Thursday, 7 February 2019

Inequality, depression, unions

Today someone mentioned Angus Deaton and it reminded me of this interview with him in the FT which I always meant to blog about. It's two years old now, and took place just after Trump's victory, but there are several bits that really resonate with me.

The last bit really interests me. I'm obviously an advocate for unions, and despair of the way that the decline of unionisation has scarred society. Many people (rightly) talk about inequality in regard to this, but I'm also interested in this issue - that Deaton hits on - of the removal of representation. 

I think a much underestimated value of unions is that they give workers the ability to challenge, to argue back, to assert some agency. In these days of the consensual anaesthesia, where conflict and contestation is characterised as undesirable, and democracy and deliberation as inefficient, you can see why those who want to keep a lid on things and/or "depoliticise" them (by taking issues out realms where they might be debated) don't like unions. Now we characterise workers taking action - arguing back, working to rule and (rarely) striking - as a pain in the arse, even while we celebrate those further up the foodchain for exhibiting the same kind of approach (think about the Theresa May "bloody difficult woman" stuff).

I think this is a shabby state of affairs. In addition, as Deaton suggests, I think the destruction of the sense that you can argue back, or assert yourself, or have someone fight for you, must come at a psychological cost, especially when coupled with the decline in jobs where traditionally workers have had some agency. I also wonder about the effect that this has on democratic norms. The rise of unions paralleled growing demands for political enfranchisement. Ordinary people were familiar with being able to choose representation. If we no longer expect to be able to choose to have effective representation where most of us spend most of our adult lives (at work) do we fall out of the habit of seeking/expecting representation at all?

Like many of us, Deaton sees all this as an element of the Trump and Brexit revolts. Tying it together with his comments that Labour / Democrat leaders no longer look/sound like their voters, it also reminds me of this passage from Wolfgang Streek. I'm 100% a Remainer, but I can understand the desire to through a spanner in the works.


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