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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Jobs’ Category

Attn: Wage Slaves! (book review)

Most ‘work’ in this age is stupid, monotonous, brain-rotting, irritating,
usually pointless … Marx was quite right in calling it ‘wage slavery.’

Robert Anton Wilson, 1986 intro to ‘Undoing Yourself’, 3rd ed.

The Good Life for Wage Slaves

If I could go back in time to deliver a handful of ‘near future’ books to my 1987 self, Robert Wringham’s brilliantly entertaining new book, The Good Life for Wage Slaves, would probably be one of them. My younger persona wouldn’t understand his references to COVID-19 or to office workers distracting themselves with the internet – or even to the idea of “Quiet Rooms” (it would take years before such New Age type notions made it into British workplaces without a sneer) – but the deeper messages about contemporary Wage Slavery, and the information on how to cope, would have transformed my outlook.

Back then, I was starting in office work hell with no end in sight. Apart from a few Bertrand Russell and Robert Anton Wilson quotes and an anarchist essay by Bob Black, there seemed little in the way of intellectual self-defence against the onslaught of modern work culture. Politics of ‘right’ and ‘left’ seemed dogmatically agreed on the heroic virtue of jobs to deliver us from social and economic evil; insidious forms of corporate behaviourism and institutional emotional blackmail were rife. The Idler magazine (founded in 1993) was still a few years away; David Graeber’s essay and book on Bullshit Jobs (2013/2018) were still a few decades in the future.

Around 1990, a few dissidents, here and there, scraped together primitive desktop publishing resources to create various anti-work zines, stickers and graphic propaganda. I recall creating and printing ‘Crap Job Watch UK’ stickers, etc, making ironic use of business clip-art – and, by 1995, DIY-published my first issue of Anxiety Culture. Basically pre-internet, zine culture back then seemed a desperate (but fun) attempt to create and find others of similar creative mind.

To me, Robert Wringham’s book is like a flowering of that subversive spirit against the soul-crushing forces of modern bureaucratic Wage Slavery! I also found it an entertaining read. After once making the great escape (and sharing his insights in his New Escapologist project), circumstances had then conspired to force Wringham back into Wage Slavery (via a visa-related requirement under Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy).

In a funny, wisdom-laced narrative, the book describes his adventures returning to a daily reality of office Wage Slavery for two and a half years. Throughout, Rob refers to his Scottish workplace as “Concrete Island” (after the J.G. Ballard novel), and assigns his work colleagues cartoonish cat names (eg ‘Prince Chunk’ and ‘Tibs the Great’).

In this and other ways the book acquires a strangely surreal vibe, with Rob as some modern-day Bartleby (albeit with a better sense of humour). So even though it’s anchored in a persistent and deeply unpleasant economic reality, there seems – to me at least – a dreamlike novelistic flavour pervading. It also remains effortlessly engaging while providing useful tips and strategies, for not only surviving the situation, but living “the good life” (a notion which goes back – not to the suburban BBC sitcom – but to philosophers of ancient Greece).

Here, to give you a flavour (and with the author’s permission) is a brief excerpt, on ‘the art of the shrug’. I like the idea of gently subverting the ‘friendly’ psychology ‘They’ try to coerce you with.

[The art of the shrug]

There was a rather annoying little motivational poster pinned up behind the reception desk on Concrete Island, which said “Smile! lt’ll make you Happy [sic].” It made us all extremely unhappy. Motivational posters are, as every Wage Slave knows, only put there to make our lives more closely resemble Hell.

One day, after seeing the poster for the one-hundred-and-eighth time, I thought to myself: That bears some scrutiny, surely. Someone with too much time on their hands ought to look into that. Smiling makes you happy indeed. They’re confusing cause with effect. Motivational poster-writing bastards.

And then I realised that I had a lot of time on my hands. I was petty enough to look into a clearly apocryphal claim. Once I found out it was bollocks, I could tell Mademoiselle Fifi, the receptionist, about it (“That poster? It’s bollocks, you know.”) and then she’d say “I knew it!” and we could tear it off the wall together and feed it into the shredder in the name of truth.

Unfortunately, Google put an end to my reverie, by pointing out that smiling in fact does make people feel happier. Apparently it goes back to Darwin who observed that facial expressions don’t merely represent emotions but can in fact cause them, an observation which has been confirmed by numerous scientific studies in the meantime. How annoying.

But if smiling can make you happy, it stands to reason that shrugging might make you feel more nonchalant and consequently less negatively affected by your sterile and irritating surroundings. I asked a scientist using a research service online and once she stopped laughing at me and consulted the literature, she said that yes, a shrug may well make us feel more indifferent about something.

When we’re feeling irritated by the working environment, humiliated and depressed by the fact we have to go there at all, it’s apparently possible to shrug it off. If this seems unhelpful, we might want to look more closely at the ancient art of Stoicism, which is essentially a way of becoming a human shrug.

[Excerpt from Robert Wringham’s book, The Good Life for Wage Slaves]


Incidentally, Rob’s depiction of “Concrete Island”, as an office on wasteland surrounded by motorway and dual carriageway, reminded me of the fictional setting for a film made in 2001 and inspired by Melville’s Bartleby (and also called ‘Bartleby’), from which the following still is taken:


Written by NewsFrames

September 14, 2020 at 1:37 pm

Posted in Antiwork, Jobs, Wage slaves

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

How not to frame “workers”

How not to frame "workers"Oct 26, 2011 – Today’s Telegraph front page provides an example of the socially-dominant “worker” frame. The headline contains the first clue: “Give firms freedom to sack their slackers”. (This is the “finding” of a “report” commissioned by David Cameron – see update*). The Telegraph explains:

‘Under current regulations, workers are allowed to “coast along” and employers are left fearful of expanding because new staff may prove “unknown quantities” who are impossible to sack, the report says.’

Here’s the frame in a nutshell:

  • “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”).

“Workers are resources”

Hidden by this metaphorical frame 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.

Work “ethic” plus

Linked to the “labour as resource” metaphor – in a sort of unholy neural coupling – is 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 very long historical story short) we get the news frames of guilty “slackers” merged with market fundamentalism. 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 Independent reveals that the author of the “report” (multi-millionaire venture capitalist, Adrian Beecroft) has interests which include “an online company offering payday loans at huge rates of interest”. The Independent quotes “Lib Dem sources” who called Beecroft an “ideological” figure: “He is a private individual who has produced a report not based on any evidence.”

Yet another case of someone with the “right” ideological views producing a Mickey Mouse “report” which becomes front-page news. For further examples, see my earlier piece on the so-called TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Written by NewsFrames

October 26, 2011 at 11:04 am

“Benefit tourists”

"Benefits tourists"Sept 30, 2011 – Today’s Telegraph provides a crudely malign formulation: “benefit tourists”. Thankfully, it’s not (yet) as well-established as, say, “benefit cheats”. (Update 2013: it’s now fairly well-established – see below).

“Tourist” is, of course, a frame. There are clearly defined roles and scenarios in the tourist frame: A tourist isn’t looking for work; a tourist is not from around here; a tourist seeks pleasure, a tourist is travelling, a tourist is not escaping from hardship or persecution, or building a new life; a tourist is exploring, sight-seeing or relaxing (ie not looking for work), and perhaps she/he wears sunglasses and a stupid grin.

What’s notable about the Telegraph article (and also this BBC piece and this Daily Mail story) is that the term, “benefit tourist”, is used without any attempt to describe precisely who it refers to (eg categories, financial criteria). But we can at least infer from media coverage that if the European Commission gets its way, Britain will be flooded with “benefit tourists”.

Update (25/3/13): Apparently 93% of working-age immigrants are NOT claiming working-age benefits. The “crisis” claimed by government is “manufactured“.

Update 2 (27/11/13): Some studies have found “benefit tourism” to be largely a myth. Dominic Casciani, a BBC Home Affairs correspondent, cites some of this research (BBC News, 27 November 2013). He asked what the evidence was for widespread benefit tourism, and concluded:

“The answer is that there is very little – and it is an extremely complex picture. That does not mean that benefit tourism doesn’t exist – but what’s clear is that the evidence points strongly in the direction that people migrate to find work or for family reasons. They are less likely to up sticks to cross borders – or even continents – just for a weekly giro.”Dominic Casciani, BBC News, 27 November 2013

But the “benefits tourism” frame now seems well-established and regularly used by the news media and politicians of both right and left. Every time the words are used, the conceptual frame is invoked and its inferences reinforced. Here’s today’s BBC headline:


Written by NewsFrames

September 30, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Jobs, Telegraph

“Bad businesses” – reframing wealth-creation?

Bad businessesSept 27, 2011 – Three of today’s newspapers (Telegraph, Guardian, Mirror) lead with Labour’s attack on “bad businesses”. If the previews of Ed Miliband’s speech are accurate, Labour is attempting to reframe “wealth-creation”. Miliband will say the Tories “talk as if the CEOs and the executives are the only people who create wealth.”

The true wealth-creators, according to Miliband, are “every man and woman who goes out to work”. In other words: JOBS RULE. Work is of primary importance in Labour’s moral-value system. (Back in 2001, the Labour government launched a Work First campaign. JOBS before everything else).

In the framing wars this is no threat to the ideological “free-market” right, where “businesses create jobs”. Even bad businesses. Miliband gets around this by citing “asset strippers” as the main example of “bad business”. (Asset stripping tends to lead to job losses). But this would imply that Labour’s measure of the “good” or “bad” of businesses is how many jobs they “create” or “destroy”.

Does the financial services sector come out as “good” or “bad” in this moral framing? Banks, credit card, loan, insurance companies, etc? They “create” vast numbers of jobs. Mostly low-paid soul-crippling work – eg in call centres; telemarketing nuisance calls, junk-mail production, stuff like that. The “services” they provide can perhaps best be summed up as shuffling lots of ones and zeros around in databases – from relatively poor to relatively rich account holders.

Given the widespread public anger over the bailout of banks (with taxpayers’ money), it would seem a good time to raise big questions about the type of “wealth” “created” by the banking and “financial services” sector.

But instead we get a kind of backwards reframing of “wealth-creation” from Labour. The “moral virtue of jobs” was a framing victory for the early industrialists/capitalists. E.P. Thompson’s classic, The Making of the English Working Class, (1963) described the process. Molly Scott Cato provided an excellent update (with regard to New Labour) here.

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

September 27, 2011 at 10:14 am

Posted in Guardian, Jobs, Mirror, Telegraph