Some brief thoughts on unemployment part 2


As promised, I return to the subject of an earlier post: and with an even more controversial argument. Let’s continue with a statement on unemployment, from a person called André Gorz.

So, a good while ago I read a collection of essays by Gorz, published in Finnish as Eläköön työttömyys! -kirjoituksia työstä, ekologiasta, vapaudesta. It translates into English as ”Long live unemployment! – writings on work, ecology, freedom” A good while ago also means that all I have left of the collection at the moment are my notes. The book is wandering around somewhere. As a quick side note: The translations were published in 1982 and the original texts are from the late 1970s and early 1980s. So they are not exactly recent, but freshness is often not a sign of superiority in literature or thought. In many cases, the most important ideas can be found a little further back in time, because they have been tested by time.


I will now take up Gorz’s article: Työttömyyden kulta-aika. (The golden age of unemployment.) Gorz’s arguments may well prove hard to swallow. Even if most people do admit that there is a good deal of truth in them. This amazing contradiction between truth and social life is actually a fascinating subject. It is as if the truth should not be told, in order not to be rejected by ’God’. Therefore, it is better to pretend that there is no real problem at all. Now, however, we will move on to that problem.

Mr Gorz rightly points out that we do not have any production problems. According to him, we do have a distribution problem. And can we not agree with this view? When we look at all the mountains of waste that are rising, the truth is that mankind has no difficulty in producing things. Or when we witness unsold food being thrown away without first having to offer it to the hungry. One could think of many more examples. Gorz wondered what would happen to the ethics of efficiency, the ideology of competition and the discipline of work if people really understood this: it is technically possible to work less and less but produce more and more (Gorz 1982, 34). And maybe deep down we all know this. For one reason or another, however, we as a human race seem to love whipping ourselves and imagining that with all our solutions and use-values, we are just about to starve to death. This has some echoes of Guy Debord’s observation, where the primary question of the survival of humanity is undeniably resolved, but the question is still only raised at a higher level (Debord 2005, 48). 

At this point I would like to remind you of what was written in the last article, that real physical and material barriers are not always the main obstacles to increasing social welfare. The problem lies in the logic of the social structure itself. No society is forced to condemn anyone to poverty or unemployment if and when the productive forces are available to solve the problem. The question is how those productive forces are used – and for whose benefit. Human thinking should therefore descend from the superstition implanted in it towards the reality of production, the material nature of the world. There is no invisible hand or movement of the soul of the world that, by the way, drives the thinking of many economists, even though it cannot be scientifically observed.

And this argument of Gorz is by no means far-fetched. Its only ’remoteness’ is that people seem to lack the imagination to think about the world in a slightly different way. They seem to need the boss, the circulation of capital and everything ’familiar and safe’, but at the same time they may complain about everything that such a system produces. For example, they love to complain that everything seems to fall apart and nothing lasts. Gorz has also written on this subject when he says that if cars and household goods were made to last as long as they did in the 1950s, when durability was 15 years, then there would be no need to increase production to meet demand, and production could even be reduced (Gorz 1982, 33). Can’t things really be made to last? Apparently not, because the economy operates on the logic that production is not as such for the creation of use-value, but only for the purpose of producing exchange-value and making a profit. The reason for all kinds of poor, easily broken goods is to create exchange value over and over again. So if you want to save the environment, start here. Don’t imagine that the market will do it by itself with the right incentives.


There are many other important points in that essay of Gorz  that reflect very strongly on our time. Gorz argues that with automation and advances in technology, we have all become potentially redundant. This erodes the so-called efficiency ethic, which means that work ceases to be a serious matter. And why should it be? After all, it is always uncertain. Gorz describes the attitude of the youth of his time, that work is seen as a torturous discipline to which one is subjected only in order to maintain hierarchical structures. Work has lost the necessity it once had. Unemployment, on the other hand, becomes a grudge against the established order, because working life itself has become arbitrary and irrational. Work has become an end in itself. There is loud talk of job creation, but to what end? Does it really make any difference what those jobs are created for, as long as they are created? Gorz says that in official language it is not work that creates products, but production that creates work (Gorz 1982, 35-36), and does this not also come out in the mouths of our politicians, who talk so earnestly about the need for more work? Does no one ever stop to think why it is precisely work that needs to be increased and not, for example, meaningful leisure time? And before any economist (or anybody else) comes along and says ”that’s not how the economy works, just by increasing leisure time”, I want to make it clear that I have no illusions about how capitalism works.

It is also typical of our times that we celebrate all kinds of new work. As if they have come to liberate us from the misery of the countless jobs that technological progress has taken away. In his text, Gorz asks what sense it makes that when automation has finally enabled and given people time to take responsibility for themselves, a bunch of neo-service sector specialists turn up to tell you that you shouldn’t do anything for yourself or by yourself. Don’t feed the baby, don’t cook… This new service sector leads to the situation described by Bertrand de Jouvelin. Two mothers looking after each other’s children. If and when they pay each other a wage for this, the economist will be able to note an increase in GDP. However, Gorz doubts whether anything is really produced here – rather the reverse (Gorz 1982, 36). Guy Standing has also considered the issue closer to our own day. Standing quotes Arthur Pigou, who famously said that if you hire a housekeeper or a cook, the nation’s income will rise and employment will take off. If, on the other hand, one marries a housekeeper, and now the former housekeeper is still doing the same thing, the nation’s income and employment will go down. The statistics no longer take this work into account. All work that is not labour disappears from the statistics (Standing 2014, 11.)

So it is perfectly clear that our economy is defined by a kind of register surface, against which only certain things are recorded. However, things happen completely outside of it, even if the statistics do not say so. There is the ability to work for oneself and for others, without having to be circulated through capitalist value creation. The last paragraph of Gorz’s essay is therefore crucial. He wonders why a reorientation cannot take place in such a situation, and concludes that the reason is that it would interfere with the fundamental law of motion of capitalism. It would lead to investment for consumption and therefore to a reduction in sales; it would limit large-scale production for the market instead of increasing it; it would replace capital with human labour and exchange value with use value. It would usurp ever larger areas from the logic of capitalist accumulation. (Gorz 1982, 40.)


There is something very ideological about all this. Ideological in the sense that there is a kind of ghostly logic behind it, which is accepted as it is, even though reason says otherwise. We all know that what really matters is what our hands and our brains can do. If we only have the materials, mankind can do anything with them! And yet, in a way, we limit ourselves. We drive ourselves into a world of artificial scarcity, where we grit our teeth under the heavy toil of labour. All this when we know that it is just some kind of power game. It hasn’t been about creating use-value for a long time. This is just an autonomous movement of value that we do not want to stop. One should be honest. Labour or economic policies, for example, are never neutral. They are always attached to a certain logic. This is, of course, quite natural, since economics has long been subordinated to the perception of only one logic. Even if history were to prove that many of the things and concepts it studies are not ’history-free’ but politically created. 


Debord Guy 2005. Spektaakkelin yhteiskunta. Summa. Helsinki.

Gorz André 1982. Työttömyyden kulta-aika. Teoksessa Eläköön työttömyys! Toim. Rahkonen Keijo. Kansan Sivistystyön Liitto. Helsinki. s. 29-40.

Standing Guy 2014. A Precariat Charter: From denizens to citizens. Bloomsbury Collections. Lontoo.