100 year old excuses for unemployment

Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised to find out that exactly the same arguments being made today about an issue have also been made in the long distant past. Back then they may not have known any better, today we definitely should. A comment from Peter Martin on Labourlist gave me another example of this phenomenon. He quotes from Robert Tressell’s “Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” which was written in 1912 to show what arguments were being made around that time to account for high unemployment.


‘Yes,’ said Crass, agreeing with Slyme……… Then thers all this new-fangled machinery,’ continued Crass. ‘That’s wot’s ruinin’ everything. Even in our trade ther’s them machines for trimmin’ wallpaper, an’ now they’ve brought out a paintin’ machine. Ther’s a pump an’ a ‘ose pipe, an’ they reckon two men can do as much with this ‘ere machine as twenty could without it.’

The immigrants:

‘Why, even ‘ere in Mugsborough,’ chimed in Sawkins–……..We’re overrun with ’em! Nearly all the waiters and the cook at the Grand Hotel where we was working last month is foreigners.’

On cheap foreign labour:

“you know very well that the country IS being ruined by foreigners. Just go to a shop to buy something; look round the place an ‘ you’ll see that more than ‘arf the damn stuff comes from abroad.”

Over 100 years later, this is still fairly mainstream political discourse in the UK. We had this UKIP poster:

I also often see people arguing that cheap foreign labour overseas is costing us jobs in the UK.

And you still hear the Luddite argument that machinery will replace all our jobs. Technology has and will continue to replace jobs that are being done by humans today, but this doesn’t mean unemployment is guaranteed. A lot of people on the left use this argument to advocate a guaranteed basic income, but it ignores the fact that new forms of work are being created all the time, and we could also broaden what we think of as work to include activities that are not being paid to do at the moment.

We had full employment in the 1960s and there is no reason we shouldn’t have it again. As Keynes said:

“…Our main task, therefore, will be to confirm the reader’s instinct that what seems sensible is sensible, and what seems nonsense is nonsense. We shall try to show him that the conclusion, that if new forms of employment are offered more men will be employed, is as obvious as it sounds and contains no hidden snags; that to set unemployed men to work on useful tasks does what it appears to do, namely, increases the national wealth; and that the notion, that we shall, for intricate reasons, ruin ourselves financially if we use this means to increase our well-being, is what it looks like – a bogy.”


9 thoughts on “100 year old excuses for unemployment

  1. There have always been many improvements to our lives that could be made by changes, but again it is corrupted by the need of capitalism to reduce human remuneration to cut costs where other costs are fixed. Though there is no reason to return to the old patriarchal model, it used to be the norm that a family could survive on the wages of one worker. No more, but it could be, with a social wage. People in the 60s were told mechanisation would allow greater leisure time. That went well (not). Many people would love to have the opportunity to have small market gardens, though not all, and in many places the 19thC workers cottages had space for a vegetable plot and a couple of pigs. Now the planners only insist on two car parking spaces. More leisure and ability to spend time productively would be what most people want, even just to spend time with one’s friends and family to strengthen ties and the community, but the neo-con version of capitalism mitigates against any quality of life for the poorest. Especially in the UK the poor cannot go outside and grow food, as all the land is privately owned (or not, if you look at the Land Reg at the larger estates closely).

    The 100 year old excuses were seeded to make the workers compliant. I’m assuming that the reason the same old is still being used is that it works. It divides the working mass into competing groups, for pittances, so that they are too hungry, tired or frightened to do the obvious – organise.

    Anyone who hopes to forge a new society will need to take on the money-grabbing elite and wrest sufficient either as wages or as tax to allow us all to benefit. Redistribution is essential. The forms that benefit could take, I hesitate to suggest, but could include land & building rights to families. Poverty wages, benefits reductions, and the absolute hell of hunger & deprivation from sanctions applied to millions, shows that many in our society need to be able to reclaim the ability to feed themselves, as a bottom line.

  2. Cheap unskilled foreign labour does cost jobs. Just as cheap retired people costs jobs now we have no statutory retirement limit.

    Each job taken by one of those entities is replaced by about 0.95 of a job via the dynamic multiplier effect – which is why the unemployment percentage stays roughly constant, although the number of people in that queue grows over time.

    The only people that benefit from the supply of cheap labour are the profit share. It increases the load on the public and housing infrastructure, reduces training opportunities and suppresses business investment in new machinery.

    Taking skilled staff from abroad is essentially stealing skill training investment from another country and is a form of ‘beggar thy neighbour’. We’ve got great Spanish dentists now, but who is looking after Spanish teeth now and did they ‘crowd out’ people who could have been dentists here – had we only spent the money on training.

    A lot of the ‘new work’ that is created is certainly not useful work. The ‘deregulation’ push was primarily so that activities that were considered useless or counter-productive suddenly became very popular. The finance centre of London is essentially a big casino, that is there to employ lots of people playing casino games with each other. Nothing useful comes out of it other than a great increase in the velocity of money designed to spray across the rest of us like some crazy salad spinner.

    The increase in advertising, marketing and PR businesses adds little to the sum of human value, but it does increase the capacity for brainwashing and propaganda.

    There are many excuses for unemployment. But there are a lot of excuses as well for the sacred cows of the left, which aren’t always as benign as many true believers like to pretend.

    1. Having said that immigration is not an excuse for unemployment, I would say that it probably isn’t realistic for the UK government to be expected to solve its own unemployment problem and the EU’s, in particular the Eurozone’s , too. It’s just too big a problem for a small country.
      Consequently, I would argue that the best course of action for the UK is to leave the EU and then apply sensible Keynesian/Post Keynesian economic policies afterwards to achieve a sensible balance between low unemployment and low inflation.
      Neil would probably add in the need for a job guarantee too, which I’m less keen on, but would still support that the concept be trialled, initially in a small way in areas of high unemployment, and expanded from there if it were shown to be successful.

  3. Poverty is 97 per cent working poor and poor pensioners and poor pensioners short of a pension.

    The unemployed are only 3 per cent of the benefits bill.

    Work does not solve poverty and starvation, with in-work even more than unemployed hunger risen 70 per cent since 2010.
    50 per cent of over 50s are within working poor.
    Over 50s have a 50 per cent unemployment rate outside of London.

    New pensioners left with no food money for life are
    women born from 1953 and men born from 1951
    of the poorest workers and women
    housewives, divorcees and widows nil state pension:

    A person turning 80 in 2016 also is left with no top up to a pro rata basic state pension.

    The new wave of pensioners will be the poorest since the state pension began, with a great many left with absolutely nothing at all forever in old age. Pension Credit also gone.

    The Greens offer a 2015 manifesto pledge of:

    – universal non-means tested Citizen Income, non-withdrawable, in or out of work

    That would permanently solve starvation caused by in-work and unemployed losses of benefit, to low wages stagnant to 2002 levels.

    If Labour took on board The Greens’ 2015 manifesto pledge and added to it:

    – revoke pension bills 2010-2014 that is not more but far less or nil state pension for life
    – women’s state pension payout at 60 in 2015 (back-dated when begun loss in 2013 when women MPs kept pension payout from 2012)
    – equalise state pension payout for men at 60 in 2015

    Then Labour would win a landslide victory in 2015 and form a majority government, even adding 41 more Labour seats in Wales or England by bringing down Scottish Labour MPs from a Free Scotland forever free from Tory rule they never vote into Scottish parliament.


    1. “That would permanently solve starvation caused by in-work and unemployed losses of benefit, to low wages stagnant to 2002 levels.”

      No it wouldn’t – because people who get money for nothing are resented. Hence why student grants have been rolled back, pension age pushed forward and disability claimants subjected to near ridicule.

      That is why unemployment benefit – which was supposed to replace a wage for six months on a ‘contributions basis’ when it was introduced – has been wound back to next to nothing, and why housing benefit is subject to ridiculous means tests.

      These things didn’t happen by accident. They happened because people voted for the alternative that introduced these roll back changes.

      The one universal benefit – given to every child no matter what. Eliminated for those who “don’t need it”.

      Come on people. Let’s start dealing with reality here rather than dream land. Humans need to see quid-pro-quo. So if you want a system that is going to survive more than 10 minutes you need to design that in.

      1. It’s hard to resent “people who get money for nothing” (it’s not for nothing anyway, it’s for survival) when everyone is getting exactly the same regardless – wages are as well as, not instead of. There would be no pensions, no benefits at all except a universal child allowance (and probably a severe disablement allowance) until a child is 18 when they get their own UBI. No Housing Benefit (a rehaul of rent legislation would be required as well). If everyone gets exactly the same amount then work becomes what you choose to do either because you enjoy it or because you want a higher standard of living than a basic level.

        The UBI would be entirely tax free but there would be no tax threshold on other income. Tax avoidance schemes by both individuals & companies would need to be clamped down on. Make sure that all companies operating profitably in the uk pay corporate tax rather than pretending that they don’t actually make money here.

        UBI would mean that those who need/want to care for family aren’t left in desperate straits, starving themselves so that their loved ones can eat. Allow artists to concentrate on producing works in all forms. Allow athletes to train fully etc. And those few who don’t want to do anything? You know, they are not even a blip in the stats.

        If Labour sought to take on this part of the Green manifesto, they don’t need to add amything about pensions or how old you need to be to claim. UBI covers it all instead.

        1. Meant to state – as I hadn’t realised that it wasn’t obvious in the name – Universal Basic Income is NOT means tested. Everyone gets it who is a permanent resident and/or citizen of the UK. It is often referred to as Citizens Income as well.

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