President delivers the Edward Phelan Lecture 2015

Thu 26th Feb, 2015 | 18:20
location: College Hall, Royal College of Surgeons, 123 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2

“The Future of Work” Remarks at the Edward Phelan Lecture 2015

Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin, 26th February 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen, A Dhaoine Córa,

It is a great honour to have been invited to deliver the second Edward Phelan

lecture. I very much welcome this opportunity to pay homage to the achievements of Edward Joseph Phelan, a man who worked steadfastly to forge international labour standards that were grounded in a universalist vision of social justice; and who made his contribution through decades marked by war, a Great Depression and gross violations of human dignity.

I am also very happy that this Lecture takes places under the banner of the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, which I launched over a year ago with a view to stimulating discussion across all sectors of society on the challenge of living together ethically.

During the first phase of the Initiative, Irish universities hosted over fifty events addressing a broad range of themes. In a second phase, launched last September, I invited civil society organisations to engage in this national conversation on ethics. The Society of St Vincent de Paul, Dóchas and The Wheel, amongst others, responded positively to this invitation.

Last week, the National Women’s Council of Ireland formally joined the Initiative by hosting an international conference with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission on the position of women in the world twenty years after the Beijing Platform for Action. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is, in turn, taking part by launching its own project which will be gathering workers’ voices on the significance of ethics in the workplace.

Indeed it is essential that work, in all its facets and in its essence as a shared human activity, be given a central place in the discussion on the values by which, we, as a community, wish to live. The question of “good work” within the broader frame of “the good life” is one of the defining issues of our times. Given Ireland’s recent history, which has seen working conditions change dramatically in connection with wider European and global trends, it is most timely to reassess what is meant, today, by “decent work”. I congratulate ICTU on opening up this important conversation and I would invite as many people as possible across the island of Ireland to take part in it.

At the outset of this lecture, it is appropriate to evoke and recall Edward Phelan’s role in building an international system of workers’ rights. Edward Phelan – who was born in 1888 in Tramore, Co. Waterford – was a key figure in the small group of people who mapped out the basis for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. As a staff member of the ILO for almost thirty years, and its fourth Director from 1941 to 1948, he belongs to that inspirational and committed kind of international public servant who, from the League of Nations period onwards, played a distinctive part in giving an ethical shape to world affairs.

The work and vision of Edward Phelan also recalls for us a time when, amongst those with a progressive agenda, the discipline of political economy was grounded in ethical reasoning and economic policy conceptualised primarily in relation to the social objectives at which it was aimed – in particular, in the 1930s, the objective of full employment. In 1931, for example, Phelan delivered one of the Harris Memorial Lectures at the University of Chicago, speaking with John Maynard Keynes on “Unemployment as a World-Problem”.[1]

As we are, today again, grappling with unacceptable levels of unemployment – ones that undermine social cohesion in Europe and beyond – it is worthwhile to reflect on the significance, for both our present and future, of that impressive body of ideas, principles and legal instruments bequeathed to us by a generation of men and women who were committed to promoting decent and dignified standards for human work.

Such reflection can valuably inform, I suggest, our understanding of the crucial issue currently facing labour – both organised and not organised – namely that of the means and form of the renaissance of labour rights in the wake of several decades of free market ‘rule’, or, more accurately, ‘deregulation’. This is the subject of my address today. How can labour organise itself at national, European and global level, in a context where global financial capital is proportionately more speculative than productive? What conceptions of work does contemporary global capitalism bring forth, allow and encourage? What form of internationalisation should prevail with regard to labour and workers?

The passage from one form of internationalisation to another – from that international normative framework built in the aftermath of WWII to the current institutional architecture organising global trade – can be illustrated so well through the story of the official gift of the Irish government to the ILO – a huge mural entitled “Irish Industrial Development,” commissioned from Seán Keating.[2] Gifted in 1961 by then Minister for Industry and Commerce Jack Lynch, Keating’s work faces “The Dignity of Labour”, by French artist Maurice Denis in the grand staircase of the William Rappard Centre.

The William Rappard Centre was built in the 1920s to house the ILO. It was the first building in Geneva designed to accommodate an organisation of the League of Nations system, a “Palace of Labour” adorned with many donations by trade unions and governments. When the ILO moved to Route des Morillons, in 1975, the GATT moved in. The heads of the international trade body were not pleased with the atmosphere of the William Rappard Centre, so that the works of art to the glory of workers and the productive economy were concealed behind wooden screens and forgotten for a while.

It was not until recently, after the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which succeeded the GATT, was authorised to expand within its current complex, that it was decided to uncover the two murals, and allow them to be seen. Yet, this gesture did not mark the reconciliation of global trade with “the spirit of Philadelphia” – that emancipatory conception of labour which animated Edward Phelan and his colleagues. The alternative dogma spelt out in the first preambular paragraph of the 1994 Marrakech Agreement, which established the WTO, casts competitiveness as the ultimate purpose of economic activity, and growth in output and trade as an end in itself: international relations in the field of trade should be conducted, this paragraph states, with a view to ensuring “a large and steadily growing volume of real income and effective demand, and expanding the production of and trade in goods and services”.

These words stand in stark contrast to those of the seminal Declaration of Philadelphia, adopted by the ILO in 1944 under the guidance of then Director-General Edward Phelan, whose first paragraph affirms, in succinct and compelling wording:

“Labour is not a commodity” (Declaration of Philadelphia, 1-a)

Grounded in a philosophy of human emancipation and asserting a conception of economic and financial policy as being essentially a means of attaining social objectives, the Declaration thus states, in its second paragraph:

“All human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity;” (DP, 2-a)

And then:

“All national and international policies and measures, in particular those of an economic and financial character, should be judged in this light and accepted only in so far as they may be held to promote and not to hinder the achievement of this fundamental objective;” (DP, 2-c)

This hierarchy of purpose affirmed by the Declaration of 1944, whereby economic tools and measures are designed to serve the “fundamental objective” of human development, not only guided the subsequent expansion and legal production of the ILO; it also inspired the early work of the United Nations in the social and economic fields.

We must ask ourselves why – and with what consequences – has this order of priority been overturned in the last three decades by what legal scholar Alain Supiot, in his book The Spirit of Philadelphia,[3] (and in a related article published in 2010 in the International Labour Review),[4] described as “the neoliberal utopia of Total Market.” More precisely, we must address the consequences this abandonment of purpose has had for both the meaning of labour and the actual security of work for the mass of our citizens.

If it is the case that social justice, human freedom and dignity have been dropped from the list of public or political objectives, how might citizens respond to their new status as mere consumers within a socially unaccountable version of the economy, and with what consequences? Have people come to be considered as means to an end – a resource amenable to consumption by “the Total Market”– and no longer as the ultimate beneficiaries of economic activity?

Let me state very clearly that my questions are not aimed at disputing the market per se, a social institution which long predates contemporary capitalism. Rather, I am seeking to address the assumptions associated with a brand of economics that recast the market as a general principle for regulating the economy, treating labour, land and money as if they were pure commodities. Alain Supiot refers to Friedrich Hayek’s straightforward assertion that institutions based on the principle of solidarity derive from “an atavistic call of distributive justice” that is doomed to wreck the “spontaneous order” of ‘the’ market.

The recent economic crisis has shown, on the contrary, that markets do require an institutional framework within which transactions between economic agents can be conducted, under the auspices of a third party that guarantees their fairness over the long term of human existence. Without such overarching regulatory authority, contractual relationships would run the risk of reverting to arbitrary logics and the expression of the will of the strongest.

My critique, then, is specifically directed at the fiction of the “self-regulating market”, an ideology which, for what concerns me today – i.e. the future of labour in conditions of global capitalism – has underpinned the systematic deregulation of national systems of labour and the promotion of competition between them.

In what can be described as a form of regulatory Darwinism, democratically elected governments, and politics at large, have been portrayed as impeding the natural order of the market. As a consequence, the institutional foundations of markets have been gravely undermined, with legal systems themselves having come to be seen as just another product competing on the global market.

Indeed in the utopia of “Total Market”, not only services and goods, but also people can all be rendered commensurable and mobilised in the cause of globalised competition: workers and the relationships they establish with their environment are reduced to tradable units of labour that “can all be ‘liquidated’ in the legal sense of this term”.[5] Supiot uses the term “Total” in the sense given to that adjective by Ernst Jünger in the aftermath of WWI, a crucial historical juncture in this conversion of people into usable energy fuelling the monotonous functioning of a war machine.

The descriptions of this form of work given by Ernst Jünger in Der Arbeiter [The Worker][6] find uncanny resonance in some of the conceptions of work prevalent today. I quote from Der Arbeiter:

“Our situation is peculiar in that our every movement is governed by pressure to set a record, while the minimum standard of performance we are required to meet is constantly broadening the scope of its expectations. This completely precludes the possibility that any sphere of life might ever stabilise on the basis of some secure and undisputed order. The resulting way of life is more like a deadly race in which all of one’s energy is stretched to the limit lest one should fall by the wayside.”

The emphasis on performance and output, the commodification of labour at the expense of a holistic conception of the worker’s feelings of dignity, security and accomplishment, are discernible in contemporary forms of work. This particular audience is well aware of some of the most disquieting evolutions within labour law, conceded in the name of so-called “economic realism” and a concept of “flexicurity” which, retrospectively, has yielded more flexibility than security.

The effects of the ongoing casualisation of labour on the quality of work, on collegiality and on the morale of workers are of comparable importance to endemic unemployment, I would suggest, in accounting for our fellow citizens’ pervasive sense of anomie and alienation. We cannot be content with this state of affairs. The fact that this is the first systemic crisis without a compelling progressive vision on offer as a response should act as a wake-up call for all of us.

Today, I would like to focus in particular on one aspect of the problem, namely the fate of large swathes of the active population of European countries who find themselves trapped in chronic job insecurity. The term “precariat”[7] is sometimes used to describe this new “class” that has emerged from the most recent period of globalisation. Unlike the proletariat – the industrial working class on which social democracy was built – the precariat is defined by partial involvement in labour combined with extensive “work-for-labour”, that is, a growing array of unremunerated activities – often internships of various sorts – that are required to get access to remunerated jobs.

In his book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,[8] Guy Standing, of the University of London, defines the precariat as consisting of, I quote:

“a multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development, including millions of frustrated educated youth …, millions of women abused in oppressive labour, … and migrants in their hundreds of millions around the world. They are denizens; they have a more restricted range of social, cultural, political and economic rights than citizens around them.”

The extension of the precariat has been accelerated by the recent financial crisis, which ended an era of illusion during which Western workers’ living standards were propped up by access to cheap credit and, in the Irish case, reliance on asset inflation.

The defining turning point is to be located, perhaps, in the mid-1970s, those years when the GATT moved into the ILO’s historic headquarters in Geneva, and when the financialisation of the global economy really took off, gradually outweighing productive enterprise. 40 years later, economic inequalities have increased exponentially, splitting the world into “a plutonomy and a precariat”, to paraphrase the title of one of Noam Chomsky’s articles on the subject.[9]

The shift towards precarious employment is far from being confined to low-skilled jobs. A case in point is the logic at play in universities throughout Europe. In a recent piece entitled “The Casualisation of Labour in Third Level Institutions,” Micheal Flynn described[10] how, in Ireland today, a considerable volume of teaching and research work is carried out by “temporary lecturers”, “adjunct lecturers”, and so-called “teaching assistants” who have no job security at all and must repeatedly resume their elusive and exhausting hunt for the next short-term contract.

As Flynn puts it:

“More academics now understand that researching the working poor does not necessarily require field trips – that sometimes a glance towards the cluttered desks surrounding their own offices is sufficient.”

These questions were explicitly discussed last December during a seminar on the theme of “Ethics in Higher Education” convened by UCD, the University of Limerick and UNITE, with the support of the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative. It is also worth noting that the Irish government has recently appointed a team from the University of Limerick to investigate the use of so-called “zero-hour contracts”, under which employees must make themselves available for work even though they do not have specified or guaranteed hours of work.

As to wage inequality in Ireland today – in an article published in the Irish Times earlier this month, Paul Sweeney, chairman of the TASC’s economists’ network, showed that half of all of those in work in Ireland earn an annual salary of less than €28,500, while the top 1% of income earners averaged €373,300.

If we are to learn from history, it is useful to remember that every progressive movement has been built on the needs and aspirations of the emerging “class” of the day. Responding to the needs, the fears and the aspirations of those citizens among us who do not enjoy security of employment is a defining challenge for our times. It is a task not just for those who claim to represent the most vulnerable in society, but for all democrats, for trade unionists in all sectors, for workers’ representatives on permanent contracts, and for tenured staff in our universities.

Were no genuine alternative to be articulated and translated into a plurality of policy options, populist politicians and heinous religious preachers alike will find it easy to exploit the fears and insecurities of precarious workers.

This issue lies at the heart of the crisis which confronts European democracy. We cannot afford to let social cohesion unravel under the combined effects of the dual movement I have described, of commodification of labour and depoliticisation of economic policy.

Karl Polanyi, the great Austrian economist, has warned us in his own times against the devastating consequences of both. Arguing that labour, land and money are not commodities, Polanyi interpreted the insertion of these “fictitious commodities” in the market, following the ideological revolution embodied by Ricardian England, as a “means to subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market.” This, according to him, resulted in a move by society to protect itself and reclaim social control of the economy, whether in benign form, as in the case of the American New Deal, or in the most destructive guise of Nazism and fascism.

In The Great Transformation, first published in 1944, Polanyi analysed the emergence of fascism in the 1930s, as a perverted and opportunistic twisting of the social impulse to control the chaos of the self-regulating market rather than be controlled by it. As he put it, commenting on the misguided attempts at restoring the gold standard in the wake of WWI:

“the stubbornness with which economic liberals, for a critical decade, had, in the service of deflationary policies, supported authoritarian interventionism, merely resulted in a decisive weakening of the democratic forces which might otherwise have averted the fascist catastrophe. Great Britain and the United States – masters not servants of the currency – went off gold in time to escape this peril.”[11]

Although the current chaos of the world economy may not be similar to that of the interwar period, the lessons of Polanyi should not be lost for our generation. Distinguishing between populist manipulation of the masses, and genuine empowerment of the citizenry through the democratic appropriation of debates on economic issues, it is important to affirm forcefully that no single economic paradigm can ever be adequate to address the complexity of our world’s varying contexts and contingencies. Decisions in the economic and financial fields should always remain amenable to political debate; they should not be abandoned to the automaticity of rigid fiscal rules, even less so as economists disagree over the theoretical soundness of such rules.

We need to foster widespread economic literacy, supported by a pluralist scholarship and accountable policy options in a deliberative democracy.

There are some fundamental questions as to our contemporary position that must be faced: What if the moment for ‘deliberative democracy’ of Jürgen Habermas and others is fading? What if critical capacity is so devalued as to face near rejection? What are the consequences of there being no space for discussing the ideological assumptions that stand behind policy options?

As surely as modern democracy needed literacy to be experienced by all for its demands to find vindication; today economic literacy amongst our citizens is essential if we are to move beyond the illusions at play in so many parts of the worlds of work, consumption, production and speculation.

It is thus urgent, as I have argued in the address I gave last month to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, for our elected representatives, trade union leaders and workers representatives to claim back full competence and legitimacy on economic, fiscal and labour matters. Only through a comprehensive strategy enabling the mass of the precarious workers to be part of the economic discourse, gain control over their professional lives, acquire social and economic security and get a fairer share of the vital assets of our 21st century society will populism and fundamentalism of all sorts be defeated. If parliaments continue to lose power to unaccountable forces, if it is accepted that issues of economy and society are “beyond the understanding of citizens”, then the confrontations with disempowered mediating institutions will be stark!

The time has come, then, to proclaim the emancipatory promise of an economy interlinked with ethics, ecology and politics, so as to restore the order of ends and means between human needs and economic and financial policies. The time has come, in other words, to revive “the spirit of Philadelphia.”

As we thus work to end human subordination to a false, or at least dubious, economic efficiency and to foster a rights-based approach to labour grounded in an architecture of revitalised multilateral institutions, we can with great benefit draw on the recent recommendations of the Commission for Human Rights of the Council of Europe in the publication “Safeguarding human rights in times of economic crisis.” We can build, too, on the tools and principles offered by the ILO’s current Decent Work Agenda, which takes up many of the challenges the Organisation faced at its inception.

This concept of “decent work” is based on a holistic understanding of work as a source of personal dignity and freedom, family stability, prosperity in the community and democratic flourishing. It approaches labour as an issue of economics as much as of ethics. It also brings home to us a fundamental principle – one to which the contemporary historical moment lends, once again, full relevance, that is:

“the conviction that social justice is essential to universal peace.” (ILO Constitution)[12]

There are many encouraging signs showing that the fiction of the self-regulating market is breaking down. The recent global financial meltdown has made it plain that it is not sustainable to pretend that labour, land and money are unconnected to workers, the natural environment and the real economy.  There are, too, many possibilities for collective action, which we must seize upon, such as, for example, the announcement by the President of the new European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, that a Social Dialogue Summit would be convened in 2015 – the first such Summit in 10 years![13]

Another telling illustration of the fact that the previous consensus around economic policy principles is unravelling is provided by the title of the World Bank’s emblematic annual report Doing Business, which, this year, bears the title

“Going Beyond Efficiency”. In his foreword, the Bank’s new Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist, Kaushik Basu, whom I met recently, goes so far as to write:

“Fortunately, market fundamentalism has, for the most part, been relegated to the margins of serious policy discourse … Economic efficiency is not the only measure by which we evaluate an economy’s performance.”

It is important to recognise, however, that even though their flawed theoretical assumptions are exposed, some of the previous policy prescriptions endure, having taken on a life of their own in institutional thinking, within which trade union discourse can be trapped or ensnared.

Let us, nevertheless, rejoice in the small reasons we have to hope that a new era is opening up for human work. It is essential that the ILO plays a leading role in shaping this new era. Ireland faces a historical opportunity to address these issues more actively as in 2017 our country will, for the first time, take up a “titulaire” seat on the ILO’s Governing Body.

It is my hope that all of us, in Ireland and in the ILO, will seize upon these possibilities for action and craft, together, a renewed, emancipatory discourse on labour. I hope that today’s event can act as a spark in contributing to ignite this urgent debate on the future of work – one that opens onto the entirety and full potential of human activities.

May I leave you with the words of philosopher Simone Weil, who captured so well these irreducible connections between work and the other spheres of human achievement. You can substitute ‘her’ for ‘him’ as you wish:

“Man’s greatness is always to recreate his life, to recreate what is given to him … Through work he produces his own natural existence. Through science he recreates the universe by means of symbols. Through art he recreates the alliance between his body and his soul. It is to be noticed that each of these three things is something poor, empty and vain taken by itself and not in relation to the others. Union of the three: a working people’s culture (that will not be just yet)…”[14]

[1] J.M. Keynes, K. Přibram and E.J. Phelan. 1931. Unemployment as a World-Problem. Lectures of the Harris Foundation. University of Chicago Press.

[2] Seán Keating’s mural has a ‘pre-history’: in 1926, Harry Clarke had been commissioned to craft a stained glass window to be gifted by the new Irish Free State to the ILO. The magnificent, so-called “Geneva Window” was completed in 1930 but never made it to Geneva, because of the concern expressed by Irish officials at the “subject matter of certain of the representations” (i.e. uncovered women and drunkards). The windows thus remained in Clarke’s workshop after his death in a sanatorium in Davos in 1931, and were eventually bought to be displayed in the Wolfsonian Museum, Miami. It was not until 1957 that the idea of an official gift resurfaced in discussions between the Irish government and the ILO, then represented by Michael O’Callaghan.

[3] A. Supiot. 2012. The Spirit of Philadelphia. Social Justice vs. the Total Market. Verso Books. [French edition from 2010].

[4] The International Labour Review is the journal of the ILO. Cf. A. Supiot. 2010. “A legal perspective on the economic crisis of 2008”, International Labour Review, Vol. 149, No. 2.

[5] Ibid, p.153. Liquidation consists in making something fungible by converting it into cash.

[6] E. Jünger, 1932. Der Arbeiter, Herrschaft und Gestalt.

[7] From the contraction between “precarious” and “proletariat”.

[8] G. Standing. 2014 (2nd edition). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Bloomsbury.

[9] Noam Chomsky. 2012. “Plutonomy and the Precariat”. The term “plutonomy” is taken from a brochure for investors published by Citygroup in 2005 and entitled “Plutonomy: Buying Luxury, Explaining Global Imbalances.” The concept was elaborated by a team of Citigroup analysts who argued that the share of the very wealthy in the national income of rich countries had become so large that the trends in these economies and their relation with other economies could not be understood any more with reference to the average consumer.

[10] M. Flynn. “The Casualisation of Labour in Third Level Institutions.” Irish Left Review, 12th September 2014.

[11] K. Polanyi. 1944. The Great Transformation.

[12] Principle embedded in the ILO’s Constitution and reiterated in the Organisation’s 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

[13] European social dialogue was born 30 years ago (in 1985), with the first meeting convened by Jacques Delors in Val Duchesse, with the aim of developing collective negotiation in a transnational context. A series of discussions ensued, resulting in the proclamation, in 1989, of the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers (adopted by all Member States except the UK).

[14] S. Weil. 1952. Gravity and Grace. Routledge & Kegan Paul [original: La Pesanteur et la grâce, 1947]