Development through Alternation

9.5. Implications for unemployment

Anthony Judge

The world community has had to recognize a succession of problems (e.g. environment, energy) which have each cut dramatically across discipline and institutional boundaries and across prevailing systems of values. Each may be considered as a learning crisis arising from a collective blind spot. It would appear that the next of these is to be "unemployment". This problem tends to be conceived in the traditional terms of the absence of job "slots" and the necessity for their creation. As the crisis increases in proportion, this tendency will be reinforced, despite the economic impossibility of creating sufficient jobs under present conditions. Severe social unrest has been predicted, especially when social security schemes cease to provide an adequate cushion. And, even when jobs and social security are not a problem, a "leisure" problem is increasingly recognized, particularly for the younger generations.

The arguments of this paper suggest the possibility of a more creative approach. The root of the conceptual problem lies in the mutually exclusive specialized concepts associated with the activities "employment", "leisure" and "learning" of which the first two provide primarily "money" and "distraction/relaxation" respectively. A more general concept which incorporates these aspects, could be denoted by a term such as "employment of time".

The difficulty is that this concept is at present too vague to engender social structures and processes through which society could be organized. The present system is founded on the tangibility of the structures and exchange processes required to produce and distribute goods and services, especially those associated with the most basic material human needs. The question takes on a different light, which is less uncompromisingly negative in its connotations, if everybody is considered as being already fully employed. Then it becomes a matter of how they are employing their time and in what ways these activities (could) interweave in an exchange of values which is fulfilling - be it in a physical, affective, intellectual or spiritual sense.

In this light it is less a question of creating job slots into which people can be inserted as economic units, and more a question of how to give form and economic viability to activities which are already accessible to people - activating or enhancing latent production and exchange processes, many of which are considered characteristic of a better "quality of life". As illustrated by Attali's review of the potlach system (5), people are necessarily engaged in processing psycho-social "energy", whether this is considered in monetary, symbolic or other terms. The present difficulty could be said to arise from the ruthless reinforcement by economists of a conception of economic organization based on material goods, totally precluding the existence or credibility of any more general system in which material needs would merely be one important component.

Rather than a notion of "job slots", it would be preferable to consider every individual as already participating in a variety of "learning phases". Some of these involve production and/or consumption of material goods, whereas others might only involve production and/or consumption of symbolic goods. Clearly the greater the involvement in the symbolic components of the system, the lower the probable strain on the material components.

This does not avoid the problem of the need for material goods but it reduces its importance considerably - as the Roman's recognized with their cynicai circus policy (matched by its modern media counterpart). Perhaps the problem can better be conceived as the psycho-social organization of attention and the "energy" flows with which this is associated, particularly in relation to "value" and "the significant". It is then less a question of state-controlled manipulation of the media and public opinion, and more a question of catalyzing the self-organization of grass-roots learning phases and discovering how they can be interwoven to sustain exchanges of greater value.

The tragedy of the "unemployment crisis" is that economic theory, and the institutions it has engendered, has systematically discredited the participation of individuals in any local symbolic economy in which they are naturally "employed". (As an extreme example, an old lady seated on a bench in an Italian village square "doing nothing" probably considers herself "fully employed", and is perceived as such by the community.) The functions of the symbolic economy have been partially replaced by the leisure system and the social security system but neither of these encourage individuals in any desire they may still have to initiate new employments of their time which can be organized with those of others into more productive learning experiences. Gang vandalism is a frustrated response to this condition.

The key to the "unemployment crisis" may well be that of making local symbol economics self-sustaining so that from them self-sustaining material economics may once again emerge where appropriate. The problem is how time may be better employed by an individual, in association with others, to sustain a more fulfilling involvement in the community. It is unfortunate that this is narrowly conceived in terms of the production of material goods and services in return for monetary tokens.