||One of Alex Levac's "Out of Work"
photos: Shlomo Ben David, aged 38, who lives in a car in Bat
Yam, has been unemployed for eight months. His last place of
work was Bat Yam municipality. |
"Klalat Hakalkala" ("L'Horreur
Economique") by Viviane Forrester, translated into Hebrew by Audley
Delors, Schocken Books, 156 pages, NIS 65 (English edition: "The
Economic Horror," Blackwell Publishers)
work" - That is the name of a series of photographs by Alex Levac
published in Ha'aretz over the past few months. Day after day, we
look into the face of one "unemployed person," not starving, not
naked, not homeless, gazing straight into the camera, sometimes even
smiling. I look at the daily picture and feel as if Levac is showing
us a collection of photos that someone took and threw out with the
trash: pictures that no one needs anymore, kind of pathetic. There
you have it: a chilling illustration of what Viviane Forrester is
talking about when she describes society's attitude toward the
unemployed: useless, obsolete, kind of pathetic.
conventional economic model depicts a world into which everyone
comes with a "basket of goods." These goods can be consumer products
or machines that can be used to manufacture other products. There
are also goods called "time," which a person can divide between work
and leisure. Every person has a hoard of 24 hours which he can use
to produce goods that he needs for himself, or goods that others
want, and will give him something he wants in return. The
conventional model assumes that every person is interested in
receiving as much as possible and giving as little as possible. The
"marketplace" is a mechanism for voluntary exchange of goods, which
also increases the "consumer pie."
Some people come into the
economic world rich in assets, and others, poor. Human beings are
not equal in their "technological" ability to use their time for
"production." The answer to unemployment, say many economists, is to
activate free market mechanisms that will promote growth and
prosperity. The most important job of the state, they add, is to
invest in education that will improve the personal potential of
individuals and make them more useful.
The empirical theory
at the core of Forrester's book is that the world we live in has
become a world in which many people have stopped being "useful."
Gone are the days when tens of thousands of workers were needed to
build pyramids, millions of soldiers were sent out to attack the
enemy and whole regiments of seamstresses crouched over little
sewing machines to produce clothing. Millions of human beings have
become useless in the eyes of "the others."
What this means
is that the economic needs and desires of the "useful" people can be
satisfied without the "loafers." In order to keep people from
rebelling, society continues to blame the unemployed for their own
plight and delude them that "someday things will be better."
If I were writing an article a la Forrester, I would say
that the world we live in could be more appropriately described in
terms of the following "fictional" model (which I have presented and
analyzed formally elsewhere): Let's say that after the war of Gog
and Magog, the people left in the world no longer have any need for
consumer goods - only a magic capsule called "manna," which drops
from the sky every morning, straight into the hands of the
survivors. Some of them are unlucky: Nothing good ever falls on them
from the sky. Others are lucky: They receive mountains of manna,
more than they can finish. In this world, work has no value, because
there is nothing to produce. There is no trading because there is
nothing to trade.
What will happen in this post-traumatic
world? Perhaps "compassion" will dictate the course of events. Most
of us enjoy giving to those who do not have. Generosity of this kind
could rescue the people who get no manna in their backyards. The
benefactors will win social status and political power, and those
without manna will become dependent on them.
possibility is reallocating the manna by "force." The manna-seekers
will forcefully "take" the manna they need to survive from those who
have a lot. Maybe the manna-endowed will pay some of the
manna-seekers to protect them from the other manna-seekers. A large
police force will be established along with penal systems, to keep
the manna-seekers who are threatening the lucky ones away from
I look at the figures for transfer payments in
Israel, which represent the sums transferred in this country from
the strong to the weak, out of magnanimity or political imperative.
The thought crosses my mind that tonight nearly two million people
will be spending the night in American jails, the overwhelming
majority of them "manna-deprived." And I ask myself if this manna
parable is fictional after all.
Indeed, the basic thesis of
this book is that in the "new" world, masses of people have become
non-productive. The economic marketplace in its classic form cannot
serve as a channel for distributing means of survival to the
"non-productive" because they have nothing to give in return. Thus
it is not the classic economic model that should be used as a basis
for analyzing the world, but another model in which compassion and
force dictate how the pie is divided up.
according to Forrester: All you manna-deprived: Don't give in to
their brainwashing about having to try harder or enroll in a job
re-training course in order to break out of the "cycle of
unemployment." "They" just don't need you anymore. If you want to
survive, you'll have to change the basic social order.
not sure to what extent the world has changed over the last few
decades and rendered masses of people "economically superfluous."
Validating this empirical theory requires much more knowledge than I
have. But my impression is that even if Forrester is exaggerating,
she is only pushing a point over which there is no disagreement.
Inequality in the world has grown tremendously. Technological
advances have resulted in a very unfair distribution of manna.
The material in this book would suffice for a brilliant
theoretical article or an introduction to a book of bright ideas on
how to fix the world. With Forrester's insights, a novelist could
set readers' hearts aquiver. In fact Forrester, who started out as a
novelist herself, has beaten drums and waved flags at strikes and
demonstrations all over France, Italy, Germany and Argentina
(although not in Great Britain or the United States). The trouble is
that her arguments are drowning in a sea of demagoguery. She repeats
herself over and over, appealing to the emotions and fear of the
unknown. Her rhetoric contains more than a hint of some unseen force
of evil directing the course of events.
This hysteria may be
justified according to Forrester's world view, but hysteria is not a
very effective means of communicating despair. Such oratory is more
likely to be perceived as emotional manipulation, especially when it
emanates from a Latin Quarter cafe. Indeed, the information I
gathered on this author - in my ignorance, I had never heard of her
before - bears out the stereotype that came to mind while I was
In the photograph I found of her on the Internet,
she is decked out in showy jewelry: earrings, bracelet and a huge
ring. Ian Cotton, a reporter for The Guardian Weekly, who
interviewed her in November 1999, makes a point of saying that she
looks very young for her age. He met her on Boulevard St. Germain,
not far from Cafe de Flore where Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and
Sartre used to sit. On the day of the interview, writes Cotton, only
the hat she was wearing provided some defense against the crowds of
Parisians who always stop her on the street and compliment her on
the fine job she has done of articulating what they have always
A review of her book in The Guardian describes it as
"the greatest economic bestseller since Das Kapital." It has been
translated into numerous languages, and on the cover, it says the
book is a world-wide bestseller, sold in over a million copies. I
spoke to more than a dozen acquaintances in Israel, Great Britain
and the United States - "leftist" economists who are particularly
interested in the socio-political aspects of the economy - and not
one of them was among those one million readers. One of them had
heard of the book, but dismissed it as "not serious," although he
had not read it.
On the other hand, all the French
economists I asked were well acquainted with both the book and
Forrester. One of them told me the book is a blockbuster in France,
a flagship of the anti-globalization movement. "I gather from the
reviews that the book is full of good intentions," said this friend,
"but the author is not an economic expert." A leading Le Monde
correspondent called it "rubbish" and attributed the book's success
to the fact that it "plays on people's fears."
How can it be
that a book that sells a million copies in Europe is in 152,242nd
place on Amazon.com on the day this review was written? How can it
be that a book waved on high by strikers in France has never been
heard of by "leftist" scholars in the United States?
French economist who works at an American university and holds views
that are far from leftist, told me: "The book is famous everywhere
in the world except the United States and Britain. (Allow me to add
Israel.) I'm not saying she's right, but Americans are totally
brainwashed. From the media, they get the feeling that even if
they're poor, they can strike it rich. They just have to work
harder. There's no critical thinking."
That could explain
why the book has floundered in the United States and Britain, but it
doesn't explain the secret of its success elsewhere. I know there
are differences between European and American culture, but I never
realized they were so great. Forrester is not an economist, although
I don't see any harm in that. It is probably true for all
disciplines, but in economics it is certainly so: Thought patterns
become ingrained which are very difficult to get rid of. One needs
sensitivity and commonsense to water down the intoxicating effect
that science can have when applied to social problems. Keen insights
do not come from tables but from careful scrutiny of the world
around us. There are many things about which it is easy to be
mistaken when relying on observation alone, and many things that are
easily refuted with the help of charts and paradigms. At the same
time, a sensitive and discerning eye may easily perceive things that
are very difficult to extract using "scientific" methods.
may object to Forrester's extravagant style, but her book has made
me ask myself if there is not some grain of truth in what she says.
My skeptical, conservative self says no, but another part of me -
the part that looks at Alex Levac's photographs and the world around
me - says maybe there is.
Prof. Ariel Rubinstein is
this year's Israel Prize laureate in economics.