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Did large scale unemployment exist before capitalism?

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yoda's walking stick
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Sep 15 2011 02:19
Did large scale unemployment exist before capitalism?

I read this on Wikipedia: "Prior to the capitalist era in human history, structural unemployment on a mass scale rarely existed, other than that caused by natural disasters and wars. Indeed, the word "employment" is linguistically a product of the capitalist era."

It's not sourced. Anyone know a source for this fact that would be credible to bourgeois readers?

bastarx
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Sep 15 2011 02:56

No. I'd say it's true by definition and thus doesn't need any source. (Un)employment is an inherently capitalist category.

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RedEd
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Sep 15 2011 13:28

If there are a large number of people who rely of wage work and can therefore can be employed or unemployed, then you've got capitalism. However, it is quite possible in pre-capitalist modes of production to have things analogous to structural unemployment, such as shortages of land for cultivation by peasants due to changing patterns of land use or whatever. One of the interesting things about capitalism is that it creates unemployment as the pre-condition of employment. So, in the example just given, the local land owner might have switched land usage from renting to peasants who used it primarily for subsistence to commodity production, of wool for example. This creates stress on the local peasant population that might cause many of them to be unable to support themselves in their traditional manner and be driven into the cities looking for alternative means of subsistence, thus becoming the new industrial proletariat without which capitalism can't exist. So yeah, it not just that structural unemployment is unique to capitalism, it's necessary for capitalism. The above process is continuing in much of the developing world at some speed (although interestingly in parts of latin america recently there has been a small flow in the opposite direction with chronically unemployed workers becoming small holders often illegally or semi-legally).

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Fall Back
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Sep 15 2011 15:01

Going back to my A-Levels here, but wasn't mass unemployment in Rome the reason for the widespread implementation of 'Bread and Circuses'?

Fairly sure there was a significant layer of Roman citizens who survived like this - effectively on benefits, with no day to day job or land to work.

yoda's walking stick
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Sep 15 2011 21:08

OK, here's a stupid question. What exactly is structural unemployment? I couldn't make heads or tails out of the Wikipedia definition. Is it unemployment that's required for the basic functioning of an economic system, not the result of a passing phase?

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Picket
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Sep 15 2011 21:24

Wiki explanation seems fairly clear. If there are 100,000 job vacancies in the economy and 100,000 people unemployed, you'd think that would be a match made in heaven (or hell, but a match anyway), but it's not, because the jobs may be in different locations to the unemployed, require different skills than they have and so on. That's structural unemployment.

Mind you I don't really get the difference between that and "frictional" unemployment.

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RedEd
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Sep 15 2011 22:18
Fall Back wrote:
Going back to my A-Levels here, but wasn't mass unemployment in Rome the reason for the widespread implementation of 'Bread and Circuses'?

Fairly sure there was a significant layer of Roman citizens who survived like this - effectively on benefits, with no day to day job or land to work.

Imperial Rome actually had a surprisingly high number of wage workers and there were more in the nearby port of Ostia. It also had people existing in what we might now call the informal economy. So yes, there was unemployment in ancient Rome, but I don't think this was a determining factor. The elite factional struggles of Roman history that arose from it's political and economic systems meant that winning the favor of the populace was important to any political faction, and keeping an enormous city fed was, at the time, quite a task which, if not done properly through ensuring sufficient imports (much of Roman foreign policy, especially in Egypt, was directed to ensure this) and keeping prices low would cause bread riots. But the Roman mob was not necessarily a proletarian mob, these concerns were just as much those of petty producers and small traders as they were wage workers. I don't think the control of bread prices and imports can be compared with benefits either.

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Sep 15 2011 22:29

admin: rude and dismissive comment removed, don't answer questions like that

RedEd's picture
RedEd
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Sep 15 2011 22:30
yoda's walking stick wrote:
OK, here's a stupid question. What exactly is structural unemployment? I couldn't make heads or tails out of the Wikipedia definition. Is it unemployment that's required for the basic functioning of an economic system, not the result of a passing phase?

Structural unemployment can mean a few things. One important thing to remember is that if you have literal full employment (the term full employment is usually actually used to mean 4-5% unemployment) then you will have huge problems with wage increases and inflation. You need a certain level of unemployment in order to discipline labour, basically, especially when capital is running into trouble. Part of the adjustments of the late 70s and 80s in response to the crisis of the 70s, particularly in Britain and the US, was to increase the rate of unemployment to make sure wages were stagnant while hours rose. Therefore unemployment is structurally necessary to capitalism, although to different extents during different phases of capitalist cycles. It means something different in bourgeois economics, referring to the problem of changes in production methods making certain skills redundant and therefore mismatching the skill set of the labour force with that required by capital. I don't think that this is a very interesting definition or gets to the heart of why unemployment exists in capitalism, which has more to do with what I said above, as well as deeper phenomena such as the falling rate of profit and all that goes with that.

yoda's walking stick
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Sep 16 2011 20:21
RedEd wrote:
You need a certain level of unemployment in order to discipline labour, basically, especially when capital is running into trouble.

This is interesting. Where can I read Marx on this topic. I've read Capital, but I was so worried that I wouldn't be able to make it all the way through, I blazed through it at the expense of my understanding. I'll have to go back to it some day.

In the Wikipedia entry on reserve army of labour, it doesn't seem to deal with unemployment as a form of discipline as far as I can tell.

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Joseph Kay
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Sep 16 2011 20:50
Pikel wrote:
That's structural unemployment.

Mind you I don't really get the difference between that and "frictional" unemployment.

iirc 'frictional unemployment' is that which arises from the time lag between leaving and finding a new job. so even i there were way more jobs than workers, at any given time a certain percentage would be between jobs.

CRUD, please heed the posting guidelines (be civil).

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CRUD
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Sep 19 2011 06:52
Joseph Kay wrote:

CRUD, please heed the posting guidelines (be civil).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reserve_army_of_labour

^

I'm not sure whats uncivilized about answering the question with a no and some advice to read Marx. Also to add to what reded said, if full employment was realized under capitalism workers would have too much bargaining power and could demand wages and benefits that would eat up most all of the capitalists profits.

Also, Yoda, read this-

http://www.zcommunications.org/seeing-the-system-alan-greenspan-unemployment-and-the-validation-of-radical-analysis-by-tim-wise

admin: don't derail the discussion. If you want to talk about a moderate decision do so in the feedback forum

Anarchist authority manners police! Seriously man, get off your high horse or just ban me. I wasnt "uncivilized" to Yoda in the least. End of story.

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cantdocartwheels
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Sep 17 2011 06:03
Fall Back wrote:
Going back to my A-Levels here, but wasn't mass unemployment in Rome the reason for the widespread implementation of 'Bread and Circuses'?

Fairly sure there was a significant layer of Roman citizens who survived like this - effectively on benefits, with no day to day job or land to work.

Pretty much, also the circuses were a means of mass employment. For chunks of its history the Roman Empire needed constant conquests in order to fund big projects which would provide work for its citizens and pay for its standing army.

.Afaik under feudalism ''vagrants'' and those without the means to support themselves would either have to migrate, starve, or if they were licky, find support in the rudimentary benefit systems run by church parishes in some regions..

Dave B
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Sep 17 2011 15:21

There is passage from Karl on the Roman unemployed, some of the other stuff in it maybe of interest as well.

Quote:
In several parts of Capital I allude to the fate which overtook the plebeians of ancient Rome. They were originally free peasants, each cultivating his own piece of land on his own account. In the course of Roman history they were expropriated. The same movement which divorced them from their means of production and subsistence involved the formation not only of big landed property but also of big money capital. And so one fine morning there were to be found on the one hand free men, stripped of everything except their labour power, and on the other, in order to exploit this labour, those who held all the acquired wealth in possession. What happened?

The Roman proletarians became, not wage labourers but a mob of do-nothings more abject than the former “poor whites” in the southern country of the United States, and alongside of them there developed a mode of production which was not capitalist but dependent upon slavery. Thus events strikingly analogous but taking place in different historic surroundings led to totally different results. By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them one can easily find the clue to this phenomenon, but one will never arrive there by the universal passport of a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/11/russia.htm

Perhaps another interesting area is what happened elsewhere in the Roman Empire as a similar process unfolded.

Apparently, and I am a bit of a dilettante on this, there had been a tradition of wage labour in Judea and environs for example, even before the first century.

Eg Josephus in Ant. 20.9.7 covering middle of first century for instance talks of 18,000 unemployed wage workers.

http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-20.htm

As a result of direct Roman control and taxation system and changes in usury and land sale laws etc following circa 6 AD, the local peasant farmers were borrowing money against their farms and being subsequently foreclosed on. The land being turned over to large landowners who used some of the former dispossessed peasant as wage workers on the land.

Apparently they used wage workers rather than slaves as they were cheaper and worked harder, maybe there was also a traditional physical shortage of slaves to do the work or something.

There appears to have been an unemployment problem that went with it, as economically you might expect.

these captcha's are getting harder- it isn't fair

Dave B
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Sep 17 2011 16:39

On wage labour before capitalism we have perhaps one of the first wage slave quotes

DE OFFICIIS, Marcus Tullius Cicero {150} XLII.

Quote:
Unbecoming to a gentleman, too, and vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.

http://www.constitution.org/rom/de_officiis.htm

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Chilli Sauce
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Sep 18 2011 08:39

Re: structural unemployment

So, capital always invest part of the profit it accumulates (from our surplus value) back into the instruments of production (capitalism constantly revolutionising the means of production and all that). These technological improvement allow for capital to cut jobs.

So unemployment is built into the structure of capitalism. The wealth we create as workers is used against us by our employers to eliminate our jobs.