We Don't Have To Be Idle


from the Industrial Worker,
issue of October 1982, page 2.

Editorial: We Don't Have To Be Idle

Mass unemployment has hit the world capitalist economy whether governments are liberal or conservative or what. The trouble, then, must be something more basic than which rogues got into office, and the remedy something more basic than shifting them around.

The trouble, one might gather from most daily papers, is that workers wanted too much money and "priced themselves out of the market", and the work thus got shifted to someplace else. But where that work went is a growing puzzle as unemployment spreads worldwide. Have little men from outer space come and done the work when we weren't looking?

Yet too large a part of the labor press, while disagreeing with the notion that we priced ourselves out of jobs, still echoes the notion that the work went somewhere else, and so proposes as remedy that we discourage or prevent the purchase of goods from those faraway places.

These notions cultivated by the press seem more or less plausible so long as we think in terms of local experience only. To check whether they are valid, see whether they add up when you try to fit them into a global view of what is happening to this global economy. Put yourself into the winged shoes of that guy from outer space. He sees a planet endowed with splendid resources, inhabited by people with substantial technical competence, yet living in dire want or the ever-present fear of it. He sees hundreds of millions of people, with a wide variety of skills, surrounded by these splendid resources, under benign suns and showers, yet in want of food and clothing and shelter.

He'll not see it as due to sending work to the wrong place. It will be a mystery explainable only on the assumption of mass lunacy until he discovers that these resources are owned by a small minority and that the hundreds of millions of others, working or out of work, try to make a living by hiring out to do what they are told to do by that minority.

That arrangement, he would conclude, is the mass lunacy that needs treatment. The obvious remedy would be the redirection of industry for the common good -- something not likely to happen unless those who do the work of the world reach a common understanding about what work will benefit them all, and do that instead of continuing to do what some minority, with built-in malice, tells them to do.

That slant of the viewer from outer space is light years away from the slant of the man who hears there will be layoffs and muses: "Will I be laid off, or will it be Steve, who really isn't as good a man as I am. or will it be some other department, or one of the other plants the company owns -- perhaps some plant it owns overseas?"

One can't find too much fault with the guy for that weak-willed hope, but should one confuse that view with unionism? Or when he goes on to opine that perhaps if he works harder and doesn't ask for more pay to keep up with the cost of living, he may be more likely to stay on, and let some of those others get laid off instead? It is unfortunate that he takes so little note of the fact that it is this working for too little that makes it impossible for his employers to find a market for the stuff their workers create, with the consequences of bigger layoffs and more bankruptcies than at any other time since the Threadbare Thirties.

Mass unemployment on this good earth is a form of mass lunacy. One of its more obnoxious manifestations is the smug silliness of folks who still have jobs and wonder why the unemployed don't all take jobs as carhops or delivering pizzas or pumping gasoline or anything else to keep off relief so the taxpayers won't have to support them. The more virulent of these may have become infected with the economic doctrine that there will be a demand for the whole supply of anything if the price is put low enough, and that consequently unemployment would disappear if wages were only low enough. And they ask not who of this impoverished working class would buy the product, or why India is not the most prosperous land on Earth.

Sam Jones and his workmates are threatened with a layoff, perhaps a permanent plant shutdown, unless they take a cut when they need a pay raise. Even if Sam shares our glowing dream of what could be done with Planet Earth, what are he and his fellows to do about the company ultimatum? Like slaves beneath the lash, they may have to do what they have to do. But they will be the less like slaves, the wider is their understanding with their fellow workers that with enough solidarity this need not be; that there is nothing in the mysteries of economics that dictates it; that it is a plague born of human folly and working-class disorganization; and that there is a remedy for it, but one available only to a working class that sticks together and heeds its own investigations, not its master's voice.

Sam and his fellow workers need to offer every type of resistance they can. It is only because some still risk hitting the bricks that employers settle with others without a strike. If they are faced with the complete closedown of their plant, it is worthwhile making it a community issue, and checking the feasibility of making some use of its probably obsolete equipment, and getting their neighbors to start thinking practical economics.

Technological change accelerates and prods along its own acceleration. Equipment these days often gets obsolete long before it gets worn out. In a rational economy it would be a problem in calculus to figure out when it is to the general benefit to replace still-usable equipment with something better; but in a capitalist economy that determination is made by market forces at the expense of people, with the threat of war thrown in for good measure. War devastated German and Japanese industry, thus freeing it from the encumbrance of obsolete plants and giving it a dynamic market advantage -- and so it happens that to some extent the work does move elsewhere.

Machinery modernizes far faster than the habits and customs of people. It has been 460 dynamic years since some of Magellan's crew first sailed around the Earth, and astronauts now go around it in two hours. But we retain the system of national states of Magellan's day, with most unions cast in that mold.

On our TV screens we can see events that happen halfway around the world as soon as they happen. We can have speedy communication with our fellows everywhere. There are the technical facilities for the workers of this planet to cope effectively with the problems which face them that cannot be coped with otherwise. It will help Sam Jones and all his fellow workers in their immediate problems if a modern working class starts using modern facilities and modern methods to reach a modern understanding about what to do with this planet.