Sorry we missed you

Anyone who has seen the moving film Sorry We Missed You directed by Ken Loach will have been left in no doubt about the horror of the gig economy and the misery it heaps on workers and their families. Once referred to as McJobs, casual employment, zero hours contracts and spurious self-employment are now ubiquitous throughout the economy. Yet the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported on Tuesday that the unemployment rate in three months to November was only 3.8%, its lowest since the 1970s, while the number of people in work has risen by 208,000. The employment rate, according to ONS, is at a new high of 76.3%; and a report by Whiteshield Partners, in collaboration with the Said Business School, Oxford University, concludes that the UK remains the “ninth most resilient labour market in the world”. What exactly is going on here?

According to ONS someone who works only one hour a week is considered to be “employed”. They deny that this distorts the figures as the number of workers on less than six hours a week is “only” 1.4%. As the unemployment rate is “only” 3.8%, this presumably means that, as those working less than six hours a week are effectivly unemployed, the unemployment rate is actually 5.2%, not 3.8%. But even this figure is likely to be a gross underestimate.
ONS tend to hide behind internationally agreed definitions of employment and unemployment. That might assist international analysis, but it does nothing for assessing the economic reality that should be the basis for economic policy – and will be when we start to build a socialist future. Some 9 million people in the UK aged 16 to 64 are “economically inactive” and 14.5% of UK homes are “workless”. The official unemployment figure doesn’t reflect part-time workers who want full-time jobs, “inactive” workers alienated from the workforce and workers who are prematurely “retired“ by their employers . Analysing these groups leads some analysts to conclude that the true unemployment rate is not 50% bigger, as suggested above, it’s three or four times the official figure. That makes sense. How else can we explain the misery, so convincingly portrayed in Ken Loach’s film, of workers driven to seek jobs in the gig economy ?

Another route to social revolution?

Marx argued that, in acquiring new productive forces, men and women change their social relations, illustrating this with the example that the windmill resulted in a society with a feudal lord and the steam engine resulted in a society with industrial capitalists. Social revolution occurs, according to Marx, when these social relations – feudal and Victorian industrial capitalism in the examples – inhibit the development of productive forces. This helps to explain the interest communists display in reports about new means of production. These developments can signal  social revolution to come.

As the CUiSL paper last year on global warming argued (link below), our need to leave fossil fuels in the ground will lead to social revolution – or the destruction of humanity, for, as Marx recognised, effective action precedes social revolution and, without it, the mutual destruction of all classes is a possible outcome. The fires raging in Australia may give us some indication of whether this necessary action will be forthcoming. Will Australians permit their government to deny the true cause of the conflagration (global warming caused by increased CO2 in the atmosphere) and fail to hold them to account for their failure to respond?  Will they be gulled into believing that the fires are a random event – an “Act of God”? Or will they hold their government and the corrupt system that supports it to account? We shall see.

The development of new productive forces is reported by George Monbiot in the Guardian Journal yesterday – lab grown foods using a new process, the hydrogen pathway, developed by a company called Solar Foods. Brewed in giant vats, the company estimates that it is 20,000 times more efficient than conventional farming. Monbiot is clearly convinced – he calls it “farmfree” food and predicts that we are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation in 200 years and the end, after 12,000 years, of conventional farming. While not quantifying the effect, Monbiot appears to be arguing that farmfree food is the answer to global warming, enabling us to continue to extract and burn fossil fuels, albeit less with be needed for fertiliser. Clearly, the effect on global temperature needs to be modelled, but the correct initial response should surely be one of scepticism.

Of course, economic transformations have been predicted before. Remember nuclear fusion with its promise of free electricity? Furthermore, even Monbiot recognises that this development might not flourish in a capitalist world reliant on copyright and patent law to secure profits for capitalists. The owners of this new means of production will be aiming to become immensely rich, content, no doubt, to see much of the world’s population reduced to the status of unemployed peasants. Fertile territory for a thousand Che Guevaras!