Some brief thoughts on unemployment part 1

I – There is a dark side

I have long felt the need to look beyond common explanations and try to push the object of examination to its own limits. To see, so to speak, what its true nature is, not just its declared or hastily accepted appearance. All too often people forget that appearance can be very different from substance. For example, the welfare state may be seen as an expression of the goodness of humanity, but its origin can also be explained in a completely different way. The welfare state can be seen as a disciplinary state, as Hardt and Negri have argued, whose task is to control the life cycle of the population in a broad and profound way. It also has the task of organising production and reproduction within the framework of a collective bargaining process made possible by a stable monetary economy (Hardt & Negri 2005, 247). All this within a specific social structure: capitalism. And what is discipline for, if not to calm something down? We must never forget the underlying class conflict. This much more brutal description of the foundations and tasks of the welfare state is, I believe, also a more realistic description than the numerous characterisations in the ceremonial speeches. However, the grim underlying truth should not obscure one point: the welfare state must be defended.

In the same way, we can try to find the dark side of things elsewhere. One such target is unemployment, which arouses a wide range of emotions in ordinary people and politicians of all kinds. Of course, unemployment is always a burden for those who face it, but does it also play a more unpleasant role in capitalist society? This time I want to look at a related argument, albeit very briefly. The aim is to get the reader to think about it, not to force them to accept it.

II – Inescapable fact or a power game?

Cockshott and Cottrell have argued that one function of unemployment is to sustain the exploitation of the employed. They argue that unemployment helps to create a buyer’s market in the labour market. Anyone who has ever applied for a job knows what that means: one job will be applied for by many others. The result is a situation where exploitative wages are unquestionable. Nor do trade unions dare to go on strike, because there are always plenty of scabs among the unemployed (Cockshott & Cottrell 2012, 31). It is a thought-provoking and, at first sight, outrageous claim. But in fact, perhaps there is a certain truth to it?

It is worth simplifying the question slightly to get to the root of the matter: could society ensure that all resources – including labour among others – are put to good use and guarantee people a good life? After all, that is what a welfare state should be about, isn’t it?  This is where we have to be philosophically materialistic, look at what the material conditions of the world are and forget for a moment all the unnecessary cleverness.

I quote Ann Pettifor here, who I think has managed to put the words in a simple and understandable form as regards the real obstacles for mankind to achieve a good life. The real obstacles or constraints are primarily our human capacities: how we are able to work together, how we are able to awaken our imagination and intellect and use them. Oh, and of course, raw muscle power. Secondly, there are the physical limits of our ecosystem, which, together with the previous ones, constitute the real constraints. By comparison, the social relationships that create money and maintain trust in it need not be scarce. This can be prevented by a well-regulated and managed monetary system. (Pettifor 2018.) I wanted to point this out to make people understand that money, or rather the lack of it, is not a physical barrier. It is only a social barrier. Sometimes it seems that ancient civilisations, with their debt cancellations, understood the nature of money better than the politicians and economists of our time, who treat it as a God who makes everything exist.

Now we can agree that there are hardly any real obstacles that prevent us from finding a role and a decent life for every person in society. If we can afford to throw food in the garbage (and prevent the hungry from eating it), produce regularly breaking products (e.g. the light bulb scam) and generally complain about this or that pollution, then we really do have the productive power and resources to do better. It’s about how we manage all these resources that we have at our disposal. If someone says we don’t have the money to do something, even though the tools and building materials are right in front of our eyes, then maybe it’s time to ask ourselves if this kind of social system is justified? At this point we can conclude that Cockshott and Cottrell are on the track with their argument. In the midst of undone work, there is no real material reason to leave people hanging out in the depths of unemployment.

But why are things like this? Why do we prefer to complain that there is no money to do this or that job, but at the same time complain that people are unemployed? What if unemployment has a very specific role to play in the maintenance of capital as a social relation? Perhaps employment issues are not just technical issues but involve a hefty dose of politics. All too often people fail to realise that the economy is not just about economics in its most basic sense: producing services and products, or ’use-values’ for each other. There are far more power games in our economic system than we might like to admit. Next time, let’s delve into some of the arguments for this view and see if it makes sense.


Cockshott W. Paul & Cottrell Allin. 2012. Uusi sosialismi. Tarmpereen Yliopistopaino. Tampere.

Hardt Michael ja Negri Antonio 2005. Imperiumi. WSOY. Helsinki

Pettifor Ann 2018. The Production of Money: How to Break the Power of Bankers. Ebook. Verso. London/New York.

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