aside the nonsense that a country with a sovereign currency could be said to have debt, it means that Brown had a slight quandary, in that Labour had promised to invest in the public sector and particularly the NHS but inherited spending plans that meant it wouldn’t be possible.

PFI, in essence, borrows money in a way that meant it wasn’t technically included in government borrowing. The funds required to, say, rebuild a school or hospital the Tories had neglected so long it was falling down, was turned into a financial contract. The hedge funds or whoever held the contract were entitled to interest several points over the base rate, and the hospitals or schools were obliged to make the payments first before doing anything else. If the payments don’t happen the people who hold the contract would end up owning the thing they had financed.

If you lived in the fantasy world where boom and bust was over, and everyone’s wages will increase forever, and so on this almost seems like a good idea. Of course, anyone with any sense could see it was stupid.

So now, in 2021, we have companies that failed to build hospitals or whatever and went bankrupt. We have new facilities that are technically fantastic but they haven’t been given the funds to employ staff and pay the debt on the buildings, which contributes to the so-called deficit. As usual, the money flowing around the capitalist system in the UK has been diverted into the pockets of those who already have plenty. We have a sovereign currency that means it can effectively just be called into existence, but instead of using that to invest it’s been put into the pockets of the wealthy, as usual.

Brown’s team, at the time, claimed they were rescuing PFI which could, one supposes, now seem very amusing. As usual there is now no sense of consequence or hubris. Brown keeps popping up in the commentariat and expects to be treated as something other than a bumbling has been. So, win number three for Blair (and Brown).

Then we come to the sore question of the 2008 crisis. It was a con driven by the banks to suck money out of the credit bubble by selling it back to themselves and loaning it out again over and over on ever more risky investments after downgrading the risk by lying about it. The boom was fundamentally built on fraud, allowed by the reregulation and massive cutting back of the regulators of the Thatcher era in the UK, and Regan and Clinton in the US, along with most of the other capital markets at the time. Laws put in place to stop rip offs and mis-selling, of setting your customers up to take losses while you hoovered up the money, were repealed or just ignored. Eventually the bubble burst.

Instead of jailing the fraudsters and protecting small investors the banks were bailed out. Their fraud and folly was turned into public debt, and, after being saved, bonuses were still paid. Think about this for a moment.

Win number four.

If you can remember back far enough there were in fact two Iraq wars. The first one drove the Iraqi forces out of Saudi Arabia and then left things hanging for many years (after abandoning people who rebelled against the regime to be murdered by it). So, the Iraqi people were punished for the crime of having a leader who was now out of favour with his former Western sponsors with sanctions. If they wanted to buy medical supplies, or indeed anything useful, with their oil revenues they were first price gouged and then various British and US officials decided whether or not the items could be deemed as having military applications and be denied.

So medical supplies, vaccines for children, cancer treatments and so on were not available to the ordinary Iraqis. A report in the British Medical Journal puts the number of children who died as a result of this policy, alone, at half a million. Labour at the time claimed to have an ethical foreign policy. These are not tears of laughter, they’re just tears.

Win number 5.

So, in summary:

  • Let’s leave anti Trade Union legislation in place
  • Let’s leave NHS provider split in place ready for Cameron
  • Let’s hog tie future generations with PFI idiocy
  • Let’s bail out banks & not prosecute fraud
  • Let’s kill half a million kids with sanctions even before we went to
    war

Win win win win win!

This feels a lot like losing looking back in 2021. We could also talk about how various flagship policies which did actually make some kind of difference to a few people were easily dismantled when Cameron came in. Not discussed here, either, is Brown selling of the UK gold reserves at a massive discount, or his changing the tax regime so that single people on fixed incomes were properly shafted. These are minor wins, obviously.

So, Tony Blair is the only Labour leader who won two elections since the war.

So what?

The boot appeared to be lifted off our necks for a few years, only to make sure it could come back down more firmly later once the ground had been prepared for more misery.