Sometimes we hear people say that they are just treading water if asked about their lives and work or they might describe life as an uphill struggle. For many of us life feels as though we are climbing an eroding sandy cliff or giant desert sand dune. For people familiar with things Japanese, it may feel like we are living in one of Kōbō Abe’s sandpits with a house at the bottom that has to be constantly dug out, while being monitored by villagers who are de facto jailers. Just as things seem to be going well, everything comes slip sliding down and we have to start digging and climbing again, desperate to get out of the hole or to reach the top of the dune or cliff.
While people stoically get on with things and do their best to make sure that their children or other loved ones are happy or simply content, there are always forces at play which the average worker cannot control alone. The private companies they work for shut down, downsize, make employees redundant, cut wages, take away benefits or transfer employees to far-flung regions. In today’s world, with the advent of zero hours contracts, short-term contracts, temporary jobs and the gig economy, many of the proletariat have entered the ranks of the precariat. The arbitrary and unchecked authority exercised by less scrupulous employers in the advanced economies has not been seen since the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How did this come to pass? Apologists for capitalism of all kinds, post-modernists, economists, sociologists, historians, students and anyone else with a computer or smart-device who is so inclined, have produced trillions of words trying to answer the question. A small part of the answer could lie in questioning the stoicism and decency of the people who are struggling while capitalists and financiers strip them of everything their predecessors once fought for and won.
Some time ago, in conversation with a ‘liberal’ from the USA, I was told that the unions had failed and these days it was better to go to the labour board and pursue individual actions against employers and to engage in passive resistance. I put it to him that he was right about the unions but wrong about the course of action. I told him that the moment people stopped educating themselves and organising collectively, the bosses would stamp all over them and anything that a worker could hope to gain would be crumbs from the table. I insisted that people must organise collectively in order to ensure that society can be transformed and the conditions created whereby most people can realise their potential if they so choose. His reaction was to embarrassingly avert his eyes and say that there was very little he could do to convince people of what I was advocating. And so, I suppose, he will continue to climb the eroding cliff, dig in the sandpit and dream of reaching the top. By himself. Was he too decent to band together with others to fight the people that were exploiting him and making him fear for the future of his kids? Did he feel that he had got what he deserved in life and so had others? He juggled temporary and part-time university lecturing jobs and would not have had the resources to fight an employer by himself. I felt that he thought that to contribute to our conversation he had to make some kind of comment on the theme and that his line would assuage me. Was he just tired out?
The photograph that accompanies this post is of an eroding thirty-metre high sandstone cliff at a beach near where I still live for now. I climbed it with my young children. We decided to symbolically make the ascent after my employer told me that my full-time job was being eliminated a few days before. It was not all bad news. I was offered a transfer to another full-time role – 1100 kilometres away. Presented with a fait accompli, it was not difficult (!?!) to make the decision to uproot my children, leave my newly rented new house, say goodbye to newly made friends and head back to Japan’s megalopolis with some help from my employer and with money I have not got.
I was ‘lucky’ because I was offered an alternative position and I understand that as an educated person I am in a better position than many to defend myself, but the psychic shock I suffered on hearing the news has surprised me. For three days I was disoriented and in a stupor until I walked along the beach and climbed the cliff to the top. Encouraged by the fact that new collective workers’ movements around the world are appearing in different forms, I hope that new ways of organising that supersede the emasculated union model will show my American Liberal interlocutor another way to improve his life. Reinvigorated and re-organised, more militant unions, or something else? Stoicism, ‘decency’ and resignation will not help people in these times. We have to try to forge a brighter future. I, for one, will not give up.