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labor Work in the Age of Anxiety

The rise of precarious labor in Canada, combined with the deliberate creation of fear through constant surveillance, the security apparatus and the demonization and criminalization of dissent, starts to answer the question of why there is no militant resistance to savage capitalism or even sustained social solidarity.

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, Chris Brown

Working Canadians, from blue-collar workers to middle-class professionals to those who flip hamburgers, are facing the worst economy insecurity, most stressful working conditions, slowest increases in real income and most cynical anti-worker governments since the 1930s. At the same time, the 1% and the powerful corporations that make them rich have not been so privileged in terms of wealth, income and political power since the pre-crash 1920s.

Yet in those days when there was virtually no state protection for workers, unions were illegal, police were more brutal and economic security was non-existent for many, there was a level of militancy, courage, social solidarity and sheer determination that was at once stunning and inspirational. It terrified that day's 1%, and following the Depression and war, it brought the only concessions to workers capitalists have ever agreed to.

Which raises the question: why is there no militancy today, why no sustained and focused solidarity or even simple courage in facing powerful adversaries? Some of this passivity clearly has to do with the rapidly evolving security and surveillance state and the fear it deliberately fosters. But it started elsewhere, and over 20 years ago. It is rooted in an almost universal anxiety. We can explore it by asking the question, what's an economy for?

Changing notions of a good society

If you think the now conventional answer to that question is obvious, you haven't been paying attention to the free market propaganda machine over the past four decades. When now retired Michael Walker was hired to head up the Fraser Institute almost 40 years ago, he told his corporate backers: "If you want to change society you have to change the ideological fabric of society." And that's what the Fraser Institute and other think-tanks (and media owners) proceeded to do with a patient but relentless attack on conventional notions of what a good society and the role of its economy entailed.

In those pre-corporate globalization days, it was conventional political and social wisdom that the economy served the nation, and by inference, the community and families. The Bank of Canada's dual mandates -- unemployment and inflation -- were still competing but full employment was one of the few shared policy objectives of all three federal parties. It wasn't until the early '80s that inflation took a serious bite out of the accumulated wealth of the West's economic elite. That changed everything and "inflation fighting" became the obsession of the West's central banks.

But more than that it also became the weapon of choice of free-marketeers like former Liberal finance minister Paul Martin who with the co-operation of the Bank of Canada used extreme inflation targets (and subsequent high interest rates) to actually suppress economic growth and deliberately create high levels of unemployment. Few people recall that under Martin's ideological war on inflation throughout most of the 1990s, unemployment hovered around 9 per cent -- higher than it is now.  Martin's war on inflation was actually a war on labour, justified by the signing of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and subsequently, North American Free Trade Agreement.  It was all about global competitiveness and that meant driving down the cost and power of labour.  Enforced high unemployment was perhaps the most powerful weapon, but dramatic cuts to Employment Insurance eligibility and the elimination of the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) were effective as well.  The CAP transferred money to the provinces and was targetted specifically at establishing a minimun standard for welfare.  With its cancellation and replacement with a lump sum (for health, education and welfare), the provinces radically reduced social assistance rates and shifted money into the politically popular items like medicare.

Pro-business provincial governments, following the example of Ottawa's labour flexibility imperative, took their own initiatives and gradually reduced the enforcement of labour standards which protected non-unionized workers from draconian working conditions (like below-the-poverty-line minimum wages). The overall effect definitely made labour extremely "flexible" -- in other words, more vulnerable to the whims of employers large and small than at any time since the 1930s. The corporate and neo-con propaganda machine worked overtime to frame all of this as good for the "economy" -- an abstract notion that translated in reality as good for corporations.

And having been redefined as taxpayers and consumers, rather than citizens, the affected working people have been suckered into thinking they and their legitimate needs are the problem -- and they have to make sacrifices for the good of the economy. Or they have been convinced that they will benefit as taxpayers -- even if they suffer as citizens.

Precarity comes to define working life

Over the past few years, a stream of reports have revealed just what that sacrifice has entailed. It has even fostered the use of a new term to describe modern working life: precarity. The numbers are scary. The Canadian Payroll Association's annual poll revealed recently that 51 per cent of Canadian employees would be in real financial trouble if their paycheque were delayed by a week. A week. A quarter of those surveyed said they couldn't pull together even $2,000 to deal with an emergency. Almost half said they were spending all their income -- or more -- on basic family needs. The savings rate is now below 4 per cent -- it was 15 per cent in the 1980s. Personal debt is at record levels, some 160 per cent of annual income and no wonder: the real income gain of the average employee between 1980 and 2005 was a measly $52 -- two dollars a year. The only thing keeping many families afloat is rising house prices. But 17 per cent of mortgage holders will be under water if rates rise just 1.5 per cent.

According to the Toronto Star's Carol Goar, labour market statistics suggest we are becoming a nation of part-timers: "For the past year, the only part of Canada's job market that has showed any sign of life has been part-time employment. The numbers are striking. Since last autumn, Canada has created 50,000 part-time jobs but lost 20,000 full-time positions." And while we like to see ourselves as an industrialized nation, we are actually going backwards in terms of value-added jobs. For years now Canada has had the second-highest percentage of low-paying jobs in the OECD.

Goar's conclusion is backed by a recent TD Bank report called "Part Time Nation." Statistics Canada has reported that the number of full-time jobs has declined by 13,600 since May 2013. And it isn't just blue-collar workers or those in the low-wage service industry who are affected. This imposed "flexibility" strikes deep into the middle class. A recent report on part-time faculty at Laurier University revealed that despite Ontario university students paying the highest tuition fees in Canada, over 52 per cent of them (up from 38 per cent in 2008) at Laurier are now taught by sessional lecturers or contract academic staff (CAS). The pay difference between a CAS and full-time faculty member is staggering -- with the latter making between $80,000 and $150,000 a year while a CAS teaching exactly the same class load will earn about $28,000. And they get no benefits and no job security -- signing new contracts every session, even with decades of experience.

One of the most valuable studies on the state of work and life is the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada. This is the third time the study, by professors Linda Duxbury of Carleton University and Christopher Higgins of the University of Western Ontario, has been done in the past 20 years. It tracks the (ever-worsening) work-life imbalance of thousands of individual workers, and the situation it reveals is grim.

"Almost two-thirds of us are working more than 45 hours a week -- 50 per cent more than two decades ago. Work weeks are more rigid, with flex-time arrangements dropping by a third in the past 10 years. … More than half of the survey's respondents took work home with them, putting in an average of seven extra hours a week from home. To top it off, only 23 per cent of working Canadians are highly satisfied with life. That's half as many as in 1991." 

As in the previous studies, the authors observe that most working families effectively have no family life. The extreme demands of employers have in fact delayed or even prevented couples from having children: "One-third of Canadians feel they have more work to do than time permits. That number rises to 40 per cent when family roles are taken into account."

The age of anxiety

This, then, is the core of the age of anxiety. Precarity, combined with the deliberate creation of fear through constant surveillance, the security apparatus and the demonization and criminalization of dissent, starts to answer the question of why there is no militant resistance to savage capitalism or even sustained social solidarity. According to the oddly named Institute for Precarious Consciousness (IPC), "Each phase of capitalism has a particular affect which holds it together." In the 1920s, it was simple misery, and militant social and labour movements were the response that ended the effectiveness of misery as a form of social control. But, says the IPC, "One aspect of every phase's dominant affect is that it is a public secret, something that everyone knows, but nobody admits, or talks about. As long as the dominant affect is a public secret, it remains effective, and strategies against it will not emerge."

That, the authors suggest, is the situation we find ourselves in today: "Today's public secret is that everyone is anxious. Anxiety has spread from its previous localised locations (such as sexuality) to the whole of the social field. All forms of intensity, self-​expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination."

How do we expose the public secret? We need to actually communicate with each other. "People have to be socially isolated in order for a public secret to work. This is true of the current situation, in which authentic communication is increasingly rare. Communication is more pervasive than ever, but increasingly, communication happens only through paths mediated by the system. Hence, in many ways, people are prevented from actually communicating, even while the system demands that everyone be connected and communicable."

Expose the secret. Get rid of the cop in your head. Phone your friends. Re-occupy.