Yesterday, health secretary Jeremy Hunt, reaffirmed that the Conservative party is intent on keeping poor people working hard while their offspring (probably) copulate with dead pigs in Oxford.
They cannot get enough of it – not pig-sex, work. 'Hardwork' is the air that Tories breath – or more accurately it is the bad breath they insist on breathing in everyone else's faces – they themselves being, by-and-large, a gibbering herd of the born-rich and the lucky.
Asked at the annual Conservative party conference whether cuts to in-work benefits – which will mean up to £1,300 a year less for 3 million families on low pay as of next April – were happening too quickly, the health secretary that will most likely go down in history as the man who finished off the privatisation of the NHS (after his predecessor Andrew Lansley got slewed by a second-rate rapper) responded thus:
“No. We have to proceed with these tax credit changes because they are a very important cultural signal. My wife is Chinese. We want this to be one of the most successful countries in the world in 20, 30, 40 years’ time. There’s a pretty difficult question that we have to answer, which is essentially: are we going to be a country which is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in the way that Americans are prepared to work hard? And that is about creating a culture where work is at the heart of our success.”
Such exceptionally concise bullshit deserves a closer look.
Firstly, this is perhaps the clearest statement to date of the ideological motivation behind Tory austerity. Have you ever heard somebody say that the cuts are 'ideological', rather than an economic necessity? Well, this is precisely what they mean. As Hunt lays out so magnificently, cutting in-work benefits is a 'cultural signal' intended to somehow magic up some national spirit of graft. Not to worry that the crux of the issue is that low pay is set by unscrupulous employers and bears no relation to how hard people work whatsoever.
Your wife is Chinese? Nice touch. Very personal. This is pretty much the first interview technique that your below par career politician will be taught in politician school: always link your answer back to something 'personal'. The idea is that this helps people 'relate' to you, rather than suspecting you for what you really are: a feckless aristocrat. The problem is, if you read through Hunt's answer again – slowly – you will notice that he has quite simply hang dropped the nationality of his wife into the middle of the response, with no substantive reason, leaving her floating pitifully in the midst of his incoherent babble about work.
To add insult to injury, Hunt also suggested that people on low enough wages to need top up tax credits lacked ‘self-respect’ and ‘dignity’.
But enough about Hunt and his surreal choice of words. What about the actual content of what he is saying? 'Hard work' is the idea that just won't go away – here are three reasons why we need to call time on it:
1. However hard we work, automation is going to eat our jobs. As Martin Ford, Silicon Valley speaker, puts it, the idea that robots are going to render us all unemployed in the near future is like the story of the boy who cried wolf: there are a few red herrings along the way, but ultimately, the wolf shows up in the end. It didn't come to pass with the first industrial revolution. But this time, there is mounting evidence that rapid advances in robotics and 'artificial intelligence' are going replace not only monotonous factory jobs, but also so-called 'high skilled' work: journalism, law, radiology, and pretty much any other job you can imagine. News articles are already being generated by computers (much like the one you are reading?). If we want to be 'one of the most successful countries in the world in 20, 30, 40 years time', as Hunt put it, then we need to invest in this technology and learn how to manage its political consequences, not 'work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard'.
Why work hard when robots could do it all for us? The hardest work to be done right now is the political task of ensuring that advances in technology mean that we all have more time to do what we want, rather than enriching a few people who own robots while the rest of us languish in unemployed poverty. This means demanding two things: first, tax the robot owners to pay for a Universal Basic Income so we can all live without work, and second, owning the robots collectively so that the spoils can be shared out fairly.
2. Hard work does not equal better pay. Why listen to a millionaire aristocrat telling you to work harder to better yourself and your country while he avoids taxes? Especially when, as it turns out, productivity no longer bears any relation to compensation. One of Hunts shining beacons of 'hardwork', America, is the best example of this. Despite gains in productivity over the last 40 years, real wages has stagnated and even declined. That means that however much more has been produced per hour – be it through technological innovation, efficiencies, or 'hardwork' – the gains have gone to shareholders, not to wage increases.
Sure, 'hardwork' might get you a promotion. But some other poor soul is just going to fill your shoes. Meaning that however hard we work, poor people gonna stay poor and rich people gonna get richer. Put in simple terms, it is in Jeremy Hunt's class interest that people work harder, not in the interests of the country.
3. Sweden is moving to a 6 hour working day. As usual, Scandinavia is ahead of the curve. Rather than beating their population with a blunt instrument and screaming 'hardwork!', it was announced last week that Swedes are moving to a 6 hour working day. This is because they understand, unlike Hunt, that life outside of work is generally better. And indeed, even the Daily Mail – screaming banshees of 'hardwork' that they are – reported that Swedish employees are happier and more productive when working shorter hours.
Research by the New Economics Foundation has shown that a shorter working week – say 30 or even 21 hours – could provide a whole host of benefits to society. Health improves due to reduced levels of stress, childcare could be shared more equally between women and men, and (as in Sweden) productivity would go up because workers would all be less numbed by unspeakable hours spent procrastinating at a desk.
So next time you hear a Tory say 'hardwork!', tell them to relax. Tell them that work – wage labour – is so last century. Tell them to read 'The Rise of the Robots' by Martin Ford. Tell them that you would prefer an income and a share in the robots than low paid toil. Tell them you would rather spend your time pursuing the things you love than work for pittance. Because you're worth it.