Everyone is interested in unemployment. Local authorities are running courses and conferences on its social and mental effects, academics are writing books and papers on it. professional economists are issuing complex and wildly divergent forecasts about its future. Above all, with the next election in view, political parties are producing programmes and making promises which claim to solve it.
What has always happened in the past is that unemployment has gone up when shrinking markets have made existing employment levels unprofitable, and come down when the market has expanded and employers have needed to take on more workers to produce goods to sell at a profit. The interest shown by the “experts’" and politicians has never in itself made much difference to the course unemployment has taken.
Despite this the politicians still hope, or at least give the impression they hope, that they can do something about the problem. That is why Thatcher’s economic advisers are formulating proposals to deal with unemployment and why both the Labour Party and the SDP have produced detailed plans for combatting it. The Tories’ record on unemployment over the last three years speaks for itself and Thatcher will find it hard to carry conviction with any new plan her advisers might think up. The Labour Party may put their trust in short electoral memories but cannot get away from the fact that every Labour government since 1929 has promised to get rid of, or reduce, unemployment and every single one has left office with unemployment higher than when it came in. As for the SDP, it has no record to defend but who can forget that its leaders spent many years in Labour governments helping to administer high rates of unemployment?
How do Labour and the SDP hope to deal with unemployment? Both their programmes, looked at in broad lines, turn out to be very similar to the sort of policies adopted by most Labour (and some Conservative) governments in the past. Both are opposed to “monetarism” and both intend instead to “reflate”- to print and spend large amounts of money to try and stimulate economic activity and “create employment”. The Labour Party aims at “full employment” while the SDP looks to an unemployment figure of 1¼ million or five per cent. These policies and aims resemble very closely the programme to which the left-wing French government under Mitterrand has been committed. Indeed, in a rally in Cardiff last July, Michael Foot praised Mitterrand for deciding to spend his way out of the crisis and said that the French leader’s policies were just the ones a future Labour government would use to get rid of unemployment. In the year since he took office Mitterrand, who had promised to reduce unemployment by 200,000 a year over his seven-year term, has seen the number of French jobless rise from 1.6 million to 2 million plus. So Mitterrand, using the same policies as advocated by Foot and Jenkins, has achieved the same results as Thatcher—increasing unemployment.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this and from the past record of governments is that there is absolutely nothing that politicians can do about unemployment. Unemployment goes up and down according to the natural boom-slump-boom-slump cycle of the world market and does so regardless of the policies of individual governments. If capital cannot be invested at a profit, it is not invested at all and the result is reduced output, closures and fewer jobs. The world economy is in one of its slump phases at present and, inevitably, unemployment is rising everywhere. Even countries with a reputation for “efficiency” like Germany and Japan are seeing cutbacks in production, record bankruptcies and increasing numbers of workers without jobs.
In these circumstances it is hard to see the promises of more jobs and more security made by the different political parties as anything but, at best, exercises in wish fulfilment and at worst barefaced vote-catching frauds. It is equally hard not to see that unemployment and the threat of it are an integral part of the present world economic system which operates on the basis of profit, money, buying and selling and the employer-employee relationship. The only way to solve the problem is to bring in new economic arrangements based on production directly for use, moneyless free access to all goods and services and work carried out in voluntary association by free and equal producers.