Surplus labour in an age of austerity


English: (The Depression) The Single Men's Une...
English: (The Depression) The Single Men’s Unemployed Association parading to Bathurst Street United Church. Toronto, Canada Français : (La Dépression) Membres de la Single Men’s Unemployed Association se dirigeant vers l’Église unie de la rue Bathurst. Toronto, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Austerity as the latest paradigm from the neoliberals is set to last us a number of years.  One thing we know about how the capitalists work is that they like a large section of the population to be searching for work at any one time as this suppresses wages and allows businesses to act flexibly in competition with one another.

Unemployment is at widely differing rates around the world and different countries measure it in different ways.  Unemployment in one country might mean relying solely on government benefits until a job is found.  In others it might be measured differently and result in more interventions from the state than simply receiving a hand out.  At our last set of lectures we learnt that in South Africa you don’t get counted in the figures if you eat the produce from fishing or hunting.  Likewise if you beg you are not considered unemployed.  In the UK we have an increasing number of people on workfare schemes and others slipping in and out of informal and part-time work ans therefore slipping in and out of informal stats.  Unemployment is mysterious and not simply one thing that is easily defined.

One concern we should have is the effects of austerity for school leavers and those at retirement age.  It is very rare these two groups are looked at together and yet at the extremities of the labour market it seems to me that they have much in common in terms of feeling the brunt of austerity measures.

For years the establishment has been warning of a pensions black hole and the ruling class answer to this has been to raise retirement age in the hope that most people will die without having to draw any money from the state or their investments.  So people will have to drive themselves into the ground.  That is politically easier to put into operation than simply ditching state pensions altogether but you do wonder how many decades we are away from that policy objective.

The rules in place for working longer aren’t matched by employers being sympathetic about getting older.  The older we get the more likely we are to develop disabilities and need adjustments in the workplace which might cost money.  The policies on retirement age therefore produce tension and worry amongst the workforce and as markets liberalise we find that people have less choice and power over their lives.  The idea that people who have contributed for decades and built up an account full of deferred wages for use later in life is becoming a quaint notion.

At the other end of the scale we have young people, educated either privately or by the state.  Either way their education has been one long training course for the rest of their lives.  State school leavers face the prospect of there being very few jobs available right now.  At the same time their options with regards to further and higher education are being set by the ruling class on economic factors alone.  I worry that this effectively means that thousands of people are going to be joining benefit queues each summer.  How is that going to help increase taxation revenues and secure pensions?  How will less public sector jobs help the situation?  How will the mass of people at retirement age still working help the situation?

The answer of course is that they don’t want this to get better.  Austerity is a doctrine being used to create a narrative to explain the crisis of capitalism.  It is a crisis of the rich and by the rich but one where you pick up the bill.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or old, they want you to either work longer till you die or take any crummy job you can get to keep off benefits.  In fact it would be best if you took poorly paid work for the rest of your life and died before retiring please.  And as work is paid less and less so benefits are reduced as an incentive to get you up in the morning looking for work if you do happen to be unemployed.

Of course there is another way.  Hell, there are lots of other ways!  The UK is a rich nation with a flatlining economy.  The UK isn’t getting poorer – you are.  In other words some people are still getting a great deal richer at your expense.  Board room pay is up 27% this last year.  The wealth is there to fund retirement with dignity.  The wealth is there to ensure nobody need feel any poorer.  The wealth though has been taken from those who do the work by those who have the power.

We must have the courage to fight for it.

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2 thoughts on “Surplus labour in an age of austerity

  1. What a fantastic piece Jon! This reminds me a fantastic book in the library by Richard Croucher about the unemployed workers; movement in 30’s Britain. It is called ‘We Refuse to Starve in Silence’ and Croucher came to Ruskin when I was a student to talk about the book and what influenced him to write. Such a tragedy that the debate continues. However, as you say Jon as your final comment, at least then, as now, there are people with the courage to fight! In Solidarity. Ian

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