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The Work Agenda: What happened to the leisure society? Rory O’Kelly. Review.

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How Should We Look at Work? 

The Work Agenda: What happened to the leisure society? Rory O’Kelly.

Chartist Free E-Book.

O Laziness, have pity on our long misery! O Laziness, mother of the arts and noble virtues, be thou the balm of human anguish!

Paul Lafrague. The Right to Be Lazy. 1880.

One of the sections of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twentieth Century deals with the justification of colossal salaries and wealth. The media, he observes, is full of stories about business ‘stars’. They are used to indicate how graft and talent are rewarded. There is a “just inequality, based on merit, education, and the social utility of elites.” (1) Everything is slanted to suggest that that the majority of high-earners and the well-off deserve their rewards. Criticisms of pay and bonuses come when these are gained without apparent hard work.

Piketty enjoys pointing out that is impossible it is to demonstrate any connection between effort and reward in the modern economy. The part of social wealth going to Capital, and the well-off, increases regardless of individual cleverness or toil. Much depends on “luck”, the ability of top mangers to fix their own pay, and the influence of the wealthy to press for low taxes. Entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates, turn into rentiers, with more cash as they get older, they live off an initial innovation that was rarely one person’s discovery in the first place. In sum, to those that have, shall be given.

Many accept this case. But there are deeper problems. It is not just that certain kinds of elite work are valued, leaving others – the majority – aside. Why is ‘work’ itself such a self-evident virtue that it makes those not-in-work look as if they are afflicted by vice? O’Kelly begins the excellent and thought-provoking The Work Agenda, by stating, “Work is seen as good in itself and maximising the number of people working and the amount of work done as self-evidently right.”

This assumption looks strange in the light of 1960s (and much later) predictions about automation and the ‘leisure society’. Paul Lafargue looked forward to a time when, thanks to the abundance created by technology, slogging your guts out was not the goal of existence. The 1970s and 1980s saw criticisms of ‘productivism’ and the cult of labour in socialist ideology. André Gorz’s Adieux aux proletariat (1981) took up these ideas. He suggested that in a “post-industrial” society people should control what is produced. They could share work according to need, and wants, with a universal guaranteed income, and more and more free-time. More modestly the French left in the late 1990s thought that the 35 Hour week would be a step in this direction.

Today, however, O’Kelly says, the obsession with the absolute value of ‘work’ blocks people from considering a “rational way of sharing the output of a society across all the members of society.” Many people may well spend time on benefits, over the course of a lifetime. Others, of a whole range of reasons, may be on them for much longer. Structural long-term unemployment is a feature of all Western societies, as is the need to help those who are incapacitated

Instead of recognizing this, and adapting social spending to it, governments, from Tony Blair onwards, have tried to push everybody into work – regardless of their medical condition, the needs of the labour market, and the rights or wishes of those to be pushed in this direction.

Putting the Disabled to Work.

The Work Agenda does not dwell on the ideology of work. Instead it is devoted to how the doctrine is used to undermine the basis of social benefits. This is most obvious from changes to the benefits for the disabled. The idea that ‘work is the best form of welfare’ is applied to the sick (which covers a multitude of diverse categories of people). There is an economic rationale, “Getting people into work is pursued primarily as a way of reducing transfers between working and non-working people; in simple terms: the cost of benefits.”

Fitting square pegs into round holes barely begins to cover the injustices that have resulted from these policies. Known to the general public through the scandals surrounding ATOS, and the ‘assessments’ of those claiming disability benefits, these are part of a much wider picture. O’Kelly’s background in the social security system helps him come to grips with the detail. He clearly knows the operations of what is now the DWP inside out, and uses them to great advantage.

The Work Agenda lays out the history and rationale of the present structure, “The driver behind the Welfare Reform Act 2007 and the creation of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) was the belief that by changing the definition of incapacity sick or disabled people could be made capable of work.” As he notes, “Until recently the medical situation was taken as an objective starting point to which the benefit system then had to respond. The great change in 2007 was to take the needs of the benefit system as the starting point (my emphasis) and to change clinical definitions to conform to those needs.” This was, as we know, a Labour government, or ‘New Labour’,  that made this turn.

O’Kelly argues (on the basis of close acquaintance with the civil service decision-making) that there never was a time when large numbers of people were classified as medically unfit in order to reduce the unemployment figures. There were always rigorous tests. What has changed is that governments have decided to change their nature.

Now it might seem reasonable – and it’s repeated often enough – to assert that there are large numbers of people who “choose” not to work. But in the case of invalidity benefits there is a simple way of determining this: medical advice. Present legislation is designed to alter the character of this criterion. Instead even ill people can be judged “capable” of working – according to a fairly loose test of what being able to carry out basic tasks is, including those even those objectively unwell can do. This O’Kelly says, means. “Effectively moving sick people into employment without improving their health”. This process is “likely simply to transfer the costs of sickness from the benefit system to statutory sick pay and private sick pay schemes.”

The problem then is not that ATOS is a particularly venal organisation – though opinions might differ on this after the company’s dissembling and bleating about being harassed. It is the changed nature of the tests for incapacity that drives the injustices that they have caused.

A persistent case is that mental troubles are rarely easily definable according to a check-list of questions and a short interview with an assessor. There are plenty of other not always ‘visible’ illnesses. As the pamphlet indicates, “It is a striking fact that the classes of people whom the government is most anxious to take off benefits for incapacity overlap very largely with those whom no rational employer (in either the public or the private sector) would want to take on.” As somebody who has sat, during various employment courses, with people with very serious mental-health issues, and others with deep health problems, we might equally ask why they are obliged to take these “preparation for work” training schemes.

Back to First Principles.

Returning to question the principles he began with, O’Kelly makes the observation that “Work (i.e. paid work) is essentially economic activity; the creation of goods and services. It is not a form of welfare, it is not a form of therapy and it is not a punishment. It can of course be used in any of these ways, rather as a stiletto heel can be used to hammer a nail into a wall. It does not do the job very well, however, and it is not very good for the shoe either.”

The work agenda is used, in effect, to “Micro-manage the lives of the poor”. Not only the disabled on what is now the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), but anybody on benefits,

are now subjected to close surveillance over their lives. This erodes personal autonomy, and increases dependency. The DWP, and private companies gaining rent from public contracts, are entrusted with the power to grossly interfere in people’s lives. They claim rights over claimants. They have fewer and fewer responsibilities to them.

For those “success stories” who get off benefits, O’Kelly notes, “The present system does also however offer scope for giving notional employment (or self-employment) to people who are able to do very little and who will continue to get the great bulk of their income through the benefit system whether nominally ‘employed’ or not. Some of these people will get psychological benefits from ‘working’; for others the effect will be the reverse.”

It might be suggested, as O’Kelly does, that the Ministers in charge of these policies have little experience of the world of ordinary work themselves. More insidious is the influence of the welfare-to-work industry. They influence policy to an undue degree, essentially with their claims to propel people into the – self evidently good – world of work. That claimants dislike them and that they are unable to meet the demands of their contracts (notoriously over the Work Programme) and capable of dissembling about their operations, is ignored.

In the meantime few people question the absolute value of this “work”, or why so many people spend their lives in low-paid, insecure, unrewarding employment. Or why those with Capital get so much more, including a slice of the revenue of those obliged to claim benefits – forced onto the welfare-to-work schemes run with the profits of wealthy private contractors foremost in mind. The culmination of this process will come when claimants will, as the Help to Work programme intends, have to work for their benefits. (2)


(1) Page 419 Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Thomas Piketty. Harvard University Press. 2014.

(2) Picketty suggests that some free marketers propose the following “Instead of holding public debt via their financial investments, the wealthiest European households would becomes the direct owners of schools, hospitals, police stations, and so on. Everyone else would then have to pay rent to use these assets and continue to produce the associated public services.”(Page 541 – 2 Op cit). This is in effect happening in the United Kingdom, beginning with PFI. The welfare-to-work industry in effect is given a chunk of the welfare state and everybody’s taxes are used to pay rent to the owners of their enterprises.

You can read The Work Agenda as a free E-Book by clicking here.

3 Responses

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  1. I could not refrain from commenting. Very well written!

    eft social anxiety

    July 8, 2014 at 5:42 pm

  2. This is the kind of comment we encourage – though some sour-faced individuals might say that it’s spam.

    Andrew Coates

    July 9, 2014 at 4:47 pm

  3. What’s wrong with “choosing” not to work anyway? All the time that capitalism does not have work for all the able-bodied of working age, surely it’s best if the unemployed are a self-selecting stratum of people who are able to live on not very much and keep themselves occupied without selling large chunks of their lives to a boss?


    July 9, 2014 at 6:47 pm

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