The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
by Michael J. Sandel
Published September 2020
Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century
by David Goodhart
Published November 2020
Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care
by Madeleine Bunting
Published October 2020
The ancient Chinese curse ‘May you live in interesting times’ received a strenuous workout in 2020. According to Google’s instruments, use of the phrase spiked sharply in March, just as confirmed global cases of COVID-19 were passing the 100,000 mark and the Coalition Government was putting together its first stimulus package. Invocations of the curse were especially popular within the business community, already reeling from both supply and demand shocks, and facing the prospect of six months or more on economic life-support. Not that everyone within that community was hoping for a return to uninteresting times. Did I dream it, or was Jeff Bezos recorded at an orgy at his estate in Washington declaiming Mao’s alternative dictum, ‘Everything under heaven is in utter chaos! The situation is excellent!’? I think I dreamt it.
One would have to be a nihilist, of course, not to wish for an end to a pandemic that has claimed well over two and a half million lives. But for those of us interested in ‘interesting times’, and in the opportunities they open up, the global response to COVID-19 has not been without its political excitements. For the second time in twelve years governments around the world moved to underwrite a system that claims to need no government underwriting, with the result that many of the irrationalities of capitalism were thrown into relief. As incomes withered, or dried up completely, many people came to resent the extent to which their lives were governed by non-productive ownership – by rents and mortgages, principally, the profits from which are hoovered up by a parasitic property system and the financiers who sit atop it. At the same time, the invisible hand of the market was shown to be irrelevant to the needs of a society in crisis, while the speed with which the economy tanked, on the back of a dip in discretionary spending, revealed the basic absurdity of a system predicated on consumer choice.
Then there was the really important stuff. In a speech to the UN in September 2019, Greta Thunberg had railed against ‘business as usual’ and ‘fairy tales of eternal economic growth’, and from late 2019 to early 2020 the whole world had watched in horror as smoke from the Australian bushfires curled around the Earth. And here, in a heartbeat, was a new dispensation – proof that radical action was possible, even if its principal aim was to insulate the system as it is. Well then.
No doubt there’s a degree of projection here. But I don’t think I’m romanticising events when I suggest that the early weeks of the pandemic were attended by silver-lining thinking, and a reappraisal of existing conditions. As the kids cluttered up the kitchen table with their exercise books and laptops, those lucky enough to be working from home were often pleased to have them around. Others worked on their houses and gardens, taking up long-neglected projects. Still others discovered new hobbies and interests. Moreover, we began to reflect on the question of what was important to us and why. In many ways, digital technologies were a godsend; but they were no substitute for the physical presence of others, and certainly not significant others. What we missed told us something about what we are: not the calculating units of neoliberal legend, but social beings first and foremost, whose sociality – whose embodied sociality – is the precondition of our individuality. We missed each other, in other words.
We also began to see each other in a new light, no more so than when it came to the question of work. In a widely shared blog post for the Political Economy Research Centre, Will Davies suggested that capitalism’s central contradiction – between use value and exchange value: between what something does and what it is worth – had become suddenly visible under the new conditions, changing the way we think about work and its value to the community:
Then there is the question of how to value work, once the labour market is no longer the main basis for the distribution of social recognition, and the state has effectively nationalised much of it. Capitalist societies are now virtually united in recognition of the fact that workers in essential services, such as supermarkets, postal, care work, utilities maintenance and above all health, have been taken for granted and underpaid for too long. The distinction between these jobs and many of the ‘bullshit’ ones that David Graeber criticises now appears plain. Pay differentials can be debated and criticised more openly and widely under these circumstances, and it seems a uniquely good opportunity to raise the question of progressive tax increases on income and wealth … For the time being, there is a palpable sense of solidarity between public and ‘essential’ workers, and it is worth trying to remember how it feels.
Many supermarket workers found themselves on the receiving end of some ugly behaviour in those early days, as the Great Toilet Paper Panic took hold. But there was also a lot of gratitude in the mix. Healthcare workers were applauded in the streets, and applauded hospital cleaners in their turn. ‘Martin Luther King Jr. predicted this moment’, wrote Gene Sperling in the New York Times in April 2020, referring to King’s support for the 1968 sanitation workers strike. ‘One day,’ King told the strikers in Memphis, ‘our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant.’ Again, and for all the Coalition government’s anti-union legislation and rhetoric and punitive approach to the unemployed, I don’t think it’s an idealisation to suggest that something like that sentiment was at large in the first half of 2020, if only around such watercoolers or barbecues as were still in use.
For a time, then, and in a limited way, the pandemic challenged the way we think about work. Interesting times, indeed. But what lessons might we take from them, such that ‘the new normal’ will be an improvement on the old one?
One way to begin to address this question is to consider what kinds of work were esteemed in the decades leading up to this point, and how and why they were so esteemed. And in this respect, The Tyranny of Merit, by the US philosopher Michael Sandel, and Head Hand Heart, by the British journalist and commentator David Goodhart, serve as a useful point of departure. Both books are concerned with what Goodhart calls ‘cognitive meritocracy’ – a useful phrase in that it links a moral system to a particular form of work, which is linked in turn to a particular period of socioeconomic change. For both Sandel and Goodhart, this moral system has eroded social solidarity, increased inequality and precipitated the rise of rightwing populism. We need, writes Sandel, a ‘reckoning’ with it, as part of a broader recalibration of status and value with respect to labour.
The story of the concept of ‘meritocracy’ has been well rehearsed in recent times, largely because of the way in which inequality and precarity have exposed its weaknesses. But some are still surprised to learn that the idea was conceived in the spirit of social satire, not the spirit of idealism. Its originator was the British socialist and sociologist Michael Young, whose 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy purported to be a history of Britain told from the year 2033. Writing at a time when the old British class system, and the logic that sustained it, was beginning to break down, Young saw how the emerging idea of a merit-based society – one in which ‘IQ + effort’ would come to replace nepotism and patronage – would appeal to many working class people eager to escape manual, poorly-paid work. But he also saw how that emerging system would give rise to a new moral logic, in which inequalities of wealth were justified on the grounds of individual endeavour. ‘Without defending the class-bound order that was passing,’ writes Sandel, ‘Young suggested that its moral arbitrariness and manifest unfairness at least had this desirable effect: It tempered the self-regard of the upper class and prevented the working class from viewing its subordinate status as personal failure.’ Moreover, knowing the system was rigged allowed the working class to oppose it – indeed to oppose it as a class (hence the old working-class imperative to rise with your class, not above it). For Young, ‘the meritocracy’ would afford no such recourse. It would leave the working class ‘morally naked’.
To call The Rise of the Meritocracy prophetic would be to understate the point, given that it actually furnished liberalism with the concept it needed to liberate capitalism from its more hidebound associations. Framed as a riposte to upper-class entitlement, the concept found its fullest articulation, not under the right-neoliberal governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but under the centre-left governments of Paul Keating, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder, which could draw on their commitment to state education and training as a way to square the circle between a broadly neoliberal economics and a more egalitarian ethos. Thus the shifting of risk (‘flexibility’) from employer to employee could be characterised as aspiration, and education linked to striving, as in Clinton’s oft-repeated couplet, ‘The more you learn, the more you earn.’ As Thomas Frank demonstrates in Listen, Liberal (2016), one effect of this process has been to tie progressive politics to the professional classes – an association that reached its zenith with Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency, in which the candidate’s smarts were deployed rhetorically to yoke together a technocratic program and ‘lean-in’-style identity politics. To no avail, as it turned out.
Why so? One reason, surely, is that the meritocratic society envisaged by its early spruikers simply hasn’t come to pass. Nor could it, in a society where family wealth and various forms of prejudice continue to exert such influence. True, political scientists such as Charles Murray have argued that meritocracy is compatible with low social mobility, citing the heritability of intelligence and ‘assortative mating’ as stabilising factors (Goodhart flirts with this idea, which is essentially that intelligent people tend to marry other intelligent people and therefore to produce intelligent kids). But this is a long way from what the avatars of Third Way politics signed up to, or asked their electorates to sign up to, when they insisted that their priorities were ‘education, education, education’ (Blair) or assured laid-off workers in the American Midwest that they’d be retrained as computer programmers now that their jobs had been off-shored (Clinton). As Sandel notes, there is currently more social mobility in China than in the US. At least the American Dream is alive somewhere.
So, such meritocracy as we have is either imperfect or self-defeating. But for Sandel and Goodhart, and indeed for Young, it is less the possibility of meritocracy than the principles underlying it that are significant, given that its central aim is not to eradicate material inequality but to justify it in the name of ‘equality of opportunity’. Even if it were possible to create a level playing field in the mountainous regions of late capitalism, it would still leave countless people on the sidelines, nursing insults as well as injuries.
Sandel is especially informative here. His book takes the long view of meritocracy (and of US-style meritocracy in particular), charting the relationship between puritanical attitudes to work in the sixteenth century and the emergence of capitalism in Northern Europe, in much the same vein as Max Weber’s opus, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). In essence it is the story of how striving and effort effectively drove out luck and grace as the measure of ‘merit’ in early-modern Europe, and of how our contemporary ideas of success mirror puritanical ideas of salvation – i.e. as something we earn through our own effort. As Sandel puts it:
This is the heart of the meritocratic ethic. It celebrates freedom – the ability to control my destiny by dint of hard work – and deservingness. If I am responsible for having accrued a handsome share of worldly goods – income and wealth, power and prestige – I must deserve them. Success is a sign of virtue. My affluence is my due.
It is a short step from here to the ‘prosperity theology’ that celebrates wealth as the manifestation of superior virtue, and Sandel notes too the way this equation plays out at the national level, as the link between US prosperity/power and its ‘providential’ role in history. The US is great because it is good, and God help those who get in its road.
Sandel’s case against meritocracy is in two parts. The first turns on the question of luck and fairness. Meritocracy claims to reward individuals according to their abilities; but since we are not responsible for such abilities as we are born with, nor for the fact that we are born into societies that happen to value those abilities, it isn’t morally clear why the people who possess them should be rewarded for their successes. Ian Thorpe may have been a dutiful trainer, but he also has feet like paddle-blades, and happens to have been born in Australia, which reveres its top-flight swimmers as heroes. And what goes for the Thorpedo goes too for the doctor or college professor with the high IQ: since cognitive ability appears to be partly hereditary, their success cannot be attributed to striving alone.
The second part of Sandel’s case against meritocracy is the more serious one and goes to the ‘tyranny’ of his title. This is the idea that meritocracy, even if it could be shown to be fair, would not produce a ‘good’ society, because its effect is to rationalise inequality, creating a presumption that people get what they deserve and thus deepening the gap between rich and poor. It passes judgment, in other words, making the ‘winners’ arrogant and the ‘losers’ despair. Thus Scott Morrison’s folksy mantra, ‘if you have a go, you get a go’ is not merely congruent with the social violence evinced in something like the ‘Robodebt’ scandal; it makes such violence possible. Even in the hands of more caring administrations, meritocracy is a brutal creed. As Young put it himself in a piece in The Guardian, written at the height of the ‘New Labour’ experiment, ‘It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none.’
Because the essence of modern meritocracy is the link between education and striving, one of its key social manifestations is the phenomenon of ‘credentialism’ – the belief that academic or other formal qualifications are the best measure of a person’s intelligence or ability to do a particular job. For both Sandel and Goodhart, one effect of this belief has been to undermine the dignity associated with other forms of work, which is to say work requiring less in the way of cognitive thinking skills. Without necessarily aiming to, politicians and opinion makers assist in this process of undermining, sprinkling their speeches and articles with language that implicitly reveres the cognitive over the manual or emotional. (Sandel notes in particular the prominence of the adjective ‘smart’, as in ‘smartphones’, ‘smart cars’, ‘smart bombs’ etc.) Whereas in the past such public figures may have reached for a different language of judgment, based on alternative evaluative contrasts (just versus unjust, free versus unfree, strong versus weak, open versus closed), today ‘the reigning evaluative contrast’ (Sandel) is between intelligence and unintelligence. Such language is implicitly technocratic, since the ‘smart thing to do almost always points to a prudential or self-interested reason that does not depend on moral considerations’. Nevertheless, it disguises a harsh judgment – one that marginalises other forms of work and fuels prejudice against less educated members of society.
Sandel is a philosopher in the communitarian tradition. As such he is a shrewd critic of liberal ideas, and one of the most impressive things about The Tyranny of Merit is the forensic way it anatomises different traditions within liberalism. In particular it demonstrates how these traditions tend to give rise to meritocratic attitudes, even where the tradition in question ostensibly rejects merit as an organising principle (as, for example, both Hayekian neoliberalism and some forms of social liberalism do). But its most important contribution is the way it sets out a different basis for valuing work and the people that do it. Taking issue in particular with the ‘distributive justice’ model of liberalism associated with the philosopher John Rawls, Sandel suggests that what people want is not only more material equality but also a sense that they are contributing to society, and are respected for doing so. This is the basis for what he calls ‘contributive justice’, and it meets the central problem, as he sees it, of Rawls’ rather bloodless ‘welfare liberalism’, which is that it is unable to establish a moral principle compelling or robust enough to generate the sort of social solidarity needed for social democracy to flourish. By contrast, Sandel’s ‘producer-centred ethic’ sees work as ‘a socially integrating activity’ – an ‘arena of recognition’ through which we honour our obligations to one another. It suggests that ‘we are most fully human when we contribute to the common good and earn the esteem of our fellow citizens for the contributions we make’.
For Sandel, and for others in the communitarian tradition, even social liberalism concedes too much to its classical progenitor, reproducing liberalism’s principal error (which is also, historically, its greatest strength) – its emphasis on the individual. For Sandel, our sociality is prior to our individuality, and the way we view work should reflect that fact. Work is not merely a means to an end; it is an irreducible aspect of our humanity in that it allows us to meet what he describes as ‘the fundamental human need to be needed’.
David Goodhart would agree with much of Sandel’s analysis. Certainly he would take the point that progressives are today often far too uncritical of certain kinds of individualism. His previous book The Road to Somewhere (2017) was written in the wake of the Brexit debacle and argued that a knowledge class in thrall to ‘progressive individualism’ and often dismissive of more collective forms of understanding (including nationalism and even patriotism) had become dangerously remote from those outside its own life-worlds. This got him into hot water with progressives, not least because he is a progressive himself, and was deemed to be giving ammunition to the enemy; but there is no doubt that he’d spotted something important about the way the ‘double liberalism’ of the increasingly powerful knowledge class – an emphasis on openness and individualism in both economic and cultural matters – had given rise to its opposite: a politics of ‘walls’, effectively, in which more nationalistic sentiments at the level of both economics and culture were making gains among those left behind in the great transition from an industrial economy to a (global) post-industrial one. For Goodhart, Brexit was a manifestation of this politics – a populist ‘Somewhere’ view of the world expressing a preference for the local and the familiar in the face of a dominant ‘Anywhere’ view stressing openness and flexibility.
For Goodhart, as for Sandel, this new division turns not only, or even principally, on material inequality, but on questions of status and (self-)esteem, especially as they relate to the credentialism and meritocracy at the heart of our current ‘status hierarchy’. In Head Hand Heart, he develops this idea, linking it to the useful distinction, first developed by the anthropologist Ralph Linton, between ‘achieved’ identity and ‘ascribed’ identity. Thus:
The institutions that have historically accepted you as a member unconditionally – family, church, nation – are all weakened in a freer, more mobile and more individualistic society. Achieved identities based on educational and career success have eclipsed ascribed identities based on attachment to place and group.
As we’ve seen, such ‘educational and career success’ is bound up with particular kinds of work, and there is a deep connection between these kinds of work and the status identities described above. For ‘Head’ work is information work – work that deals in the fluid and the abstract, and can often be done from anywhere, or indeed from Anywhere – and the greater esteem accorded to it means that it is the ‘embodied’ skills of ‘Hand’ and ‘Heart’ that are marginalised. Head’s ‘eclipse’ of Hand and Heart is thus felt at the level of people’s deepest identity, with profound social and political consequences.
There is much to be said for this argument, which places issues of work and status at the epicentre of the populist earthquake. But there are also problems with Head Hand Heart, not the least of which is the fact that its author has erected a rather self-defeating way to advance its principal argument – that we need to raise the status profile of forms of work outside the knowledge economy. In some ways he is the hostage of his own title/taxonomy, which not only obliges the reader to think in terms of ‘hand jobs’ and ‘head jobs’ (which isn’t ideal) but also seems in some regards to be shot through with the very thinking he is, or should be, aiming to dislodge. Indeed, he seems to be sporadically aware that his categories are problematic, and at one point even describes them as ‘misleading’. That he doesn’t attempt at any point in the book to rigorously define these categories (in stark contrast, it should be said, to his process in The Road to Somewhere, in which terms were defined in meticulous detail and hedged around with important distinctions), only adds to the problem.
This is not to say that Goodhart is wrong to categorise work at all. On the contrary, I think he is right to follow the excellent Matthew Crawford’s line (as set out in The Case for Working with Your Hands) that there is a difference between knowing ‘that’ and knowing ‘how’, and right too to suggest that the concept of ‘cognitive skills’ relates to something real and specific – i.e. to a particular set of competencies. But the ‘Head Hand Heart’ formula is too vague to be useful, and sometimes simply confuses the issue. For example, his lengthy disquisition on the relationship between IQ and cognitive ability – a disquisition in which he seems oddly insistent that the fraught category of ‘intelligence research’ is now a respected branch of psychology – is followed by this chunky caveat:
To summarize so far: cognitive ability is a real and measurable thing, but the cognitive ability-based sorting machine [i.e. exams, IQ tests and the like] does not always get things right because of the difficulty of capturing something as elusive as intelligence in narrowly based tests. Moreover, many of the qualities that even advanced technological societies need to function well, and to do so fairly, do not feature at all in narrower definitions of intelligence – effort, empathy, virtue, imagination, courage, caring ability.
Perhaps part of the answer is in our use of language and labelling.
Well yes, I think we could say that labelling is part of the predicament here. As when, for example, an author purporting to analyse the relationship between work and value describes a very narrow range of intellectual skills as ‘Head’, in a way that manages to reproduce one element of the bias against ‘manual’ and ‘care’ workers, namely that the work requires no particular effort at the level of intellect. Surely the important point is to challenge the categories that are currently used to describe productive activity, not to faithfully duplicate them.
To make my point clear: if, as Goodhart seems to accept, there are plenty of ‘Head’ skills not captured in cognitive tests, from imagination to judgment to social intelligence; and if, as I’m sure he would also accept, there is Head work involved in much blue-collar work, and both Head and Hand work in most care work; and if, finally, there is plenty of Head work that does not require much cognitive ability at all, what is his titular taxonomy doing other than reinforcing the values marbled in to our current moment? As Goodhart himself appears to understand, the principal thing dividing ‘Head’ work from ‘Hand’ work and ‘Heart’ work is not ‘intelligence’; intelligence is far too complex a phenomenon, and Head work too diverse, for that to be the case. The thing that separates it, ultimately, is that it relates to the sectors of the economy to which the mighty wagon of capitalism hitched its star in the 1990s – finance, insurance, communication, personal services – and sprinkled with the ideological pixie dust of flexibility, merit and the like. The cognitive workers were the winners, is all, encouraged to believe their contribution is peculiarly tough and especially important.
Goodhart worries that the value we place on some kinds of work is out of proportion with the contribution such work makes to society, and there’s no question that he is correct on this score. But capitalism doesn’t care about our contribution; it cares about profit and economic growth, and analyses that neglect to grapple with that fact are bound to look a little thin. Such was Will Davies’ point: it was the suspension of normal economic activity that followed the COVID-19 emergency that threw the issue of status into relief. COVID-19 was a little rip in the matrix – one that demonstrated the fundamental link between our lopsided attributions of status and the economic system we have.
As Davies notes, it was in the realm of care work that this contradiction was most conspicuous, and in that respect Madeline Bunting’s new book Labours of Love is impeccably timed. An in-depth study of the ‘care economy’ combining interviews and sharp analysis, it is also a welcome tonic to Goodhart’s taxonomy. If Bunting is right to insist, as she does, that care work is characterised by its ‘invisibility’, then it’s especially important to know what it is that we’re talking about when invoking it.
Bunting’s aim in the book is to anatomise the crisis of quality and availability in the increasingly massive ‘care sector’. This crisis was highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which found jurisdictions across the world struggling to cope with the emergency, especially in hospitals and the aged-care sector. But for Bunting it is also part of a much longer process, one in which a deep-seated historical prejudice against the value and importance of care work has collided with an economic system stressing fiscal discipline and profit-based solutions. Nor is the situation likely to improve any time soon, with the number of over 85-year olds rising fast in rich countries (in the UK it is expected to double by 2035), and more and more families entrusting their children to a chronically underfunded childcare system. Having placed the profit motive above people, liberal democracies are finding out the hard way that capital seeks private returns, not social ones, and that the ‘centrist’ gamble that the twain might meet has frayed beyond all hope.
Bunting’s method is to listen and to watch, and only then to analyse. Travelling around her native UK, she visits home-care companies, charities and teaching hospitals, and interviews their employees (at length) about their experiences. Some of these institutions sit within the state, while others exist in the gaps that have opened up in the areas the state has abandoned. But all are full of decent people, whose accounts of the daily challenges they meet are often deeply moving. Moreover, they demonstrate the multiple skillsets they need to go about their work, which, though often routine and repetitive (as is data entry, or marking student essays) also needs expert knowledge and skill, empathy, insight, creativity, tactile sensitivity and physical strength. It is work, in short, that utilises the full range of human attributes. As the author puts it: ‘I learnt how care need not be gendered, and how it can all too easily be crushed in false dualisms, such as head/heart, active/passive or skilled/unskilled.’ And later: ‘Ambiguity is written into care as it straddles ethics, practical action, thought and a set of emotional responses.’
The invisibility of care is not a new phenomenon. Adam Smith accorded childrearing and housework no function within the economy, regarding the family, and the caring roles within it, as necessary counterweights to the cold rationalism of the marketplace. Care work was something women did, and were expected to do, out of the goodness of their hearts, while their husbands served as either fuel or lubricant to the throbbing engine of ‘the economy’ – conceived under capitalism, and only under capitalism, as something separable from social life more broadly. As Bunting explains:
[Capitalism] provoked unease because of its brutal inhumanity and the suffering it caused – workers thrown out of jobs or children working long hours in factories. Furthermore, it offered a chilling prescription for intimate human relationships, and had to be specifically excluded from the private world of family life. As industrial capitalism increased its hold on society, aspects of private life were shielded. The expanding middle classes enthusiastically reinvented the meaning of family and home. Marriage was no longer regarded as primarily a practical arrangement expanding property and family connections, but as a relationship in which the angelic wife offered succour and tenderness.
Of course, such ideas persist to this day; but as capitalism has burrowed its way into every facet of human existence, it has found in care a lucrative new outlet. Care work is now a profitable sector – indeed, the fastest-growing sector in industrialised societies, according to Bunting. Advanced under the rubrics of flexibility and choice, it depends on an army of poorly paid workers, the great majority of whom are female and as such fit the bill of the selfless (‘Heart’) worker. Thus the ‘angel in the house’ meets the engine of capitalism, and is given a crash course in supply and demand.
One of the consequences of conceiving care as a profit-making enterprise is that its efficiency, productivity and competitiveness need to be constantly monitored – an administrative regime that is as likely to get worse as better in light of the Royal Commission into aged care, should its conclusions find expression in a new set of ‘targets’. This entails redefining care work as a series of discrete and measurable tasks and then allocating these tasks to the lowest level of skill possible. This is a recipe for ‘poor service’, of course, but it is also a recipe for alienation, as both carers and ‘clients’ are expected to meet endless bureaucratic criteria. (This, incidentally, goes to the deep connection between capitalism and ‘bullshit jobs’, to use the late David Graeber’s phrase.) Some of the most harrowing passages in the book concern parents of sick or disabled children who are obliged to plough through stupid forms full of often intrusive questions. One of Bunting’s interviewees – a disability charity worker and the mother of a disabled child herself – proves especially revealing on this point, noting how this bureaucratic mentality brings parents close to breaking point: ‘The [Disability Living Allowance] form is fifty-odd pages, and it looks like a small telephone directory. The first time I couldn’t fill it in on my own, it was so depressing. I was in deep grief at my child’s diagnosis.’
Such bureaucratic outlooks are reflected in the language used to talk about care, and one of the most interesting things in Labours of Love is the way its author explores how words both shape and are shaped by changing conditions. Indeed, the book contains a number of short essays on how words such as ‘care’, ‘empathy’ and ‘kindness’ have evolved under ideological pressure – a method used by the great Marxist critic Raymond Williams in Keywords (1976). In particular, she notes the way in which the language used in the contemporary care setting is often remote from, or inimical to, any authentic idea of human flourishing. In some contexts, terms of endearment are banned; in others there are ‘empathy audits’; in nearly all of them ‘services’ are ‘delivered’ to ‘customers’, as if care was akin to a takeaway pizza. Then, of course, there is the language of ‘choice’, the logic of which, Bunting suggests, runs counter to the logic of care, which is often about dependence and even helplessness. Thus does neoliberalism drown out our genuine humanity, disenchanting our embodied social lives with the chilly language of calculation.
There is no call to condescend to care work. On the contrary, and as Bunting suggests, the ethic of care should be generalised to all areas of society. For while neoliberalism is an individualist creed, care is a fundamentally social one, and Bunting’s book shows us just how marginal the neoliberal verities of choice and competition are to the things that really matter to us. ‘No human life,’ wrote Hannah Arendt, ‘not even the life of the hermit in nature’s wilderness, is possible without a world which directly or indirectly testifies to the presence of other human beings.’ Mutuality is not something we opt for in a spirit of kumbaya. Without it we simply don’t exist.
The point, then, is not to redistribute the value we put on this or that kind of work, but to change our ideas about what work is, which is to say our ideas about what it is for, and what it means to undertake it. For what it is for is not production in the narrow economic sense, but reproduction in the social one: it is the process by which societies recreate themselves, materially and socially, from one day to the next. Ultimately, it is not about profit and growth; it is the means by which and through which we flourish, as creatures in need of sustenance and comfort, and as beings whose selfhood is utterly grounded in their relations with others, significant or not. It is the essence of our ‘species being’ as social and uniquely creative animals.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a reminder of the fact that the economic system we have is in many ways geared to products and services beyond our fundamental needs, and often beyond our needs full stop. I think we should take the opportunity to think about alternative arrangements. Perhaps then the times will really get interesting.
Matthew Crawford, The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good, Penguin, 2010
Will Davies, ‘The holiday of exchange value’, Politcal Economy Research Centre, 7 April 2020
Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?, Scribe, 2016
David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, Penguin, 2017
David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, Penguin, 2019
Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1905
Michael Young, ‘Down with meritocracy’, The Guardian, 29 June 2001
Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1958