Work and the Common Good

Some things naturally come together to form a narrative. It happened this week.

I began the week in a bad way. Like many school staff, I was just weary, physically and mentally. Half-term was arriving just in time.

I was angry and knackered. The starting point.

Secondly, we had scheduled Monday as a staffing day, monitoring a range of absences, some COVID-19 related, others the types of illnesses and misfortunes that hit us all in at some stage of our lives. What struck me was the mental torment that several were feeling; just so heart-breaking and sad. For someone who has always been on the cynical side of all things ‘mental health’, I was moved to deep compassion for my fellow human beings. No one should have to feel like this.

Then, at lunchtime, a friend visited, the leader of one of the city’s newest and most popular charities. An inspirational man, he is normally optimistic and happy, imbued with a can-do attitude. That day, his mood replicated mine; he was angry and uneasy. Something is wrong, he kept saying. ‘I have to speak out!’.

He was sensing, as I had, a poisonous atmosphere in society. Less trust, less compassion, less comradeship, less love. It’s not a nice feeling.

And then, later in the evening, I continued to read Michael Sandel’s book, ‘The Tyranny of Merit’ ,and came across a section where it all came together; the weariness, the anxiety of colleagues, the unease of friends, the dissatisfaction in society.

Firstly, the book is brilliant and is the third ‘life-changing’ non-fiction book I’ve read after ‘What About Me?’ by Paul Verhaege and ‘Poverty Safari’ by Darren McGarvey. All three accurately diagnose the true reasons for the worries and distrust of those ‘left behind’ during these years of individualism, consumerism and medacity. The same left-behind who are currently faring even worse thanks to this awful virus.

The bit I read that day was titled ‘Work as Recognition’ and I felt like screaming and punching the roof tiles, like Dominic Cummings supposedly did on Brexit night. It’s just so obvious that you feel a level of euphoric impatience.

Are these politicians reading this?

Are our leaders so myopic?

Do they not get this?

Because what is really causing the division, rancour and despair in society is a loss of identity. Work is not a meaningless task that is solely for the purpose of feeding one’s family, important though that is. No, people also want to feel that they are contributing, that they are part of an important story, that they receive validation and recognition for their contributions. Essentially, people want to contribute to the common good.

Sandel outlines two contrasting approaches to the common good – a consumer one and a producer one.

In the consumer one, we are satisfying our preferences and interests, producing the goods and services that consumers want. However, in the producer model, work is far more concerned with developing worthwhile and flourishing lives, collaborating alongside people who also want to bring about a just and good society.

‘The true value of our contribution cannot be measured by the wage we receive….but depends instead on the moral and civic importance of the ends our efforts serve.’

There are similarities here with Catholic social teaching, most recently in the Pope’s championing of ‘tierra, techo y trabajo’ – land for one’s family, a roof over one’s head, and a job which is meaningful. Maybe that’s why it resonates so strongly with me.

As Sunak announces yet more changes to employment schemes, and arguments rage about how much money should be directed here, there and everywhere, we are all missing the point to some degree.

It is not, and should not, be all about money.  

People do not want to be paid off, furloughed, made dependent on welfare. Of course, there are some examples where they do, and ironically these stem directly from the individualism inflicted upon us by successive administrations.

It runs much deeper than money. People need dignity at work and true validation, not a few pans bashed together on a Thursday night, or a lapel badge hastily awarded by a hubristic Secretary of State.

Politicians across the spectrum fail miserably to grasp this fact: money is only a part of this.

The current situation is exacerbating the problem. People don’t like working from home. Maybe for a while, or a day a week here and there, but it’s only misanthropes that really dig it. People need the sense of collaborative purpose that comes with human contact. That’s why this long winter freeze of 2020/2021 could be so dangerous.

When people like me, and my friend the charity leader, feel angry and uneasy, it’s because we’re seeing how leaders miss the point completely, still clinging as they are to an old model of so-called economic growth that trickles down to those most in need. In a rather patronising way, they assume that a slightly bigger consumer choice will make everyone happy. With respect, this is absolute tripe. An extra telly, Netflix subscription and a foreign holiday do not equate to improved happiness when you are treated so callously in the workplace.

This pandemic should have given our politicians the perfect cover to change the economic paradigm radically, from a consumer led approach to one that is producer led.

It’s time to elevate those whose value is closely associated with the common good, and reduce our worship of faceless private bureaucrats, many of them currently fleecing the taxpayer for huge consultancy fees. How can a management consultant, contributing next-to-nothing to the common good, be paid £3,000 a day, whilst a nurse, contributing so much, is paid £150 a day?

And it’s not just the avaricious private sector, as McGarvey understands. Middle class do-gooders take up so many middle management public sector roles ‘to help the poor’ but only end up serving their own interests, often from the safety of a computer. This mirage has been confused even further now through the safety of Zoom meetings, where they don’t even have to set foot in the areas that are ‘so vulnerable’.

It needs bravery. Politicians will lose a lot of friends, as natural bed-fellows will become enemies. But I guarantee, they will unite the country and win the ‘red wall’ for decades to come.

Work gives us identity, but only if it leads to production, contribution and fulfilment. This should be the legacy of this pandemic, and the Labour party should be all over it.

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