Dr Zoe Adams, University of Cambridge
The UK is experiencing levels of inflation not seen since the 1980s; declining wages are going hand in hand with soaring fuel and food prices, and a large proportion of the population are unable to meet their basic needs. The popular narrative surrounding this ‘costs of living crisis’ links it with certain isolated ‘shocks’ – the War in Ukraine, the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit etc – and suggests it can be managed, and overcome, via certain temporary measures, such as wage restraint, reduced public spending, and limited assistance to the most vulnerable.
In fact, of course, this ‘costs of living’ crisis is just one aspect of a much more generalised crisis of modern capitalism. Thus, as prices rise, and wages fall, we are also seeing growing pressure on the NHS; expanding waiting lists, and an inability of our emergency services to cope with demand. In many public sector occupations in particular workers are leaving in droves, complaining of burnout, overwork, and under-payment, and leading to labour shortages and a consequent strain on the quality of provisioning. In addition to this, unpaid internships are proliferating; graduates are struggling to obtain employment after they complete their education, and the costs of housing is proving prohibitive. We are also seeing rising levels of inequality, declining health, and growing levels of social antagonism, and conflict. These are not isolated problems, nor are they likely to go away after we ‘recover’ from recent events. Instead, what we are witnessing is the side-effects of what happens when policy-makers ignore the significance, and take action to mediate the impact of, what Nancy Fraser calls capitalism’s ‘deep-seated social-reproductive ‘crisis tendency’ or contradiction.’
In my article, Invisible Labour: Legal Dimensions of Invisibility (Vol 49, issue 2, 2022), I use the concept of invisibilisation as a lens through which to shed light on the nature, and implications, of this contradiction, a discussion that can help us to better understand some of the causes, and potential implications, of our so-called costs of living crisis.
The concept of invisiblisation refers to two different, but related, processes. Namely, the process by which the human labour required to reproduce and sustain social and biological life is devalued, and subordinated, to the labour required to contribute to profit-making (‘invisible labour’); and the process by which large proportions of the labour that comes to function as work, performed through the labour market, is obscured, and thereby devalued, in the context of the legal frameworks that have developed to regulate it (‘invisible work’). What these processes highlight is that there is a tendency inherent in capitalism towards the devaluation of human labour, one that implies the subordination of human needs to the imperatives of profit making. It is this, the invisibilisation of human labour and the consequential devaluation of human life that the costs of living crisis really reflects.
It goes without saying that capitalism would not exist but for the systematic exclusion of the direct producers from access to the means of subsistence. It is this that leaves them with no choice but to devote a large proportion of their time to working for others in exchange for the money which they now need to live. Left with no choice but to devote a large proportion of their time to working for others, moreover, workers in capitalism become highly dependent on the caring labour of others to sustain their working practices. This labour comes to be performed by persons, mostly women, who, as a result, have less time and energy to devote to wage-earning and so, are rendered doubly dependent: on capital, but also, on the wage-earners whom their labour supports.
In addition to bringing about this new division between reproductive labour and work, however, capitalism also exposes wage earners to a new category of risks, subjecting them to the power of their employers in the context of production. With workers having little choice but to do whatever they can to please their employers, the latter come to enjoy considerable power over workers when it comes to influencing how, when, and how much, they work. While it is this power that makes possible the production of surplus value, enabling employers to extract from workers a benefit of a greater magnitude than that which is represented in the wage, this power also enables employers to impose on workers terms, and conditions, that are harmful, in their attempts to reduce costs – conditions which may well inhibit workers ability to access the money, and the caring labour, they need to reproduce their labour power over time.
Both these processes, the division between reproductive labour, and paid market work; and the emergence of the risks inherent in work, have given rise to distinct processes of invisibilisation. In relation to the former, by confining reproductive labour to the unpaid realm of the home, it became possible for capital to treat this labour as a free resource, infinitely abundant, and the costs of reproducing which it need not pay. In relation to the latter, these risks inherent in work have embedded in working relations struggles, and conflicts, from which work regulation has developed, thereby helping to render the power dynamic inherent in work sustainable. But while the various forms of work regulation introduced purport to mediate the impact of this power, helping to ensure that work is sustainable, it actually brought into being a new category of work – invisible work. That is, work that could be extracted outwith legal limits and which, as a result, tended to be invisibilised, and devalued.
The existence of this category of invisible work arises because work regulation is only as effective as the conceptual tools through which the legal system identifies work and working relations. But legal discourse is too abstract and decontextualised to engage with the distinguishing features of work, and so, its conception of work is inherently under-inclusive. As I explain in depth in my article, in law, work is conceived through the lens of the legal arrangement concluded between workers and their immediate employers. It is thus equated with time the expenditure of which can be explained by reference to contractual duties, formal job descriptions, and/or express employer directions. In reality, however, employers do not need contracts, and express directions, to extract work from workers. Instead, they can simply take advantage of workers’ economic precarity to encourage them to ‘voluntarily’ provide the benefit of their labour, without any promise, or expectation, as to payment. Just think of all those times employers ask their workers ‘would you mind doing this additional task?’. Or they offer them the opportunity to take on an additional responsibility to help them ‘gain experience’. Do workers really have any option but to agree? In a context in which few workers enjoy robust job protection, or are represented by a trade union, and where there exists only a weak system of social safety nets, workers can hardly refuse to take on this additional work, work which employers are not, however, legally obligated to pay, and which thereby becomes legally and economically invisible.
As I explain in my article, the existence of invisible work is not unique to modern neoliberal society, but is an endemic problem associated with the structure of capitalism itself. Even so, in modern UK society, the scope and significance of invisible work is increased, because of the absence of adequate institutional mechanisms to help insulate workers from socio-economic risks, and thus, give them some modicum of bargaining power when it comes to resisting attempts, by their employers, to extract work on oblique, and legally invisible, ways. This problem, employers’ ability to extract work outwith the legal frameworks established to help render work sustainable, simply exacerbates the problem associated with the devaluation of reproductive labour, and the failure, by neoliberal governments, to take steps to ensure that adequate resources are devoted to that labour so that society’ needs can be met in practice.
Exploring the different dimensions of capitalism’s processes of invisibility is thus one way to shed new light on the nature and significance of our costs of living crisis, and what will be required to overcome it. It helps us to see, for example, that what we are witnessing is not a temporary misalignment between wages and prices that will resolve itself once we get a ‘hold’ on inflation. Instead, we are seeing just how serious are the consequences of a systematic refusal, by policymakers, and wider society, to take seriously the implications of capitalism’s tendency to invisibilise human labour, and ultimately, to devalue the human life it supports, and subordinate each to the imperatives of profit-making.