1980s >> 1988 >> no-1004-april-1988

Editorial: Job centred

Capitalism hates waste but can’t do without it. Given the chance it would recycle its own grandmother and sell the by-products to her next of kin; in practice it erects steel barriers against the fulfilment of need and calmly dispenses with all flesh and blood surplus to requirements. It would rather sell, exploit and accumulate capital without interruption but is obliged periodically to bow in the direction of its market Mecca, a gambling place with unlimited liability for human suffering.

Employment is a prison occupation, a strict regime of routine and rationing to which most inmates have adjusted at severe personal cost. Fear of freedom, the pressure of financial commitments and three weeks’ annual parole successfully dull the imagination and ensure that a break-out does not cross the collective mind. Those suddenly released from confinement soon discover that solitary life over the wall is even more constricting, that competition for swift readmission is fierce. It is then that capitalism’s much-vaunted freedom to choose is at its most obvious – if we do not like subsisting on the margins of society, it’s always our privilege to lump it.

Numbers out of work rise and fall as the industrial cycle goes through its normal phases of crisis, slump, recovery and boom. In the competitive struggle which gives markets to the cheaper producer, each capitalist is trying to accumulate capital and expand his scale of operations, not just to meet a known demand but as an end in itself. Inevitably “overproduction” develops in some big markets and crisis occurs, sales decline, investment ceases to be profitable, production is cut and workers are laid off. The declining industries and falling wages bills drag down other sectors of the economy and there is depression. No policy devised by the reformist mind can affect the course of the cycle, no measure avoid the resulting suffering and insecurity.

It is the old fear of redundancy which is responsible for the new industrial discipline. While the contraction of the labour market has created a leaner, more pliant workforce, the government itself has gone to great lengths to see that those without jobs remain equally supple and on their toes. When not massaging their figures or coaxing them into chic saunas called sweatshops, it is extolling the virtue of vigorous exercise on bicycle or YTS treadmills.

Contrary to tabloid myth, the dole is not a home for overweight wideboys with “nice little earners” in the black economy (try your local Conservative Party branch) but a veritable obstacle course of stringent tests, interviews and training schemes which belie the notion that those who lose their jobs are entitled to unemployment benefit as of right. Knitting our own safety nets in mid-fall may yet appear an attractive option.

Pricing yourself back into a job can mean accepting work less stimulating and marginally more rewarding than counting dots on the living room wallpaper. “I see from your file. Mr Smith, that you had thirty years’ experience in sheet metal welding. Have you ever considered a career as a fast food operative? Remuneration is fairly modest initially, but there are plenty of compensations and quite a smart uniform.” Remember, too. to be flexible. “How did the interview in John O’Groats go, Mr Jones? Well, yes. but Inter-City is very much quicker these days. Beggars can’t be choosers, you know. What really is the lowest wage you could consider, then?” Try always to look on the bright side. “I know there were two hundred applicants. Miss Brown, but I get the distinct impression that you’re not really available for work at all. I wish I could watch Jackanory instead of sitting in this hole day in. day out.” Above all. never look as old as you are. “It’s unfortunate that you’re not twenty years younger. Mr Green. Look, why don’t you just apply for sickness benefit instead? You don’t look too good anyway.”

Working for wages and salaries is not living but what has to be done to live: the real thing begins outside the office or factory gate. When the means to pursue what makes the difference is further reduced by the poverty of the dole, what exactly is left? When the claimant’s major decision of the week is whether to buy secondhand shoes from Oxfam or treat the children to an orange each, who dares whisper that we live in a classless and free society? If life at the bottom of the pile makes the majority quietly thankful for their lot. imagine the revulsion with which the owning class views our limited lifestyles and aspirations. For those who can afford to be idle, employment and unemployment must be indistinguishable gradations on a single dung heap. Their dole is what the majority is presently willing to accept.