I’m sure I’m not the only person to have a problem with all this talk of the ‘Living Wage’. Not as a concept or a principle by which a decent society runs, but as a subject which needs discussing at all.
It’s one of those pieces of language that’s used without really thinking about what the words mean. Politicians and employers talk about the Living Wage as a ‘nice if you can afford it’ optional extra for our industrial model, an ideal which should be aimed for, but which in reality will bankrupt business, stunt growth, discourage investment, increase unemployment.
It’s not the discussion about where the Living Wage should be set – £7, £8 an hour ? – that troubles me, but what’s implied by debating it as a concept. A Living Wage is by definition a wage which, it is calculated, is enough to live on. Its inverse is a wage which you can’t live on. I used to help organisations write their business plans, in the cultural sector (where we’re all supposed to work for the love of it anyway). In professional terms, an organisation which couldn’t afford to pay its employees enough to live on – without, for example, having to stack shelves in Tesco to subsidise the arts practice – could not be considered a sustainable enterprise. Yet it is this ‘Unliving Wage’ which is considered the default across much of the so-called commercial sector and we are told by employers and politicians that whilst it’s regrettable that employees will not be able to live on it or support a family without being supplemented with state benefits, that is nonetheless the price that must be paid for economic growth. A Mcjob on an Unliving Wage is, apparently better than no job at all. An Unliving Wage is what most employers will choose to pay for unskilled work, the default choice of the market.
It’s one of those ways we have contorted language to accept the unacceptable. Like Affordable Housing. If something is not ‘affordable’, that in my book means its unaffordable, at least for a large number of people. Yet Unaffordable Housing carries more profit. Unless Affordable Housing is a requirement through planning consents, or incentivised by subsidy, Unaffordable Housing is the choice of the commercial developers.
Maybe it’s one of those phrases which was introduced to avoid the suggestion that such housing should be available to people who are ‘poor’ or ‘working class’. What Cameron calls Hard Working People (never just ‘working people’ because that carries the whiff of class struggle). What if I work, but not always hard, just with the normal level of discretionary effort most people put into their jobs ? Does that mean I don’t deserve a Living Wage ? And so won’t be able to afford even Affordable Housing , let alone Unaffordable Housing.
I think we should start to insist that when a Living Wage is discussed, the alternative is not described as the ‘minimum wage’ but the Unliving Wage, or ‘the wage you can’t live on’. When housing is not described as Affordable we should refer to it as Unaffordable. If they’re going to going to use these soft euphemisms, they should also be forced to articulate their antonyms.
At the other end of the spectrum to the Living Wage, we find Boardroom Compensation. When did that term ‘compensation’ start to be used when describing unfeasibly gross financial rewards for a job of work? Compensation used to mean a payment or other consolation for something bad happening to you. An offsetting in the face of misfortune. Are we expected to accept that society owes such a debt to senior executives in the world of banking, privatised utilities and commerce, that the obscene amounts they are paid is some way of offsetting the enormous balance of benefit they confer on society and the economy? People who are paid less for their labour than it is worth are remunerated. Those who are paid much more than their labour is worth are compensated. Hmm.
And ‘shareholder value’. Isn’t that what used to be called profit ? Well yes, but putting profit making at the top of your mission statement if you are a power generating company doesn’t sound quite right. But ‘Delivering Shareholder Value’ sounds OK, ok ?
It’s language as much as economics which has allowed the inexorable concentration of wealth into the hands of the few rather than the many over the past three and a half decades. Phrases which came to be adopted by all the main political parties and many former liberal thinkers (those 70’s lefties who ended up working for Docklands Development Corporations) resulting from the seismic shifts brought about by Thatcherism. Phrases like ‘wealth creators’ (who we now realise too late created wealth for nobody except themselves) ‘celebrating success’ (when the only way to celebrate was in a ‘compensation’ package facilitating excessive consumption) and the accusation of ‘the politics of envy’ for anyone who questioned these concepts (or worse still, of waging ‘class war’ at a time when to engage in any debate pertaining to inequality was to be cast as a cartoon, Socialist-Worker -selling, donkey-jacketed, pabloite-revisionist-accusing demon of the seventies who probably wore bad flares). Through language, the elite have pulled off the momentous double trick of conflating notions of inequality with those of class – whilst at the same time persuading us that class is irrelevant in the twenty first century. Ergo, if you insist on banging on about inequality , you embrace irrelevance.
All this has been done through language, whilst the real story, the economic narrative which reversed the growth in living standards so that the children of the baby boomers are the first generation in the past 100 years to face a worse economic future than their parents, and one in six children lives in poverty, has unfolded silently by sleight of hand. Language has provided the multi-coloured smokescreen, the dayglo posters and the BOGOF diversions to conceal what has really been happening. And that can most clearly be described how ? Well, Marx had a pretty good stab at it back in the nineteenth century. It’s the corporate capitalists (Wealth Creators) increasing their surplus value on labour (paying Hard Working People less than a Living Wage) to make large profits (Maximise Shareholder Value). This is achieved by squeezing labour (a McJob on an Unliving Wage is better than no job at all) and spending the capital thus accumulated to consolidate political power (buying services from the multi billion pound lobbying industry) in order to make sure all the above can continue to happen unhampered by regulation or taxation (remove red tape to sustain economic growth).
Whether you read the story in the language of the original Marx, or the 21st century translation (the bits in brackets), the narrative is the same. Something has gone badly wrong.
I did warn at the top of this blog that it contained offensive language. And indeed I have used the C word (class) the P word (profit) and the S word (surplus value). I confess also to having invoked a satanic demon, Karl Marx. The trouble is it is very hard to describe what is happening right now without resorting to such a medium. Like much purportedly offensive language, it is the most direct and honest way of telling it like it is. The words Living Wage, Affordable Housing, Compensation, Shareholder Value and Wealth Creation are the real Bad Language.