[Translated from a broadcast by Gegenstandpunkt Marburg; November 24, 2004]
Unemployment is an indication of an absurd situation and points towards a fundamentally devastating judgment on the social order. Not because people do not find work, but because people need work – although society does not need this work at all. It is an absurd situation where people need, of all things, work. Because work is just the effort people must exert in order to wrest a living from nature in accord with their needs. Work is the effort that is necessary so that there are houses, bread and beer – all those objects that satisfy needs of every kind. As effort, everyone benefits when this exertion, these efforts, become less and less. When people face nature with their needs, they exert what is necessary and are happy when the work is over and can enjoy its results. Every method of reducing the burden of work is, from this point of view, an increase in leisure or material wealth.
Not in our society. Here it is said: our society is lacking work. Insane! That means, turned around, our society is too rich in the products of work. Everything that needs to be done is already finished; therefore, the insane message of all responsible people in this society is that there is just not enough work. The government and the opposition, the trade unions and even the remnants of the left are unanimous in their opinion that the fight against unemployment is a central task of politics. Of all things, the labor that one must exert is missing; the wealth of the society that exists when less toil is needed is supposed to be a problem. Of all things, work gets the character of a desirable good in short supply. And even after the toil, many enormously important and unsatisfied needs still exist.
Nobody actually has a need for work, but for the fruits of work; they work in order to have some of these fruits.
In this social order, it is different; in this society, it becomes a social phenomenon that people express a need for work that goes unmet. What does this mean? This shows that people in this country are unable to perform the necessary labor for meeting the necessities of their existence. Not because they are physically or mentally unable – here we mean somebody who needs work and does not find work, but who can work. Unemployment shows that people have been made unable to carry out the labor necessary for their existence.
What is the cause of this? These people are separated from the materials necessary for work. They would work, and want to work, but the materials for it are not at their disposal. They are put in the social position of being merely a labor power, a mere possibility of employment. And whether this possibility of employment becomes a working reality is not up to those who can work. In this society, the workforce does not decide on the transition from the fact that they can work, want to work and must work to the actual activities, to work in practice.
There is a condition: only if he finds somebody to whom the labor materials belong, and who lets him work on the materials, only then can he take up the work process necessary for his own livelihood. If, however, an entrepreneur lets a worker use his materials, then he gives him nothing thereby: everything that the worker produces as his livelihood, he does not get from his entrepreneur, but has to first create with his own labor.
But the matter is still not really decided. Because the worker is not allowed near the materials of work only in order to obtain his own livelihood, and he can't use the materials only up to the point that he has worked for his own livelihood and that of his co-workers. The worker is not allowed near the materials in order to only produce the equivalent of his and his co-workers’ livelihood. The worker must work more, produce more, than he gets as his livelihood; he must gain a profit for the owner of the means of work that is clearly much higher than his own wage. Only then does the work which is absolutely necessary for him actually take place; in the words of Marx: in capitalist society, surplus labor is not what one still performs after all the necessary labor has been performed and all the basic needs have been satisfied, but in capitalism surplus labor is the condition for performing the necessary labor for the maintenance of the workers at all. If no more than the necessary labor is carried out, then the necessary labor does not take place here.
It is a completely absurd arrangement: millions suffer deprivation, have no income, live in poverty and sink ever deeper into poverty. They want to work for their livelihoods. But before they are permitted to work for their livelihoods, the barrier of profit is set. If the work is not suitable for providing an entrepreneur with a profit, then the necessary labor for people's livelihood does not take place.
Millions are simply not needed for the profits of the entrepreneurs. Why? Because socially necessary labor is defined by the needs of “the economy,” not those of the consumers. In these parts, socially necessary labor is labor that makes profit. Socially necessary labor is labor that can be completed so that it creates a product with a price that can be sold at a profit. Other types of work which would be beneficial – better childcare, transfer of knowledge to young people, and so on – does not take place, because it does not create anything financially significant; it doesn't lead to profit.
Why are millions superfluous for socially necessary labor, which is defined in capitalism by what can be produced at a profit? Millions are socially superfluous because the labor that creates profit is already so enormously productive.
Unemployment: a consequence of diligent work
Unemployment is an indicator of the enormously increased productivity of labor. Millions are not needed because those who are needed work so productively that everything that the entrepreneurs can produce at a profit has already been produced. And this is the task and doing of the entrepreneurs themselves: they are the ones who continuously increase the productivity of the labor they buy. They constantly use new machinery that can be worked more productively, which can produce more products in the same time or – expressed differently – can produce the same large amount of products in less time. They thereby make the work cheaper for themselves; with the productivity of work, they save on paid work. This way, they lay people off and those who remain produce exactly the same amount of products as they did yesterday with a bigger staff. Result: the work, although perhaps not the individual worker, has become cheaper for the enterprise. The entrepreneur needs a smaller total wage bill for the same or a larger amount of goods.
But not only this. Where possible, entrepreneurs reduce not only the total wage sum by saving on and laying off paid staff. Where possible, they also lower the payment of each individual. This can happen because the new machinery no longer requires as many skills or qualifications; the work is made easier, simpler, so additional charges are no longer justified – labor costs are also saved here.
Millions are no longer needed because the sources of wealth are so productive – they were made so productive by the entrepreneurs, who lower their labor costs by increasing the productivity of labor and thus increase their profit per product.
To put the absurdity in a different way: people are unemployed, socially superfluous, because there is abundance. Not only does a shortage of material products not exist – the means are so highly developed that the society needs less work. In any other social system, this would be a blessing for all. In our society, it is a profit for the entrepreneurs: they do their business with lower expenses, i.e. labor costs. On their side, wealth grows. And on the opposite side, the poverty of those who are not used grows, those who cannot be allowed to work for their liveihoods for themselves because of the increase of wealth and the productivity of the sources of wealth.
Then the ridiculous juxtaposition arises: precsely because the society, specifically the wealth of capital, no longer needs their work, people become desperate for work.
It might seem somewhat surprising that the politicians do not hide this disgrace of the system, which they establish and maintain with their laws. They insist on the fact that there is a serious problem. No material hardship, no difficulty of the majority of the population is more recognized – unemployment occupies the place of the “social question” which the government should take care of.
And nobody fears that the indication of millions of unemployed persons becomes a criticism of the whole system, like we have just made. Why not? Because unemployment undergoes a transformation that is barely recognized. What begins as a concern about the plight of the unemployed ends up as a concern about profits, about the health of the economy. What begins as understanding for the problems of the unemployed ends with the criticism of the problems that the unemployed cause for the state and its finances. This is what passes for a self-criticism by the government: that it has not taken care of the fact that people have enough acquisition opportunities ends up as a criticism of the unemployed persons, that they are good for nothing.
How does it come to this, a revolving door in which everything always comes out differently than it went in? What is the security based on, that this mechanism functions so that no destructive criticism of this system arises, but everything ends as a complaint against the unemployed? Part of the transformation already occurs in the word “unemployment.” The starting point is that it concerns people who are dependent on working for an entrepreneur – they are not employed and therefore without income. Their true and simple problem in this society is that they have no money. If their problem is thus defined as: they have no work – an easy shift takes place. Of course, they have no work. But if it is immediately said that their problem is not their exclusion from all the things which they need to live, but that they lack something else, i.e. work – then one does not concern oneself at all with what is really present, and where it comes from, but approaches the thing supposedly pragmatically: the people need work! It shifts to a “solution” that fits the redefined problem. Because the problem no longer means that people are pushed into a poverty which capitalism produces, but the problem is unemployment – the apparently practical solution is designed for it: the people must go back again into the system that has spat them out.
If one is a politician or wants to think like a politician, one does not ask: what is the thing and where does it come from? Because if one asks these questions, as we have, then one lands with a total and devastating criticism of this whole system. As a politician, one must transform the question immediately; one must define the problem as: the people have no work. Then one can take the transformed question and ask: why don't the people find work? Then, point for point, all the madness and cynicism of the capitalist economic system emerges, but transformed: not as criticism, but as conditions that have to be fulfilled at all costs so that people again find work.
This is the miserable constructive thinking that believes itself to be so uncommonly practical. Do not ask what a thing is and where it comes from – immediately ask how one makes the best of it. Someone who asks why it is that people can only live if they find an entrepreneur who needs them for himself rejects the whole system in the end .
Practical thinking, however, is said to be: what is missing so that they find work again? Then one immediately comes to the politically useful and desired channel. Then the answer is: yes, the unemployed with all their harships need nothing other than an entrepreneur who could use them again. And this continuation is typical: why is it that no entrepreneur would like to use the unemployed people? Then even the criterion that caused the unemployed to all be laid off is referred to – but, of course, completely constructively: an entrepreneur must profit. Why are the unemployed unemployed? Because profits are unable to be made with them. What is the problem of the unemployed? They are simply not productive enough. How can one help them with their so-defined problem? One must make them more productive for the entrepreneurs.
The wage-laborer lives by making someone else, an entrepreneur, rich by his work; only communists say this. And they say it because it is correct and because they hold it to be a scandal. They say it because they have grasped the whole reason, the whole evil of this society and why people should revolt against it.
Now here come the politicians who say: yes, if people live only by the fact that they must make others rich, then it is no wonder they cannot live if they do not succeed in making others rich. Then it is their mistake – or even the mistake of the social system – that they do not find an entrepreneur to enrich. And then they say: so it is clear that work can't be found for them. How then can one help the unemployed? The official answer is: by ensuring that capitalists get more from them.
The political leaders of the market economy and its experts announce such selective cynicism as a self-evident fact: the unemployed persons can be helped in no other way than by an increase of exploitation. This helps them? Whoever does not reduce his life in price has then no chance of living. And this is the only choice this system has to offer ...!
Wage cuts as a lever against unemployment: raw deals and idealism
So wages are made responsible for the profitability of work. Reality is turned on its head: the increase of the productivity of work for capital, the increase of productivity for the net yield, makes people superfluous for capital. The lowering of labor costs by capital produces unemployment; more is produced for less wages; the labor costs that are saved were the living expenses of the people who are now unemployed. This is turned on its heads in the logic of the public sphere: the fact that the capitalists lower the wage per piece, thus lower labor costs so that unemployment is produced, is now said to be because wages are too high. With this circular argument, the entrepreneurs produce the proof for their own view: the more their businesses save on wages, the more unemployed persons there are to point to and say: its just simply too expensive, labor costs are too high.
This is not even correct: cheap wages do not lead to more jobs, because wages are only one basis for calculation, namely for whether the profit is worth it for the enrichment of the entrepreneurs, for profit. The workers have nothing in their hands at all, they decide nothing, they are a calculated mass – and it is also only the employers who always decide on the cheapest offer. Nevertheless, the unemployed persons are accused of being the reason for their unemployment.
And in practice this assignment of blame becomes: wages are contorted so they are lowered, and the unemployed persons are made a special offer for the entrepreneurs, and here the interest of capital still decides: do the entrepreneurs actually need people for the extension of production, is such an extension of output better with more cheap workers, or with fewer cheap workers and better machinery?
In still another respect, it is very doubtful how the unemployed person is helped; they must work to get any money, but even then their financial difficulties are not gone – so it is not about their financial difficulties at all.
Unemployment as a “national problem” includes a fundamental reinterpretation and transformation of the miserable situation that this social system prepares for people. “Unemployment” takes only a formal relation to the hardship of the unemployed, claims that it exists as so many personal tragedies. Their difficulties are recognized by the political leaders as a social problem; but then it also becomes this social problem that is to be fixed. And then the social problem is said to be: in this country, not enough capitalist business exists for all those who are intended to be a national labor power for creating capitalist wealth for the nation. Then the social problem is said to be: the poverty of the unemployed is a burden – not for them, but for the national budget and the economy.
It is the state that establishes these social conditions with its laws, that maintains and advances the opinion that the unemployed are responsible for their situation themselves, in any case that unemployment must be fought by them – and sets this in law.
It uses its power as a legislator to force changes on the unemployed that make them more profitable and cheaper for the capitalists and less burdensome for the treasury. And force is necessary for what it wants to accomplish. The silent compulsion of the conditions which it establishes – one must search for work, make an entrepreneur rich, so that one can actually live – appear to the state to be insufficient against a group of workers, counting in the millions, who are not needed by capital any more. The state does not believe that they will accept the compulsion to reduce their price, accept any job, work for money they surely can't live on – that the interest of people in such work and its payment simply adapts itself where the interest must remain completely unsatisfied. Here it is certain that it needs compulsion, and this compulsion is organized by its force: a modern system of hard labor for the unemployed.
An interesting and illuminating difference between the classes: it is left up to each entrepreneur whether to undertake something or not, if he does not find it worthwhile. Here property is holy because it is big enough to be capital; it is capable of being increased by others’ work. The freedom of the entrepreneur lies in this – and if entrepreneurs might not invest, the state switches to self-criticism: what have we done wrong, how can we make it easier for the entrepreneurs, how can we improve for them the conditions for enrichment by others’ work?
From the side of the wage laboring class, it looks different. One of them who considers, in the manner of an entrepreneur, whether work is worthwhile for him or not, is considered a sponge. Someone who wants to use unemployment insurance payments (into which he himself has deposited for times of unemployment) so as to be able to reject job offers which are not good enough for him, is insulted as a shirker and treated in practice as someone who has abused this money. He is entitled to only one freedom – the freedom to starve.