In the aftermath of that great non-event that was the general election we can soon expect to see what measures the new Labour regime has in store for us in its mission to make British capitalism yet more ruthlessly "efficient" and exploitative.One person who should know is Labour’s own "Prince of Darkness”, political gangster- extraordinaire Peter Mandelson (Minister Without Portfolio). In BBC 1's On The Record programme (11 May), amid the waffle and lying (and his claim that economic growth could bring “prosperity for all” is a twenty-four carat lie), he dropped us at least one very interesting clue. More than once Blair’s whizzkid identified as a key Labour objective the reinforcement of the work ethic and in so doing signalled the government’s commitment to further putting the screws on the working class.
The “work ethic” has a history as long and as horrible as modern capitalism. With roots in the Calvinist Protestant variety of religion it was swiftly seized on by the capitalist class as a powerful ideological weapon. At the time of the industrial revolution it was all the bosses could do to make their workers knuckle under. Only recently driven off the land by enclosure and made completely dependent on working for a wage, the new working class was not used to the regimentation demanded by industrial capitalism and resistance to it was widespread.
The bosses’ response, alongside the removal of all means of living independently of the wages system, the threat of mechanisation and naked repression, was to hammer home the belief that work for the sake of work was a great and noble thing. From being simply a means to an end, the work ethic held up work as an end in itself, to the point of becoming the meaning of life. This was a convenient ideology for the capitalists as the labour of those forced to work for them was the source of their wealth and power. More convenient still was their success in grinding this belief into the population at large, so that the exploited not only accepted their exploitation, but became more or less enthusiastic about it.
This process has continued to the present day, with the lesson continually drummed into us at every stage of our lives that giving up the bulk of our time and energy to the creation of profit for the ruling elite in jobs we usually hate is somehow a desirable way to live—indeed the only way to live. “Education” in schools and colleges is only the most obvious way we are conditioned (or brainwashed) into accepting the work (or slave) ethic and our subservient position in the system. It was after all no accident that the departments of education and employment were merged.
It is hardly surprising that Mandelson should than have expressed such zeal for reinforcing this ideology. Capitalism likes us to be as cheap, obedient and eager to knuckle down to the job as possible and this has become ever more so as the “global market" and suchlike has forced national economies to get rough, tough and more mercilessly exploitative than ever.
In a world of "flexibility", short-term contracts and job insecurity the work ethic may be more important than ever to the ruling class in securing a working class resigned to the anxiety of slaving away in whatever employment the system chucks at it. That firm bosses' favourite the Job Seekers Allowance is an attempt to cut social (in)security expenditure, but also to ensure that the unemployed are "actively seeking" work, i.e. are firmly locked into the treadmill of work by being forced by sheer poverty to search for absolutely any job going, even when such jobs are non-existent.
At the back of the Minister’s mind may be the fear that capitalism's restructuring and long-term mass unemployment has led many people to lose their identification with a certain “career” and even with the whole world of employment: many people are sensibly asking themselves whether wage and salary labour is really that desirable after all.
To counter such developments, we can expect the Labour government’s commitment to the work ethic to be reflected in their education, social security and law and order policies: in other words a continuation of the Tories’ policies of heightened regimentation, austerity and repression. Whatever they do though they will not be able to stop more and more people seeing how criminally unnecessary this system of exploitation, pressure and misery is in a world where a few voluntary hours a week enjoyable, useful activity is all anyone need contribute to supply what is needed for everyone to lead a comfortable, fulfilling life. Down with the work ethic—a tool with which capitalism has stolen our lives, our energy and our world.