I woke up today to an excruciating crunching alongside the left side of my neck. I am basically immobilised, and so the thought of sitting down to bash out any amount of my PhD seems increasingly unlikely. Instead, I want to ponder on some disparate topics, all of which involve the question of work itself. Perhaps, indeed, the fact of my not being able to work at the minute has catalysed these thoughts, a kind of FOMO writ large, and tangible. On the other hand, my writing about work, now, when I cannot, might in fact be symptomatic of the kind of tendency that underwrites the topics I want to explore here. All explicate a particular contemporary sensibility with regard to the domain of work, specifically, I believe, of the increasingly insidious – and to all intents ‘benign’ – permeation of a late capitalist schema of work into normative collective consciousness.
The first involves a television programme Mary’s Silver Service, which is set to air presently on Channel 4. Its objective is simple:
Mary Portas launches a pop-up employment agency to find jobs for Britain’s overlooked and under-valued pensioners.
I recently heard Portas – most renowned for making aesthetically pleasing, and thus profitable charity shops in another Channel 4 gem – talk about the show with an not insignificant amount of pride, recounting in particular the joy of seeing an elderly barman (with a lifetime of high-end service behind him) returned to employment. Useful and active once again, and showing up youthful colleagues with his cocktail flair, it was hard to deny his obvious delight. I am not attempting to undermine what I’m sure was his keenly felt desire to be active again, and his obvious satisfaction in its fulfilment. Rather, I want to unpack what Mary’s Silver Service says to us, the viewers, about the domain of work itself.
Perhaps, indeed, I am being over sensitive. Perhaps, as many people would say, the show only serves to fulfil a desire to work: working on a case-by-case basis, it simply makes people happy by being back out working again rather than sinking into retirement, which is a disempowering and indeed lonely occasion for many. This cannot be denied and thus I do not mean to belittle the subjective happiness that the show in fact makes manifest. Rather, what I find unsettling is the ideology that the show insidiously represents: namely, that these people are able to work, and thus, by deduction, many more elderly people might be able to also. Why, it seems to ask, is it possible in the UK to be in receipt of a state pension at the positively youthful age of 61? More directly: why aren’t you working? For many reasons, I argue, preeminent being the fact that perhaps you’ve worked for 45 years, paid your taxes, and am entitled to retire if you so choose. Furthermore, if you actually wanted to continue to work, like these people in the show, wouldn’t you at least want to be guaranteed some stability and assurance? Arguably a ‘pop-up employment agency’ is exactly the wrong way to go about this, in that it precipitates the myth that says elderly workers would only gain employment on a short-term basis, with little rights and often, meagre pay. The tag-line used is ‘age against the machine’, and yet this implies that age is fundamentally opposed to the ‘machine’. I would argue the exact opposite: expanding the labour market to include elderly people would only further capitalist growth, given the exploitative potential contained therein. An older worker, desirous of a return to work, would arguably be an ideal proponent of an increasingly ‘feminized’ labour market. Furthermore, and crucially, Mary’s Silver Service disavows the fact that the people that choose to work post-retirement age often do so not out of choice, but of necessity, in so doing disguising the fact that for most people work is of the kind of intense alienation: they work to pay the bills, not because they like what they do. It is, in my mind, a particularly insidious manifestation of the late capitalist rhapsodization of work, a work so irreducible to your life that you cannot function without it.
The second phenomena, which I also think speaks to this particular conception of work, is the bizarre activity of pre-work ‘raves’. This isn’t as incongruous, sadly, as it would appear, with these kind of happenings popping up recently all over Western Europe. The one I saw documented took place in Shoreditch, and was mostly populated by workers looking for some kind of ecstatic release before work. Without of course, the ecstasy. Taking place from 6.30-10.30am, the club heaved with stone-cold sober revellers, who comprised of a large amount of IT workers, along with academics and other professionals. The club, Morning Glory, is based on one simple principle: ‘rave your way into the day’!
Indeed, all the signifiers of ‘rave-dom’ were present and correct: men wearing dresses; nostalgic-early 90s rave attire; some awful dancing and a general sense of ‘togetherness’ or communality. What differentiates Morning Glory from actual raves, however, is the counter-cultural import that set the latter apart, which existed on the margins of legality, and normative society more generally. Raves of the late 80s and early 90s were not meant to be at the service of productivity, but rather completely ambivalent towards it. With Morning Glory workers engage in an early morning rave in the hope of having a more productive day in its wake: thus, the availability of smoothies, massages and hugs – in an environment akin to Google’s workplace ‘fun’ zones, effectively just brought to their natural conclusion. Some of people who frequent these clubs would I’m sure have partaken in earlier, actual raves, and so to engage in these ones seems a natural and nostalgic progression. Stripped of their counter-cultural effectivity, however, it is but empty nostalgia, remaking the past in the light of a totally colonised present.
These two examples, for me, are representative of the near total colonisation of the space of non-work by work. Apparently no space is free from the imperative of productivity: not leisure, not even old age. I wonder what states will further be taken as possible spaces of productivity in the future. Will there be a way to make sleep productive, for example? (Have a look at Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 for more on this) Or children, perhaps? I’m sure we could get them to do something.