Unemployment and revolution. Part 2: What ‘normally’ causes unemployment?

What “normally” causes unemployment? (continuation of research paper prepared by Albert Langer in 1981).

– The Labour Market

– The Unemployment Pool

– Changes in the Level of Unemployment


We shall argue that conservative economists are correct to stress that unemployment plays an essential regulatory role in a market economy. This contrasts with the usual “left” calls for government action to “create jobs”. But we will go on to show that “wage restraint” will not solve the problem either.

Such “restraint” would be unnecessary to keep “normal” unemployment within limits, because the unemployment itself would regulate wages. Something must have changed so that unemployment and wages are not regulated in the way they used to be.

A common way to look at unemployment is that there is a certain fixed number of jobs and a certain fixed number of people available to fill them, and some sort of mismatch has occurred. The suggestion here is that the unemployed are simply those workers who cannot be fitted into the jobs available for them. This idea leads to “commonsense” proposals to reduce the number of workers, or provide a better match between specific workers and specific jobs.

Solutions aimed at restricting the number of job applicants have historically had a powerful appeal. Discrimination against women, migrants, blacks and so on, can be in the immediate interests of men, native born, or whites, in the competition for a place at the front of the jobs queue.

Obviously such “solutions” cannot reduce unemployment, but they can determine who gets the jobs, and for the individual on the dole, that can be just as important. Efforts are already being made to promote these objective divisions of interest within the working class. Those efforts are serious and should be fought seriously. They can succeed.

There are always vacancies as well as people unemployed, so “solutions” which emphasise re-training and so forth are still popular. So is the idea that there are really plenty of jobs available, but “dole bludgers” are just refusing to fit into them because they want something better.

School leavers do have access to advice about how to be well groomed for a job interview and so on, although only cretins could imagine that if all the unemployed were better groomed, any more of them would get jobs quicker! This simply confirms that who gets the jobs is pretty important for the school leaver. Advice about how to find a job can be somewhat helpful in evening out the duration of unemployment and reducing the numbers who miss out on jobs altogether. But quite obviously it cannot reduce unemployment.

A lot of energy in left wing propaganda and agitation is spent trying to combat the above ideas but without attacking the underlying concept that there is a fixed number of jobs and workers. The “left-wing” and “right-wing” analyses are therefore just two sides of the same coin, sharing the same basic assumptions.

So we should not be surprised that the left makes no progress against the dominant right wing ideology.
What is the difference between saying there are too many workers or not enough jobs? These really amount to exactly the same thing. Yet that is all the left does say. The “not enough jobs” line is sterile, boring, and will get nowhere because it is just not true.

These ideas are wrong because neither the number of workers nor the number of jobs is at all rigid.

Under normal circumstances, the number of jobs adapts flexibly to the number of workers available to do them. In fact there is always plenty more work that needs doing, than the labour available to do it.
As capital is accumulated and society develops its productive forces, jobs that were previously left undone get attended to. The limitation is always the social labour time available to do things, rather than the number of “jobs”.

When the number of jobs fails to adapt to the number of available workers, this must mean that something has changed in the adaptive mechanism itself, and we must find out what. Just trying to “create jobs” would still leave us with an adaptive mechanism that was not working and that could recreate a new pool of unemployed.

This more sophisticated understanding of job creation in a market economy, lies at the heart of conservative arguments for wage restraint. Those arguments have never been satisfactorily answered from the labour movement, and are gradually being accepted by the trade union bureaucracy. There is thus an urgent need for them to be answered. Let us first consider how the adaptive mechanism is supposed to work.

The Labour Market

The workforce in modern industrial countries is extremely mobile. It is the product of centuries of capitalist development in which the technique and structure of production have changed so rapidly that people expect to change jobs many times during their working lives.

Nowadays many firms are so large that a good deal of movement between jobs takes place within the same firm. Some even have regular career services with a defined system for recruitment, promotion and transfer. There is also a certain amount of transfer between firms, directly from one job to another. But a great deal of movement between jobs still takes place via the pool of unemployment.

“Labour Turnover” includes workers changing jobs while searching for a better situation. It also includes the replacement of workers who have died or retired or otherwise left the labour force, by new workers entering the labour force for the first time.

These movements have no net effect on unemployment although many workers will pass through unemployment on their way between jobs, or on their way into the labour force. In addition to this however, there is a continuous process of new jobs being created and old jobs being destroyed. This does have a net effect on employment, and therefore on unemployment, although the effect can be in either direction.

In existing establishments, expansion or contraction of demand will create new vacancies or produce redundancies. Changes in demand may also result in new establishments being set up as an industry expands, or old ones being closed down as it contracts.

New techniques will be introduced with expansion, or when it is time for old plant and equipment to be replaced. Old techniques will be phased out with contraction, or when they have become so obsolete that it is more profitable to introduce the new technique immediately.

Investment in new production techniques requires a reorganisation of the labour process. Vacancies will be created for new positions that previously did not exist. Old staff positions no longer required will be abolished. Some workers will be transferred from old positions to new ones. Others will be retrenched, or not replaced when they leave. New workers, perhaps with different skills, will be recruited. New raw materials and components will replace those previously used. Work previously done “in house” when the volume was lower and the need for specialisation was less, will either be farmed out to new outside contractors or subsidiary establishments set up for the purpose.

Generally the new technique is introduced to increase productivity. The new team of workers will be able to turn more of their “inputs” into “outputs” at a lower cost and using less labour. There may be an increased demand for new inputs used by the new process, with a decrease in demand for the old inputs used by the old process. This may produce some net effect on total employment in the suppliers (and in their suppliers…)

If the output is relatively cheapened as productivity increases, then there may be a further increase in demand, which will again increase the demand for the products of the firms or departments that supply the inputs.

Expansion of markets is generally a consequence of relative cheapening through increased productivity, and at the same time a condition for new techniques to be introduced. “The division of labour is determined by the extent of the market”. Often within the same establishment, there will simultaneously be expanding demand which increases employment, and reorganisation that decreases it. The total staff size may either grow or shrink as a result.

This sort of thing is happening all the time, and may not even be noticed as “labour saving technological change”. Especially if the change only increases output with the same size workforce, instead of leading to redundancies.

However labour productivity and the real gross national product per worker are able to grow each year only because of these changes. Growth rates have been very high in the whole post-war period, because these changes have been taking place very rapidly.

The long term tendency has been for the total labour force to grow more rapidly than the population. Labour saving technological change has meant more output per worker together with more employment overall. However this simply implies the overall rate of economic growth has been faster than the rate of productivity increase. Any particular change may result in either more or less total employment, and there is no guarantee that changes in employment taking place simultaneously throughout the economy will automatically balance each other in any way.

Both changes in demand and changes in technique can produce a net change in total employment. If there was no unemployment pool, there would be no leeway for changes in total employment to occur as a result of job creation and destruction. There must be leeway, so there must be an unemployment pool.But its size is another question.

The Unemployment Pool

As well as the normal labour turnover, there is a continuous stream pouring into the pool of unemployment as a result of positions that have become redundant (whether their previous occupants were sacked, or the position was just not filled when they left).. There is also a continuous stream emptying the pool of unemployment as a result of new vacancies that have been created.

In fact there are a number of interconnected pools and streams for different occupations, industries and localities. And these are also interconnected with the pools of people in the education system or otherwise not in the labour force as well as with the flows of migrants to and from other countries.

The effect of changing demand on the numbers of jobs available for people of various skills and occupations in various localities, is reflected in the filling and emptying of their unemployment pools. People who cannot find a job in one pool are forced to transfer to another by doing things such as changing their usual occupation or residence, acquiring new skills that are more in demand, and so on.

The pools of people “not in the labour force” can also be forms of “hidden” or “latent” unemployment. Women for example, are drawn into wage labour more extensively during periods of peak labour shortage, and pushed back into “home duties” when unemployment is growing. Likewise people may stay on at school longer, or retire earlier, as a result of unemployment.

On a world-wide scale, the movement of people off the land and away from petty production into industrial wage labour jobs is accelerated by labour shortages.

This movement is retarded or even reversed during a depression. Thus countries like Australia which normally absorb immigrants from agricultural areas like southern Europe, will put up barriers to immigration when there is unemployment at home. People left marginally employed, on or off the land in the agricultural areas are also part of the unemployment problem.

The modern capitalist economy is very flexible and has a number of mechanisms for adapting to changes in the level of economic activity and consequent changes in the demand for labour. Thse include adjustments in overtime hours worked, part-time and casual employment, wage rates, labour turnover, work intensity, production techniques and so so.

Only when the other adjustment mechanisms have already been stretched considerably, do substantial unemployment or labour shortages appear directly. Both unemployment and labour shortages are therefore signs of some relatively severe disproportion which must be stretching things. Since each firm hires and fires independently and plans its investment program independently, there is no reason why at any given time the total numbers pouring into the pool of unemployed should be equal to the numbers drained out of it. Some other mechanism must therefore maintain the balance.

After all, why should the number of jobs created in the tertiary sector, just happen to balance the number of jobs lost in manufacturing, plus the additional numbers of women entering the labour force, and so on? Nevertheless, these independent statistics did balance for many years, and we must find out why they did, before we can find out why they now do not.

As will be explained later, the expansion and contraction of unemployment is itself part of the mechanism that regulates the price of labour power, the rate of profit and the balance between production, consumption and investment.

There just is not any government authority that can regulate the number of new jobs being created, or the number of old jobs being destroyed each year – and there cannot be such regulation in a market economy.

Therefore there is not any way that the government can directly determine the number of unemployed.

Changes in the Level of Unemployment

It is difficult to separate job creation and destruction from other labour turnover, and difficult to separate the effects of new technology from expansion and contraction of demand. But labour turnover is very high, and some of it is the result of jobs being created and destroyed.

If people change their jobs an average of once every four years, then the number of job changes each year is equal to a quarter of the entire workforce. If the average duration of unemployment is six months, then twice as many people pass through unemployment each year on their way to a job (or on their way out of the labour force due to discouragement), as the number of unemployed at any given time. Only a small proportion of labour turnover needs to be due to job creation and destruction, for any imbalance between the two to have a rapid effect on net employment and unemployment.

One would naturally tend to think that if all those who happen to be out of work at the moment were to go abroad, or had jobs specially created for them, then there would be no unemployment. But the above analysis suggests that only a slight mismatch between the numbers of jobs being created and destroyed, would very quickly recreate a large pool of unemployed. Just to keep the number of unemployed static, whether at twenty thousand or two million, there would have to be perfect equality between the large number of jobs being destroyed each year, and the large number being created.

It follows that one should not just think in terms of a match between the numbers of jobs and workers, but also a match between the rates of job creation and destruction. In fact, when there is no dramatic continuing change in the level of unemployment, there must be just such a nearly perfect match between job creation and destruction.

How is it brought about? Why does not the number of unemployed fluctuate wildly, all the time? Only if we know how unemployment is normally regulated can we find out why that regulation is not working the same way now.

(Next instalment: What regulates unemployment?)

Unemployment and Revolution (Part 1) – by Albert Langer, written in 1981

Unemployment and Revolution

First published in August 1981 as an Australian Political Economy Movement conference paper by Albert Langer (Adelaide 8-9 August.1981). It was republished subsequently by the Red Eureka Movement. (REM).

It holds up very well, given that it was written more than 30 years ago.

Brief Synopsis

Conservative economists and politicians generally argue that unemployment and inflation in Australia are the result of changes in the international economy, and that Australia has to adapt to those changes or things will get even worse. They say government economic policies must promote more rapid economic growth by stimulating profits and investment at the expense of real wages and social welfare.

Labour movement opponents of the current Liberal government have proposed a series of sometimes contradictory arguments in opposition to this line. Explicitly or by implication they suggest that unemployment is at least made worse by the present government’s economic policy, and could be improved if different policies were followed. Various proposals are advanced – such as:

for shorter working hours

redistribution of wealth from the rich

protection of Australian industry

limitations on technological change


government job creation schemes

improvements in the lot of the unemployed

measures to stimulate economic growth without attacking living standards

and so on.

These proposals have had little impact on public opinion. Given the manifest failure of its economic policies, there has been nothing like the mobilisation against the government that might be expected.

The reason is that these proposals do not make sense. They ignore fundamental facts about how capitalism works, and about recent economic and political history.

The capitalist system is not capable of restoring full employment in any of the ways suggested from the labour movement, and it is silly to pretend that it can. The only alternative to conservative policies will be communist revolution. That alternative must be made realistic.


Before deciding what could – and what could not – reduce unemployment, we first need to look at what causes unemployment. I am not very clear on that myself, but I still feel confident enough to reject various commonly accepted views on the subject. I will state my own provisional understanding rather baldly. Others can then point out its inadequacies, and we can go on from there.

This paper is thus a preliminary attempt, necessarily half-baked, and partly written for the purpose of self-clarification. It examines an issue that really needs to be considered in close connection with many other economic and social questions. It would have been better to have provided more facts and figures, examples and other evidence for the assertions below, as well as more explicit reference to other views. But we have to start somewhere.

Hopefully feedback will result in refinements and modifications of the arguments. Please do send comments.

Part 1. Emphasises that unemployment is specifically a problem connected with market economies. Then it gets slightly distracted to talk about science fiction and jellyfish.

Parts 2., and 3. Analyse the economic mechanisms that regulate “normal” unemployment, in order to explain the conservative arguments for “wage restraint” and why such arguments are wrong.

Part 4. Examines “technological” unemployment and shows that the increased unemployment now is not “technological”.

Part 5. Attempts an explanation of “overproduction” and “cyclical” unemployment (without great success).

Part 6.Considers various “solutions” from the labour movements, in the light of the earlier analysis, and rejects them all, but cheerfully, in view of part 7.

Part 7. Tries to give some concrete content to the idea that “the only solution is revolution”.


First, let us be clear about what unemployment actually means. Unemployment and employment are two sides of the same coin. Capitalism is based on wage labour. Workers sell their labour power to employers for money wages. They are “employed”, that is “used”, or “exploited”, to produce profits. They do not work for themselves, but are “employed” by others. Inherent in this is the possibility that some workers will be unable to find a buyer who is willing to purchase their labour power when it is offered for sale.

In fact unemployment is not only possible, but inevitable, in a capitalist or market economy. The labour market, like the other commodity and financial markets, is an essential mechanism regulating production and consumption by balancing supply and demand through price movements. Even at the height of prosperity there has to be some pool of unemployed for employers expanding their operations to recruit from. Otherwise they could only recruit from other employers by offering higher wages.

“Full employment” actually means “very little unemployment” – say 1% or 2% – just enough to stop a “wages explosion”. Any less unemployment than that is not “full employment” but a “labour shortage”.

The very term “market economy” implies an economy in which commodities, including labour power, may be offered for sale with no buyer. If there was a guaranteed buyer, then the transfer would be some sort of allocation, rather than a free market exchange.

So in a market economy, goods and services may be left unsold, capacities for production may be under-utilised, and workers may be unemployed. It all depends on the market – ie on whether somebody is willing to pay money for them.

For additional workers to be employed, an employer has to be able to make a profit out of employing them, by selling what they produce on the market at a price higher than their wages. If this is possible, then some employer, whether government or private, will do it. But on the other hand, if no profit can be made from employing additional workers, directly or indirectly, then they cannot be employed.

The government can pay them unemployment benefits, and it can call these benefits “wages”, but if the work done does not pay for itself on the market, it is not “employment”, and will require a continuing subsidy from revenue obtained by taxing real employment.

If there were any commodities with guaranteed buyers in a free market, then those commodities would be in short supply and their price would go up until there were no longer guaranteed buyers. That is actually what happens to wages when unemployment falls below a certain minimum. This is perfectly normal and completely unavoidable.

Most proposals for reducing unemployment lose sight of this essential fact. If it was possible to reduce unemployment by some simple measure to increase the number of jobs immediately available, then it would theoretically be possible to eliminate unemployment entirely by pursuing the same measures more vigorously.

However the basic nature of a market economy does not permit that. In fact it regenerates unemployment as part of its normal functioning. “Job creating” measures might work in some other kind of society, where work is done because a job needs doing, rather than because someone is willing to pay for it. But in a market economy, jobs are “created” by the market, and only by the market. Somebody has to pay.

In order to confirm that unemployment really is just the other side of employment and only occurs where work takes the form of wage labour, we can examine some societies which do not have a market economy.

Employment is so “normal” in our society that one tends to take it for granted and to look elsewhere for the explanation of unemployment. So it is worth reminding ourselves that employment and unemployment are characteristic features of only one kind of society – the capitalist or market economy.

Other Societies

Primitive Communism

Savage society was characterised by a primitive form of communism in which people worked together as a tribe. There were no employers and there was no question of finding or losing a job. You could starve to death, or get eaten, but you could not become unemployed. The fact that it’s quite common to hear modern society compared unfavourably with primitive society says something about how disgruntled people are with capitalism. In reality however the life of the “noble savage” (including the Australian Aboriginals) was, as Hobbes famously said, “nasty, brutish and short”. Nevertheless there was absolutely no reason why everybody in the tribe could not work at once. Unemployment was just not a possibility for people living in these societies.

Slave and feudal societies

Slave society marked a considerable improvement, for civilisation, culture and so forth. This was so even for slaves since captives were no longer killed and eaten. There was still no unemployment. Even as recently as feudal society, for most of the population there was no such thing as employment and unemployment. A peasant or serf did not have to find a job. They simply worked the land and engaged in household industry. They could suffer from wars and famines, but not from unemployment. An artisan might have difficulty selling goods, but could not become unemployed. Again, reactionary romantics, including many supposed to be “left”, often look back on the cramped, narrow lifestyle of those times, as though it was some sort of “golden age” compared with modern society.

Modern society based on wage labour has opened up much wider horizons than anything that existed before it. But unemployment is part of the deal. Nevertheless it is a good deal compared with tribalism, or slavery, or being tied to the land.

Freedom to sell one’s labour power on an open market is an enormous advance over previous social systems in which people were born into their jobs and were therefore stuck with them for life. This freedom is the basis for all other freedoms.

However the deal is no longer good enough. We want more freedom and we will have to move beyond a market economy to get it. The current concern about unemployment is just one sign that the social system we have now is no longer good enough.

Future society

In future communist society people will not work for wages, but for social needs, as was the case in primitive communist society. They will not buy their requirements in exchange for money received as wages or profits, but will be given an allocation in accordance with their needs. Again, as in primitive communist society.

Unlike primitive communist society, people will not be ruled by “necessity” but will use their knowledge of natural laws to attain freedom from the blind working of “nature” or “fate”. Work as an obligation, and consumption as a right will not need to be enforced through commodity exchange, any more than they will need to be enforced through tribal sanctions.

Distribution will be “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. The state as an apparatus of coercion will wither away since the government of people will give way to the administration of things. The free development of each will be the condition of the free development of all, and the long dark ages of the pre-history of humanity will have ended.

Science Fiction

It is worth reminding ourselves that this is what the progressive movement is ultimately all about – something that often gets forgotten in the midst of day to day struggles.

Even some science fiction stories take it for granted that humanity is headed towards a sort of communistic society. Sci fi characters tend not to be looking for jobs, receiving wages, or buying things with money. In these stories people do various jobs and obtain supplies of accommodation, food, and other things they need, without buying and selling. Although social relations specific to capitalism are often imposed on sci-fi societies quite inappropriately, there is still no “private enterprise” in many of these visions of future society. Likewise “nations” often seem to disappear.

Needless to say, in such a future society there would be no question of unemployment, since there would be no labour market. Despite this there could be plenty of other problems – just check out the sci-fi literature for examples.

Further along, or for alien life-forms, the very concept of “society” gives way to a single organic whole, where there is no question of distribution “from” or “to” any separate individuals. This reminds us of the way in which single celled creatures first gathered into colonies and then evolved into jellyfish -like creatures and eventually some went on to develop into highly complex organisms.

But returning to the present millennium – communism will still not be a good enough deal once we have it! People will then be ready to demand something along the lines of “From each according to their inclination, to each according to their wildest dreams” – and other more radical proposals.

There will still be struggles and the need for revolutions. We cannot predict what new problems will arise as humanity continues transforming itself and eventually changes into, or gives way to something quite different from the present species.

But unemployment will certainly be a problem over and done with, once employment is over and done with. It is not a permanent problem and one day we will not have to worry about it, just as today in most advanced countries we do not have to worry about starvation.

Coming right back now to the present day, communism is long overdue and we still have unemployment – and it is growing. However in recent times we have actually seen examples of modern societies where unemployment was not a problem. These were societies that had consciously set out on the road towards a communist society and had begun abolishing the market economy. They had no difficulty controlling and then eliminating unemployment. This was despite the fact that they had started with extremely backward economies and first had to deal with even bigger problems such as starvation. There was not any unemployment in the Soviet Union when it was socialist, even at the height of the 1930’s Great Depression.

However today there is unemployment in some sectors of the Soviet economy and labour shortages in others (apparently with an overall labour shortage as existed in most western capitalist economies in the 1960’s.) Since Soviet economists admit there are labour shortages, there must be a labour market, and that implies the shortages will later be followed by surpluses, just as in the West.

In China the connection between a market economy and unemployment is more dramatically obvious. There was no unemployment at all in China from the 1950’s until recently. There may be arguments about how efficiently people were employed, but nobody seriously suggests there was actual unemployment.

Within a few years of the restoration and expansion of market relations (ie since 1977), mass unemployment exceeding 20 million people has become a major social problem. Previously investment was planned and regulated by a socialist state, with each enterprise responsible to the state plan and having no independent right to hire and fire. Now enterprises are “free” to take their own independent investment decisions and to hire and fire while at the same time, workers are “free” to be unemployed.

All this suggests that we must examine every proposal for reducing unemployment, according to its implications for a market economy. Unemployment is a problem specific to capitalism and it is no use looking at solutions that ignore the specific features of market economies. We need to figure out how the labour market actually works in a capitalist economy.