From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
People want jobs even if they’re non-jobs. This is a rather extraordinary desire when you think about it. And it isn’t just confined to you and me and the neighbours, accustomed as we all are to accepting that society consists of two sorts of people, workers and loafers. Everybody wants – perhaps not to work, exactly – but to appear to work. It’s not just a matter of material survival, either: for nearly everyone, having a job – or what looks like a job – seems to be essential to any kind of mental and emotional well-being.This is familiar stuff which social scientists tend to explain by reference to the Protestant work ethic, social conditioning and so on. However, you don’t have to be a sociologist to be struck by how universal this desire to ‘have a job’ is. Even the royals and other successful bums persuade the public – and doubtless themselves – that they are flogging away at taxing (pun fully intended) and worthwhile occupations. Indeed, the upper classes have become so skilful at this that it’s now received wisdom to regard the idle rich as an extinct species.
Anyway, whether they are still with us or not, the idle rich are not seen as a problem. And as long as that’s the case, they’re not a problem. It’s the idle non-rich who cause all the anxiety, fear and loathing. And there are a lot of them about. The unemployed are the biggest visible group of idlers, of course; and the most annoying: but probably equalling them in number are the not-rich who have ‘jobs’ but do little or no work.
I’m not talking about people who actually do work quite hard at tasks which are useless or which do more harm than good – people such as stockbrokers, most ‘administrators’ and ‘managers’, weapons dealers, estate agents, orchestra conductors, politicians, car and tobacco manufacturers, child psychologists, public relations officers, game-show hosts, art critics, disc-jockeys, advertising people, and so on.
The group I’m referring to consists of those who are employed in overtly useful occupations, yet who are, strictly, ‘surplus to requirements.’ This is called ‘overmanning’: it is intensely and loudly deprecated by the media.
So when we hear that several thousand miners or Telecom workers or whoever are about to get the boot, we all sympathise with them. But we also feel obliged to acknowledge that if these workers are not needed, then, well of course they’ve got to go. Haven’t they?
To see whether this is true, it might be best to look at a single concrete example. Let’s think back to that most notorious case, the printers’ chapels.
Everybody knew that the printers were holding back progress. They were guilty of all sorts of depravity, ranging from reactionary attitudes and ‘restrictive practices’ to outright Luddism.
It’s common knowledge that the owners and managers of the press, in a series of famous victories, defeated the printers. They were thus enabled to streamline the whole business of producing newspapers and other ephemera, leading us to the new dawn of cost effectiveness. I understand that some of the visionaries involved obtained knighthoods, peerages, and other goodies for their signal services to the community. Anyway, a lot of printers were sacked.
Let’s concede that all those sacked printers really were in feather-bed non-jobs – genuinely redundant. This means that we can further admit that there are far fewer non-jobs in the printing trade than formerly. It’s a leaner industry. But this means, not that the overmanning has ceased, but that it has simply been transferred to a different industry: that loss-making industry we all know and love as the welfare state.
And that’s overmanning. You’re just as redundant with your UB40 as you were before you got it. It doesn’t end there of course. All those people who would have obtained non-jobs in the printing trade are also currently overmanning the dole queue.
Now we can all understand – some people may even sympathise with – an employer who discovers that he can operate his business at an increased profit by sacking a bunch of workers. We can even appreciate his frustration when confronted by a powerful union which – very sensibly – tries to prevent him from doing it. But should he try to fool people into thinking that his proposed streamlining is going to benefit the public at large?
If he does manage to defeat the union and push through his redundancy package, three results will surely follow. He (and perhaps some shareholders) will be a good deal richer; the sacked workers and their families will be made quite unhappy; and the tax bill of the working population will increase.
Why do the majority of Britain’s citizens so vehemently disapprove of strikes, even where those strikes are attempts to retain jobs? And why do they especially deplore strikes in defence of overmanning, of non-jobs?
The more people on the dole queue, the more taxes we pay. So, obviously, as far as the average taxpayer is concerned the more overmanning that goes on, at least in the private sector, the better off he/she will be. As things are, it is in our own interests to enthusiastically support all strikes which are aimed at keeping jobs, whether these be ‘real’ jobs or not.
We have to ask then, do we really want to live in an economically leaner and fitter Britain? Personally, I doubt it. But, if we do, then overmanning obviously remains a problem. And, equally obviously, the only really effective solution is to kill off all those employed in non-jobs. The massacre, by inexorable logic, would have to be extended to include the already unemployed. Only then would we have genuine, nationwide, streamlining. But, on the whole, it would probably be more agreeable (not to mention fairer) to kill the sackers and the streamliners.
Last updated: 28 February 2017