This is a podcast of last night’s LSE debate on ‘Work as Value’.
Since it is audio you won’t be able to enjoy the sight of Maurice rolling a fag on the platform; but it has some other great moments.
There is a point where Robert Skidelsky predicts that teachers may soon be replaced by technologies that will do their jobs more efficiently. For Skidelsky, the march of technology is an inevitable by-product of global capitalism. We must therefore consider not how we can control it (we can’t) but how we can rescue some benefit from its expansion, by embracing the increased ‘leisure’ it offers. Leisure he describes as extended periods in which the individual is the sole determinant of whatever activity he or she undertakes. In his view leisure is self-evidently more desirable for the individual than work, because the former is a choice, whilst the latter is an imposition.
In Skidelsky’s scheme of market fatalism, democratic politics plays an increasingly peripheral role in shaping our lives, and the ‘insatiable greed’ released by global capitalism cannot ever be tamed. In the world of the atomised consumer, the consolation prize is to be freed by technology from the demands of exploitative employers and ‘liberated’ to enjoy self-realising activities.
The alternative – the ‘Glasman escape’ as Skidelsky neatly dubs it – is dismissed largely on the premise that Skidelsky does not believe working people will ever regain political agency in a world dominated by restless capital.
This is indeed a difficult question. But what puzzles me more, is Skidelsky’s failure to grapple with the concept that value is located not only in an individual’s agency or productivity, but in the space where individuals meet, and in the work they do together. So that teaching is not just a thing done by a teacher to a child (which could be done more effectively by technology), but a thing that a teacher and child do together and in which the relationship itself is virtuous.
Why does Skidelsky find it so hard to embrace the idea that sharing skills between generations, mastering a craft with the help of others, or co-operating to produce a powerful or beautiful object or process (including new technologies) – are in themselves valuable? I am not sure that it is because he disagrees with this as a premise – but rather because it carries within it another and more troubling challenge. Since, if you believe that work has a cultural, moral and emotional value that is vital to our common good, and that exists beyond commodification, it becomes impossible to avoid the conclusion that the economy should be organised in part so that people can do this kind of work together. Which in turn means that the economy must be brought back within the compass of morally-inspired democratic politics.
For economists this is no trivial proposition, because it asks them to step outside of their discipline and to take action from an alternative, moral locus, in order to bring that discipline back to heel.
This is a flag under which I believe economists concerned with the common good should shelter gladly, not least because the alternative is so desolate. I also think it is why, when Glasman is asked for a prediction about the future of work at the end of the debate, he rejects prediction in favour of politics. Rediscovering the possibility of working together to change the real economy is at the heart of the Blue Labour project. On the basis of last night’s discussions, Robert Skidesky isn’t quite ready for that kind of work. But as for me – bring it on. I just can’t get enough.