The politics of work and the politics of value

The current cost of living crisis is the consequence of a period of inflationary pressures unprecedented in recent years. We present several articles in this edition of Futures of Work considering its implications for the world of work and employment. Such a crisis brings into focus the vexed relationship between the production of goods and services and the way this is represented and recognised in the monetary value they bear in the market. As Andrew Pakes argues in our lead piece, the fumbling government response shows no comprehension of the connection between the money in our pockets, the wages we are paid, and the work that we do.

This relationship was captured in recent comments from Bank of England boss Adrian Bailey. Whether seeking a payrise in collectively bargained pay negotiations or individual appeals to employers, Bailey warned workers to tighten their belts as living standards plummet, sacrificing their aspirations to stem the inflationary spiral. His statements give us a glimpse, albeit incomplete, of the relationship between the politics of work and what we might call a ‘politics of value’. They expose the need to consider further how value—as the relationship between things, represented in money—relates to work, and how this relationship is conceived of politically. Such conceptualisations hold implications for both policy and praxis among different social and political actors in the sphere of work, employment and economic life.

In a developed and complex capitalist economy, the labour process is not a simple one nor is it geared solely towards the satisfaction of human needs and wants. Rather it is one organised by the pursuit of profit—in other words, the valorisation of value through the production of commodities exchanged on markets for money. Meanwhile, value, expressed in the price of labour via the wage, is also a medium for the recognition of our work in such a society.

In attempting to navigate these contradictory relationships, the dominant form assumed by the politics of value in recent times represents what we might call ‘productivism’—in the words of Moishe Postone, ‘a normative critique of non-productive social groupings from the standpoint of those groupings that are “truly” productive’.  In the populist movements of left and right that emerged following the 2008 financial crisis, criticisms of the impact of financialisation and globalisation upon the ‘real economy’ tended to lapse into a series of conspiracy theories about capitalism. Making productiveness ‘the criterion of social worth’, this normative critique, on the right and left alike, placed successive parties in the frame to blame for economic malaise, whether greedy bankers, benefit claimants or migrants. In an age of ‘austerity populism’, this productivist politics profoundly shaped public discourse around the relationship between work and value, production and circulation.

The current cost-of-living crisis cuts right to the heart of the connection between work, wealth and the wage, in so doing exposing the limitations of popular approaches when practically applied in terms of policymaking. In particular, it is important to appraise the history of how productivist understandings of value have often passed over, when given the opportunity, into ‘distributionist’ approaches to organising and regulating economic life. As Martin Hagglund argues, the contemporary ‘emancipatory vision’, left, right and centre, seems ‘restricted to the redistribution of wealth, while blind to the fundamental question of how wealth is produced under capitalism’. From ‘the social democratic welfare state’ to ‘advocates for a universal basic income’, there remains a fixation on the ‘mode of distribution’ of capitalist wealth alone, even as the underpinning economic conditions cannot sustain the kind of growth on which it relies. But to focus on slicing up a dwindling pie, rather than rethinking the way we bake it, does little to address the underlying malaise expressed in the current ‘stagflation’—in other words, the combination of stagnation and spiralling inflation.

For the left in particular, addressing this practical challenge requires not only concrete policy proposals, but also theoretical renewal. Rather than anything specific to the work that produces the goods and services that carry value and generate a profit, distributionist accounts see the issue with our economy as being the means through which the value and profit is expressed and the way it is distributed. In this way, what we might call ‘productivism’ and ‘distributionism’ represent two sides of the same coin insofar as a focus on work and a focus on value taken in isolation tend to naturalise and seal off from scrutiny the other. But it is important to theoretically conceive of labour and value as internally connected rather than externally imposed upon one another—with implications for policy and practice.


On distributionism

Whilst arcane and abstract debates about value will be cold comfort to those feeling the squeeze on household finances incurred under the current cost-of-living crisis, a potted intellectual history of recent policymaking around work, wealth and wages in the UK has some instructive lessons for how Labour, in particular, can think of a way through and out of the present impasse.

Elsewhere in this edition of Futures of Work, Alex Wood points to the influence of Jon Cruddas’s recent book The Dignity of Labour on how Labour thinks and talks about its policy agenda. One of the main arguments of Cruddas’s book is that theories of value, whilst often abstract, have played a major part in ‘defining the politics of the last few centuries’. This has tended to inform a politics based on the distribution of the fruits of production rather than a more fundamental reconfiguration of the architecture of work and economic life through a focus on labour relations.

Such distributionist perspectives have their roots in the classical political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. They focused the study of the economy on production, over which was layered an understanding of the distribution and exchange relations through which the surplus generated is appropriated and distributed between classes. The political implications of their understanding of value as physically embodied in commodities by labour was to recommend the redistribution of that value as a mode of class reconciliation, rather than adjust the terms of which it was produced in the first place.

Within the UK labour movement, the standard bearers of this understanding have typically been the Fabian tradition on the centre-left of the Labour Party. Policy-wise, this has rested on the assumption that capitalism would generate levels of growth capable of facilitating redistribution of the proceeds. Through the technocratic generation of social democrats that led Labour through the middle part of the twentieth-century, this became a core part of the ‘labourist’ policy arsenal, steered by a large, bureaucratic state.

This economistic approach, Cruddas argues, has dominated left policymaking ever since, the New Labour years being a case in point. The experience of centre-left policymakers over this period arguably contains much of import for our own time, where a cost-of-living crisis focuses policymaking back on the material and economic aspects of working life.

On entering office, New Labour was confronted by an economy experiencing the consequences of deindustrialisation and global competition, including a decline in real wages and disposable income. Rather than employment regulation and an extension of collective bargaining, tweaks to the tax system were seen as sufficient to support workers in a service-based economy. Globalisation and financialisation were expected to deliver economic dividends that could then be redistributed to workers as benefits and tax credits to compensate them for wider effects on the economy and buttress low wages.

Later, Ed Miliband’s post-crisis ‘cost of living’ approach failed to convince voters with the promise of more money transfers by means of various consumer and utility price caps. Labour left untrodden the path of what was briefly called ‘predistribution’—in other words, the attempt to improve working life at the coalface by granting workers the power and capacity to lay claim to value in and prior to production, without waiting for ameliorative cash transfers from the state after the fact. As Cruddas notes, this briefly popular policy perspective touched upon ‘fundamental design questions in the nature of modern capitalism’ and challenging its ‘associated degradations’ at source rather than tinkering around its edges with ‘remedial cash transfers’. However, misconceived electoral calculations and the continued pull of the party’s labourist comfort zone meant that the path was not taken, and the focus remained on ‘how you chop up the proceeds of growth rather than redesigning the system itself’.

Whilst displaying a continued adherence to the kinds of policies implemented by New Labour, ‘Milibandism’ was in this sense partly an outcome of the 2008 financial crisis giving rise to a more critical strand of distributionism imported into the corridors of power from the radical movements that filled the streets and squares in the wake of the crash.  One of the most famous and influential treatments of the distribution of value as the specific problem with contemporary capitalism was that of Thomas Piketty. Articulating a critique of the so-called ‘99%’ against which the Occupy movement railed, Piketty’s work represented what Hagglund calls ‘a paradigmatic example of a social democratic critique of neoliberal capitalism’, in that the policy programme that flowed from its diagnosis of capitalism’s ills ‘centred on redistribution’ rather than the character and organisation of work itself.

Putting a radical spin on the classical political economy of Smith and Ricardo, the post-crisis left implicitly informed by a particular traditional reading of Marx. Carrying over from the likes of Ricardo the idea that labour directly inserts value into products in an embodied fashion, traditional Marxism adds a superficially radical veneer to the underlying theoretical framework of classical political economy.

Like Smith and Ricardo, this treats the labour process and the sphere of production as ultimately unchanging transhistorical features of any society onto which different kinds of market, property and class relations are imposed. The contradictions of capitalism—inequality, poverty, injustice—are thus seen as relating to the particular form the valorisation process assumes in the contemporary economy. The solution to this is then envisaged as a new, more socialist economy where a different set of class relations would administer essentially the same mode of production. This ‘traditional Marxist’ approach, Postone argues, adopts the standpoint of the labour process—or the ‘real economy’—to criticise how the value it produces is appropriated and distributed in the market or economy at large by apparently ‘non-productive’ classes. Where enacted in the ‘actually existing’ socialist countries of the twentieth-century, this resulted in the abolition of the ‘liberal bourgeois mode of distribution’, and its associated freedoms, but with the retention of the same set of production relations under the power of an authoritarian state —the worst of all possible worlds.

The idea that the ‘real economy’ of productive labour was infringed by financial abstraction, and that the solution to the age of austerity was a greater level of state intervention or ownership within the context of essentially the same set of production relations, informed the left’s politics of value in the wake of the 2008 crisis. The translation of elements of Occupy and other ‘anti-austerity’ political movements into left-populist electoral projects like Corbynism saw this distributionist perspective continue to structure left policymaking. The interesting policies that emerged from the Shadow Treasury team during this period around industrial codetermination and corporate governance were outweighed by the increasing attraction of a ‘fully automated’ vision of the future where work and workers were no longer relevant. The assumption of an impending ‘end of work’ disincentivised serious thought about policy interventions into the employment relation itself, and led to calls for cash transfers on an even wider scale to hold economic life together as a society based on wage labour appeared to be on the wane. Going beyond the familiar toolkit of tax credits, the ameliorative measures proposed by those anticipating or willing an imminent ‘end of work’ increasingly assumed the utopian guise of the universal basic income.

A preoccupation with these fashionable distributional alternatives left untouched the foundations of the increasingly insecure labour market and unrewarding workplace that emerged in the long post-crisis period. With the wage-labour relationship weakened by unemployment and the crash exacerbating low growth, this era of austerity populism had appeared to sharpen distributional conflicts, including along generational lines. These conditions helped incubate a national-populist backlash. Centre-left policymakers responded by once again returning to the proposal of policies focused on the provision of cash transfers to address or mitigate the perceived ill effects of capitalist economics. As policymakers attempted to work with a smaller overall economic pie, left and right alike threw themselves into politically prioritising ‘distributional battles’ between warring parties rather than a common attempt to address pay and conditions at work.

With an emptied out system of industrial relations depriving the economy of any countervailing power capable of commanding gains from below, Michael Lind argues, policymakers on left and right alike were left with little choice but to attempt to ‘co-opt alienated populist voters’ with impossible and ineffective ‘after-tax redistribution schemes’. Purporting to iron out contradictions produced by the neoliberal era, rather than fundamentally confronting the underlying relations of work and production, these would simply seek to ‘reconcile voters to an unchanged economic order’. The cost-of-living crisis throws this impasse into stark relief. Workers possess limited bargaining power to eke out wage increases in line with inflation, and the state faces limited capacity to find new ways to dish out a shrinking economic slush fund.


Against distributionism

As Postone argues, distributionism’s selective approach has ‘serious weaknesses and consequences’, isolating the valorisation process as an object of policymaking from its relationship with the labour process, and vice versa. Much left critique adopts the standpoint of a pristine sphere of production to make a moral claim about the negative influence exerted upon it by the apparently corruptive class character of capitalist society. In this way, it has tended to view the pursuit of profit as a kind of conspiracy of ‘corporate elites’ seeking to appropriate the wealth produced by society, rather than a structural imperative to which we are all subject.

The labour process through which the ‘real economy’ of goods and services is generated is not a victim of unnecessary abstract compulsions forced upon it by the pursuit of profit and the valorisation of value. Growth is the purpose of our economy, on which our work and lives depend, and not some ‘ideology’ from which we can freely rid ourselves. As Hagglund writes, ‘the defining purpose of capital accumulation is built into how we produce our social wealth in the first place’, rather than being an imposition upon it. This interconnection is placed out of view by accounts narrowly focused on labour or value alone—perhaps because it renders more difficult the proposal of various panaceas by policymakers, requiring a more complex set of compromises between labour, capital and the state.

By rhetorically and politically preserving labour and production, the policies that flow from distributionist critiques also operate on fundamentally mistaken assumptions about the capacity of the economy to sustain the amelioration of capitalism’s ills that they promise voters and workers. Hagglund gives the example of how the basic income proposes to obviate workers of the need to work, but simultaneously remains as logically dependent as any other form of cash transfer on the redistribution of wealth generated by the same set of productive relations. As such, the measure undermines the bold claims of a fundamental break with work attached to it by some of its more radical proponents precisely by depending upon the thing whose necessity it purports to negate. The contradiction, here, is that the less we live our lives in line with the exploitation of our labour power, the less of a fiscal basis there is for the kind of redistributive welfare state the universal basic income would represent.

Moreover, the funding of these transfers via the tax take depends upon a productive dynamism entirely lacking in the economies of countries like the UK. As Lind observes, in most contemporary redistributive schemes, this has been made up for through reliance on financial services and asset bubbles, making for an unstable foundation on which to base durable redistributive policies. In recent times, speculative and service-driven Western economies rest on offshoring and exploiting low-cost labour and satisfying shareholder value—neither of which provide a conducive basis for stimulating investment in techniques and technologies to aid the domestic productivity revival that could underpin such redistributive mechanisms. Where asset and financial bubbles made such a bargain possible for social democratic governments offering in-work and out-of-work benefits to voters in the nineties and early noughties, the crisis of neoliberalism and the persistent productive malaise afflicting the contemporary economy calls the capacity to fund these schemes into question. An age of creeping stagflationwill only serve to exacerbate this situation

Funded on the basis of these unstable foundations, measures like tax credits have typically stood in for policies aimed at regulating and dignifying labour, providing a convenient alibi for lack of concrete action. They subsidised the capacity of employers to operate low-wage, low-productivity workplaces where intensification substituted for innovation, exacerbating factors associated with the populist grievances that delivered the UK successive Conservative governments and the Brexit vote. Failing to address the conditions under which wealth and value are produced, and dealing only with their distribution after the fact, cash transfer schemes sought to ‘respond to working-class populist rebellions by offering workers the chance to become something other than workers’, as Lind puts it, leaving unexplored avenues through which workers could address insecurity and anxiety by bargaining through their work for better.

In spite of this interconnection between narrowly distributive policies and the growth of the populist politics of grievance, a distributionist perspective has nonetheless continued to structure how the left has sought to respond to the political issue of winning back the support of working-class voters in the so-called ‘left behind’ post-industrial communities of the ‘Red Wall’. Viewing material factors alone as the secret of their grievances, policy programmes have proposed to remedy the woes of working-class communities through what Cruddas calls ‘distributive justice’. However welcome, distributional measures are ultimately indifferent to the roots of the anger and resentment that underpins populist discontent in ‘the wider emotional wellbeing of citizens’ and their hopes and aspirations for the ‘lives they wish to live’. Whilst the cost-of-living crisis could quickly switch politics back to material and economic issues, there is no guarantee that the cultural and emotional factors that have driven electoral dynamics in our time will simply evaporate as the political dial resets. There is no deterministic inevitability about how crises unfold in terms of the formation and reshaping of political subjectivity.

As Lind writes, it is insufficient to simply remunerate those deemed to have lost out to globalisation through ‘concessions to national working-class economic interests’ alone, without also addressing these cultural, emotional and political issues, including those around power and control. The ‘economistic’ character of distributionist approaches, Cruddas suggests, centres on action at the level of the state rather than ‘questions of power and democracy’ at the level of the workplace and community. Against the proposal of redistribution as a panacea for the economic drivers of populist discontent, Lind points to the longstanding tendency among ‘labour liberals and social democrats’, when given a choice, to oppose ‘post-tax transfers of cash to individuals’. In the face of unfavourable economic conditions and unconvincing policy propositions, what is needed instead is a politics of work and value that can address the articulation of the labour process and the valorisation process together.

The untrodden path of ‘predistribution’ might well be a useful starting point, providing an alternative and accessible framing for policymakers to comprehend the challenge ahead. Wages are undoubtedly an important part of the struggle for the recognition of the value of one’s labour—and, in spite of Bank of England warnings that workers show wage restraint, will be even more important in the context of the present inflationary pressures. Yet it is also important that any politics of value accommodates the struggle for the non-material forms of recognition that characterise the human relationship with work—what Cruddas calls the ‘dignity of labour’—and which extends to fill the broader terrain of economic life and political subjectivity in an age of populist upheaval. A politics of recognition, this suggests, may have the capacity to occupy the terrain of power and control on which contemporary political conflicts have played out. Importantly, such a politics may pose a way for workers to claim rewards for their work in line with their sense of worth, rather than seeking to artificially cleanse the world of these conflicts by means of state payments.


Beyond distributionism

The cold, mechanical language of labour and value sometimes leaves little space to engage with the emotional aspects of work and economic life that have driven the age of populism, and from which our politics now seems to slowly be escaping as the policy horizon returns to material challenges. As Francis Fukuyama argues in his much-maligned and much-misunderstood End of History and the Last Man, economically determinist worldviews like that of classical political economy and traditional Marxism have few conceptual resources to capture how social and economic phenomena are driven by and intertwined with non-material factors, and in particular the struggle for the recognition of our dignity at work and elsewhere. Rather than calculating reason or material desire, for the likes of Fukuyama humankind is distinguished by moral choice, and in particular the capacity to value and esteem things. This moral dimension compels humans to pursue recognition. As such, social and political phenomena cannot simply be reduced to ‘the mechanics of matter in motion’, nor ‘a competition for power between economic interests’. Rather than configuring our political economy to ensure ‘mutual non-aggression’ between vying economic interests in the name of ‘material comfort’ alone, our political economy must create routes for the ‘recognition of dignity and worth’ by different actors, which in turn can have a material impact on the pound in one’s pocket.

In liberal societies, Fukuyama suggests, this recognition can be facilitated through ‘mediating institutions’ that sit between the individual and the state, including trade unions. To illustrate how recognition is mediated in contemporary society, Fukuyama uses the example of an industrial dispute. Material desire is not the sole driver of why workers enter into dispute with employers. Rather, the struggle for higher wages or better terms and conditions is also a struggle for the recognition of the worth, value and dignity of the workers and their work. These struggles cannot be explained solely through reference to the ‘complex set of desires that make up physical existence’, but rather use bargaining over material gains to further the satisfaction of a form of recognition that exceeds economic concerns alone and centres instead on the pursuit of dignity.

The concept of recognition helps bring into focus the character of value as an open and contingent category of struggle combining social and economic, subjective and objective aspects. But Fukuyama warns that the development of liberal society always runs the risk of squeezing out the key human capacity to esteem things and activities on the basis of their worth and dignity, increasingly tending to structure policymaking and economic decision-making around a narrowly rationalist and calculating approach to value as an economic category alone. The economic obstruction of channels for social and political processes of recognition and valuation means that the struggle for recognition can take ever more vexed and unpredictable forms—as witnessed in the populist politics of grievance that has characterised the last decade. This means that new institutional mediations and forms of association are necessary to reconnect a politics of work with a politics of value, and vice versa.

Of course, Robert Kurz is right to note the limited character of a politics of work bound to the ‘struggle for recognition’ on the terrain of value alone. As he notes, such a politics necessarily represents an acceptance of the constraints of a kind of ‘iron cage’ imposing the economic rationality upon struggles waged for an improved position within what remains essentially the same system of social relations. Laying claims to value, workers seek recognition as ‘subjects, legal persons and citizens’ imprisoned within the ‘fetish form’, with politics ‘the vehicle for this restriction’. But where Kurz casts this modus operandi of the labour movement in a wholly negative light, it also provides a durable template for how workers can find room to move within the value-form, in the absence of any other alternative.

One way in which this can be taken forward is through a re-envisioning of the role of trade unions in the economy. As Lind argues, workers have historically tended to express a preference for measures that increase their ability of workers to ‘bargain for higher pre-tax wages’ rather than draw down cash transfers from the state. Granting workers ‘genuine economic bargaining power’, as well as new forms of ‘countervailing power’ in the political sphere, would intervene in how the cake is baked and not simply how it is cut and sliced. At present, where collective bargaining is in evidence in liberal market economies like the UK, Lind suggests, it is in the form of ‘enterprise bargaining’ organised at a plant-by-plant level. Reliant on a foundation of collective bargaining that is simply not in evidence in many businesses today, this limits the generalisability of agreements across sectors and makes for a poor match between the tradition repertoires of dispute resolution available to workers and the particular conditions of the service-based work that dominates Western economies.

Frameworks like sectoral wage boards or Fair Pay Agreements (FPAs), meanwhile, project a different and potentially more effective way forward—and would also, in an age of inflationary pressures, enable workers to command pay rises more in line with sharp increases in the cost of living. Tentatively outlined in Labour’s recent Employment Rights Green Paper (discussed by Alex Wood elsewhere in this issue), FPAs promise to improve private sector pay and conditions against a backdrop of low union membership and the untenability of reviving full collective bargaining in many sectors of the contemporary economy. Much of the Green Paper mimics the agenda of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government in New Zealand, where FPAs anchor a broader set of reforms to enable workers to lay claim to value. Recognising the limitations of workplace bargaining in many quarters of the contemporary economy, and paving a more practical path for workers in hard-to-organise sectors to extract concessions from employers, the Ardern government propose FPAs as a means to revitalise bargaining power at the level of whole industries or occupations.

The process of negotiating an FPA is instigated by gaining the support of either 1,000 employers or 10% of the workforce in a given sector, whichever is the least. Once negotiations between unions and employer representatives commence, FPAs have as their mandatory end result a minimum pay floor below which people cannot fall. It is also mandatory to discuss, if not agree, a series of other non-pay terms and conditions. Agreements are confirmed through a vote of employees and employers in a given sector. Where an agreement cannot be reached, New Zealand’s Employment Relations Authority can step in and command one. The Authority also polices and where necessary enforces the FPA once signed. Initially, FPAs will be geared towards priority areas to be determined by the state. Social care is one such area, a focus emulated by Labour’s proposals in the UK. Care is typical of a sector where the tendering process compels firms to compete on cost, causing a race to the bottom run on the basis of forcing down worker pay and conditions. From this foundation, the aim is that eventually FPAs roll out across the economy as a whole, incentivising investment in skills and productivity rather than cost-cutting.

At the international level, the principle of sectoral bargaining has received support from the OECD, suggesting that industrial or occupational agreements produce higher wages, better conditions and improved productivity when compared to those struck at a workplace-by-workplace level. Representing a sophisticated and specific approach to sectoral negotiation, FPAs prefigure a more substantial revitalisation of tripartite bargaining for the twenty-first century. Advocates suggest that such a revitalisation would broker discussion and debate between labour, capital and the state in order to further enable workers to contest the terms on which their work is valued, rather than treating the labour process as a static and unchanging element around which policy must be organised.

By opening up channels for the recognition of value, this could also create the possibility of something like the ‘revaluation of value’ Hagglund proposes. Whereas across the social democratic political spectrum redistribution has been seen as a solution to the distribution of wealth, what is required is ‘a challenge to the measure of value that shapes our production of wealth’ itself, and thus ‘the form in which our economic relations appear’. Through the extension of bargaining power, strengthening of worker voice, and granting workers space to organise according to the specificity of their jobs and industries, the values and measures to which work is subject can be cracked open and reconfigured. This would remove the veil on value as an economic category and reveal it as a social, political and institutional principle combining both objective and subjective elements. In terms of policy and praxis, this would articulate between the labour process and the valorisation process by means of new institutional mediations that provide a context for both recognition and revaluation.

In short, in order to enable workers to contest the terms of the cost-of-living crisis and out-of-control inflation, we need to focus on the relations and conditions under which wealth and value are produced—and not only on how they are distributed.

Frederick Harry Pitts is Lecturer in Work, Employment, Organisation & Public Policy at University of Bristol School of Management and an editor of Futures of Work.