It was widely believed after the Second World War in Britain that the ‘right to work’ had been generally won; the greatest economic evil of the prewar years seemed to have been overcome through reforms.footnote Yet now, again, unemployment has returned in a seemingly permanent form and there appears to be neither the understanding nor the will to confront the problem effectively. Among professional economists, there has been an influential revival of pre-Keynesian, neo-classical perspectives which have sought to reconceptualize unemployment as ‘voluntary’ and as the product of rigidities in the labour market and of disincentives to work created by the welfare system.footnote1 This position has provided the theoretical basis for the Thatcher and Reagan programmes, which are premissed on the belief that the Keynesian arrangements of the postwar period, far from abolishing unemployment as was thought, in fact had merely caused inflation and made worse the recession that has ‘inevitably’ followed it. Nor has the problem of unemployment yet had the priority that one might have expected from economists of the left.footnote2

Neo-Keynesian policy debates have continued through the recent period to concentrate instead on the advocacy of incomes policy as a means of controlling inflation, on the balance of payments problem, or on the system of international credit. These have been the fundamental preoccupations of economic policy-makers within both the Labour Party and the Social-Democratic Party. While such forms of restored Keynesianism would, unquestionably, mark an improvement over the policies of the radical right, it seems doubtful whether conventional demand management remedies alone could succeed in restoring the full employment levels of the 1950s and 1960s.

Since I am a sociologist rather than an economist, the approach to the problem of unemployment in this article will be unavoidably naive in technical economic terms. Without detailed quantification, the following argument proposes a kind of ‘middle-range’ theory, starting from the value-premiss that the right to employment is a central attribute of citizenship, and grounding this in a historical perspective of the struggle for ‘social rights’. Specific institutional changes are proposed by which this right might be made effective. This level of programmatic thinking, which imagines the effects of a specific structural reform on the whole economic system, seems to me essential to the development of socialist strategy in the coming period. The practical reason of the Left must be bold enough to explore the outer limits of the possible, and hopefully this initial argument for a campaign based on the demand for a right to work will be taken up and criticized by those more qualified than myself to test its technical implications.

Liberal democracies such as Britain accord many rights to their citizens, and the development of ‘social democracy’ has been widely understood as the extension of these rights from a negative and largely political definition into a system of positive social and economic entitlements. The liberal definition of rights originally concerned itself with the ‘negative freedom’ not to be interfered with by other citizens and especially the state—Locke’s rights to life, liberty and possessions. This definition corresponded with the emergence of agrarian capitalism and chiefly formulated the rights of property-owners. Subsequently, universal rights to political participation were won through extensions in the franchise as the state’s importance in determining the conditions of life of social classes became understood and contested. The ‘welfare state’, established through the need to achieve mass mobilization and consensus in wartime, and through working-class pressure, enlarged these rights into increasing social and economic entitlements, in the broader concept of citizenship described in T. H. Marshall’s seminal articlefootnote3 of the postwar reconstruction period. As a result of these changes, rights to education for children up to the age of sixteen (and subject to certain limiting conditions beyond), rights to health care, and rights to a minimum level of subsistence through entitlements to social security and supplementary benefit, are among the social and economic rights which British nationality and residence (itself now contested through immigration laws) entitle citizens to. These rights of the citizen have, as their necessary obverse, obligations upon the state to fulfil them in specified ways, and they are enforceable (though with some practical difficulty) at law.

The idea of full employment as a ‘social right’ is contemporary with the development of other provisions of the welfare state, deriving from Beveridge and Keynes’s proposals for the management of welfare capitalism, and from the organized popular pressures which gave weight to these during and after the Second World War. But while it was widely believed that full employment or the right to a job was the keystone to the whole edifice of welfare (Beveridge thought that welfare provision should be confined to those not able to work), this was never thought of as an individual, legal entitlement in the same way that the other social rights were conceived. Full employment was to be achieved not by guaranteeing a job to each separate individual (in the same way that local education authorities are obliged to find school places for each child), but by measures affecting the aggregate of employment in the economy as a whole, which would then create the conditions in which individuals could find jobs. Keynes’s theories of demand management and the practical success of postwar governments in maintaining unprecedented levels of full employment (with some regional disparities) for twenty years made this seem a feasible way of fulfilling this ‘right to work’, and the difference between this and other rights of citizenship in regard to their form of implementation did not attract attention.

In fact, the contrast between the legally enforceable rights to certain kinds of social and welfare provision, and the absence of any enforceable right of the individual to work, represents a major division within the fabric of welfare capitalism between the sector dominated by the market and by economic contract, and the sector regulated by the state through the universal provision of various services or income entitlements.footnote4 ‘Work’ is not conceived primarily as a ‘benefit’ to the individual to be claimed by him or her like an entitlement to income, but is provided in the first instance in the interests of employers. The supply of labour and its levels of payment are determined by the mutual interest of employer and worker, and not by consideration of need or principle, in the theory and practice of the market. As Edward Thompson has shown this was one of the most bitterly contested principles of the capitalist economy. The success of a market economy depends on its mechanisms for allocating resources in an efficient way, and labour is one of its major resources (according to Marx, the only ultimate source of value). It thus appears to be in the interest of the working of the economy as a whole, and thus a common interest, that labour should be deployed in ways advantageous to employers, and not deployed where it is not advantageous to them. While these laws are followed most closely at the present time in the market sector, where profit and loss measure efficiency or inefficiency in the allocation of resources, they are also often followed as a matter of policy in the non-trading parts of the state sector. Here too, workers are employed, at least in principle, at the lowest cost and measures are sought (pupil-teacher ratios, patient-doctor ratios, bed-occupancy rates etc.) which enable them to be deployed in the most efficient way.

Keynesian reforms sought to preserve this principle of allocating labour in accordance with the needs of the market while creating a de facto right to work by manipulating the aggregate demand for labour so that it balanced the supply. But it now appears that this system of providing full employment through a market regulated by budgetary management has irretrievably broken down not only in Britain, but throughout the capitalist world. There is now no ‘full employment’ and thus no ‘right to work’, and little or no prospect of these being restored. While political parties in Britain offer various prescriptions for reducing unemployment and creating more jobs, none has a programme for restoring the full-employment position of the postwar period, and all now refrain from declaring ‘full employment’ as a feasible objective. Many analysts in fact forecast that the situation will become worse, not better; the capital investment needed to improve Britain’s competitive position in manufacturing industry (if it takes place) may well destroy more jobs than it creates. The problem of a long-run increase in unemployment is in fact becoming recognized as a general problem of advanced economies, and this further discourages particular governments from believing they can solve it on their own. Particularly crucial in the gestation of the problem on an international scale has been the pursuit of deflationary policies by so many capitalist governments, and also the effective displacement especially of unskilled labour in advanced countries by investment in newly industrializing countries. Another factor may be the saturation of markets in the advanced countries with the consumer products of the last wave of expansion (consumer durables, motor cars, etc.), and the failure to create sufficiently extensive consumer demand in the developing world to offset this. But while one can envisage this trend to higher unemployment being arrested by a move towards expansionist economic policies, especially if this takes place in the United States and on an international as well as a national scale, it is hard to imagine that any change in these external market conditions will restore full-employment as it was known immediately after the war. Indeed, the absence of any significant proponents in Britain of such an optimistic view tells its own ominous story. In these circumstances, the prospects for full employment in Britain, one of the weakest of the advanced economies, are bleak indeed.