From the May 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Many are suffering the misery of unemployment while much useful, necessary work remains undone. One of the contradictions of capitalism. We want free time, to reduce the working day so that we can move beyond the tyranny of survival into free and creative mutual activity. Both employment and unemployment are capitalism preventing our human development in this direction.
The problems of unemployment are huge – worldwide problems affecting millions in some countries and billions globally if we include the massive numbers of 'informal' workers, those recognised as outside of the system, many of them non-persons living on the very edge of existence with no access to even the basic services.
What is this strange system that grants 'remunerated employment' to some who produce nothing worthwhile or useful for themselves and others whilst totally rejecting others who have the skills and ability to grow food, to build houses, to recycle others' rubbish, to contribute all manner of useful work? Why such a seeming imbalance between the work we can all see needing to be done but left undone and actual available work?
Given the way the world economic system is structured, we recognise the logic that requires a surplus of labour, a spare pool to be drawn on as and when required, a surplus that keeps down wages and favours the employer minority over the employed majority. But, as a member of human society, who can recognise any logic based even faintly on empathy or solidarity or common sense use of human capacities for the benefit of society as a whole?
Much of worldwide discontent and dissent is predicated around this matter of unemployment which creates unnecessary and unnatural divisions between sections of both domestic and international communities. Migrant labourers working for a pittance in lands which themselves have high domestic unemployment; migrant skilled workers enjoying artificially high wages in lands where local graduates can't find work; young people fresh out of education with little or no prospect of finding work while those wishing for retirement are told to expect to work for longer before earning such a luxury; production decimated in many developed countries because overseas underdeveloped countries have won the competition for the lowest wages.
This disconnect, this illogicality stares us all in the face. We know it makes no sense for any of us as a class, a class of workers, or would-be workers. Over the years we have experienced the circumstances getting worse, not better for many. We worry for our children, our grandchildren, the next generation, the stability of the world and the whole human race. We see the inequity (and iniquities) and worry.
The work to be done versus available work
If we were to approach the problem from a different angle we could see how to turn something totally illogical into something that would work better for everybody wherever they are in the world. Doing this would entail ridding ourselves of useless work and wasted time and effort and result in getting the work that is widely recognised as necessary to be done for the good of the people done, by the people.
It will be natural for anyone considering this topic to focus first on their own country and, in particular, their own locality, if only because this is the most familiar and best understood. However, considering at the same time the wider world in general will greatly increase individual capacity to focus on the enormity of the shortfall facing the global population, a shortfall deliberately ignored by the minority who capitalize greatly by their neglect.
This shortfall, this work needing to be done, includes all the obvious stuff seen around any location but neglected because of a different kind of shortfall, lack of funds in the individual, municipal, national or international budget. It can range from the very basic to much larger issues. Housing in disrepair for which private owners are without the means for proper upkeep, public housing which is underfunded and slums which should have been cleared long ago. Holes in the road. Leaks in classroom ceilings. Grubby town centres. Negligence with regard to the safety of the general public. Heavily polluting industries affecting air and water quality. Poor standards of safety allied to working conditions. Old, substandard, decaying or lack of infrastructure of all kinds. Shoddy public transport poorly planned to meet the needs of the greater community. Inadequate and inappropriate energy provision. Lack of local production facilities, whether food or industry. Localities not structured to meet the requirements of citizens. Health and education provision woefully inadequate with insufficient trained personnel to meet the wide and varied needs.
These examples can be expanded ad infinitum according to the local neighbourhood or the wider regions of the globe. The one thing they have in common is that there is much work waiting to be done that, in all likelihood, will not get done for a very long time, if ever, within the constraints of capitalism. The logic of the capitalist system is that profit must be considered above all else, society's needs are a poor also-ran.
Useful work is manifold and includes the production and distribution of material goods and food, scientific research and development, aesthetic and artistic endeavours, service of all kinds including installations, communications, infrastructure, maintenance, health, education, recreational, technological and social; producing and providing the goods and services required and needed by society as a whole on an ongoing basis.
As unemployment figures reach ever higher it must point to the fact that there just isn't enough remunerated work available. Meanwhile, if a comparison is made of the above work waiting to be done with much of the worthless, useless work currently being undertaken for remuneration by millions worldwide it begins to become clear just what a crazy system we are operating within. Work that offers no product, service or benefit to society must surely be considered useless work. What cannot be considered useful or necessary includes all the jobs currently involved in the huge financial industry; jobs which are tied to the movement of money from one place or person to another.
Being considered unnecessary because they produce nothing of use, provide no useful service and are of no benefit to society a large number of institutions would be redundant. All banking establishments, insurance companies, tax collection, benefits and pension offices, to name a few, would no longer be required and, as a consequence, many buildings would be freed up for use to be decided upon by civil society whilst technicians, office and other associated staff would be available for more people-beneficial work schemes.
The worker – employment or meaningful occupation?
When we consider in detail the vast range of tasks undertaken by humanity of blue or white collar variety – manager, foreman, labourer, part-time, full-time, self-employed, indentured, casual, indoor, outdoor, on land, sea or in the air – all are employed in order to fulfil the same requirement, their ongoing needs. All require regular remuneration in order to feed and clothe themselves and their dependents and keep a roof over their heads.
We must wonder why then, in some quarters, there is still a derogatory slant to the use of the term 'worker'. For what is it in reality but a misunderstanding of one's own position in the scheme of things? Whether labourer or architect, hairdresser or world-famous model, cashier at a supermarket or hedge fund computer screen minder, BMW production line worker or BMW owner – whoever must work on a regular ongoing basis in order to live, whatever the size of their remuneration, is a worker. S/he works. S/he is a member of the working class. Anyone not convinced should ask themselves how long as an individual they can afford to be out of work and without pay before their own personal crisis happens?
Isn't it ridiculous, too, that there are still those who can't recognize the different but equal importance of all contributions to society? Who's to say what or who is more important or necessary to society's functions when we know that (a) even if we wanted to we can't all do everything, all the tasks that are needed in our lifetime because we all have limited skills and time, (b) we would suffer as a society without all the seemingly menial, dirty, dangerous or difficult tasks being taken care of and (c) as individuals we don't want to be denigrated or undervalued for our own contribution. When we acknowledge these terms we are also ready to accept all others' contributions as valuable too. Apart from not being able to do everything, most of us probably don't want to have to do everything, preferring to have the time to engage in the things that take our individual fancy, interest or passion; time that the majority do not have at their disposal now.
'Not enough jobs to go around!' This is the mantra. Of course there are! In a global socialist society unemployment will be a word confined to the history books. In a world of voluntary work and free access to goods and services, when society is structured deliberately and logically to do the work that we, the people, declare to be necessary and important, there will be ample occupation for all, liberating us, at last, to forsake individual advantage in favour of the common good now and into the future.