Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Worst Job I Ever Had

Back in the late 70s, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, adopting their Derek and Clive alter egos, did a sketch called The Worst Job I Ever Had, which concerned retrieving lobsters from Jayne Mansfield's bum. I was reminded of this by the latest plans to get an honest day's work out of the prison population. The idea of running businesses using prisoners, or even siting businesses within prisons, is obviously not a new one, but it is an idea with an uneasy history. This arises because of our confusion between work and punishment.

The modern prison, as a correctional facility (a place to re-engineer morals), could not have evolved without a blurring of the lines between factory and gaol, and more particularly the blurring of two goals: the disciplining of the individual and the production of value. The intersection between the two is often located in Jeremy Bentham's idea of the self-financing Panopticon. This unrealised scheme is famous today partly because of Michel Foucault's use of it as as a metaphor for power relations in his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. The purpose of the Panopticon was, he wrote: "to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power", and "Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable". In other words, the structure of the building implied constant observation, which removed the need for actual constant observation. Self-repression was all. It is one of the ironies of history that the intended site of the Panopticon, which was eventually used for a more conventional Victorian penitentiary (and staging point for Australian transportees), is now occupied by Tate Modern and Millbank Tower (the 1997 home of New Labour) in Pimlico. Art and politics conquers vice.

Before Bentham, John Bellers' 1695 Proposals for Raising a College of Industry of All Useful Trades and Husbandry introduced the idea of the "big house", but specifically as a means of alleviating the novel condition of pauperism, which had grown over the preceding 150 years following the dissolution of the monasteries (a source of relief) and the growth of itinerant labour in the seventeenth century (the stirrings of the agricultural and industrial revolutions to come). Bellers' idea would influence many social visionaries, including Bentham, Fourier (the Phalanstery) and Robert Owen (New Lanark). In time, the idea was seen to provide the framework not just for the relief of pauperism but for the reparation of the criminal to society, with the tantalising promise that the labour of the criminal might return a profit. In part this was because poverty itself (vagrancy) came to be criminalised, and thus crime was seen as the concomittant of an unwillingness to work. Penal servitude, which had initially been a means to provide indentured labour for the colonies of America and Australia, was replaced by domestic penal (or "hard") labour after 1857, often in the form of oakum picking (unravelling old rope for caulking). Without colonial transportation (out of sight, out of mind), the need to work criminal labour became more pressing.

Early factories in the eighteenth century were largely unmechanised. The concentration of labour in one place, as opposed to the older model of dispersed work in homes, was driven by the concentration of raw materials and the consequent reduction in transportation costs and process inefficiencies. From its earliest days, the factory system was founded on the observation and disciplining of workers, to prevent "soldiering" (i.e. everyone working at the slowest acceptable rate). Mechanisation provided an efficient means of remote-controlling the worker, through the imposed rhythm of the machine and its strict control of time, but rigid ordering of work precedes it. It would have been odd if notionally free men and women were more restrained and invigilated than prisoners, so the practices of the factory were transferred to gaols.

This adoption of factory modes spread beyond prisons. State institutions in the nineteenth century generally adopted the paradigm of production, organising around processes and commodities. A barracks became a warehouse of "uniform" soldiers, a hospital became a production line for the output of healthy bodies, a school squeezed square pegs through round holes to produce a "standard" model. Active inspection (quality control) was paramount, and defect management (AWOLs, patients who die, recalcitrant pupils) was heavily proceduralised. Waiting (or "down time", in the original factory sense of that phrase) meant waste, but it also signified control, the storage of labour pending further use, so excessive waiting became a means of discipline: standing on a parade ground in the rain, waiting hours for an appointment, facing the wall in the corner of a schoolroom.

Over the twentieth century state facilities evolved in line with the work environment, so today they usually look like offices and are increasingly striving to look like the Googleplex. New-built hospitals have expensive reception areas festooned with awards and motivational posters, while wards aspire to the informal cheer of a breakout area or a coffee point. Schools have modular timetables and desk clusters, to support the commitment to projects and teamwork (though the focus on a standard output, measured in exam results, remains). The barracks of the future is already a nondescript office building in suburban America from where drones are remotely operated.

There is therefore a certain inevitability in the proposal to run call centres from within prisons. The job is a highly supervised one, with minimal personal control (you're working through a call-list provided by the system), high stress and a degree of dehumanisation that echoes Victorian factories. It is this very "routine and discipline" that makes the idea palatable to the right. The claims that earning £3 a day will make a difference to their families or build up a "going straight" nest-egg are ridiculous. Ken Clarke was at least honest when he said: "prisoners are simply a wasted resource – thousands of hours of manpower sitting idle". If you can access that resource for a pittance, so much the better.

But it would be naive to think that the exploitation of prisoners is a capitalist plot to undermine labour generally, though it clearly will lead to job losses among the non-criminal. I doubt even the Tories seriously intend to expand the prison population to the level seen in the US (0.7%, compared to 0.15% here), and even that is insufficient to impact on wage rates. Stagnant incomes in both the US and UK are the result of bigger factors than penal exploitation.

What's more worrying is the continued belief that any work is intrinsically virtuous, but that certain types of work are only suitable for certain types of people, and vice versa. David Cameron is quoted as saying: "Prisoners working productively towards their own rehabilitation will contribute to the UK economy and make reparation to society". The contribution to the economy (as opposed to selected companies' profits) will be negligible, and the reparation to society involved in answering irate calls about shoddy service is non-existent. In truth, most people are uncomfortable about prisoners doing good as that robs them of the luxury of contempt. Far better that they should do a shit job (picking oakum before, working in a call centre now) than do something that might indicate they were worthy of acceptance back into society, like social care or building work. Perish the thought that a prisoner should get to do a socially admirable job, regardless of how cheap they are to employ.

Just as the petty refusal to allow prisoners the vote is a way of tarring them, so the choice of work (necessary but unworthy) is a form of punishment. The original treadmill would probably be ruled illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights (or as a "cruel and unusual punishment" in the US), but the modern treadmill of the call centre is acceptable. If it's good enough for the unemployed, it's good enough for criminals.

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