Forging a new politics of work

David Frayne, author of The Work Cure, talks to our Associate Editor Emily Hutchinson.

David Frayne, author of The Refusal of Work (Zed), has written numerous articles for the Independent, New Statesman and the Guardian. He has spent the past year in the Berggruen Fellows program at New York University, exploring how to think about ethics, politics and social relations in a world where work is in crisis. Emily Hutchinson asked him about his new book The Work Cure (PCCS Books), which is out now.

Can you summarise the key message that you wanted this book to convey?
If you follow the charity Action for Happiness on Twitter, you will regularly see advice on how to improve your wellbeing. A recent post suggested that one way to feel happier is to stop disliking your job. The entire political, relational, and ethical problem of work has been reduced down to this single question of individual attitude. I think we are seeing this same trend in a variety of places, whether it’s workplace wellness seminars telling us to meet our troubles with positivity and resilience, or unemployed people being coached to adopt a stronger work ethic. This book says, ‘stop this nonsense’.

We have all of these structural problems with work right now: unemployment, precarious work, the ruthless optimisation of efficiency, a proliferation of meaningless jobs, and a lack of respect for people who do not participate in employment. I believe we have to resist the idea that the solution is self-improvement or psychological reform. If each of us is persuaded that we are individually responsible for our work-related troubles, not only does it make us more fit for exploitation, it also causes us to blame ourselves when things do not improve. The book’s key message is that the problems with work are political, and that the solutions should be too.

What prompted you to pull this book together?
There are a lot of promising policies on the table for debate right now: the shorter working week, employee-focused flexibility, the Universal Basic Income, ideas for workplace democracy, and initiatives to make life more rewarding for people outside formal employment. I want to see the debate flourish in these areas, but I think there are two major obstacles: one is the tendency to think of work problems as psychological rather than political, and the other is the dogma that employment is the only way to be a healthy and respectable citizen. I wanted to pull together people I have admired for speaking critically about these things. The book includes pieces from academics, practicing psychologists and campaign-oriented groups like Psychologists for Social Change and Recovery in the Bin.

Who do you want to read it?
I want people who are campaigning for a new politics of work to read the book and more clearly see some of the obstacles that stand in the way. I want psychologists to read it and reflect on the ways in which their profession is being co-opted to discipline workers and depoliticise the problems with work. Perhaps workers will read it and think ‘yes, I am not pathological, the sickness is in the system’. Perhaps disabled or mentally distressed people will read it and feel more empowered to say ‘no, I cannot work, and that does not make me some kind of deviant’. I would be pleased if that was the outcome.

The book contains many challenges to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and organisations such as Action for Happiness. What impact do you hope that the book will have on these organisations?
Yes, we call out these two agencies as some of the biggest perpetrators. The work of Lynne Frieldi, Robert Stearn, Roy Bard and others has been very influential here, having focused on the problem of ‘psycho-compulsion’ within organisations like the DWP. The DWP continues to impose job coaching on people and promote employment as a health outcome. Recent documents also suggest that our NHS is being enlisted for these purposes. The issue here is much more immediate than a broader depoliticisation of work – the lives of unemployed and disabled people might literally be hanging in the balance because of policies designed to cut benefits, force people into unsuitable jobs, or impose sanctions for non-compliance.

The economist Richard Layard also receives some scrutiny in this book, partly for his association with Action for Happiness, but mostly for co-creating the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) program. As many will know, IAPT combines CBT with a focus on work as a health outcome. In the book, Jay Watts and Paul Atkinson argue that this represents a troubling new precedent for the psychology professions, raising all kinds of concerns about consent, ethics and duty of care. Their chapters, as well as my own, also take issue with the accuracy of the core claim that employment improves health.

What impact will the book have? I am a realist about these things, so I don’t expect any direct impact, but I do hope the book will encourage people to think in more deliberate ways about how to struggle against these agencies. Books can be helpful for clarifying the nature of a problem, but it is only a collective struggle that can create change.

What happens next?
One of the points made in the book is that we can ‘raise awareness’ forever, without really changing anything. Fortunately, there are already organisations campaigning in the right direction. Disabled People Against Cuts and Psychologists for Social Change come to mind as two organisations pushing back against psycho-coercion and work-related dogmas. At a broader level, there are also various think-tanks and political groups trying to forge a new politics of work. For me, the most promising are groups like Autonomy, who are moving beyond the demand for more and better jobs with a well-grounded suggestion that we could also be struggling for more free time. I would recommend looking up these groups and seeing what they are doing. Crucially, they are not only thinking about demands but also questions of strategy.

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