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Rivista di etica e scienze sociali / Journal of Ethics & Social Sciences


The present high levels of unemployment in otherwise rich countries are a constant source of debate and disagreement. In such debates, it is often said that technological development reduces employment. It is not often said that technological changes were behind the development of the very idea of "employment" in the first place. The widespread use of the term "employment" for describing the organisation of work is a product of the experience of factory-based labour that came into existence around the turn of the 18th century. Not surprisingly, it took sometime for the thinking about work as employment to develop and mature. Although the word "employment" has a history that goes back centuries, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary the term "unemployment" was first used in the English language only in 1881. The first legislation that was specifically drafted to deal with the problem of loss of income due to unemployment was Lloyd George's unemployment insurance legislation of 1911.

Before this change of mentality, the problem of unemployment was not treated separately from the wider problem of poverty. For instance, in Great Britain from 1595 until 1911, it was through the application of the Poor Laws that those lacking work could find financial or other material help. In other words, unemployment was not an idea that people used in thinking about the causes of poverty. The concept of unemployment is the product of the idea of "employment", which itself grew out of the organisational and legal changes that took place in Europe as a result of the application of steam-powered technology to the production of goods.

To begin with this background is important, since it puts the present technological changes and the effect they are having on job levels and on the way we organise and think about work in historical context. In the northern parts of the world, we are at the beginning of a new phase of change, and like those in the early period of the industrial revolution, we do not yet have the concepts to explain what is going on. It took a hundred years from the creation of what we could call the first modern factories to produce the term "unemployment". Maybe it will take less time to come up with the terminology which will best describe the kind of work organisation that computer-based technology gives us the chance to create, but as yet we have not reached that point. Instead, we see the continued reference to words with the prefix "post" - postfordist, postmodern - and the use of apparently paradoxically qualified nouns to describe the forms of work organisation we see developing around us today: virtual enterprises, hollow corporations, and the like. We know we are leaving something behind and going into a new phase, but we can't yet say what that phase is. Brute experience runs before theory.

This makes the present situation of chronic "unemployment", or more generically, "lack of work", all the more difficult to analyse and understand. After the Second World War, the industrialised countries adopted policies of full employment in one form or another. This was the first time in history that such policies had been adopted, partly because economic thinking as a result of the work of Keynes had taken a radical turn, but also because the problem of "unemployment" had only been relatively recently defined. Rejuvenating the idea of full employment is not necessarily the way ahead now, given the situation of technological change that we are in. At the same time, the older model where all forms of poverty are treated as part of the same problem is also too crude for today. Academics may be able to wait for further clarity in the understanding of this situation, but in the meantime, real people are suffering. What can an academic honestly suggest to be done?

Firstly, we can take advantage of this situation to go back to basics, to that which we know has consistently formed part of human existence and of the economy, whatever the particular form under which these elements are present in a particular system. The most important point here is to emphasise that human work must be central to any economic system - the active and directing part of the system - even if the particular form within which that work takes place is not at all clear. Government policies, for instance, that aim to promote human development through general education and broad vocational formation, allowing the constant development and refinement of different skills adequate to different work environments, are necessary.

Secondly, we can take a more active stance. Elements of the technological paradigm that we are leaving behind are well behind us, and we need to promote actively other traditions of technological development and of work organisation that were too easily submerged in the era of mass production and mass bureaucracy. The idea that technology has "two faces" is not a new one. John Paul II uses it in his encyclical on work, where he argues that technology can be an "ally" to the person in the work process, or it can be used as a form of domination. Schumacher has this sense very strongly when he contrasts the theoretical assumptions behind his "inter-mediate technology" with that behind the dominant forms of technological development.

The members of the human-centred technology school contrast their attempts to develop advanced technical equipment that places the human person at the centre of the design and operation of the system, with the dominant "technocentric" approach. Perhaps most interestingly of all, Lewis Mumford (1895 - 1990) identifies the earliest form of exploitative technological work organisation as that devised in ancient Egypt for constructing the pyramids. This new development of a "monotechnics", orientated towards subordinating all other goals for technological development to that of the Pharaoh's, began to dominate the older tradition of technological development that had begun with the first human beings. In the older form, which he calls "polytechnics" or "biotechnics," technological development promotes the wide and diverse ends of a whole human community. What is striking about Mumford's analysis is that he sees monotechnics, where the dominant group in society use technology to subordinate others, as the upstart of the two. Biotechnics has had a far longer history and represents the original form of technological development. Needless to say, Mumford identifies the development of technology in capitalist societies largely with the monotechnic form. We have inherited this form of technological development, and we have often unconsciously assumed that it is the only form there is.

As the example of Egypt shows, however, monotechnics do not necessarily always have the ascendancy. Egypt fell, and with it its traditions of technological organisation. Indeed, several important business and economic trends today would suggest that we could be witnessing the beginning of a period in history where human-centred forms of technological design could becoming more appropriate than their technocentric counterparts. The need for quality in design and manufacture or in the provision of services, and the vast superiority of human beings over machines for ensuring quality, as well as the need for flexibility and responsiveness to changes in the marketplace, all favour the active, directing presence of people in the workplace.

It is a truism to say that it is difficult to live through a period of upheaval and change, especially for those unemployed in the midst of it. At the same time, however, a period of instability offers the chance for submerged and often better traditions of technological design to be reassessed and revived. While technology today may be being used in a way that reduces "employment" in industry, it was the use of technology in the first place that created some of the worst, most dehumanising types of "employment" ever known to mankind. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times is an eloquent witness to that fact, one that is not so very far from the situation still faced by many in industry, especially in poorer countries. Academics, in reflecting on the changes that are occurring and in trying to understand and explain them, can also actively promote changes that put the human being back in the centre of the economic process after the 200 year aberration of industrial capitalism.


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Albino Barrera OP  -  Stefano Menghinello  -  Sabina Alkire

Introduction of Piotr Janas OP