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Issue #1628      February 26, 2014

Culture & Life

“They don’t want to work”

A friend of mine in the then USSR once encountered a visiting American tourist, a psychiatrist in private practice in New York, then – as now – the psychiatric capital of the world. My friend asked this professional career woman whether, if he went to America, he would be able to get a job (he drove a taxi in Moscow). She informed him that he would “certainly” be able to get a job, because the only people in the USA who were unemployed were “blacks or people who don’t want to work”.

A self-employed psychiatrist in New York would be unlikely to ever actually meet an unemployed person except perhaps as a beggar on a street corner. Certainly, they’d not be able to afford to consult the good lady. To move her socio-economic position even further away from that of the unemployed, her husband was a corporate head-hunter. That is, he was “consulted” by large companies when they wanted to hire a new executive. He discussed their requirements with them, then sought out suitable executives at other firms, took them to lunch and “smoozed” them while seeking to stitch together a “remuneration package” that might entice them to jump ship by dumping their present company and coming to work for his client.

Such “executive placement consultants” are paid a very good screw indeed, so between them this New York couple were very well off. And yet they knew that the only unemployed people in America were “blacks or people who don’t want to work”. In their minds it was an indisputable fact. It seems to me that all arch-conservatives also know this to be a certainty. Certainly, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey are convinced of it. It’s a very convenient point of view for people like them, because if unemployment were the result of people being unwilling to work, then the government is off the hook: unemployment is no longer a socio-economic problem, and it is certainly not their problem.

The snag is, of course, that unemployment is not the result of people being unwilling to work. It is the result of a shortage of jobs, of the lack of work itself. And that is a systemic fault, a fault in the economic system itself, a fault in capitalism. As a young man said at a meeting I attended years ago, “a system that cannot provide jobs for all the members of society has no future”.

That is true, but that rotten system will actually only disappear when the people have had enough and decide to stand up and get rid of it. Until then, capitalism will tenaciously cling on and will go on causing mass unemployment willy-nilly as it arbitrarily shifts production from one country to another in search of lower costs, de-industrialises whole countries and wastes the productive capacity of others as it seeks always to maximise its profits regardless of social needs and social impacts.

Capitalism and unemployment have gone hand in hand since the beginning of the industrial revolution, when farm labourers and small peasants were thrown off the land to either starve or seek employment as factory-hands in the steam-driven wool and cotton mills that were beginning to appear or as labourers in the mines that opened up to provide the coal and iron ore for those and the new steel mills.

The chaotic, unplanned nature of capitalism meant that these same mines and mills experienced the ever-present cycles of boom and bust, as the American Civil War cut off supplies of cotton to the Lancashire mills for a time, to be replaced by production in India and Egypt. After the end of that war, the Lancashire mill owners enjoyed a period of boom conditions until 1920. Some of them made enough money that they actually took a paternal interest in their workers’ welfare, developing grandiose schemes for “model villages” and other healthy projects to benefit their grubby, hungry employees.

The crash of 1920 ended Lancashire’s supremacy in cotton and threw thousands out of work. Concepts like the dole or unemployment relief did not spring spontaneously into the minds of government or employers. The people had to demand them and fight for them, before grudging governments reluctantly provided a modicum of relief.

We do well to remember that, within living memory, and in far richer countries than Australia, people thrown out of work starved. “If you worked, you ate. If there was no work, you went hungry.” Initially, to get the dole, workers had to labour on public works like clearing the weeds out of Sydney’s Centennial Park ponds. And the dole itself was not paid in cash but as a flour-bagful of rations. It took a hard fought campaign by workers led by their trade unions to get the dole paid in cash.

Employers (especially outback station owners) liked the idea of people working just for their tucker, and the well-organised shearers in particular had to fight for the rights of casual farm workers to be paid an actual wage.

That fondly-remembered “golden age” when workers were obliged to work for whatever the boss was willing to cough up as compensation, whether it was wages or just tucker, is the kind of social system that the likes of Prime Minister Abbott and Treasurer Hockey not only would like to see again in Australia but which they are actively working towards.

Make no mistake, there is no humanity in capitalism. If it means higher profits for them, capitalists will move every single factory in Australia to a foreign country where the wages are lower. Like workers in other developed countries – in Europe, for example – Australians who want a job will soon have to either leave the country in search of work or else accept whatever starvation wage is on offer here.

McDonalds has just announced the opening of a giant burger-bar on the NSW Central Coast and are crowing that it will provide 1,500 new jobs. But they will all be McJobs, at minimum wages and like all McDonalds, only kids will be employed. What a future!

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