Labour in our time

Published September 23, 2016
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

EARLIER this week, a friend who works as an editor at a big newspaper chain was paid a visit by an executive telling him that his team of photographers and sub-editors was being summarily laid off. My editor friend was himself offered a lollypop arrangement that would allow him to retain his job but chose to resign in solidarity with his fired colleagues.

Being the serial protester that I am, it was difficult to accept that the whole episode happened with such a whimper — I don’t think that there was even a news report of the lay-offs (which I suppose is hardly surprising given that media corporations are never keen to report negatively about themselves). But then I reminded myself that this is just one example amongst many of the complete insecurity of wage labour in today’s world.

Journalists are white-collar workers that have been amongst the most legally protected and politically organised professional segments of modern society. For much of the 20th century, even much more precarious but organised blue-collar workers exercised substantial control over conditions of work, remuneration and the promise of security after retirement. All of this has changed irreversibly.

The dramatic changes to have taken place in the structure of capitalism over the past 30 or so years — explained largely by phenomenal technological advancements — have not only rendered traditional class organisations like trade unions increasingly obsolete, but have changed the very meaning and form of labour, and thereby the capital-labour relation. We live in a world where permanent employment is now a relic of the past and labour is increasingly digitised.


The working class is no more in the political lexicon.


The media industry is a good example. In the corporation that I mentioned at the outset, everyone from the well-paid editor of the daily newspaper to the janitorial staff is hired on contract, according to which the company can let the employee go at only one month’s notice. Why are newspapers retrenching staff? Because it is increasingly unprofitable to print a newspaper when the vast majority of readers now access their news online.

So all a big media corporation now needs is a handful of bloggers and online editors to run a newspaper — the money is made through advertisements, more of which can be secured online than in print editions anyways. What all of this says for the future of journalism as a profession itself is another matter altogether.

As noted above, white-collar workers like journalists have historically been better off than their blue-collar counterparts. To be sure, the plight of the millions who engage in menial labour under conditions of so-called ‘informality’ confirms that the once powerful working class now struggles to even be acknowledged. Even more worryingly, classical divisions between white- and blue-collar, mental and menial labour and so on are no longer sufficient to help us understand the future of paid work in the 21st century.

The whole concept of digital labour transgresses traditional ideas of space and time; the vast majority of telecommunications companies in the world today produce goods and services — including the software ‘apps’ that all of us can’t seem to get enough of — not in one place but around the world, and while physical forms of labour are still required, programmers and other producers of digital content are the major drivers of profitability.

All of which confirms that one of the crises of contemporary political organisation — especially from the perspective of the radical left — is the virtual disappearance from the political lexicon of the ‘working class’. Those who work menial jobs are no longer organised and do not generally describe themselves in class terms, whereas the more educated segments of the work­force do not perceive themselves as working-class, and in fact have aspirations to become part of an in­creasingly glamorous, globalised ‘middle class’.

This is not to suggest that the world is any more egalitarian now than it was when working-class power was at its peak in the early 1970s, but that our perceptions about ourselves and our (political) role in the world have changed fundamentally in recent decades.

Of course, these changes are not totally explained by technology since states and corporations have reasserted themselves politically to rollback the gains made by organised labour through much of the 20th century. But to make sense of the tectonic shifts taking place in social — including labour — relations in the contemporary era, we need to think very deeply about how the structure of global political economy is changing.

In doing so, we give ourselves the best possible chance of organising in new ways to resist the onslaught of capital whilst also resisting our propensity to fetishise technology. For those of you enjoying access to this column online, I would urge only that you pause briefly and consider how your gain may be someone else’s pain.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2016

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