There are around 2.7 million people unemployed in Britain—8.4 percent of the “economically active population”, according to official figures. This is the highest rate since 1995.
The real rate is much higher. Successive governments, Tory and Labour, have massaged the figure downwards.
Typically this involves reclassifying those in training as if they were employed, or ignoring the “underemployed”—people who work part-time because they cannot find full-time work.
Politicians and the press routinely blame unemployment on the jobless themselves. They say the unemployed can’t be bothered to work.
For instance Maria Miller, minister for disabled people, declared last month that there is “no shortage of jobs”. Unemployment was caused by “a lack of an appetite” for jobs, she said. This is despite the fact that an average of six people are chasing every job vacancy.
So why do politicians promote these false explanations? Part of it is simply about deflecting blame from themselves. But there is also a deeper reason.
Vilifying the unemployed drives a wedge between them and those in work. And this divide-and-rule helps the bosses.
The recession has made unemployment much worse. High levels of joblessness are part of the enormous crisis engulfing the capitalist system internationally.
These periods of crisis are endemic to capitalism and are typically accompanied by unemployment, poverty and misery on a mass scale.
Historically, the long post-war boom in the West was an aberration. It saw workers’ living standards rising and relatively low levels of unemployment. But it came to an abrupt end with the economic crises of the early 1970s.
In fact mass unemployment is as old as capitalism itself. Before the industrial revolution it was rare, typically a product of famine or war. But once peasants started being driven off the land and into factories, unemployment started becoming a feature built into the system.
Early economists could not explain this. They thought labour was a commodity like any other. If there were too many jobless labourers, wages would drop until it became profitable for a capitalist to employ them. So unemployment should only exist temporarily.
The revolutionary Karl Marx responded to these arguments in the 19th century. Competition among capitalists, he argued, drives them to invest in ever more productive technologies.
When crises occur, the less productive firms fail and sack their workforces. This forms a pool of unemployed workers searching for new jobs.The surviving firms usually require a smaller amount of labour to produce the same amount of commodities.
This dynamic of competition, technology and crisis means that the number of available jobs does not keep pace with the number of available workers. “Capital increases its supply of labour more quickly than its demand for labourers,” Marx wrote.
Having produced this pool of unemployed workers, capitalism swiftly integrates them into its system. They form a “disposable industrial reserve army”, said Marx, that can be dragooned into new emerging industries.
The existence of this reserve army is “peculiar to the capitalist mode of production”, he added—it is a feature absent from earlier economic systems.
Rather than distributing work evenly, capitalism overworks those with jobs and abandons those without. Mass unemployment is thus used by the capitalist class to drive down all wages.
In a rational society technological innovation would free us all to work less. But in a society organised around the relentless search for profits it becomes a source of misery that pits worker against worker to the benefit of the ruling class.
As Marx put it, “The condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness by the overwork of the other part becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalists.”
This has political implications for socialists. If capitalists try to divide employed and unemployed workers, it is in our interests to unite them and push back against our common enemy—the capitalist class.
That is why we should reject arguments that blame unemployment on overpopulation, laziness or immigration. We should pin the blame instead on the ruling class.
Building solidarity between employed and unemployed workers is vital to that. The next column in this series will look at some historical examples of radical movements that sought to do just that.