Something structural seems to be happening around the problem of work and unemployment that is not necessarily cyclical. Capital is all about leaner and meaner efficiency, and the one area where profit is reliably extracted is through “increased productivity” – producing more with less (labor). So why has corporate capital allowed these inefficiencies to continue? A completely untestable theory might argue that this irrational activity might be the subconscious wisdom of “the Market.” Imagine if 75 percent of cubicle workers were laid off. (I know this is an exaggerated premise, but I’m trying to make a simple point.) What would they do? Would they be passively herded into unemployment lines? Would they wait their turn to be re-schooled in order to be more efficient workers in a new role?
No, I don’t think so. Regardless of the mechanisms behind the action, if too many more people become unemployed, underemployed, and unemployable, some might begin to wonder if they were just unlucky or if the system is actually flawed, if the promise of capitalism and the free market is a rigged game. The secret might get out: capitalism certainly creates jobs, but it also creates unemployment, and in its late stages capitalism produces the unemployed as a new class.
One of the important points made by Marx was that we have every reason to believe that capitalism will succeed in one of its most important goals: lowering labor costs. Capitalism has made extraordinary gains in technology and has applied new technological advances to the means of production. When the media reports that there has been a rise in “productivity” and stock markets cheer the success, one should understand that it basically means that more work has been done by fewer workers, that more profit will be extracted by reducing labor costs – usually by eliminating jobs or driving down labor costs in various ways.
Marx imagined that there would come a time when productivity would reach a point that our needs could be met with much less labor. One aspect of the crisis of capital was to imagine how we would live in a world without work, how would we occupy ourselves when society had advanced beyond the most pressing economic needs.