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Inside Labour: 'Fashionable ideologies' no cure for joblessness

Aug 26 2016 06:38
Terry Bell

GRADUATE students shouldn’t look for jobs, they should create them. In other words, such students are to blame for their own jobless predicament; they need only to get off their backsides and make work.

READ: Manamela offers solutions to youth unemployment

This is the latest variation on a tired free market theme that was summed up 35 years ago by the British Conservative Party’s employment minister Norman Tebbit. In 1981 he noted that, in the depths of the Depression of the 1930s, his father “didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it”.

Coming from one of the imbongi of what became known as Thatcherism and is now draped in the garb of neo-liberalism, the comment was not surprising. It also referred to a time when, despite the economic crisis, most industrial jobs still required manual labour.

Today there is again a global economic crisis, its causes much the same as before. The difference is that technological progress has created a situation where, in terms of work, much of humanity is becoming increasingly redundant.

However, as this column has noted before, neither the causes of the crisis nor the reality of what has been trendily dubbed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” have been seriously taken on board by the elites in business and government. Nor, for that matter, by the massed chorus of blinkered economists. Together they sustain the myth that there is no alternative.  

The unions too, while often correctly pointing to the causes of the crisis, seem to have no grasp of the potential consequences of the march of the robots. And this position is apparently shared by the SA Communist Party (SACP), which the Cosatu federation insists is THE workers’ party.

What other explanation can there be when the latest “create your own jobs” call to “entrepreneurship” came from Buti Manamela? He is not only the Deputy Minister in the Presidency, but also a senior central committee member of the SACP.

Coming on top of his historic claims -  especially as head of the Young Communist League - to “champion campaigns to resolve youth unemployment”, the latest comment is jarring. He did, however, also hint at the changed industrial environment by advising students to gear their studies towards areas of new jobs.

And there are new jobs. But relatively very few - and becoming fewer in this rapidly changing digital world of, at best, partial democracy and a lack of fully accountable, cooperative governance.

One million US drivers may be out of work

In recent weeks, for example, there have been newspaper headlines about the advent of driverless cars in the United States. There was also mention that this may put 1 million US drivers out of work, but no analysis of the human cost.

Yet we have heard and seen it all before, in industries ranging from newspaper and magazine publishing to vehicle manufacture. Massive retrenchments saw some skilled print and auto workers retraining to take on new jobs. But for most, it was the end of the line.

And where manual labour in some regions remained cheaper than machinery, production relocated and the race to the bottom accelerated. But workers tend to organise and demand a fair wage. In the words of the free marketeers, they “price themselves out of jobs”. Besides, as machines become cheaper even workers paid at bare subsistence level are no longer employable.

This brings to mind a comment, written in 1949 by the mathematician Norbert Wiener and not published until 2012: “These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price.”  And this, he added, could usher in “an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty”.

We are starting to feel the effects of just such a revolution. But Wiener also pointed out that it would be possible to “live a good life with the aid of the machines”. However, this would mean dealing “in facts rather than in fashionable ideologies”.

“Fashionable ideologies” are the smokescreens established by ruling minorities that dull and confuse the senses of the ruled. And, in the present context, the propaganda that the solution to massive joblessness is entrepreneurship and self created work fits this bill exactly.

* Add your voice or just drop Terry a labour question. Follow Terry on twitter @telbelsa.

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terry bell  |  inside labour  |  opinion  |  jobs  |  labour
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