Labour Pains

A review of Non-Stop Inertia by Ivor Southwood, Winchester: Zero Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-84694-530-4, £6.99.

Marianna Cage

Job-seeking: a postmodern hunter-gathering activity, the hunter always potentially prey, constantly wired, eyes wide-open, on the alert and ready to leap, but also flowing with the currents, hoping to get caught in the nets of a large trawler, gathering per-hour work in minutes, here and there and anywhere, precious moments to get those few pennies in that are already spent.

vor Southwood travels far and wide into this desert and peers into the cracks of the invisible gap-filling exercises of the non-work of the anti-labour market. A condition that is riddled with negations and hyphenations: neither here nor there; neither working, nor not-working. In this ‘personal experience informed by theory’, recounted in a tragicomic tone, Southwood moves from warehouse to street cleaning to shelf-stacking and beyond, in the maze of the ‘non-work-place’ that is at once temporary work and welfare and self-employment and permanent precariousness.

“I was uncontactable for half an hour. I had abandoned my post.”

Most welcome is the picture Southwood paints of recruitment agencies: an eyesore. These CV-collecting paymasters, the outsourcing of the headache of industrial relations, stand whip in hand on the shop floor of the social factory. The intensification of production being their main interest and task, which they achieve by means of psychological torture, placing job-seekers on a swivel chair and spinning it, refashioning their subjectivities to bend them to the flexible labour market. And from it not only do they siphon off more surplus; they also profit from the masters’ fears, which is in their interest to fuel. For this is how they must be. Their job is to break the spinal cord of the working class and mould it into a supple ‘precariat’ by any means necessary. Forcing workers on self-employment arrangements and putting them through the endless cycle of emergency taxation and HRMC refund applications, keeping them in a state of longing for the next call, like ballerinas on their toes, outstretched, praying, yes, praying-precarious. The self-employed job-seeker is sacked and re-recruited each and every hour.

“Message from recruitment agency: Britain’s got talent. What’s yours, Ivor?”

need affect. Putting up with its conditions does. And perhaps a sad untold fact in Southwood’s autobiographical story is that the most gainful form of employment for the long term unemployed often ends up being in the recruitment sector. The best guards are ex-prisoners. Job consultants carrying out the daily abuses in the Jobcentre Plus inferno, where all the fruits of a long term successful campaign to fabricate an image of the non-working working class as idle and spoilt by such an incredibly luxurious welfare system can be reaped.

“Knowing that my position was temporary, I could not afford to shirk my jobseeking duties while working there, and much of my spare time was spent trying to fix up a follow-on job”.

What Southwood does well is convey the sense of enforced restlessness in the predicament of the job-seeking worker. The blackmail of the dictates of being there in the void of job offers waving one's arms hysterically in the hope that someone will gratify living labour’s desire to become dead; that all-consuming self-marketing activity that carves a wound in the subjectivities of one-time aspiring people who might have wanted to make a useful contribution to society through work but are made to endure a bare life of economic survival in humiliation.

“Selling attitude”

Southwood competently draws on the literature on emotional labour. But more than emotions, work is an attitudinal problem and this is what emerges in his autobiographical sketches. We are constantly told that people with the right attitude find and keep work. The means of production are secured. Where control is most needed is over the social relations of production. And the production of a right attitude to work and the myths surrounding it are perpetuated in order to keep the body of the unemployed docile, to make it internalise as personal failure the social production of scarcity in the labour market. The right attitude is of course one of total performative subjection and servility, as Southwood rightly describes it. And somehow as a gesture of defiance, he redefines this performativity as acting. But we could also call it the Toyota way of total management. A way of preventing rather than censoring workers’ potential sabotage, and taking the social out of social relations between capital and labour, worker and master, shop floor and supervisor, employee and employer. What Southwood calls ‘acting’, management consultants call ‘organisational learning’. And the circus goes on.

“What kind of dangerous spaces might open up, in what kind of jeopardy might we put ourselves and this dynamic system, if we resigned from our jobs as jobseekers?”

Here Southwood hits the proverbial nail on the head. "Keep them busy or else" is the underlying concern of those involved in sustaining and reproducing this atrocious system of permanent agitation. Because the refusal of work is built into the system as its nemesis, using it to search for work becomes irrational and contradictory. Hence the mismatch between a labour market that wants you in-and-out and a welfare system that refuses to accommodate for the in-betweens.


Read this book if you’ve not experienced Southwood's position. Avoid it if you have. Southwood’s audience are likely only to be the middle class preoccupied with the world's ills who has forgotten to look on its doorstep, to the classmates who didn’t quite make it, to the neighbourhoods’ no-go areas of the underclass that even low property prices won’t make attractive, to the un-gentrifiables who lack purchasing power and consumer subjectivity, whose debts are made up of unpaid bills and the interests of the brutal collectors acting on behalf of councils, energy and phone companies and credit agencies. The sad reality is that nobody cares. Perhaps for them, the stakes are too low.

“I’m not working class, I don’t work”

In a conversation on a television program trying to define the term ‘chav’, John Prescott identifies a young woman, whom he clearly sees as a worthy specimen, as working class. She protests thus: “No [you idiot], I’m not working class: I don’t work”. The working-class is out of work and refuses to be defined by it. What makes a person is something else, what one is, what one achieves. And perhaps this is the next step for those in and out, down and out in the anti-labour market. While the question of economic survival remains, ultimately its price cannot be this high.

little site banner