Posted Under: Capitalism,Class,Economy,Poverty,Socialism,Society,The Welfare State
“There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading…To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt.” – Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891)
This story should have got much more attention than it did:
Researchers at Australian National University have found that positions with low security, high demands, and imbalanced effort-reward ratios cause more mental distress than unemployment. Over seven years, the researchers followed 7,000 respondents in an Australian labor survey. People who moved from no employment to jobs of “high psychosocial quality” showed gains in mental health. But those who went from jobless to employed in thankless, unstable positions were found to be more depressed and anxious than those who never got hired at all.
The authors of the study conclude (a bit mildly) that their ”results suggest that employment strategies seeking to promote positive outcomes for unemployed individuals need to also take account of job design and workplace policy.”
Anyone who has studied some economic theory knows the long list of costs associated with unemployment (including the often dramatic psychological costs). Hence the general view that work is better than worklessness. But when was the last time somebody brought up the issue of the psychological costs of work in a discussion on benefits and unemployment? (Clearly the sorts of people on the dole for a great length of time are not very likely to ever have jobs of a “high psychosocial quality”.)
For the necessary dirty work to be carried out, our economic system requires a permanent underclass of underpaid, overworked and under-appreciated human beings, for whom the mind-bending boredom and squalor of long term unemployment would actually be an improvement in their lives. (This is often the kind of work, remember, that stops the sewers overflowing and keeps our rubbish from piling up and rotting in the sun.)
Findings like these should provide an opportunity to openly and frankly discuss capitalism’s sheer fucking barbarity. Maybe we could decide that our current division of labour needs to be replaced with something more humane; we could defend the rights of individuals to abstain from jobs that will do incredible damage to their long-term health (maybe we could even decide that such people should not be denounced as ‘scroungers’ for doing so).
I’m not holding my breath.