Thursday, January 10, 2013

Non-Stop Inertia

Ivor Southwood

I hope Ivor Southwood doesn't take me the wrong way when I say that even though Non-Stop Inertia is brilliantly written, I don't quite see what the point of it is. Certainly, over the space of a hundred pages he makes a strong case for saying that life amongst the ultra-casualised 'precariat' workforce is a living nightmare. But just who is that message aimed at? And what can anyone do about it?

As he takes us from bleak "non-place" to job centre and back again, this is very much Ivor's story, and he very much knows of what he speaks. He also invests it with the passion of something like catharsis, combined with philosophical insights by way of Marx, Habermas, the sociologist Stuart Hall, and definitely not Alain de Botton.

All in all then, a clearer picture of the profound alienation facing the new breed of precarious worker could not be asked for - we know the social causes, we know the day to day routines (or lack thereof), and we know the intellectual descriptions.

But there's something missing here. If you know this life for yourself, you might nod and raise a for once genuine smile every now and then, but overall the effect is profoundly depressing, and that's something you definitely don't need. If everything about this way of living is new to you - perhaps you are in a steady 'middle class' or relatively safe public sector job to the extent that there is such a thing in 2013 - then it's all very interesting but...so what? What exactly are you supposed to do with this information? You might as well have read a novel.

The crunch comes in the final section ('Ways Out'). Despite the title, Southwood can't offer one. That's not his fault - everything about this existence is deliberately designed to preclude any way out. Even the marginal utility of unionisation is pretty much out, unless you are going to join a syndicalist organisation anyway. Southwood offers the example of one de facto overtime strike he took part in:
"On one occasion a particularly stupid management decision meant that part of this overtime was set aside for us to perform menial tasks for the senior staff. We were indignant at this, and in response a few of us agreed to decline that hour’s “optional” overtime on the day before, once this work had already been factored into the schedule. By declining this offer at short notice we made a collective statement which we had no means of articulating in formal terms, and which we therefore had no obligation to explain (although pressure was put on some of us to do so); we just happened to each decide to take an hour off on the same day."
All well and good. But throughout the rest of Non-Stop Inertia, Southwood has been hammering home that - such is the individualistic, dog-eat-dog nature of temping - 'deep acting' had been constantly required not to betray even the slightest hint of discontent, lest a bad reference result. Surely this would have happened to the strikers, and scattered to the career winds they would have had no chance of further resistance.

I don't wish this review itself to be pessimistic, and I believe it must be possible to organise the precariat. But likely it will be near enough impossible til large sections of the more regular workforce have provided a lead. In the meantime, Southwood finds himself arguing for individuals to adopt "camp" gestures - another potential bringer of bad reference if bosses cottoned on.

There are no easy answers, so I can't blame Southwood for not providing some. That said, I found the read a thoroughly dispiriting one.
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