Whatever can such a promise mean, made as it was at the time of the collective illusions inspired by Berlusconi’s electoral propaganda.
In practical terms, nothing. Not just because it is impossible, but because it goes against economic logic itself.
Let us explain.
For capitalism, work is a commodity, and because it is derived from activity carried out in exchange for a wage, man himself becomes a commodity. So a work market actually exists. Work has a price (wages), and there is a direct relationship between lack of work (unemployment) and the level of market prices.
Wages being the cost of one of the main elements of production (the work force), they also have an important effect on all the others, so (in abstract terms) the higher the level of unemployment, the lower the wages and the greater inflation, i.e. the whole range of market prices go down. All theory so far. Now, sticking to the theoretical model, the bosses—those who literally buy the workers’ lives—might be tempted to reduce the possibility of employment, that is, not promise a million jobs, so pay fewer producers and earn more on each single item that leaves the factory.
But two things prevent this from happening. The first is that a reduction in employment would lead to a reduction in wages, with which the workers also buy goods, so sales would decrease. It follows that an increase in inflation (the result of a growth in unemployment) would reduce sales (there is no money left with which to buy) and a process of stagnation would set in which would begin to kill capital. The second element is that when they are unemployed (and consequently penniless), people become somewhat restless. First one ‘gets by’, then one rebels. And rebellion threatens social peace, puts the future of all production in danger, prevents investment, creates panic in buyers, and so on.
That is why jobs are promised. In the first place to sell more goods, in the second, to prevent rebellion.
But is this a reasonable promise? It is from a political point of view, but only up to a point. ‘Artificial’ work was invented long before the great scare of 1929. Workhouses existed as far back as the 18th century (in Britain of course, where else?), where the out of work were forced to build fortresses and roads for survival wages. Such a reduction to slavery is unthinkable today, but social security dulls people, putting them in a condition of permanent stupidity. Moreover, with increased production rates leading to more goods on the market and a greater need for sales by producers, assistance alone is no longer enough to support demand (it would not guarantee enough sales of all the goods produced). Something else is required, and capital in the 90s is still looking for it.
That is why they are talking about a million jobs in Italy alone. Even although does not correspond to reality. It serves a different purpose.
First, it serves to break down the defence lines of the old work aristocracy defined by skill. Flexibility and mobility are breaking up the old factory resistance even in terms of wage claims. That is leading to the disappearance of any capacity for opposition by the unions, now reduced to mere transmission belts for the bosses’ wishes.
Secondly, it supports demand, and so allows for the full use of the technological capacity to diversify supply. What sense would there be in the new assembly lines where products (a car, for example), can be designed to personal requirements if there were no demand for these products? Social security stifled rebellious instincts, it was not able to open up new possibilities for production.
Third, these jobs are not ‘new’, but are to be found within the field of already existing ones through various procedures—from early pensions to reduced working hours, controlled overtime, tax reduction, government financing, and so on.
Finally, in a move away from the perspective of rebellion, people are projected into a labyrinth of mirrors and illusions.
There seem to be possibilities right or left, nonexistent outlets. And this insane, continual wandering about leads not to a desire to break down the walls of the labyrinth, but to carrying on waiting for something to happen, as new illusions follow the old.
The only thing that might happen is for new, more attractive and more complex enigmas to appear which are increasingly difficult to resolve.
Or the destruction of everything.
[Original title: Un milione di posti di lavoro, in “Canenero”, no. 19, 17 March 1995. English translation by Jean Weir published in "Let's destroy work, let's destroy economy", Elephant Editions, London.]