Friday, March 5, 2021

Why unemployment? (1985)

From the March 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

In Britain today over three million workers — 12.6 per cent of the working population — are officially unemployed. If those not claiming benefits or registering as unemployed are added to that figure we can safely say that the number of unemployed is well in excess of four million — and rising. Forty per cent of the officially unemployed are under the age of twenty-five and 400,000 are classified as being long-term unemployed, in some cases having had no full-time job between leaving school and their mid-twenties. It was estimated in 1984 that one in two people leaving school in London last July would not have a job by the end of the year — and in some areas the problem is far worse. It is not only in "Thatcher's Britain" that millions are out of work: in the USA nearly ten million are on the official unemployment scrapheap and in the EEC countries the figure is fifty-five million and rising by the month.

The statistics do not tell the full story of what unemployment does to workers. When a young worker comes out of school, trained for work and wanting to express his or her talents, what can be more frustrating than to be told that there is nothing but the boredom of the dole queue? If they are lucky, then after writing many — sometimes hundreds — of letters they might end up in a low-paid, dead-end job. It's what they call "getting experience". Or they might be placed on one of the government's youth exploitation schemes, where profits for the bosses can be supplemented by exploiting the desperate position of the young unemployed. What about the workers in their late forties and fifties who have worked for years on the same job and are told that they are no longer needed by the boss? Skilled as they may be. workers losing their jobs in many occupations will stand little chance of ever being employed again if they are over fifty. What does that do to a person's confidence? Is it any surprise that heroin addiction has increased rapidly in recent years in the areas of mass urban unemployment? Is it any surprise that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of unemployed workers who are ending their own lives? What a tragic and disgusting waste! Workers have a right to be angry about an economy which is inflicting unemployment on those who need and want to work.

If we are to eradicate a problem we must discover its cause. This is the first principle of science and, as scientific socialists, we must ask why unemployment exists. Why are men and women who are fit and eager to work and have diverse talents which are needed by a society full of human deprivation excluded from the labour process?

The reason is that under capitalism people's ability to work — labour power — possesses the status of a commodity; it is an item of purchase, to be sold on the market to the highest bidder. There is a crucial difference between work (the expenditure of labour power) and employment (the sale of labour power). To work all that we need is a desire to use energy, and we all need to do that. But to sell labour power for a price, referred to as a wage or a salary, requires a buyer who will find it in his or her interest to make the purchase. The employer of labour power is concerned with purchase on a purely economic basis: the employer buying labour power is like the farmer buying a horse — the farmer does not go to the horse market in order to provide a home for the horses and the capitalist does not go to the labour market in order to pay our rent. Workers are employed when the capitalists can gain from our labour power. Workers have no choice, within capitalism, but to sell labour power so that the capitalist may exploit it. We are often told — and it is theoretically true — that we are free not to work for the capitalists if we so decide. It is the freedom to exist in destitution.

The capitalist employs the worker to make commodities which can be sold on the market. Anything from bombs to boots are legitimate items for labour power to be set to work on, but one economic law of capitalism is that there will be no production unless the capitalist has reasonable expectation of a profit. Production is for sale and profit, not simply to satisfy human needs. In buying the commodity labour power the object of the capitalist is not simply to reproduce the price he has paid for it. but to exploit labour power so that it will produce a value over and above its own. The profits obtained by the capitalist class are the result of the legalised robbery of the working class. So workers who are "lucky" enough to be employed are not being given a wage by the capitalist — they are giving an unearned income to the capitalist who must then pay the cost of keeping alive the goose that lays the golden egg.

But why are millions unemployed? Surely, if the capitalists can make a profit out of exploiting labour power they will employ everyone. Indeed, this is what the capitalist class would like, and that is why they are in favour of full employment. To suggest that unemployment is caused by the capitalist wanting it is to misunderstand the nature of the capitalist system.

The trouble with capitalism — from the angle of those who want to run and reform it — is that the market is out of control. When the market is expanding the capitalists can sell more commodities, profits rise and there is a market demand for labour power. When markets are not expanding, but stagnating or contracting, then capitalists' profits fall and less labour power is needed. Economists are the intellectual vandals who are hired to watch the market and tell the capitalists whether to expand production, which ultimately means employing more producers, or to cut back on production, which means forcing workers to be unproductive: unemployment. So, if workers produce so much wealth that the markets are glutted it is necessary to lay them off. So much for the theory that unemployment is caused by laziness: in a sense, it is caused by workers producing too much. Of course, "too much" means more than the market will take, not more than people need. Thus, we have a world crisis of milk over-production at present while babies in Africa are dying for want of milk. This is the economic logic of capitalism.

So we can say that unemployment is caused by the fact that there are more workers on the market than are needed by the exploiting class in order to make profits. This can be shown by example: in 1983 the pre-tax profits of ICI more than doubled — from £259 million to £619 million. In order to achieve increased profits during a period of market recession ICI had to cut its workforce by 18 per cent (since 1980). In all, 25,000 ICI employees lost their jobs so that profits could be doubled. Similarly, the Delta Group increased its pre-tax profits in 1983 from £14 million to £32 million. In order to achieve this they had to cut their workforce by one third so that, although they have only had a 6 per cent increase in sales in 1980. sales per worker have increased by 57 per cent. They are paying out less money (in paying the price of labour power) and so receiving more profits. Other firms are not increasing their profits, but are still having to cut the workforce just to stay in business. And the record number of firms which went bankrupt in 1984 (under a government which claimed to serve business) put hundreds of thousands out of jobs.

Unlike all the other political parties, which seek to reform capitalism, the Socialist Party does not propose any policy to create full employment or to reduce unemployment. We agree with Thatcher and her horrible mates that this is the only way capitalism can be run and that there are no remedies to unemployment. Keynesian kidders like Kinnock and Benn might claim that printing more money will create more jobs, but Keynesian policies have been tried and failed by both Tory and Labour governments which presided over rising unemployment. The Socialist Party is unique in pointing out that there is no way to run capitalism but in the interest of the rich, privileged scroungers who live off the back of the working class. We tell workers this in an open and rational way, refusing to make promises which cannot be kept.

In 1983 the top thirty-five companies in Britain increased their profits by 42.3 per cent. The rich do not suffer in the recession, but do their best to ensure that the workers pay the cost of the market malady. One part of that cost is that our class is forced into the dole queue so that the bosses can profit from the production of wealth.

Let us dispose of the fallacy that unemployment is caused by immigration; it will not take long. In 1979 195,000 immigrants entered Britain and 189.000 emigrated. In short, 6,000 more entered than left. By 1980 the trend was reversed: in that year 174,000 entered and 229,000 left. In 1982 202,000 entered and 253,000 left. If immigration causes unemployment, then why has unemployment increased as the number of people emigrating from Britain has increasingly exceeded the number entering? We might also ask any proponent of the theory why it is that Glasgow and Northern Ireland, two areas of the UK with the lowest number of black immigrants, are areas with the highest unemployment. Clearly, the argument that immigration causes unemployment is a fallacy, spread by those who seek to divide the working class and accepted by wage slaves who are foolishly blaming other wage slaves for their condition.

The starting-point of any understanding of how unemployment can be eradicated is a recognition of the fact that it is an inevitable feature of capitalism. So, if we want to end unemployment we must put an end to the capitalist system. This means abolishing employment, because there is only unemployment where there is a social system in which labour power is sold.

In the socialist society which the Socialist Party advocates as an immediate, practical alternative to the chaos of the present there will be no classes. All people will work for society according to their ability, doing so in a voluntary way, and they will be able to take freely from the common store of goods and services. Wage labour will cease to exist; we will work so that society can operate for the full satisfaction of human needs. In a society of production for use no person will be forced not to work; we will need the talents and creative energies of all people to ensure that the abundant resources of the planet can be utilised for the benefit of all. Co-operation will be the driving force of socialism, and by conscious co-operation we workers, whether employed or unemployed. can unite now to organise politically for the real socialist alternative. The so-called right to work under capitalism amounts to no more than the miserable right to be exploited — a "right" which workers do not have and should not want. Let us instead demand and achieve the revolutionary right to live.
Steve Coleman

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