Pension con job

Working life should end in material comfort, demands James Turley


As the furore over George Osborne’s bloodthirsty ‘emergency budget’ continues, a clear area of controversy is the proposed rise in the state pension age.

Gordon Brown’s Labour government had already projected an increase, to be implemented over the years 2024-46, of the official retirement age to 68 for both men and women. Towards this end, from April this year the retirement age for women has been raised from 60 to 61 and was due to reach the male age of 65 in 2020. This is nominally in line with the demographic trends of an ageing population. Now work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, in line with the desire to decimate Britain’s public spending, has sped up the timetable – men will see their retirement age increase from 65 to 66 in 2016.

So, though this particular change will only come into play after the end of this government, it is clear that the political establishment as a whole is engaged in a rolling back of the welfare state. To state the obvious, the raising of the pension age is not just an attack on the elderly, but an attack on people who are now young too (there is, after all, talk going around of pushing the retirement age up to 70 in the years ahead). And, alas, this is only part of the story.

As a ‘sweetener’, the ruling coalition has agreed to restore the earnings link to the state pension. This is certainly a demand that peppers any number of left reformist programmes. The economic situation, however, basically renders it a dead letter. Real wages are likely to fall – which means that the existing link to inflation will cover any increase in wages anyway. But state pensioners are at least no worse off than they were under the old regime – the basic rate will rise by the largest of earnings, prices or a 2.5% minimum.

At the moment, the grand total for a single person is a whopping £97.65 per week – so far short of a living income, it is closer to an insult than a pension. With prices increasing by 3.7% or 5.3%, depending on which measure you use (wonder which one Osborne has in mind), this figure will in practice stagnate until the much-anticipated economic recovery – and that is before you take into account the rise in VAT. The utterly tokenistic character of concessions ‘won’ by Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat colleagues from biliously Tory policies is plain to all – their poll ratings are already dropping rapidly, and there are the first signs of disquiet on the Lib Dem benches in the Commons as well.

Labour, of course, is in the business of scoring the political open goals – with such socialist firebrands as, er, Yvette Cooper attacking cuts “nastier” than those of Maggie Thatcher. This level of mendacity really does give the luxury of opposition a bad name – not only are the Tories simply building on decades of damage, including under Labour, when it comes to pensions; but Labour promised more severe cuts than the Thatcher years in the leaders’ debates! Surely Cooper should be congratulating Osborne for fulfilling New Labour policy?

Alongside the matter of pensions is the related question of the compulsory retirement age. The coalition wants to effectively abolish it – people, it is argued, should be free to stay in work with all the usual legal protections until they see fit to leave. Indeed, there is nothing particularly progressive about forcing people to retire – for many employers, it has been used to conveniently get rid of people in jobs where it is generally possible to work into old age (for instance, academics: left intellectuals Terry Eagleton and Sheila Rowbotham were summarily ditched by Manchester University during a cost-cutting drive two years ago).

But again, the context of the change reveals it as something of a con job. Part of the impetus behind the present round of auto-cannibalistic cuts (not the only part) is to clear out concessions to the working class. Raising the retirement age makes people more reliant on their employers, rather than less – a 65-year-old is unlikely to want to live off a state pension and whatever benefits he or she can cobble together, and the door is open for employers to cajole workers to work until they drop. People should have the right, but more importantly the material ability, to retire when they are ready.

More broadly in contemporary culture, capitalists expect ever more work out of us. The advent of mobile phones and electronic communications means that once time-consuming tasks are done in seconds – but Marx reminds us that no ‘labour-saving’ device ever saved a minute’s labour, and the consequence is that work increasingly seems never to stop – it continues long after nominal working hours are over. For some capitalists, it is convenient to be able to curtail working life – for others, it will be convenient to extend it.

One need only re-examine Marx’s writing on the struggle over the working day to find out what lurks behind the benevolent gift of the option of more years of work – in the 19th century, bourgeois ideologues wasted no time opposing limits to the working day as infringements of the ‘freedom’ of workers to work as much as they pleased. At its most obscene, this situation meant that children were claimed to be free and happy volunteers to 14-hour stints in a flax mill.

Contrary to the caricatures peddled by some at the loopier end of anarchism, Marxists do not valorise ‘good, honest work’ in any way. We do not think there is any virtue in working yourself to death – labour is there to reproduce life, not the other way round. That is not the state of affairs under capitalism. The ageing population is not, as it is sometimes implied to be, a ‘demographic time bomb’ of some sort, and we are thereby heading for a situation where there are simply too few people in work to support the total population. The productivity of labour has tended to increase, albeit in a pattern that suits the ruling class; there is more than enough production to go around.

Capitalism simply undoes all those technical advances by squandering the material wealth it produces – and the wealth it inherits from nature. It is the worst of all possible worlds – quite apart from pensioners, whose removal from the workplace is partly a matter of the individual’s life cycle, capitalism demands unemployment – but those in employment have to work themselves to the bone to compensate; meanwhile, waste and duplication of effort abounds in the anarchy of the marketplace.

The flagrant irrationality of all this is concealed and compounded by ideology – the dour ethics of Calvinist Christianity have long been noted to underwrite in some sense the expansion of industrial capitalism, but there are no end of alternatives, religious or secular, to this masochistic dogma. Self-help manuals abound to inculcate the personal habits of non-specific ‘successful’ people, and all remind the reader that genius is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration (a rather generous assessment of the usefulness of such tomes). We are persistently told Horatio Alger stories – Alger peddled endless novels to the American public in the late 19th century charting the rise of humble urchins to a comfortably inane bourgeois existence. It was all there for the taking – provided you worked to a lunatic intensity.

As a result of all this, the matter of pensions has to tie in with the issue of work as such. Retirement proves such a vexed issue only because, for the majority of people, it is something they come very much to look forward to. In the 1990s, American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich spent a year, in the manner of George Orwell, living close to the breadline in mundane unskilled jobs, producing a book – Nickel and dimed – about the experience. Her point was that this work is precisely ‘mind-numbing’ – it eats up the time and energy necessary to read, to socialise, to think. Paul Lafargue, son-in-law of Marx, went further in his short essay, ‘The right to be lazy’: “In capitalist society work is the cause of all intellectual degeneracy.”

We need to propose a radically different kind of working life – one where more people work substantially fewer hours (for a start, the working week should be reduced to a 35 hour maximum); one where people are free to spend time out of work to study, whether vocationally or not; one where there is – heaven forbid – the opportunity for people simply to relax. Jobs themselves should not be designed to squeeze every last drop of sweat from workers, but to produce in line with what society democratically decides it needs – and wherever possible to be genuinely fulfilling activities in their own right.

Working life should end in material comfort. The age of retirement should be lowered to 60 (55 for those in unpleasant or dangerous occupations). But this should be voluntary – there should be no compulsory retirement on the basis of age. Pensioners should receive an income based not on what capital claims it can afford, linked to inflation or anything else, but what they actually require to live well – materially and culturally. Pensions need to be set at the level of the minimum wage, which itself needs to be raised substantially to reflect the true value of labour-power.

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