An ‘old style left’ view on the dignity of labour…

One of the most refreshing pieces I’ve heard on British politics in a long long time was Clive James’ point of view piece on Sunday morning on Radio 4

My politics on this remain where they have always been, on the old style left. I think it is up to management and it always has been. If the management can’t manage to sort it out preferably in advance, then they ought not to be managing. But quite often they haven’t been. They’ve just been sitting there failing to recognise that the workers are arriving facing backwards, ready to walk out.

When there is dignity in labour, workers usually want to work, even if the task is a drudge. They should beware of any outrage on their behalf by false friends on the playtime left who have never done a hand’s turn. While it is a fine thing to be an artist, it is an even finer thing to be a doctor or a nurse. And it can be just as fine a thing to stack shelves or clean lavatories.

One of the few virtues of the old Soviet Union was that it respected the dignity of the workers. It also slaughtered them by the million, but that was the effect of totalitarian rule, not a sign of any innate conflict between management and labour. To the extent that there is any innate conflict, modern history has consisted largely of the long process of resolving it.

And later…

There has to be a concord of management and labour, and the lesson was taught most sharply by what happened when the Nazis brought Germany to ruin. As the great German historian Golo Mann pointed out as the division between management and labour was the crack through Hitler had got in. And when the war was over, those few labour leaders that had survived the concentration camps, emerged convinced that for industrial harmony the workers needed more than their rights and conditions, they needed a seat on the board.

The workers must feel that they are in on the planning on how the job is done. When Japan was being rebuild after that same war, the workers on the production line were rewarded for their ideas for efficiency. The idea that they should be rewarded came from American advisors who took the chance to transplant the hopes of the ‘New Deal’, free from the inflexible old capitalist orthodoxies that had hampered them at home.

But, just go and listen to the whole thing… Especially the bit towards the end about us all needing to work “except those who contrive to get paid for arguing otherwise…”

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  • OC

    Just make sure that you have a career license that only a citisen can have, and in a line of work that cannot be digitised, or otherwise sent to a foreign land.

  • Mick Fealty

    Good point, succinctly made. the centrality of government in dictating employment levels is fading, but it hasn’t disappeared. His point Australia being run by the descents of machine breakers is a good one though…

  • They should beware of any outrage on their behalf by false friends on the playtime left who have never done a hand’s turn.

    One should also beware old fogeys with half-baked ideas.

    On climate change he said: “the number of scientists who voice scepticism [about climate change] has lately been increasing.”

    Really? Where is the evidence of that? Even Richard Tol who is cited regularly by climate change skeptics would say that the science is definitely in.

    And further on:
    “either side [of the climate change debate] might well be right, but I think that if you have a division on that scale, you can’t call it a consensus. Nobody can meaningfully say that the science is in.”

    Meaningfully say? I think, on the evidence of the above one can meaningfully say that Clive James talks a lot of old rot.

    [disclaimer: quotes were taken from Monboit’s piece in the Guardian today]

  • Driftwood

    And it can be just as fine a thing to stack shelves or clean lavatories.

    Just a tad patronising.

    James is/was an astute and funny social commentator as long as he sticks with middle class foibles like cricket and Boys brigade.

    As for postal workers being quoted in the press about how good the job used to be…Get real.

  • Mick Fealty

    When was the last time you worked in the post office Drift?

  • Driftwood

    As a student doing the Xmas post 20 years ago.

    It was a doss. The staff were miserable and cantankerous gits, so it set me up nicely for working later in Ulsterbus.

  • Neville Bagnall

    There can be dignity and pride in stacking shelves and cleaning lavatories.

    In the age of MRSA, how can we say that cleaning isn’t important?

    The simplest, most menial work is dignified compared to not being able to work. And anything can be done slap-dash or carefully. A job done well is a source of pride no matter how menial. A simple smile and thanks go a long way. Recognition of success as well as failure.

    Let wages reflect skill and expertise, but give everyone the dignity of acknowledging work well done and the opportunity to do a good job.

    If it becomes impossible to do a job well (never mind excellently) or effort and slacking are treated equivalently, don’t be surprised that workers find their dignity outside the workplace and have no pride in their work.

    There is a fine line between dignity and pomposity. When unions fight for one they are essential, for workers and society; when the other, they make themselves ridiculous and sow seeds of distrust.