April 11, 2013 Pious Lies
“The business of earning your daily bread is really sad and wearisome. People come up with the most pious lies about work. It’s just another abominable form of idolatry, a dog licking the rod that beats it: work.” (Luther Blissett, 2004 : Q. Arrow Books: 28).
Recent stories about work have got me thinking about the pious lies we tell each other. The ethical conundrum in these three cases is the way apparently solid and valid opportunities to work disguise the production and reproduction of inequalities of income and opportunity. Moral arguments about the rights and wrongs of ways of arranging work should not rely solely on the calculations of worth measured by $£€.
Neighbours helping neighbours
If there’s something that can be valued then there’s someone who will assign it a value. Whilst the Timebanks use non-monetary value (an hour of ironing is worth an hour of gardening), taskrabbits are there to make money – by underbidding their taskrabbit neighbours for the right to do your chores. And indeed, they will – if one of them is to be believed – find it pleasurable:
“I try to approach many tasks you may find tedious as meditative so will attempt to make data entry and dishes a zen like experience. I feel good about the fact that this job affords me opportunities to perhaps lessen the daily stresses that may be attacking your psyche or at least make them less overwhelming” (Elizabeth, task rabbit from San Francisco).
Task rabbiters will also set up your wireless network, pick up your dry cleaning, and organize a party for you – using their design skills on that party invitation. As an old boss of mine would say during busy times ‘and stick a broom up my arse and I’ll sweep the floor as I go’. Task rabbiting sounds full of pious lies that claim there’s virtue in subservience.
A few weeks ago, ‘Bob’, a computer programmer for Verizon caused some amusement in the media for outsourcing his job to a Chinese programmer in order to free himself some time to be on social media, watching videos of cute cats. That’s an idea, you might think. Bob was no-one’s idea of an imaginative entrepreneur, or cunning anti-hero (the investigator described him as a “family man, inoffensive and quiet. Someone you wouldn’t look twice at in an elevator.”) One fifth of Bob’s income went on paying someone else to do his job for him.
For as long as there’s someone with the money to pay and someone with the need to be paid, these things seem like an inevitable application of market principles. As Sandel (2012) gets part way to arguing, just because something can be marketised, doesn’t mean it should be: there are moral principles at stake. Here, that principle is one of recognition for the work, the skill and the expertise that a person has.
A similar ethical principle of effort leading to reward is visible in the recent discussions of workfare, and comparable ethical questions about recognition and redistribution arise. The court case taken out by Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson against the UK government scheme of forcing the unemployed to work for no pay was – in part– successful. ‘Voluntary’ workfare schemes are unlawful. But the shameful attempt to avoid returning ‘sanctioned’ benefits taken from the 231,000 forced onto the workfare schemes is a reminder of how deeply felt is the pious belief that such citizens were getting ‘something for nothing’, and how powerful is the discourse of the infernal alternative (the nation’s finances are at stake, after all, there is no alternative).