The NS Essay - Work: the great illusion

Outside the Anglo-Saxon world, Viviane Forrester's L'Horreur Economique (winner of the Prix Medici) has been a sensational best-seller: more than 350,000 copies sold in France, more than 60,000 in Germany, more than 50,000 in Argentina. It is now being translated into over 20 languages. Both the style of writing and the mode of argument will be unfamiliar to English readers. But its popularity, particularly on the Continent, cannot be ignored. Here is an edited extract from the newly published English translation.


We are living in the midst of a deception, where artificial policies claim to perpetuate a world that has in fact gone for ever. Millions of human lives are devastated and annihilated by this anachronism, which asserts the immutability of our most sacred concept: work.

Work is the foundation stone of western civilisation. The two seem so much a part of each other that even now, when work is vanishing into thin air, no one ever officially questions it. Doesn't it order all distribution and thus all survival? The networks of exchange deriving from it seem as indisputably vital as the circulation of blood. Yet today, work, regarded as our natural driving force, has become an entity without substance.

Our concepts of work, and thus of unemployment, around which politics revolve (or claim to revolve), have become illusory. Our struggles with them are as much of a hallucination as Don Quixote's tilting at the windmills. Yet we still ask the same phantasmal questions, allowing us to ignore the disappearance of a world where there was still some point in asking them. The climate of that world remains in the air we breathe. We still belong to it viscerally, whether we profited or suffered from it. We are still fiddling with the vestiges of that world, busily plugging gaps, patching up emptiness, fudging up substitutes around a system that has not just collapsed but vanished.

"Unemployment" is mentioned constantly. Today, however, the term has lost its true meaning, for it covers a phenomenon quite different from the utterly obsolete one it claims to describe. Yet elaborate and usually fallacious promises are made in its name, hinting at tiny quantities of jobs acrobatically launched (at reduced wages) on the labour market. The percentages are derisory in view of the millions of people excluded from the labour market, and, at this rate, likely to remain so for decades. We can also add in some light-hearted deceptions, like the one which, in France, removed 250,000 to 300,000 unemployed from the statistics at a stroke - by removing from the register those who worked at least 78 hours a month, ie, less than two weeks' work and with no benefits. The fate of the bodies and minds has not been modified, but only the mode of calculation, the way they're counted. The figures are the real point, even if they correspond to no actual number, even if they point to nothing but a display of tricks. Like the government that proclaimed an amazing triumph on unemployment. Had it fallen? No, it had risen - but not so fast as the year before.

The unemployed today are no longer put aside temporarily or occasionally, and in only some sectors; they are up against a general implosion, a phenomenon resembling those tidal waves, cyclones or tornadoes that don't aim at anyone in particular but that no one can withstand. Yet the jobless are treated and judged by the same criteria as when jobs were abundant. They are, therefore, made to feel guilty for being jobless, at the same time as they are lulled by deceptive promises that an abundance of jobs will once again be available.

So the vast and ever-growing number of job-seekers are made to feel incompatible with a society of which they happen to be the most natural product. They are led to consider themselves socially unworthy, and above all responsible for their own situation, which they regard as degrading (since it is degraded) and even reprehensible. They accuse themselves of what they are victims of. They judge themselves through the eyes of their judges. They wonder what inadequacies, what aptitude for failure, what ill-will or errors can have led them there. They lose not just income but status, contacts, self-esteem and peace of mind. They feel shame. They undergo work experience and retraining only to realise more forcefully than ever that they have no real role. They come to realise that there is something worse than being exploited - and that is not even to be exploitable.

A fundamental question emerges: must a person "deserve" to live to have a right to do so? A tiny minority, exceptionally vested with power, property and privilege, takes that right for granted. As for the rest of humanity, if it is to "deserve" to live, it must prove itself "useful" to society. And in this context useful nearly always means profitable - profitable to profit. (The favoured word is "employable" since it would be in rather poor taste to say "exploitable".)

The right to live, therefore, depends on the "duty" of working, of being employed. But what happens to this right to live when populations are prevented from meeting this duty to work, when it becomes impossible to fulfil the requirements?

We pursue some very strange routines. The shortage of jobs is ever-increasing, yet we compel every one of the millions of unemployed to search for work that does not exist and to do so every working day of every week, every month and every year. Is this really a commendable use of time? It seems more like a demonstration to prove that the rituals of work are self- perpetuating. Aren't such chains of rejections just staged to persuade the job- seekers of their nothingness? So many stifled, crushed, cornered, beaten and falling-apart lives, merely tangential to a shrinking society. They are said to be excluded. On the contrary, they are screwed into our society, incarcerated and included in it to the marrow. They are absorbed and eaten up by it, banished, subdued, fallen. They can never be wholly, sufficiently thrown out: they are included, only too clearly included, within rejection.

People are induced to seek work, beg for it, any work at any price (which is to say the lowest), when they are often the very ones who would be enslaved by it. The holders of economic power have subdued the trouble-makers who only yesterday were protesting, demonstrating, demanding and fighting. How sweet to see them beg for what they used to vilify and now regard as a Holy Grail. Further, the economically powerful have other people at their mercy: those who do have jobs and salaries and will baulk at nothing for fear of losing such rare, valuable and fragile privileges and being obliged to join the porous ranks of the destitute.

Is this not the way one would construct a society of slaves upon whom only slavery can confer status? But why should a society burden itself with slaves if their labour is superfluous? The following questions emerge. Is it "useful" to live when not profitable to profit? And must a person "deserve" to live to have a right to do so? A fear then arises: that many, perhaps even most, human beings could be considered superfluous. Not inferior, or even reprehended; just superfluous, and therefore harmful. And therefore . . .

No such verdict has yet been pronounced or formulated; or not even consciously thought. We are in a democracy. But the 20th century has taught us that nothing lasts, not even the most cast-iron regimes. It has also taught us that no horrors are impossible, that there are no limits to human decisions. From exploitation to exclusion, from exclusion to elimination - is that an unthinkable sequence?

But perhaps it will be thought a pity not to take more advantage of the flocks of human beings and not to keep them alive for various purposes. For instance, as reserves of organs for transplants - human livestock - which can be drawn upon at will for the needs of the privileged.

Is that an exaggeration? But who among us screams on learning that in India, for instance, the poor sell their organs (kidneys, corneas, and so on) so as to subsist for a while? It is happening today. Customers from the richest, most "civilised" parts of the world can make their purchases at "bargain" prices. In some countries, such organs are stolen, through kidnapping or murder, and there are clients for them. Who screams, other than the victims? What outcries are raised against sex tourism? Only the consumers react; they rush to the scene. All this is known. And it is known, too, that sex tourism and the sale of human organs are mere epiphenomena, that the source of it all is poverty, which spurs the have-nots to undergo mutilation for the benefit of the haves, only to survive a little longer. And this is accepted. And we live in a democracy. We are free, we are numerous. Yet who moves a finger except to fold up a newspaper or to switch the television off, obeying the injunction to remain confident, smiling, entertaining and enraptured?

We have experienced a revolution, without having noticed it. A radical, mute revolution, without any stated theories or avowed ideologies; it came about in silence, by and through facts established without declaration or comment. The straitjacket of the markets has managed to sheathe us as tightly as a second skin, regarded as more fitting to us than that of our human body. We no longer deplore the underpayment of exploited labour in poverty-stricken countries. What we now deplore is the underemployment it causes in our countries.

Markets can choose their poor from an enlarged area; there are now the poor poor and the rich poor. There can always be found even poorer poor, less difficult and demanding. Fantastic cut-price sales! Special offers everywhere. Work is available for nothing if you're willing to travel. A further advantage: choosing these poor - the poor poor - will make the rich poor poorer and, once poorer, nearly as poor as the poor poor, so they will in turn be less demanding. The great life!

The haves have taken a strange revenge on the have-nots. The excesses of exploitation, rendered null and void by history in the more industrialised countries, have been transported and reconstituted elsewhere. Meantime, the galloping rise in unemployment in the developed countries tends to make them attain, by insensible degrees, third-world poverty. We might have hoped to see the opposite occur and prosperity spread. Instead, it is poverty that is becoming globalised, making its way into previously privileged countries.

Everything is organised, planned, prevented or induced with profit in mind, which then seems inevitable, so fused with the very fabric of life that the two cannot be told apart. It operates in full view of everyone, but unperceived. It is disseminated and active everywhere, but never referred to except in the guise of the "creation of wealth" that is supposed to bring immediate benefit to the entire human race.

To tamper with such wealth would thus be criminal. It must be preserved at all costs. It must not be discussed. It must be forgotten (or one must pretend to forget) that it always works to the advantage of the same small number of people. Only when business - that is, the market economy - has been guaranteed its share, and when that share has been subtracted, are other sectors, such as the social and political ones, taken into account, although less and less.

Profit comes first; everything else falls into line afterwards. It is only later that we make do as best we can with the crumbs of the so-called "creation of wealth", without which, we are given to understand, there would be nothing, not even those crumbs, which are petering out anyway.

"Creation of wealth" is an example of how we continue to use words that have lost their meaning. "Welfare", far from providing well-being, merely alleviates, reluctantly and in a miserly way, flagrant injustice. "Flexibility" denotes, among other things, the right to dismiss workers when and how it pleases the managers. Yet flexibility is often made out to be the best way of diminishing or even eliminating unemployment. Wouldn't this seem comic if it were not so tragic? "Work" and "unemployment" simply help to preserve the remnants of an organised system which may be obsolete but may still safeguard social cohesion for a while.

Many other terms, however, languish in obsolescence: "profit", "proletariat", "capitalism", "exploitation" or those "classes" now impervious to any "struggle". To make use of such archaisms today would be an act of heroism. Who would willingly assume the role of the corny crank, the misinformed simpleton, the country bumpkin intent upon issues about as contemporary as hunting the aurochs? Who wants to see brows that no longer frown angrily, but rise in incredulous amazement mingled with kindly compassion? "You surely don't mean . . . You can't be still . . . The Berlin Wall came down, don't you know? So you liked the USSR? Stalin? But what about liberty, the free market . . . No?" And a helpless smile is bestowed on the poor retarded fool, so corny as to be endearing.

Yet how can language take history into account without these mutilated words - when history is fraught with them, and still conveys their silent presence? Have they lost their meaning, because a monstrous totalitarian system employed and even promoted them? Will Stalinism, even now it is no more, have eradicated everything, even through its very absence? Should it be allowed to determine this removal of words, this muteness that mutilates thinking? If vocabulary is not only gravely suspect but is said to be without meaning - and if that most effective of threats, ridicule, is brought to bear against it - what weapons and what allies are left to the deprived?

How has it come about that the helplessness of some and the domination of others can be accepted by both sides? And without a conflict either, apart from the struggle claiming more and more space for a market economy which is triumphant, if not omnipotent, and which has its own logic, but which no longer has any other logic opposing it. It is taken for granted that the present state of things is the natural condition, the exact point where history has been waiting for us.

Viviane Forrester is a French novelist and journalist. "The Economic Horror" is published this month by Polity, £39.50 (hardback) and £9.99 (paperback)