Unemployment: The ruling class takes preventive measures against the rise in workers' anger

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Several times during the winter, Europe's two largest countries have witnessed mobilisations around the question of unemployment. In France, street demonstrations and occupations of public buildings (especially the offices of the unemployment agencies, the ASSEDIC) took place over several months in the country's main towns and cities. In Germany on 5th February, unemployed organisations and trades unions called a series of demonstrations across the country. The mobilisation was less extensive than in France, but it was reported at length by the media. Should we see these demonstrations as expressions of workers' combativity? We will see later that this is not the case.


However, the question of unemployment is fundamental for the working class, since it is one of the most important attacks to which it is subjected by a capitalism in crisis. At the same time, the rise of permanent unemployment is one of the best proofs of the bankruptcy of the capitalist system. And it is precisely the importance of this question which lies behind the mobilisations that we have seen lately.


Before we go on to analyse the meaning of these demonstrations, we must understand the importance of unemployment for the world working class, and its future perspectives.

Unemployment today and its perspectives

Today, unemployment affects enormous sectors of the working class, in most countries of the world. In the Third World, the proportion of the population without a job often varies between 30% and 50%. Even in a country like China, which in recent years has been presented by the "experts" as one of the great champions in the race for growth, there will be 200 million unemployed in two years[1]. In the East European countries of the ex-Russian bloc, economic collapse has thrown millions of workers onto the streets, and although some countries like Poland have been able to limit the damage, thanks to fairly sustained growth and wretched wage levels, in most of them, and especially in Russia, huge masses of workers have been reduced to utter penury, forced to survive in sordid "little jobs" like selling plastic bags in the corridors of the Metro[2].


In the more developed countries, the situation is less tragic. Nonetheless, mass unemployment has become a running sore in the social fabric. For the European Union as a whole, the official figure for "job seekers" relative to the population of working age is around 11 %. In 1990, just as the Russian bloc disintegrated and the American President George Bush promised an "era of peace and prosperity", the figure was 8%.

The following figures give some idea of the extent of the scourge of unemployment today:


96 rate

97 rate































Source: OECD, UN


The figures are in need of some commentary.


In the first place, these are official figures, calculated according to criteria which hide a considerable part of the problem. They do not take into account (amongst other things): young people who are still in education because they cannot find work;

-the unemployed who are forced to accept underpaid jobs or lose their benefits;


-those who are sent on "training" schemes supposed to introduce them to the labour market, but which in fact are useless;
-older workers who are forced to accept early retirement.


Similarly, these figures take no account of partial unemployment, in other words all those workers unable to find stable full-time work (for example, temporary workers whose numbers have grown uninterruptedly for the last 10 years).


All these facts are well-known to the "experts" of the OECD who are obliged to admit, in their review for specialists, that: "The classic rate of unemployment... does not measure the totality of underemployment"[3].  


Secondly, we need to understand the meaning of the figures for the "top of the class": the USA and Britain. For many experts, these figures prove the superiority of the "Anglo-Saxon model" over other models of political economy. And so today they din into our ears the fact that unemployment in the US has reached its lowest point for 25 years. It is true that the American economy currently enjoys higher growth rates than those of other developed countries, and that it has created 11 million jobs during the last five years. However, it should be clear that most of these new jobs are "MacDonalds jobs", in other words all sorts of precarious and very badly paid jobs, which keep poverty at levels unknown since the 1930s, with hundreds of thousands of homeless and millions of poor, deprived of all social insurance.

All this is clearly admitted by someone who can hardly be suspected of denigrating the USA, since he was Secretary for Labour in Clinton's first administration, and is a long-standing personal friend of the President: "For 20 years, a large part of the American population has seen real wages stagnate or fall, as a result of inflation. For the majority of workers, the decline has continued despite the recovery. In 1996, the average real wage was lower than in 1989, before the previous recession. Between mid-1996 and mid-1997, it rose by just 0.3%, while the lowest incomes continued to decline. The proportion of Americans considered as poor, according to the official definition and statistics, is higher today than it was in 1989"[4].

That said, what the enthusiasts for the "American model" usually forget to say is that the 11 million new jobs created by the American economy also correspond to an increase of 9 million in the working population. Thus, a large part of the "miraculous" American results come from a large-scale use of the artificial devices mentioned above, used to hide unemployment. In the USA itself, this is recognised both by the most prestigious economic reviews and by the political authorities: "The official rate of unemployment in the United States has become progressively less and less descriptive of the real situation in the labour marker'[5]. This article demonstrates that "in the male population between the ages

of 16 and 55, the official rate of unemployment only includes 37% of the unemployed as being without a job; the 63% that remain are classed as being "outside the working population ", despite being of working age"[6].


Similarly, the official publication of the American Department of Labour explained:


"The official rate of unemployment is convenient and well-known; nonetheless, if we focus too much on this measure alone, we can get a distorted view of the economies of other countries compared to the United States ... Other indicators are necessary if we want to interpret intelligently the respective situations on the different labour markets"[7].


In reality, on the basis of studies like these - hardly the products of some terrible "subversives" - we can estimate that the rate of unemployment in the USA is much closer to 13% than to the 5% which is put forward as the proof of the "American miracle". How could it be otherwise, when (according to the criteria of the International Labour Bureau), only the following are considered as unemployed:

- those who have worked for less than an hour during the week in question;


- those who have actively sought employment during the week


- those who are immediately available for work.


Thus in the USA, most youngsters who have some kind of casual job, someone who had mowed their neighbours' lawns or looked after their children for a few dollars, would not be considered as unemployed. The same is true for the man who has given up looking for work after months or years of rejections from hypothetical employers, or the single mother who is not "immediately available" because of the lack of creches.

The British "success story" is still more deceitful than that of its trans-Atlantic cousin. The naive observer is confronted with a paradox: between 1990 and 1997, the level of employment fell by 4%, and yet during the same period the rate of unemployment fell from 10% to 5%. In fact, as one thoroughly "serious" international financial institution puts it: "the fall in British unemployment seems to be due entirely to the increase in the proportion of the inactive"[8].


And to understand the mystery of this transformation of the unemployed into the "inactive", we can read the words of a journalist on the Guardian, a British newspaper which is hardly classified as a revolutionary publication: "When Margaret Thatcher won her first election, in 1979, there were officially 1.3 million unemployed in Britain. If the method of calculation had remained the same, there would today be just over 3 million. A recently published report by the Midland Bank even estimated the number at 4 million, or 14% of the working population - more than in France or Germany.


(...) the British government does not count the unemployed, but only those entitled to an increasingly targeted unemployment benefit. Having changed the method of calculation 32 times, it decided to exclude hundreds of thousands of unemployed from the statistics thanks to the new roles on unemployment benefit, which ends the right to benefit after 6 months instead of 12.

The majority of the jobs created are part time, which for many is not a choice. According to the work inspectorate, 43% of jobs created between winter 1992-93 and autumn 1996 were part time. Almost a quarter of the 28 million workers taken on, were for jobs of this kind. In France and Germany, the proportion is only one in six"[9].


The large-scale trickery which has allowed the bourgeoisie of the two Anglo-Saxon "employment champions" to give themselves such airs encounters a silence of complicity amongst the numerous "specialist" economists and politicians, and especially among the mass media (the deception is revealed only in confidential publications). The reason is simple: the aim is to anchor the idea that the policies applied with particular brutality during the last decade in these countries - reduction in wages and social protection, development of "flexibility" - are effective in limiting the damage of mass unemployment. In other words, the aim is to convince the workers that sacrifice "payoff", and that they have every interest in accepting the dictates of capital.

And since the ruling class never puts all its eggs in one basket, and since it wants to sow confusion in the working class by consoling them with the idea that a "capitalism with a human face" exists, some of its ideologues are now referring to the "Dutch model"[10]. We need therefore to say a word about the "good student" of the European class: the Netherlands.


Here again, official unemployment figures are meaningless. As in Great Britain, a fall in unemployment goes hand in hand with ... a fall in employment. Thus the rate of employment (i.e. the proportion of the working population actually in work) fell from 60% in 1970 to 50.7% in 1994.


The mystery disappears when we consider that: "In 20 years, the number of part time jobs as a proportion of the total has risen from 15% to 36%. And the phenomenon is accelerating, since (...) nine tenths of the jobs created in the last ten years total between 12 and 36 hours per week"[11]. Moreover, a considerable proportion of the surplus labour force has disappeared from the unemployment statistics to reappear in the still higher ones for invalidity. This is noted by the OECD, when it writes that: "The estimates of the number of unemployed hidden in the invalidity statistics vary widely, from a little over 10% to nearly 50%"[12].

As the article cited above from Le Monde Diplomatique says, "Unless we imagine a genetic weakness that only affects the Dutch, how else are we to explain that this country has more people unable to work than unemployed?". Obviously this method, which allows the bosses to "modernise" on the cheap by getting rid of their older and "inflexible" personnel, was only possible thanks to one of the world's most "generous" systems of social security. But as this system is more and more radically called into question (as it is in all the advanced countries), it will be more and more difficult for the bourgeoisie to go on hiding unemployment in this way. Moreover, the new law requires that it is companies that pay the first five years of in validity benefit, which will singularly discourage them from declaring the employees they want to get rid of "unable to work". In fact, the myth of the Low Countries' "social paradise" has already taken a serious knock from a European study cited in The Guardian (28/04/97), which found that 16% of Dutch children live in poor families, compared to 12% in France. As for Britain, the "miracle" country, the figure is 32%!


There are thus no exceptions to the rise of mass unemployment in the developed countries. In these countries, the real rate of unemployment (which needs to take account in particular of all the unwanted part-time jobs, and those who have given up looking for work) ranges from 13% to 30% of the working population. These figures are getting closer and closer to those experienced during the great depression of the 1930s: 24% in the USA, 17.5% in Germany, and 15% in Britain. Apart from the case of the USA, we can see that other countries are not far from reaching these sinister "records". In some, the rate of unemployment has even overtaken that of the 1930s. This is true in particular for Spain, Sweden (8% in 1933), Italy (7% in 1933), and France (5% in 1933), although this figure is probably an under-estimate[13].

Finally, we should not be deceived by the slight fall in unemployment rates for 1997, which appear in the table above. As we have seen, the official figures are highly misleading, and above all this small drop is due to the "recovery" in world production in recent years. It will soon be reversed as soon as the world economy again faces an open recession, as we have seen in 1974, 1978, at the beginning of the 1980s and the 1990s. The recession is inevitable, since the capitalist mode of production is absolutely incapable of overcoming the cause of all the convulsions it has undergone for the last 30 years: generalised over-production, a historic inability to find adequate markets to absorb its output[14].


Moreover, Bob Reich, Clinton's friend who we have already met above, is quite clear on the subject: "Expansion is a temporary phenomenon. For the moment, the USA benefits from a very high growth rate, which is pulling a large part of Europe with it. But the disturbances in Asia, with the increasing debt of us consumers, lead us to think that the vitality of this phase of the cycle cannot last much longer".

This "specialist", without of course daring to take his reasoning to its logical conclusion, has indeed put his finger on the fundamental elements in the world economy's present situation:


- capitalism has only been able to continue its "expansion" during the last 30 years, at the cost of an ever more astronomical debt on the part of every possible purchaser (especially households and companies; the under-developed countries in the 1970s; states, and especially the United States, during the 1980s;
the "emerging" Asian countries at the beginning of the 1990s ... );


- the bankruptcy of the latter, which became known at the beginning of the summer 1997, has a significance that extends well beyond their frontiers; it expresses the bankruptcy of the entire system, and will make it still worse.

Mass unemployment, which is the direct result of capitalism's inability to overcome the contradictions imposed on it by its own laws, is not going to disappear, nor even decline. It can only get inexorably worse, whatever tricks the ruling class tries to hide it with. It will continue to hurl growing masses of proletarians into the most intolerable poverty.

The working class faced with the question of unemployment

Unemployment is a scourge for the whole of the working class. It affects not just those without a job, but all workers. On the one hand, it is a serious blow to the increasing numbers of families with one or even several unemployed members. On the other, its effects are distributed through taxes on wages to pay for unemployment benefit. Finally, the capitalists use unemployment to blackmail workers over their wages and working conditions. In fact, during the decades since the open crisis put an end to capitalism's illusory "prosperity" of the thirty years of reconstruction, it is largely through employment that the ruling class has attacked the living conditions of the exploited. Ever since the strikes that shook Europe and the world in the wake of 1968, it has known that open wage reductions could only provoke extremely massive and violent reactions from the proletariat. Its attacks have thus been concentrated on reducing the indirect wage paid by the Welfare State and reducing social services, all in the name of "solidarity with the unemployed"; and at the same time, has reduced the cost of wages by throwing millions of workers on the street.

But unemployment is not just the spearhead of the attacks that a capitalism in crisis is forced to make on those it exploits. Once it has become massive and lasting, and has irrevocably thrown immense proportions of the working class out of wage labour, it becomes the most obvious sign of the definitive bankruptcy of a mode of production whose historic task was precisely to transform a growing proportion of the world's population into wage workers. In this sense, although for tens of millions of workers unemployment is a real tragedy, combining economic and moral distress, it can become a powerful factor in developing the class' consciousness of the need to overthrow capitalism. Similarly, while unemployment prevents workers from using the strike as a means of struggle, it does not necessarily condemn them to impotence. The proletariat's class struggle against the attacks of crisis-ridden capital is the essential means whereby it can regroup its forces and develop its consciousness with a view to overthrowing the system. The street demonstration, where workers come together despite their division into different companies and industrial branches, are an important means of struggle, which has been widely used in revolutionary periods. This is one place where unemployed workers can play a full part. As long as they are able to regroup outside the control of bourgeois organs, the unemployed can mobilise in the street to prevent evictions or the cutting off of electricity, they can occupy town halls and public buildings in order to demand the payment of emergency benefits, As we have often said, "when they lose the factory, the unemployed gain the street", and they can therefore more readily overcome the divisions into branches that the bourgeoisie maintains within the working class, notably through the trades unions. This is not abstract conjecture, but comes from the real experience of working class, especially during the 1930s in the USA, where many unemployed committees were set up outside the control of the unions.


This being said, despite the appearance of mass unemployment during the 1980s, nowhere have we seen the formation of significant unemployed workers' committees (apart from a few embryonic attempts, quickly stripped of their content by the leftists and long since defunct), still less mass mobilisations of unemployed workers. And yet, important workers' struggles developed during these years, where the workers proved more and more able to disengage themselves from the unions' grip. Several reasons explain why, unlike the 1930s, we have not yet seen a real mobilisation of unemployed workers.

For one thing, the rise in unemployment since the 1970s has been much more gradual than it was during the Great Depression. Then, the beginning of the crisis was like a rout, and witnessed an unparalleled explosion in unemployment (in the US, for example, unemployment rose from 3% in 1929 to 24% in 1932). In today's acute crisis, although we have seen periods of rapidly increasing unemployment (especially in the mid-1980s and in recent years), the bourgeoisie's ability to slow down the rhythm of economic collapse has allowed it to spread out the attacks against the proletariat, especially in the form of unemployment. Moreover, in the advanced countries the bourgeoisie has learned to confront the problem of unemployment much more adroitly than in the past. For example, by replacing abrupt redundancies with "social plans" (sending workers for a time of "retraining" before they find themselves out in the street, or giving them temporary pay-offs which help them to survive at first), the ruling class has largely succeeded in defusing the unemployment bomb. In most of today's industrialised countries, a laid-off worker often has 6 months before finding himself completely without any resources. Once he has already found himself isolated and atomised, it is much more difficult for him to regroup with his class brothers to act collectively. Finally, the fact that even massive sectors of the unemployed working class have proven unable to regroup, springs from the general context of capitalism's social decomposition, which encourages despair and an attitude of "looking after number one":

"Clearly, one factor that aggravates this situation is the fact that a large proportion of young working class generations are subjected to the full weight of unemployment even before they have had the opportunity to experience in the workplace, in the company of comrades in work and struggle, the collective life of the working class. In fact, although unemployment (which is a direct result of the economic crisis), is not in itself an expression of decomposition, its effects make it an important element of this decomposition. While in general terms it may help to reveal capitalism's inability to secure a future for the workers, it is nonetheless today a powerful factor in the "lumpenisation" of certain sectors of the class, especially of young workers, which therefore weakens the class' present and future political capacities. Throughout the 1980s, which have witnessed a considerable increase in unemployment, this situation has been expressed in the absence of any important movements or attempts at organisation by unemployed workers"[15].

That said, the ICC has never considered that the unemployed could never join the struggle of their class. In fact, as we wrote in 1993:


"The massive workers' combats will constitute a powerful antidote against the noxious effects of decomposition, allowing the progressive surmounting, through the class solidarity that these combats imply, of atomisation, of "every man for himself", and all the divisions which weigh on the proletariat: between categories, branches of industry, between immigrants and indigenous workers, between the unemployed and workers with jobs. In particular, although the weight of decomposition has prevented the unemployed from entering the struggle (except in a punctual way) during the past decade, and contrary to the 30s, and while they will not be able to playa vanguard role comparable to that of the soldiers in Russia in 1917 as we had envisaged, the massive development of proletarian struggles will make it possible for them, notably in demonstrations on the street, to rejoin the general combat of their class, all the more so in that the numbers of unemployed who already have an experience of associated labour and of struggle at the workplace, can only grow. More generally, if unemployment is not a specific problem of those without work but rather a real question affecting and concerning all of the working class, notably as a clear and tragic expression of the historic weakness of capitalism, it is this same combat to come that will allow the proletariat to become fully conscious of if"[16].

It is precisely because the bourgeoisie has understood this threat that today it is promoting the mobilisation of the unemployed.

The real meaning of the "unemployed movements"

To understand the events of the last few months, we need first to highlight a crucial element: these "movements" were in no way an expression of a real mobilisation of the proletariat on its class terrain. We need only consider how the bourgeois media have given these mobilisations maximum coverage, even puffing up their size on some occasions. This held true, not just in the countries where they took place, but internationally. Since the beginning of the 1980s, experience - especially at the beginning of the struggles in autumn 1983, with the public sector strikes in Belgium - has shown that whenever the working class takes to the struggle on its own terrain, and really threatens the interests of the bourgeoisie, then a media blackout is applied. When we see the TV news devoting a considerable part of its time to cover the demonstrations, when the German television shows French unemployed marching, while French TV returns the compliment for the German unemployed marches shortly afterwards, we can be sure that the bourgeoisie has an interest in giving these events maximum publicity. In fact, what we had this winter was a small-scale "remake" of the events in France during the autumn of 1995, which received extensive world-wide media coverage. The aim was to set up an international manoeuvre to renew the trades unions' credibility before they were called on to intervene as "social firemen" with the outbreak of massive new workers' struggles. Just how much of a manoeuvre this was, appeared clearly when the Belgian unions organised a carbon copy of the French strikes, referring explicitly to "the French example". This was confirmed again a few months later, in May-June 1996, when the German union leaders openly called workers to "follow the French example" as they prepared ''the biggest demonstration since the war" on 15th June 1996[17]. This year, the German unions and unemployed organisations once again referred explicitly to "the French example", by coming to the 6th February demonstration carrying tricolour flags.


The question is thus not whether the unemployed movements in Germany and France correspond to a real workers' mobilisation, but rather what is the aim of the bourgeoisie in organising and publicising them.

The bourgeoisie is certainly behind the organisation of these movements. Evidence? In France, one of the demonstrations' main organisers was the CGT (Confederation Generale du Travail), the union run by the French "Communist" Party, which has three ministers in the government whose responsibility is to manage and defend the interests of the national capital. In Germany, the traditional unions, which cooperate openly with the bosses also took part. Alongside the unions, there are more "radical" organisations: for example in France, the AC group (Action contre le Chomage) largely led by the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, a Trotskyist organisation which sees itself as a sort of "loyal opposition" to the Socialist government.


What was the ruling class' aim in promoting these movements? Was it to forestall an immediate threat of mobilisation by unemployed workers? In fact, as we have seen, such mobilisations are not on the agenda today. In reality, the bourgeoisie had a double objective.


On the one hand, the aim was to create a diversion among the employed workers, whose discontent can only increase with the more and more brutal attacks to which they are subjected, and to make them feel guilty towards workers "who aren't lucky enough to have a job". In France, the agitation around unemployment was an excellent means of trying to interest workers in the government's proposal to introduce the 35-hour week, which is supposed to allow the creation of numerous jobs (and which will, above all, make it easier to freeze wages and increase work rates).

On the other hand, the bourgeoisie aimed, as in 1995, to forestall a situation which it will have to confront in the future. Although today we are not witnessing mobilisation and struggle by unemployed workers, as in the 1930s, this does not mean that the conditions of proletarian struggle are less favourable now than they were then. Quite the contrary. In the 1930s (for example in May-June 1936 in

France, and in July 1936 in Spain), all the workers' combativity was unable to reverse the effects of the counter-revolution on the world proletariat. This combativity was condemned to be derailed onto the terrain of anti-fascism and the "defence of democracy", in preparation for the imperialist war. Today, on the contrary, the world proletariat has emerged from the counter-revolution[18], and although it has suffered a serious political setback as a result of the collapse of the so-called "Communist" regimes, the bourgeoisie has not succeeded in inflicting a decisive defeat which would call into question the historic course towards class confrontations.

The ruling class is very well aware of this. It knows that it will have to confront new class struggles against more and more brutal attacks on the workers. It knows that these future struggles by those in work, are likely to draw in increasing numbers of unemployed workers. And to date, the union organisations have only exercised a feeble degree of control over the unemployed. It is important for the bourgeoisie that when the unemployed join in the struggle, in the wake of the employed, they should not escape from the control of those organisations whose task is to regiment the working class and sabotage its combat: the trades unions of every description, including the most "radical". In particular, it is important that the unemployed workers' formidable combative potential, and their lack of illusions in capitalism (which today are expressed as despair) should not "contaminate" those in work when they launch themselves into the struggle. The mobilisations this winter began the bourgeoisie's policy of developing its control over the unemployed through the trades unions and the organisations like AC.

Even if they were the result of bourgeois manoeuvres, these mobilisations are thus a further indication that not only the ruling class itself has no illusions as to its ability to reduce unemployment, still less to overcome the crisis, but that it expects to engage in increasingly powerful struggles with the working




[1]"... surplus labour in the countryside oscillates between 100 and 150 million people. In the cities, there are between 30 and 40 million people wholly or partially unemployed. Not to mention, of course, the crowds of young people about to enter the labour market" ("Paradoxale modernisation de la Chine", in Le Monde Diplomatique, March 1997).

[2] Unemployment statistics in Russia mean absolutely nothing. The official figure was 9.3% in 1996, when the country's GNP had fallen by 45% between 1986 and 1996. In reality, large numbers of workers spend their days at the workplace doing nothing (for lack of any orders for the company's goods), in return for pitiful wages (comparatively much lower than unemployment benefit in the Western countries), which force them to hold down a second job in the black economy just to survive.

[3] Perspectives de l'emploi, July 1993.


[4] Robert B. Reich: "Une economie ouverte peutelle preserver la cohesion sociale?", in Bilan du Monde 1998.

[5] "Unemployment and non-employment" in American Economic Review, May 1997.

[6] "Les sans-emploi aux Etats-Unis", L 'etat du monde 1998, Editions La Decouverte, Paris.  

[7] "International Comparisons of Unemployment Indicators", Monthly Labor Review, Washington, March 1993.

[8] Bank of International Settlements, Annual Report, Basle, June 1997.  

[9] Seamus Milne, "Comment Londres manipule les statistiques", Le Monde Diplomatique, May 1997.

[10] "France should take the Dutch economic model as its inspiration" (Jean-Claude Trichet, governor of the Bank of France, quoted in Le Monde Diplomatique of September 1997). "The example of Denmark and Holland show that it is possible to reduce unemployment while maintaining relative wages fairly stable" (Bank of International Settlements, Annual Report, Basle, June 1997).

[11] "Miracle ou mirage aux Pays-Bas?", Le Monde Diplomatique, July 1997.

[12] "The Netherlands 1995-96", Economic Studies of the OECD, Paris 1996.

[13] Sources: Encyclopaedia Universalis, article on the economic crises, and Maddison, Economic Growth in the West, 1981.

[14] See the International Review no.92, "Report on the Economic Crisis, 12th ICC Congress".

[15] "Decomposition, final phase of the decadence of capitalism", in International Review no.62.

[16] "Resolution on the International Situation", point 21, no.74.

[17] See our articles in International Review nos. 84-86.

[18] See the article on May 1968 in this issue.

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