Does work set us free?

One of the worst ways to criticise anything is by comparing it to the Nazis. Many people who really should know better seem to think that just proving something is bad in itself isn’t enough, and that something’s only worth opposing if you can demonstrate that it’s a bit like something Hitler did. There’s a lot wrong with this: apart from anything else, the implication is that the Holocaust is the only bad thing that ever happened. Relating every bad thing to the policies of one terrible dictatorship helps to hide all the atrocities carried out by all the other dictatorships and democratic states, so people are accused of sounding like Hitler, or occasionally Stalin, but never accused of sounding like the genocidal settlers who colonised America or Australia. And, apart from anything else, comparing things you don’t like to the Nazis just makes you sound like Rick from the Young Ones. It’s just not a good way to argue.
So, when Atos tried to censor an article called “Atos Macht Frei”, I reproduced it, because bastards like that shouldn’t be able to get away with silencing criticism, but I didn’t fully agree with it: yeah, there are some parallels between the government’s attitude towards the disabled and Hitler’s policies, but there are also lots of important differences, meaning that if you try to argue against Atos by saying they’re like Hitler, someone wanting to defend them can just point to the differences and make your argument look silly, whereas if you just criticise Atos because they’re terrible fuckers with no respect for human life, that’s unarguably true, and there’s no way anyone can disprove it. So, I think it’s good to keep a clear head, and avoid sensationalism: call things what they really are, and trust that people will be able to see the truth of what you’re saying without having to rely on exaggeration.
But fuck me, people don’t half make it difficult sometimes. And by “people”, I usually mean the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail isn’t a fascist paper, it’s a right-wing conservative paper, but it can get really hard to tell the difference when the paper which famously ran a front-page headline saying “hurrah for the blackshirts!” back in the 1930s also endorses voting National Front to save France from the Muslims, and, stunningly, approvingly quotes the “Arbeit Macht Frei” message written above the entrance to the concentration camps. That last one caused a bit of a social media storm recently, causing the paper to delete the offending paragraph. But when we’ve all finished being outraged at Dominique Jackson’s flirtation with Nazism, can we look at the substance of what she actually said?
To me, the important thing about that paragraph isn’t that she inexplicably chose to use a slogan associated with millions of deaths. It’s the actual point she was trying to make: “The… essential message, ‘work sets you free’ still has something serious to commend it.
There is dignity to be gained from any job, no matter how menial, and for young people at the start of their careers, there are valuable lessons to be learned from any form of employment, whether that is on the factory floor, on a supermarket till or in the contemporary hard labour camp of a merchant bank or law office.”
The substance of this point isn’t controversial at all. It’s an almost unquestionable dogma championed by virtually every major political institution in this society. It’s pretty obvious that the current government wouldn’t disagree with that point, but it’s also the logic behind Miliband’s sloganeering about “Hard work and its value” and his statement that, when offered the chance to work, “saying no is not an option”. It’s the logic of the TUC’s demands for “Jobs, Growth, Justice”, and leftist campaigns like Right to Work and Youth Fight for Jobs. And, as anyone who’s ever had a job must have noticed, it’s nonsense.
I’m not going to make stupid claims about work: yes, there is some dignity to be gained from some jobs, and some valuable lessons to be learned from some jobs. Many jobs do useful work, and people often find that working improves their lives in some way, like bringing them into contact with new people. But none of these things are inherent to work. Lots of it is just undignified, pointless shit, and it can isolate people as much as it brings them together. The one good thing that can be said about almost all work is that it gives you money, and when you’re earning a decent amount of money you can do nice things, like go on holiday. But going on holiday is pretty much the opposite of work, so you can’t really say that work’s good because it lets you do things that aren’t work – a holiday paid for by winning the lottery is just as nice as one paid for by hard work. And besides, there’s no automatic connection between working and earning a liveable wage – the people on unpaid workfare placements, or working for £3 a day in prison, are working just as hard as people in paid jobs.
Just thinking about how we define work for a moment shows how ridiculous the idea that work is inherently good is: someone who stays at home all day bothering no-one is a scrounging burden on society, but if they get a job working in a call centre, ringing people up and bothering them by asking them if they’ve thought about changing their gas and electricity provider, then they’re considered to be doing something useful with their life. Equally, a mother who stays at home looking after her children and taking care of the house for no other reason than because she loves them is a parasite and a regular hate figure in the press, but if she becomes a domestic worker and does exactly the same work but in someone else’s house and gets paid for it, then she’s a hardworking member of alarm clock Britain and the sort of person all politicians claim to stand up for. The crazy morality where doing something for money is seen as being more virtuous than doing it for free shows exactly how twisted the idea of work being inherently good is.
This pro-work dogma is ridiculous, but it has very dangerous effects. If support for attacks on the unemployed and disabled was limited to a few Hitler-sympathising nutjobs like Dominique Jackson, then schemes like workfare would be very hard to push through. But Labour and the Conservatives have both been attacking claimants for as long as I can remember, and they get away with it because of the support of lots of nice, right-thinking people who would never dream of quoting the Nazis. Liberals who were shocked by Dominique Jackson’s article need to ask themselves a serious question: do you agree with the basic point she was making, and think she just phrased it badly? Or do you think the actual article was wrong, and there’s nothing inherently good about work in itself?
In some ways, it’s a scary choice: the nonsense about the greatness of work is promoted by pretty much every political faction, including many that claim to be radical, and practically all of the media, whereas the only people prepared to tell the truth about how crap, tiring, and dehumanising work is are a few unrepentant benefit claimants and workers who hate their jobs. But rejecting the ideology shared by the Daily Mail and the TUC is a vital first step if we’re going to fight back against the ongoing drive to make all of us work longer and longer, in worsening conditions, for less and less pay.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Bit more thinky, The left, The media, Unemployment/claimants and welfare and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Does work set us free?

  1. Jude says:

    Interesting piece. But surely the fallacy belongs to those who jump to equate the holocaust only to its end point – mass murder? The holocaust didn’t begin in Auschwitz – it began with laws and yellow stars; it began with depriving minorities of their rights and their livelihoods during the 1930s; it began with those photographs we’ve often seen of Jews forced to scrub the streets as some sort of sick ‘Community Action Programme’. It began with phrases like ‘useless eaters’ – surely a prelude to the sort of hate speech we see currently directed against the disabled by the tabloids, briefed by the DWP. One can make the comparison to that as the holocaust’s starting point, and surely the comparison with Atos and the Work Programme is then valid because the starting point has a precedent. We should not permit their ignorance of history to compell us to ignore it for fear of ‘Godwinism’.

    • Yeah, but I still think this is ultimately besides the point – treating the unemployed and claimants as subhumans isn’t wrong because it led to the Holocaust, it’s wrong because it’s wrong. And you’re right to say that we can’t just equate the Holocaust with its end point, but we also can’t just reduce it to its starting point either – 1930s Germany had hate speech and and discriminatory laws against minorities, but so did America for most of its history, and arguably today, and South Africa under apartheid, and so on. I don’t think it’s a necessary or a helpful comparison to make – as I say, it’s a lot easier for someone to defend Atos and the Work Programme by making a historical argument about the differences between conservative and nazi policies than it is for them to defend them in a simple argument about whether those things are right or wrong.
      Even something as extreme as building concentration camps doesn’t prove you’re getting ready for a holocaust – they were used by the British in the Boer War, and the Americans in WWII, as well as various other situations, without leading to the kind of industrialised genocide the Nazis practised. I agree that we’re heading for dark times, but those dark times are just as likely to look like something out of Irish or American or Australian history as they are to resemble 1930s-40s Germany. Or, more likely still, they’ll be some new and unique form of barbarism, and fixating on one particular set of atrocities from the past won’t help us understand the new situation we face.
      Sorry if that came across as a bit polemical, since we’re definitely on the same side about the important stuff here, but it’s because I think this stuff matters that I care about the arguments we use.

  2. incubusblog says:

    Hmmm- The Nazis also lead a war against the ‘Workshy’, whom they believed were congenitally incapable of ‘contributing to the community’- they also had ‘work-creation’ programmes for ‘aryans’ and the ‘asocial’ skivers and ne’re do wells. A the moment I’m enjoying just how hypocrital that shiney-faced fuck Cameron is being with his praise of the Paralympics on the one hand and the destrustion of benefits for disabled people on the other. I find dignity in work, yes, but immediately feel degraded when I make someone else a profit or have to follow orders from some unelected tin-pot Hitler at work…
    This might interest you-
    Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law

    and
    Reductio ad Hitlerum
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_Hitlerum

    Personally, I’m comfortable with calling the Tories ‘fucking nazis’, if only to offend them, and knowing full well that their class came within a whisker of fully collaborating with the bastard…

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