Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Who will serve, and who will master?

For one of Australia’s brighter, and certainly most level-headed, Left commentators, John Quiggin has committed an astonishing gaffe (at minimum) with the title of a recent talk he gave (with Andrew Leigh): “Who will serve?”.

The verb “serve” has a wide range of meanings, especially when “in/on/as” is tacked on. US presidents (but less so Australian PMs) serve as leaders; soldiers from the most debt-addled countries of the West currently serve in Iraq; and many private-school educated, highly-paid buffoons serve on company boards. (In the last case, and perhaps also the first case (more certainly so under Dubya) the use of “serve” is actually quite perverse.)

In any event, in John Quiggin’s context, “serve” has only one, narrower meaning: to perform menial and/or poorly-paid work, aka to be a servant.

At uni in the mid-late 80s, I was confident of many, positive things-in-the-future – often unreasonably so, as it has turned out. One of them was that the “servant”, at least in the first world, had gone the way of TB, and this would remain so. Servants were a mere cultural memory, albeit from the relatively recent past, but progress had now made them obsolete, and permanently so.

Studying Labour Law at uni (which would now be called Workplace Relations Law, or some such), I would encounter old (19th and early 20th C) cases citing whatever Master and Servant Act was then in force. Just the title of the Act sounded so coldly Dickensian, and offensive to my Left/egalitarian instincts (then and now). In legal lexicon, “Master and Servant” had long since been replaced by “Employer and Employee”, and while I wasn’t under the delusion that a change of terminology alone amounted to progress, it was clear from both everyday life and popular culture of the time (e.g. the period English TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs”) that the word “servant” and the economic (at al) sphere which sustained it were musty relics. And good riddance, too.

The rebirth of the servant, and hence “servitude” as a matter-of-fact (non-pejorative) term, can be seen most clearly in the child-care industry in Australia (and elsewhere, I imagine). Childcare workers are mainly female, are universally poorly paid, and – here’s the kicker – are genteel, or at least somewhat so (“genteel”, of course, is another word I would have considered as obsolete, twenty years ago).

Gentility matters – greatly – to servitude because non-genteel servants, aka menials, are, especially when on their own, a rather unreliable and untrustworthy workforce. For this reason, it is not only inner-suburban real estate that has been “gentrified” in recent decades, there has also been a whole swag of what were once plainly-menial jobs which have turned towards the genteel.

Needless to say, such job gentrification runs exclusively in the employer’s/master’s favour. A childcare-worker/airline-steward who scrubs toilets as part of their job description would probably not even notice the creeping substantive menial-fication of their positions over the last two decades or so, and if they did, the cosmetic gentrification of their positions gives their employer/master a sound alibi. By “cosmetic gentrification” I mean things such as qualifications-inflation (for child-care workers) and female/young/pretty inflation (for Virgin Blue airline-stewards). Unlike real estate gentrification, which has boomer paws all over it, job gentrification is a strongly Xer phenomenon.

Cosmetic job gentrification/inflation doesn’t cost employer-masters a cent. Even better, a gentrified (but still poorly-paid) workforce will show higher retention rates and higher trustworthiness (an essential attribute for child-care workers, airline-stewards, and many other Xer workers) than their counterparts would have if they were non-gentrified menials doing the same job for the same pay.

What is an appropriate Left and/or feminist response to the New Servitude, then?

While feminism – and still less so, motherhood – is not really my bailiwick, for all sorts of reasons, I feel compelled to observe that, for a quite large grouping of women, Australia’s increasing return to a ruthless master/servant class system is just fine and dandy. As noted in a recent book review:

“Making clear how convenient feminism can be to capitalism, [Anne Manne’s] ‘Motherhood’ demonstrates that children are being sacrificed to the demands of contemporary capitalism which requires the lives, minds and full pockets of two breadwinners and a host of carers [/servants] – rather than parents – to raise them”.*

Yep, it’s all about capitalism. In case you don’t get it, the inescapable economics of child-care require a highly-paid Master (parent, customer) and a poorly-paid Servant. It simply cannot work any other way, massive taxpayer subsidies aside.

Of course, child-care does currently enjoy significant taxpayer subsidies. But to call for these subsidies to be increased – so as to ease the master/servant thingy by at least being able to pay child-care workers properly – is a fallacy.

The only way that child-care workers could be paid properly would be for their wages to equate to those of the parents who ultimately pay for the workers. That would be a zero sum game, at best (while commercial child-care has some economies of scale, these are more than chewed up by the managerial margins of Eddy Groves, et al). Therefore Rose Iser of Flemington is not really serious when she writes in this letter to the editor in today’s Age:

If Steve Biddulph is concerned about the quality of care some children receive in long day care, he should advocate better quality control and funding for centres and better pay for the wonderful people who provide parents with a break from the difficult and exhausting task of parenting.

His comments are terribly unhelpful to parents who don't have extended family living around the corner, who can't afford a nanny, who need to return to work for financial or emotional reasons and who are already anxious about their parenting.

Spot the oh-so-masterly patronizing? “Wonderful people” – as opposed to “exhaust[ed]” and “anxious” parents. Only well-paid Masters ever get exhausted and anxious, of course – servants apparently have different biology, which allows them to truck on regardless. And masterly ostentatious self-pity doesn’t just end there, as there is always the old Masterly grievance of being “terribly” one peg down from something better, aka Rose Iser “can't afford a nanny”. Translation: she makes do (I’m guessing) with a NESB part-time cleaner, but thinks that those who have got an all-in-one, full-time, uni graduate cleaner/housekeeper/child-carer (aka “nanny”) have it so much easier. After all, the far-from-“wonderful” Slavenka can barely be trusted with the house-keys, as it is.

In total contrast, also in a letter to the editor in today’s Age, is Kim Makin-Clark, of Yarraville:

The financial argument does not always cut it with me. We live on one wage (that is below the national average), so we rent, drive a second-hand station wagon and buy chain-store clothes.

Hopefully [Steve Biddulph’s] research will encourage the Howard Government to develop a more comprehensive policy to also support stay-at-home parents rather than just narrowly focusing on the nation's child-care needs.

Translation: if you’re actually on a servant’s wage yourself, commercial child-care, even with all its current subsidies, looks rather unappealing. Makin-Clark gives the (usually ultra-conservative) child’s-needs-first reason as part of her spiel, but I wonder if at least as important a reason is that she simply refuses to play the game of Master and Servant; a game which anyone who uses commercial child-care necessarily plays.

FWIW, plainly Kim Makin-Clark is an Xer (go renters-for-life!). I’m tempted to label Rose Iser a boomer (b. 1961 at the latest), but as this is a demographic improbability, I’ll guess instead that she’s a company director; i.e. a useless, private-school educated tool who has the gall to say that she “serves”.

Finally, back to John Quiggin. While he has repeatedly pshaw-ed the “generational game” as silly froth, both his choice of language – “Who will serve?” – and his talk’s promo para – “. . .[H]ow old will [the workers of the future] be?” – suggest a strong interest in generational groupings, as well the master-servant recrudescence. And in both these cases, the b. 1956 and very well-paid John Quiggin is plainly on the “master”, aka winning, side as he currently sees it.

The trouble with servants though, is that they can sometimes revolt – yes, even gentrified ones. And when the gentrified servant Xers of the world revolt, it ain’t gonna be pretty, I can tell you. Just take the words of this doctor as a gentle warning:

One of the things I'm worried about is spending the rest of my looking after baby boomers with not enough doctors to do it**.

* Ceridwen Spark, “Motherload” Overland # 182 (Autumn 2006) p 75

** Scroll to penultimate line ("MAN #3")

I didn't choose the title, so maybe you should direct this to the organisers.

PS, I didn't ask for birth certs but the people who asked me to speak on this topic, appeared to be X-ers as was my fellow panellits

people always look young when you're getting older.
John, I stand corrected on your not having personally chosen the "Who will serve" title.

At the same time, you seem to acknowledge the inherent offence contained in "serve" (in the context it was used in your talk).

If so, and assuming that you were not under some sort of duress to specifically perform the talk, why didn't you take appropriate action? At the very least, your blog (or this one, for that matter) would provide a forum for retrospective clarification and/or apology.

I'm aware that your "Serve" co-panelist Andrew Leigh is an Xer (or perhaps even a Yer - he seems to have been born ~1976). Xer or not, I don't find Leigh's writings of any great chop at all. While this doesn't mean that he shouldn't carry a nominal half-share of the blame for the "serve" gaffe, I reckon the guy's already hoist enough on his own petard.

In any event, my personal philosophy is to pursue vigorously only those I consider "above" me (in wealth, power, etc). Which I'm afraid leaves you alone carrying the "serve" can - not Leigh, and not the talk's organisers.
It wasn't the title I would have chosen for the reasons you suggest, but as I've said in relation to other complaints about the Festival, it's hard enough organising this kind of event without having people second-guess your every move.

The way this kind of event works is that you agree to participate, and then you are asked to take on several slots in a preset program. I didn't think the title problematic enough to justify asking for a change. However, to the extent that it caused offence, I apologise

For what it's worth, the main focus of my talk was on the need to extend working life (that is, delay retirement) while shortening working hours and improving work-life balance. So, in part at least, my answer to the question "Who should serve" is "boomers, at least for some decades to come". On the other hand, current labour market structures are likely to promote early retirement/forced exit from the labour force.

Regardless of the relationship to John's talk, Paul's post raises interesting issues. Increasingly paid work involves some of those motivational and relational elements we might associate with domestic work and that go beyond the task-based aspects of the work. When Arlie Hochschild studied the work of flight attendants, she found the job required its incumbents to be ‘nicer than natural’; whereas being a debt collector involved being ‘nastier than natural’. She called this ‘emotional labour’, and it figures prominently in personal service work amongst waitresses, receptionists and sales people. It is also undertaken by professionals and managers, both as regards dealings with clients but also dealings with colleagues within the internal hierarchies of organisations and enterprises. This emotional labour is often effort-intensive, skilled, creates value for the enterprise, affects productivity, generates profit and is often central to the survival of the business.

Many service workers now require aesthetic skills, manufactured styles of embodiment and bodily performance: what can be called ‘aesthetic labour'. In retail, shop assistants are told where to stand, how to approach customers and what to say. Such scripted performance is supplemented by the company ascribing and circumscribing the appearance of employees as regards, for example, hairstyle.

When we sign an employment contract, what are selling? Labour power and physical strength? Obedience and service? Skill and creativity? Personality? Where does the sale stop?

John, apology noted – thank you. For my part, I think I owe you an apology for some of what I said earlier, which flowed from my assumption that the Ideas Festival was a well-organised event (I had no idea that it was a broader shemozzle until you just mentioned this).

Anthony, you make some interesting observations, re employees and the new servitude. Extending on this, I think that the changing role of employers in the servitude binary is more alarming and complex still. The employer-employee relationship/contract has always been understood as an unequal one. Under a “progressive” (Lefty in the 80s, say) model, the employer would thus be presumed particularly to be out to extract maximum labour from employees, for minimum cost to it.

The new servitude, however, opens up a Pandora’s box of other employer behaviours, some para-fiscal, but many not at all related the above, fiscally-focused conception of the “bastard boss”. Employer sadism is one example: this would not seem to be covered very well by any currently available legal redress (Worker’s comp for “bullying” would not catch a competent/serious sadist, and still less so anti-discrimination laws). More generally, employers now seem to have wide freedom to engage in a range of overtly criminal behaviours against their employees, but these crimes are unlikely to be reported, and even if they are, will be difficult to prove or prosecute.

Also, the “old” servitude – e.g. domestic service in Edwardian England – had many specific class/cultural contraints on employer/master behaviours. While I’m hardly in the cheer-squad for such constraints, their relative absence today gives a whole new meaning to “managerial prerogative”.
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