Posted by: Selina Todd | March 26, 2010

McJobs and the Museum of Liverpool Life

A report from BBC Radio 4 here on Liverpool’s new Museum of Liverpool Life set me thinking about what a ‘post-industrial economy’ – dry phrase, but oft-repeated by politicians – really is? And is it really ‘progress’? The Radio 4 feature includes an interview with Liverpool academic Prof John Belchem, who argues that Liverpool needs to capitalise on the cultural economy of tourism. This is certainly important to Liverpool, as city of the Beatles. I can’t help wondering, though, if those 1980s critics of turning industrial cities into theme-parks didn’t have a point. Many of the people whose memories are included on this website recall the harsh reality of Britain’s industrial past, but they also recall the satisfaction of job security and union representation. No reason to just dismiss that as ‘nostalgia’. Call centres aren’t always forthcoming in offering those kinds of ‘benefits’.

But the cultural economy must be good for someone, mustn’t it? for consumers, perhaps. But hang on – who has the cash to just ‘consume’ all the time? What jobs are those people doing when they aren’t trailing round museums? Can we really build an economy on the assumption that there’s an endless supply of shoppers and tourists? With the longest working hours in Europe, we don’t get that much chance to be either.

Maybe I’m being cynical. Maybe the new ‘post-industrial’ workplace is offering more than simply low-paid, unskilled, boring ‘McJobs’.  The other night,  a shocking expose on Channel 4’s Despatches programme highlighted that it certainly offers rich pickings for a few. Mainly, though, they are those Conservative and Blairite politicians who supported the ‘regeneration’ of ‘post-industrial’ cities through a ‘cultural economy’. People like Patricia Hewitt, who told workers at one of Britain’s last car plants to ‘face reality’ (ie redundancy) a few short years ago, and is now trying to wangle herself a ‘consultancy’ with various corporations. ‘Consultancy’ – another meaningless piece of jargon, though one that seems to carry a hefty pay-cheque.

Meanwhile, in the real world, it doesn’t seem that post-industrial. British Airways staff on strike, railway workers threatening to strike. They don’t feel ‘post-industrial’. They consider themselves to be exploited, overworked, underpaid, lacking security. So perhaps Britain is not so ‘post-industrial’, ‘postmodern’, or ‘classless’ after all…

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