One of the many things that the Coronavirus pandemic has taught us is the true value of work. Many jobs that had previously been considered menial were suddenly categorised as essential, while those with prestigious and well paid positions were told to stay at home. The pandemic ripped away the illusion that the value of work is measured by its salary, and revealed a deeper social value.
The devaluing of manual and industrial jobs is a theme in a new book by the Labour politician Jon Cruddas. In The Dignity of Labour, the Dagenham and Rainham MP makes a case for reclaiming the importance of work to creating a good life, and putting it at the heart of politics.
Cruddas describes how industrial jobs were marginalised under Thatcher, and then again under Blair and globalisation. They now risk being marginalised again by automation. Rather than defend industrial jobs, many political commentators would prefer to discuss futures beyond work, where robots do the hard work and people are supported with a Universal Basic Income.
This vision overlooks the role that work plays in creating community, and in giving people a sense of themselves and their role in the world. “Secure work that offers autonomy can help citizens flourish” writes Cruddas. You can build a life for yourself around a meaningful job.
As Rowan Williams writes in his review of the book, “if collaborative labour, the shared work of making an environment habitable and human-friendly, is part of what makes human beings feel worth and security, the fantasies of a post-work world are not only shallow but dangerous, leading to fragmentation, passivity and, ultimately, political stagnation.”
There’s a spiritual truth to this of course. The Bible encourages us to take pride in our work, to serve God by serving others. We are encouraged to do “something useful” with our own hands, and to throw ourselves into our work “with all our heart”. The Apostle Paul writes about us being “created in Christ Jesus to do good works”, suggesting that the good work we do is integral to our purpose as human beings. That makes degrading or meaningless work dehumanising.
So while he writes from a secular point of view, Cruddas is espousing a Kingdom politics when he suggests that “we might wish to organise a society that seeks to create and reward good work and challenge its degraded form and the alienation that comes from it.”
A basic income may still have a role in that. As the name ‘basic’ implies, it’s not supposed to replace work entirely. Other practical ways to create and reward good work might include more training for vocational roles. It might include more scrutiny on pay and conditions, reducing the uncertainty of zero-hours contracts, and supporting the unions that secure such things. There are all kinds of opportunities to improve people’s lives through workplace democracy, in both industrial and service sectors, giving people more control over their work time and a greater say in decision-making.
Only bad jobs need to be minimalised or eliminated. Work itself is far too important. It shapes our identity and gives meaning to our communities, it defines us and gives us purpose. Good work deserves more political attention.