Joblessness in Zambia is an extremely serious problem.
One of the main reasons for our very high rates of poverty – 82.2 per cent in Western Province, Luapula Province 81.1 per cent, Northern Province 79.7 per cent, Eastern Province 70 per cent, Muchinga Province 69.3 per cent, North Western Province 66.4 per cent, Southern Province 57.6 per cent, Central Province 56.2 per cent, Copperbelt Province 30.8 per cent and Lusaka Province 29.2 per cent – is the failure of the economy to provide sufficient jobs.
In order to derive a benefit from an economy, people must be able to participate in it; and for most people, the primary means of economic participation is through work.
Unemployment undermines human dignity. It is a terrible frustration and humiliation for a parent to be unable, due to unemployment, provide for the family.
It is equally demoralising for young people to find there’s no work waiting for them when they leave school, college or university.
There is an old joke that the only thing worse than being exploited by capitalism is not being exploited by capitalism.
Things are not easy for the great majority of our people, especially the workers and the peasants. But we cannot abandon our moral responsibilities, even when it is difficult to fulfil them.
Much more needs to be said and to be done if we are to meet effectively the massive problems of human suffering in Zambia today. We all know our people’s suffering. But there seems to be very little action taking place in responding to the suffering of our people.
Unemployment is not an inevitable and necessary part of human life. Unemployment is ultimately a product of human decisions and can be eradicated by human decisions.
When we speak of the economy or an economic system, we are speaking of policies and plans which control the wealth and resources of a country, about how resources are distributed between people, and about how the means of production – such as land, factories and technology – are owned and controlled.
At the heart of every economic system lies human needs, human abilities and human decisions, and it is the choices which we make in addressing those needs, sharing those abilities, and making those decisions, that determine justice or injustice of economic system. The more powerful our economic position, the greater our freedom of choice, with the working class, the peasants and the poor in general having very little effective choice in their economic decision making. There is thus a moral quality about an economy, a quality which has its roots in the morally correct or incorrect choices by people. And it is the moral quality of the economy that enables us to make judgments about whether or not it is a just economy.
Karl Marx believed that capitalism needed unemployment: the very workings of capitalist production for profit created unemployment, even in the best of economic times.
Marx argued that capitalists are always in competition with one another to create larger profits – by lowering their costs, largely by increasing labour productivity. A key way to do this is to replace variable capital – living labour – with fixed capital, machines.
And because the purpose of capitalist production is to maximise profit, whenever new technology is introduced it usually means a reduction in jobs – the capitalist can make as much, or more, than before, with fewer workers.
“It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of labourers, if the cost is about the same,” Marx wrote.
As productivity increases, capitalists can use fewer workers to produce more, with surplus workers being retrenched.
However, Marx argued, capitalist production is not just a one-way street. While new technology can displace workers from one industry, new industries are continually being developed. Workers are continually being re-employed and then set free. Although it may rise or fall, unemployment itself is a permanent feature of capitalism.
The unemployed are more than just a permanent reserve army of labour on which capital may call, however. They also serve capital by placing a permanent pressure on the wages of those who are employed, encouraging them to work harder for less, at pain of losing their job to someone else.
“Taking them as a whole, the general movements of wages are exclusively regulated by the expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army, and these again correspond to the periodic changes of the industrial cycle,” wrote Marx.
Capitalism has unleashed the massive productive potential of humanity. It has socialised production, unlocking the possibility of a better world — one based on the power of society-wide organisation and cooperation. Such immense productive power — if placed under the control of workers — could solve the world’s crises. Hunger and unemployment could all be things of the past, but not while production remains geared to profit alone and not to satisfy needs.
Marx believed that working people had both the right and the ability to run society better. In order to do so, however, first they had to take political power from the capitalists and use it to reorganise production in a socially useful way.
We are having such very large numbers of unemployed people became capitalism both creates and needs unemployment.
Capitalists’ investments can be divided into two parts: the part that hires workers, and the part that buys or rents the means of production – machines, raw materials, factories. As capitalism grows, two processes reduce the part of capital that hires workers. Competition leads to concentration: the big fish eat the little fish, or two medium or large companies merge to become a bigger fish. The merged company enjoys greater economies of scale, which basically means that one worker can operate a larger amount of the company’s capital. And whenever there is a merger of two firms, one guaranteed result is retrenchments.
The other process is the capitalists’ drive to increase productivity, which is imposed by competition. Greater productivity means producing a larger number of products from a smaller investment. One way to do this is to drive down wages and drive up working hours. The other way of increasing productivity is to provide workers with more efficient machines or tools. But if workers switch to using more efficient machines, then of course fewer workers are required to produce any given number of products. In a capitalist system, labour-saving technology necessarily destroys the jobs of some workers. This doesn’t mean that the number of jobs falls continuously. Particular industries can find new markets and expand; new industries can be created that need workers; the demand for labour rises and falls with changes in the business cycle. But it does mean that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to drive workers out of production.
And that is precisely the condition that capitalism needs. Capitalists need a pool of workers who can be drafted into and thrown out of production according to the capitalists’ changing requirements. When the economy is improving, they need workers immediately: hire some of the unemployed. When business turns down, save money – retrench them. You can always get more when things pick up.
Whatever the situation of the economy, the pool of unemployed helps keep workers’ wages and other demands down.
Capitalist economists talk about the supply and demand of labour. Marx pointed out: “The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active labour army; during the periods of over-production and paroxysm, it holds its pretensions in check. [The industrial reserve army] is therefore the pivot upon which the law of demand and supply of labour works. It confines … this law within the limits absolutely convenient to … exploitation and to the domination of capital.”