Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

An alternative view from 1978

In A.Graham, Reviews on August 10, 2010 at 3:31 pm

‘The Right to Useful Work’ edited by Ken Coates

Non-fiction/politics. Review by A. Graham

A slightly different view of our society is contained in the book, “The Right to useful Work“, which was originally produced for the Institute for Workers’ Control in 1978, and which has now been reprinted by Spokesman Books (price £12). In a series of articles, it brings together a range of factors that are vital to any community – employment, the environment and the welfare of the people who live in it. Whilst some pieces may have dated a bit, as a whole it shows up how many of the issues highlighted are still relevant today, almost three decades after it first appeared.

Since the late 1970s, de-industrialisation has transformed many areas of Britain. There has been a concentration of economic power, and the creation of what we like to call “the global economy”. And, as Ken Coates writes in the first chapter, industrial concentration has produced a remarkable growth in productivity. Today, “the market” rules.

“Yet the same market which stimulates unprecedented efficiency in the manufacture of some commodities, totally ignores large and growing areas of human need,” writes Ken Coates.

“Several hundred pressure groups will testify to this: from the all-too-feeble lobby for adequate provision of speech therapy, to the network of organisations to help and teach mentally and physically handicapped people, to the numberless local groups which seek to assist the old, or the deprived, or the poor. All these bodies are a permanent reproach to the hidden hand which regulates the market: this hand is not only invisible, it is unfeeling, they all insist. To seek redress for the wrongs they suffer, or have seen to be suffered, such groups are compelled to join together to levitate themselves, too often by their own bootstraps, over the blind cruelties of their economic inheritance.

“That the ill-housed or homeless could benefit if tens of thousands of workless builders might only pick up their tools again, is plainly evident. Teachers join dole-queues while children still crowd into classes which are far too big for the methods of modern pedagogy. Legions of school-leavers are innoculated with the butalising serum of pointlessly imposed idleness, while want and waste still face each other out in all our cities. … the late capitalist market is a near-total failure when we confront the overall problem of matching needs to resources.”

It’s natural that employment, and the right to full employment, is at the core of this book, but it’s placed within the wider context of the community. As Ken Coates suggests, the unemployed themselves are isolated and cannot take effective action in defence of jobs that no longer exist. The 1970s was the decade that gave us such imaginative plans as the study by Lucas Aerospace workers, for alternative fields of employment. At the time it caught the imagination of the left. It came about when Lucas shop stewards lobbied Industry Minister, Tony Benn. He asked them to work out alternative proposals – which they did. But by that time Tony Benn had been replaced by Eric Varley who was less than sympathetic.

Yet who today can remember the Lucas shop stewards’ report? Or other work, by trade unionists in defence of jobs or the growing environmentalist movement? The year after this book was first published, Thatcher came to power. In 1985, the miners were crushed – and as they say, the rest is history.

Published by Spokesman Books.


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