POSTED: July 31, 2018
Economy | Philosophy | Politics & Enterprise | Society

Work: a situation vacant

We need a new defining idea for political economy, writes Richard Douglas. Could we find it in the idea of economic activity as service? (This article originally appeared in Issue 6 of The Mint.)

Work: A situation vacant | Blog by Richard Douglas
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 :: Stephen Mitchell / Flickr

You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
—Bob Dylan

During Cheltenham Gold Cup I bumped into a friend of mine. He’d taken a day’s leave to follow the racing, and he was having a good day. I asked him how he decided what to bet on. It all began, he explained, when he was a young man, working for a public sector body that I shall not name. In his office they’d usually have their work finished by early afternoon, and he would be sent down the bookies to place bets for his boss. He’d learnt all about betting on the job—although that wasn’t his job.

Later that day, I was having dinner with my neighbour. She told me about how, during the school holidays, her mum, a bus conductor, would take her and her brother to work. They’d ride around London (free childcare, she supposed it was now) and then return to the bus garage, where they’d be fed at a great canteen, and enjoy the jokes of the crews. There was a strong camaradarie among the staff, she said; the whole garage would go to the seaside together in the summer.

What do this couple of vignettes have in common? They describe jobs and ways of working that, for the most part, do not exist anymore. Bus conductors have been eliminated in the name of efficiency, and bus garages have been closed and the land sold off as prime real estate. More generally, the public sector has, for decades been subjected to waves of efficiency reviews, audit regimes, restructurings, and austerity measures. There can’t be too many areas of the public sector where habitual pockets of slack time haven’t been squeezed out already. And this, of course, is a wider economic development, whose leading edge has always been in the private sector.

Another way of putting this would be to say that in this past and present of the world of work we can see the transition from one economic paradigm to another.

Since the Second World War, Western political economy has been dominated, in turn, by two defining ideas. First came the age of Keynesianism, with its idea that the overriding purpose of economic activity was to sustain full employment. The extent to which this idea became the political orthodoxy of its day is starkly revealed in a comment in a Joan Robinson essay, ‘The Keynesian Revolution’, published in 1962. Robinson describes how Tory MPs were proudly adopting full employment as their banner in a competition for votes on the left. She quotes their line as: “Now we offer you capitalism with a high and stable level of employment. You have nothing to complain of.”

The story of what happened next is well-known. Prepared for by the ideas of economists such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, neoliberalism profited from the stagflationist breakdown of Keynesianism in the 1970s to became the dominant paradigm by the start of the 1980s. It held that the overriding purpose of economic activity was to maximise the profit to be enjoyed by the owners of capital. Its proponents saw this as a restoration of the original ethos of political economy, a taking back of control after Keynesianism’s ‘running up the white flag on behalf of capitalism’ as neoliberalism’s intellectual historian, Richard Cockett, put it. Under the neoliberalism banner, organisations have, over the past four decades, been made ever leaner and working cultures have been honed according to ‘the mantra of efficiency’—the title of a wonderful book by Jennifer Kearns Alexander).

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It is perhaps too easy to see it simply as a bad thing. Among those who use it, neoliberalism is most often treated as a dirty word. Certainly, there is much to deplore in neoliberalism’s promotion of short-term profit extraction as a social priority, with its attendant economic insecurity. But might we not also recognise a virtue in the accent on profitability (or value for public money) that comes in the wake of the pursuit of efficiency? Efficiency means higher productivity, which leads to greater social wealth. It means more patients seen or customers served, more quickly.

The good old days of Keynesianism had all the merits of job security, but they weren’t all good.

Perhaps this ambivalence about the Keynesian settlement is why, despite some expectations to the contrary, the years since the 2008 financial crash have witnessed ‘the strange non-death of neoliberalism’, in the words of Colin Crouch. While there has been a revival of interest in Keynesian social democracy—Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto being a case in point—there is little sign that it is about to resume its status as cross-party common sense. Perhaps what is needed is a new defining principle for political economy, one best fitted to meet the economic situation we find ourselves in now.

Where might this idea come from? From my own personal vantage point I have a number of different perspectives to bring to bear on this question. As a worker I have experienced the effects of efficiency measures. They fill up down time with extra activity, and thin out support posts so that the whole organisation would be ‘running hot’ – as one former boss put it to us.

It has also been my job in the past to carry out value-for-money reviews of public sector bodies, and suggest ways for improving efficiency and delivering more for the public. As a union rep I have represented employees who have fallen foul of drives to improve organisational performance, and have organised opposition to cuts to working conditions. Now, as an academic researcher funded by the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, I am interested in the purpose of economic activity from the perspective of economic philosophy.

Summing these perspectives together, I would like to suggest that, despite their opposing approaches, there is a single line of critique that could be made of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism. Pursuing this line of thought may lead us to an understanding of what a third concept—a synthesis of their approaches to work, perhaps—might look like.

One criticism that could be made of the Keynesian settlement is in the way in which, by making full employment the defining idea for economic activity, it effectively reduced the purposes of all organisations to just one: providing people with a job. This reduced the extent to which organisations concentrated on providing a service to customers and service users, and in turn reduced the scope for workers to focus on contributing to an external purpose.

Neoliberalism sought to restore to organisations a focus on their distinct, ostensible purposes. But in interpreting the purpose of all businesses as being to make money above all else, neoliberalism also reduced the purposes of all organisations to just one. In the process, the quality of work suffered as organisations stopped seeing it as part of their role to serve their workers, and as organisational focus shifted inwards, towards serving the owners.

With this critique in mind, we are well-positioned now to consider the importance of service, purpose, and meaning in economic activity as offering the basis of a new paradigm in political economy.


In his book, Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson (interviewed in The Mint #5) reconceptualises the overriding purpose of economic activity. He counsels that we need to move away from seeing economic activity as an end in itself—a ceaseless process of producing and consuming ever more things, so as to generate ever more profit. Rather, he says, it should be seen as being about ‘delivering the human services that improve the quality of our lives: nutrition, shelter, health, social care, education, leisure, recreation, and the maintenance and protection of physical and natural assets.’


In the wake of the crash of 2008 and other corporate scandals since, there has been a growing rhetoric among business leaders around focusing on organisational purpose—the ostensible goals of an organisation in their own right, as distinct from that of maximising profit. Such thinking has been taken further by some, such as Richard Olivier and Andrew White at Oxford’s Said Business School, who are arguing that businesses need to consider their ‘planetary purpose’—explicitly focusing on doing good in a world beset by environmental and human rights challenges.


As the commissioning of the 2017 Taylor Review on what makes for ‘good work’ indicates, growing attention is being paid today to the quality of work. And as Katie Bailey of Kings College London has argued, one of the most important concepts here is that of meaning. Her research highlights four factors that make for meaningful work:

  • feeling one has worked hard and to the best of one’s ability;
  • contributing to something long-lasting or external to oneself;
  • overcoming challenges and handling tricky situations well; and
  • camaraderie, and achieving things as a team.

Folding these concepts together, we might say that the overriding purpose of economic activity should be serving the community; with organisations finding their purposes in the roles they play within this overall provisioning; and the people who work for them finding meaning in applying themselves, with others, to their organisation’s purposes and a decent cause.


Richard McNeill Douglas is a CUSP PhD student in the Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is working on CUSP’s research theme on meanings and moral framings of the good life.

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