James Bloodworth’s book ‘Hired’ inspires the profound reflections of a young writer on the roles of the individual, the atheist community, and the government in reducing income inequality and bridging the gap between political parties.
By Ross Paton
When issues of inequality are politicised, the solution becomes mired in partisan debates. To what can we attribute income inequality? Is it simply the fair conclusion of meritocracy, or a product of privilege, passed down generationally?
Bloodworth’s book Hired gives us an account of his time as a low-income worker to settle this debate. His experience spanned six months, during which he lived on the money he earned from low-wage, soulless jobs, and talked to those who, unlike him, had no reprieve from this drab and anxiety-riddled existence. How could we more accurately reach the truth than through talking to and living the lives of those who find themselves at the bottom?
In the current tempestuous political climate of the culture wars, atheists will too often settle in the middle to avoid accusations of tribalism. But anyone familiar with logical fallacies will know that this argument to moderation–that the truth can be safely found in the middle–is simply fallacious. The truth falls where it wants, political leanings be damned. In this case, it seems to have fallen firmly on the Left.
To point to a truth that some unsavoury groups happen to subscribe to does not mean one has joined that group. We should be non-partisan enough to concede without reservation to the Left and Right, and non-partisan enough to disagree all the same. Indeed, the elements of truth to these movements are often the air keeping their tribal dinghies afloat. To concede this is to let the impulse to tribalism drown.
Despite taking no pains to conceal his own left-leaning sympathies, Bloodworth’s account of his dismal experiences would let out the tribal air of even the most hardy and crusty conservatives.
For what it’s worth, I really enjoyed the book. Although I wouldn’t say I’m naive to the world of low-paid work, reading this underlined that I was painfully naive to the world of low-paid lives. The sense of overwhelming exhaustion was pervasive: getting up for work, exhausting yourself at work in almost Dickensian conditions, throwing a ready meal in the microwave once you’re finally at home, offsetting the toll on your soul with alcohol and cigarettes, passing out on your pillow, and repeating the monotonous cycle. These are realities that many of us don’t have to confront or even worry about, if we are privileged enough to have a family (among other things) to support us. While his descriptions garnered empathy (and dispelled even the mildest inclination to talk patronisingly about stiffening the upper lip), the statistics were just disturbing:
According to the pedometer I wore on my wrist, I was walking around ten miles a day. The greatest distance I travelled was fourteen miles and the shortest distance was seven. To give some concrete sense of what that entailed, setting off on my first day from the heart of London and heading east, by the evening I would have arrived in Sidcup. By the end of day two I would be approaching Rochester. By the end of the week the coast of Dover would be in sight, and at the end of the month I would have walked to Antwerp in Belgium…It is also worth asking what living on a paltry income does to a person’s long-term health. When I started at Amazon I was a slim twelve-and-a-half stone. Despite walking around ten miles a day, by the end of the month I had put on a stone in fat.
Such was the life of takeaways, microwavable meals, alcoholic and nicotine self-medication that the job’s levels of exhaustion, monotony and practical time constraints induced him into.
We should never be apologetic about our background. Class background should not dampen our own expectations or aspirations. But that’s very easy to say as someone with the luxury of having both the time and money to do unpaid internships. One of my favourite passages comes after Bloodworth spoke to Steven, a B&M retail worker (who had some success in getting legal recognition via a trade union):
The most important trade union work is typically quite dull. The best trade union leaders are also, by extension, interested in the boring stuff – the length of the toilet breaks, the rules governing agency workers, the quantity of the paid breaks a worker is entitled to, and so and so forth. These are the things that matter when you work in a job at the bottom end of the labour market, not the rigid dogmas and slogans summoning a radiant utopian future, nor a new set of superiors booming at you impenetrable jargon.
It struck me talking to Steven that there would be far fewer workplaces like the one he described if the left was a bit less fixated on the romantic penumbra surrounding the word ‘socialism’ – the slogans, the thundering speeches and the whiff of ‘revolution’ – and a little more interested in the boring stuff.
‘Unions are like Marmite, aren’t they?’ Steven said as we got up to go to the pub and ‘started walking home. ‘People either love them or hate them. They either love them because they think they’re going to stick up against bullying, or they’re just stirring little bastards that ruin companies… I remember when I were seventeen, I was just like, “Yeah, I’m not interested. What’s the point in giving them an extra £2 a week?” Ten, fifteen years later it’s like, they’re worth their weight in gold, they really are.’
As Bloodworth implies, those in low wage jobs rarely have the luxury of grappling with the abstract intricacies of socialism. In terms of practical change, trading in ideology only obscures. Actionable and relatable issues, such as adequate breaks in the workplace, are lost in the camouflage of such heavily loaded, partisan words and public debates. It is a great sadness that the agency that politics can bring to life has been swallowed by verbosity in this way.
Bloodworth’s conversations with the luckless people he met got me thinking about religious attitudes towards the poor, and how we might improve upon them. The religious have constantly prided themselves on their charitability (or as some might call it, proselytising). This, if we are more charitable about their motives than perhaps we could be, is in its self a good thing. Something we would do well to emulate, right?
Giving someone who is starving some money to buy food is a patently clear moral necessity. But such an analogy ignores the systemic nature of the oppression that the workers in Bloodsworth’s book face, as he underlines, ‘…around 4.3 million working families are in receipt of benefits or tax credits.’ To hand a worker money where an employee refuses to adequately do so, is like continually giving someone a blood transfusion to keep them alive, oblivious to the vampire attached to their neck. Charity, in the short-term has its place. But systemic change to the issues workers face, requires thought. Leave it to the religious to virtue signal with handouts, while we raise the minimum wage.
“To hand a worker money where an employee refuses to adequately do so, is like continually giving someone a blood transfusion to keep them alive, oblivious to the vampire attached to their neck.”
The religious are rarely shy of talking about their charity too, chatter which is too often boastful in nature. This can, in all fairness to the religiously minded, be a difficult moral tightrope to traverse; doing good, and remaining silent about it is no easy thing. There is a part of me that wants to tell someone when I help an elderly lady across the road. Such thoughts insidiously poison the good essence of the act. It might well be this desire to be seen as good, that draws us towards solving surface issues, while deeper causal factors remain untouched. We post the highlight reels of our lives to Instagram while the day to day can too often remain unchanged. To be satisfied with doing good in the absence of praise or recognition is a habit worth garnering. Our reputation should be built on acts, not sanctimony.
Reading this book made me angry, as many great books do. Not just at the numerous, faceless, reptilian bureaucrats, or the all-seeing stuffy managers that Bloodworth writes about, but at my own disconnection to the world around me.
“Reading this book made me angry, as many great books do. Not just at the numerous, faceless, reptilian bureaucrats, or the all-seeing stuffy managers that Bloodworth writes about, but at my own disconnection to the world around me.”
Society has become so atomised; we are so far removed from each other, that the daily struggle of others has become largely alien. This isn’t a political point either. I don’t even know where to place myself politically anymore–indeed, the more I learn about politics, the less I know where I belong. Despite being politically homeless, I think much depends on disproving Thatcher’s claim, that ‘There is no such thing as society.’
When Thatcher made this remark, she was arguing that society is a conveniently intangible scapegoat onto which we throw the blame for our own individual problems. That the emphasis on society over the individual allows us to shirk responsibility, both for our problems and the solutions to them. There may have been some truth to what she said, but it was certainly far from all of it.
We find ourselves in a context where artificial intelligence, automation and the internet are devouring jobs at a speed that we are yet to really clock. Devoid of a solidarity to help workers to meet these changes, we are going to live in a world which will increasingly widen the chasm between those at the bottom, and those at the top. Once the rich increasingly watch the poor past the shoulders of armed guards and through barbed wire, it might then be admitted (even by Thatcher), that society is a desirable thing after all.
There is a reason why the atomisation of society into isolated individuals intuitively seems far from desirable. Aside from our biological need to belong to an intimate community, the increasing interconnectedness of our modern lives demands the reawakening of a solidarity to the lives of others who make our own easier.
“Aside from our biological need to belong to an intimate community, the increasing interconnectedness of our modern lives demands the reawakening of a solidarity to the lives of others who make our own easier.”
I want to know what it’s like to work in an Amazon warehouse because I order their packages. I had always viewed people who refuse to buy products on moral grounds as a bit sanctimonious. Now, frankly I’m not so sure I’ll be ordering my next package. Paying a little more (if again you have the luxury to afford to) for a clear conscience, is vital. Regardless of whether society exists, I want to live my life in a way that helps to bring one about.
If we are to disprove the religious trope, that to be without god is to be without morals, neglecting to care for the rights of those who package our books, drive us in the early hours and care for our elderly simply will not do. When truth falls in what seems to be the trench of political nuance, we must be brave enough both to seek it without reservation, and to refrain from entrenching ourselves in the wider tribe.