Last week, the business leaders of America joined President Obama in the White House to show their concern for the unemployed. “We are stronger when America fields a full team,” Obama announced. This is really too much. When the same people who are responsible for unemployment vow to take charge of it, it has to be asked: does “America” have this problem? And what kind of a problem is it when it is said – in all seriousness – there is not enough work?
Obama does not hide the facts about unemployment. He insists on it. He relates the “hard luck” stories of ordinary citizens who “through not fault of their own” have been laid off and unsuccessfully looking for work since the start of the Great Recession. The miseries that America’s economic system imposes on its citizens do not fill him with shame because unemployment constitutes a universally lamented social “problem.” Everybody feels for those who need work but can’t find any. But where does this strange need come from? Why is it that people are not able to perform the work they need to meet their basic requirements of living?
The reason is quite simple. People are separated – by law – from the means of work. They would work, but they do not have the means to work. It’s not up to them whether they work or not. In this society, they can’t take the simple step from being able to work, wanting to work and needing to work to actually working. That’s because there is a condition that must be met before they can work: only if they find somebody who possesses the means of work and who allows them to use these means can they work for their own livelihood.
Moreover, workers are not allowed to use these means of work only for their own needs. They have to work longer and produce more than for just themselves. They have to produce a surplus for the owner of the means of work that is higher than their own remuneration. They can only work for themselves if they increase the property of somebody else first. In this economic system, surplus labor is not the labor that is performed after all the necessary labor has been done and all the basic needs have been met. Surplus labor is the condition for the labor that the whole society needs.
It’s completely absurd: millions of people suffer deprivation, have no income, and fall ever deeper into poverty because a barrier is set between them and their ability to work: profit. The society does not need the work of these millions of people, but they are absolutely required to work.
Poverty: a result of economic success
Unemployment is an indicator of the enormous increase in the productivity of labor. More and more products are generated with fewer and fewer people. Millions are not needed because the workers who are still needed are so productive that everything the employers want to have produced at a profit has already been produced. In other words: people are unemployed, made “redundant,” because of abundance. The means to produce wealth have become so highly developed that society needs less and less workers. In any other social system, this would be a reason to rejoice. This would mean less toil, effort, and unfree time, and more leisure and fun. Not in the market economy, the “best of all economic systems.” Productivity advances throw millions of people into destitution.
Productivity increases do not take place to make work easier or to give people a good life. The employers continuously increase the productivity of labor with automation and artificial intelligence to cheapen their labor costs. They have more products produced in the same time or the same amount of products produced in less time. They do it to lower their total advance in wages. The result is that the work becomes cheaper for them and they make more profit.
They make paid work efficient for their profit by making it ever cheaper for themselves: by using workers more efficiently and more intensely, they cut down on their costs – and that is what workers are for them, costs to be reduced and minimized. The livelihoods of the workers, i.e. wages, are always a contradiction to the goal of the companies, i.e. profit.
In our society, productivity increases mean that more is produced for the companies with cheaper labor; their wealth grows. On the other side, the poverty of those who are no longer needed grows. They are not allowed to work for their own needs because wealth and the productivity of the sources of wealth have grown so enormously. Then, precisely because the society – or, more precisely, the wealth of capital – no longer needs their work, they become desperate for work.
What labor is socially necessary?
While material shortages do not exist in this society, it’s also not the case that everything that would be somehow useful or nice exists. What teacher doesn’t want smaller classes; what nurse or patient doesn’t want more nurses and hospital rooms? This work, no matter how badly it is needed, is not socially necessary in capitalism. This is not a matter of taste or a value judgment. The standard for socially necessary labor is defined by those who are called “the economy” and, in economic terms, simply means work that creates a product with a price that sells at a profit. In capitalism, socially necessary labor is labor that makes profit. Other types of work that would be socially beneficial do not take place because it does not create anything interesting financially; it doesn’t lead to profit.
The idea that the work that is not done but needed by the society could be organized makes many look to the government. But the government authorizes the owners of the means of production to organize work. The government wants to stay out of this because it stands for the point of view that the only work that is worth doing, that has value, is profitable work – work that makes more money than it costs in wages. And in the end, the state also takes its cut from profitably exploited work – either in taxes on wages or on profits. That’s why it gives the task of making work profitable and using only profitable work to the private sector.
The government recognizes unemployment as an unwanted but inevitable side effect of the economic success on which it is so keen. So when it fights against this “problem” – one that is included in its form of success – it always has the same measure as a remedy: more of the growth that creates unemployment!
A revolving door
When those in power express concern about unemployment, why doesn’t this backfire in their faces? Why doesn’t anybody yell: what kind of an idiotic problem is it when wealth and prosperity throw people into distress and poverty?
This is because the subject undergoes a transformation that is barely recognized. What begins as a concern for the plight of the unemployed ends as a concern for profit and the health of the economy. What begins as a show of sympathy for the hardships of the unemployed turns into a criticism of the burden that the unemployed put on the state and its budget. What begins as the self-criticism of the government, that it has not done enough to provide workers with opportunities, ends as a criticism of the unemployed (keywords: “skills shortage” or “education gap”).
How does this revolving door work? Half the transformation already occurs in the word “unemployed.” Of course, they have no work. But their real problem is that they have no money. To say that their problem is that they have no work is already a small semantic shift. It consists in naming the problem so that it includes the desired solution. It would be almost perverse in respectable company to ask: what is unemployment and where does it come from? This would be politically counterproductive. Everything has to point to the practical conditions that would help people find work again.
So what are the conditions that need to be met so that people find work again? Well, the companies must make a profit … So many people are unemployed because they are not profitable, they are not productive enough. So how can you help the unemployed? By making them more productive, more flexible. They are too expensive. Ultimately, the “problem” of unemployment is said to be that not enough capitalist business is taking place for all those who could still be used as human resources for the wealth of the nation. The poverty of the unemployed is a hardship – but not for them, rather for the national budget and the economy.
“Opportunity for every American”
This is well understood by the business leaders gathered at the White House. They have no problem with unemployment. Not only do they create it, but it serves them quite well because a high number of job applicants presses down the wages of those still employed. But they are not elite businessmen for nothing: they know a bargain when they see it. In return for a small pledge that they will not discriminate against the people they have thrown in the street, they obtain public acknowledgement for their whole agenda. In Obama’s words:
“There are steps we can take to streamline our tax code, to incentivize companies to invest here … So we’ve got to grow faster and put more shoulders behind the wheel of expanding economic growth.”
This is music to their ears.
What about the “long term” unemployed? What does Obama offer them? “Giving up on any American is something America cannot do.” He does not give up on these citizens who have been rendered “superfluous,” but counts them up each month and recognizes them as still having the potential to serve growth. He promises them nothing, but makes a demand: they must make themselves more suitable, flexible, and cheaper for the future jobs that might still require them. In return, they get “a fair shot,” exactly the same thing they’ve always had. It’s their God-given right as hard working Americans: to compete on the labor market with the only thing they’ve got, their ability to make the rich richer. And the freedom to starve if they don’t.
Geoffrey McDonald edits Ruthless Criticism.