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The 30-Hour Week for Europe

"The illusion that unemployment can only be effectively opposed by reduced wages and non-wage labor costs is powerfully fomented by neoliberal propaganda. This illusion binds parties and the government in a system that cements the downward social spiral.. Reforms also lose their creative meaning and are redefined as measures of social dismantling."
The 30-Hour Week for Europe

Sustainability and Just Distribution of Work and Income on the 21st Century Agenda

By Mohssen Massaraat

[This article originally published in: Frankfurter Rundschau, December 16, 2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.fr-aktuell.de/ressorts/nachrichten_und_politik/dokumentation/?cnt+358068.]

This essay proposes an alternative that seems forgotten among unions and leftist parties, namely the urgency of reducing working hours and perhaps productively breaking taboos. Many details must be left open. Well-known facts are assumed as self-evident.

Mass unemployment is a worldwide phenomenon. In industrial countries, the unemployment rate moves in the range of 3% (Luxemburg) to 12% (Spain). In eastern and southern transformation- and developing countries, the rate is around 20% and above. The causes are not the same. In the highly developed capitalist OECD-states, high growth rates belong to the past. These states have moved below the increased rate of work productivity since the beginning of the seventies. The high-speed rationalization as a consequence of high tech and communication technologies can no longer be cushioned by mobilizing new growth capacities. More and more social wealth is produced with less and less living labor. Whole population sectors lose their work and in the long-term are uncoupled from the work process and the economic cycle. In transformation- and developing countries, very high growth rates are realized and the growth resources will remain considerable for a long time. Despite high growth rates and growth potentials, mass unemployment also prevails here because the receptive capacity of the labor markets of these societies is not great enough to absorb the considerable number of new workers.

Keynesianism provided effective concepts for containing mass unemployment. As a strategy for mobilizing growth resources, it was unrivalled during the post-war years in the industrial states of the North with their seemingly inexhaustible growth capacities. However Keynesian instruments lose their striking force in creating jobs where growth resources run low, where the speed of rationalization increases rapidly and where intensive growth strategies exist. This was the main reason for the crisis of Keynesianism since the beginning of the eighties and for the great uncertainty of Keynesianism of all shades in relation to the neoliberal postulates of liberalization, privatization, deregulation and flexibility. Up to today the Keynesian employment policy has been on the defensive from which it apparently cannot escape in the foreseeable future.

Neoliberalism on one hand owes its triumphant advance to the economic vacuum left behind by Keynesianism and on the other hand to the constantly growing mass unemployment. After over two decades of neoliberal dominance, neoliberal promises of salvation for the modernization of industrial- and developing societies have proven to be pure ideology. The rich have become richer and the poor poorer everywhere in the world. In fact, neoliberalism is a strategy of wealth redistribution and the most effective instrument for making a narrow class of the super-rich even richer on the backs of millions of people. It is a strategy of the zero-sum game leading to more employment in one place because people simultaneously lose their work in another place. Neoliberalism only stimulates growth by reducing the price of labor and nature and by over-exploitation of human labor power and natural foundations of life. Genuine modernizations - as they occur through the collapse of encrusted governmental and non-governmental structures - are also side-effects of neoliberalism, not its main goal.

Neither Keynesianism nor neoliberalism have effective concepts as the scenarios of unemployment from the 1997-2010 period show. For example, the mass unemployment in Germany will not decrease with very optimistic growth rates of 2.6-2.8% annually up to 2010 since growth rates of work productivity between 2.4 and 2.6% are forecast for this period. A reduction in unemployment can only be expected through much higher growth rates. In the meantime the predicted growth rates were drastically contradicted by the real growth rates under 2% between 1997 and 2003. Thus higher growth rates were and are unrealistic. Even if they could be attained, high growth rates are not desirable for ecological reasons. Besides the problematic of the ecological limits of growth, measures like promoting communal investment activity, impulses for the domestic market through lower taxes, advancing the middle class and investment programs for modernizing the infrastructure and the environment are raised as alternatives to Agenda 2010 by the circle of leftwing social democrats and unions. These alternatives take into account the expected increase of work productivity and growing unemployment.

Keynesianism aims at full employment but breaks down in the limits of increasing work productivity and declining growth resources. In contrast, neoliberalism needs mass unemployment. Only under the conditions of lasting unemployment and weakened strength of the unions do the political requisites prevail for implementing its strategy of dismantling hard-fought social achievements, relieving businesses and states from their social responsibility and establishing a global low-wage sector. All this helps maintain a system in which the mechanisms of redistribution function smoothly from bottom to the top and from South to North. The illusion that unemployment can only be effectively opposed by reduced wages and non-wage labor costs is powerfully fomented by the neoliberal propaganda. This illusion binds parties and the government in a system that cements the downward social spiral. In this system, governments are played off against unions, communes and territories against the federal government, younger against older generations, men against women and natives against foreigners. Possible actions for organizing the future, strategies for ecological reconstruction, protection of the atmosphere and combating global poverty are reduced to zero. Reforms also lose their creative meaning and are redefined as measures of social cuts and social dismantling.

Arrested in this system, governments - like the German government - reverse social-ecological reforms and pass off social incisions like loosening protection against unlawful dismissals, grater employee shares in health costs and raising the pension age against their better knowledge as reform programs for combating unemployment. The cultural hegemony of neoliberalism has long prevailed in this system. Through its postulates (liberalization, privatization, deregulation, flexibility, growth and employment through reduced costs of the factors labor and nature), this neoliberalism defines the frameworks and possibilities to which social democrats, unionists, Greens, socialist parties and far-sighted entrepreneurs must submit. The problems and worries of people about their future and the desires of millions of unemployed for employment are instrumentalized for legitimation of pseudo-solutions to unemployment. All efforts for a future-friendly and more just world are finished where all the capacities for thought and action of societies are turned to pseudo-solutions and maintenance of the status quo.

A sober analysis of economic and social-political mechanisms of the neoliberal hegemony shows that regaining action possibilities and definitional power for genuine reforms is vital. Genuine reforms earnestly strive for another world. The neoliberal hegemony must be driven back through an alliance for a socially and ecologically just world. The strategic "30-hour week by 2010 for all European Union (EU) states" deserves attention for four essential reasons:

Firstly, the 30-hour week is the only conceivable alternative for the reduction of mass unemployment that considers the desires of over 14 million unemployed in the EU.

Secondly, this project can be socially accepted and gain consensus under certain conditions. The formation of a broad social alliance makes the project realizable.

Thirdly, this project substantially improves the presuppositions for building a just world economic order and combating global poverty.

Fourthly, the project takes away the most important social-psychological foundation of neoliberalism's cultural hegemony.

The success of this project depends on higher earning groups of the wage- and salary-dependent willing to pay a price and reevaluate their particular interests in a holistic perspective. In the following, problems, conditions and consequences of the project will be outlined.

Under given conditions, the 30-hour week project only has a chance of producing the necessary political pressure beyond the defensive if it is cost-neutral. A balancing component for the lower income groups would be financed for example from the saved costs of unemployment, $100 billion Euros annually in Germany. On one hand, the wind can be taken from the sails of the expected massive campaigns of industrialists. On the other hand, the insight that the age of economic growth and increased consumption is over once and for all with the end of the 20th century in the industrial countries of the North would be affirmed. A zero growth at a very high level as in Europe represents a great challenge. In the 21st century, redistribution and sustainable development, that is global, social and ecological justice, are on the agenda. Therefore redistribution of work must go along with redistribution of income within individual countries and globally. Only in this way does the perspective of a more just world economic order and reforms of global institutions (WTO, IMF and World Bank) have a material and moral foundation. This is particularly true since the increased growth and increased income realized in the past even for the wage- and salary-dependent in industrial countries partly originated from diverse South-North redistribution processes on the basis of asymmetrical structures of the world economy like unfair trade, social- and eco-dumping, capital flight, brain drain etc.

In this perspective, insistence on "ownership" is counter-productive. The fixation on particular interests is backward-oriented and runs counter to these interests. Job-owners and high-income persons lose their "ownership" or "assets" anyway given the dramatically weakened strength of the unions since the beginning of the nineties, mass unemployment, reduced real wages and cancellation of social benefits in insidious ways. In the meantime neoliberals even urge an extension of working hours without wage adjustments. They have good prospects for carrying out these ideas in view of the continuing weakness of the counteracting forces. The neoliberal strategy of extra work or overtime without wage adjustment must be hindered through a strategy of reduced working hours. Unions could first regain their strength through a 30-hour week and through overcoming mass unemployment. Renunciation on wage adjustments is an important step today for safeguarding one's interests of tomorrow. Refusing this renunciation by referring to growing corporate profits amounts to holding to the conventional models of growth and consumption that are not future-friendly. Stopping the further decline of the welfare state and setting signs for building another world have a realistic chance with renunciation on wage adjustments. Through readiness to share work and income in one's society, the dominant growth- and consumer model can be put in question. A global sharing of work and income would be possible.

2. The danger of boomerang effects, above all increased illicit work with reduced working hours and income losses cannot be denied. Possible alternative activities for enhancing quality of life and increasing chances for individual self-realization should be shown. The alternatives to gainful work and to conventional consumer models must be made experiencable in the process of reduced working hours. The dimensions of this project extend far beyond the circle of unions and management. Alternative projects of division of labor that do justice to the genders and generations, voluntary engagement in communal services and projects supporting the needy and protecting the environment along with retraining and self-realization are possible. More time for everyone, for the family and for a solidarian cooperative life, more quality of life and time prosperity are possible with lower discretionary income. The interests, needs, strategies and visions of social movements, NGOs and church organizations for a more socially and ecologically just world are no longer in opposition to union interests but complement and depend on union interests. The hope for a broad social alliance and a hegemonial project for "another world" is based on that complementarity.

3. The 30-hour week project aims at an overall European perspective. This is very complex but unavoidable. On one side, the strategy of playing off individual European states can be thwarted. On the other side, a reduction in working hours can only have effects on global redistribution and a more just world economy when carried out all over Europe. With its importance in the world economy, Europe could have a salutary effect on the other centers of the world economy. In addition, the formation of a European identity, an important presupposition for developing a multilateral world order and a new peace- and foreign policy orientation, may be a by-product. The 30-hour week should be understood as a guiding principle. Deviations up or down result from the framing conditions of the respective state. This is also true for the different forms of reductions in working hours: weekly-, yearly- and life-working hours as well as the intelligent combination of these options, that is no reduction in working hours according to the principle of something for everyone. Reduced working hours can only be realized in dependence on work-productivity and on different sectoral and regional peculiarities. The aggregate European perspective in no way requires the simultaneous initiation of the project in all European states. Concentrating the initiative on several important EU-states with strong working class traditions and social and anti-globalization movements like France, Italy, Germany, England and Spain may be enough. This will be complex enough and a challenge of historical magnitude for all participants.

The following circumstance seems very relevant. Readiness for renunciation on wage adjustments, that is the cost neutrality of the project, is not a guarantee for its acceptance. The project as a whole touches the fundamentals of the asymmetrical power- and wealth distribution in the world. As a result, backward-oriented business associations, neoliberal media, parties and politicians strongly oppose this project despite the far-reaching acceptance of the wage- and salary-dependent. Therefore the formation of a broad social alliance for this project requires considerable efforts from all participants along with debate and enlightenment in their own ranks. Besides being a contribution to a more ecologically and socially just world economy, renunciation on wage adjustments is the strategic core of the project in going beyond the defensive. The growing disapproval of neoliberal globalization that marks all social groups offe3rs a platform for consensus and genesis of a hegemonial alliance with a social-ecological orientation. The anti-globalization currents in Europe, above all attac, could assume the role of a communicative bridge. The social forums arising after Porto Alegre could turn out to be forerunners of a broad social alliance leading the way for the "2010 Project/ 30-hour week in Europe".

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