The legion of the unemployed

We are anonymous. We are Legion.

We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.


We live in an era of legions. The Romans have long left the scene, but world theatre is yet again under the spell of the legion. A group of hacktivists, Anonymous, call themselves ‘Legion’ and philosophers and political activists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri even go so far as to claim that all the protesting multitudes of today are Legion. In this article we will have a closer look on one of the components of this global legion that is of particular importance in contemporary Europe. Youth unemployment is rising and in some countries already disastrous, with, for instance, Greece and Spain above 50% of the youth population without a job. It is not a coincidence that these same countries have also proven to be the sources of numerous protest movements.

Where do these protests come from? Why are the unemployed not more understanding with the politicians’ plea for hard times and hard measures? Maybe it is because the battle against unemployment is gradually turning into a battle against the unemployed. A quick look at the recent news shows us the cuts in food stamps in the United States, the pleas for tough unemployment policies coming from multinational business men like Jan De Nul, or austerity measures dictated by the European Union. Belgian politician Bart De Wever even goes so far as to say that the old division between labour and capital is history. Instead the new division is the one between the productive people financing the state’s debts and the unproductive people (the poor unemployed) profiting from the productive ones. We will show that this dichotomy is both empirically wrong and dangerous. For this, we will take a detour through trade union discourse.

Trade unions: Marxists in disguise

Trade unions today seem to fuel the tendency to oppose ‘the productive people’ and ‘the unproductive ones’. This is because their discourse is still heavily dependent on the Marxist theory of unemployment dating from the 19th century. Its expiry date has however long passed. Marx saw the unemployed as an industrial reserve army for the working class. The unemployed are the rest when the number of available jobs is matched with the number of available work forces. If there are more people than jobs, unemployment is inevitable. These unemployed however make the lives of the working class more difficult. Firstly, the oversupply of workers keeps wages low. Employers do not have to pay high wages because a worker cannot demand a high wage when there are many others who do not. Secondly, the unemployed make resistance against injustices unlikely, since employer can easily fire dissident voices and hire new, more obedient one’s in return. As a result, trade unions have a rather ambivalent relation to the unemployed. On the one hand, they want to ameliorate their fate since that diminishes the threat towards the working class. On the other hand, their main objective is defending the working class, which makes the unemployed an opponent. The latter’s negative effects for the employed make them an ‘enemy from below’, contrasted to the employers as the ‘enemy from above’.

The_hand_that_will_rule_the_worldToday the industrial reserve army resides in the low-wage countries of the Third World. We all know the ‘Made in China’-tag. Corporations leave Western countries with strong trade unions and good working conditions for Eastern and Southern countries without any protection for labourers. The states and governments in the West answer by giving corporations what they want, at the cost of worker benefits. The result is a race to the bottom. Trade unions respond by pressing governments to resist this race. “Do not touch our worker’s rights!” This actively opposes the interests of western working class to the poor unemployed of low-wage countries. “They should not get our jobs!” The dangerous consequence is that the unions are fighting an uphill battle. Firstly, the race to the bottom is an unstoppable process. Every western country that does not comply with corporate demands loses the race. Businesses will move and employment moves from Europe to, for instance, China. To keep jobs in Europe governments can only obey corporate command. Secondly, corporations rule the battle by the divide et impera strategy. Union interests and the objectives of the Chinese low-wage workers are opposed instead of unified against the common exploiter.

Discourse expired

But don’t we see the consequences of the industrial reserve army every day? If you desire help from a call centre an Indian could pick up the phone, when you look at the tag in your t-shirt it says “made in China’ and Swiss chocolate is made in an Indonesian sweatshop named ‘Swiss’. And still this discourse does not adequately describe the current socio-economic situation. There are three reasons for this:

1) There is no reserve outside the labour situation. First of all, it is a myth that unemployed workers do nothing but sit in their couch. Most of the poor work in unstable jobs, mostly on the black market. One may here think of illegal immigrants working on the US plantations near the Mexican border or the man who painted your living room but was paid ‘under the table’. Secondly, the contemporary mode of production is what Negri and Hardt call ‘biopolitical’. They mean that life itself has become part of the production process. For example, a PR-manager does not simply produce communicative goods, but communication. The manager’s work is to produce relations with other people, with the hopes of gaining an advantage later on by having this relation. He could, for instance, get an exclusive project for his company, because the contracting firm has his phone number. In the same way an entertainer does not produce objects, but emotions and attention. He earns money for his employer by making his clients feel good. This means that the social and the economic are no longer separated. The social itself is both the means and the product of economic labour. As a result, the unemployed are no longer excluded from productive labour. When an unemployed person enters a fast food chain and is welcomed by an employee, the latter makes him feel happy (a produced emotion). The first answers the warm welcome and starts a conversation with the employee. Now he is involved in the production of communication and emotions himself. He is not just a costumer, but part of the social fabric of the fast food chain. He is as much part of the labour of the fast food employee as the employee himself.

2) The poor who live in the zone in between employment and unemployment are the paradigm of contemporary labour. The work situation of everyone starts to resemble more and more the situation of unemployed workers. Today a worker has to be prepared to switch jobs multiple times during his career. Firms hire a lot of employees only for temporary jobs. Factories work on minimum worker population and minimum stocks., New workers are hired  when demand suddenly rises, but only for as long as this trend lasts. For instance, European truck factories encounter for the moment a high demand for trucks with a certain engine, but this will only last until the 1st of January 2014. The reason is that this particular type of engine is cheaper than the new more ecological one that becomes mandatory according to European law. After that date the old cheaper, but more polluting engines are no longer for sale. Workers are hired for this six-month period after which they can leave. The worker also has to be flexible for his company, but ‘flexibility’ actually serves as a euphemism for job insecurity. Every worker can be laid off at any moment. That is why the working class has increasingly been called ‘the precariat’. The precarious situation of the poor unemployed, in between unemployment and (illegal or biopolitical) employment, has increasingly become the situation of all workers. De Wever’s  black-or-white distinction between the productive and the unproductive is now a gradual difference where everyone inhabits the grey area in between employment and unemployment.

3) The ‘working class’ has functioned in history as an exclusive concept. In its broadest meaning it means ‘all waged labour’, but a lot of important labour is unwaged. We have already discussed the labour on the black market, but also, for example, women’s household work has been excluded by the trade union discourse of the working class. The insistence on the categorical distinction between productive and unproductive is thus highly, classist, racist and patriarchal. It excludes the work of illegal immigrants, women in the household, the uneducated poor for whom there are no jobs. It is also empirically inaccurate since their work can hardly be called unproductive, especially in our days of biopolitical production.

The wealth of the poor

Now that we have discredited the discourse that defended the protection workers enjoyed thanks to the unions, it would be nihilistic to leave it at that. What new projects correspond to the new socio-economic reality? How can the unemployed poor defend themselves? What are the arms of the legion we talked about?

In fact the so-called poor are the source of a wealth that is not measured in money. They produce the commons. This means that the poor and unemployed are the source of a kind of creativity that is not privately owned by a company or corporation. Let us take language as an example. What makes language evolve? Who produces the riches of new linguistic expressions? It is certainly not the record companies that take copyrights on songs or the patents on commercial slogans. New kinds of communication are created bottom up. Excellent examples are the Afro-American English of the major cities of the US or the argot French created in the ‘banlieues’ of France. The latter is an especially good example. It is a combination of grammatical reversals (for instance, ‘un flic’ is transformed into ‘kifle’) and mixtures of different migrant languages (a lot of Arabic and African words are used). Language is a social good commonly owned by everyone. It belongs neither to the state (public ownership) nor to a particular individual (private property). It is an example of the commons. Just like the air we breathe or the view of the countryside, it is there for everyone to enjoy, but for no one to own.

Paradise concept.It is the oppression of the poor that makes them use their creativity. Oppressive situations demand innovation to avoid suffering. Argot, for instance, began as a coded language to avoid the police to understand the poor unemployed youth of the French cities. Whenever the code is cracked, new creations pop up. Just like the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin claimed:” Where danger is, redemption also grows.” In the precarious situation of the poor, a redemptive wealth is waiting to be discovered. We can see this in the multiple protests erupting all over the world. They demand salvation from the dire poverty they live in and when this is not delivered, they do not step back to do it themselves. The protests of Tahrir Square, for instance, were for a large part a protest against high unemployment in Egypt (next to corruption and dictatorship). When change was only promised in vague and revocable words, they threw out Mubarak. This is why Belgian activist and philosopher Lieven De Cauter has been pleading for ‘Tahrir Square everywhere’ since then. The legion of the unemployed has not only spoken, but has acted on their speech. The unemployed have lost everything. We are all unemployed or part of the practically unemployed precariat. To conclude with a Marxist pun:” the precariat has nothing to lose but their chains, they have a world to win.” Everywhere Tahrir Square.

Appendix: are we possessed?

The recent developments in Egypt however oblige us to be more critical. The claim ‘We are Legion’ is not new in history. The gospel of Mark recounts the story of a possessed man. When Jesus spoke to the devil in him, the latter said:” My name is Legion: for we are many.” Christ eventually displaces the legion into a group of pigs. The animals become mad, run of a cliff and drown.We must ask ourselves a vital question. The legion seems to be ambiguous. We have described it as a creative force driving history to a new and better world, but the same legion can be the chaotic amok that regresses history in a state of nature of a war of all against all. I am not going to answer the question. It is not for me to decide on the value of mankind, nor can I foresee a future yet to be made. If we have learned one thing from all the failure of philosophers trying to force truth in the throats of the people, then it is that it does not work. Mankind is old and mature enough to make its own history, it does not need philosophers to tell them that. The question for you to answer is:” Are we the man to be salvaged by Christ or the pigs racing to our deaths?

Further reading

A. Negri & M. Hardt, Multitude.

L. De Cauter, “Everywhere Tahrir Square!” Reflections on the revolution in Egypt” in Entropic Empire.


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