István Mészáros

Unemployment and Casualisation:
A Great Challenge to the Left

This article by István Mészáros will appear in two issues of iran bulletin. Part I: The ‘Globalisation’ of Unemployment and Part II: The myth of "flexibility": downward equalisation of the differential rate of exploitation appears in this issue. Part III: From the tyranny of "necessary labour time" to emancipation through "disposable time" will be printed in iran bulletin no 28.

Istvan Mészáros is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy and Political Theory, University of Sussex (UK) and author of a number of books including Beyond Capital and Marxist Theory of Alienation; the Works of Sartre; Search for Freedom; Philosophy, Ideology and Social Science; The Power of Ideology. His interviews with M Keshavarz and with the Persian quarterly Naghd (Kritik) can be read in iran bulletin issues 21-26



I have chosen this subject for our discussion for two main reasons. First, because the issue concerns all shades of the left. For in our time no section of the workforce can consider itself immune to the dehumanising hardship of unemployment and casualisation. In fact "casualisation" is more appropriately called in some languages "precarisation", although it is in general tendentiously misrepresented as desirable "flexible employment". A few months ago some 25.000 employees of Westminster Bank had to face the prospect of redundancy; today the workers of the Rover car company – a bankrupt part of the proud BMW transnational corporation – are thrown to the wolves of total insecurity. The question is not whether unemployment or "flexible casualisation" is going to threaten the people still in employment but when are they going to share the predicament of enforced precarisation.

The second main reason why we must concern ourselves with this issue is because it represents an insurmountable structural problem for capital. Thus it is unthinkable that the left could work out a viable strategy for the future without giving a central place to the vital issue of unemployment and casualisation.

Today I intend to consider three principal aspects of what is at stake.

    1. The "globalization" of unemployment and casualisation, affecting even the capitalistically most developed parts of the world.

    2. The myth of "flexibility" with which the bitter pill is sugar-coated. For what we are talking about is in fact the grave socioeconomic trend of the downward equalisation of the differential rate of exploitation.

    3. The only feasible solution to the problems we face is to move from regulating socioeconomic interchanges by submitting to the tyranny of "necessary labour time" (also called "necessary labour") to emancipation through "disposable time" as the positive alternative to capital’s mode of social metabolic reproduction.

As our point of departure, we may consider the question of reducing the working week to 35 hours which, not by accident, came to the fore in recent times.


1. The "globalization" of unemployment

Socialists in several European countries – as well as in North and South America – are fighting for the objective of reducing labour time to 35 hours per week without loss of pay. This important strategic demand is by no means free from its difficulties. For it highlights both the pressing problem of unemployment all over the world, and the contradictions of the socioeconomic system which by its own perverse necessity imposes on countless millions the hardship and suffering that goes with unemployment.

Thus the fight for "35 Hours Work" cannot be a traditional trade unionist demand, confined to the long established machinery of wage negotiations. On the contrary, it has to be fully aware not only of the magnitude of the task and the long-term implications of the issues at stake, but also of the unavoidably tenacious resistance of the soioeconomic order which must follow its own imperatives in order to nullify whatever concession might be made in the legal/political sphere under conditions temporarily favourable to trade unions and to their left-wing political representatives. Understandably, therefore, in Italy for instance, the party of Rifondazione in its way of raising the issue simultaneously underlines the concern with increased employment and improved conditions of living ("per l’occupazione & per migliorare la vita") and the necessity of changing society ("per cambiare la società") in order to secure the envisaged objective of shortened working time on a viable social foundation. For lasting success in this matter is feasible only through a sustained interchange – a dialectical reciprocity – between the fight for the immediate objective of significantly reduced labour-time and the progressive transformation of the established social order which cannot help resisting and nullifying all such demands.

Those who deny the legitimacy of these demands, extolling instead the virtues of their cherished system, continue to idealise the US model for solving the unemployment problem as well as all social evils inseparable from it. Yet even a cursory examination of the actual state of affairs reveals that the reassurances idealising the US belong to the realm of fantasy. For, as an Editorial of The Nation stressed it:

This is how rosy the American model really looks once you are willing to open your eyes. We may also add here a most significant figure supplied recently by the Budget Office of the US Congress, unobjectionable even to capital’s worst apologists. It tells us that the income of the richest one percent of the population is equivalent to that of the bottom forty percent. And even more importantly, it also transpires that this appalling figure has actually doubled in the last two decades, as the consequence of capital’s structural crisis. Thus no amount of cynical camouflage of the deteriorating conditions of work, no matter how eagerly misrepresented as blessed "flexibility", can hide the serious implications of this trend for the future of capital-expansion and accumulation.

Naturally, unemployment statistics can be fiddled with, or quite arbitrarily defined and redefined, not only in America, but in every single country of so-called "advanced capitalism". In Britain, for instance, even the professional apologists of the capital system – the editors of the London Economist – had to admit that the unemployment figures have been 33 times "revised" by the government in order to make them look better. Not to mention the fact that anybody who works for 16 hours per week in Britain counts as enjoying full time employment. And even more strikingly in Japan – a country until recently hailed as a paradigm case of "dynamic advanced capitalism" – "anybody who works for wages for over one hour in the last week of the month is not included in the unemployment statistics".2 But who can be fooled by such devices of economic and political manipulation? For no matter how concerted and devious the misrepresentation of the existing state of affairs, the potentially very grave challenge of unemployment cannot be avoided in any one of even the capitalistically most advanced countries. Thus, whatever the apologetic statistical figures might suggest, it is now no longer possible to conceal alarm about the constantly rising record of unemployment in Japan and the deepening economic recession that goes with it.

In reality the dramatic rise in unemployment in the capitalistically advanced countries is not a recent phenomenon. It appeared on the horizon – after two and a half decades of relatively undisturbed postwar capital-expansion – with the onset of the structural crisis of the capital system as a whole. It appeared as the necessary and ever-worsening feature of this structural crisis. Accordingly, I argued way back in 1971 that under the unfolding conditions of unemployment

Since the time when these lines were written we have witnessed a tenfold increase in unemployment in Britain and elsewhere. As things stand today, even according to the official – grossly understated – figures, there are more than 40 million unemployed in the industrially most developed countries. Of this figure, Europe accounts for more than 20 million, and Germany – once eulogised for producing the "German miracle" – has passed the 5 million mark. As to a country like India – highly praised in the traditional organs of economic wisdom for its achievements as a healthily developing country – it has no less than 336 million people on its unemployment register,4 and many more millions without proper work who should be counted but are not registered. Moreover, IMF intervention in "developing" countries, true to the organisation’s US dictated mandate, worsens the plight of the unemployed while pretending to improve the economic conditions of the countries concerned. As another Editorial of The Nation had put it:

At the same time, the former post-capitalist countries belonging to the Soviet type system, from Russia to Hungary – which in the past did not suffer unemployment, though they had run their economies with high levels of underemployment had to accommodate themselves, often under direct IMF pressure, to the dehumanising conditions of massive unemployment. Hungary, for instance, has been congratulated by the IMF6 for "stabilising" unemployment at about 500.000. In reality the figure is considerably higher, and still increasing. But even 500.000, in terms of the relatively small Hungarian population, is equivalent to having 6.5 million unemployed in Britain or Italy, and something approaching not 5 but 8 million in Germany. In the Russian Federation the situation is just as bad, and getting all the time worse, including such outrages as not paying the wages of miners and other workers for many months. Vietnam presents a particularly tragic example. For after the heroic victory of its people over the long and devastating interventionist war of US imperialism, the peace is being lost under the pressure of capitalist restoration.7 And even China is no exception to the general rule of rising unemployment, despite the very special way in which its economy is politically controlled. A confidential but leaked report prepared by its Ministry of Labour warns the Chinese government that within a few years unemployment in the country is bound to reach the staggering figure of 268 million – pointing also to the danger of major social explosions to go with it – unless appropriate (but not specified) measures are adopted to counter the present trend.8

This is how we have reached a point in historical development at which unemployment is a dominant feature of the capital system as a whole. In its new modality, it constitutes a close network of interrelations and interdeterminations whereby it is now impossible to find partial remedies and solutions to the unemployment problem in limited areas, in sharp contrast to the postwar decades of development of a few privileged countries where liberal politicians could speak about Full Employment in a Free Society.9

In recent years there has been a great deal of talk propagandising the universally beneficial virtues of "globalisation", misrepresenting the trend of capital’s global expansion and integration as a radically new phenomenon destined to resolve all our problems. The great irony of the real trend of development – inherent in capital’s logic from the first constitution of its system centuries ago, reaching its maturity in our own time in a form inextricably tied up with the system’s structural crisis – is that the productive advancement of this antagonistic mode of controlling the social metabolism throws an ever-increasing portion of humanity into the category of superfluous labour. Already in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto Marx insisted that

Ironically, thus, the development of by far the most dynamic productive system in history culminates by rendering an ever growing number of human beings superfluous to its machinery of production, although – true to the system’s incorrigibly contradictory character -- far from superfluous as consumers. The historical novelty of the type of unemployment in the globally completed system is that the contradictions of any specific part complicates and aggravates the problem in other parts and, consequently, in the whole. For the need for unemployment-producing "downsizing", etc., necessarily arises from the antagonistic profit- and accumulation-seeking productive imperatives of capital which it cannot conceivably renounce, so as to restrain itself in accordance with rational and humanly gratifying principles. Capital either maintains its inexorable drive toward its self-expansionary targets, no matter how devastating the consequences, or it ceases to be capable of controlling the social metabolism of reproduction. There can be no half-way house or even the slightest attention paid to human considerations. This is why the first time ever in history a dynamic – and in its ultimate implications dynamically destructive – system of self-expansionary social metabolic control arises which ruthlessly ejects, if necessary, the overwhelming majority of humankind from the labour process. This is the deeply disturbing meaning of "globalisation".

When capital reaches this stage of development, it has no way of addressing the causes of its structural crisis; it can only fiddle with effects and surface manifestations. Accordingly, since capital "cannot feed its slave any longer", the "personifications" of its system (to use Marx’s expression) try to resolve the problem by clawing back even the limited benefits conceded to labour in the form of the "Welfare State" – during the postwar period of undisturbed capital-expansion – by attacking and abolishing the "Welfare State". Thus in the US, the unemployed are compelled to submit to the dictates of "work-fare", if they want to receive any social benefits. And true to form, in Britain the same shift is being attempted from "Welfare" to "work-fare" by the government of a party which once considered itself socialist. Accordingly, when an eight column headline of a British liberal newspaper (which happens to be very friendly to the government of "New Labour") announces: "Jobless told: join Army or lose benefit",11 that headline gives a foretaste of the measures in store for the unemployed youth. This, again, underlines the fact, just like the other aspects of our problem mentioned so far, that the now fully accomplished globalisation of unemployment and casualisation cannot be redressed without the radical supersession of the capital system itself. Not so many years ago it was confidently anticipated that all known social evils, even in the most "underdeveloped" parts of the world, will be overcome by universal "modernisation", in conformity to the US model. Characteristically, however, we are now confronted by the diametrical opposite of the projected rosy picture. For the conditions once confined, in the tales of "developmental theory" and governmental wisdom, to the allegedly temporary difficulties of "underdevelopment" are now becoming clearly visible even in the capitalistically most developed countries.


2. The myth of "flexibility": downward equalisation of the differential rate of exploitation

On May 19, 1998 the French Parliament passed a law reducing the working week to 35 hours. Similar legislation is expected also in Italy in the not too distant future. It would be very naïve, however, to think that this is the end of the story. For in Paris the move was immediately "described by many economists and business leaders as economic suicide",12 and in Italy even before any legislative move the leader of the Confederation of Italian Industry (Confindustria), Giorgio Fossa made absolutely clear the intention of his organisation to nullify all such legislation.13 Moreover, Confindustria President Fossa (whose name in Italian means, most appropriately, "grave") also unashamedly declared (as if it should not be obvious to everyone who knows his organisation) that they intend to bury the law, if enacted in Parliament, with the help of a "grand coalition" which would include the supporters of even the extreme right-wing parties.14 And true to its customary cynicism, the London Economist pontificated about the proposed law like this:

Apparently, then, the law in question represented a mystery all round. This we were assured by The Economist on the authority of the mysterious well-informed whisperers.

Naturally, there are serious difficulties that must be faced by the labour movement in its struggle for a real reduction in the working week without loss of pay. But they are of a very different order as compared with the frightening tales devised by The Economist and by other spokesmen of the ruling order. The real obstacles confronting labour in the present and in the near future can be summed up with two words: "flexibility" and "deregulation": two of the most cherished slogans of capital’s personifications today in business as well as in politics. They are meant to sound very attractive and progressive. In truth, though, they encapsulate the most aggressive anti-labour aspirations and policies of neo-liberalism, claimed to be as commendable to every rational being as motherhood and apple-pie. For "flexibility" with regard to labour practices – to be facilitated and enforced through various kinds of "deregulation" – amounts in reality to the ruthless casualisation of the labour force. It is often coupled with authoritarian anti-labour legislation – from Reagan’s suppression of the US air controllers to Margaret Thatcher’s long series of vicious anti-labour laws: characteristically retained by Tony Blair’s "New Labour" government. And the same people who call the diffusion of the most precarious labour conditions of casualisation universally beneficial "flexibility" also have the nerve to call the practice of authoritarian anti-labour legislation "democracy".

"Flexibility" is expected to take care of the concession of 35 hours, if for the sake of political contingency it becomes unavoidable, as seems to be the case in France and Italy. Thus in France "some ministers talk of making the labour market more flexible, notably by letting employers vary the working week in accordance with seasonal demand, so that the number of hours worked weekly would be calculated as an average over the year."16 The same ploy is expected to do the trick in Italy. At the time of its introduction Italy’s Prime Minister Prodi – later rewarded with the Presidency of the European Commission – reassured his critics that appropriate "flexibility" should be able to counter the negative effects of the law.

The real concern of the personifications of capital is to promote "labour flexibility" and to fight in every possible way against "rigid labour markets". Thus a prominent article in the Financial Times insists that "In both Japan and Europe, companies are gearing up to shed jobs faster than rigid labour markets can create them", indicating approvingly that "deregulation may force the pace" and adding for the sake of propagandistic reassurance that "Optimists believe deregulation will eventually lead to the creation of sufficient jobs in new markets to absorb much of the excess labour. But for this to happen, Japan will need the kind of labour mobility that operates in the US."17 (The story of Renault’s takeover of Nissan, bringing with it the sacking of 30.000 Nissan workers, must please the advocates of such remedies, in that it shows that Japan is moving in the "right direction".) Similarly, an IMF staff paper – enthusiastically reviewed by The Economist – asserts that "studies suggest that in Europe real wages are only half as flexible as those in America, and that Europe’s workers are much less likely to move around in search of work than American ones." This they say while blissfully forgetful of John Kenneth Galbraith’s complaint many years earlier that workers in the US can only blame themselves for their unemployment because they refuse to "move around" as a result of their "homing instinct", which ties them to the place of their upbringing. Nothing seems to change over decades either in diagnosis or in remedial wisdom. And to complete the priceless self-serving reasoning, the authors of the IMF staff paper present their far from reflexive but, rather, automatic Pavlovian reflex solution in the form of neoliberal capital’s wishful "should be" projections:

Naturally, as a result of this wonderful shrinking of the wage bill, we shall live happily ever after. And on the other hand, if – despite the very real sacrifices of the workers (described in our quote with the words "now have" and "will") – the fictitious expectations of "should be" do not materialise, that could in no way invalidate the shared theory of the IMF and The Economist. It would only reveal that the proverbial pigs of the well-known English adage stubbornly refuse to grow wings, to look like giant bumble-bees, in order to fly toward capital’s wishfully projected "optimistic" future.

In the meantime, the real savagery of the system continues unabated, not only in ejecting more and more people from the labour process but, with a characteristic contradiction, also lengthening the time of work, wherever capital can get away with it. To mention a very important example, in Japan the government has recently introduced a parliamentary bill "to raise the upper limits of the working day, from 9 hours to 10, and the work week, from 48 to 52 hours. Such a provision will allow a company to compel employees to work longer hours when the company is busy as long as the total hours worked in a year do not exceed the fixed limit",19 just like the "flexibility merchants" propose it in France, Italy and elsewhere. Moreover, the same bill also intends to extend so-called "discretionary work schedules" in order to "allow a company to pay its white-collar workers for just 8-hours work even though they may have worked longer".20 Some frightening examples of the inhuman destructive effects of such "discretionary work" are reported from the fields where they are already operative, now to be extended. For instance a young computer programmer died of heavy overwork, according to the judgement of the Tokyo District Court. We read that "his average annual working time was over 3,000 hours. In the three months just before his death, he worked 300 hours a month. At that time he was engaged in developing a computer software system for banks."21 Another young man who died of heart failure due to gross overwork, "in the two weeks prior to his death worked on average 16 hours and 19 minutes a day".22 In the words of another Japanese journal even today

Significantly, in the age of capital’s structural crisis even this level of exploitation is not enough. It must be extended as far as the labour movement can put up with. In Japan the present bill before parliament "is the biggest attack in the postwar period against workers’ rights."24 No wonder, therefore, that some Trade Unions are envisaging for themselves a much more directly political role in the future, compared to their traditional line in the past. To quote Kanemichi Kumagai, secretary general of the Japanese National Confederation of Trade Unions: "This year’s spring struggle will not just follow what has been done in the past but will aim to change the trends of politics and the labour movement, including how Japan’s policies and economy should be. For this we attach greater importance to achieving workers and trade unions taking actions to have influence over society".25

Japan is a particularly important example, because we are not talking about a so-called "Third World" country about which even the most callous and ruthlessly exploitative labour practices were always taken for granted as a matter of course. On the contrary, Japan represents the second most powerful economy in the world: a paradigm of capitalistic advancements. And now even in such a country unemployment is perilously rising and the conditions of work must be made worse than ever under the long period of postwar development and capital-expansion, including not only the great intensification of exploitative work-schedules in the name of "flexibility", but also the – to many people quite incomprehensible – imperative of a longer working week.

At the roots of this baffling and in some ways self-contradictory advocacy of "flexibility", coupled with rigid authoritarian labour legislation, we find the vitally important tendential law of the downward equalisation of the differential rate of exploitation, which becomes sharply pronounced through capital’s ever more destructive globalisation in the period of the system’s structural crisis. This is why I wrote in 1971 that

As a necessary concomitant of the ongoing globalisation of productive and distributive relations, the downward equalisation of the differential rate of exploitation affects every single capitalistically advanced country, even the richest ones. There can be no more room for paternalistically manipulated labour relations, however "traditional" and "deeply rooted" they are supposed to be, nor indeed for permanently avoiding the severe negative impact of the ubiquitous structural crisis through relative trade and technological advantages. Indeed, as an Appeal by some distinguished intellectuals in an Italian newspaper stressed it, what makes the situation grave is that casualisation and insecurity ("la precarietà e l’insicurezza") grow everywhere in the world of labour: "unsafeguarded and underpaid work is spreading like pools of oil, while even the most stable work undergoes a pressure toward an intensification without precedent of its performance, and toward full availability to a submission to the most diversified working hours."27

To put it in another way, here we have to face an extremely significant and far-reaching tendency: the return of absolute surplus-value, to an increasing extent, in the societies of "advanced capitalism" in the last few decades. Professor Augusto Graziani spoke most eloquently in February 1998, at the Convegno of Rifondazione in Milan dedicated to the issue of the 35 hours week, about the labour conditions of the "Mezzogiorno" in general and about the frightful exploitation of female labour in Calabria in particular. His intervention is most relevant to the question of "absolute surplus-value" in a capitalistically advanced country, like Italy, in that some of the highly exploitative labour practices can be identified also in the industrially most developed North of the country. In England, at the same time, a recent TV documentary illustrated the widespread diffusion of child labour, although it is clearly against the law. Naturally, the law is not in the least enforced. On the contrary, all kinds of phoney arguments are promoted in order to indirectly justify such unlawful practices. Thus, business interests conduct a vociferous campaign against the minimum wage in general, with the excuse that its introduction would make the employment of young people much worse. Another way of manipulating the same issue, by the Confederation of British Industry, by the Institute of Directors, and by the various "Think Tank" organisations of business, is to press for the "exemption of the young" from the minimum wage legislation, or the concession of much lower minimum wage. Moreover, the worsening labour conditions of people of all ages in countless "sweatshops" – legal or illegal immigrants as well as a far from negligible portion of the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish labour force – speak loud enough about the reappearance of the drive for absolute surplus-value, as a most retrograde tendency in the 20th century development of capital, in one of the most privileged "advanced capitalist" countries. Needless to say, both the ruthless pursuit of absolute surplus-value in general and its particularly obnoxious manifestation in the form of child labour were always prominent (and, of course, so they remain today) in ‘Third World’ countries.

Paradoxically, the global crisis of capital-accumulation in the age of advanced globalisation creates some major new difficulties, instead of solving the long contested iniquities of the system, as the "optimistic" spokesmen of unproblematical "globalisation" want us to believe. For the margins of capital’s productive viability are diminishing (hence the drive also for absolute surplus-value), despite all efforts of the capitalist states – individually or in concert, like the G7/G8 jamborees – to expand, or to keep steady at least, the system’s productive margins. In actuality there can be only one way for attempting to enlarge the shrinking margins of capital-accumulation: at the expense of labour. This is a strategy actively promoted by the state – indeed, because of this need the interventionist role of the state has never been greater28 than in our own time, despite all neoliberal mythology to the contrary – and the strategy is objectively underpinned in our time by the tendency for the downward equalisation of the differential rate of exploitation. In the end, however, the now pursued strategy is bound to fail, provided that the labour movement succeeds in radically rearticulating its own strategies and forms of organisation, to be oriented toward the creation of a genuine mass movement, in order to face up to the historical challenge. For not even the most "optimistic" theorists of the IMF and of the other generously funded organs of capital-apologetics have managed to invent so far, nor are they likely to do so in the future, a device through which it would be possible to squeeze out the required ever-increasing purchasing power and the corresponding capital-accumulation from the ever-worsening economic conditions and "casualized wage packets" of the labour force.

Part 3: From the tyranny of "necessary labour time" to emancipation through "disposable time" will appear in the next issue