This is a chapter from the book:
Work and Wealth (2nd revised edition)


Everyone needs work — many people cannot find any. One would be in the best of company if one judged this to be a social problem and imagined that “promoting employment”[i] was the appropriate solution. One might call for government measures to create jobs and reduce non-wage labor costs, for more pressure on the unemployed with Hartz IV[ii] and other welfare state regulations, for the wealth tax to be done away with and the “scarce commodity” of work redistributed by reducing working hours, for the “creation of new jobs” through part-time and temporary work, or whatever. However, this would mean overlooking a certain absurdity: if there is not so much to do anymore, if what is required can be done by fewer people in less time — why does everyone need work, and especially so many tightly packed working hours, in order to be able to live? Shouldn’t less work mean saved effort? Why doesn’t the equation hold?

The fact that so many people need work and can’t find any is due to an economic problem and everyone knows this. Work does not happen if it is not profitable, i.e., if it does not bring in enough for the company having it done; not enough return, that is, to withstand the competition, which is “global.” But if this is so — if work only takes place if and so long as it is profitable — then it takes place only because it provides a company with monetary returns. Profitability is the economic purpose for which it takes place. Work is supposed to be done; for no other reason than because work pays off; with no other goal than the never-ending task of being profitable and bringing in money; so the more, the better. The best thing would be to supply the whole world, to build subways for the Chinese and to equip the oil sheikhdoms with air conditioners, in order to monopolize everyone’s buying power with the work done. Work because it makes money: this categorical imperative dominates the prevailing conditions so totally that everyone today must follow it to be able to live, and needs work, no matter which kind. And that is the only reason why work does not happen; it would not make enough money. And this is evidently more and more often the case the more progress is made increasing the profitability of the work done. The economic objective that is totally and exclusively decisive in the so-called market economy evidently requires “full employment” and “structural unemployment.” There can’t be enough work because work makes companies rich; and at the same time companies make sure that less and less work meets this requirement.

It may well be that everyone has become accustomed to this madness and finds it normal. Even the most knowledgeable experts and most powerful administrators of this system apparently think nothing of having only contradictory explanations to offer. Too little work is being done when several million unemployed people in the nation, tens of millions in the EU, and countless millions around the globe are hanging around doing nothing; and too much work is still being done, so that pure “economic reason” dictates that the last shipyards on the North Sea and the Mediterranean need to be shut down if they can only continue operating with billions in subsidies. In fact, both seem to be happening at the same time: too little, because working is supposed to bring more and more money and never enough can be done to that end; too much, because working is supposed to increase money more and more and a lot of work that met this purpose yesterday fails at it today. It’s no use saying “that’s just the way it is” — this system of profitable work is really a bit contradictory.

There is no question that the state and companies can live splendidly with it. After all, that’s the way they organize work and they benefit from its profitability. The contradiction inherent in the system — there absolutely has to be work going on but at the same time this makes works superfluous — is not their problem. They make it a problem for those doing the work, who absolutely need it and very often cannot find any. And then they define the material troubles that people have as a social problem that they have with the people in need.

It is a mistake to go along with this translation of an economic contradiction into a social problem and, moved by people’s travails, take this lie for the real matter at hand. How pointless to lament and look for someone to blame for the fact this “problem” refuses to be solved by all the “Alliances for Jobs”[iii] that are so eagerly discussed, tried out, and finally abandoned. It is equally misguided to accept the criterion of profitability as the epitome of economic sense and to start having doubts only when public opinion decides to take note of the “downsides.” What makes this system absurd, the reason why it harms the bulk of its inhabitants, is not that no work takes place when it is not profitable, but that it does take place because of its profitability. The system does not start being mean when people needing work cannot find any, but is already mean because they need work. It is an automatic consequence that they can’t even be sure of finding any.

The conditions that the market economy imposes on work reveal the essential features of this mode of production. Getting them sorted out in one’s mind will definitely not create any jobs. That is why some encouragement to do so will be found here.

Translator’s Notes

[i] The Employment Promotion Act was part of the “Program to Promote Growth and Employment” (austerity package) of the CDU/CSU/FDP government under German chancellor Kohl in 1996.

[ii] German unemployment and welfare benefits reform of 2005.

[iii] Alliance for Jobs, Training, and Competitiveness [Bündnis für Arbeit, Ausbildung und Wettbewerbsfähigkeit]: a platform for discussions between the German Federal Government and representatives of the industrial associations and trade unions from 1998 to 2003.

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