Friday, 26 July 2013

The History of Office Life

Media coverage of organizational issues is not great. Yes, every news bulletin gives the obligatory reading of the day's exchange rate and stock index level, and big corporate events and scandals get a look in. But there is very little about daily work life, even though this is, arguably, a matter of greater public interest. Even rarer is an interest in organizations from an historical perspective.

So we should be grateful for the new BBC Radio 4 series, The History of Office Life, presented by FT journalist Lucy Kellaway. Broadcast in ten episodes of 15 minutes each, starting last Monday, it perhaps struggles to cover so broad a subject in such a compressed format. Still, two hours of national broadcasting time is not to be sniffed at, and each episode contains within it a few gems. See here for a review of the first week's episodes.

And I will declare an interest: the next episode, on the rise of management, to be broadcast on Monday 29th July at 13.45 UK time features me as does the episode on recent trends in office life, to be broadcast on Friday 2nd August at 13.45 UK time. What I will say I have little idea, as it will be a few moments edited from a long interview. So this is not a recommendation ...

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Spirit of 45

In a previous post I made reference to Ken Loach’s latest film, The Spirit of 45, without, I must admit, having seen it, only having read some reviews. Loach is an important and, in the UK, a rare film director, committed to socialism and to socialist art. Land and Freedom, his 1995 depiction of the Spanish Civil War, is, I think, one of the most significant political films of recent decades. It recounts the utopian promise of the POUM militia during the Spanish Civil War, which combined internationalism and gender equality with economic collectivism. And it recounts the betrayal of this dream by Stalinist Communism leading to the eventual victory of Fascism. In many ways the defeat of the POUM marked a terminal point in the history - to date, at least - of a certain strand of non-statist left-wing theory and practice. It was a political tragedy, the effects of which are still playing out in Europe and beyond. But the film is also a moving love story. That love is most evident in the complex relationship between the central, narrating, character, Dave Carr, a working class Liverpudlian who has come to Spain to fight fascism, and Blanca, a Spanish fighter in the POUM. Loach depicts the tenderness and ferocity of their love skilfully and movingly. But there is also a love, no less profound for not being sexual, between the various members of the POUM unit.
The complexities of love – in this case that between brothers – and its intersection with politics can also be found in another of Loach’s greatest films, The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006). The setting for this harrowing film is the struggle for Irish independence and the subsequent splintering of the movement. As in Land and Freedom there is at the heart of the film a struggle between idealism and compromise articulated through human relationships. These two films form just part of Loach’s prodigious output over the last 50 years – a remarkable body of work.

So I came to The Spirit of 1945 with very high – maybe too high – expectations and ended up feeling a bit disappointed. Politically, I agree with pretty much everything Loach is trying to say. The Labour reconstruction of post-war Britain with its emphasis on socialism, the common good and policies of nationalisation and public welfare provision – and this in the face of far more difficult economic circumstances than now -  is, absolutely, an inspirational model for the present time. But I thought that the connections and lessons between that time and now were too weakly drawn.
For me, the problem was the rushed attempt to explain what Thatcherism had done. It’s not that Loach is wrong about this but it made the film less hard-hitting (and especially, perhaps, for those watching it for whom the Thatcher era is itself an historical memory) than if there had been more direct comparisons with today. It would have been better to go from 1945-51 to today. For example, on nationalised electricity, some explicit comparison with the nonsense of ‘customer choice’ now – requiring endless calls to call centres to ‘achieve’ a best rate that promptly becomes anything but. Or, on railways, focussing not just on the accidents that followed privatization but on the massive rises in fares and of public subsidies to the private companies (far greater than nationalised  British Rail ever received) that are happening right now. There were occasional moments (e.g. the brief discussion of contracting out of hospital cleaning) where this was achieved, but in general I felt that the ‘now and then’ linkage could have been much sharper. In some ways, I felt the whole thing would have worked better as a Loach drama than as a documentary, for example depicting a family in 1945 and the grandchildren of the same family now.

I also disliked the very traditional and I think sentimental emphasis on the idea that what is needed (and will come) is just for the working class to realise its strength (in Marxist terms, to move from being a ‘class in itself’ to a ‘class for itself’), and the accompanying idea that the problem with Labour is that it has become too middle class. On the one hand, the 1945 administration (its leader, Clement Attlee, being a good example) were often middle-class. On the other hand, in Britain (and elsewhere) now, it is the middle class who are being systematically destroyed by ‘austerity’ economics and politics. I don’t think that positioning things in terms of working vs middle class is true either to ‘the spirit of 45’, which was about a sense of a national collective project, or to the current crisis which (as the film suggests) requires a national collective project in opposition to and defiance of a global elite: that is the real division, not that between what are after all – to put it in Marxist terms - just segments of those who have nothing but their labour to sell.
With all those criticisms made, this is a rare and valuable film. Just to see the way that in 1945 socialism was quite openly and unapologetically spoken of, at a time when the present British Labour Party is scared to even mention the word, or to articulate any policy that is a cigarette-paper away from the neo-liberal consensus is refreshing. By coincidence (I think) I have also recently been re-reading Denis Healey’s autobiography The Time of My Life (1989). Healey, whose career culminated in being Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1970s, would be considered to be on the right of the Labour Party at that time although by today's standards his brand of moderate social democracy seems radical so far has the political ground shifted since then. His political career started with an unsuccessful attempt to become a Labour MP in 1945, and his views – like those of a whole generation of politicians of both Left and Right – had been formed by the experience of Fascism and the Second World War (Healey himself was a beach master at the Anzio Landings in 1944). His account both of the 1945 election and of the political consensus it formed very much echoes Loach's film: the determination that the sacrifice of the war would provide the foundations for a better society. The experience of war provided both a moral case for such a society but also pointed to the tools of collective endeavour and central planning that would deliver it.

In that context, it’s instructive to make the comparison between that age of austerity and our own. In the post-1945 period austerity – symbolised by the rationing that continued until 1953 – meant collective sacrifice in order to build the collective good. What it means now is collective (albeit unequal) sacrifice in order to sell off the common good – via the final privatizations of what remains of the collective health and welfare provision of the post-war period. Invoking the language of austerity in order to pervert its original meaning is both clever and disgusting. I’m struck by the way that the wartime slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has in the last few years become ubiquitous in Britain and yet, somehow, its meaning has changed from collective stoicism to dumb acquiescence, a kind of resigned acceptance that, to use that iconic Thatcherite phrase, there is no alternative.
Loach’s The Spirit of 45 has the merit of reminding us that there was, and there still is, an alternative.