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Work and Wealth


Everyone needs work — many people don’t find any. You would find yourself in good company if you took that for a social problem, imagining that an “Alliance for Jobs”[*] would be a suitable solution, with government job-creation measures and a reduction in labor costs, with an abatement of the asset tax and a redistribution of the “scarce good” work by shorter working hours, and the like. All of these “solutions,” though, ignore a certain absurdity: if there is really no longer so much to do, if it really takes fewer people less time to produce necessities — then why does everybody really need work, and especially so many fully crammed working hours, to be able to live? Why doesn’t the equation, less work means spared pains, work out?

Of course what we have here is something other than a “social problem,” and everybody knows what it is: the fact that so many people are out of work is due to an economic problem. Work doesn’t take place when it isn’t profitable, i.e., if it doesn’t bring in enough for the firm in which, and for which, it is done; that is, not enough profits to succeed in “global” competition. If this is the case, if work only takes place if and as long as it is profitable, then it only takes place because it provides a firm with financial returns: profitability is the economic purpose for which it takes place. People have to work; for no other reason than its profitability; for no other purpose than the never-ending mission of being profitable and bringing in money; therefore the more the better. Best to supply the entire globe, build rapid transit systems for the Chinese and outfit the sheikdoms with air-conditioning, all in order to monopolize mankind’s purchasing power with the work preformed. Work to make money: this categorical imperative holds such absolute sway over prevailing conditions that all modern people must obey it to live; everybody needs some kind of work, it doesn’t matter which kind. And when work doesn’t take place, it’s for no other reason than that it doesn’t bring in enough money; something that is evidently frequently the case with every advance in the profitable utilization of labor. The economic purpose that so totally and exclusively dominates the so-called market economy is evidently the kind that gets into a contradiction with itself: mankind is compelled to work because work creates value and enriches firms; but hardly does this circus get under way then it collides with its own criterion: the compulsion to create more and more value.

It may well be that everybody has become accustomed to this madness and considers it normal — after all, even the most knowledgeable experts and most powerful managers of this “system” start to flounder a bit when they have to tell us whether there are actually too few people working, what with millions unemployed in the leading nations, and uncountable millions more loafing about in the rest of the world; or whether there are really too many people working, when plain “economic sense” dictates the closing of the last shipyards along the North Sea and Mediterranean, and while coal mines in the Ruhr can only be worked with gigantic state subsidies. In fact, both seem to be the case at the same time: too few working, because the whole point of work is more and more money, and for that there can never be enough work done; too many working, because work is about accumulating more and more money, and a lot of work falls short of this purpose. It really doesn’t help to say that this is “just” the way things are — to put it politely, this “system” of profitable work is a bit contradictory.

It is an innate contradiction of the capitalist system that firstly, people unconditionally must work, and secondly therefore only very conditionally, in both respects to earn money. There’s no question that states and firms can get along just splendidly with this contradiction — after all, they’re the ones who organize work like this and benefit from its profitability. They make this contradiction a problem for those who, as the workforce, first of all unconditionally need jobs but secondly quite often don’t find any; and then they define the material problems of the people as social problems they have with those in need.

One shouldn’t approvingly reproduce this practical feat of redefinition theoretically, and, stirred by poverty, take the lie of a social problem for the real matter at hand — and then, possibly still moaning about it, search for someone to blame for the fact that the “problem” is never dealt with, despite all the “Alliances for Jobs” that are so eagerly discussed, tried out and once again abandoned. It is no less misguided to accept the criterion of profitability as the essence of economic sense, and only start getting skeptical when public opinion decides to take note of its “dark side.” The reason why the “system” is absurd, why it harms the bulk of its inhabitants, is not because there is no work to be had if it is not profitable, but because it is to be had for its profitability. The brutality of the “system” doesn’t just start when people who need work can’t find any, but consists from the start in the fact that they need work; that they can’t even be sure to find any follows solely from that.

The conditions that work is subjected to in a market economy comprise the determinations, the essential defining aspects, of this mode of production. Understanding them will definitely not create any jobs. For that reason, we hereby encourage the reader to proceed.


[*] 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. [ed.]