Jeremy Corbyn: A very British coup?

Jeremy Corbyn

If age is not on your side you might well remember the 1982 novel by Chris Mullins to which this post’s title alludes. A solidly left-wing and principled leader of the Labour Party becomes prime minister and sets in motion a cabal of secret service agents, high-level mandarins and establishment aristocrats conspiring to plot his downfall.

Well…Jeremy Corbin isn’t quite that far, but he seems set to do a version of it within the Labour Party. Those ‘senior figures’ within Labour – like Harriet Harmon and most of Corbyn’s other current competitors –  rather shot themselves in the foot when they initiated the ‘open forum’ that allowed Jeremy Corbyn to be propelled into the front running position he now occupies. His core supporters are firmly rooted in the values of what is now called Old Labour, as a contrast to New Labour, that banal and mediocre media transformation atop the policy transformation that saw Blair and Co., shift the party firmly in line with dominant neo-liberal ideology. Whatever New Labour is supposed to represent its very existence attempts to drop the guillotine on the party’s prior history, declaring its entire raison d’etre to be outmoded and out of line with the politics (though in truth they mean the economic hegemony) of the modern world.

Jeremy Corbyn has taken to the podium to tell us that this is nonsense, and he has a lot of willing listeners. These are not just disgruntled old pre-Kinnock Labourites, they are young people too; those who may have voted for Blair in 1997, or who were too young to vote and really are ‘Blair’s children’. What they all share is the disillusionment produced from those three Labour governments that oversaw monumental lies leading to war, a near-complete hollowing-out of social infrastructure, financial corruption and ending ignominiously in financial meltdown. Not content with having presided over this, the very same repertory of rotating faces is now trying to pretend that they offer something different. These are people who served in Blair governments and were touted as the new faces of New Labour. The Blair coup fully integrated the view that there is one way to win elections (because this is all they care about) and that is to court plutocrats and media-moguls and rub-shoulders, in a friendly way, with the people and institutions that Labour as a party was created to moderate.

In his book Feeding Frenzy Will Self remarked that “Never before has style so fantastically glossed substance.” That was New Labour’s real legacy for politics, a media realignment achieved by a full-scale in-house demolition project. Instead of holding principles and damn the media, the line was taken that it is the media that wins an election. It is the media that shapes public opinion and any party seeking office has to be in line with the ideological interests that now saturate the corporate media. In 1997 it was tempting to believe that some sacrifice was worth it just to end Tory rule and perhaps undo at least some of the damage of their privatisation frenzy and corporate cronyism. Never was an electorate so misguided as in 1997.

In Chris Mullins’s book the protagonist is a character modelled upon Tony Benn who at the time had just lost the deputy leadership to Denis Healy (by 1%) and had come in fourth in the leadership contest of 1976. Like Corbyn now, Tony Benn was always popular with grass roots Labour activists, but his fate in terms of leadership positions shows just how difficult it is for a principled politician to secure the position that directs the party; let alone capture the wide support that leads to 10 Downing Street. Generation upon generation of the regular voting public has been persuaded that anyone like Tony Benn is ‘bad for business’ and business (specifically dancing to its tune) is really all that matters. Under this supposed home truth everything has to be sacrificed to market ideology, or in reality a hegemony of massive corporations, banking giants and other financial institutions who cajole and blackmail any government not following orders. More usually its representatives hop back and forth between boardroom and Westminster. Tony Benn kept his principles and eventually became a back bench ‘voice of reason’ and fierce critic. Jeremy Corbyn has already been a back bench voice of reason and fierce critic for some time, so it’s interesting to see his ascent.

Radio 4’s The Report recently produced a programme about the ‘Corbyn effect’ and looked at the sorts of people supporting his leadership bid. It focused on two young people, essentially disillusioned young people produced during the Blair era who see those years in much the same way my generation saw Thatcher; which is a poor show indeed for the Labour Party. My generation also saw a Labour Party out of office for nearly twenty years, but at the time, despite the desperation and dashed hope, it mattered that you took a genuine stand rather than buying into the club just to be able to make some paltry difference, like New Labour eventually did.

If Jeremy Corbyn wins, the Labour Party will have a crisis on its hands because the rest of the shadow cabinet is largely made up of Blairites or Blair-lites who have fully signed up to the so-called new paradigm of British politics. The middle-class voters wooed to Labour by Blair (those who haven’t already gone back either to the Conservatives or onwards to UKIP) are a new generation of people who have no clue about class or a ‘right-left divide’ because they’ve been weaned on a culture of individualism and personal consumption of everything including political needs. It remains to be seen if enough damage has been done by Thatcher-Blair-Cameron to have pushed these people far enough, through austerity, housing shortages, unemployment and political corruption, to be able to accept a principled left-wing Labour Leader as man whose vision they can share. In Mullins’s book the status quo is maintained and his hero is removed by the establishment.

Why should anyone care what the likes of Tony Blair thinks?

Tony the Bliar

Who imagined that The Labour Party’s leadership election, in the wake of Ed Miliband’s departure, would turn into a genuine ideological battle? When Miliband 2 was hoisted into the role the usual cries of ‘too left wing!’ went up everywhere. They dubbed him, rather ludicrously, Red Ed and painted him as an ideological step backwards. Soon enough it was plain to see that despite being the son of a respected Marxist theoretician, Mr Red Ed turned out to be rather more of a Magenta Miliband. He wasn’t all that much different from the New Labour Party that was his platform for reaching the top.

The current leadership race was probably expected to run to the same formula it has been running to since the election of Kinnock – basically a gradual shift rightwards predicated upon the ‘theory’ that left-wing politics loses elections. For that is now the ‘ideology’ of the influential top of the Labour Party. The election of the natural Tory and war criminal Tony Blair was the high point of this transition. His position as leader in an election that he couldn’t lose, after 18 years of Tory rule and a descent into sleaze; in a position of economic boom before the bust, has given him the unwarranted position of constantly being consulted as some kind of oracle for Labour Party matters. It was obvious, therefore, that his opinion would be solicited regarding the matter of Jeremy Corbyn’s increasing chances in the leadership race.

As is now par for the course we see Bliar adopting his usual tie-less look, with that smirk on his face and talking in the 1990s lad-culture manner he adopted as part of the great ‘Nu Labour’ strategy. His spiel is that he ‘just don’t geddit right?’ All those people going all left-wing, what’s all that about? Then he pulls the sort of face one of the cast from Friends might pull after delivering a punchline. It’s a fitting comparison because since his descent from the Labour throne he appears to have ‘gone all American’. Things are now ‘dumb’ rather than, for example, ‘foolish’ or just a mistake. He reiterates the ‘theory’ that the only thing that wins elections for the Labour Party is being more right-wing, because right-wing is the new normal for realistic politics, so the argument seems to go. No-one is so blunt about it though, they have to massage it in with a lot of references to ‘social justice’ or ‘opportunity for all’ and ‘making Britain work for everyone’. The Tories do it too. Basically whatever your ideology is, you wrap it in the emotive phrases and serve it up to the public.

Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for the leadership of the Labour Party was the sort of bid that usually provides the entertainment during these leadership battles. We’re all supposed to laugh and tut because we know these sorts of candidates don’t have a cat in hell’s chance, but this time the Labour Party has it all wrong their token ‘balance’ candidate has sailed to prominence rather than sinking without a trace. Since at least 2010 various party hopefuls, including current runner Andy Burnham, have given the usual waffle about how horribly right-wing the Tories are, giving the impression (though never ever saying) that they are a left-wing alternative. They represent the Blairite ‘left’, the pathetic residue of Labour Party socialism after the mid-1990s cleansing masterminded by the triumvirate of Blair-Brown-Mandelson. It runs through the entire upper layer of the party and is a deciding factor in who makes it to the front benches and which representative faces are allowed to go on the television.

On Wednesday’s Newsnight Mary Creagh, who is really a Blairite product, was the anti-Corbyn Labour Party guest, after having written an article in the New Statesman comparing Labour to Millwall football club. In the middle they had Emily ‘white van’ Thornberry purporting to sit on the fence and Diane Abbott supporting Corbyn. Creagh and Thornberry are Blairites. They are committed to capitalism and markets (wrapped in token social justice of course) and fully committed to the ‘theory’ that Labour Party election chances are only possible when not being ‘left-wing’. This is not ‘abolishing capitalism’ left-wing, or completely undoing privatisation left-wing. Being left-wing is now saying things like: ‘we don’t have to have terrible austerity piled on top of poor people and the working poor’. It’s also saying things like ‘banks should be properly regulated’ and ‘important public services should be publicly owned’. The last one being almost Bolshevism for most within the current New Labour Party. Ergo Jeremy Corbyn is really just a Bolshevik for these people. This is why Bliar has been wheeled out to perform his TV schtick and the BBC has been getting soundbites from people in the street and had no trouble in finding enough idiots who can say ‘oh yeah, this guy’s waaay too left-wing’ without really having the first clue what they are talking about.

We should care about the damaging horseshit propaganda Tony Bliar is peddling, but we should disregard his opinions because they are worthless.

The core problem

‘In the various e-newsletters I receive from several left-wing organisations there is often a tone of desperation. There is also the familiar ‘call to arms’, the ‘arms’ in question being petitions, ignored peaceful marches and the get togethers that hope to spread new roots and deepen the already-existing ones.  I’ve attended my fair share of the latter over the years and disappointment has never been very far behind.

It has always been a mistake to rely on the assumption that the next person’s understanding of something you think you share, is the same as your understanding of it. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a socialist gathering where everyone has been asked why they say they are socialist, or what they hope to achieve with it? Since the total triumph of Neo-liberal economic policy much of the left has taken the position of pressure group. Pressuring for what? That is the question. It appears to be the regular agenda of issues anyone calling themselves “left-wing” engages with alongside the core problem.

The ‘core problem’ refers to the problem of the plutocratically-owned capitalist economy. Not just a selection of its worst activities and the deleterious effects, but the problems arising from its very existence as the dominant underlying cause of social misery. It always stood to reason that the solution was its removal. Well, not quite. The second rung of socialism, the non-revolutionary path, has been satisfied with keeping capitalism on, but making sure it is safely chained-up and under strict supervision. From this we got the entire circus of sideshows including: reform socialism; social democracy; market socialism; capitalism with a ‘human face’. It has led here. To the universal triumph of capitalist markets presided over by powerful vested interests. It’s products are the ugly transformation of work into profitable stupidity. To the unemployed wasteland of hundreds of years of human skills that are ‘no longer required’; forced into obsolescance in an economy that values a narrow ideas of ‘skills’ and yet dresses it up as the last word in skill diversity. It has led to housing scarcity; more poverty; chronic debt; economic catastrophe; more pollution; more reckless consumption.

It failed. Capitalism hasn’t been harnessed for the best outcome for all. People in all age ranges: the under-25s, the over 40s, the over 50s, a great mass of people, are with the programme. Some might be upset with various bits of ‘the programme’, some little result of it that complicates and adds uncertainty to their lives, but ‘the programme’ of neo-liberal economic dominance is perceived as simply the way of the world. It has failed dismally, beyond creating a consumption Mecca and replacing human skill with automation, and yet the greatest PR exercise ever has been in presenting this dismal failure as the greatest success story in the history of humankind.

In the Netherlands – which is a rather right-wing country within Western Europe – the socialist parties are neutered. The clearest sign that they have had to kneel down and kiss the ring of triumphant neo-liberalist ideology is the moderated language in regard to capitalist economics. The SP (socialistisch partij) is a decent organisation. It is critical of the governments of the day (which are invariably either centre-right or right-wing and all neo-liberal), but its critique always falls short of condemning the core of the problem. They are not averse to wheeling out the populist line of ‘getting small businesses working’; the sort of stuff appealing to the popular idea that capitalism, being essentially morally neutral, is merely hijacked by crooks and corporatism. The same basic idea feeding into the sub-normal fantasies of libertarians and followers of the Smith religion. Most importantly, they have no counter-offensive, no clear informational antidote to the all-pervasive neo-liberal ideology impregnated deep into general culture.

To express fundamental opposition to neo-liberalism (essentially extreme capitalist rationalisation) is considered equal to opposing empirical reality. An explosion of different and disparate ideas clouds the problem. Since the rise of ‘new atheism’ in the U.S. and the theatre of ‘birthers’ and ‘911 conspiracies’, an entire swath of people keen to disassociate themselves from flat-earth thinking likes to stick closer to what is regarded as the ‘rational truth’. Capitalist economics, in all its forms and guises, has the rather enviable position of being considered ‘normal reality’. To most of the world it is not so much an economic system among many as it is just something that ‘is’, like the weather or the sea. Capitalism is not considered as a ‘way’ of running an economy, it is thought of as ‘the’ economy. That is a powerful position to occupy and renders everything else as mere alternatives.

The current left (and even the left of the past) has concentrated too much on criticism and too little on portraying itself as legitimate. Walking the streets in crowds shouting ‘socialism now!’ instantly makes you into a sideline critic rather than someone playing equally on the field. Where is the magazine of heterodox economics that can counter the dominance of ‘The Economist’ as a mainstream discussion of economics? Current socialist thought is not far from the position of ‘alternative’ medicine compared to medical science; the latter seen as the rational truth, the former as a pretender with some crank adherents. One major failing is that the ‘core problem’, the economy, is focused upon less and less as socialist movements – especially the Netherlands International Socialists – busies itself with popular sociology and a never-ending series of anti-racism marches. Too often it is students who move up through the ranks and become academics making their careers as ‘theorists’ within these organisations. The small faithful applauds and the rest of society remains oblivious and carries on living under the ‘normality’ of the corporate-capitalist economy, sometimes happy, sometimes disgruntled.

By getting sidetracked from the ‘core problem’ socialist organisations are going nowhere apart from the next ignored and contained march and the next forgotten ‘conference’.

The wrong pope for business-as-usual

Pope Francis

Any listeners to BBC Radio 4’s Analysis may have caught one of the recent podcasts (Is the Pope a communist?) concerning the current Pope Francis and how ‘worryingly left-wing’ he is according to the capitalist big-business elite of America. Analysis is generally right leaning anyway, but this particular broadcast marks a new low in its propaganda-masquerading-as-reportage approach.

The charges are that Pope Francis has always been to the left of politics and a typical proponent of liberation theology, the socially active theology that conservatives consider to be ‘socialist’. This alone is too much for the parade of right-wing commentators whose opinions Analysis has solicited. Pope Francis is charged with being not only a liberation theologian, but also an anti-capitalist and business doesn’t like that. Cue the list of noisy interviewees applying adjectives like ‘dangerous’ and ‘misguided’ to Francis and his every pronouncement. After a while a pattern starts to emerge and it’s a familiar one: basically he’s saying the ‘wrong’ things. The ‘right’ thing would be to support the usual PR fairy story of global ‘free trade’, the alleged force for good. A system that has given millions of Africans a mobile phone and Coca-Cola, but does next to zero to alleviate continued malnutrition, water access problems, housing and health. These are not the concern of big business, unless it involves a group of able consumers to pay for such services. Anything done not-for profit is a problem for governments and charities to struggle with.

The central complaint is that Pope Francis is not Pope John Paul II. The latter was very useful for American right-wing supporters of global corporatism because he was caught up in the struggle of Poland against the then Soviet Union and for historical reasons was an enemy of socialism. So it appeared as capitalism and the Pope (and who better as an ally?) against the wrong-headed ideas of socialism. In this scenario the Pope’s infallibility remained intact because he was saying the ‘right’ things. See how it works?

Now the pope is saying all the’ wrong’ things, he is a danger to the world and wielding dangerous power. Very soon he will make a pronouncement and release a report on climate change and this has the right-wing business elite in a complete flap. Already the conservative agenda-makers are spewing out critiques of the pope’s so-called divine infallibility all over the American infotainment circuit to fully plant the seed in the American psyche that some things the pope says might be wrong (especially if they don’t sit neatly alongside the national capitalist religion). They know the influence the pope has and fear that his pronouncements will completely contradict the machine pumping out lies that has been operated by big-business to sow confusion into the ‘debate’ around human-influenced climate problems. In the USA any pope has a lot of influence. There are many Catholics, especially among the old families traditionally powerful in business. It is historically not convenient for the usurers when a religious leader contradicts them and this is what Francis is doing, so he is not popular. Expect a lot of political grapeshot when his encyclical on the climate is issued.

Evan Davies and other ‘economists’

Evan Davies (Wikipedia)

I’m getting rather tired of Evan Davies. When he was at Radio 4 and presenting the abomination known as Dragon’s Den, I didn’t have to listen to his irritating interview style quite so much. Since he took the main anchor position on BBC’s Newsnight, replacing the outgoing Jeremy Paxman, his profile has been raised and with it his visibility. The position now means that political interviews – much like the one-to-one leaders interviews taking place currently – are automatically given to Davies.

Several reviewers (in the Spectator, Guardian etc) have already commented upon Davies’s rather bothersome habit of asking questions and then proceeding to interrupt the answer before it has even begun; offering needless clarifications of his question. He also appears to keep a permanent grin on his face as the interviewee answers, which betrays a tone implying: I know the question is schoolboy-type philosophy and that we all know that the answer means nothing with regard to the influence it will have on an immovable political-economic policy.

Davies is one of those ‘economists’ that often seem to turn up on BBC News. Much like Stephanie Flanders (ex-Newsnight), Tim Harford and klaxon-voiced Robert Peston, he appears to sit squarely in the neo-classical tradition and often defaults to the position that despite everything there is a single economic reality and it is ‘free markets’, capitalism and everything that flows from that accepted economic paradigm. It would, of course, be unusual to see a BBC ‘economist’ taking a heterodox economic stance, which would be enough to fire up the right-wing lunatics who still believe that the Corporation is an arm of the Communist International. The default position means that when all is said and done in interviews, anyone going a little right of it (generally just being upfront about neo-classical neo-liberalism), they are ‘right-wing’and anyone inching toward social democracy is ‘far-left’ and both need to tread carefully to keep within the boundaries accepted of “economic normality”.

Davis is at the moment, the face of this position and as such is irritating, even without his mannerisms and too often vacuous questions. Both together are combining to make him thoroughly unwatchable.

Au revoir le post

Some time ago (quite some time ago) I wrote several posts charting the gradual demise of the Dutch postal services and the possible demise of the British Post Office. Little has changed at the core apart from the fact that the Post Office in England finally got shunted off into the long-term privatisation programme. Yes, they did it finally. One more crossed off the list of stubborn public organisations resisting the neo-liberal capitalist mantra of “everything safely in private hands”. The NHS is a much tougher nut to crack, but they are working on it, so have your credit card ready.

I’ve read newspaper pieces on it, and some blogs ,with the usual pepperings of ignorant comments from semi-literate simpletons half-way through their latest how-to book for making money on the stock market. These people always have great memories at least, when they rattle off, almost verbatim, the words of the latest policy stuffed into the mouths of political party spokesmen doing the rounds of the tv infotainment cabaret circuit. If we were as smart as they were we’d know deep in our hearts that the Post Office was a ‘failing organisation’ that wasn’t making any profit. We’d see that privatisation would ‘inject much-needed capital’ and allow a more ‘streamlined structure’ allowing it to become a profitable service. Let us thus consult our special handbook:

Understanding Newspeak. (Revised edition 2013):

Failing organisation: Organisation targeted for either privatisation or destruction by prevailing powers that deem it unsuitable for their ideological programme. It is first put under scrutiny by an ‘outside audit’ paid for by taxpayers, after which teams of managers, PR people, and ‘ troubleshooters’ will be drafted in to effect a reorganisation. The alleged purpose is to discover how to save lots of public money by paying lots of the public money to private companies. Eventually, when the public has finally lost interest in the entire farrago, said organisation is either quietly liquidated, privatised in some way or broken up and sold off to asset strippers and similarly deep-pocketed capitalist vultures.

Injecting much-needed capital: Most often large amounts of private money waved under the noses of neo-liberal governments in several ways; sometimes in the form of bribes, and increasingly in place of proper public services funding. Governments seeking to ‘streamline government’ (see: big government and bloated administration) but having limited tax resources, are approached by those whose tax they commonly never receive, offering to fill the resources gap in exchange for leverage. Once secured, the arrangement allows the government to jettison both its role of providing core public services and the costs involved. The downside is zero appreciable gains in tax revenue and an entire public service (free of private corporate interests) given away for free.

Streamlining: In general, sacking large parts of a workforce and/or transferring any remaining functions to locations (usually sub-tropical) where employment law is weak and exploitation high.

Big government: (Usually pejorative) Anything more than the minimum; where the minimum still includes the jobs of the same people calling for smaller government. In the United States e.g. big governments usually arise when Democrats win more seats than Republicans. In the UK a big government is when the Conservative Party, or people like them, is out of office. In the minds of very extreme American politicians, ‘big government’ actually means ‘ the government’, since the general aim is to completely replace its functions with private business and a utopia of free-market pioneers.

Reorganisation: A PR term for saving money by two means: firing large parts of the workforce and selling-off buildings, machinery, tools etc. The theoretical aim seems generally to be an attempt to run businesses on impossibly low levels of normal investment.

Flexible work: The opportunity for an employer to have labour-on-demand available 24 hours a day when it suits them. Most often erroneously defined as ‘suiting the employees lifestyle’. Exceptions where it suits small numbers of people are often highlighted to give the impression that the works fits the employee rather than the other way about.

So now, armed with our enhanced understanding, what can we say about the British Post Office sell-off? Initially we might have wondered why people who want to make money would want to pursue ownership of something that is supposedly failing due to reasons beyond anyone’s control. The argument was originally quite clear-cut. The advent of the internet meant that everyone threw away their pens and paper; banned handwriting; stopped sending birthday and Christmas cards; forgot where pillar boxes were located and that all parcels  – including the internet-driven increase in physical parcels from the likes of Amazon and Ebay – all started to magically be sent via email. The obvious outcome was the demise of real world-postal services. As a result private financiers flocked to acquire this moribund service  in order to pour money into it. Impeccable logic so far.

Before we peruse this conundrum any more, let us mosey over to the Dutch postal service (in name only) to see what things are like much further down the privatisation road. The skeleton history runs thus: The old PTT (Phone, telegraphy, telephony) served its time as a post-war social amenity in the now-outmoded social-democracy economy. Some time later it was partially marketised, but remained largely state-run as the TPG. In time it was finally forced to walk the plank and was bought by Austrian corporation TNT. They went round and stuck TNT stickers onto the post boxes to help people who were confused understand that the post boxes (then still red) now belonged to TNT. Most of the population carried on calling the service the PTT. Later on the company split its parcel service from its post and Post.nl (Post Nederland) was created from a melting pot of existing post handlers, money in fat envelopes (not sent through the postal system) and some back-room politics. Most of the population carried on calling the service the PTT.
Post.nl then adopted their chief policy that the future of paper post is in rapid terminal decline and drastic reorganisation (targeted cutbacks) was needed to secure the future of the postal service; a recent recession gave justification. In the meantime all the postal boxes that weren’t removed now turned orange. Serendipitously this helped in locating them as they became so scarce in towns and cities. Most ordinary people blamed the long-since retired PTT.

Streamlining eased labour costs, but the local nature of the postal service meant that work couldn’t be outsourced to the Far East slave pits, so a policy of old-fashioned exploitation of the remaining workforce, mixed with management techniques and PR, was put into place. A policy of reminding workers at every opportunity that the amount of post is rapidly declining was rolled out, which then of course required flexible work, minimum-hour contracts, time-and-motion spying. In addition most administration staff were helpfully ‘streamlined’ into unemployment and buildings sold off, including central and local post offices and sorting depots. The total separation in the public mind of the Post Office and the Postal Bank (now ING) was completed by eliminating proper banking services from ex-post offices. The promotion of (non-football-related) team managers was done on the basis of general political ignorance, mild-to-severe sociopathic tendencies and an ability to blindly follow policy.

One jargon term that accurately explains this is ‘hollowed out’. The Dutch postal service is a scaled-down semi-professional service carried out by a core of highly-exploited ‘full-time part-timers’ alongside a shifting group of casual labour as and when required: students and the half unemployed essentially. Meanwhile it turns over a generous profit on the stock market, which is quite a feat for a service in rapid terminal decline.

The British postal service can be expected to follow this trajectory mutatis mutandis. Once the old guard of postal workers are retired or hounded out, it will be a purveyor of casual labour and insulting low-paid ‘flexible’ jobs. The ‘Postman’ is now that demoralised figure shambling down your street, way past midday, wearing gaudy polyester and noticeably not whistling. Next week, next month, next year (if he can last that long) his face may change, several times. The shareholders of the British Post will earn a tidy profit. The post will be saved.

Getting the message about privatised work

Two years back a post here highlighted the sorts of shenanigans that were going on in the aftermath of the Dutch privatisation of the postal service. The typical official position is that private ownership has increased efficiency and reduced costs, and if all we did to verify this was to look at those two broad accounting figures, we would have to agree that this is indeed the case.

We need to look deeper to find out exactly how, at a time when the internet has caused general paper mail to reach an all time low, private mail companies still manage to stay in operation, when none of these outfits are successfully making a profit (an argument constantly given in Britain in favour of privatising Royal Mail). The answer of course has been the casual/flexible work model: the practice of hiring people at arm’s length, without a proper contract, for day work, short-time seasonal work and as speciously designated ‘self-employed’ people to deliver the masses of corporate mail at the lowest possible price. This mail includes everything from routine business correspondence to the mountains of advertising ‘junk mail’ specifically handled in the Netherlands by companies like Selekt Mail.

There hasn’t really been much written in English about the situation in the Netherlands, which in fact serves as a useful case study of the effects of postal privatisation on employees. I’d like to point readers to an excellent essay in the London Review Of Books by James Meek which serves as a brilliant exposé of the shady goings-on in the privatised Dutch postal service.

The essay concerns an unnamed postwoman with a council flat filled to the point of intrusion with crates of undelivered mail. She is behind on her deliveries because of weather, illness, personal problems and fights a battle to make the crates disappear faster than the new crates can arrive.

‘I couldn’t cope and at Christmas 2006 I had about 90 of these boxes in the house. By New Year’s Day we had 97. There were even boxes in the toilet.’

Her story is really one of the common stories of people of all ages in the Netherlands employed in the massive casual work industry. Any high street in the Netherlands counts a myriad of casual work bureaus – most notably Randstad – that provide their ‘members’ with casual work that sometimes changes by the day (if it manages to be a full day of work). There is a mountain of unskilled work and warehouse work and this provision of short-term workers allows companies to dispense with the troublesome business of interviewing, hiring and maintaining properly employed staff. Meek’s essay captures the essence of how it works and what it means in terms of meaningful employment:

The postwoman is paid a few cents for each item of mail she delivers. The private mail firms control their delivery people’s daily post-bag to make sure they never earn more than €580 a month, the level at which the firms would be obliged to give them a fixed contract.

For the postal services it has led to the complete death of ‘The Postman’ in the Netherlands. As Meek points out, a Dutch household doesn’t have a ‘postman’ it has postmen/women all working for competing firms as casual labour, earning nearly half the legal minimum wage without any job security. In many cases these are just students taking work in-between classes, not as worried about job security, less fussy about the sort of living wage a person with a family might worry about.

The private postal arrangement is particular pernicious in the way it intrudes into lives. Meek mentions people sorting mail out on the sink and in bed. It is a classic extraction of surplus-value technique masquerading as self-regulated work, which is what really lies at the heart of the casual work scam. A pretence of increased freedom and responsibility about your own working life which actually manifests itself as the unpaid carrying of extra responsibility and the carrying out of work for the lowest remuneration possible.

Meek’s essay is but one highlighted part of a horrible jigsaw puzzle of fractured work in the face of privatisation and employment liberalisation in Europe. It’s worth reading to help get the message.