Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Our new insecurity

Last week I was interviewed for a new ten-part BBC Radio 4 series about the changing nature of office life (I don’t have a link for this, but the first part will be broadcast on 22nd July at 13.45 GMT+1). One of the questions I was asked was about the famous 1950s book The Organization Man by W.H. Whyte. It was a book which spawned a phrase – ‘organization man’ – and which was a kind of nostalgic lament for a time before corporate hierarchies, a lament for individualism.

But, as I said in the interview, from a present day perspective 1950s organization man is something about which we might now feel nostalgic. The basic deal of the post-war settlement was one of security. In exchange for a perhaps rather stultifying work life, organization man was offered lifetime employment in a company rooted in his community and which provided a pension and a place in the world. It was the workplace equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting.

The consequences of lost security were born home on me this week by two things, one personal, the other impersonal. Personally, I talked to a friend in Denmark who had lost his management job and feared for what would happen to him and his family now. Yes, that is in Denmark, one of the homelands of the social democratic settlement – but he was scared. Impersonally, I saw the report from the UK Institute of Fiscal Studies which showed how real living standards in the UK have fallen dramatically in the last five years, since the financial crisis.

What is going on in Europe is an extraordinary experiment of a sort that has never occurred before, and work organizations are at its heart. The historic compromise between capital, labour and the state is being eviscerated. The most obvious effects of that are on the unskilled working class, the disabled and the unemployable, with their benefits being drastically cut. But what is now emerging is that what were hitherto the secure middle class are also seeing huge reductions in their economic position and their security. Moreover, the previous expectation that their children would be better off than them is being confounded.

This is the inevitable consequence of globalized neo-liberalism, which ultimately levels down wages and conditions of employment to the lowest possible level. Although in Europe  its electoral support was predicated upon the votes of the middle-class, its agenda was always about the interests of a tiny handful of individuals and corporations. There’s nothing new about societies being run for and by small elites, of course. But this is the first time in human history where a settled middle-class, underpinned by a welfare state, is being so drastically damaged (except, perhaps, for the 1920s German inflation – and we know where that led – and, anyway, there was no comparable welfare state). There's an excellent article on this. These are people who vote, who pay taxes, who support mainstream political parties, and who have an expectation that ‘the system’ will take care of them.

The consequences are tragic for individuals, but very interesting for political commentators. Europe in the 20th Century responded to Communism by differentiating the potentially revolutionary working class from the incorporated middle-class. The working class now have nowhere to go, and certainly nowhere revolutionary. The middle-class are being disincorporated – first by corporations, now by the State. The fallout from this will determine how we in Europe live in the coming decades.

It won't be pretty.

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