I’m not sure there are many people out there (excepting those with lifts in their shoes and Dyson Airblade hairstyles or those with a penchant for bareback horse riding) who would disagree with me when I say that true democracy is a wonderful thing. All eligible people equally participating in the proposal, development and establishment of the laws by which their society is run. It suggests a freedom from tyranny and vested interests. When we read about the latest brouhaha at Westminster it’s not democracy that’s failed but politics – the Hydra-like system that has grown up around the democratic principle. The ideals of democracy are worth aspiring to and striving for. The mechanism by which we express it is, seemingly irretrievably, broken. The complex by-products of democracy (free market capitalism, technology, fashion, industry, professional sport and so on) reassert tyranny. Of conformity. Of the pursuit of wealth at all costs. Of everyday sexism. Of exclusivity. Of triviality. Of a lack of control of our own destinies. Our societal structures are predicated on maintaining the status quo. On keeping people in their place. The fear-mongering that accompanied campaigning for the recent Scottish independence referendum is a case in point. Vote “Yes” and an uncertain, poorer future awaits. And yet, staring into a supposed abyss, on an 84.59% turnout, 44.70% of those who voted, did say “Yes”. Facing unknown unknowns, so disillusioned with established structures, people were prepared to have a go at tearing it all up and starting over.
That disillusionment is widely and deeply felt is not in dispute. We are well versed in cataloguing all that is wrong with the way the human world functions. What is lacking from mainstream debate are credible joined-up alternatives.
The world of work and of workplaces is no exception. The autumn months see the arrival in town of the various workplace tribal caravans for conference season. Last week it was Workplace Trends. I missed the first two sessions but arrived in time for an advertorial slideshow of identikit workplaces that could have been culled from any article on “cool” offices from the past 15 years. Having seen it all before, they didn’t seem cool to me. But for others, languishing in cubicled purgatory, they may very well have seemed hip and cutting-edge. Cool, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
What was cool was the approach taken for the Workstock pop-up, Neil Usher’s tour-de-force. A quick-fire series of Pecha Kucha riffs on all that’s wrong with working life today. Poetry, performance art, music, a sinister countdown backdrop, John the cardboard manager, wirearchies and much more besides. It was cool to experience. But I had to leave immediately afterwards, real life intruding. On the train home I had time to reflect. Reflect on these off-grid ghosts in the machine. And I kept thinking about politics and democracy. Humans and their structures. I felt troubled. It’s a feeling I’ve had for a while now. When I spend time around the world of work I feel like I’ve picked up an insidious infection and it eats away at me. It made me wonder who we are, these workplace disruptors, punks, doodlers, sophists, commentators and dreamers.
Under the guise of provoking thought or debate we’re controversial and wear profanity like a badge of honour. We can get away with saying just about anything in the sure fire knowledge that we’ll never be handed the responsibility of delivering any of it. Enough of a pain in the arse to provoke ire and knee jerks.
We’re the LibDems
Sometimes a quirk of electoral fate actually gets us through the door. The compromises start as soon as the last helium has drained from the balloons of celebration. Promises get broken. We become the whipping boy. A hollowed-out shell of our idealistic former selves.
We’re the Greens
A great many people agree with everything we stand for but don’t see how on earth it will work in the real world. When “Good Life” principles come up against commercialism, naked greed and ambition. Or even up against ennui, which might be worse. Sleepwalking over a cliff.
THE Establishment. Self aggrandizing. Venal. Cannibalizing. Greedy. Clinging on with a rigor mortis grip. Certain. Former punks selling Anchor butter.
The trouble with much of what we (I) keep banging on about is that it isn’t focused on the right issues. We’re railing against cool workplaces when we can only ever polish the turd because the system that supports it all remains essentially unchanged. What is the alternative to work? To politics? To collateralized debt obligations? To credit? I don’t see any answers, or at least coherent, convergent alternatives. I can’t see them myself. It’s dreadfully frustrating. The same questions keep whirring around a mind found wanting, accompanied by a terrible suspicion lurking somewhere that actually people taken generally, and given enough head of steam are a pretty shitty bunch. We like shiny toys. We like them so much we’re prepared to overlook our morals and ethics to get them. We demand responsibility from our institutions and corporations without ever holding them properly to account. Or we don’t overlook them. We just don’t hold them strongly enough or care enough about others to do anything about it.
Someone cautioned at Workplace Trends that this isn’t a middle class rebellion. Well, I think that’s part of the problem. We desperately need a middle class revolt. Take Waitrose, bastion of middle class consumerism. It prides itself on its ethical trading. Its staff get bonus payments and overtime which may add up to the living wage but this is not the same thing as actually getting the hourly living wage rate and because they are contracted out, cleaners at John Lewis Group don’t get it at all. It’s got nearly 120,000 people worked up enough to sign a petition. Signing petitions is a pretty middle class form of registering displeasure. I’m sorry Waitrose, but we’re terribly disappointed. If it really matters, stop shopping there. It’s the simplest form of direct action.
…what’s my alternative? Tesco? Like, they’re purer than the driven snow.
I don’t like Apple because working conditions in their factories in China are…but, look a smart Watch…so what about Samsung…but…oh…
Sod it. I’m off to Waitrose to see if they’ve got any of that Heston Blumenthal salted caramel popcorn ice cream.