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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

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

9 Responses

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  1. Another brilliant post, thanks for posting this. Further to the virtuousness of ‘work’, I was thinking about how not just being in work but also being SEEN to be in work still also holds sway. Following this ‘communications revolution’ we’re in, the many genuine opportunities for working from home that arise must far outweigh its actual take up. I believe this in part might be because corporations are ultimately uncomfortable with their workers not undergoing the trials of commuting (with its attendant longer working day), the drudgery of being long hours at a desk, of not being physically observable all the time and, in short; of their just not ‘doing time’ in the workplace, to use a prison terminology! If a worker is sat in the comfort of their own home, to some it doesn’t feel right. ‘Work’ should be somehow be more arduous, more restrictive, less comfortable and free. Perhaps it comes back to the Victorian ideal of being dragooned into a production line where close control and intense ‘work study’ can be applied to the ‘feckless’ workers. Just a thought. Thanks again.

    Mark Garner

    November 14, 2012 at 10:26 am

    • That matches my own experiences, Mark – like the time (years ago) when I suggested to my boss that staff be allowed to work from home (the company was having car-parking problems). His response: “I think it would be bad for people”. Of course, he hadn’t conducted a poll, and I wasn’t suggesting that work-from-home be made compulsory. I think it was the “physically observable” thing you mentioned – he preferred to closely monitor his staff – a “control” thing. (There was some staff management/surveillance software for call centres some years ago that was marketed as “Total Control”). Also, the prison metaphor seems apt to me.


      November 14, 2012 at 10:56 am

  2. This is largely good, and I fully support any attempt to change the Victorian terms of debates around work, though I question whether the fictitious capital of CDSes counts in any meaningful way as wealth?


    November 14, 2012 at 11:03 am

    • A good point – and I considered writing a much longer post which looked at what we mean by “wealth”, and the various ways of quantifying it, etc. But it seemed like a separate article in its own right. These huge figures (eg CDS market) do, as you say, quantify something that is “fictitious” in a sense (or perhaps “virtual” would be a better term?), but which nonetheless has an overwhelming impact in the “real world”.


      November 14, 2012 at 11:17 am

      • Well, the capital is fictitious in the sense that it is not a claim on anything current but is a claim on something in the future, making it a kind of social fiction (basically, I’m following Marx here). And, yes, they do have an overwhelming impact on the real world – the immiseration of southern Europe right now testifies to this. However, in the kind of radical reorganisation of production and distribution that would entail a “world beyond work”, just how necessary is much of this fictitious capital? You go along with Rifkin’s claim about an ever-shrinking fraction of total wealth being produced by human labour, but surely it’s the case that, particularly speaking globally, all of the “real” wealth is still dependent on human labour (albeit with varying intensities of mechanisation, sometimes running to an extreme extent).

        Anyway, all this is really trying to do is draw you down a rabbithole of heterodox economics, so feel free to ignore it. But I get the impression our reading is kind of orthogonal on these matters, so I’m curious to hear your take on it.


        November 14, 2012 at 11:47 am

      • [Reply to jools] – I regard the profiteering in the virtual/fictitious economy (CDSs, exploiting microfluctuations in the currency market, etc) as diabolical, and not necessary at all (even in not-so-radical reorganisations). Perhaps I should be clearer in my blog on this point?

        My reading of Rifkin’s book: he presented a convincing case (rich in evidence, statistics, etc) on how technology is massively reducing the need for human labour in all sectors, and how this seems irreversible (outside of a return to pre-technological state). There are also things like land ownership, existing infrastructure and scientific know-how which I’d factor into estimations of ‘total wealth’. There’s an accumulation of the wealth of centuries of past human labour (which should be distinguished from current-work “productivity”). It’s the “public”, the “commons”. Vast, and it belongs to us all.

        It’s a fascinating, complex topic for me. Thanks for drawing out some of these points, Jools.


        November 14, 2012 at 12:23 pm

  3. Spot on Absolutely spot on.

    I love meeting people who really understand this issue

    It’s time for the unconditional basic income. the green party have it in their national manifesto but don’t seem committed to publicizing it.

    We need to do it ourselves.

    Mind you the Pirate Party also have it as manifesto and I’d trust them more to really push it.

    Really great essay



  4. Enjoyable & insightful – you definitely have a knack of cutting to the core of complex issues in a concise way. “Living wage slavery” – yes, indeed.

    Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

    November 14, 2012 at 2:25 pm

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