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Antiwork – reframing work & leisure

with 5 comments

antiwork-newsframesThis is the original version of the article I wrote for
Contributoria (with a section for comments below).

antiwork-sidebar-longAntiwork is a moral alternative to the obsession with “jobs” which has plagued our society for too long. It’s a project to radically reframe work and leisure. It’s also a cognitive antidote to the pernicious culture of “hard work” which has taken over our minds as well as our precious time.

Big shifts have occurred this year. While politicians preached about “hardworking families”, Unconditional Basic Income went viral and was adopted as long-term policy by the Green Party. Social media campaigns, meanwhile, made it increasingly difficult for companies and charities to benefit from the forced labour schemes known to most as “workfare”.

The facts and figures generally don’t support the rose-tinted political view of work. Studies consistently show how jobs keep many of us poor while also making us ill, stressed, exhausted and demoralised. As Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, put it, “Hard work is not working.”

But facts and figures alone don’t bring about change. Our cognitive frames for work tend to be anachronistic. The existing structures of our language/concepts in this area aren’t “neutral” – they predispose us to think conservatively. The rightwing press constantly talk about the “workshy”, etc, because it activates morally-loaded frames which are impossible to argue against with facts alone. Antiwork addresses this moral dimension and reframes the whole issue from a progressive standpoint.

Work as virtue – the existing moral frame

immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous” – Bertrand Russell

“Work” is seen as a virtue, but it covers the moral spectrum from charity and art to forced labour and banking. Belief in the inherent moral good of work has been used historically in social engineering – notably during the shift from agriculture to industry, when the Protestant work ethic was used to motivate workers and to justify punishment, including whipping and imprisonment, of “idlers”. (In The Making of the English Working Class, historian E.P. Thompson describes how the ethos of Protestant sects such as Methodism effectively provided the prototype of the disciplined, punctual worker required by the factory owners.)

Work’s assumed virtue has always been about more than its utility or market value. George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist, provided a clue in the frame of work as obedience. The first virtue we learn as children isobeying our parents, particularly in performing tasks we don’t enjoy. Later, as adults, we’re paid to obey our employers – it’s called work. Work and virtue are thus connected in our neurology in terms of obedience to authority. That’s not the only cognitive frame we have for the virtue of work, but it’s the one which is constantly reinforced by what Lakoff calls the “Strict Father” conservative moral system.

This “strictness” moral framing is implicit, for example, in the current welfare system. An increasingly punitive approach is adopted towards those who don’t follow the prescribed “jobseeking” regimen – a trend which most political parties seem to approve of. Politicians boast of getting “tough” on “dependency culture”, and when they talk of “clamping down” on the “hardcore unemployed”, you’d think they were referring to criminals.

Emphasis on punishment is the sign of an obedience frame. Work itself has a long history as punishment for disobedience, as the Book of Genesis illustrates (Adam and Eve had no work until they disobeyed God, who imposed it as their punishment: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life”). Unpaid work, or “community service”, is still sometimes dictated as punishment by courts. Workfare programmes similarly involve mandatory work without wages – they look very much like punishment for the “sin” of unemployment.

Workfare illustrates a difference between framing and spin. The cognitive frame is paternalistic, morally-strict, punishment-based (much like “community service”), while the political spin is all about “helping” people “integrate” back into society. Genuine “help”, of course, shouldn’t require the threat of losing what little income one has.

Morally, it seems that politicians, most of the media, and a large section of the public, are still stuck in the Puritan codes and scripts which, following the Reformation and into the industrial revolution, dominated social attitudes to work and idleness in England, America and much of Europe. In fact, when reading early accounts of the treatment of what Calvin called “lazy good-for-nothings”, you get a strong sense of déjà vu. Christian charity – Calvinist style – didn’t extend to the “idle poor”, who were viewed as outside God’s chosen and thus unsaveable. Poverty is still widely viewed as moral failure of the individual, unless the self-flagellation of uninterrupted hard work is on display.

Incidentally, if you think you’re free from this moral script, try an experiment: Spend a whole day in bed doing absolutely nothing, then spend another two days being lazier than you’ve ever been before – deluxe, self-indulgent laziness, relaxo supremo. Do nothing that could remotely be considered work. Observe your reactions and moods during this period. (And if you do break through, and time stops, and you experience the unburdening liberation of simply being… congratulations – that’s Antiwork.)

Leisure – the flip side of work

The concept of “leisure” tends to reinforce the work frame. “Leisure is non-work for the sake of work. Leisure is the time spent recovering from work and in the frenzied but hopeless attempt to forget about work,” to quote Bob Black’s essay, The Abolition of Work.

Most of us would like far more leisure – we dream of it. But we believe it comes with a price. And so we resent the unemployed for (supposedly) “sitting around all day”, while we identify with our jobs and righteously grumble, or boast, about our hard work, like demented subjects in a behaviourist’s divide-and-rule experiment.

Leisure, like happiness, tends to be seen as something that’s earned through work. The underlying idea is that you’re endlessly undeserving – that reward, ie happiness, will always be contingent on the endurance of some unpleasant activity (eg “hard work”). Again, we could trace this notion to early moral ideas – eg Original Sin and redemption through suffering – but the important point is that we seem to have a nasty, and very persistent, cultural neurosis in the form of an archaic cognitive frame for work and leisure.

antiwork-sidebar-longLaid on top of this work/leisure neurosis is consumerism – the idea that spending money will make you happy. This is like toffee coating on a bad Puritan apple. If you spend enough money to give you the (advertised) conditions for happiness, the neurosis emerges in the form of random worries or vague, guilty feelings about not working hard enough. This, along with the work as obedience frame, may explain why we’re contributing £29bn worth of free labour (in unpaid overtime) to British employers each year (according to TUC figures).

Antiwork & radical politics

Consumerism is, of course, opposed by many on moral grounds. Anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist politics focus on corporate greed and its effects, but not usually on the work ethic and the obsession with jobs. Maximising employment is often tacitly accepted as a good, and sometimes even promoted. ZNet’s Michael Albert, for example, argued, in a Guardian article, that “full employment” should be one of the main demands of the Occupy movement.

I see plenty of irony in this. As Sharon Beder notes, in Selling the Work Ethic, what distinguished the rise of the capitalist edifice from traditional concentrations of wealth and power was precisely the moral ethos of work and Protestant-style discipline: “The asceticism of Protestantism ensured that the money made by capitalists was not wastefully spent but was reinvested to make more capital.”

Although the religious roots of this ethos later gave way to “utilitarian worldliness” (as Max Weber put it), the moral framing of work as a virtue in its own right continues to serve the interests of big business and conservative politics. But rather than morally reframe the issue along progressive lines, many on the left claim the existing ethic as their own, fully identifying with the narrative of “hard work”, “full employment”, “tough on the workshy”, etc.

So, while consumerism and capitalism are widely protested, a moral justification of the status quo remains in place, largely unquestioned. It takes many forms – shouted from tabloid headlines about “benefit cheats”, or quietly echoed across all media with daily “austerity” framing. The reaction, if any, from the left, leaves the strict moral framing of work unchallenged, and usually reinforced. This is where the progressive approach of Antiwork is needed.

Antiwork – follow your bliss

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.” – David Graeber

Antiwork is what we do out of love, fun, interest, talent, enthusiasm, inspiration, etc. Only a lucky few get paid enough from it to live on, yet it probably enriches our lives and benefits society more than most jobs do.

Our yearnings for Antiwork remain largely unexpressed, as they don’t fit existing semantic frameworks. This is precisely why we need the concept. The existing work/leisure dichotomy divides our lives in a way which serves narrow market interests and distorts our evaluation of unpaid activity. This isn’t just a matter of surface language and word-definitions – it concerns cognitive frames that shape how we think, ultimately determining social and economic policy.

Antiwork has both ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ aspects. The negative is a clear expression of what we choose notto do. Melville’s Bartleby put it best: “I would prefer not to” – the most radical response one can make in an all-pervasive jobs culture.

Antiwork is also a rejection of what we regard as pointless or immoral work. This might include any form of forced or subtly-coerced labour, work that serves no positive purpose (in the opinion of those doing the work), work that has harmful consequences (physical, psychological, environmental), etc.

If the studies I’ve read over the years are anything to go by, over half of existing jobs in the UK could be classed as immoral or pointless. I remember reading a Guardian report of the 1993 British Social Attitudessurvey, which found that around 60% of British workers were unhappy in their work and were inclined (more than workers in other countries surveyed) to “feel their work is not useful to society”. Similar survey findings appear fairly regularly. Most recently, The Independent on Sunday cited a YouGov poll which found that“Only a third of us report looking forward to going to work, the rest are either ambivalent or dread it.” A New York Times piece, meanwhile, summarised one of the biggest ever surveys of the American workplace by stating that “For most of us, in short, work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways, it’s getting worse.”

David Graeber’s essay, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, continues the theme of dehumanising work, and articulates the Antiwork perspective on needless “job creation”. Graeber points to the ballooning of the administrative sector (more than the so-called “service” sector) and the disappearance, resulting from automation, of productive jobs. He says we have a morally and spiritually damaging system in which huge swathes of people “spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.”

On the positive side, Antiwork could be defined as any activity, or non-activity, which you value in its own right, not as a means to an end. Which isn’t to say that Antiwork must be inherently pleasant – it’s simply chosen action (or non-action), accepted as it is, not collected like Brownie points towards some deferred moment of “earned” happiness. It’s always done for its own sake, in contrast to “work”, which is never done for its own sake (by my definition).

Work will doubtless always be necessary, but hopefully reduced to a minimum. Bertrand Russell wrote that“the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.” But this seems unlikely to happen while work is framed as the virtuous side of a moral dichotomy. The point of Antiwork is to think of “good” human activity outside the dominant cognitive frames of market value and obedience.

It’s also about letting go of some misplaced sentimental attachments to “honest work” (still common on the left, alas). As Robert Anton Wilson once put it, “most ‘work’ in this age is stupid, monotonous, brain-rotting, irritating, usually pointless and basically consists of the agonizing process of being slowly bored to death over a period of about 40 to 45 years of drudgery.”

Written by NewsFrames

December 2, 2014 at 9:03 am

Antiwork – a modest proposal

antiwork-logo-halftoneOct 15, 2014Antiwork is a new project I’m working on. The aim is to radically reframe “work” and “leisure” – to provide a moral alternative to the obsession with toil.

Currently, the rightwing message-machine is winning the battle on work. We’re all supposed to work harder, longer, further into old age, for smaller reward – and be grateful. Some of us are even supposed to work without any pay (workfare), because it’s supposedly good for our “character” and “helps” us to “integrate”. And, of course, we’re to feel deeply ashamed if we’re not working.

The parts of the political left that don’t simply echo this conservative line (Labour Party leaders seem to be the worst offenders) counter with facts and figures. For example, the fact that most people living in poverty already have jobs. And although revealing the facts is necessary, it’s not sufficient. That’s the lesson we learn from framing: frames generally trump facts, especially when they’re deeply entrenched after decades of repetition.


To gauge wider interest in a project like Antiwork, I’ve set out a proposal on Contributoria. The idea is that people back ideas they like with blocks of points (which you get a load of, free, when you join – or at least I did; I think the idea is to eventually make it partly, and optionally, paid-subscription based. The backed ideas get modesty paid).

So, please have a look at my Antiwork proposal, and if you like it, please back it. If there’s enough interest, I’ll not only write the proposed Contributoria article, I’ll also start “work” on the antiwork.org website I’ve created. – Many thanks. [Update – it’s now been backed, and will apear in the December 2014 issue of Contibutoria].

Written by NewsFrames

October 15, 2014 at 8:32 am

Posted in Antiwork, Jobs, welfare

A Daily Mail front page you won’t see…

daily-mail-03-04-13-rowlingApril 8, 2013JK Rowling should perhaps be given a Nobel Prize for getting a generation of kids to read books. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s generated endless amounts of tax revenue. How was this phenomenon nurtured? By a little time and space on the dole.

You’d be surprised how many successful people developed their craft on the dole. In a way, most successful corporations also require a long period on the dole. Do you think Boeing and Microsoft would have achieved commercial success without decades of state-funded research and development in aerospace and computing?

Any true wealth-generating activity requires periods of “social nurturing” which aren’t profitable. They’re not self-funding in the short term; they are dependent. (We realise this for children – we call it “education”. The money spent on it is regarded as social investment).

“Investment” (in human beings) was also one of the ideas – along with “safety net” – behind “social security”. The welfare state was created in the forties, in a post-war economy which was nowhere near as wealthy as now (imagine: computer technology didn’t exist).

But, for decades, the rightwing press, “free market” think-tanks, politicians and pundits (not just of the right) have wanted you to think differently about social security. They want you to think of “welfare” as an unnecessary nuisance which costs more than everything else combined.

To that end, a simple set of claims, accompanied by a certain type of framing, is relentlessly pushed into our brains by newspaper front pages and TV and internet screens. It has two main components:

  1. Vastly exaggerate the real cost of “welfare” and falsely portray it as “spiralling out of control” (how this is done is explained here and here). Misleadingly include things like pensions in the total cost when you’re talking about unemployment. (This partly explains why people believe unemployment accounts for 41% of the “welfare” bill, when it accounts for only 3% of the total).
  2. Appeal to the worst aspects of social psychology by repeatedly associating a stereotype (the “benefits scrounger/cheat”) with the concept of “welfare”. One doesn’t have to be a prison psychologist to understand how anger and frustration are channeled towards those perceived as lower in the pecking order: “the scum”. (According to a recent poll, people believe the welfare fraud rate is 27%, whereas the government estimates it as 0.7%).


It’s a potently malign cocktail. When imbibed repeatedly, there’s little defense against its effects. Even those who depend on benefits come to view benefits recipients in a harshly negative light (see Fern Brady’s article for examples). Those politicians who aren’t naturally aligned with rightwing ideology go on the defensive – they talk about “being tough” and “full employment“. It just reinforces the anti-welfare framing.

The strangely puritanical – and deeply irrational – obsession with “jobs”, “hard-working families”, etc, at a time in history when greater leisure for all is more than a utopian promise (due to the maturation of labour-saving technology, etc) seems an integral part of the conservative framing – which is perhaps why many on the “left” find it difficult to provide counter-narratives.

But that would require another article. For now I’ll leave you with a short video explaining Basic Income – a fast-spreading idea which is highly relevant to the above. (Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently championed Basic Income as a “big idea” to unite the left).

Written by NewsFrames

April 8, 2013 at 8:35 am

Poverty framing – discussion with JRF’s Chris Goulden

rent-collectorDec 6, 2012 – Every news story requires a frame, and stories about poverty tend to reflect the politicians’ hackneyed narrative about “getting people back to work” – even though in-work poverty is rising, and even though “joblessness” seems low on the list of factors contributing to the big financial meltdown.

Over the years, I’ve found research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) useful in countering dubious claims (eg from press/pundits) about UK poverty.

How does a group such as JRF address issues which are as much about moral framing as they’re about statistics? Chris Goulden (head of JRF’s poverty team) kindly agreed to discuss poverty framing with me by email…

•News Frames:  You tweeted that “Work IS the best route out of poverty – half the time”, with a link to a JRF piece of the same title. I replied: “More precisely, ‘having an adequate income’ is the best route out of poverty”.

My intention was to contrast two different poverty “frames” – one focusing on the individual’s “responsibility” (direct causation); the other on social distribution of income (systemic causation). These tend to correlate, respectively, with conservative and progressive moral frames (according to George Lakoff et al).

olympic-povertyYou mention that it’s a cliché to say “work is the best route out of poverty”. I regard it also as a strong expression of the ‘conservative’ frame which has dominated thinking about work/poverty for decades (this frame/worldview is evangelised by the “self-made man”, industrialist Mr Bounderby, in Dickens’s novel Hard Times, for example).

The figures reported by your JRF piece are very interesting, and I thought they could have been framed in a very different way. Do you (and your JRF colleagues) normally consider framing, or do you regard your material as neutral presentations of findings, etc?

slum-annotated•Chris Goulden:  Negative attitudes among the public, in politics and in the media towards people experiencing poverty is a key barrier. I agree that a different way of framing poverty is needed if there is to be more support for initiatives to reduce it.

But I don’t think what you call the progressive, distributive, systemic etc. frame necessarily helps. Or at least, simply presenting poverty as an issue beyond the control of individuals experiencing it is not persuasive. I believe there is, and needs to be, a third way (sorry) / synthesis between structural and individualised causes of poverty that is neither solely blaming the individual nor structurally-deterministic. Ruth Lister sets this out well in her book, Poverty (2004).

The role of science, research and evidence is interesting in this context yet also challenging. We and the researchers we work with are not often as explicit as we should be our underlying values and assumptions. This applies as much in natural as in social science. A common and more effective / “truthful” frame for the production of evidence and the discussion of its implications for poverty would be extremely useful.

I’m not sure what precedents there are for reframing issues in this way that could be drawn on however?

poundland-sale•News Frames:  I think the ‘Frame Semantics’ literature does have much to contribute, but first I’d better clarify my terms to avoid misunderstandings.

By “progressive”/”systemic” I don’t mean “beyond the control of individuals”. To me, it seems undeniable that poverty in modern society is a matter of systemic causation. At its simplest: the individual controls some factors but not others (availability of income, costs of housing, etc). So, it seems clear that we should use frames of “systemic causation”. Yet the newspaper headlines have, for decades, presented an extreme form of “direct causation” (eg that the “workshy” are to blame).

I think it’s precisely this latter frame which leads to the “negative attitudes” that you mention. And it’s not just the tabloid newspapers which feed into this. For example, “work is the route out of poverty” is an expression of the same metaphorical frame as blaming the “workshy”.

Lakoff et al have shown how, across many complex issues (from climate to war to welfare), conservative moral frames tend to use the “direct causation” metaphors (eg “Bush toppled Saddam and freed the Iraqis”). So much political debate appears to have followed this kind of direct-cause metaphorical mode, and for so long, that we usually don’t even notice it operating. (I think this is particularly the case with the issue of work/income/poverty).

But the “progressive”/”systemic” alternative isn’t at the other end of a linear scale from the “conservative”/”direct-causation”. They are just two very different modes of thought which we all have “instantiated in the neural system of our brains”. In fact, the notion of a linear political scale (eg left-right) with extremes at the ends, and “moderates” in the middle, is itself a misleading metaphor, according to the cognitive scientists. Or as Lakoff says, there aren’t really any moderates. That’s another debate, of course, but it possibly has a bearing on your point about a “third way”?

victorian-povertyChris Goulden:  Ok, I think we basically agree then. But by framing it as ‘systemic’ or ‘progressive’ (and I’m not sure those two are synonymous), you are implying it is beyond the control of individuals, in the same way that ‘individualised’, ‘regressive’ or ‘conservative’ imply it is only the individual actor who counts. If all parties could agree it was both structure and agency, then we could focus debate on where the balance lies and implications for policy and practice. At present, there is just division and a debate about what’s different not the commonalities of view.

And then there is the issue of the causative route – you say “the frame leads to the negative attitudes” but, in part at least, the negative attitudes lead to the frame. Which came first?

Regarding the issue of the use of cause as a metaphor, I agree that’s a general problem. The way we all talk is based on thousands of underlying assumptions and theories about the world that are more or less plausible or supported by scientific method or layers of personal experience. I don’t see how this is just a conservative moral frame. What’s the alternative? Socialist chaos theory? :)

However, the biggest issue remains – leaving aside what would be a better frame for poverty in this country for a moment – how do frames change and how do people who want to instigate those changes best go about it? That’s what I am really struggling with. Simply saying, as we often do in JRF reports, that there are bigger forces at play – the nature of jobs available, the cost of housing – doesn’t make people believe it and change their opinions.

dickens-poverty•News Frames:  If you think “systemic” framing implies a denial of individual “control” or “agency” (as factors), then I can see you’d have problems using it on poverty. I just hope you don’t have a “society made me do it” caricature in mind. (By the way, I don’t think “progressive” is synonymous with “systemic” – but the frames tend to correlate).

I’m talking about multiple, complex causation misleadingly reduced, via metaphor, to single, direct causation (eg “hard work leads to prosperity”) – whereas you’re talking in terms of “where the balance lies” between “structure and agency”. Your idea of “balance” appears to make sense (sort of) when you put it in those terms. But if the reality is systemic causation (as it evidently seems to be with UK poverty), then where is the “balance” between appropriate systemic framing and misleading direct-cause framing?

For example, how close are the following statements to your balance point?:

1) “Work IS the best route out of poverty – half the time”. (Title of your recent JRF piece)
2) “We believe that work should be the surest way out of poverty”. (Living Wage Foundation)

You ask why I lay the blame on conservative moral framing in particular. This comes mainly from my reading of Lakoff’s cognitive-linguistic analysis. Here’s a quote from a Lakoff article (2009) which puts this into accessible language:

“Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation. The overwhelming moral value of individual, not social, responsibility requires that causation be local and direct. For each individual to be entirely responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, those actions must be the direct causes of those consequences. If systemic causation is real, then the most fundamental of conservative moral—and economic—values is fallacious.

“Global ecology and global economics are prime examples of systemic causation. Global warming is fundamentally a system phenomenon. That is why the very idea threatens conservative thinking. And the global economic collapse is also systemic in nature. That is at the heart of the death of the conservative principle of the laissez-faire free market, where individual short-term self-interest was supposed to be natural, moral, and the best for everybody. The reality of systemic causation has left conservatism without any real ideas to address global warming and the global economic crisis.”

I also think Lakoff answers (much better than I could) your question on how to instigate changes in framing. He’s written books specifically on this subject. ‘Don’t think of an Elephant is a good starting point, if you haven’t already read it.

Incidentally, I assume that your chicken-and-egg question (“Which came first?” – the negative attitudes or the frame?) wasn’t serious, as the context was decades of headlines blaming the “workshy”, etc. But if you are serious, I’ll return to it.

pay-day-loanChris Goulden:  So, maybe my joke about socialist chaos theory was actually closer to the truth than I thought? I think it’s an important point to unpick about whether “systemic” is correlated with progressive or not. I don’t see why they should be. “Systemic” is an objective description of how we think reality works. “Progressive” is a value system.

But this does go to the heart of the methods of social science, and indeed of natural science. I’ve no doubt that reality is systemic and that simple direct causes are uncommon if not non-existent in terms of explaining human behaviour. We, I hope, are taking a systemic approach in our new programme that is aiming to develop an anti-poverty strategy for the UK. It aims to show what it would be like to live in, and what it would take to reach, a UK without high levels of poverty.

I think the statement ‘work is the route out of poverty’ by itself doesn’t imply structural or individual causes. Or even non-systemic ones. We always argue that it’s not just the fault of individuals and that all our opportunities are restricted by structural circumstances. If you tried to maintain a systemic approach to all discussions about policy and practice then I fear you wouldn’t ever be able to say anything. We need heuristics not exact models of reality.

What might a systemic description of poverty and its solutions look like to you and would this frame by itself help to reduce negative attitudes? I think negative public attitudes have complex causes and are not just the direct result of decades of headlines (and there is a strong current going in the other direction). Aren’t you reverting to a ‘morally conservative/direct causation’ frame there?

urban-loreal-oldNews Frames:  On your last point: I think you’ve misread – or misunderstood – my remarks about “negative attitudes” (towards the poor). I wrote: “it’s not just the tabloid newspapers which feed into this”. I referred to a culturally dominant frame (on work/poverty) which has complex historic causes – eg: I mentioned Dickens’s Hard Times, which contains a virtual taxonomy of this metaphorical framing.

The frame manifests as negative attitudes to the poor (among other things) – the frame being the cognitive underpinning of the attitude. Negative attitudes towards the poor are generally inseparable from the frame of poverty as moral failure of the individual. Decades of newspaper headlines (among other things) reinforce this moral framing. I see no single, direct cause here.

I’ve already provided pointers to Professor Lakoff’s work. I think it would yield diminishing returns to revisit (again) the point about “progressive”/”systemic” correlations – at least while you’re unfamiliar with the body of research I’m referencing. However, I’ll briefly address your question on “systemic” approaches to poverty.

One obvious example is the frame of poverty as social harm. Responsible society has a moral obligation to protect people from harm. We already have the metaphor of a “safety net” – as well as numerous examples, from other domains, of public funding of public safety. Note how this contrasts with the (‘conservative’) frame of poverty as moral failure of the individual. In extreme cases of the latter, the individual’s poverty isn’t high-riseregarded as harm, but as tough medicine, or as an incentive for market discipline, etc – and the notion of a safety net (such as welfare) is regarded as immoral, since it makes people “weak and dependent” (in this moral scheme – for more details, see my ‘Essentials of framing’).

Given that you’re looking for “a different way of framing poverty” – and given that JRF seems to take a broadly “progressive” stance – I’d have thought Lakoff’s work would be of enormous practical benefit to you. If there’s a more substantial body of work on social-political framing out there, I haven’t seen it – and I’ve certainly looked.

But I’ll leave it at that, as overselling these things can be a kiss of death.

Chris Goulden:  I think it might be helpful to try to sum up where we agree and where we disagree (or are yet to agree)?

Here’s what I think anyway – let me know if you agree with what I think we agree on :)

  1. Systemic understanding and causes are better depictions of reality than direct causes
  2. The dominant frame around poverty in the UK is negative and a barrier to progress on effective action to reduce poverty
  3. A more positive framing would be helpful but it is very difficult to change this but we should try; and we should watch out for repeating negative framing in JRF’s treatment of poverty and related issues
  4. I need to read some Lakoff

Here’s where I don’t think we agree

  1. Systemic understanding naturally goes together with a ‘progressive’ approach (I don’t see how that is logically possible)
  2. A ‘agency within structure’ framing could be more helpful than a systemic one (although I still don’t quite get that – see point 4 above)
  3. Individual actions, behaviours and attitudes still matter – obviously that doesn’t just apply to people experiencing poverty, also employers, politicians, research funders etc. By trying to remove victim blaming, you risk denying agency, free choice etc.
  4. Within a systemic frame, direct causes still have a place (otherwise we wouldn’t be able to understand anything (“it’s all too systemic”))

london-workhouse•News Frames:  Only one point stands out, to me, as a real disagreement. This is where you write: “By trying to remove victim blaming, you risk denying agency, free choice etc” (point 3). I certainly disagree with this. I don’t think it follows at all – and the absurd implication is that since we shouldn’t deny poverty victims free choice, we must therefore blame them for their poverty.

Here’s an alternative (“systemic-causation”) frame: Poverty as a result of multiple, complex causes, which may include the actions of the individual experiencing poverty (among other interrelated factors). Simple enough. It avoids “victim blaming” (single, direct cause); it avoids presenting work as “the route” out of poverty (single, direct cause) – but it doesn’t deny individual agency/free-choice.

Note: I offered to give Chris the final word, but he said he was happy to leave that last reply of mine as the final thing. Many thanks to him for taking the time to discuss this issue. I recommend both his regular JRF blog and his Twitter account (a good source of links to poverty studies and news articles, etc). – BD

Written by NewsFrames

December 6, 2012 at 9:25 am

Living wage slavery

Nov 14, 2012Last week was officiallyLiving Wage‘ week (UK) - and only the most committed sadist would object to a campaign to raise the wages of the working poor. But, for me, the framing was wrong, and served to reinforce some deeply conservative ideas about “jobs” and “income”.

For example, the Living Wage Foundation states in big letters on its homepage that: “We believe that work should be the surest way out of poverty.”

The “surest way”? What are they thinking? Are we living inside a Dickens novel or something? (No wonder we’re seeing a rise in regressive measures such as workfare). In the technological 21st century, only a small fraction of total wealth is generated by human labour (and the fraction seems to be dwindling all the time, according to Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The End of Work) – I see no logical or economic sense in making “work” a condition for having a living income.

And I see no “moral” sense in the idea that work “should” be the “surest way” out of poverty. I’m not even certain what that means, since there’s nothing very “sure” about jobs these days – regardless of wage levels.

If this were a TV debate, I’d probably get drowned out by “orthodox” economics-talk from both left and right. The right talks about “job loss” resulting from raising incomes; the left counters with statistics about minimum wage, etc. But both accept the aim of getting as many people as possible “into work”. It’s like a superstition.

This “orthodox” economics reflects Victorian (or earlier) frames and metaphors (eg see economist Paul Ormerod’s work in this regard*). And, going back to Charles Dickens, you can see the whole worldview described (and seemingly subtlely satirised) in his novel Hard Times: the “self-made man”, the “dissipated, extravagant idler”, time as commodity, escape from poverty through hard work, etc.

More than a century later, we’re still labouring under the notion that “work” will cure the malaise caused by any economic “crisis”, personal or global. So, when the economy is brought to its knees by a corrupt/greedy financial sector, the answer is to get everyone “back to work”… until the next financial collapse (which is never caused by idleness).

Of course, there are good cognitive reasons why we think in this limited way. In our own personal experience (replayed thousands of times in our brains), “work” produces direct, tangible results, while inactivity leaves work to be done. Repetition in our nervous systems creates the appearance of a universal principle: that “wealth” (in a broad sense) comes primarily from work.

This framing might be appropriate for barter of turnips and chickens – or even, at a stretch, for Victorian mills (if you ignore how the created wealth was distributed). But how can it be suitable for thinking about an economy in which only a small percentage of the total wealth is “produced” or “earned” from present-day human work? (Estimation of ‘total wealth’ should include technological production, infrastructure and land-use, scientific know-how, accumulation of the common wealth of centuries of past human labour – which should be distinguished from current-work “productivity”. It’s the “commons”, the “public” – it’s vast).

Ponder this figure: In just over a decade, the Credit Default Swap market grew from nothing to $54 trillion. That’s close to the total GDP of the planet. Our cognitive frames for human “work” just don’t apply here. (Credit Default Swaps were a main – and diabolical – cause of the recent global financial collapse. They are a type of derivative – they resemble insurance against defaults on loans, but streamlined, packaged, computerised – on an industrial scale, but without human “work” production.)

I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work. (Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness)

The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income. (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Chaos or Community)

Update 10/12/2013: I’ve previously written widely about economic alternatives such as a Universal Basic Income, which I favour. Here’s one example, an article I wrote for the Idler magazine – Bluffer’s Guide to Revolutionary Economics.

* “as the twentieth century draws to a close the dominant tendency in economic policy is still governed by a system of analysis inspired by the engineers and scientists of the Victorian era”. (Paul Ormerod, The Death of Economics).

◊ The graphic above is from my spoof charity website, NSPCO

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

November 14, 2012 at 9:15 am

If you see just ONE graph this decade…

Wages vs ProductivityDec 8, 2011Unsurprising, but jaw-droppingthis graph which George Monbiot linked to a few weeks ago. A continual rise in productivity, matched by a rise in wages… until around 1980. Hold in mind the perpetual rise in productivity, and consider…

Polly Toynbee recently tweeted about Robert Skidelsky’s Occupy LSX talk: “Modern capitalism over produces work and under produces leisure…Skidelsky speaking sensesays 25 hr [working] w[ee]k… Citizens income for work/leisure choice.”

In his new book (on Keynes & the economic crisis), Skidelsky quotes a paper by Thomas Palley, which argues that under the neoliberal model (starting around 1980): “the commitment to full employment was abandoned as inflationary, with the result that the link between productivity growth and wages was severed.” With productivity growing and wages falling in real terms, consumer demand was built upon increasingly high levels of household debt.

All true, of course. But what many accounts leave out is the staggering level of technological advance since 1980. (Advances which ultimately wouldn’t exist without public funding/infrastructure). This enormous technological component of productivity doesn’t translate into wages for human labour, hence the necessity of solutions such as a Citizen’s Income.

It’s good to see commentators such as Robert Skidelsky and Polly Toynbee talking about a Citizen’s Income. This is the same proposal that goes under the names Basic Income, UBI, National Dividend, etc (I’ve written about these proposals in more detail here). I suspect you’ll be hearing a lot more about Citizen’s Income in the months/years to come.

Meanwhile, I think the graph should be tattooed onto our brains…

Wages vs Productivity

Sources of graphs:

Written by NewsFrames

December 8, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Posted in Economics, Jobs, Occupy

STRIKE! Work framed as Obedience

STRIKE! Work framed as ObedienceNov 30, 2011 – Today’s Daily Mail states that the 2 million people on strike today will “cause chaos”. After all, we’re not working. We think of “work” in many ways, but there are two dominant frames which tend to maintain the status quo (of appalling pay & working hours, concentrated wealth for the few). These frames are: Work as Obedience and Workers as Resources.

Work as Obedience

In the work-as-obedience frame, there’s an authority (the employer) and there’s obedience to the commands of authority (ie work). This obedience is rewarded (pay). Certain consequences follow from this metaphorical framing. The worker is expected to be loyal, to make sacrifices (contrast with the work-as-exchange* frame). This may explain why, each year, workers give £29 billion in unpaid overtime to their companies (according to TUC figures).

(Consider also that the average worker spends 139 hours a year commuting – another sacrifice).

Remember that frames function “below” consciousness, according to the cognitive scientists (I’ve written about this before: here & here). Why do people tolerate a situation in which income is dependent on obedience (to people they might regard as idiots)? Perhaps it’s because our upbringing results (in most cases) in the work-as-obedience frame being a familiar part of our neurology (consider the paternal representation of school/employer).

In adulthood, this work frame infantilises us, and it’s reinforced by the paternal-strictness type of attacks on the unemployed from politicians and media. Terms such as “workshy” and “scrounger” don’t suggest people aged 45+ who have lost their jobs.

Workers as Resources

The workers-as-resources metaphor is part of ‘market’ framing:

  • “Free market” means firms are free to manage their own resources.
  • Resources are acquired and disposed of – in a way which minimises costs, maximises “efficiency”, etc.
  • Labour is just another resource (as in “labour market”).

Excluded from the workers-as-resources metaphor is the human experience of working in a job, and the distinction between meaningful activity and dehumanising work (not to mention work which physically harms). Orthodox economics of both right and left “treat labor as a natural resource or commodity, on a par with raw materials, and speak in the same terms of its cost and supply” (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By). Workers’ rights movements have fought against exploitation of workers (with some important successes) but have tended to implicitly accept this economic framing.

Protestant Work “Ethic”

The “work as obedience” metaphor is also linked to the moral framing of work which comes from religious traditions, most notably from the Protestant (or, rather, Puritan) Work Ethic. You don’t have to consciously subscribe to these religious beliefs to be affected – moral guilt over “laziness” seems to affect practically everyone in our society (but not in all societies – the framing isn’t universal).

And thus we arrive at these strange notions:

  • Work is morally virtuous regardless of the experience of the worker.
  • Firms should be “free” to make this experience even worse.

And so (to cut a long historical story short) we get the news frames of guilty “slackers”, irresponsible chaos-causing strikers – in opposition to the moral good (ie market fundamentalism and a joyless, outdated work ethic). And, to many, it looks just like “common sense”. Meanwhile, metaphorical terms such “flexible labour” (or worse, “cheap labour”) hide the reality of human degradation.

* The work-as-exchange frame is something that George Lakoff has written about in his work on conceptual metaphor. In this frame, work is conceptualised as an object of value which belongs to the worker. This is exchanged for money.

Written by NewsFrames

November 30, 2011 at 9:27 am


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