Posts Tagged ‘Sheffield’

Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics

April 5, 2017

by Richard Seymour (London: Verso 2016).

I bought this last Friday, as I wanted something that would help me refute the continuing lies about the Labour leader: that he is a Trotskyite, his supporters have infiltrated the party, and that he is too left-wing to lead the Labour party to victory in 2020. The book does indeed provide plenty of information to refute these accusations, though I’m not convinced of its over all thesis. The book’s blurb states that Corbyn’s election as leader is just the latest phase in the party’s degeneration. Flicking through the book, it appears that his main point is that the Labour party has never really been a Socialist party, and that apart from the great victories of Clement Atlee’s administration, it’s record has been largely one of failure as it compromised its radical programme and adopted conventional, right-wing policies once in office. At one point Seymour describes the idea of Labour as a Socialist party as a ‘myth’.

I was taught by historians, who did believe, as Seymour does, that the British Labour party was influenced far more by 19th century Nonconformist Liberalism than by continental Socialism. And certainly when Labour took power in the 1930s, it did disappoint many of its voters by following the-then economic orthodoxy. There is a difference between Labourism and Socialism. However, the party included amongst its constituent groups both trade unions and Socialists, and stated so. However, I haven’t read the sections of the book where Seymour lays out the arguments for his view that the Labour party is degenerating – along with, he says, western democracy. But he does have some very interesting things to say about Corbyn’s supposedly ‘Trotskyite’ views, and the whole nonsense about Far Left infiltration of the party.

Corbyn’s parents were middle class radicals, who met when they were campaigning for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Growing up in rural Shropshire, he worked on farms. He was radicalised while working as a volunteer for Voluntary Service Overseas in Jamaica, where he became aware and appalled by ‘imperialist attitudes, social division, and economic exploitation.’ He was a trade union organisers for the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers, and then the National Union of Public Employees. He’s teetotal, and did not take part in the ‘hedonistic pleasures of the counterculture’. He is a member of the Bennite wing of the Labour party, the Socialist Campaign Group, which Seymour states has consistently opposed the government regardless of whichever party is in office.

His former partner Jane Chapman states that he is ‘very principled, very honest … a genuinely nice guy.’ Since 1983 he has been the MP for Islington North. Seymour notes that even his most ‘sceptical’ biographer, the Torygraph’s Rosa Prince, acknowledges that he ‘is known as a “good constituency MP”‘. He takes great pains to help his constituents, and is ‘universally considered to do an exemplary job’.

Apart from being anti-austerity, he has also actively campaigned against attempts to limit immigration, and rejects the New Labour tactic of trying to take on board some of UKIP’s militant nationalism. His first move as the new Labour leader was to attend a pro-refugee rally in London.

His other policies are left-wing, but not extreme Left by a very long way. Seymour writes

The agenda on which Corbyn was elected is not, however, the stuff of which revolutions are made. he has pledged to end austerity, and in its stead implement a People’s Quantitative Easing programme, with money invested in infrastructural development, job-creation and high-technology industries. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won office on an agenda like this. Even the OECD is anti-austerity these days. He promises to address the housing crisis through extensive home-building, to fully nationalise the railways, and to bring all academies back under local democratic control. These objectives are to be funded, not so much by squeezing the rich like a sponge to water the gardens of the poor, as by closing tax loopholes, stimulating growth, and spending less on controversial programmes like Trident.

This is in most ways a classic social-democratic remedy, which could easily have come with some Wilsonian vocables about ‘the white heat of technological revolution’. The problem for the establishment is not necessarily Corbyn’s agenda. It may be too radical for today’s Labour party, today’s media and today’s parliamentary spectrum, but business could live with it, and the consensus would shift if Corbyn gained popular support. (pp. 8-9)

So where did this bilge that he was a Trot come from? Some of it came from the fact that his rallies were partly organised an attended by ‘accredited helpers’, people who were not Labour members, but who gave their time and effort alongside those who were. The only evidence that there was a ‘far left plot’ was the call by a tiny Marxist grouplet, the Communist Party of Great Britain. This has only 24 members, at the most, and whose weekly news-sheet is regarded as the Heat magazine of the Far Left. (P. 30).

So where do the new members comes? Many of them are simply Labour members, who drifted away or became inactive thanks to the managerial, autocratic attitude of the New Labour leadership. They were tired of being ignored, and regarded only as useful for leafletting and so on. And what really annoyed many grassroots members was the scripts the leadership insisted that canvassers should follow when talking to people on doorsteps. A significant number are also young people, who have joined the Labour party because for the first in a very long time there is actually a leader, who means what he says and talks straight in language ordinary people can understand, rather than the waffle and management-speak that constitutes the rhetoric of his right-wing opponents.

Much of the hostility against him in the press and the New Labour coterie comes from his support from two of the largest trade unions, Unite and Unison, which has had the Sunday Times and other rags screaming hysterically about the threat of renewed union militancy.

But what really terrifies the Right – including the Blairites – and the media-industrial complex, is his style of campaigning. Blair and the other parties adopted a style of government based on industrial management, using focus groups, and with news and the party’s statements all carefully marketised and timed according to the news cycles. Corbyn doesn’t do this. He actually turns up at rallies and events up and down the country, and speaks to the people. Corbyn himself said that he went to 100 meetings during his leadership campaign, and by the end of that year would have gone to 400-500. (P. 7). Seymour states that on one Saturday in August, Corbyn spoke to 1,800 people in Manchester, 1,000 people in Derby, 1,700 in Sheffield’s Crucible and a further 800 outside. By the end of the month 13,000 people had signed to volunteer for his campaign. 100,000 people signed up as registered supporters, and 183,658 as active members of the Labour party.

Like his American counterpart, Bernie Sanders, Corbyn is also massively popular on social media. Marsha-Jane Thompson states that within four weeks of setting up his Facebook page, they went to 2.5 million people. The page reached 11 million people every day. As a result of this, when they announced a meeting in Colchester on Facebook, all the thousand tickets were gone within 45 minutes. Seymour also notes the deference given to the traditional media has broken. over half of Corbyn’s supporters received most their information about his leadership campaign from social media. And the attacks on him in the mainstream press and news have compounded a sense among his supporters that not only is Corbyn genuine, but the traditional media is untrustworthy. (p.23).

This is important. It isn’t just that Corbyn and his supporters represent a challenge to the neoliberal consensus that private industry is automatically good, and those on welfare have to be ground into the dirt, starved and humiliated in order to please bilious Thatcherites and their vile rags like the Scum, Mail, Express, Torygraph and Times. It’s because he’s actually going back to doing the traditional hard work of political oratory and speaking to crowds. Not just relying on his spin doctors to produce nicely crafted, bland statements which the party masses are expected to follow uncritically.

And the newspapers, TV and radio companies don’t like him, because his success challenges their status as the approved architects of consensus politics. When 57 per cent of his supporters get their information about him from social media, it means that the grip of the Beeb, ITV, Channel 4 and Murdoch to tell people what to believe, what to think and what counts as real news is loosening drastically. And if no one takes them seriously, then their ability to act as the spokesman for business and politics is severely damaged, as is the ability of the commercial companies to take money from advertising. What company is going to want to spend money on ads following ITV and Channel 4 news, if nobody’s watching. And the businesses spending so much on advertising to take over the functions of the welfare state, like private hospitals and health insurance, are going to demand lower rates for their custom if fewer people are watching them and the mood is turning away from the Thatcherite and Blairite programme of NHS privatisation.

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Demonstrations Across the UK Today Against Trump’s Muslim Ban

January 30, 2017

Mike has put up news that there are going to be mass demonstrations across the UK today against Trump’s ban on immigration from seven Muslim majority countries. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has demanded that Trump’s state visit to Britain should be cancelled. And, almost predictably, Theresa May has failed to say very much about it. She has asked Boris Johnson and the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to raise the issue of the travel ban with their opposite numbers in the US administration. But this seems to be less than altruistic. She’s not worried about the ban on Muslims going to the US so much as how it would affect the Tory MP, Nadhim Zahawi.

The demonstration in London is due to be held this evening at 6.00 pm outside Downing Street. There are also demos in Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Cheltenham, Edinburgh, Falmouth, Glasgow, Hastings, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Preston in Lancashire, Sheffield and York. The demos are organised by Momentum, but people of other views are welcome to join them.

There is also a petition currently being compiled against a state visit by Trump to the UK, which people may also wish to sign. And Mike has also suggested that those with a Tory MP may also like to write to them in protest about it, using the tools provided by Write To Them for creating such messages.

For further information, please go to Mike’s website, where there are appropriate links to the internet pages of the organisations mentioned.

Mike’s article also has a few Tweets from those disapproving May’s silence on this critical issue. One of them is Gary Lineker, wondering when May’s going to speak out. The other is Hugh Terry, who aptly describes May as not a prime minister, but a ‘fascist apologist arms dealer disguised as a rancid old school-marm!’ Which is an accurate description of May, and indeed, of that great, golden Tory icon, Maggie Thatcher.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/01/29/join-demonstrations-across-the-nation-january-30-2017-against-trumps-muslimban/

Health Provision before the NHS

February 16, 2016

I’ve been having a debate here with a critic, who objected to my description of Nye Bevan as the architect of the NHS. His contention appears to be that there was no private healthcare in Britain even before the establishment of the NHS, and that no-one really suffered through the charges that were made for some essentially services, as the poor were already treated free of charge on the Poor Law. I’ve made it very plain to this critic that I believe he has a very rosy view of healthcare before the NHS.

My mother was told by one of her friends, a staunch Tory, that her father was a pharmacist, who also voted Tory. However, at the 1945 election, he called his family together to say that he was voting Labour, because the NHS was needed. He was tired of having to supply drugs on credit, because the working class sick could not pay.

Florence too has bad memories of the state of health provision before the NHS. In her comment to this critic’s reply to my rebuttal of his original comments, she wrote:

I must have missed the response Billellson. I wonder where he has taken his information from, because it does not match my own family experience, whatever the social historians say. Maybe both sides of my family were “unlucky” to have lived in areas where the cover was non-existent.

All I know is that one of my fathers’ brothers was taken ill, aged 7 in the 1920’s, and the family could not afford a doctor, but by the time they realised how ill he was, his appendix had already burst. I think he was taken into a charitable (church?) hospital, but it took nearly a week for him to die horribly in agony from peritonitis. They never got over the loss of a child, especially when they also had a lot of guilt about delaying because of “the cost of the doctor”.

My mother’s family at the same time, were members of the “Saturday Club” where each family paid 6d a week (on Saturday) which paid for a doctor to visit. My mother was struck down with rheumatic fever, and the dr went to her home and diagnosed it, again, she must have been 7, so that was the 1930′ s. They couldn’t afford hospital care, so she was nursed at home by her mother & neighbours for over 6 month, while she was rigid and paralysed.

These were the experiences of the working class before the NHS, and like Harry Price, I can say that the experience haunted both families. I can see the gleam in the eyes of the vultures circling the NHS, and I fear for those who do not have this direct link to the pre-NHS days, knowing that 20 million in the UK already live in poverty, and that a pay per visit system would be intolerable in the 6th richest country, with a health service with funding that is a model that was held up to other countries to follow. However that was the preferred system for both Letwin and Hunt in their publications calling for the end of the NHS 20 years apart, so it seems there has long been continuity and ambition to effectively remove the universal system from the poor. So when the effects of long term hunger and poverty take hold, there will be little between any of us and that early grave, except the ability to pay with money you don’t have.

One final point,(despite the length of this reply, sorry) that Billelleson stated “but nobody was expected to sell their house.”. That was for me the one item that gave his words a hollow ring. Nobody in the working class actually owned their houses. To pay even the Dr’s fee they would have to sell an item of furniture or clothing, or pawn a wedding ring. There were no heirlooms, after all, my great grand-dad died in the workhouse!

Pat Young also describes the horrendous provision of healthcare before the establishment of the NHS in her book Mastering Social Care, published by MacMillan in 1992. She writes

There were some state-provided services prior to 1948. For example, public health, in the form of water and sewage systems, was provided under the Public Health Act of 1848. Services for pregnant women and young children were introduced at the beginning of this century. From 1911, employment-linked insurance provided cover for doctors’ services for people in work. Local authorities ran poor law infirmaries, public hospitals and mental hospitals. Hospitals were also provided by charitable organisations.

However, there was great variations in the standards of care provided by these services, and considerable stigma attached to much of the provision. The insurance system only covered the person in employment and did not extend to the families of workers. The following quotations based on accounts of people living in Sheffield give some indication of the quality of life in the period before 1948.

[In] Attercliffe in Sheffield’s East End which housed the heavy industry of the Don Valley and the workforce which operated it – bronchitis was a way of life. People expected to live with it, suffer from it and eventually die from it, with only their weekly bottle of medicine for relief.

Two women describe their memories as follows:

Bills from general practitioners were always hard to meet … Kay remembered especially a doctor in the Crookesmoor dstrict of Sheffield who employed a debt collector… The effects were particularly severe for working-class women, who due to a policy of not employing married women in Sheffield always tended to fall outside the insurance scheme. ‘Mother never had the doctor.’ ‘You just didn’t go to the doctor until you were on your last legs.’ Kay recalled how her own mother hadn’t gone to the doctor even though she was in bed with asthma. And Jessie likewise how her mother continued to suffer with high blood pressure, even though she knew that tablets were available which could have helped to lessen her condition.

Looking at health from the other side, the extracts below are from a doctor who worked as a GP before the beginning of the National Health Service.
Dr Arnold Elliot remembers

I ran my practice from a small house in Ilford, but most surgeries were lock-up shops in industrial areas. On the whole, most of them were awful, with no running water, heat, lighting or toilets, some with no couches.

I knew one East end doctor who had a cigarette machine in his waiting room. Many doctors had two doors; one for ‘panel’ patients (the insured workers) and one for private patients, who weren’t kept waiting.

Doctors didn’t speak to each other, because they were deadly enemies. They went in for head-hunting the breadwinning panel patient, who would often bring in the rest of his family.

Various private arrangements were set up for his dependants – so-called ‘clubs’-where they paid a small amount a week for a doctor and medicine. For the destitute, there were dispensaries, which engaged the services of a doctor for a small annual payment … Doctors used to dispense their own medicines too. The pharmaceutical firms came round and filled up the big ‘Winchester’ bottles every week. Many of the medicines were placebos; aspirin, for instance, which was available in a red or yellow mixture. You had to give the same colour to a patient every week, and sometimes there’d be trouble when you had a locum in and he gave out the wrong one. It sounds immoral, but that was trade.

From another perspective, Sir George Godber was involved in setting up the National Health Service. In 1942, before the NHS, he surveyed hospitals in Britain. He tells what his survey found.

You must remember hospitals in those days were very different from today. An isolation hospital might only have five beds. There was a hospital for scarlet fever in the Prime Minister’s (Margaret Thatcher’s) home town of Grantham that was housed in a wooden hut on the top of a hill without sewers or water – the water was delivered by cart once a week. The system in 1942 was incapable of delivering modern medicine. There were dilapidated buildings, insanitary conditions on the wards, inadequate space for radiology and laboratory services.

There were casual wards were tramps stayed overnight and even more depressing house wards where elderly residential patients waited to die in the most uncivilised conditions – the night spent in narrow and dark dormitories of 20 to 30 beds and the daytime sitting on hard benches in a different room looking at their feet.

(pp. 255-8)

This to my mind comprehensively disproves the somewhat rosy view that there was, nevertheless, good healthcare provision before the NHS. I therefore consider the subject closed to discussion.

Co-Operatives in Pre-Revolutionary Russia and Potential in Modern Britain

March 16, 2014

Co-operative pic

The co-operative movement and store was a major part of working class life during the 19th and much of the 20th century. My parents used to shop at the Co-Op, and receive the books of Green Shield Stamps, a form of the enterprises early profit-sharing. They were also a very strong part of lower-class life in Russia in the years shortly before the 1917 Revolution. The historian J.N. Westwood describes just how popular they were in his book Endurance and Endeavour: Russian History 1812-1886, 3rd Edition, (Oxford: OUP 1987)

In contrast to its attitude towards trade unions, the administration did little to hinder, and even encouraged, the co-operative movement which flourished after 1905. Producers’ co-operatives in the form of artels were already part of Russian tradition; what was new was the sudden popularity of marketing and purchasing co-operatives. There was also a blossoming of the savings bank movement. by 1918 the co-operatives’ membership was equivalent to about one-third of the total population. The biggest co-operative retail store was Moscow’s Kooperatsiya, which had 210,000 members. There was a co-operative wholesale union, (Tsentrosoyuz), and in 1911 a People’s Bank had been founded. The latter, the Moscow Narodny Bank, was 85 per cent owned by the co-operative movement. All this does not mean that Russia in 1914 was well on the road to socialism, but it does suggest that Russians, and especially rural Russians, had not become as individualistic as some commentators assumed. (p. 179).

Westwood also gives this description of the artels, the co-operatives formed by artisan craftsmen.

The elite among them [industrial workers] were the specialists, who often grouped themselves into a co-operative (artel), whose elected leader would seek short-term contracts in such trades as house-painting or stonemasonry.

Artels were also important in industry. They were formed by workers who capitalized themselves by paying an entrance fee. Because the members knew and trusted each other, and cherished the reputation of their group, the artels were noted for their reliability and good workmanship. In a sense the artel member was a privileged member of the proletariat, but he was found only in small-scale enterprises. The bulk of Russia’s industrial workers worked in factories. (p. 177.)

The authors of Socialist Enterprise: Reclaiming the Economy (Nottingham: Spokesman 1986), Diana Gilhespy, Ken Jones, Tony Manwaring, Henry Neuberger, and Adam Sharples also examines and considers the role co-ops played in British industry from the late 1950s to the 1980s. They state:

Workers’ co-ops are often held up as a pure form of industrial democracy. The ideal model of co-ops is one in which working people, given training and the experience of self-management, can extend their control over the work-place to strategic decisions made in the enterprise. They are owned and controlled by worker members on a one-member, one vote-basis, and not by shareholders or the state. Profitability is not the overriding objective because it is enough that the co-operative covers the costs and funds future investment. (p. 50).

They note, however, that co-ops have not always been successful. Many have failed, while others have only survived by cutting workers pay and conditions. They also note the various different forms of co-ops, such as those set up by the Quaker and Christian Socialist, Scott Bader, in 1958, which is really a form of benevolent paternalism, with the actual management structure little different from conventional, capitalist enterprises.

They then consider the problems and positive aspects of many of the small co-operatives set up in the 1970s. They describe them thus:

Many very small companies have been set up as co-ops from scratch. In the 1970s’s many people were attracted to the idea of co-ops, and over 200 sprang up as a result. Many of the people involved were middle-class, well-educated, under 35 and few had children. Typical ventures were left printers, bookshops, wholefoods suppliers, and builders’ collectives. Most are struggling financially, operating in labour-intensive sectors where the profit margin is low. They are heavily dependent on funds from local authorities, ICOF (the Movement’s funding branch) and on members’ own savings. In general, unions have played no part in their establishment and running. They often survive through low pay, unpaid overtime, and poor working conditions often close to sweated labour. An impressive degree of workers’ control is practised – with equal pay, job rotation, and sharing of responsibilities for running the firm. The members often have personal access to professional help and other resources. Their youth and background mean that questions of pay and job security are less important to them. (P. 51).

The also examine the workers’ co-operatives that were founded by employees trying to save their jobs in firms threatened with closure, in particular those at Fakenham, Meriden, Scottish Daily News and Kirkby Manufacturing. The movement here was expanded by the 1974 Labour government under Tony Benn as the Secretary of State for Industry. It was Benn, who financed the Meriden, Scottish Daily News and Kirkby Manufacturing.

These, they acknowledge, were a failure, stating:

In economic terms these co-ops have been failures. Heavily undercapitalised and in a bad market position, they were handicapped from the start. Co-op ownership could not reverse the decline of firms which capitalists had failed to run at a profit. As a result, they were forced to choose between reducing wages and accepting the very redundancies they sought to avert. Meriden only managed to prolong its life because the workforce accepted redundancies and the re-introduction of wage differentials. Such fundamental compromises have reduced workers’ control to little more than a formality.

In no case does the seem to have been any strong initial feelings in favour of the co-operative principle. most of the workers were not asserting their right to self-management. They were willing to negotiate about any proposals to save their jobs. Had it been possible to persuade new capitalists to move in, the worker’s would have agreed. Working people often have neither the confidence, sills nor financial resources to want to take on the risks involved in ownership. Faced with financial pressure, many co-ops have had to turn to middle-class managers to bail them out. (pp. 51-2).

Those founded after the mid-70s, often with the help of Labour local authorities, were much more successful. The authors go on to say

The most impressive phase in the growth of co-ops has been the most recent: there are now thirty times more workers’ co-ops than in the mid 1970s. Co-ops have had a better record of survival than other small businesses, reflecting th4e greater commitment of their members. This growth clearly reflects the increase in unemployment, which has forced many to new ways of working. The most important factor, however, has been the support provided by Labour local authorities. The range of new co-ops is extremely varied: for example, City Limits, London’s successful weekly listings magazine; Pallion Business Services in Sunderland, set up and run by a group of physically handicapped people, provides office and business services; MONS a Sheffield-based engineering co-op, has developed and produced a dehumidifier.

The kind of support Labour councils provide has been sensitive to the particular problems co-ops face. Above all, advice and management help is provide through over 70 local co-operative development agencies, reflecting co-ops’ need for assistance on starting up, product development, marketing, training and legal questions. In addition, investment finance is given through enterprise boards, the development agencies themselves, and new revolving loan funds: £7 million was given in 1985-86 alone. Co-ops are also being helped with premises, planning applications, and in liaising with local trade unions. (p. 52).

They conclude that co-ops cannot be developed from above, particularly in large and medium sized firms, and that shop stewards and employees are faced with a sharp learning curve regarding management. For some this can be too difficult, and the employees will find the experience of attempting to run a co-op dispiriting. However, they note that many co-operatives have weather the recession better than capitalist firms, and that establishing a co-op should be an option open for workers to decide for themselves.

Clearly co-operatives have a strong tradition right across Europe, from Britain to Russia. Although they can have severe problems, nevertheless they can be very successful and provide another way of developing a socialist economy, if only in part.

Karl Marx and the Wage Slavery of Call Centre Workers

March 15, 2014

Call Centre Pic

One of the main features of the modern, post-Thatcher economy is the rapid explosion in call centres. These seem to have taken over from manufacturing as one of the leading employment sectors. One cannot walk past the various employment bureaux without seeing jobs in them advertised. On the other side of the picture, ordinary domestic life is now punctuated by regular phone calls during the day from someone in Birmingham, Glasgow, or even Mumbai phoning you up to ask if you want to change your energy provider, telephone company or are aware that you might get some kind of refund on your insurance. If you phone up a company, you are automatically put through to their call centre somewhere else, frequently half way round the planet. They’re often in one of the developing nations, like India, which has a large reservoir of skilled workers, who can be paid very poorly compared to their fellows in Britain. British call centre workers are, however, joining them as extremely low paid employees working in dehumanising and exploitative conditions. I heard a long time ago from a friend that call centre work is one of the most miserable experiences people go through to earn a living.

Owen Jones on Degrading Conditions in Call Centres

Just how depressing and degrading they are is also described by Owen Jones in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. He writes

If you think shop workers have it bad, consider now the call centre worker. There are now nearly a million people working in call centres, and the number is going up every year. To put that in perspective, there were a million men down the pits at the peak of mining in the 1940s. If the miner was one of the iconic jobs of post-war Britain, then today, surely, the call centre worker is as good a symbol of the working class as any.

‘Call centres are a very regimented environment,’ says John McInally, a trade unionist leading efforts by the PCS to unionize call centre workers. ‘It’s rows of desks with people sitting with headphones. There’s load of people in the room, but they’re separate units. They’re encouraged not to talk, share experiences and so on … The minute you get in the door, your movements are regulated by the computer.’ Here is the lack of worker’s autonomy in the workplace take to extremes.

In some call centres he has dealt with, a worker in Bristol or Glasgow who wants to leave fifteen minutes early has to go through head office in Sheffield to be cleared. ‘We’ve likened conditions to those you’d have seen in mills or factories at the end of the nineteenth century.’ Think that’s an exaggeration? Then consider the fact that, in some call centres, workers have to put their hands up to go to the toilet. Computers dictate the time and duration of breaks, with no flexibility whatsoever. Employees are under constant monitoring and surveillance, driving up stress levels.

Many call centre workers have told McInally that the whole experience is ‘very dehumanizing. People talk abaout being treated like robots. Everything is regulated by machines.’ The working lives of many operators consist of reading through the same script over and over again. According to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, increasing numbers of call centre workers are being referred to speech therapists because they are losing their voices. The cause? Working long hours with little opportunity to even have a drink of water.

That’s one reason why the sickness rate in call centres is nearly twice the national average. The other is deep alienation from the work. In once call centre McInally dealt with in Northern England, sickness rates had reached nearly 30 per cent. ‘That’s a sign of low morale’, he says – as I the fact that annual staff turnover is around a quarter of the workforce. And, like so much of the new working class, the salaries of call centre workers are poor. A trainee can expect £12,500, while the higher-grade operators are on an average of just £16,000.

The dehumanising regimentation and micro-managing of call centre staff by computer reminded me of some of the dystopian SF that appeared in the 1970s, speculating on the type of future if computers suddenly took over the world and humanity was reduced to their slaves, watched and controlled totally by omniscient machines. The intrepid crew of the Enterprise encountered one such society in the Classic Star Trek episode ‘Return of the Archons’. The crew of the Liberator, the Dirty Just-Over-Half-A-Dozen of BBC’s Blake’s 7, also encountered an alien civilisation under the totalitarian control of central computer, though were able to bring it down and break free to continue their campaign against the Fascistic Federation through the superiority brain-power of their own machine, Orac. Sadly, contemporary call centre workers trapped in their totalitarian, micro-managed environment, can’t look forward to being similarly freed.

Marx pic

Karl Marx on Wage Slavery

As for the similarity between the conditions suffered by modern call centre workers and those of 19th century mill workers, it is striking just how similar t6he former are to Marx’s classic description of wage slavery in the 19th century.

Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the foreman, and, above all, by the individual manufacturers himself. (pp. 1467-8).

Marx was wrong about many things, but here he is absolutely correct. What we need is are renewed campaigns to improve conditions for the working class, to give people a better future than simply functioning as another human cog being ground down by the inhuman and dehumanizing machines of big business.