Toward Full Unemployment: Moving Beyond Wage Slavery
By Robert Theobald
The movement to abolish chattel slavery took fire when we began to realize how demeaning it was for people to be owned by another person who held the power of life and death over them. Uncle Tom’s Cabin opened up a fiery debate which led inexorably to the civil war.
We are now at the point where we need to understand the concept of wage slavery. Failure to do this will bind people to employers just as firmly as chattel slavery bound slaves to their owners. It is our responsibility to open this debate in ways which do not lead to the same level of anguish and bitterness as started the civil war.
I am aware that opening my piece in this way will seem to many to be pure hyperbole: a grotesque overstatement of any possible credible case. In this article, I shall argue why my parallel is exact and necessary, describe how we might move forward to change our patterns and our understandings and briefly discuss how the new socioeconomic world might evolve.
Before I get into the specific issues I want to face the fact that raising consciousness normally provokes bitter opposition. Up to the current time, movement toward new cultural understanding has always provoked a bitter backlash. Our challenge this time is to help people grasp profoundly new models with the least fear and anger possible.
This is going to be difficult. The way most people have earned their living has been to hold a job. Even though we are rapidly becoming aware that the meaning of jobs, and work, is shifting with incredible rapidity it is difficult for people to face up to the way that the world is shifting around them. It is often easier to blame the “other” for one’s loss of status, income and prestige that to look at the inexorable march of changing conditions.
The New Socioeconomic Structures
At the end of World War II, politicians vowed that workers and societies would never again suffer as they had in the great depression of he thirties. The ways in which countries adopted the commitment to full employment differed but it was agreed that it was a responsibility of the state to provide the opportunity for employment to all those who wanted a job.
In the immediate post-war years, the new approaches proved easy to maintain. There was enormous pent-up demand and workers and factories were kept busy. There were recessions but they were shallow and short. It seemed as though the tragedies of earlier periods, when unemployment had caused massive suffering, were gone for good.
Huge additions to the labor force came as women decided that they wanted to be more than homemakers and mothers. This increase was absorbed remarkably easily in the sixties and early seventies. During this time, as this pattern continued, socioeconomic goals shifted rather dramatically although the change was little understood.
Instead of struggling toward full employment, which implied that people could choose whether to be in the labor force or not, Western societies began to demand maximum labor force participation. An increase in the number of people holding jobs was seen as good in itself.
Several forces drove this changed perception. There was the bias of economists and politicians who measured success in terms of the increase in the gross Domestic Product. The addition of workers caused this figure to rise faster than it would otherwise have done.
The fact that much of this rise was due to a statistical quirk has been little commented or understood. The value of the activity people do outside the monetary economy is not counted in the GDP — so the offsetting loss as people spent less time as parents and volunteers did not show up in economic calculations. Once one understands this peculiarity in our system of economic statistics, it is obvious that in many cases the movement from being a mother to taking a low-paying service job actually reduced the level of services in the economy rather than increased it.
We should also understand that the initial wave of women workers into the labor force was largely by choice as those who saw opportunities outside the home seized them. In later decades, more and more women believed they had no choice but to enter the labor force. Some took jobs, replacing their menfolk, as they lost their work in steel or autos and other heavy industry. Some found that they had to supplement the income of their men as their replacement work brought in far lower wages. Acute stress has often developed as dual-income families find they have too little leisure — the stress is often particularly acute in traditional families if women earn more than men as these challenges the self-worth of men and places women in roles they would rather not play.
The loss of good jobs, particularly for those who made their money through the sale of their “strong backs,” has been part of a slow, steady, irreversible shift in trends. Unfortunately, both economists and politicians have been slow to recognize, let alone deal with, the fundamental changes.
The patterns which are emerging as a result of these irreversible shifts vary dramatically in different parts of the world. I shall only mention four. In the United States, workers have less and less protection from the rigors of the marketplace. Average wages continue to fall and more and more workers are deprived of benefits. Unemployment, while significantly above levels which would have been found acceptable in the fifties and sixties, is below six percent. Most people can still find some sort of work but more and more people are underemployed. A recent Wall Street Journal story stated that foreign companies were flocking to America because workers had less protection than elsewhere in the developed world.
In Europe, with the exception of Britain, wages and salaries have stayed high for those who have jobs but more and more people are unemployed. The unemployment rate in many countries is above ten percent. There is a pervasive sense among the young, particularly among immigrants, that there is no hope.
In Japan, the continuing recession while followed the economic “miracle” of the post-war years is slowly destroying the cultural norms which have sheltered people within a permanent work commitment. Workers are being exposed to the full consequences of capitalism and at the same time consumers are demanding that they benefit from the lower prices which could be available to them.
In the developing countries, unemployment and underemployment are above 20%, in some cases 30% and even over 40%. Jobs are simply not available for a huge number of people and given today’s levels of technology, there will not be the demand for workers which enabled the countries now rich to absorb people as they ceased to be needed in agriculture.
In recent years, therefore, the trend throughout the world has been for more and more people to be unable to find good jobs, or any jobs at all. Until recently, most economists saw this problem as temporary and assumed that demand could be increased so that everybody would find work. Today patterns of analysis are changing as the impact of technology steadily increases and environmental limits are more widely understood.
The new patterns of thinking are driven in part by changing perceptions about the correct way to define the potentials of computers. It is increasingly accepted that if a task can be fully defined, then it is possible for a computer — or a computer coupled with a robot — to accomplish it. This means that the range of activities where human beings are involved will necessarily decline dramatically in the early twentieth-century.
At the same time, the implications of human production and consumption for the viability of the ecosphere will increase. Nobody knows what the carrying capacity of the earth may be but the limits of freshwater, the oceans and the land are already visible although nobody knows how far they can be pushed back. It is already clear, however, that we need to come to grips with the concept of limits and to struggle with what they will mean to a global culture currently committed to maximum economic growth and maximum employment.
These issues should already be central to our thinking. A recent World Bank report assumes that water will cause wars in the early twentieth century because of its growing scarcity. Middle East dynamics are already driven by this issue to a far greater extent than is currently understood. It seems increasingly doubtful that national sovereignty is the way in which these issues can be effectively handled.
Asking the Wrong Questions
We are fixated at the current time on a set of old questions. How do we get maximum growth? How do we find jobs for everybody? How do we compete internationally?
We refuse to recognize that it is the intransigent pursuit of these old goals which is destroying our quality of life. Production should be a means to an end and not an end in itself. Jobs are a method of providing meaningful work and the potential of income not a burden to be pursued at all costs.
We have trapped ourselves into a whirling dervish economy dependent on compulsive consumption. Maynard Keynes, the great British economist, recognized this reality in the thirties. I doubt if his statement has ever been bettered. I have been quoting it for decades and, at last, we may be able to hear him. “Consumption – to repeat the obvious – is the sole end and object of all economic activity. Opportunities for employment are necessarily limited by the extent of aggregate demand. Aggregate demand can be derived only from present consumption and or from present provision for future consumption. The consumption for which we wish to provide in advance cannot be pushed indefinitely into the future … The greater, moreover, the consumption for which we have provided in advance, the more difficult is to find something to provide for in advance, and the greater our dependence of present consumption as a source of demand…. there is, we shall see, so answer to the riddle, except that there must be sufficient unemployment to keep us so poor that our consumption falls short of income by no more than the equivalent of the physical provision for the future which it pays to provide today.”
Keynes argued that we need to change our thinking and thus “… be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues…. All kinds of social customs and economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, we shall then be free to discard.”
Keynes’ fear, when he wrote, was that we would decide to change our socioeconomic directions too soon. Now it it is obvious that we are leaving the wrenching debate too late. Instead of recognizing the potential for fundamentally new directions which would meet human needs better, we fail to understand that the search for a higher quality of life leads in a profoundly different direction than that which we shall inherit if we continue to struggle toward a higher standard of living.
There has been much discussion in recent years of the increase in the number of hours of work and the decline in leisure. There is also much evidence from polling that people would choose to give up income in exchange for more hours to themselves and with their families. Technology should be freeing us from toil: instead we are allowing it to split society between the rich and the poor.
The rich know how to make technology work for them and have no qualms about creating artificial scarcity through advertising. Items which cost very little as they leave the factory gate grow more and more expensive as margins are added at every level of the distribution process.
The poor are excluded increasingly both by their poverty and their lack of knowledge. The split grows wider and more dangerous. The chance of our children and grandchildren leaving in a peaceful, sustainable world continues to decline.
The basic reality is that continuation of current cultural norms will destroy any possibility of a good life for future generations. We cannot get to the “there” for which we yearn if we perpetuate today’s success criteria. This conclusion can no longer be denied by those who will face realities rather than ignore them.
Finding the New Questions
We are caught in a cultural trance. The idea that there might be a profoundly different way in which we could order human society escapes our notice. The fact that current patterns only emerged in the industrial era — and in many cases only in the last fifty years — has been buried so deep that we take today’s patterns for granted.
We should be struggling to answer very different questions than that upon which we are currently fixated. Formulating the new issues clearly will enable us to focus on potentials rather than problems.
Moving in this direction is difficult, not only because of our fixation on old questions. The new knowledge paradigm, which has developed at the same time as the new technologies, requires us to learn to live in the relevant questions, rather than seek for answers. We are being forced away from a search for destinations toward a commitment to seek for the truth. The old saying that : “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive” has taken on deep new meanings.
Here is my best sense of the questions we need to ask:
How can we limit the amount of toil which the society needs to accomplish? I am using the word toil with a carefully, specific meaning. Toil is activity which people would not normally do unless they are coerced by power or by pay.
There are two caveats which I must raise immediately. First, far too many thinkers assume that the work they choose to do is what everybody else likes. Heavy manual labor is therefore assumed to be necessarily toiled. The evidence is quit to the contrary. People enjoy doing activities which I personally would hate and find purpose and meaning in a broad range of activities. Almost certainly most people would hate the way that I choose to spend my days.
Second, any useful work always involves toil as part of a healthy total pattern. One of the tragedies of the industrial era is that we have enabled, and indeed encouraged, the “important” people to free themselves from the petty chores. In so doing, we have isolated them and caused them to forget the patterns in which most of us live.
Taking this question seriously would cause us to move toward a limitation of the hours spent earning a living and toward a model which is often caused “right livelihood.” More and more of our time would be used doing what we felt was important.
The first question deals with the activity side of the equation. What about the ability to obtain resources so that one can live with dignity. The question we must ask here goes even deeper because the current approach which enabled people to get resources through their labor has broken down.
If we are to create a civil society we must open up the question of “ownership.” Who really owns the land, the waters and the air? Who owns the machines and the computers? Who owns the factories?
The answer today is that companies and the rich own them and that the ownership will inevitably become more concentrated. As this happens, and as people can no longer find jobs, the gap between the rich and the poor will grow. Anger will increase and at some point the social order will be devastated.
Can we be smart enough as a society to see that profoundly different patterns of rights to resources must emerge if we are to survive? The approaches which worked when the desire was for greater growth and more resources becomes counter-productive in today’s world. In the end, all resources are owned by all of us and the workers who created current capital resources have rights to them just as those who provided the capital.
Capitalism is indeed a great process for creating maximum economic growth. But if this is no longer the goal, then it is no longer appropriate to our needs.
This is both the simplest, and the most contentious, of all the shifts required. Gilbert caught the essence of our dilemma in his comic opera statement: “When everybody’s somebody, then no-one’s anybody.”
In the future, we need to turn this around and to believe that when everybody’s somebody, then the world will work. Each of us is entitled to dignity, and the roles we choose to play are of value.
What would the world look like after the shift?
It is really too early to describe what the world would look like if we chose to accept the reality of the needed changes but here are some of the apparent implications:
- People would spend most of their lives on self-development, on relationships, on the arts, on finding purpose and meaning. Sufficient goods and services would be available for a high quality of life but we would treat our ecological systems with care.
- Everybody would be required to do toil for part of their lives: in many cases this might be during adolescence when hard physical labor is less daunting.
- The current division of life into preparation for work through education, working and retirement will give way to a far more seamless pattern where people are not isolated from the world at the beginning and end of their lives. Patternings will be far richer than we have ever achieved both in terms of work and relationships.
- The raising of children will be a core responsibility. It will be confined to those who love the challenge. Some families will be large and many will have no children at all. The idea of a “normal” number of children will be abandoned as irrelevant.
Can shifts of this magnitude be made?
I can imagine three primary reactions to this article. Some will welcome a piece which breaks through the cultural trance and opens up space for new dialogue. Hopefully, nobody will agree completely but they will see the utility of the new space.
Others will see the article as irrelevant, stupid and even heretical. They will “know” that current systems neither can, nor should be changed.
A third group will want to move in the directions but will be inclined to reject the piece as “unrealistic.” All I can say to change their minds is that we live in a “virtual reality” inherited from the past — it has no absolute validity. We can choose to create a “virtual reality” which is both more realistic and more hopeful.
Indeed, our survival requires that we do!