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Revolutions and Reflections

By James Gairdner

In late 2021 I noted that several commenters were pointing to a “quickening” which seemed to aptly describe the tone of those times. I was reminded of an article entitled “Labour as dressage” which provocatively suggests “There is work that needs to be done, and work that does not need to be done, in terms of production…anything which falls in the later is an obvious form of labour as dressage” (Jackson et al., 1998, p.56) where dressage equals control. I got to wondering whether the dislocation inherent in the previous 18 months and the promise of a different future, may have dismantled the traditional apparatus that maintained labour as dressage. I wondered if this quickening and, specifically, what I perceived as an increase in the prevalence of work without productive ends, was a way of reasserting a control that some feared lost. This begs the question, where are we now?

Whilst the threat of COVID-19 has diminished, we remain in uncertain times. One need only switch on the news to be bombarded with images of war, threats of a cost-of-living crisis and a general societal malaise. In the UK mirrored by the demise of a prime minister and the death of a queen. It increasingly feels like we are in a moment of profound transition and yet populist dialogue either appears to seek to distract from this reality or not engage with it all. It was Menzies Lyth (1960) who first suggested that humans in certain systems can create “social defences” (p.100) against the anxiety of the circumstances with which they are faced. I am increasingly drawn to conclude that our current modus operandi is an example of a collective defence against the reality of this transition and the anxiety invoked by being unable to form a narrative of what may come next. Better to focus on superficial debates about working from home or to seek to reimpose the patterns and working practices with which we were far more familiar. Better perhaps to split off this anxiety and project it onto those who may appear different from us. A response that may explain the increasing fragmentation and tribalism of our societies. Better to focus on work and busyness then reflect for a moment on method or indeed the value of the outputs. Better because in engaging in these practices we delude ourselves that we can avoid the existential questions posed by our current reality. Although, ironically in trying to avoid this reality, we do little to diminish the underlying anxiety and perhaps create new symptoms such as stress, over-work and burn-out.

“It increasingly feels like we are in a moment of profound transition and yet populist dialogue either appears to seek to distract from this reality or not engage with it all”

This picture may appear depressing except that at the fringes of the mainstream there are voices who are starting to imagine a different future. One that begins with an acknowledgement of the realities we face and perhaps the roles we have all played in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It will be interesting to observe how these conversations begin to bleed into popular discourse. Central to their ability to remain generative will be their ability to hold a space for all sides of the debate, rather than adding more fuel to the fire of division. If they or we can do this, then perhaps we can navigate a way through this transition without the need for the need for revolution.




  • Jackson, N, Carter, P. (1997). Labour as dressage, McKinlay, A, Starkey, K. (eds) Foucault, management and organization theory: From panopticon to technologies of self, Sage: London, p.49-64.

  • Lyth, M. (1960) A case study in the functioning of social systems as a defence against anxiety. A report on a study of the nursing service of a general hospital, Human Relations,(13), p. 95-121.


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