April 1, 2010

Two Minor Notes on Job Creation and Atheist Policy

Posted in Economics, Europe, Politics tagged , , , , , at 23:42 by Matthijs Krul

The mirage of ‘creating jobs’

In this time of crisis, unemployment is once again high on the public’s agenda. In the United States, even official unemployment has reached figures as high as 10%, and in many Western European countries things are not much better. Hundreds of billions in public debt have been piled up to combat this, because every politician knows that their continuance in office depends first and foremost on satisfying the constituents’ demands, and what they demand is jobs. But here as always the limits of the liberal understanding of the world show themselves immediately, namely in the way they go about defending their employment policies. Everywhere in the Western states the emphasis is on the process of ‘job creation’ by the capitalist market system. Everywhere the one criterion for a measure or bill is whether it will or will not make the market ‘create jobs’.

A recent article in Time magazine illustrates the issue quite well. The author, Barbara Kiviat, describes the situation the United States finds itself in as follows:

Since the start of the recession in December 2007, the U.S. has shed 8.4 million more jobs than it has gained. The unemployment rate hovers near 10%, and broader measures of labor-market woes that include underutilized workers are as high as 16.8%. Go down the nation’s list of economic problems — from mortgage defaults to state-budget shortfalls — and joblessness lurks in the background.

(1)
Well, little one can object to this – it is altogether too true. What to do about it, however, is quite another issue. The article moves to President Obama, whose policies are apparently aimed at countering unemployment, but there’s a caveat:

This reality has triggered a nearly convulsive political response, given that elections are won and lost over the state of the economy and the mind-set of wage earners. That’s why President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, called jobs his “No. 1 focus” and proposed repurposing bank-bailout money to lend more to small businesses, which would then, presumably, generate jobs. On March 17, Congress passed a job-creation bill that includes, among other things, an estimated $13 billion worth of tax incentives to coax companies into adding to their payrolls.

The cold truth of the matter, though, is that there’s not much Washington can do to gin up permanent jobs on such short notice. The federal government is a key player in engendering job growth in the long term — by establishing smart policy in areas such as trade, education, immigration, health care, energy, infrastructure and taxes — but over the course of months or even a few years, there’s little it can effectively do besides hiring directly or stepping in as a buyer of goods and services.

The great American job-creation machine always has been and will continue to be private enterprise.

(2)
Now this is most curious, and deserves further examination. Indeed President Obama has every reason to want to diminish unemployment, as best he can, since it will significantly affect his election prospects. But the underlying rationale is that there is little he can do, and indeed that seems to be his own viewpoint as well. After all, it is “private enterprise” that creates jobs. It is the whole purpose of the so-called ‘stimulus bill’, worth an astounding 787 billion dollars, that it will help “private enterprise” create jobs. But nobody pauses to question what this means.

After all, what is the social meaning of everyone being dependent on “private enterprise” for their jobs? The whole concept, when looked at from a historical perspective, is rather ludicrous. People have lived together in social environments for thousands and thousands of years, and never at one point has there been a complaint that nobody knew what to do or when to do it because there was no “private enterprise” to ‘create jobs’. All of society has always had jobs to do, and always people to do them – this is how they managed to exist in the first place. The pharaohs did not need “private enterprise” to create pyramid-building jobs, nor was there mass unemployment on Easter Island for want of jobs created. If you had told a peasant in the Middle Ages that he depended on “private enterprise” to have any task to perform, he would not have understood the very concept. It is therefore clear that to pretend that capitalist enterprises solely possess the magic powers that can conjure up jobs, without which nobody has any possibility to undertake useful labor, is an absurdity on its face. During the Great Depression, the administration of Franklin Roosevelt managed to ‘create’ millions of new jobs simply by creating new tasks to be done and having people do them, without particularly worrying about whether “private enterprise” felt up to the task. Unemployment itself is ‘merely’ a question of having tasks set and arranging payment for those that do them.

But as always with liberal illusions of this kind, it is an illusion which reflects reality in a topsy-turvy way. The history of capitalism is a history of precisely making people into workers, that is, making them dependent on capitalist enterprises for their livelihood where they weren’t before. Most people did not and do not enjoy such dependence, and therefore it was necessary to rob them of all means of survival on their own, so that all that remained was their capacity to do labor in someone else’s hire. What this means then is that whenever capitalist enterprises are ‘stimulated’ to ‘create jobs’, they are in fact receiving the money taxed from the general population in order to pay the same population dependent on them – in other words, they are ensuring that people are dependent on those companies’ own private value-creation by for a set time hiring workers for the money that was theirs in the first place. The most consistent liberals see this very well, and therefore oppose such programs and recommend tax cuts for capitalists instead, which amounts to the same thing by a less roundabout route, as I will explain below.

What is hidden in the discussion between these two approaches are the two fundamental aspects: first, the unquestioned nature of dependence on capitalist companies for income in the first place, which was historically created and at all times threatens to be historically undone again, whether by state ‘crowding out’ or by worker action; and second, the desirability of unemployment for capitalists for the exact same reason. This follows quite simply: if everyone has been made dependent on you for ‘creating jobs’, i.e. for an income at the expense of their own work, then you want to make sure this dependence is as complete as possible. What better way to achieve this than through unemployment? Labor competition between the unemployed, completely dependent on ‘job creation’, will ensure that they will take whatever job you have ‘created’ and on your terms as well. It is for this reason that too strong a focus on solving unemployment is considered undesirable among the more strict liberal economists and policymakers, who threaten any politician showing too much honest attachment to the cause of the unemployed with the specter of inflation and the doom of the ‘middle class’. Rather, it should be used as an occasion to prevent the state from supplanting this private ‘job creation’. After all, when the state does it there is no opportunity for private profit and it might rather be planned according to popular need, which is hardly compatible with “private enterprise”. Therefore, the call is either for ‘stimulating’ the capitalists with tax money taken from the same workers who work for them, which is an indirect way of raising the wage of the unemployed at the expense of the employed workers; or the call is to lower corporate taxes, which given equal state expenses does the same thing. If the latter is combined with state cuts, those cuts are then always aimed at precisely ‘unprofitable’ expenses such as the dole, so that the final effect is the precise same as when the ‘stimulus’ route is followed.

In other words, the story of the magical powers of capitalist ‘job creation’ is as mythical as that of the Enuma-Elish, and more poorly conceived at that. It belongs in the same category of wizardry as the magical power that makes an exchange of ‘fair wage’ for a ‘fair day’s work’ create a profit for the capitalist, and that makes an investor be rewarded (by heaven?) for his ‘abstinence’ from private consumption. Yet this concept is so prevalent that even labor unions and many workers will accept it at face value, never wondering what it means. David Harvey describes this quite well:

Capitalists look for virtuous reasons to explain the surplus-value. First off, consider abstinence. Capitalists abstain from present consumption and invest the money they save. Do they not deserve some reward for their abstinence? This is a theme that echoes loudly in the long debate over the role of the Protestant ethic in the rise of capitalism. Second, capitalists provide employment to people. If capitalists didn’t invest their money, there would be no employment. Poor workers! Capitalists are doing them a favor by investing their money. Don’t the capitalists deserve some rate of return for that? (…) I used to have this argument with my mother all the time. She’d say, “but of course we need capitalists!” I’d say: “why, why?”. And she’d say: “who would employ workers if we didn’t have capitalists?” She could not imagine there could be other ways in which you could employ people.

(3)
The absurdity of this should be clear by now. If not, then just take the fact often mentioned by defenders of modern capitalism, namely the possibility of any worker to start up their own company with a good business plan and/or sufficient capital. Surely if it was the capitalist, not the worker, who created the profit, and surely if everything depended on the will of the capitalist, all workers would have every incentive to start up their own company and become capitalists? Voilà, no more unemployment, ‘abstention’ for everyone, and finally profits for everyone. But one would be hard pressed indeed to see any company at all make a profit in such an environment! Marx knew all this when he rebutted:

[This] whole litany [the capitalist] has just recited was simply meant to pull the wool over our eyes. He himself does not care twopence for it. He leaves this and similar subterfuges and conjuring tricks to the professors of political economy, who are paid for it. He himself is a practical man, and although he does not always consider what he says outside his business, within his business he knows what he is doing.

(4)
And what is he doing in practice, this capitalist? The Time article tells us this clearly. After having pocketed the state’s finances to ‘stimulate’ him into either ‘creating jobs’, or making profit, what does he do? He chooses the latter:

Even so, there is a clear trend emerging: tomorrow’s jobs will require people to add more value than ever before. Consider Samsung’s only semiconductor-fabrication plant outside South Korea, which sits in northeast Austin. Since the fall, the factory, which makes flash memory for devices like smart phones and iPods, has been undergoing a $500 million upgrade. In advance of the plant’s early-summer reopening, Samsung will hire about 200 engineers and technicians to run and service the new, more sophisticated equipment inside. But with the new factory and those new jobs, 500 other positions have been eliminated: robots, not people, will now transport silicon wafers.

(5)

1), 2), 5) Barbara Kiviat, “The Workforce: Where Will the New Jobs Come From?” in: TIME (March 19, 2010).
3) David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital (London 2010), p. 122-123.
4) Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I (tr. Ben Fowkes, London 1990 [1867]), p. 300.

*************************************************
The fallacious atheism of the Belgians

On a different note, the Belgian federal parliamentary subcommittee for internal affairs has unanimously approved a bill proposing to ban the full veil, called niqaab or burka, from the entire country.(6) All parties, from the Greens to the ultra-right, were in favor. This follows in the wake of France’s proposal to implement the same ban and the calls by Dutch right-wing leader Geert Wilders’ party to ban even the ‘regular’ headscarf from any place receiving any kind of governmental subsidy. Of course, given that in most Western European countries the civil society is so bound up with the social-democratic state of ‘regulated capitalism’, this effectively means almost an entire ban as well.

The rationale in first instance is that of public safety grounds. According to the BBC, the ban would apply to areas accessible to the public, which would include people walking in the street or using public transport. But such arguments are obviously a mere pretext. Of the 500.000 supporters of Islam in Belgium, a mere handful use the full veil. Moreover, although the use of the attire for purposes of robbery is not entirely unknown(7), a much larger number of robberies are committed making use of such pervasively available costumes as motorcycle helmets, ski masks or simple hoodies. The same applies in France, where merely 1900 people are estimated to wear the niqab, on a population of over 60 million, vastly fewer for example than the amount of legal firearms owners in the republic.

The real intent of the law is to suppress the patriarchal symbols of the Islamic religion, and so to destroy the isolation and oppression of women this religion creates, in particular when it is combined with certain regional patriarchal cultural practices imported into Europe. The purpose is then to make women ‘unveil’ themselves in public, which would break barriers of communication and interaction with the modern secular world. This is likely what Belgian parliamentarian Corinne de Permentier meant when she was quoted saying: “we have to free women of this burden.”(8) This statement is not compatible with a safety-based rationale for the ban, but is a clear statement intended to indicate the desire to destroy patriarchy among the muslim immigrants.

Let us state clearly: there is no reason to pretend that this form of veiling is not patriarchal, as it clearly puts the burden on women to shield themselves from the (possibly male) gaze of the outside world and in this manner preserve their ‘honor’ and ‘purity’. Such concepts are archaic and totally outdated in modern society, since they belong to the repertoire of the feudal period and they indicate corresponding social relations. Secular, liberal and capitalist social relations are beyond any doubt much superior to anything a religious patriarchal remnant has to offer in terms of their respective capacity to most fully develop the potential of humanity. That this is true is proven by muslim women in practice, since as mentioned the vast majority of them do not wear the full veil, and many no veil at all. For these and other reasons, socialists have no patience with either religious moralism or religion-influenced cultural strictures, and will have no truck with either Islam or its derivatives. That must be clear from the outset.

Yet that being said, this law is hopelessly flawed still from a socialist perspective. A law adopted by a male-dominated parliament ‘liberating’ women by prescribing what they are and are not allowed to wear in detail is indeed a preposterous contradiction in terms. The law approaches the question of religious backwardness in a liberal way, and this means it neglects to understand the social dimension of the subject it is dealing with. Its consequence will not be the liberation of such women, but in fact their greater isolation. Women who on their own account, or through force of male relatives, feel the need to dress in niqab or burka will not by force of law change their mind – the only result will therefore be that they will not be able to go out and about at all for fear of losing their ‘honor’ and ‘purity’, which is the opposite of the intended effect. By attacking the symbol of a very small and backward minority of religious fanatics, one does not discourage but rather encourages fanaticism, since it opposes the entirety of liberal society to the free exercise of a particular religion. The result inevitably is that all who follow this religion in one form or another will feel threatened, and the incentive to counteract by increased religious sentiment as against this liberal society will increase.

Lenin c.s., when they first led the revolution against Czarist Russia and then created the Soviet state, knew all this very well. Russia was of course a largely peasant country, with many remnants of the worst sort of religious fanaticism and the worst cultural backwardness, and Lenin and others paid great attention to combating these. Following Marx’s famous essay on the “opium of the people”, Lenin knew perfectly well that in order to combat religion and its backwards derivatives in practice, it will not to do to merely declare it suppressed or to attack its symbolic and theological features, as Western liberal materialists from Richard Dawkins to Mme. De Permentier always do. Therefore, the program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik) of 1919 described this very well, in the section explaining its attitude on the religious question:

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union is guided by the conviction that only the conscious and deliberate planning of all the social and economic activities of the masses will cause religious prejudices to die out. The Party strives for the complete dissolution of the ties between the exploiting classes and the organisation of religious propaganda, facilitates the real emancipation of the working masses from religious prejudices and organizes the widest possible scientific educational and anti-religious propaganda. At the same time it is necessary carefully to avoid giving such offence to the religious sentiments of believers as only leads to the strengthening of religious fanaticism.

(9)

Here it is clear what the difference is between a socialist approach against religious backwardness and a liberal approach against religious backwardness. A liberal approach focuses on the behavior of individuals and their religious choices; a socialist approach focuses on the causes of religion, and seeks to take those away. When the earth is no longer the “vale of tears” of which “religion is the halo”, as Marx put it, there will be neither need nor occasion for religious prejudice. A liberal approach is to insist on rights, such as the right to publish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. Socialists defend this right, but contest that this is likely to attack religion; instead it is precisely an example of “such offence to the religious sentiments of believers as only leads to the strengthening of religious fanaticism”, as the CPSU(B) program put it. Liberal materialists insist on demonstrating the follies and absurdities of the various theological systems, be they Christianity or Islam, and show the logical and intellectual ineptness of their evasions. Socialist materialists do this, but also show why religion perseveres nonetheless, where it comes from, and what one can do about it at a social level. Rather than merely pointing out its rational implausibility, socialists point out how the same need that engenders religion can be fulfilled better by applying the knowledge and labor of mankind for that purpose. Liberals propose a merely formal separation between church and state, and often (like in Belgium and the Netherlands), fail to do even that, wasting the people’s money on religious institutions and schools. Socialists propose equality between all religions, and equal opposition to all of them. They do not take from our female citizens the right to dress as they see fit. They take from priests and patriarchs the right to dress themselves in robes paid for by the people’s money, and undermine their creed at every turn with women’s education, with integration of minorities into society, with state support for childcare, with modern hospitals and socialist family law, and with democratic participation particularly by victims of patriarchy. Our liberal friends in Belgium and elsewhere would do well to keep this in mind, when they combat the same “mediaevalism” Lenin faced.

6), 8 ) “Belgian committee votes for full Islamic veil ban”. BBC News (31 March 2010).
7) Peter Allen, “Armed robbers disguised in burkhas carry out £4,000 raid”. Daily Mail (Feb. 10, 2010).
9) Cited in V.I. Lenin, Religion (London 2007), p. 8.

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