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Mass Unemployment as an Act of Violence

"Life without paid work is hardly relaxing in a society centered on paid work. The highly-individualized risk society tends to the dissolution of informal traditional connections.. The deficit is on the side of the businesses who do not offer adequate jobs, not in deficient motivation of jobseekers."
Christine Morgenroth is a professor of social psychology at the University of Marburg.
Mass Unemployment as an Act of Violence

Personal Dissolution and the Personal Company


By Christine Morgenroth

[This article originally published in: Forum Wissenschaften, November 25, 2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.linksnet.de/artikel.php?id=1071.]

[Although everyone must realize that mass unemployment is a structural problem, people are still mobilized against supposedly lazy unemployed in the "social hammock" who live off the righteous citizens. Christine Morgenroth, professor of social psychology at the University of Hamburg, shows that life without paid work is hardly relaxing in a society centered on paid work. Nevertheless the new "activating" measures fatally aim at a complete adaptation of the (unemployed) individual to the market structures, to the dissolution of the person in a "personal company".]

Work, mainly paid work, has a central importance for organizing life and developing human identity. The change from the production- and performance society to the experience- and fun-society predicted in the 1980s has not occurred. The voluntary or involuntary reduction of life working time through ever-greater productivity, according to the assumption at that time, would lead almost inevitably to momentous changes in the socio-cultural structure of western societies. Consequently, paid work would lose its central significance for self-esteem and identity development. In contrast, analyses like the 2002 Shell study shows that young persons are still completely oriented in the values of the work society. Performance and ambition are named by 76% as the highest values. 67% name solving problems on the labor market as the most urgent political challenge. The dominant fear is the miserable economic situation or threatening poverty (72%) followed by the closely connected fear of unemployment (56%). Orientation in paid work is still vital for the identity development of young persons. Participation in the paid work process is the most important or the only possibility for experiencing membership, social relationships, acknowledgment and esteem. The significance of work for organizing life and well-being even increases through its shortage. This is especially true for people who are no longer at the beginning of their occupational life.

Martha (49, geriatric nurse) described the experience of long-term unemployment in a group discussion. "This is what is painful to me: When you leave a firm where you have worked for years and had a nice circle of colleagues around you, it is said: you are gone but we will not forget you. We will visit you. These are words of comfort. However not one person found the way to me after I was unemployed. I didn't leave in hostility and had many friendly colleagues. Still the moment when the door closes is a turning point. (... ) A person works eight hours, one's whole life... Suddenly you are cut off. You hear nothing any more from the remaining ones although you were more interested in this working life than your private life." (1)

Social contacts and integration in social contexts are determined by the job. Unemployment actually becomes exclusion from these contexts. The firm where the working life occurred appears like a fortress that can no longer be taken by the unemployed. Being eliminated or cut off is described as a physical injury. The process has an existential significance. Exclusion and isolation amount to an act of violence. Mass unemployment represents a social act of violence directed against the human work capacity that destroys dignity and self-esteem.

Psychosocial Consequences

The loss of a job goes along with considerable material losses and health risks regardless of the quality of welfare state securities. The psychosocial consequences of the loss of a job have long been analyzed by socioeconomic research of the unemployed. For example, unemployment is processed in phases. After the deafening first shock, breathing again occurs, a liberation experience. The reverse is also experienced as a relief (which is also devoted to processing the shock and may not be misunderstood as a "vacation"). After several weeks, a phase of intensified activity begins with applications and training efforts. Social networks are mobilized. If this effort is to no avail, it will be superseded after several weeks and months by a growing indifference, dullness and hopelessness. Efforts slacken because the ever-new rejections are so frustrating. The retreat accelerates into closer social relations and ultimately into one's four walls as a bulwark against the threatening world. For material reasons, life possibilities become narrower and pale. The fear of rejection and devaluation reinforces the retreat into the isolated private life. Apathetic resignation and fatalism appear at the end, that is a complete abandonment of hope for positive change and a disappearance of vitality.

Health impairments are also certain with long-term unemployment. These impairments are similar to sicknesses under stress. Unemployment as a critical life event involves a great number of stresses that are somatically expressed. A quarter of all unemployed suffer under chronic aches and pains. The percentage rises significantly with the duration of unemployment. Sleep disturbances, irregular heartbeats, changes in blood pressure and weakened immune systems making the body prone to a multitude of sicknesses are typical after effects. The loss of a job often leads to sickness. Weakness, lack of motivation, dependence and neediness appear as qualities of the sick... A psychosomatic processing of stress is often suggested as a subjective defense.. The unemployed are driven into sickness through the social construction of the work society and the cultural interpretation patterns that defame every form of idleness. These social-cultural interpretation patterns also influence the explanations for the loss of a job.

There are important distinctions between the official social explanations for the continuous mass unemployment that fluctuated in the last 20 years according to the political and economic situation, the processing mode of employees (fear and denial) and the subjective interpretation patterns of the affected. Against all reason, prejudicial attitudes ("whoever wants to work will find work") prevail that suggest to the affected their own culpability or at least complicity. Many unemployed excluded from the supportive occupational contexts blame themselves for their misery. Full of shame in retreat, they further undermine their self-confidence. Accusing themselves and making themselves small and worthless characterizes the fatal mechanism of individual apportioning of blame.

Depressive Dynamic

Another effect of long-term unemployment lies in the subjective experience of time. The life rhythms given by the daily, weekly and yearly working hours lead to a habituation to foreign-determined organization of time. These adjustment processes are ingrained since the earliest childhood. The loss of a job suddenly annuls these processes. Opposing the foreign-determined periods of time with an autonomous organization of time is a great challenge. This challenge is hard to master and often fails under the stress conditions of unemployment. The experience of an extended time without beginning and end, the supposed endlessness of a day, is one consequence. This development flows into tormenting states that can hardly be removed individually. What the social environment often sees and disparages as moral decline or total neglect is often an expression of the ruin of experienced time, the erosion of vital structural elements of life.

Women suffer under this change in another way than men. The demands of housework usually mastered alongside paid work effectively counter the problems of time erosion and meaninglessness. Housework is understood as an important activity. In this sense, women who reconcile both areas as gainful workers have an additional possibility for meaningfully structuring their daily course...

Erosion of time structure and self-esteem, retreat from social bonds and impairment on account of diverse stigmatizations can be viewed as a depressive dynamic involving loss of personal strength. That vital energy flowing daily in paid work, enabling work processes to be organized as a creative potential and producing ideas channeled in socially desirable and individually satisfying action lies fallow in the case of unemployment and seeks new possibilities. The increase of auto-aggressive phenomenon (depressions, psychosomatic illnesses, suicide attempts) in the context of long-lasting unemployment is well documented for women and men.

A society in which output, efficiency and productivity are fetishized produces correspondingly adjusted workers. Alternative activities hardly exist. The highly individualized risk society tends to the dissolution of informal traditional connections. The emotional pressure on the small family intensifies. The danger of eruptive explosions inevitably grows when the burdens of a lost job, material impairments and consequences of long-term unemployment are added. These eruptions can be directed against one's self or other persons. The freely floating aggressive energy that has lost its sublimation field inundates the weakened self-image of the overstrained unemployed...

Sufficient jobs

These effects of long-term unemployment are exacerbated by the "Hartz" reforms... (2)

These reforms assume that sufficient jobs exist in the labor market. However the central problem is the lack of jobs, not the suppliers of labor power. As a result, the proposals aiming at improved mediation and increased flexibility of unemployed persons appear to the affected only as pure cynicism. The deficit is on the side of the businesses that do not offer adequate jobs, not in deficient motivation of job seekers. Considerable efforts are made by institutions to stylize this fiction as reality. The changed reasonability-regulations are effective and contribute to internalizing a socially desirable foreign-designed self-image more effectively than moral appeals.

This is also true for the "personal company", another specialty from the catalogue of the Hartz commission. According to the view of the experts, this is a preliminary stage to full independence. The unemployed receive grants for three years from the employment office that are adjusted to the level of unemployment benefits and social security contributions. These grants are staggered decreasingly from year to year (from 50% in the first year to 20% in the third year). The revenue of the "personal company" is subject to a lump-sum tax of 10%; the earnings limit is 25,000 Euro per year. Future illicit work or moonlighting should no longer be rewarding since private households and entrepreneurs that claim the benefits of the "personal company" can deduct these benefits in taxes.

Person-Institution-System

The term "personal company" is shocking. The social risks arising through changed business strategies, globalization of the markets and freely flowing capital should be assumed and cushioned by every individual. The individual person faces capital and its modernization thrusts unprotected and alone, so to speak. Dismantling state protective functions and renouncing collective solidarity through unions produces the responsible risk-conscious individual with an unlimited readiness to rapidly adapt to the changing conditions of the labor market. However this pliant personality oriented in change should also have great moral-ethical abilities. This personality should turn away from illicit work in order not to damage the community but not ask for example why the businesses are so proud of making no contributions to the state treasuries by utilizing all the loopholes in the tax laws.

Terms like "personal company" contribute to a transformation of the self-definition of people. A new image of man or anthropology is created and planted in the public consciousness through considerable media effort. An important step is taken in changing the referential framework within which people can understand themselves. A successive transformation in the self-definition occurs: from an independent and responsible subject who says "I" and regards him or herself as an individual human being bound in social relations and contexts of meaning into a being with a basic entrepreneurial structure - a special kind of cyburg, a person-institution-being. The person and self-image exist in integration to the system and its institutions. This entrepreneurial analogy is admonished in the "Dictionary of the Inhuman". The term was rightly declared the "nonsense word" of 2002.

The disparagement of human fates to an instrumental stock exchange level has features of human contempt since a person cannot be a stock corporation. The word creation proves to be a lingual bridge for a new image of man and changed normative orientations. The redefinition of employees into entrepreneurs does not change anything in the hard facts. Unemployment represents a continuous risk that is rightly feared by many people and affects ever-larger groups of employees. The semantic birth of the individual as a stock corporation and its creation in the virtual reality of the media cannot change this.

The reality that holds a distorting mirror to the lingual efforts speaks a very different language. The number of bankruptcies rose 24.8% over last year and 9.1% for independent persons. (3) Only 50,000 unemployed made themselves independent in the course of the year. 200,000 per year were expected to become independent according to the prediction of the "Hartz commission".

Teachers, ministers and journalists are urged to use this new language to "anchor a new understanding of life working time and lifelong learning for the whole population". (4) This new image of man is bluntly and impressively repeated until a new pattern is produced in the mental structure and interior of people. A new self-definition arises. Ann increasing readiness to face inevitable tasks is part of this self-definition. Depressive devastations are inflicted psychologically as individual assignments of blame. This ideology produces targeted false knowledge and false consciousness. However this is not so simple. There isn't simply a production of pseudo-reality since the actual measures of an institution like labor administration countering the unemployed in the form of regulations, sanctions and offers are more real than mere products of the media. The more strategies point in this direction, the more intensively these steps are accepted in the general public as multipliers, the harder it becomes for individual persons to keep a critical distance and examine actual conditions from their own vantage point. Through unemployment, this capacity for self-control gives way to increased psychosocial vulnerability.

Internalizing rule techniques

Personal relations and social projects intersect in this process. Foucault introduced the concept of "govern-mentality" to describe the expansion of power techniques of the sovereign legal state to the areas of political economy and demographic policy. The terms governing and mentality are systematically combined in this concept that emphasizes the close interlocking of personal- and rule-techniques. "In this term, government isn't a way of forcing people to do what the governing wants but a moving balance with additions and conflicts between techniques by which the person is constructed and modified." (5) The neoliberal govern-mentality adjusts individual self-determination to certain possible actions that the subject cannot evade. This self-determination is owed to rationality with a hegemonial lack of alternatives. What is involved is the re-definition of the relations of processes of subjectivization to forms of rule. The basis of analyses is the critical confrontation with the neoliberal govern-mentality. "Neoliberalism is not only interpreted as ideological rhetoric or political-economic reality but as a political project aiming at a social reality that it assumes as already existing." (6)

The scandal of the proposals of the "Hartz commission" is not only clearly manifest in the changed conditions for unemployed persons. Rather the scandal can be seen in the subtle and atmospheric changes implicit in the design of a new image of man. This transformation process in the sense of internalizing rule techniques has far-reaching consequences and is hard to survey. With all the tragedy in individual cases, a depressive reaction of unemployed persons can be understood from this perspective as resistance against these exactions.

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