Friday, 18 February 2011

History Repeats Itself, Repeats Itself...

Our history discussion group the other evening focused on studies, carried out in the 1930’s, of the socio psychological effects of unemployment. Perhaps it won’t be a surprise to learn what they concluded; that, after a period of time, eagerness to find another job is often replaced by feelings of hopelessness, despair and exclusion from mainstream society. I could have told them that. Well, the chap I had heard on the radio earlier could have. He described his own, recent experience as identical to that ‘discovered’ by the researchers.

Walking through the city a few days before, I passed the man who hands out free newspapers to passers-by. He was wearing his woolly hat, his ‘hi-viz’ vest and his identity badge slung around his neck, as usual. His attention was properly focused on his potential customers, and he greeted the more familiar ones, as he usual. What was not usual, however, was the fact that he had no newspapers to give out. I wondered whether he had been fired and, with nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do, had returned to his pitch in the hope that things would turn out all right in the end. As a matter of fact they did, for on my return journey, I saw that his allocation of newspapers had arrived, and I no longer needed to worry about him becoming a forlorn, dispossessed and socially excluded individual. I was quite relieved, even if it had not been on his mind.

The Professor leading our history group told us that the word unemployed had first been coined here, in England. I could have told him that. Well, I could at least have worked it out by the following logic: Industrialised society originated in England. Before that, individuals were not employed – assuming the definition of employed entails being paid by somebody else to do some job or other. Later on, the shortcomings of the industrial system, such as the sometime failure of industrial enterprises, and the consequent loss of jobs, were therefore experienced in England before they became apparent elsewhere, hence the need to coin the word unemployed. (It seems they hadn’t seen that one coming).

Surely it is time to take into account the fact that the Industrial Revolution, responsible for spawning mass production and mass employment, has long gone. Society has now morphed into a different model, where regular jobs are no longer commonplace. What would the newspaper man have done if his supply had not turned up (which, one day, will happen)? Rather than rely on some other person or organisation to come up with a regular wage or salary, more people are turning to a model that predates the Industrial Revolution – that of self reliance. OK, we can’t all grow our own dinners, but we can refine the culture of expectation that there should, somewhere out there, be a ‘job’ for everyone. Many of the people I know don’t have regular jobs. Some of them have never worked for a regular wage or salary. That would really be just passing the responsibility on to someone else to provide them with a regular income. Nice work, if you can get it!

3 comments:

Richard said...

You claim that "self-reliance" is a pre-industrial phenomenon, but seem unaware of the distinctly Victorian echoes of Samuel Smiles and the philosophy of self-help which you invoke. It sounds to me like the same old moralistic cant that capitalists trot out whenever they find themselves oversupplied with labour. What's the difference between a "refined culture of expectation" and a soup kitchen?

Wonderman said...

Ah, there are many things about which Wonderman is unaware, which is why he attends the history discussion group. On the subject of soup kitchens, and what they represent, he has this reflection; suppose the nasty capitalists never generated any wealth, then how would it be possible to put any of it back into society through wages, taxes or simple philanthropy? I guess we would just have to rely on it growing on trees, like in the good old days.

Richard said...

Whoa there, Wonderman! Don't put words into my mouth, especially patronising ones like "nasty". Is history to be understood in the language of pantomime? I am trying to focus on your aestheticised vocabulary ("refine the culture of expectation") and the assumptions it occludes, e.g. that wealth is created exclusively by capitalists. I wonder if that's true.