Work, recognition and the market.

AuthorSeglow, Jonathan

Ongoing debates about the (im)proper remuneration of those working in the financial services sector, in the light of the recession, reveal not simply deep-rooted intuitions about the comparative fairness of monetary rewards for different kinds of labour.

They also invoke more amorphous but no less real ideals--about the social contribution of various kinds of work ('bankers are only in it for themselves') and the respect they receive from the wider society; the way work enables or disables us from meeting our obligations to fellow citizens ('bankers got us into this mess in the first place'); the comparative merits of regarding work as a competitive domain (which financial markets perhaps exemplify) as opposed to a co-operative one, generating social solidarity; and beyond that an older notion, rather eclipsed by neo-liberalism, that work might be seen as a fundamentally expressive, dignified activity.

Beyond money and consumables, then, work produces, or fails to produce, a range of social goods. And workers--highly unpaid, low paid and unpaid (such as parents)--can be recognised for the way in which they produce social goods and realise core values. Conversely, of course, our world of values structures the way different forms of work are perceived and regarded. Since human beings seem almost limitlessly hungry for honour (Brennan and Pettit, 2004) such recognition is as important as monetary reward: it is a crucial source of self-respect and self-esteem.

Our aim in this special issue of Renewal is to reflect upon the ways in which different forms of work are recognised, misrecognised or under-recognised for the wider set goods they produce in the contemporary market, and to connect this to debates about the comparative fairness of remuneration.

Work and its meanings

Work did not always mean what it means for us in the economic market today. Notions of work which still retain a hold upon our imaginations, but which have been weakened by neo-liberalism, include usefulness, craftsmanship, re-productive and caring labour, and solidarity.

In some cases, neo-liberalism has attempted to appropriate the content of these meanings and render them susceptible to economic exploitation; for example, re-productive work requires emotional labour, which underpins much service work and carework. Such attempts can generate further distortions: usefulness becomes superfluousness in the form of unemployment; craftsmanship becomes alienation as autonomy and self-formation are frustrated in the technical division of labour; affective labour becomes commodified by the requirements to extract maximum value from the carer; and solidarity becomes the conscious attempt to use socialisation and the bonds between persons to promote management ideology for the purpose of increasing organisational profit.

The ideal of the 'good worker' becomes the measure of persons, demanding that individuals conform themselves to the requirements of market work, and the crowding out of mechanisms to value human action in the spheres of family, civil society or political engagement. To work, or to become a worker, generates a new necessity--that we work upon ourselves to develop the competences, characteristics, virtues and emotions that enable us to be maximally productive in market work. This may seem to have things the wrong way around.

At any rate, recognition in modern liberal democracies is tied to the production paradigm and to the employment relation; wages and patterns of compensation are determined according to a complex, structured system for the allocation of esteem which signals the place individuals occupy in the global economy. But recent struggles for recognition--by careworkers, domestic workers, mothers, the economically marginalised and others under-recognised--have brought to political expression values and ideals of wide appeal but which are obscured, nevertheless, by the economic market. Such struggles have the potential to bring to light less visible forms of activity which can then be re-valued to enable their practitioners to gain respect and esteem.

However, struggles for recognition may issue in unexpected outcomes. First, economic revaluation of socially...

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