Thursday, 24 March 2016

Iain Duncan Smith and the cruelty of the work injunction

Anything Iain Duncan Smith is “incredibly proud of” should be picked up by robot arms, placed in a hermetically sealed container and blasted off into outer space as soon as possible. Disturbingly, IDS is merely the zealous carrier for a political virus that has infected all but a few politicians.

I speak of the work obsession.

In his resignation letter, the former work and pensions’ minister managed not to mention the 1,390 people who died after a tribunal found they had been wrongly declared fit for work.  What he did find space for was noting his incredible pride in generating ‘record rates of employment’ and cutting the number of ‘workless households’.

It would be churlish not to point out that many of the brutal methods employed to achieve this outcome – the work capability assessment and sanctions for disabled people - were introduced by the previous Labour government. But what is worrying is that while some deplore the methods, everybody seems to agree with the aim.

Rich country economic think tank, the OECD, perennially underlines the urgency of increasing the ‘labour participation’ of women and older people. Disability charity Scope, which advocates ‘fundamental reform’ of the work capability test, wants a million more disabled people into work by 2020.

In 2006, a DWP study found a ‘broad consensus’ among employers, unions, disability groups and the main political parties that work was good for the health of sick and disabled people.

The work obsession began in earnest under New Labour. NL ministers waxed lyrical about the transforming effects of hard work. To underscore the message, the Department of Social Security was symbolically re-named the Department for Work and Pensions.

Unemployment was gradually usurped by the adjective, ‘workless’. Less a word than an accusation, being ‘workless’ meant there was something wrong with you, a psychological flaw, and you needed to be returned to the path of righteous employment.

The idea that work is good for you has become so ingrained among the political elite that the fact that it often isn’t does nothing to dent the enthusiasm. In reality, only well-paid enjoyable work is good for you; low status, badly-paid jobs aren’t, amazingly enough. The work compulsion is such an article of faith that even right-wing diatribes include two million stay at home parents in (entirely fallacious) calculations that people on benefits have more children.

But at the high tide of its influence, there are signs that the work obsession is running out of steam.

Part of the reason is that the work obsession has always relied on the social function performed by work rather than what it actually is in bare economic terms – in a capitalist society economy exploitation and profit-making for others.

Thus, stable jobs help people with mental health problems recover, employment enables people with disabilities to escape ghettoization and contribute to society. Going further back, the huge movement of women into post-marriage work after the 1960s meant financial independence and an escape from compulsory domesticity.

Work has been very consciously linked with escaping domestic drudgery and isolation. “I very passionately believe,” government minister Chris Grayling informed the BBC in 2013, “that if we could help people back into work, they are much better off than if they are left stranded at home on benefits for the rest of their lives.”

But in the putative economic recovery we have experienced over the last five years, the sheen has been systematically stripped from what is meant by ‘work’. We are not talking about stable, good jobs but bare-faced exploitation. Zero-hour contracts have mushroomed post-recession, but are merely the ‘tip of iceberg’ of flexible employment practices, such as extreme part time contracts and key time contracts.

According to researchers these ‘flexi-contracts’ are creating ‘a culture of servitude’ and generating anxiety and ‘depressed mental states’ among workers. So much for work being good for people with mental health problems. It now causes them.

One of the prime motivations for hounding people off out of work benefits is that paying people to do nothing is a drain on resources. Think of that enormous ‘welfare bill’. But unless you produce programmes for Channel 5, it’s a fallacy that moving into work of some kind means you move off benefits. Numbers on working tax credits are double what they were in 2003. But greater ‘labour market participation’, merely means people now work for their poverty.

Without this huge state subsidy, the economy and consumption would collapse. But the situation cannot endure forever. A 2013 study estimated that 47% of current jobs in the US could be supplanted by computers by 2033. Automation now threatens not only manual labour but also previously immune areas such as retail jobs and cognitive work. “The scope of these developments means that everyone from stock analysts to construction workers to chefs to journalists is vulnerable to being replaced by machines,” write the authors of the book Inventing the Future.

The demand for labour already weakened from its post-war high point, is set to wane even further. Therefore, in the near future, the injunction that ‘everyone must work’, will cease to make any sense, apart from being inhumane.

What these developments will make apparent is that the work obsessed society we inhabit has gross flaws and is immensely one-sided. To take one example, the need identified by many psychologists for both parents to stay at home and look after young children, is not possible in a society designed around the needs of employers. Many necessary functions labelled ‘domestic’ can be given their proper due in a post-work society, although performed by both genders, not just one as they were in the past.

Many other socially valuable activities will become possible in a society that does not insist on perpetual exhaustion as a condition of citizenship. Democratic self-management, medical breakthroughs, social useful inventions all become feasible in a society that trusts its members, rather than setting out to punish them.

And this would also be a society that would clearly remember Iain Duncan Smith as the dinosaur that he is.


  1. Fantastic post Mat. It's much better in Sweden, where it's possible to have a work- life balance, have kids and work part time.

  2. Thanks. The only downside is the astronomical price of beer, but maybe there's less reason to drink

  3. See this 2011 report from the British Medical Journal.
    "Moving from unemployment into a high quality job led to improved mental health (mean change score of +3.3), however the transition from unemployment to a poor quality job was more detrimental to mental health than remaining unemployed (−5.6 vs −1.0).