"Voluntary" Unemployment

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Oenomaus
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Feb 11 2012 23:10
"Voluntary" Unemployment

Recently, I spoke to someone with a viewpoint on unemployment which is widely and uncritically held as “common sense” where I live (in the US): that unemployment is "voluntary." She genuinely believes that the unemployed simply "aren't trying hard enough" to find a job, and that if they spent a lot of time each day job searching they should be able to find one. She does not mean unemployed people who are young, old, sick, disabled, or have anything that prevent them from working, but healthy adults capable of work. If unemployed people who are the latter cannot find a job, she believes, they either just aren’t trying hard enough, are trying to find too much to find the best one, or are simply “spoiled,” especially among those who live in cities where she assumes there are plenty of jobs available. Then she went on to say that the welfare system is something that “many people take advantage of,” that to her unemployment is the result of the unemployed deciding to live on welfare rather than work as it’s only “human nature.” I tried explaining that there are simply far fewer jobs than there are unemployed people, that the unemployed do try hard to look all the time (since most want to survive), and that politicians often try to use the issue of welfare to put the blame on them, but she rejected what I said out of hand.

Now I think this argument is plainly absurd, as any other communist would also think. But, given how widely this view is held (at least in the US), I feel that it is important to devote at least some attention to critiquing it, to unmasking the ideology, and understanding why unemployment is actually involuntary.

I found some articles on this site which partly do (such as here: http://libcom.org/blog/nation-scroungers-18102010), but they sometimes come across to me as newspaper opinion pieces or polemics, rather than an analysis coming from a theoretically rigorous framework, which is what I’m looking for. Out of curiosity, I looked at the Anarchist FAQ’s section on unemployment, and I thought it was interesting to find that it has a subsection on precisely this question (here: http://infoshop.org/page/AnarchistFAQSectionC9#secc94). But, while the subsection does have some good observations and arguments, it still seemed to me theoretically weak. The subsection, and the section in general, draws from Keynesian or other “left wing” capitalist economists to a large extent (and not merely from data-oriented studies they've done). I felt that the authors too often counterpoise "conservative," "right wing neoliberal," "free market" capitalism to "liberal," "left-wing Keynesian," "welfare state" capitalism. Marxist theory is neither drawn on nor hardly mentioned at all: Marx is mentioned once or twice briefly in the entire section, I believe, and Paul Mattick is criticized for “echoing the right” by allegedly distorting and misrepresenting Keynes on the question of whether cutting real wages reduces unemployment.

So, not being too well-versed in theory, I am hoping you could suggest any books, articles, or other material that delves into a critique of “voluntary” unemployment from a consistently communist perspective (preferably perspectives drawn from Marx’s theory, but class struggle anarchist theory, too). Again, I am looking for more of a theoretically strong critique, and not anything like a moralistic or psychological perspective which, I think, only mirrors capitalist ideology. If there’s anything on this site that you know of – articles, threads, anything really -- I would most appreciate if you could point me to it as I’ve tried looking. Or, of course, if you would just like to give your own critiques or comments, that would be quite nice as well.

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RedEd
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Feb 12 2012 00:27

The relevant idea in Marx's thought is that of the 'reserve army of labour'. He introduces this notion in capital volume 1 chapter 25. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch25.htm To simplify, Marx argues that as the amount of constant capital (machines, etc) increases, so the amount of variable capital (wage labour) required is less to produce the same amount. Because of this more people are thrown onto the scrap heap. Marx refers to the two types of capital together as the organic composition of capital, which, he argues, changes according to the laws of motion of capital creating certain levels of unemployment. The tendency in the other direction is increased consumption. The ability of capitalists to sell more shit can counteract the tendency to not need as much labour to produce things as more/better machines and production techniques are produced. This explains why unemployment goes up when people are buying less and down when people are buying more. Which is a pretty obvious insight, but it's neatly tied in with the rest of Marx's analysis in a rather pleasing way, I think.

Another dynamic is of course the cost of labour to the capitalist. Particularly high levels of employment, and particularly secure employment, raise the ability of workers to sell their labour power at better raters, meaning that the capitalist can't make profits by hiring workers. So capitalists are interested in keeping unemployment levels up and labour cheap. This happens in a variety of ways, through things like casualisation, union busting, etc., all often orchestrated by the state which regulates capitalist social relations in a slightly more conscious way than individual capitalists.

Oenomaus
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Feb 12 2012 02:26

Thanks for the post, RedEd. Indeed, I agree essentially with Marx’s idea of the reserve army of labor. To even say unemployment is “voluntary” is absurd since, like the brute force of slavery and serfdom, capitalism relies on the threat of unemployment—that is, the very existence of the reserve industrial army, which holds the employed workers in check. Needless to say, the prospect of starvation, or at least poverty, that unemployment easily takes the place of any whip. Without the reserve industrial army, the capitalist system therefore could not, according to Marx’s analysis, exist, correct? While I understand this very well, I am also interested in what Marx would say (or what Marxists today would say) regarding government policies that directly address unemployment. Suppose a capitalist government in theory (since capitalists normally aren’t interested) provides sufficient welfare and unemployment benefits that meet the survival needs of the unemployed, but do not necessarily reduce the reserve army of labor. According to the viewpoint widely held by many people in the US, this would cause unemployed people “to take advantage of” the benefits and live off of welfare rather than work. Would this really occur, from a Marxist perspective? Of course, in reality, I do not think there is any evidence for it, but would this ever be the case? In other words, is unemployment completely independent of social security benefits and if it is, why? (And I apologize if these seem like stupid questions! Again, I'm fairly new to a lot of theory.)

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Railyon
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Feb 12 2012 10:22
Oenomaus wrote:
According to the viewpoint widely held by many people in the US, this would cause unemployed people “to take advantage of” the benefits and live off of welfare rather than work. Would this really occur, from a Marxist perspective?

If the social security were like some kind of "unconditional basic income" that would give you as much as you need, I'd say that people would actually exploit it simply for the fact that work in itself is so divorced from everyday life that it is seen as nothing more than a necessary evil. I see nothing bad about that however (guess that's a question of capitalist work ethic then) However, it's not as easy as that as some people would still work out of sheer boredom etc

This flies in the face of wage labor and would lead to an increase in price levels (as wages and prices are directly related), going full circle and leave the people with too little again, making working for a wage for survival a material necessity again. It's a vicious circle. Living the high life off security is a myth...

Social security is just a kind of "security valve" against social revolt - too little to live, too much to die. Imagine what would happen if all the people on the dole would have nothing to eat anymore? Preventing such a potentially revolutionary scenario is obviously in the interest of the capitalist class.

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Feb 12 2012 11:16

On a side note, I think even if it is the case that some people do genuinely prefer to live on benefits (and this has been the case in the UK when the benefit system was a bit better and squatting easier, artists and activists with no kids could scrape by ok, and today people with extremely low job prospects might accept unemployment, if not embrace it) there are dozens people who want to find work and can't. From a moralistic point of view the former type of people might be 'bad' (not from our point of view but from that of capitalist ideology) but structurally, they make no difference whatsoever, so blaming social problems on them is a nonsense.

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Feb 12 2012 11:16

What the person in the OP is saying is that jobs are created by people applying for them. Seems a pretty weak theory to me.

The other option is that she is saying that there are always more paid jobs than people available and these jobs are hidden and can only come forward in the process of "trying hard" and really looking for jobs. This would also be an unusual idea.

I can't really see the need for theory backed by data in this instance.

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Feb 12 2012 11:23

I think there is an aspect of capitalist ideology that gets trotted out in times of high unemployment that anyone could make money by being their own boss. In a way, this is how the lumpenproletariat often live (at starvation levels) is systems with no social security, so it's not completely untrue, though it is so brutal I'm pretty confident in most of the developed world it would cause such enormous social unrest it would be unsustainable simply in terms of it's cost to capital. The US prison industrial system seems in part an attempt to overcome this dynamic. I don't know how successful or generally applicable it is.

Oenomaus
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Feb 13 2012 09:36
Railyon wrote:
If the social security were like some kind of "unconditional basic income" that would give you as much as you need, I'd say that people would actually exploit it simply for the fact that work in itself is so divorced from everyday life that it is seen as nothing more than a necessary evil. I see nothing bad about that however (guess that's a question of capitalist work ethic then) However, it's not as easy as that as some people would still work out of sheer boredom etc

This flies in the face of wage labor and would lead to an increase in price levels (as wages and prices are directly related), going full circle and leave the people with too little again, making working for a wage for survival a material necessity again. It's a vicious circle. Living the high life off security is a myth...

Social security is just a kind of "security valve" against social revolt - too little to live, too much to die. Imagine what would happen if all the people on the dole would have nothing to eat anymore? Preventing such a potentially revolutionary scenario is obviously in the interest of the capitalist class.

Yeah, I completely agree with you. And that is precisely an assumption which I know many people in the US today take for granted: that social security operates as an "unconditional basic income" that the unemployed receive. But, in reality, the unemployed who rely on social security just barely have enough to live, and so have no choice but to find work for survival. How could anyone choose or want to be in a scenario where they just barely have enough to live? How can the unemployed be "taking advantage" of social security (as the person I spoke to said) when it is social security that is "taking advantage "of them, especially in containing revolution? (These are rhetorical questions, by the way. smile) This is why I cannot understand why certain radicals (like the authors of the Anarchist FAQ's unemployment section) seem to be cheerleading Keynes. Of course, it may be better to have some social security rather than, well, death without social security by the capitalist class (which happens anyway), but to rather rigidly counterpoise the two seems false to me. As the Wobbly T. Bone Slim said of charity, I think social security is like throwing a life jacket into a drowned man's coffin.

And as you and RedEd also rightly pointed out, even if the unemployed theoretically could receive an "unconditional basic income," for some to "take advantage" of this may not after all be "bad," but, for some, a preferable way and option to survive in this system, or at least understandable given the alienation workers have from labor. To blame anyone who does so for creating problems seems somewhat akin to blaming the lumpenproletariat for "crime." And, needless to say, the notion of not working would be rendered superfluous in a communist society. Thanks for your post!

Cooked: indeed, it seems the "theory" of the person I spoke to is a highly metaphysical one. I think she just doesn't believe there could be more people than jobs available, despite the evidence. "Full employment" is believed to be always readily available at people's fingertips, even if it is structurally impossible. Sadly, she is far from alone in holding this viewpoint, as anyone who takes an economics course in college finds out.

RedEd: I think you are right that there is a correlation between this particular ideological aspect and higher rates of unemployment. Given how unsustainable a system without social security would be, it seems bold in an insane sort of way that this aspect would actually be pushed more during times of higher unemployment. Although I'm not entirely certain, I think there may be a similar correlation between how much this aspect is pushed in countries with generally less social security (as in the US) as well.

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Railyon
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Feb 13 2012 09:33
Oenomaus wrote:
"Full employment" is believed to be always readily available at people's fingertips, even if it is structurally impossible. Sadly, she is far from alone in holding this viewpoint, as anyone who takes an economics course in college finds out.

Grr, don't get me started on college economics! tongue

The lecturers are so bourgie, it's unbelievable how anyone would accept things like the whole work-leisure time utility trade-off shit...

If you mean by full employment being structurally impossible, I agree with you. Economists blame stuff like minimum wages and trade unions for high wages, but the thing is, even if "the market was in equilibrium" and we suppose social security to be abolished, not every worker "in the labor market" would have employment. Mainstream economists fail to realize that there is a minimum wage one has to earn to even survive (Marx on the other hand got that right), and they argue if only you set your wages lower than your other competitors you'd have the advantage and shit... whether you have enough to scrape by at the end of the day is totally left out of the picture.

Keynes is a bit more realistic when it comes to his models but he's obviously still an aplogetic and makes a lot of the same ridiculous assumptions the neoclassical economists also make.

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Juan Conatz
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Feb 13 2012 09:50

Honestly, there are very little benefits to being unemployed in the U.S. There exists no "dole" as seems to exist in Europe. If you're an able bodied single male, you basically qualify for nothing more than food stamps. Housing assistance is pretty much out of the question. You're only eligible for unemployment benefits (which are 60% of what you made) if you worked 6 months straight. Not too mention that the attempts at even getting these meager "benefits" and the process of looking for a job are often more difficult and frustrating than actually working. Honestly, people who advance such idiotic notions about the unemployed are clueless idiots. And it isn't limited to people who've adopted reactionary anti-working class politics that are inherent to right wing tendencies. There's a far amount of liberals who seem to think we live in some type of social democracy and can't comprehend the lack of social safety net when they actually come into contact with people in poverty. My attitude is Fuck them.

Oenomaus
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Feb 13 2012 11:58
Railyon wrote:
If you mean by full employment being structurally impossible, I agree with you.

Yep, that's what I meant (I should have phrased that sentence better). As far as economics, I can only quote Karl Marx’s feelings upon first studying it. As he wrote to Engels in 1851:

Karl Marx wrote:
In five weeks I will be through with the whole economic shit.

That pretty much sums up my own feelings on economics in a nutshell.

Nevertheless, it was important for people like Marx, and seems just as important for us today, to grapple with economics (or political economy, or witchcraft, or whatever you like to call it). This is why I think Marx persisted on with it for much longer than five weeks, despite his feelings. But I think there is one important way we should do so: through critique. This does not mean rejecting it solely as incorrect, metaphysical, or stupid, but trying to see the contradictions in this “science” to its source in the fundamental contradictions of how human beings actually live. In doing so, it is not merely that we try to “resolve” or “correct” the theories, but that we completely destroy and abolish the contradictions at the heart of this inhuman system we are all forced to live under.

And they, to say the least, exist within economics. That is why I personally am very interested in thoroughly reading not only Capital, but mainstream economics, Keynes, etc. However, actually listening to lectures by bourgeois academics in college takes great, unimaginable skill that unfortunately I don’t think I will ever be willing to cultivate… so I definitely commend you on that. smile

blackout
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Feb 13 2012 13:52
Cooked wrote:
What the person in the OP is saying is that jobs are created by people applying for them. Seems a pretty weak theory to me.

The other option is that she is saying that there are always more paid jobs than people available and these jobs are hidden and can only come forward in the process of "trying hard" and really looking for jobs. This would also be an unusual idea.

This is actually what a lot of people think, including (in the UK at least) the people who run career advice services and things like the Job Centre. The idea is that you can go hunt out some pub, offer your services and they will suddenly realise that they did need someone all along! Or basically nepotism.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/video/2012/feb/07/work-programme-hidden-jobs-video