Interview with sociologist Roland Paulsen
Empty working life
Sociologist Roland Paulsen attended the conference “Det ifrågasatta arbetet” (Eng. ”Questionable work” or “Wishful work”) at Arbetets Museum (the Museum of Work) in Norrköping in November 2013. He calls himself a ”labour critic” and pushed the controversial thesis at the conference that we should reduce working hours. Where is he at, thought-wise?
Even as a young student, Roland discovered how pointless contemporary working life can be. When he was studying sociology, he was a locker guard at a peripheral metro station. He sat there faithfully at his post night after night, night after night, even though almost no passenger showed up. Instead, he studied sociology of work and was struck by how much was about the conditions of the work. How the work should be well designed in terms of things like salary, working conditions and work environment. What content and meaning the work filled was something that, on the other hand, was almost not discussed at all. Roland believes that if we include this in the calculation, it becomes very clear that less and less work serves some important economic purpose to the extent that it contributes to our well-being. Instead, its main function seems to be to distribute wealth through salary. And then the content of the work itself must become secondary.
His early observations of working life led to him writing the book ”Arbetssamhället – Hur arbetet överlevde teknologin” (Eng. roughly: Worklife society – How work outlived technology). It assumes that new technologies and increased division of labour have increased productivity so that an increasing part of the labour force has become superfluous. What all politicians have talked about then is creating new jobs. The question is what jobs are being created. What purpose do they serve on the whole? And perhaps, could we do without them? It can also be pointed out – as many have done – that creating jobs seems to be a rather unsuccessful project. If you look over time, unemployment has only increased in the last 60 years, despite all the efforts, he points out.
What does this increasing occupational fatigue and void entail on a psychological level? Roland is currently working on a study of the Employment Service on the situation of the unemployed and not least the unemployed who are engaged in Phase Three. There are programs that not only give employers free labour, but also give them financial compensation for receiving free labour. Anything is offered to create jobs. Of course, this may be perceived as less meaningful by the participants.
And when we talk about the unemployed, it’s so easy to paint a picture of innanförskapet (e.g. the ability to stay within the frame. Eng. roughly: de-alienation) – in other words, wage labour – as a world full of goodie two shoes. And maybe that’s from the vantage point of the unemployed. But once you’re in there, you find that working life is incredibly hierarchyed:
“You may dwell on ‘the outside looking in’ despite the fact you’re employed, and because almost all the wage work we do is based on hierarchies. And workers’ jobs can also be very void of content – much like for the unemployed. You don’t even work very much, that is.”
Above all, it can be empty of activities that you perceive as meaningful. Roland believes that his purpose here is not really to exclude the unemployed from the calculation. But he feels that there is a division between those who have jobs and those who do not have jobs. If you have a job, everything is fine. But he thinks very few people experience it. How did he himself experience the subsequent panel discussion at the conference ”Wishful work”? The representatives of trade unions were critical:
“I have to say that I found it hostile. I’ve never been on a panel where there’s been such a tense atmosphere,” he says.
Roland says he can partly understand their reaction. For both LO, TCO and Saco, it is about improving working conditions. If you then – as Roland did – talk about the fact that you might be able to introduce a general reduction in working hours, the reactions will be strong. The union argues that it would reduce the negotiating space to raise wages. And that may be true, he says, if you start from the separation of powers we have today. There, the business community can use all sorts of loopholes to avoid collective agreements and other things. While the union lives on in the delusion that we still live in a spirit of consensus where we will meet and cooperate. As long as you keep that view of the Swedish economy, their reaction is understandable.
We then start talking about the cultural critic Ivan Illich. He said that an increasing part of our life and work has been taken over by ”experts”. For example, an academic profession such as the medical profession has gained a monopoly on the right care and medicines, something that people previously had their own influence over and knowledge of. Illich claimed that we have become a kind of clients of the professions in an ”expert rule”. Roland agrees and believes that this analysis can also be done with regard to the trade union movement. Something that used to be about self-organization has been very much bureaucratized. You are in the union, but often you are not very involved. Instead, there is an expertise at the top that speaks for the others, he says.
How down-to-earth are his views?
But is Roland’s proposal to change the world of work realistic? Can labour criticism – such as the citizen’s wage idea – lead to a ”laxer” society? And yes, Roland believes that there may be some point in the objections. If there wasn’t the same financial compulsion, some might stop handing out mail or whatever it might be. We have to take that into account. This may be an argument that shortening working hours is a more politically realistic reform at the moment than basic income (citizen’s pay). But there are also basic income models that include some form of ”conscription” in the labour market. At the same time, he believes that this is a pretty good argument for introducing a reduction in working hours. It would reveal how many of us actually work because of economic necessity.
What political forces can drive for change? Roland sees potential in the women’s movement because women today do so much of the unpaid but necessary work as caring for young children. Historically, the women’s movement has also often been a strong work-critical voice. But the ”gender equality issues” that are today raised in trade union contexts are about the right to full-time employment, good employment conditions and equal opportunities for women to reach the highest positions of power. And this is a good thing, few have anything to object to an equal working life. But at the same time, you support this norm if you stop at only the conditions of work, he says.
There is also an international basic income movement (BIEN). Elsewhere in the world – eg in Brazil and South Africa – the issue of basic income is higher on the political agenda than in Sweden. He himself is active here but at the same time sees a risk with the issue being academized. That’s the risk of all social movements today. That it’s a bunch of academics writing for each other. This is the case with many questioning discussions. This may include gender research, Marxist academic studies or work-critical conversations. That it all stops at a learned exchange of ideas at the university level. But at the same time, he believes that BIEN has shown concrete examples where basic income trials have been carried out at the local level that can show that it actually works. In the Namibian village of Omitara, for instance, the project watched after the introduction of basic income – not only reduced absolute poverty – but also increased economic activity. It contradicts critics’ view that a certain basic income would make people lazy:
“And that’s what I see as the strength of the whole basic income project right now,“ Roland concludes.
By Leif Jacobsson
Master of Philosophy in social anthropology and co-worker at TAM-Arkiv
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