What Is Unemployment For? [Part I]

Mark Page, 2015 Jan 12
Donated cans of food in boxes.
How wealthy countries feed the poor.

Faith, Hope and Charity

No human society lacks for work that could usefully be done; there is always someone in need of the assistance of others. Anthropological study of traditional societies makes clear the profound interdependency of people. Individual activity is driven by the needs of the community and resources given by the community are driven by the needs of the individual. Although it would be wrong to think of these societies as living some sort of primal socialist existence, resources are nonetheless shared in a surprisingly equitable way (at least, surprising to the typical citizen of a nation state) and every individual’s contribution is not just welcomed but needed.

It is not that capitalist societies have a surplus of potential labour (although economists often describe unemployment in those terms). Rather, capitalist societies fail to stimulate human activity where the economist’s test known as “profitability” is not satisfied. Human activity in a modern nation state falls into three categories.

The first category, “work”, is human activity that may or may not meet the needs of others while guaranteed to comply with the desire of the wealthy for “profit”. Examples include manufacturing dishwashers, estate agents and asset stripping.

The second category, “charity”, is human activity that (hopefully) meets the needs of others but fails to generate profit. Unlike “work” it does not offer a monetary kickback to the wealthy – but is still attractive to them because charitable donation satisfies the same underlying motive as wealth (that is, the expression of power over others). One excellent example in a country called (with a straight face) Great Britain is the “food bank”. People of middling income congregate into self-congratulatory generosity fests to provide food for those who, in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, are not provided with a big enough share of the societal pie to adequately feed their families.

The third category, “unaffordable”, is human activity that begins with the wealthy asking “What’s in it for me?” and ends with them concluding “Nothing”. This covers things like decent teacher to pupil ratios in state schools (well, if you don’t like it why not pay for private education?), basic home care for the elderly or infirm (well, there’s a limit to what’s affordable, isn’t there?) and alternative energy (why bother with all that stuff if there are bigger profits in fossil fuel?)

In a traditional society the “unaffordable” list stays long because of full employment and a lack of labour saving technology. Ironically, in our modern nation states, we have so much labour saving technology that we cannot “afford” to improve our society because of either lack of profits for, or charitable inclination from, those holding the wealth.

So who are those who hold wealth? Of course you might argue that a very large number of people have some wealth. Inevitably though, the hugely unequal nature of wealth and income distribution means that the profit-collecting and charity-donating tastes of a relatively small wealthy elite tie us into the mind trap of “can’t afford”.

This leads to bizarre and distorted perceptions of reality. Ridiculously wealthy families like the Rothschilds are applauded for spending a modest portion of their wealth on showing what lovely, compassionate and socially engaged people they are whilst the majority of their eye-watering fortunes are stashed away for the benefit of their own dynasties.

Relatively comfortable middle income families are considered favourably for spending a little on a charity of their own choice (an expression of their power) despite those same families screaming blue murder at the very idea of increased income taxation. Taxation that might have improved the lot of somebody else’s children rather than their own through affordable housing, workable public transport, improved educational standards and a clean, healthy environment.

Actually there is a fourth category of human activity known as “socialised” or “nationalised”. Since the current government privatised the Royal Mail and effectively privatised the National Health Service, this category is no longer in evidence in the UK.

The true quality of a society is not its ability to create ever more wealth or to afford ever more things (even if they are labour saving devices or charitable donations) but, rather, the opportunities it offers to its citizens to make their contributions and to be cherished for them.