Thursday, November 10, 2005

What Does It Mean to be Desperately Unemployed?

The young people behind the riots in France have been produced by "unemployment and racism," as one NYT op-ed put it. The consensus seems to be that their violence is an expression of their exclusion, economic and social, from French society. In many ways, the problem of unemployment is the problem of the late 20th century. It is still unresolved. Politicians never stop talking about it. Where it exists to a high degree, it is the problem from which almost all others stem. To solve the problem of unemployment is to solve many social ills everywhere.

What does it mean to be unemployed in today's world? Consider what Zygmunt Bauman writes in Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts (Polity Press, 2004):
The prefix 'un' suggests anomaly; 'unemployment' is a name for a manifestly temporary and abnormal condition and so the nature of the complaint is patently transient and curable. The notion of 'unemployment' inherits its semantic load from the self-awareness of a society which used to cast its members as producers first and last, and which also believed in full employment as not just a desireable and attainable social condition but also its own ultimate destination; a society which therefore cast employment as a key - the key - to the resolution of the issues of, simultaneously, socially acceptable personal identity, secure social position, individual and collective survival, social order and systemic reproduction.
Does anyone think that deporting the rioters, as the French now plan to do, will solve anything? It is a short-term solution for France, a long-term problem for humankind.

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