Why unemployment is no longer a political issue

Thousands are being thrown on to the dole queue, yet there are no mass uprisings, no widespread strikes, no marches for jobs. Why?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

This week I received an email from a group called ‘Redundancy Survival’, offering me the opportunity to buy an e-book that will help me cope if I am made redundant. The e-book is for ‘the average individual who is told their job no longer exists’ and who might be ‘in shock and suffering depression because of a lack of support’. The email quoted one worker who had been made redundant – ‘I didn’t know what to do at first and was like a rabbit in headlights’ – and encouraged the rest of us to try to avoid suffering a similar fate by coughing up some of our redundancy cash for its therapeutic e-book.

The email perfectly summed up today’s strange, muted response to the prospect of job losses and mass unemployment as a result of the recession. Unemployment in the UK rose to a 12-year high of 2.261million in April, and it is predicted to reach three million soon. The unemployment rate increased by 30 per cent in the first 12 months of the current downturn, compared with 22 per cent in the first year of recession in the 1990s and 29 per cent in the first year of the 1980s downturn (1). Yet there are no mass uprisings, no marches for jobs; instead there are atomised individuals apparently feeling like ‘rabbits in headlights’ and being offered advice on how to cope by the usual suspects of the therapy industry.

In the past, individuals thrown out of work or forced to take pay cuts might have had face-to-face meetings to organise some kind of resistance; today they receive advice on how to cope through that most individuated form of communication: the email. During earlier economic downturns, people were less interested in finding out how to ‘survive redundancy’ than in devising ways to overcome it – either by demanding their jobs back or marching for the right to work. Things have clearly changed, enormously. As Janet Street-Porter asked in typical shrieky fashion: ‘Why don’t we take to the streets over job losses?’ (2)

The truth is, unemployment is no longer a political issue. It is still a very severe problem for individuals and families, many of whom will have to find new ways to make ends meet and rein in their hopes and expectations. But it is no longer a politically galvanising issue, one that draws people together into a collective, conscious expression of anger. Having been perhaps the defining concerns of twentieth-century politics, today gainful employment, wage levels and living standards do not provoke political action or mass protest in anything like the same way. There are a number of reasons for this new, peculiar state of affairs.

The depoliticisation of unemployment can be glimpsed in various events of the past week. At the Lindsey oil refinery in North Lincolnshire – from where Tim Black reports for spiked today – there is currently an admirable, principled strike in defence of 647 workers who were sacked. Other construction workers around the country have walked out, too, in solidarity with the sacked workers. Yet this protest stands out because it is so unusual today. The Sky News reporter at Lindsey scoffed: ‘They looked like they had walked out of the 1980s…’ But he had a point. Serious industrial action is so increasingly rare that it does look to many people like an archaic oddity.

Indeed, such is the lack of political agitation over job cuts that, even as the recession increases its grip over people’s living standards, the leaders of big business can openly boast about workers’ compliance with wage cuts and hours cuts. This week John Cridland, deputy director-general of CBI, claimed there has been ‘a revolution in industrial relations’. ‘There has been a remarkable solidarity of employers and their employees during this recession’, he said. ‘We have seen workers working with their employers to make the best of a bad job in these circumstances.’ Where in the past there might have been ‘resistance from workers to what their bosses were doing’, today there is a new ‘commonality of interest’, Cridland claimed (3).

According to the CBI’s survey of more than 300 employers, more than half of them – 55 per cent – will institute pay freezes in the next 12 months, 30 per cent have imposed a recruitment freeze, and many are planning to cut people’s working hours or lay them off. Yet as part of what Cridland claims is a ‘newfound understanding between staff and their bosses’, most workers are not protesting against these cuts; instead, in the words of one newspaper report, ‘desperate staff [are] signing up for reduced hours or less pay, instead of risking their job’ (4). British Airways has asked its staff to work for a month for free, and other firms want their employees to make similar sacrifices (5).

Meanwhile, the government clearly doesn’t see the newly unemployed as a political threat, but rather as sad and wounded individuals: it is planning to give victims of the recession free therapy, in order to stave off ‘a depression and anxiety epidemic’. The government is not concerned about mass marches on Whitehall or a general strike, but rather ‘that there will be a surge of people who become mentally ill’ (6).

One key reason for this non-conflictual, almost quicksand-like state of affairs in contemporary industrial relations is the naturalisation of unemployment. In recent decades, particularly from the 1980s onwards, unemployment has been transformed from a political issue – where an individual was being denied the right or ability to earn a wage – into a mental- or physical-health concern. Unemployment has been turned from a political category defining a person’s inferior relationship with society into almost a state of mind, a natural state of affairs for certain individuals who are simply incapable of working. Indeed, slowly but surely, the label ‘incapacity’ has replaced the word ‘unemployed’, to give the impression that the central problem is some individuals’ inability to work rather than society’s failure to provide full and gainful employment.

The welfare state, still so beloved of many left-wing radicals, has cynically redefined huge swathes of the British population as sick rather than unemployed. As one striking study points out, in the last 20 years of the twentieth century, from 1981 to 1999, the number of individuals of working age in Britain – mostly men aged 16 to 64 – who were claiming Incapacity Benefit (IB) rose exponentially. IB is the social security benefit paid to individuals who are ‘unable to work because of ill-health, injury or disability’. In April 1981, 463,000 men of working age were receiving IB; by April 1999, that had risen to 1,276,000. It rose every single year between 1981 and 1999, apart from 1997. In addition, 710,000 women were receiving IB, meaning that at the start of the new millennium, more than two million people of working-age in Britain were defined as ‘unable to work’ (7).

As the authors of the study point out, this increase in ‘incapable’ people was not linked to real health problems; ‘the general standard of health in the population is known to be improving’ (8). Rather, the rise and rise of the incapacity category from the 1980s to today has occurred in tandem with the routing of trade union militancy by the Thatcher government, the demise of working-class politics, and the subsequent treatment of the unemployed as objects of pity rather than potential fury. Indeed, the low-down nature of the welfare state’s promotion of incapacity is revealed when one looks at an IB map of Britain. In the 1980s and 90s, there was a massive take-up of IB and an ‘exceptional incidence of sickness-related claimants’ in South Wales, Merseyside, Manchester, South Yorkshire, North East England and Clydeside – areas where there had been ‘a loss of coalmining jobs’ and a ‘rise in economic inactivity among men’ (9). Thrown out of work by the recession, treated as the ‘enemy within’ by the Thatcher government, and let down by their trade unions and the left, these isolated individuals could easily be redefined as unwell rather than unemployed; a sick group of people rather than a political group.

This redefinition of unemployment had a huge impact on the way that a lack or absence of work is experienced and understood. Many claim that successive governments cynically ratcheted up the IB numbers in order to make the overall unemployment figures look better (IB claimants are not officially counted as unemployed). No doubt there’s some truth in that, but more fundamentally the redefinition of much unemployment as incapacity spoke to a shift in the balance of power between organisations that represented workers and the state, and to the demise of class politics and its replacement by new therapeutic relations between the state and the individual. Increasingly, individuals, especially in collapsed industrial towns or areas of poverty, are actively invited by the welfare state to define themselves as pathetic and useless and unable to exist without financial and emotional handouts.

As a consequence, the politics of unemployment has changed dramatically. Unemployment tends now to be seen as something that springs from a lack within the individual rather than a lack within society. And being unemployed no longer involves the expectation of work, since hundreds of thousands of people are now defined as naturally unable to work; this encourages individual accommodation with the state of being unemployed. The political edge to unemployment, the individual anger at being unemployed, has been defused by these developments.

A second reason why unemployment is no longer a galvanising issue today is that unemployed people are less likely to experience the extreme austerity measures associated with earlier economic downturns. The welfare state, for the most part, tends to shield people from the worst economic consequences of recession and unemployment. As a result of various forms of benefit – from the Jobseekers’ Allowance to Incapacity Benefit, from the Social Fund to Tax Credits, from payments made to young people in education to government-supported ‘job-training schemes’ – individuals are provided with numerous economic safety nets.

Many will argue that this is a good thing; none of us, after all, wants to see people live in poverty. Yet it is important to recognise that the welfare state has changed and grown over the past 20 years, not in response to what individuals really need and want, but as a means of redefining society’s failures as individual failures and encouraging people to lower their horizons in the understanding that, while they might never have long-term employment or a life of plenty, they at least will not experience absolute poverty. This, too, has removed much of the politically agitating element from the issue of unemployment. Those who still defend, or even celebrate, the welfare state ought to ask what kind of solution it is to have an immense bureaucracy that encourages people to adapt to unemployment, actively lowers people’s horizons, and masks economic inequalities with emergency-measure cash.

Most importantly, however, the depoliticisation of unemployment shows how deep-seated has been the impact of the 1980s on contemporary politics.

There has been the obvious impact of the Thatcher government’s war against trade unions, which weakened or destroyed the institutions that many workers relied upon to represent their interests. There has also been the clear redefinition of unemployment as a natural state rather than a political problem. But more imperceptibly, and more crucially, there has been the impact of the politics of ‘Tina’ – ‘there is no alternative’ – on society, debate and political expectations.

First uttered by Thatcher in the early 1980s and restated in that moment of Western triumphalism over Soviet communism at the end of the 1980s, the dictum of Tina both expressed and intensified a powerful sense in the West that society could not be changed for the better, only managed so that things were kept ticking over and chugging along. The rise to supremacy of the Tina sentiment both copperfastened the collapse of the left and the defeat of workers’ organisations through the 1980s and heralded a new era of the psychology of low expectations: a capitalism that won’t enthuse or inspire you, but will at least keep you alive and fairly healthy. The ideological impact of Tina, and of the events that elevated that outlook, was devastating, cultivating a negative and narrow view of human endeavour across every level of society. When, today, apparently ‘desperate workers’ agree to work for free for a month, it is because ‘there is no alternative’.

This new situation demands some thoroughgoing debate, and a new approach to the problems that afflict people’s lives. It is not good enough to become a strike-chaser and hope that every blast of workers’ action – from the Tube in London to the oil refinery in North Lincolnshire – represents a return of the combative class politics of old (though of course strikers should be supported). There is no point fantasising that class politics can somehow be rescued or re-energised. Instead we need to think of new ways to oppose unemployment and the denigration of people’s living standards, and to stand up to a state which is not smashing strikes or forcing people into poverty but rather is enticing us into a new therapeutic relationship where we must confess to being useless or mentally ill in order to be protected by the powers-that-be from serious economic hardship – in other words, sacrifice our subjectivity for the promise of relative financial security.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume looked at the Lindsey Oil refinery dispute. Patrick Hayes reported on the Visteon factory occupation. Rob Lyons praised the strikers at Gate Gourmet. Dave Hallsworth reflected on leading a major strike in 1982. Neil Davenport wondered why there are so many wannabe workers. Or read more at spiked issues British politics and Economy.

(1) UK jobless total at 12-year high, BBC News, 17 June 2009

(2) Why don’t we take to the streets over job losses?, Independent on Sunday, 22 March 2009

(3) Recession sparking revolution in industrial relations, says CBI, Guardian, 23 June 2009

(4) Recession sparking revolution in industrial relations, says CBI, Guardian, 23 June 2009

(5) Recession sparking revolution in industrial relations, says CBI, Guardian, 23 June 2009

(6) See Diseasing the recession, by Frank Furedi

(7) ‘Incapacity benefit and unemployment’, by Christina Beatty and Stephen Fothergill, in Work to Welfare: How Men Become Detached from the Labour Market, Cambridge University Press, 2000

(8) ‘Incapacity benefit and unemployment’, by Christina Beatty and Stephen Fothergill, in Work to Welfare: How Men Become Detached from the Labour Market, Cambridge University Press, 2000

(9) ‘Incapacity benefit and unemployment’, by Christina Beatty and Stephen Fothergill, in Work to Welfare: How Men Become Detached from the Labour Market, Cambridge University Press, 2000

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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