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Sunday, March 24, 2002 Nisan 11, 5762 Israel Time:  09:32  (GMT+2)
L'Horreur Economique
By Ariel Rubinstein
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)

"Out of 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.

The 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.

Another 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 society.

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.

The conclusion, 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.

I'm 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 reading.

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 felt.

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 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?

A 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.

I 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.

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