The Economic Horror
Date: Tue, 14 Dec 1999 15:32:14 -0800
From: Hendrik (by way of Jack Michon)
THE ECONOMIC HORROR
French author VIVIANE FORRESTER's book L'horreur Economique (The Economic Horror) has just been published in an English edition. The 1996 book is already a huge bestseller in France, Germany, Italy, Japan and South America, and reviewers predict that it set to become the biggest economics bestseller since
The 72-year old author has become a heroine in France where unemployment now stands at more than 12%. Young jobless have taken to photocopying pages from L'horreur - notably those passages decrying the culture of shame attached to unemployment - and sticking them up on job centre walls. The author's effigy can also be found at the front of workers' marches, with banners quoting from her book.
International financier George Soros was so impressed with L'horreur that he arranged to meet with the author in Paris. The book has also been discussed by the Mexican parliament, and politicians in Peru have invited the author to lecture in Latin America.
This official interest has come despite the author's argument that there is a conspiracy by "those who control economic power" to "hide from the workers the truth that they are no longer needed by the capitalist system" and that we are witnessing "the end of employment as we have known it."
In this special feature, The Jobs Letter profiles Viviane Forrester and gives an essential summary of her views on the future of work.
* Viviane Forrester's economics is largely self-taught, and until the publication of L'horreur, she was better known as a novelist and literary critic. Yet, according to Ian Cotton of The Guardian Weekly, Forrester has emerged as "... a fine example of the outsider who sees things insiders cannot."
Forrester's thesis is that employment as we have known it for three centuries throughout the West, has had its day and is becoming less plausible by the year as a way of distributing wealth.
L'horreur also attacks the present policies of Western governments as it makes ever more desperate attempts to keep the jobs-and- wages system alive. Forrester cites the constant downsizing of ever larger numbers of the working and, now, middle classes; the steady attrition, internationally, of welfare and union rights; and the growing destabilisation of those in work, let alone of the unemployed.
All this has created an employment and unemployment (and underemployment) culture that is not merely stressful, regrettable and unpleasant but has also, according to Forrester, "spawned an economic world that is an obscenity, an affront to human nature" and, in the words of the book's title, a "horror".
* Ian Cotton remarks: "This is not a thesis likely to appeal to Messrs Clinton and Blair. After all, it doesn't square with the fact that the United States economy is enjoying the longest, strongest
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economic boom in post-war history. Or that unemployment in Britain is at its lowest for 19 years. Yet there is a curious thing about Forrester's reading of the situation: a vast number of ordinary people believe it..."
* Forrester finds that the book has certainly struck a nerve: "When I was promoting the book in South America I'd go to these town meetings of factory workers, clerks, ordinary people. The cheering would start before I entered the hall..."
"My book has brought me in touch with the powerful as well as the poor, and there is this strong feeling among political elites that you must not tell the people the truth about today's economic realities; that they just can't take it.
"In fact, I found the opposite: people aren't, in fact, afraid ... but they are indignant. They're not stupid, they can see what's going on, and the thing that really angers them is denial. Indeed, it's surprising how many people have told me that reading my book has actually reduced their anxieties ...
"Waiters, bankers, housewives, taxi drivers, students, young unemployed ... they say to me: ''I've had exactly the same thoughts you wrote in your book myself, for years. But it wasn't until I read L'horreur that I even realised I'd been thinking them - let alone started taking such ideas seriously' ... "
* Forrester argues that economic neo-liberalism has introduced a new economic paradigm: "Increasingly it offers the most vulnerable in our society a quite new choice - poverty at work or poverty on the dole..."
For examples, she points to the desperate rush of French unemployed applying for the Contrat Emploi Solidarite jobs which pay half the guaranteed minimum wage, and are only part-time. Or those on workfare programmes in the US who are paid a third of union rates and have benefits docked if they are late for "work". Or those in Britain whose special economic horror is to have achieved invisibility - the "economically inactive" who don't even count as unemployed for statistical purposes.
Forrester: "The feeling that we must prove ourselves useful to society, or at least to the market economy, is rooted in the value system of a world which no longer exists. As we are unlikely ever to have a culture of full employment again, we need to stop basing our identities, individually and communally, around the idea of employment. First and foremost, the new millennium calls out for a new culture, with a new social structure which is not centred on paid employment ..."
* Meanwhile, in France, Forrester's book title has become the catch-phrase of all kinds of protest movements. But French economists have generally been reluctant to discuss the book, with some describing its arguments as "irrational" and "irrelevant to a serious discussion of the subject".
The liberal French economist Alain Minc, who is also chairman of Le Monde, has described the book a "rubbish". He recently told Forrester: "Your book is a talented opinion poll. It is a publishing success because it plays on people's fears. But it would have sold far fewer copies if it had been signed by [Communist party leader] Robert Hue..."
Minc argues that the prosperous French workers and their unions have refused to trade some of their benefits for wider employment. Minc: "Since 1973, average purchasing power has risen by 40 per cent in real terms in France. If we had accepted a rise of only 35 per cent, there would be a million more jobs..."
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Minc nevertheless concedes that Forrester has articulated a popular feeling which, for him, demonstrates "the confusion in society at large about current economic developments..."
The Economic Horror
by Viviane Forrester
(pub 1999 by Blackwell ) ISBN 0-745-61994-0 available at www.amazon.com
ON A PROFOUND CHANGE
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* I think that each of us, whatever our walk of life, should feel concerned about the present state of the world, which is entirely governed by economics. If Shakespeare were to come back to life today, I think he would be fascinated by the tragic interplay of powerful economic forces which are stealthily transforming the lives and destinies of the citizens - or rather the populations - of all countries.
* To my mind we are witnessing a profound change, a transformation of society and civilization, and we are finding it very hard to accept. How can we say good-bye to a society that was based on stable jobs that provided a safety net and the basics of a decent existence? Job security is on the way out.
For the first time in history, the vast majority of human beings are no longer indispensable to the small number of those who run the world economy. The economy is increasingly wrapped up in pure speculation. The working masses and their cost are becoming superfluous. In other words, there is something worse than actually being exploited - and that is no longer to be even worth exploiting!
* It is true that this state of affairs is not being concealed, but there is a tendency to avoid talking about it clearly. In democratic societies, at any rate, you don't tell people that they are regarded as superfluous. Under totalitarianism there might be an even worse danger than joblessness and poverty. Once salaried work has disappeared, why should a totalitarian regime not simply eliminate those forces that have become useless?
In democratic countries there is an urgent need for vigilance. It is often claimed that the industrial age, when a regular wage provided the means of subsistence, can somehow be patched up. But those days are over. Wage-earning is disappearing and the panoply of temporary doles and allowances designed to replace it is shrinking, something that is nothing less than criminal.
* The managers of the economic machine exploit this situation. Full employment is a thing of the past, but we still use criteria that were current in the nineteenth century, or twenty or thirty years ago, when it still existed. Among other things, this encourages many unemployed people to feel ashamed of themselves. This shame has always been absurd but it is even more so today.
It goes hand in hand with the fear felt by the privileged who still have a paid job and are afraid of losing it. I maintain that this shame and this fear ought to be quoted on the stock exchange, because they are major inputs in profit. Once upon a time people pilloried the alienation caused by work. Today falling labour costs contribute to the profits of big companies, whose favourite management tool is sacking workers; when they do this, their stock market value soars.
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* Today we hear a lot about "wealth creation". In the past it was simply known as profit. Today people talk about this wealth as if it will automatically go straight to the community and create jobs, yet at the same time we see highly profitable businesses cutting down heavily on their workforce.
When people talk about society's "movers and shakers", they aren't talking about the bulk of their country's population but about business leaders who relocate at the drop of a hat. Politicians make jobs their priority, but the Stock Exchange is delighted whenever a big industrial complex fires workers and gets worried whenever there's the slightest improvement in the unemployment figures. I wanted to draw people's attention to this paradox. A company's stock market quotation depends largely on labour costs, and profit is generated in the last analysis by reducing the numbers of those who have a job.
* The present situation raises a vital question for the future of the people of our planet, above all for young people and their future. Today the great thing is to be "profitable", not "useful". This raises a very serious question: Should people be profitable in order to "deserve" the right to live? The commonsense answer is that it is a good thing to be useful to society. But we are preventing people from being useful, we are squandering the energies of young people by regarding profitability as the be-all and end-all.
* Most countries have lost their sense of priorities. There is a greater and greater need for teachers and medical staff, but governments are increasingly aggressive towards them. These are the professions where posts are abolished and funding is cut. Yet they are indispensable to the welfare and future of humanity. This confusion between "usefulness" and "profitability" is disastrous for the future of the planet.
Young people live in a society which still regards salaried employment as the only acceptable, honest and lawful way of life, but most of them are deprived of the opportunity to achieve this. In deprived inner city areas this is a major problem.
At the same time I often meet young people with armfuls of degrees who are out of work. What inexcusable waste! For generations study was young people's initiation into social life. I admire young people today because they go on with their studies fully aware that they are running the risk of rejection by society.
* Only twenty or thirty years ago, there was still reason to hope that the relative prosperity of the North would spread all over the world. Today we are seeing the globalization of poverty. Businesses based in the North that set up in the so-called "developing" countries, do not create jobs for the people of those countries but generally make them work without any kind of social security protection, in medieval conditions. The reason is that the workforce - underpaid women and children, as well as prisoners - costs less than automation would cost in the country of origin. This is colonization in another, equally heinous, form.
* I am not pessimistic, far from it. The pessimists are those who say there is no alternative to the present situation, that we have no choice. My book is an attempt to describe what is going on. It's true that the situation is dramatic. All the same I am, like many other people, the citizen of a country whose democratic regime makes it possible to reflect and freely resist the growing pressure that the economic factor is exerting on our lives.
* I would like there to be checks and balances, alternative thinking, conflicts of ideas and interests. Not violent conflict, of course, but we should wake up and stop being petrified, prisoners of hackneyed thinking. Already in countries where my book is being translated-especially in the
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United States, Brazil, Mexico, Lithuania, Poland and in others such as the Republic of Korea - it is causing something of a stir even before publication.
I am neither against the globalization of exchanges, nor the emergence of new technologies. Such an attitude would be absurd. But I am against their being taken over by a tiny minority of economic power centres, often in private hands, whereas entire populations are excluded from social progress. I am against the globalization of rejection and poverty and for the globalization of well being.
C R E D I T S
edited by Vivian Hutchinson for the Jobs Research Trust P.O.Box 428,
New Plymouth, New Zealand
phone 06-753-4434 fax 06-759-4648
Internet address -- firstname.lastname@example.org
The Jobs Letter -- an essential information and media watch on jobs, employment, unemployment, the future of work, and related economic and education issues.
The Jobs Research Trust -- a not-for-profit Charitable Trust constituted in 1994 to develop and distribute information that will help our communities create more jobs and reduce unemployment and poverty in New Zealand. Our internet website at http://www.jobsletter.org.nz/
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Source: I received the above excerpt from the Jobs Letter via the REBUILD mailing list in Australia (thanks to Richard Mochelle)