Non Stop Inertia, by Ivor Southwood
It’s oddly fitting that I’ve had to delay writing a review of a book about work because I’ve been too busy at work. Doubly so as it’s a review that won’t even interest most of the readers of this blog. Non-Stop Inertia is a part biographical and part academic left-wing critique of contemporary UK working culture. It’s an examination of concepts of precarity, and emotional labour. Those aren’t terms I’d heard before, but the concepts underlying them are ones I think most of us would recognise.
For me the yardstick for this sort of writing is Barbara Ehrenreich’s tremendous Nickeled and Dimed. If you’ve not read that book, it’s a sobering account of what living on minimum wage with minimal labour rights is actually like (in that case in the US, but the experiences Ehrenreich describes can certainly be extrapolated to the UK without much difficulty and I imagine to many other countries too).
Ehrenreich wrote from the outside in. She’s a respected writer and journalist who decided to write (among other things) about the lives of the working poor. Ivor Southwood by contrast writes from the inside out, he is one of the working poor. The subject matter is the same though, that hinterland (largely ignored by politicians) of people who slip back and forth between precarious employment and unemployment mostly just getting by, sometimes not getting by at all.
Here’s how it opens:
Business at the warehouse was going downhill rapidly. There had already been meetings on the floor and warnings about dire times ahead. I’d only been taken on from the agency and made “permanent” a couple of months earlier, and already I was expecting to be got rid of. I’d been applying for new jobs continuously anyway since I had started there. But for others who were more attached to the place, its social and historical solidity was dissolving before their eyes. We knew that sooner or later there would be a huge cull which would eliminate about a third of the workforce; but in the meantime people were being given notice in dribs and drabs, two or three every month, mostly people like me who had only recently been employed. Every day could be the day you got the tap on the shoulder.
Southwood takes his particular circumstances as a starting point to explore wider themes. Not just the precarious nature of much contemporary employment (when governments boast of how many new jobs have been created, they often forget to mention how many of them are temporary positions at minimum wage), but also the way in which the unemployed are expected to treat unemployment as if it were a job in itself, and the way in which whether in work or looking for it they’re expected to present an unfaltering image of bland positivity.
All of this of course takes place in the context of a wider culture in which the consumer is held out as king, and in which the values of consumerism seem to migrate into areas where they don’t naturally fit. As Southwood notes, “Even the Jobcentre calls its claimants “customers”.”
Part of Southwood’s thesis is the concept of emotional labour (he’s exploring the idea, he doesn’t claim authorship of it) and the “emotional labourer”. The point is that the employee increasingly is required not merely to turn up and perform their day’s work (with the concept of a day’s work of course becoming increasingly elastic, as home and workplace boundaries soften in the wake of new technologies), but also to present an appropriate emotional front while doing so.
In some professions this has always been true. A McDonalds’ server in the 1950s would have been expected to smile and welcome the customer just as much as one today. What’s new however is the way this self-commoditisation has spread into areas where traditionally one wouldn’t have expected it. Even in the most tedious of jobs employees are expected to show passion for the product, a commitment to the company mission, an emotional engagement in other words which may be wholly at odds with anything one could reasonably expect someone to actually feel.
This spreads beyond work into the search for work. The CV and interview (if you get one) become essentially performative; the prospective employee and employer both adopt a peculiar cod-management/cod-self help rhetoric which sits over the banality of the actual job being discussed. As Southwood says:
the most mundane experience becomes the occasion of a personal epiphany: “working in a busy café really taught me something about the importance of customer service.”
To put my own cards on the table, I think Southwood is right about this. It’s visible in exaggerated form in programmes such as The Apprentice (with the UK version being a bizarrely low-rent emulation of its vastly more moneyed US parent), but it’s true through much of the working world. It’s particularly true at the lower end of the job market (at the professional end your work likely is something you can emotionally engage with, and the connection between your activity and your company’s success is much more evident, so this kind of fake enthusiasm simply isn’t as required).
This isn’t just an issue for the employed. The job-seeker who doesn’t come across as sufficiently positive, who seems demoralised or depressed, risks seeing benefits cut due to a perception that they aren’t doing enough to cure their misfortune.
“Jobseeker”: a more demeaning label is difficult to imagine. It recalls a childish game of hide and seek, and the unemployed are indeed often treated like errant children who need to be kept in line by playground supervisors who make sure they go back into class promptly when the bell rings. There is also the spiritual connotation of “seek and ye shall find”: if you do not find a job this is not a reflection of any real social situation, it is simply a failure of faith on your part; you just do not really believe.
Southwood goes on to show how this system acts to displace analysis of the extent to which an individual’s joblessness may result (at least in part) from factors outside their control:
The only labour now exchanged at the Jobcentre is the performative sort: empty gestures, feigned enthusiasm, containment of hostility, suppression of resentment. The “customer” and “advisor” are required between them to conjure an interaction which is entirely fake, a form of surface acting stretched over the underlying reality of compulsion and surveillance. Posters and leaflets in the Jobcentre depict smiling figures in work-like scenarios, proffering handshakes or clutching official-looking folders. The discourse of customer service adopted by the staff presents an illusion of empowerment, as if the claimant were choosing to buy a product, and deflects any real criticisms of the system onto pseudo-issues of standards or quality.
The language of empowerment then is deeply political. If unemployment is treated as a personal issue, a question of commitment, skills and attitude, then that frames a debate in which the question of whether there are actually enough jobs to go round (and whether they pay enough to live on) isn’t asked. The focus moves from asking whether the economy is working, to asking why the individual isn’t.
This all makes the book sound rather a grim read, and it likely would be except that Southwood has a fairly lively sense of humour about it all. I loved asides such as this:
If the Jobcentre does indeed hail the benefit claimant as a customer, it is that type of shop where, having been monitored suspiciously by staff for signs of shoplifting, one feels obscurely intimidated and leaves the premises convinced that the theft alarm will go off, even if one’s pockets are empty.
Where Southwood explored his personal situation and used it to illustrate wider societal trends I thought the book worked well. Where he turned to the more academic side of his argument, however, I have to admit to flagging a little. Paragraphs such as:
The argument for a move from macro- to micro-politics represented an effort to divert the flow of the new liquefied culture, to claim the new politics of identity for those whose everyday lives had been routinely crushed by patriarchal-colonial capital.
are quite hard going if you’re not yourself an academic. Southwood explains all his points well, I was never lost even though in many cases he was drawing on a sociological tradition I’m not familiar with (not that there are any sociological traditions that I am familiar with), but phrases like “patriarchal-colonial capital” just don’t make my heart beat faster.
Equally, while I agree with Southwood that there’s something demeaning and ultimately dishonest about the faux-consumerification (great, I’m doing the jargon thing now) of what is frequently low-skilled and uninteresting work, that doesn’t mean the individual is entirely powerless. If there are no jobs you’re not going to find one however positive you may be, but equally while much of how our life plays out is beyond our control it isn’t all beyond our control. Southwood says:
But then I listen to the politicians and the lifestyle gurus and I think that perhaps my situation is self-inflicted. If only I hadn’t attempted to improve myself by going back into higher education – if I had learnt some practical skill to make myself easily employable, rather than fill my head with useless knowledge, or if I had spent the time between lectures doing part-time jobs rather than studying or, even worse, writing – I wouldn’t now be underemployed and trapped by debt.
The hard answer to that is, well, yes. If he had learnt a practical skill instead of going into higher education with no long term goal then he likely would have better employment prospects and less debt. It’s profoundly unfair of course that some people by virtue of birth need never worry about employability and can just follow their dreams and whims, while others must abandon deeply held passions in order to make a living. Profoundly unfair, but true for almost all history.
For a few decades after the second world war there was an expectation that society could and should be fair. If you look to nineteenth century or earlier fiction there’s no such concept, servants are servants and masters are masters. In the twentieth century, for a while, subsidised university education and full employment created a different world in which the servants could at least dream of becoming the masters (even if, if you look at the numbers, actual social mobility didn’t change much).
That dream is now closing and we’re returning to the world of the nineteenth century novel. The existence of a precariat, a class of people a single paycheck away from penury, is nothing new. Dickens would have recognised it in a heartbeat, he’d just have called it something else. Perhaps Southwood’s misfortune in part is to have the dreams of a man of the 20th century, but to be living in the 21st.
Still, Non-Stop Inertia is an argument, it’s not the entire debate. Southwood puts forward his perspective, but never claims that there aren’t others. He’s stronger on the personal side than the academic, but that’s the more interesting side anyway, and his analysis is much stronger than his few proposed potential solutions (as he himself admits), but that’s ok because the truth is that just because someone identifies a problem doesn’t mean they have to be the one to come up with an answer to it (or even that one exists). In the end when he writes about:
This constant precariousness and restless mobility, compounded by a dependence upon relentlessly updating market-driven technology and the scrolling CGI of digital media, together suggest a sort of cultural stagflation, a population revving up without getting anywhere. The result is a kind of frenetic inactivity: we are caught in a cycle of non-stop inertia.
I think he writes about something which is real and which may of us would recognise. That makes this a worthwhile book, and one I’m glad to have read.