Vinoth Ramachandra

Unemployed

Posted on: May 6, 2013

My Danish brother-in-law has been unemployed for more than six months. The economic situation in Scandinavia, though complained about by locals, is not as grim as in southern Europe. Spain recently announced that more than one in four people were out of work. Youth unemployment in Italy runs at nearly fifty per cent. People all over the world are desperate for jobs. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them, at whatever cost. Under the present regime of global capitalism, small businesses struggle to survive, and self-employment is limited in scope.

On the one hand we are told that we live in an era of unparalleled freedom of choice. On the other hand, there is a profound sense of resignation to fate.  Managers complain that their decisions are controlled by impersonal “market forces”. They are compelled to “downsize” or move their operations elsewhere, otherwise they lose out. When profits dip, workers are laid off. Nobody thinks of a proportionate pay cut across the board. Thus the paradox we see today of prosperous stock markets and struggling economies.

The values espoused by capitalism are not optional for people who wish to remain employed. Worldwide, few labourers can choose to work part-time or with flexible hours in the interest of being available to their families. We are forced on to a treadmill of consumption in a 24/7 economy. Unbridled capitalism demands that we prioritize work over family, greed over generosity, shareholders over employees and neighbours. Like Marxism, this is a fundamentalist religious faith.

Thus it is not new technology per se that puts people out of work. Rather, technology that goes hand-in-hand with a particular mindset. According to the latter human beings are expendable,  simply means towards the end of ever-increasing profit. The few who keep their jobs are highly paid but over-worked. The many who lose their jobs find that the social security network is simultaneously being dismantled. There also seems little opportunity for work outside regular employment.

A dysfunctional work environment where individuals are discounted also affects those who remain employed. A study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet showed that workers who kept their jobs during a major downsizing were twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease, perhaps triggered by work stress.

The wise employer, unlike the neo-classical economic theorist, knows that people don’t work just for money. Work is an important aspect of human fulfilment. Our self-esteem is bound up with what we do. As long as they perceive their work to be interesting and useful, men and women  are usually willing to do it for less pay. Meaning is often more attractive than a bigger salary.

The best description I have come across of what forced unemployment does to sensitive men and women (of whatever age) is the following passage from the Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s novel Of Love and Shadows:

“His activities in the union were a stigma, in the eyes of the new authorities. First they watched him, then they hounded him; finally, they fired him. Without a job and without hope of finding another, he began to decline. Pale and wan, he shambled through nights of insomnia and days of humiliation. He had pounded at many doors, suffered long hours in waiting rooms, answered advertisements in newspapers and, at the end of the road, found crushing hopelessness. Without a job, he gradually lost his identity. He would have accepted any offer, however mean the pay, because he desperately needed to feel useful. As a man without employment, he was an outsider, anonymous, ignored by all because he was no longer productive, and that was the measure of a man in the world he lived in.

During recent months he had abandoned his dreams, renounced his goals, considered himself a pariah. His children could not understand his constant bad humour and unremittent melancholy: they looked for jobs washing cars, carrying shopping bags from the market, performing any task to bring home a little money. The day his youngest son put on the kitchen table the few coins he had earned walking rich men’s dogs, Javier cringed like a cornered animal. Since that moment, he never looked anyone in the eyes: he sank into total despair. He often lacked the will to dress and spent a large part of the day in bed. His hands trembled after he began to drink secretly, feeling even more guilty for draining much-needed money from his family. On Saturdays he made an effort to be clean and neat when he showed up at his parents’ home, in order not to distress his family further, but he couldn’t erase the desolation from his face.

His relations with his wife disintegrated; in such circumstances love grows weary. He needed consolation but, at the same time, reacted with fury at the slightest gleam of pity… Apathy enveloped him like a cloak, obliterating any notion of the present, sapping his strength, and stripping him of courage. He moved like a shadow. He ceased to feel he was a man as he watched his home collapsing about him and the light of love dying in his wife’s eyes. At some moment that his family was too close to perceive, his will snapped. He lost his desire to live, and decided to seek his death.”

This should be read by all politicians, business employers and armchair economists.

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11 Responses to "Unemployed"

Very well stated! I have been unemployed during various recessions and everything here rings true. Capitalism, being based on fundamental human greed, can never provide a world in which all people can live in dignity and reasonable comfort; there always has to be losers when there are winners. To paraphrase what so many people have to say about communism/socialism, “Capitalism is a good idea in theory, but in practice it can’t work.”

Your quote from Allende’s book is ironic; my wife recently lost her job because of her union activity.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Thank you Vinoth for writing on the topic of unemployment. In my own town in Luton, one in five homes, does not have a single member who is full-time employed. The distribution of this demographic is not evenly spread across the town, which means, in some streets, there are hardly any full-time employed men or women. Families are being destroyed. Walk on these streets and you will find empty beer cans, broken bottles and condoms laying around.

There is a gloominess and a weariness on people’s faces. Young girls get tricked into prostitution, and young boys get trapped in a lifestyle of drugs and crime. Immigrants, asylum-seekers, and non-White people become easy-targets, and they get blamed for causing the unemployment. “These foreigners come here and take all our jobs.”

What makes me even more angry is hearing certain Christians friends defending the system in the name of some ‘pie-in-the-sky’ definition of capitalism, and blaming the poor for their own poverty. These friends preach ‘self-help’ for the poor and then support government-help for saving big banks. This is typical, ‘capitalism for the masses and socialism for the rich’.

Sad, very sad…

Thank you Vinoth for your thoughtful post. I love the way you so aptly describe the “dark night of the soul” that comes with unemployment.

Capitalism is the right to keep what you earn.
Socialism is the right of the government to take away from you as much as it wants to, in order to give it to somebody who does not earn.
Communism is no right to any earnings at all.
While ungoverned capitalism can lead to a lot of abuse, this is not what you are seeing in the world today.
The pain you are dealing with in the world today is caused by socialism. The reason for the lack of jobs is because the capital required to inspire those jobs is being misused by corrupt governments.
Focus on the morals:
1. Stealing is wrong. People ought to be allowed to keep what they earn. Taxes ought only to be used to maintain government and shared public services. Allow people to support those around them.
2. Stealing is wrong. Corporations and massively powerful and rich men ought not to be allowed to bribe government officials, and government ought not to have access to money to pay them off.
The result of all this stealing is that no one has anything except the rich and powerful who steal best.

1800s America was well-regulated capitalism, and became extremely prosperous.
Nowhere is greed a part of the definition of capitalism. It is a part of the definition of humanity. And under capitalism, we have isolated pockets of greed which we can control. Under socialism or communism, we have runaway greed in positions of power.
There is a huge swing being promoted against capitalism, as though it were the enemy. This is, I think, because the path to power, to the anti-Christ’s one world government, relies on the people voting in more powerful, richer governments to give them what they want. The proverbial carrot in front of the donkey’s face while the schemers ride on its back.

Yes! Thank your for thought-provoking comments Anthony Rose.

Capitalism and Socialism are Christian heresies which having lost their Christian roots have ended up over emphasising (favouring) some facets of our existence and ignoring others. Hence the confusion over valuing individual productivity and ignoring the needs of a community (equal worth of humans) and vice versa. What we choose to favour or ignore is a function of our sinfulness. We have a yearning to love things (including money and power) by using people when we should be using things (including money and power) to love people.
Jesus acknowledged the need for a worker to be given his keep and commended the servants who invested the master’s fortune (parable of the wages/ Minas). Proverbs (31) acknowledges the good wife as one who shares her wealth, generates wealth and obtains instruction from God. The early church shared her wealth Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32. Ancient Israel had a jubilee system of redistributing wealth and protecting the vulnerable (widows, orphans and immigrants).
We must recover a comprehensive biblical understanding of our existence if we are to clear up our mess.

Anthony Rose: please could you tell us from which American history book you get these views?

1800s America was about slave economies, genocide and the plunder of native American lands, the invasion and annexation of large parts of Mexico, exploitation of Chinese labour, unjust trading practices with Latin American neighbours, and Robber Barons who manipulated federal and state legislatures to their financial advantage.

“Well-regulated capitalism”?

Adding to Vinoth’s question…Who exactly was becoming “extremely prosperous” in 1800s America?

Though I don’t have a sophisticated understanding of political/economic theories, I tend to see capitalist and socialist philosophies as (imperfectly) representing two sides of this Biblical paradox:

“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Ephesians 4:28

God honors hard work and self-sufficiency (if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat), yet, it is our sacred responsibility to share our wealth with those in need. The Biblical economy is not about “the right to keep what you earn.” It might sound more like, “work hard, in order to bless others.”

Vinoth, your critique does not seems to be targeted at market economies, per se, but at an “unbridled” capitalist ethic (prioritizing profit over human beings, work over family, greed over generosity, etc.). Can you separate this moral philosophy from the market-based economic system?

Also, in terms of unemployment, the countries in most bad shape seem generally to be more socialist, while the U.S. and Germany, for instance, have made modest recoveries. Do you agree, or what do you make of this?

There are a variety of “market economies” (Japan, Germany and the US have been very different from each other). Moreover, unemployment data in the US is often misleading- we need to ask who is counted as “employed” and in what form of employment (e.g short-term, part-time). The economy is also heavily indebted to “undocumented” migrant workers who save their bosses the costs that ethical companies incur.

Since WW II, the US government has been the biggest generator of employment (as is the case in most countries). It has also been the biggest investor in scientific and technological research and development. Many of the hi-tech firms that are household names around the world were, in effect, subsidized by the US taxpayer.

Is this “socialism”? I find it strange that this term is disparagingly applied to governments only when public funds go to help the weakest and poorest sections of society. Finding textbook examples of capitalism and socialism in the world today is an impossible task. But what I said in my post is that globalization favours the worst kind of capitalist practices, undoing the moral restraints that were placed in the last century.

@jacobad

“God honors hard work and self-sufficiency (if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat)”

I feel that this view is very western consumerist thinking. I may misunderstand what you are getting at but from my understanding of the bible, God honors those who aren’t self sufficient but those who rely on God and others. We are made to be community and to work with each other, it is how we become truly human as we love God and love others and in turn let them love us. To say self sufficiency is a good thing is to deny the very fabric of how we were created.

I am not saying that we should not work if we are able, but God honors those who are broken just as much as those who can work. I feel that this statement places those who are unable to work due to disability or loss of a job as lower than those who are able to work. We ‘help’ them in a paternalistic way rather than letting them help us to understand God and humanity better. Just because we are able to work does not make us automatically the ‘host’ and everyone else the ‘guest’. Rather it puts us in a position of being able to serve and to learn from those who do not have the same opportunities as us.

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