Austerity has transformed the meaning and morality of work in the UK

Work has of course always been central to capitalist organisation, since the ability of capital to extract surplus value from labour is at the essential core of accumulation processes. In post-crisis UK, however, work has become not only integral to the function of the capitalist economy, but also, it seems, a defining measure of how well it is functioning.

This is in part due to the UK’s stubborn productivity problem, meaning greater labour volumes are required to maintain profitability, and the accelerated transition to becoming an economy dominated by the services sector. But it also relates to how capitalism can be legitimised in an age of ‘secular stagnation’, where elites can no longer rely on distributing the proceeds of growth to maintain social order.

As such, success in increasing employment levels is heralded as a sign of a healthy economy despite the absence of sustainable output growth. Furthermore, when operating in tandem with moralistic narratives around the duty to work, the new status of employment within regime legitimation also helps to effectively individualise responsibility for delivering prosperity. We need look no further for the cause of economic difficulties, so the argument goes, than those who refuse to participate in the labour market.

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Image: Ozzy Delaney