söndag 6 april 2014

Books I've read recently (Nov)

I wrote about "Books I've read recently" in  a blog post two and half weeks ago, but something strange happened. Since it was the second blog post during the same month (March) with the same topic, the second blog post "replaced"/"unpublished" the older blog post. I thus realise that I have to change the naming practices of these blog posts (see above). I read the four books below between mid-October and mid-November (five months ago). These books (yet again) treat the topic of work and this is the third blog post in a row to do so.

I bought this book at a flea market (something I hardly ever do, and I don't remember how it came to be, but it cost less than a package of chewing gum...). The book "Kneg" (edited by Viktoria Widmark) is a 2006 collection of short stories that is published by the [Swedish] "Association of labourer-writers". The association was founded in 1990 (Wikipedia) and its purpose is to "encourage and inspire pencraft emanating from work and daily life". The association has (perhaps unsurprisingly) strong roots in unions and in workers' (social) movements ["arbetarrörelsen"]. The association also has as a homepage and apparently an (active) blog.

The title of the anthology is hard to translate. "Kneg" is slang for a job, or hard work, but it has certain difficult-to-translate connotations referring to the humdrum, everyday characteristics of (potentially back-breaking) working-class, blue-collar work. I actually found a (Swedish-language) discussion thread about people's connotations to the word "kneg" - hard, physical work for scant monetary compensation (e.g. industry jobs, or a job in a fast-food restaurant or being a cleaner). Based on the stories in the book, I would say that the physical back-breaking characteristic of our forefathers' "kneg" has been supplemented by "kneg 2.0" which includes non-physical, psychological pressures of various kinds in modern workplaces.

This short book contains almost 25 chapters with short snapshots, or perhaps "portraits" of labor. It's not necessarily great literature, but it for sure does its job. The stories are written by people who for the most part perform blue-collar (or clerical) work and it's about (their) work - in fictional form but for sure heavily informed by their own experiences and those of colleagues/friends/family. The emphasis is on shitty working conditions, stress, oppressive structures and bastard bosses, brown-nosing backstabbing colleagues, surveillance and having to interact with crappy computer systems, being middle-aged and physically worn our (for example through repetitive strain injury) or being sidelined in the workplace after an operation and sick leave, challenges to a "healthy" work-life balance and "burnout", on immigrants being discriminated against or never "let in" to the regular labor market, on bad bosses (again - it's a big topic) and workplace victimisation, of squeezing (artificial) friendliness from someone who performs emotional labor, about running out of unemployment benefits or of falling in the cracks between/being abused by inflexible welfare systems. Lastly it's also about divorce and the strain on relationships, about the lack of social networks, about always being first to leave your child in daycare and the last to pick him up and about the single parent's children having to take full responsibility for getting to school by themselves (by public transportation) at a tender age. 

To summarise; (work) life (oftentimes) suck! I'm eternally grateful for my job, but, let me point out that I write these blog posts not at work but during my "leisure" (instead of watching TV etc). It can be hard for me (and other academics) to differ between work and leisure or to (ever) relax. Still, on the whole I'm sure I'm much better off than 90% of my Swedish compatriots and they are probably better off that 90% of everyone else on earth.

The 2012 book "Skitliv: Ungas villkor på en förändrad arbetsmarknad" [Shit-lives: Young people's conditions in a changed labour market" continues where "Kneg" (above) ended. This anthology (edited by Victor Bernhardtz) has a slightly different angle, the focus in on young people and on precarious jobs and the difficulty (especially) young people have to establish themselves in the labour market today. Another difference is that the book focuses on (and the texts are for the most part contributions by) people with university degree or some kind. From the back cover:

"The day begins with an anxious gaze on the mobile phone, looking for the text message that tells you if there is a job to do today or not and if so, when, and where to be. The inbox is empty some mornings. Then you'll just have to wait. Maybe something will turn up later during the day.

Some people call this flexibility. For those who work, it is more often a lack of freedom. Wages can not be predicted, an apartment of your own remains a dream, to start a family appears to be an act of recklessness. Uncertain job lead to uncertain lives.

Shit-lives is a book about the new labor market in Sweden, seen through young people's eyes. A new generation of workers are trained into a work culture that creates stress, pain and alienation. A culture that demands a total will to adapt, but that does not give back in the form of a natural place in society. Is this how we will all live in the future?"

I wrote about Guy Standing's book "The Precariat" in my previous blog post about books I've read. Here they are. A dozen authors (born between 1971 and 1987 with a median around the beginning of the 1980's), with an emphasis on cultural workers like (freelance) journalists, authors and editors write about own and others' experiences of never having had a permanent job, despite having worked for 5 or 10 years or more. The contributors' backgrounds makes for better crafted texts than in "Kneg", but it also means that the texts for the most part are written by people with "pretentions" (an education and a will to "go places" rather than "just" to live their lives. The first text (by Torun Carrfors) is called "Perhaps we also pay with our dreams". It ends with a powerful plea? demand? ultimatum?  

"You are welcome to demand a lot of those of us who work in health care. But don't demand that we should live childless lives. I may never become a mother. But if I refrain, I sincerely hope that it will be the result of my own decision and not because this society has made it impossible for me to give my children a reasonable and secure childhood".

Other texts are for example called "One SMS that runs your life", "At the limits of flexibility", "Tears in the weave", "Generation 1000 Euro in the wake of the South European economic crisis" and "Moralism hides a global class [consisting] of the insecure". A great but depressing snapshot of the changing conditions on the labour market.

Isaac Rosa's (2011) "Den osynliga handen" [The invisible hand] is a remarkable book. I can not praise it enough. It hasn't been translated to English and I'm so thankful it has been translated to Swedish. It might be translated into half a dozen languages ("options have been sold"), but English seems not to be one of them. I did however find a 10-minute English-language interview with Rosa here and here's an English-language blurb I found about the book:

"As this is not a common subject for contemporary fiction we must issue a warning: in this novel, the characters work. A lot. In fact, they don’t do anything else. And the work is not exactly creative or intellectual; they are not film makers or researchers, certainly not writers. Some even work with their hands. And sweat. And, of course, get tired. And sick, hurt, bored, and desperate. Each morning they feel the depression so familiar to workers who expected something else from their adult lives. The pages of La mano invisible contain people who lay bricks, work on an assembly line, cut meat, sew, polish and load. But they don’t know why. Just one thing is for sure: a hand is pulling the strings."

The text above is somehow similar to the text on the back cover of my Swedish copy. It is very hard to say anything sensible about the book. It's even hard to say what genre the book is. I guess it is fiction, but its' description of work being performed by actual (fictive) flesh-and-blood humans is the best I've ever read and I can't imagine that any researcher could come closer to describing the essence of work than what Rosa does in this book. It's actually riveting to read these stream-of-consciousness descriptions of monotonous movements and work procedure seamlessly mixed with thoughts about life histories and decisions, the meaning of work and hopes for the future or for one's children. It's an extremely interesting novel that asks the big questions about work and about life and that does it with flair. This is what I imagine Studs Terkel has written about, but I haven't come around to reading any of his books. Perhaps I should read his "Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do" (1974), it seems to be somehow similar, but I have an exceedingly hard time imagining any book in this "genre" can surpass Rosa's.

For once, I'm out of words to describe this book, but I'm on the other hand full of praise. If you trust my judgement and if you can read Spanish, Swedish or Dutch - run out and buy this book! I will for sure buy other books of Rosa's if they are translated to Swedish or English!

Sociologist Roland Paulsen's book "Arbetssamhället: Hur arbetet överlevde teknologin" [The work society: How work survived technology] came out 2010, three years before his ph.d. thesis "Empty labor: Subjectivity and idleness at work". It feels to me as if Paulsen's takes up the thread after André Gorz and other free/radical thinkers. Paulsen's point is that work has become an ideology and an end in itself and he dissects the ideology and the substance of work ("today we don't work to create economic growth, we need economic growth to create work"). 

There is much to draw from and think about in Paulsen's book, but I unfortunately don't have the energy to translate stuff from this or other Swedish-language books (see above). I will instead emphasise just one phenomenon Paulsen writes about - that of "empty work". 

With more specialized, technical (primarily white collar) job descriptions, it becomes difficult for a manager to know a lot about the practical tasks performed by his or her “underlings” who oftentimes sit in front of/interact with computers all day long. Work becomes opaque and it becomes difficult for a manager with general skills to know if a specific task will take 200 hours or 2000 hours to perform - and the difference between these two estimates is equivalent to a man-year! There are endless opportunities for (a fraction of the workers) to fritter away time by watching movies or reading the newspaper or books (if they have their own workspace and can close the door). If they instead work in an open office environment, they will have to find other more socially accepted ways to wasting time and performing non-work, for example by "working" with their computers, writing private e-mails, reading e-mail distribution lists or online fora, aimless web surfing or other forms of “cyberslacking”.

Paulsen finds an interesting example in those seven persons who were laid off from the Swedish Civil Aviation Authority in 2009 for having spent upwards to 75% of their working hours for private web surfing. Much public indignation was expressed over the fact that their web surfing in fact consisted of porn surfing, but less attention was paid to the more fundamental question of how it is possible for well-paid professionals to spend only two hours per day working and six hours per day doing other things without others (managers) noticing? The behavior in question was discovered not because said professionals didn’t manage to “do their job” (whatever that means in this context), but rather because the addresses of ethically questionable websites were discovered when trawling through log files of work-time surf habits. 

Paulsen has interviewed people who perform empty work as part of his ph.d. research in sociology and his conclusion is that unemployment or underemployment is a phenomenon that happens within as well as outside of wage labour. The six-hour workday already exists, although people might put in eight hours or more at the office every day.

We would be forgiven to believe that empty work could be perceived as a privilege for employees, and it might so happen that that indeed is the case, at least initially. Over time it does however turn into a curse that becomes very detrimental to job and life satisfaction. A lock-in effect makes it harder and harder to break out of paid idleness as time passes. With withering job skills, withering self-respect and poor work habits, a change of jobs might be frightening, difficult or even represent an insurmountable challenge (especially in combination with the "reasonable" wish of maintaining social prestige and a stable salary).

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