Thursday, 14 April 2011

Quick thoughts on the myth of "the private sector"

I've just caught the arse-end of a feature on Newsnight about public sector workers finding jobs in the private sector. The basic gist is that some public servants, uncertain about their futures, are interviewed by Deborah Meaden from Dragon's Den, who spout a load of patronising "motivational" bullshit to help them along their way. As you might guess, I wasn't too impressed.

But, as well as pissing me off, the programme brought into sharp focus the distortions of the supposed public-private binary.

The private sector is not a monolith. It is, in essence, every industry and sector that isn't run by the state. The distance between those at the top and those at the bottom, across the board, is enormous. But, because of this, those who tout the ridiculous mythology of the market have a broad enough spectrum of data for selective comparisons when they want to back up their arguments.

Hence, if we're talking in terms of pay, we have reports of the "record gap" between the sectors. Public sector workers earn an average of £2,000 more than their private sector counterparts. The only problem with this is that comparing averages doesn't give an accurate picture.

In the private sector, the average is pulled down by the weak worker organisation of the service sector, and the fact that most people within it are working thankless jobs for low pay. With production and industry much smaller than it was in the 1970s and the rapid casualisation of work, a tiny minority have been able to concentrate most of the private sector's wealth in their own hands.

In the public sector, there isn't the scope for this. Strong unionisation has thus far prevented any particular group of workers from being left to scrape by on the bare minimum, whilst the considerable salaries of head teachers and GPs obviously pulls the average up. Even so, this doesn't alter the fact that "almost half (48%) of civil servants are in admin grades where the average (median) pay in 2009 was £17,120 for women and £17,600 for men." Or that "average civil service pay is £22,850 a year, compared to £24,970 in the private sector." As just two examples.

On the other hand, when it comes to performance, the public sector is all of a sudden compared to those who are much higher in the private sector pecking order. Listening to Meaden, you'd think that every private sector job was akin to advertising or PR, where individuals can shine, where you can negotiate one-to-one with your boss on a level playing field, and there are big risks for high stakes.

But those of us who aren't in the upper middle classes, insulated by a bubble of privilege, will tell you what utter, gut-rot bollocks that is. Having seen the absolute pits of unfathomable bureaucracy, nepotism, and sheer unaccountable bad management not in the depths of the civil service but in a Sainsburys supermarket, I can say personally that the private sector is far from a bed of roses. It may be when you're in the upper echelons, with a team of minions at your feet or an army of ants to be directed as you please in numerous different locations. But if you are a minion or an ant (the vast majority of us) then it fucking sucks.

The entire public sector versus private sector debate is built on a false binary. Public sector workers are expected to be paid on par with the lowliest of private sector workers, yet perform like those twats on The Apprentice. It simply doesn't reflect reality. Remember that next time a show like Newsnight pours such raw sewage at you and calls it a feature.