Ruthless Criticism

The “end of the work society”, “citizen work” and other constructive scientific contributions to “social problem No. 1”

Finally discovered – unemployment is a head problem!

[Translated article by Peter Decker]

Unemployment is “social problem No. 1,” the fight against it the “highest priority.” All the relevant points of view are so united that they created an “Alliance for Work.” It is less clear who actually has the problem of unemployment and wherein it lies.

The banal fact

Those would first of all be the unemployed persons. They have a problem. However, this does not consist in the fact that they do not work – others get along perfectly well with sweet idleness. Real unemployed persons do not have money, and one needs that to live in the free-market economy. Their problem is poverty – and really only they have that. Their livelihoods and living expenses are not the concerns of this economy. Because even if they do have “work,” it is organized not for their living expenses but for the profit of the entrepreneurs, and they are prevented from doing the work they need for their livelihoods as soon as it is no longer useful for profit.

There is secondly “business.” Their admission of the “problem of unemployment” is an open lie that serves the ideology that their profit making is a public service. Business actually does not suffer from unemployment, but creates it by its rationalizations. The masses that they throw on the street do not disturb them, but are useful to them because a high number of job applicants presses down the wages of those who remain employed. Nevertheless, the employers also participate in the “Alliance for Work” because the political desire for more jobs gives them an opportunity to obtain acknowledgement of the necessary conditions under which more jobs could be made available: labor must be available for cheaper, then it would surely be more profitable and possibly its use even increased. Wage levels, benefits, work time regulations, protection against dismissal – everything that the workers get from their work, all the regulations which were once put in place for their protection are accused of being employment barriers which must be eliminated if there is to be “more work.”

This interests the third party in the game, the state. Because, first of all, its tax receipts suffer if an increasing part of the population doesn't earn money, doesn't pay taxes and, instead of depositing contributions into the social insurance system, applies for support. Secondly, politicians know about the abstract danger of the “social explosive”: a mass army of unemployed persons who once before undermined “the stability of democracy” and “the social peace.”

“Social problem No. 1” – the problem that creates the poverty of the unemployed persons in the society – has only one policy. However, the fight against this “evil cancer” turns out to be just as complicated as it is unsuccessful, because the idea that the work that the “society lacks” could be organized points to the government. But the liberal state has authorized the owners of the means of production to organize work. It is and wants to be powerless here. Because it stands for the point of view that only work that makes more money than the wages that it costs is of value, is worth being done. Finally, the state also lives off the surplus above living costs that is taken from profitably exploited work – regardless of whether this surplus is taken as a tax from gross wages or from profits. The task of making work profitable and using only profitable work is left to the entrepreneurs; however, they make paid work efficient for their profit by making the work cheap for themselves: they exploit the people they pay more efficiently and more intensely, thereby saving on more workers and their wages and dismissing the redundant. Governments recognize unemployment as an unwanted but inevitable side effect of the national economic success on which they depend. Therefore, their fight against the double problem entailed by their form of success always has the same measures as a remedy: more of the growth that creates unemployment! Thus the problem not only remains, but increases with the growth of capital: the more unemployed persons running around, the louder the calls for growth; the larger the poverty of the unemployed persons, the clearer the economic diagnosis that the country must be lacking profit and opportunities for profits.

... and its scientific interpretation

Modern social scientists hold themselves responsible for big questions and issues. In response to calls for social relevance, they prove the correctness of their models and the usefulness of their ideas by looking after of the current “problem of unemployment.” Their common achievement consists of interpreting this false social question, in which totally opposite parties with opposing interests face one another, as a genuine suffering of the society and a danger to it. They try to help solve the problem with the interesting discovery that the whole problem would not have to exist if it were not for the ossified thinking that prevails everywhere, and which they try to fix.


having given up the concept of its relatively successful “management,” recognize in the pure existence of such a problem a violation of economic laws. If the law of supply and demand was respected in the labor market and the free play of market forces allowed, there would be no disconnect between people willing to work and the demand for them. The “demand deficit” of the many unemployed persons whose work nobody wants to buy is, for the economists, proof of the fact that their price is too high! And the injustice that the society commits against them consists of withholding from them a fundamental right on which the free-market economy is based: the right to make their offer at an attractive price. If the free market participants would be free enough to lower the price of their labor until either a buyer is found or the “marginal utility” at which they could make their work available, then the entire trouble would no longer exist. Then they would have by definition all that they want – and those who then still have no work just don't want it. The fact that poverty with and without work is their solution to the problem of unemployment does not bother the economists at all: the market gives its opportunities to everyone and portions out its offers at the fair – corresponding to real market conditions – price. They return to the plaintiff the reproach that in the case of unemployment their fine free-market economy does not produce the desired results: they andtheir unionized representatives have to answer for the injustice of the exclusion from which the unemployed suffer. Their price cartel, an incomprehensibly legal monopoly, destroys chances for jobs because it prevents the price of labor from sinking to the “clearing level on the market.” A twisted entitlements mentality by the workers and the unemployed wage earners is responsible for the exclusion of the unemployed persons. Economists advise them to reconsider.

Labor market policy analysts

also express themselves critically, if not directly against the unemployed persons; therefore, they are considered “socially conscious.” They do not want to take part in the anti-worker idealism of an all-regulating market, and they also do not believe that there would be enough paid work for all with a correct price.

"Full employment will never return. 85 per cent unemployment in Germany is due to structural problems. Even if the economy boomed, there would have to be 15% of those who are today without jobs included in conventional employment statistics.” (SZ. 12./13.12.98)

As scientists, they concern themselves with the reason for unemployment; if the reader wants to know the reason, characterized as “structural,” he finds, however, the same story. The reader should be content with the information that necessary causes are present, but they are immovable and nothing can be done about them. Think constructively! is the slogan of practically oriented policy advisors who do not want to let themselves base the problem on millions being excluded from working and consuming. Because a “return to full employment” cannot be expected anyway, more people can receive work and income only if the work is stretched out on a shoestring and shoestring incomes are distributed to everybody. More “gainful employment” should be made possible by reducing consumption. We must get accustomed to “flexible work lives” with partially independent and partially dependent employment. Re-training phases without consumption could alternate with a variety of simultaneous part time jobs; job sharing and sabbaticals could free jobs for others, etc. The appeal of these suggestions, which is why they come from the science department of the Federal Institution for Work, consists in leveling the difference between employment and unemployment and in dissolving the contrast of unemployment with the previous definition of employment.

Today's labor market planners ask themselves this: why does something that has been happening for a long time not happen much faster; and they discover the barrier to the overdue reform of the working world in the politicians’ belief in the welfare state. Invented in order to make the poverty of the wage laborers sustainable, the welfare state puts demands on the funds that are established for the foreseeable emergencies in the lives of wage laborers, and paid for by taxes on the wage dependent. Those who receive pensions, unemployment pay and medical insurance are required to, first, make deposits, second, have a long working life, and third, pay enough into the three funds. The funds, for their part, can redeem their promises only if enough people deposit into them and the many unemployed persons do not tilt the ratio between deposits and support for the insured. Today, on the one hand, fewer people deposit into them over the course of a full busy work life, so the system fails to provide the expected services. On the other hand, they are expensive nevertheless, increasing the costs of wage laborers for the entrepreneurs, thus preventing employment. In the end, job seekers can no longer afford the wonderful form of free employment if social insurance is not connected with it. The intellectuals advocating labor market reforms think that work, which means poverty, should be required only of people who do not stand at the end of their working lives completely un-provided for. They seek ways to organize the loss of wages that can nevertheless guarantee the required safeguards. But they want to separate the social insurance system from wage incomes. Only then can the citizens get a wage that does not require that they ask themselves whether it can support them or not. The discovery that the total of the wage earners’ money is no longer enough to support the survival of the class, including the old, the sick and the unemployed, can also be treated constructively. Then, of course, one searches for pecuniary sources from which – if it can no longer be taken from wages – the means for welfare services could be raised. And because it is impossible to saddle business with the expenses of the living costs of the working class because it is supposed to create more jobs, the consumption of the wage-working masses presents itself to the reformers as a tax source to be increasingly tapped.


can't be expected to offer conventional advice. They look more deeply. What the labor market experts suggest as a solution, they hold as part of the problem: the distribution of scarce work by lowering incomes – this already exists! A lot of “precarious” jobs are nothing but a “rearrangement of unemployment” and prove that full employment is irreparably past. The attempt to return to full employment must fail. Such a thing is simply no longer possible:

“Two per cent unemployment, normal work, social identity and security via a job: that's history. But the politicians do not have the courage to express the bitter truth about the end of full employment. All over the world, the number of so-called ‘permanent temporary employees’ is growing ...” (Ulrich Beck, SP interview, March 20, 1999); “...we cannot assume we can extend the work society into the future. In all European states, we have to rearrange unemployment. In Germany, it is a third; in England, half; the normal employer-employee relationship is no longer secure” (Beck, TAZ interview, June 13, 1997); “We will have to prepare for a permanent condition where a large part of citizens of both genders no longer finds employment and income in 'normal' employee relations” (Claus Offe, TAZ, October 6, 1994).

Sociologists also know a necessity, a subject that produces it and who is affected by it. Of course, there are no unemployed persons who are affected by poverty and no entrepreneurs who cause it; on the contrary, “we all” play both roles! The collective subject “humans” is both author and victim of a development that is helplessly brought about. “It is important to recognize that the development of the productive forces is so large that we can produce more goods and services with much fewer workers … Humans (!) replace themselves (!) by intelligent technologies” (Beck, sp interview). Pretty stupid, this “human.” First, he invents “technologies” that take work from him and then he either suffers “precarious employment relations” or goes completely without a source of income. His beautiful productive forces can increase wealth and shrink the amount of work with the interesting result that “humans” are thereby much poorer. The dialectic of the terrible but inevitably progress, which the sociologists evoke, only proves that this collective subject “we,” in whose name they speak, does not exist: because “society” does not distribute work among its members, because “society” does not speed up the productivity of their labor. If it were true, if “society” was the subject of this progress, then it could easily increase productivity without its adverse consequences. There would certainly not be such consequences if this was the case: the reduction of the necessary work would result in general wealth and increased leisure instead of increased poverty. However, sociologists insist on interpreting the hostile interests in society as a collective and the conflict between those who use labor to make profit and those who must live from the sale of their labor as a self-contradictory, uniform “we”: the “work society” destroys its basis and endangers its own existence.

Again, to put it in a different way: sociologists describe the economy in which capital and wage labor confront each other as a “work society,” and see it characterized by the non-specific quality that people work in it. As if every different society – feudal, socialist or otherwise – would not perish within days if it stopped working. The coined phrase, which is a whole theory, maintains that the work necessary in every society is the special fulcrum and pivot of the society that determines its organization, the position of the people in it and its laws and customs. Taken literally, nothing in this picture is correct: the whole society has never worked (that would be irrational) and work was never a reason and source for participation in social wealth. It so happens that the rich really do not work but decide on whether others work, and then only to the degree that it enriches the owners of the means of production. The whole social wealth belongs to them and if they pay part of it as wages, then what the workers can buy from their wages is always considered as their fair share.

But who does one say this to? It does not help to inform sociologists about the functioning of the economy; it does not interest them. They have decided to ignore the real functioning mode of the economy because they see it as having another, higher function, which they see failing now. They have the idea that capitalism, for which they had in earlier times different names and other structural principles, should now be designated as the “work society,” only because in their review of better times they want to certify its end. And only because of their idea of a higher function, the rise of an unemployment rate to approximately 5% to 10% of those who are dependent on wage labor – while 90% are still exploited – is called the “end of the work society." It is all the same to them whether the real function of work – to create capitalistic wealth – is won by successful rationalization or many millions more are lost to unemployment – they know only their higher purpose of work and consider it endangered.

“Work was the main integrator of society” (Heinz Bude, Discussion of Perspectives on the Work Society, TAZ July 8, 1997),“work has for 200 years served as the cohesive of the society” (sp article), work “secured co-operation in the individualistic society” and “made possible society, democracy and freedom” (Beck).

The higher purpose of work, for which they ignore the real purpose, is always the same in the art of sociological abstraction: work is appointed a society-forming principle: it creates, according to this idea, not wages and profits – at least, not really – but no more and no less than the existence of the society, i.e. it holds the society and its members together. In their system thinking, sociologists do not want to know anything about what a system exists for and what its purpose is; as the secret principle of every society, they always discover the same thing, namely that it is a system and always has one and the same purpose: self-preservation. Whereas ordinary people think that companies have work done to maximize their profits and that workers work for their wages, the uncritical parasites of the “mute compulsion of social relations” know that the actors thereby do unconsciously something else, which is basically much more important: they carry out the functioning of society and reproduce its existence.

The “loss of meaning” which they certify to the “gainful employment paradigm” expresses their concern that wage labor could lose what they view is its social-formative function. In this respect, the scientific early warners about the stability of the system relate to, and indeed relate only to, the state’s fear of a “social explosion.” Like the state, the sociologists recognize the suffering, neglect and poverty of people as a problem in only one respect: the lumpen could make problems for society and endanger its stability. On the other hand, they are only analysts and not propagandists. They know the production of stability by definition is an achievement of their subject, society. It is the process of integration of its members – and if this integration through gainful employment is less and less insured, then a new social cohesive grows spontaneously from the life of society: new values and orientations form spontaneously if people can no longer orient themselves by work and wages.

The guardians of the automatic social cohesion become policy critics because they fear the readiness to adapt to the requirements of a new “mode of integration.” Ulrich Beck explains that the politicians, because of their “publicly celebrated faith in the recovery of full employment,” endanger the society. (The Brave New World of Work, Frankfurt/New York 1999, p. 93) Because they do not have the courage to abandon this unattainable goal, they create hopeless “cheap jobs” a la “job miracle America,” which can not be the “cohesive” that it was in the good old working world. Without considering its credibility and dangerous effects, the politicians promote an “imperialism of the working world,” which attempts to shape all social spheres according to its values and wants to define the self-respect and life perspectives of people – and which, nevertheless, no longer corresponds to reality. The values become obsolete and the orientations of work life cause frustration, leading to a let down for the disappointed citizens of the society – and all this only because the politicians do not change their old thinking and refuse to exchange the outdated paradigm of the central role of gainful employment for the newly developing social cohesive.

This would be so easy. If up till now “gainful employment” provided security, a sense of life, social participation and thus stability, now, however, that there is ever less to be had, then the society itself must only declare that work, participation and acknowledgment can also be granted without “the acquisition of goods.” “The antithesis to the work society is not the leisure society, but the activity society” (Beck) in which “activity for self-determined and meaningful goals” becomes a purpose in itself beyond the acquisition of goods. On the occasion of the “gainful employment” integrator having become no longer feasible – and only because of this – it occurs to the enthusiasts of real integration how little self-determination there has been up until now, nevertheless. “Eight hours of work a day and wages paid” is not free self-integration into the larger whole that creates real stability. Sociologists think of massive unemployment as something quite positive, as an opportunity for “the recuperation of democratic competence” and an “increase in possibilities for acting socially” (M. Miegel). By free “citizen work,” the individual can integrate himself into the society. In addition, “the precariousness of the new forms of work” only need a “right to discontinuous gainful employment” to be “transformed into a right to freely chosen time" (Beck).

Oh, to be sure, there is still something: precious money. As a side issue in their sociological imagination, the conscientious theoreticians somehow recognize the only real problem of unemployment: the unemployed don't have money. Only because of money are they without work, only because of money are they lacking work. The fact that they don't seek and don't need work without earnings doesn't help them. Admittedly, the suppliers of the new integration principle recognize that the monetary problem must be solved. Citizen work gives them “citizen’s money” or a “guaranteed basic income” which frees the citizen for self-determined engagement in the beautification of the society. No problem, such a thing only needs to be decided on by policy. If it is only that, then policy could also immediately ensure that unemployed persons have no money problems, or that living costs are not predicated on profitable work, or that the economy is concerned with taking care of people’s needs and not with profit. But, nevertheless, the scientists do not want to be excessively wishful: the sociologist Beck, with a mixture of idealism and realism, solves the minor problem of financing his new social cohesive:

"Who is to pay for this? A source for citizen money is for example the enormous sums that are spent in Europe in the form of unemployment and social welfare assistance, on the fact that someone does not do anything. The receiver of citizen money carries publicly important and effective citizen work out, and to that extent is not unemployed and obtains for his effort citizen money. This gets funded from public funds, by means of social sponsors, local financers, as well as the amounts gained by citizen work.” (Beck)

If unemployment assistance and income support is what the poor already get anyway, with small donations from the big companies that have dismissed them for cost reasons, and if municipal payments for public works are actually added, and if the citizen’s work produces then still another commodity that a buyer pays for privately, then isn’t this nevertheless an income – or what? No wonder that the advocates of citizen work must prevent, with so much realism, a dangerous mistake:

“Citizen work should not be confused in any case with the requirement, now everywhere suspended, of the person on social assistance performing work.” (Beck, S. 129)

This had to be said. The amount of this fine “guaranteed basic income” decides whether social idealists begin to say something capitalistically crazy, or whether responsible social scientists enact a new interpretation of the existing poverty management, which should free this growing, undesirable state sector from the nefariousness of the antisocial and shiftless. When they make suggestions for free and self-determined activity, the meaningful activities which occur to the advocates of citizen work are also telling: second hand stores for those with pinched pocketbooks, consultation with do-it-yourself enthusiasts who tinker with their furniture themselves, etc. The technical designers of the new social cohesive think of all the unsatisfied needs that can be satisfied by non-monetary work – namely, all those needs whose satisfaction cannot be made a pecuniary resource in capitalism: social needs. Is that the idea, that paupers may also feel themselves to be adequate members of society if they take care of supporting people without incomes, who are in this way are just like them, thus to protect the world of capitalistic wealth from harm?

Fortunately for their inventors, this question is never decided, because nothing ever comes of the general introduction of non-gainful employment. No matter how wonderfully and realistically the sociological dreamers may sketch their project, the responsible politicians reject it and proclaim this brave new world of work to be “visionary.” They insist that gainful employment has to remain the social standard. They infer from the thesis of the end of the work society and its substitute solutions only that the science of unemployment will give them its blessings and that survival must be searched for. They, however, administer capitalism. They do not want unemployment to be bearable or even made more bearable – all steps in this direction only weaken the need to work, for which humans belong dangling in the air – whether they find buyers for their services or not.