Arbeit macht frei

by Gideon Haigh

‘WHAT YOU NEED to understand is that automotive work is very monotonous.’

I was in a restaurant in Port Melbourne last year with an economist, who was explaining why Australia not only did not need, but should not mourn the end of its century of assembling then making cars for its roads. 

The economist, intelligent and affable, was warming to his task: he knew; he had seen things; here, in fact, was an opportunity to relieve Australians of very tedious work, better done by…well…the inference was cheaper, littler, yellower people in countries to the north. Australians would then be part of the brain-powered industries of the future: finance, hospitality, education, healthcare, retail et al.

After years of having my ears dinned with these orthodoxies, I might well have been caught up in the sweep of his general economic argument about volumes, distances and exchange rates had I not come that morning from a factory in the outlying suburbs of Melbourne that manufactured metal components for cars: no fewer than four hundred different kinds made to exacting specifications and tiny tolerances – those flanges, pivots, buttons and handles that one seldom notices, so integral are they into a vehicle’s totality. 

The workers were especially proud of one particular manufacture: a structural member from aluminium, featuring more than a hundred tiny welds, on display in the foyer, where it was accorded the reverence one would associate in parliament with a ceremonial mace. 

In fact, there was a general sense of good cheer about the place; I told my hosts that I hadn’t seen journalists so happy since…well, actually never. People conversed purposefully, hurrying here and there – and little wonder. I visited the inventory with the shift boss, and saw just two pallets. In forty-five minutes, I was told, there would be forty; in an hour, they would be on their way.

Now I glanced around the restaurant. It was far from full. Barmen awaited orders; waiters stood around listlessly; periodically, one refreshed our glasses of water. Everyone looked neat, freshly laundered and utterly bored. The economist laid out an Australian future relieved of the drudgery entailed by making things. It seemed almost to have arrived. I was only a week or two into my study. There would be more economists and more factories. But from this day forward, the question struck me as ever more pressing: as our work changed, how would it change us?

ECONOMISTS HAVE LONG regarded the shift my companion was describing as an immutable trend. It’s more than thirty years since the Nobel Laureate Wassily Leontief proposed that ‘the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors.’ Labour would find more valuable and genteel outlet in the service industries, in all their rich varieties, living out a broadscale version of a family’s progress toward embourgeoisement, one generation’s hard and grimy toil opening educational and employment opportunities for the next, blue collar parents begetting white collar heirs. In some circles, this was more than simply evolution; the rise of the ‘knowledge worker’, ‘symbolic analyst’ and ‘creative class’ was little short of emancipation.

Yet in discussing what they did with workers and managers in the automotive sector over the next couple of months, their satisfactions were blindingly obvious. The average length of a career at Holden was not seventeen years, and at Toyota twelve years, because of stunted imaginations or cushy conditions: there was the call for engineering of the highest standard and efficiency of the utmost precision; there was continuity and collegiality embedded in the institutional affiliations, solidarity in the occupational relations; perhaps not least, there was immediate and objectively assessable material outcome. When a car dropped off the end of the assembly line, a tester slipped behind the wheel to turn the key, gun the motor, flash the lights and indicators, then steer it round a test track. No matter how often you watched, I was assured, there was always a little tension before and a little relief afterwards.  

It was a way of life, too, that was dying even as we discussed it, because the foregoing satisfactions of the complex and varied work were of no account compared to the austere spirit of the economic times. What ways of life would replace it? That remained to be seen – for all the talk of ‘fast-tracking infrastructure plans’ in the Australian and the Australian Financial Review, bastions of the economic clerisy, these remained largely chimerical. And the truth is that when the econocracy talk about ‘work’, what they usually mean is ‘employment’, which is defined chiefly by its opposite: reduction in the headline rate of unemployment being an exhibit in the evidence of  ‘sound economic management’. Where economists distinguish between jobs at all, it is mainly by measures of productivity, and rough and ready ones at that. They can ascertain nothing of the lived experience of work, the sort of values it is instilling, the kind of citizens it is creating, the cultures and communities it is shaping. That meant that in the case of the automotive industry, they could offer no sort of account of the social consequences of the dwindling of an industry that had offered dignified labour and a decent standard of living to generations of Australians – the assumption was that people would ‘get by’, as if social change could be instigated and implemented as straightforwardly as a commercial project.

Of course, these arguments are hardly new. As manufacturing in western economies first came under pressure in the 1980s, Amitai Etzioni coined the expression ‘McJob’ to describe the kind of low-pay, low-skill, low-prospect, low-security occupations most abundant in a post-industrial economy. But the expression arguably disserved the reality, defining such jobs too narrowly, too specifically. You hardly need be part of a burger chain to experience work of the most routinised and insecure kind today; as Robert Skidelsky and Ann Craig argued in New Statesman last year, many service industries have been rationalised in ways Adam Smith would recognise as derived directly from his ‘pin factory’ – except not as effectively: 

In all services that can be automated, part of every process is delegated to a team that inhabits a separate silo. No team is able to carry out more than its tiny element of the process; as a result, from the first moment you contact a company, you have to choose which team to talk to (‘Press one if you are a business customer; press two if you are a personal customer; press three if you wish you were dead’).

Then, if you have a query that is even slightly complicated, at least the first three people you speak to will probably not be able to help. No one has an overview of how the whole thing works and no one has any power to cut through the undergrowth, because each person is in control of only a tiny patch of the service. As no one person or team knows what anyone else does or who any of the customers are, all information has to be stored centrally; if something is ‘not in the system’ or if the system has broken down, it’s a dead end.

As the call-centre worker has never met you before, he or she will have little sympathy and no relationship to draw on; because they will almost certainly never speak to you again, there is no incentive for them to be helpful if your problem can’t be fixed within the formula. From their perspective, they are having to deal with customers who are irate because of events that the service provider has no control over and no responsibility for.

YOU DO NOT need to be poorly-paid or shorn of prestige to experience the demoralising sensations of infinite replaceability either. In his new book Young Money (Grand Central Publishing, 2014), Kevin Roose tracks a year of young graduates turned Wall Street bankers negotiating the post-GFC financial landscape. For some it is the fulfilment of a lifetime’s aspirations; for others it is simply what their grades and intellectual faculties have readied them for – five years ago, banking and finance were absorbing almost a quarter of Ivy League graduates. Roose finds them sinking with each passing month into states of ‘genuine misery’, experiencing ‘disillusionment, depression and feelings of worthlessness that were deeper and more foundational than simple work frustrations’. By the end of the book, some have toughened up; all, however, are ‘less happy and optimistic, more cynical and calculating’, and inclined to ‘talk about the world in a transactional, economised way…like giant balance sheets.’  

Again, what are the social and democratic implications of a generation weaned on work of this kind? Nobody can really say. Partly because it is difficult to quantify and we struggle with anything that cannot be readily reduced to calculation, even of spurious precision. Partly because it sounds like a recommendation of the old – ever suspect in an age of neophilia – and stability, synonymous with inaction to a generation admiring of its self-perceived dynamism. And partly, I suspect, because over the past forty years, beginning probably with the election of the Whitlam government, a division has opened between what we think of chiefly as economic policies (competition, trade, foreign ownership) and as social policies (refugees, culture, drugs, gay marriage). The stress in government has come to fall on the former, albeit always with some sprinkling of the latter for the placation of those who imagine politics still to be a contest of ideas rather than of interests. Yet it is arguable that economic policies are social policies, insofar as those jobs we envision the economy providing have social consequences. 

The automotive industry did not simply make cars: it made lives, by helping its workers build families, towns, suburbs and networks of relations. And about this, contra my companion that day last year, there was nothing remotely monotonous.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 45: The Way We Work © Copyright Griffith University & the author.