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The Economic Horror
by Viviane Forrester
from The Jobs Letter No.113/ 6 December, 1999
French author VIVIANE FORRESTER's book L'horreur
Economique (The Economic Horror) has just been published in an English edition. The 1996 book is already a huge bestseller
in France, Germany, Italy, Japan and South America, and reviewers predict that it set to become
the biggest economics bestseller since Das
The 72-year old author has become a heroine in France where unemployment now stands at
more than 12%. Young jobless have taken to photocopying pages from
L'horreur notably those passages decrying the culture of shame attached to unemployment and sticking them up
on job centre walls. The author's effigy can also be found at the front of workers' marches,
with banners quoting from her book.
International financier George Soros was so impressed with
L'horreur that he arranged to meet with the author in Paris. The book has also been discussed by the Mexican parliament, and
politicians in Peru have invited the author to lecture in Latin America.
This official interest has come despite the author's argument that there is a conspiracy by
"those who control economic power" to "hide from the workers the truth that they are no longer
needed by the capitalist system" and that we are witnessing "the end of employment as we have
In this special feature, The Jobs Letter profiles Viviane Forrester and gives an essential
summary of her views on the future of work.
- Viviane Forrester's economics is largely self-taught, and until the publication of
L'horreur, she was better known as a novelist and literary critic. Yet, according to Ian Cotton of
The Guardian Weekly, Forrester has emerged as "... a fine example of the outsider who sees things
Forrester's thesis is that employment as we have known it for three centuries throughout
the West, has had its day and is becoming less plausible by the year as a way of distributing wealth.
L'horreur also attacks the present policies of Western governments as it makes ever more
desperate attempts to keep the jobs-and-wages system alive. Forrester cites the constant downsizing
of ever larger numbers of the working and, now, middle classes; the steady attrition,
internationally, of welfare and union rights; and the growing destabilisation of those in work, let alone of
All this has created an employment and unemployment (and underemployment) culture that is
not merely stressful, regrettable and unpleasant but has also, according to Forrester, "spawned
an economic world that is an obscenity, an affront to human nature" and, in the words of the
book's title, a "horror".
" Those in power continue to present employment as the norm and by doing so make
the unemployed feel worthless. Everything of value in contemporary western society our
income, our status, our contacts, our self-esteem, our power and our peace of mind is
inextricably bound up with work.
" The panaceas of work-experience and re-training often do nothing more than reinforce the
fact that there is no real role for the unemployed. They come to realize that there is something
worse than being exploited, and that is not even to be exploitable..."
- Ian Cotton remarks: "This is not a thesis likely to appeal to Messrs Clinton and Blair.
After all, it doesn't square with the fact that the United States economy is enjoying the longest,
strongest economic boom in post-war history. Or that unemployment in Britain is at its lowest for
19 years. Yet there is a curious thing about Forrester's reading of the situation: a vast number
of ordinary people believe it..."
- Forrester finds that the book has certainly struck a nerve: "When I was promoting the
book in South America I'd go to these town meetings of factory workers, clerks, ordinary people.
The cheering would start before I entered the hall..."
"My book has brought me in touch with the powerful as well as the poor, and there is this
strong feeling among political elites that you must not tell the people the truth about today's
economic realities; that they just can't take it.
"In fact, I found the opposite: people aren't, in fact, afraid but they are indignant. They're
not stupid, they can see what's going on, and the thing that really angers them is denial. Indeed,
it's surprising how many people have told me that reading my book has actually reduced their
"Waiters, bankers, housewives, taxi drivers, students, young unemployed ... they say to me:
`'I've had exactly the same thoughts you wrote in your book myself, for years. But it wasn't until I
read L'horreur that I even realised I'd been thinking them _ let alone started taking such ideas
seriously' ... "
- Forrester argues that economic neo-liberalism has introduced a new economic
paradigm: "Increasingly it offers the most vulnerable in our society a quite new choice poverty at work
or poverty on the dole..."
For examples, she points to the desperate rush of French unemployed applying for the
Contrat Emploi Solidarite jobs which pay half the guaranteed minimum wage, and are only part-time.
Or those on workfare programmes in the US who are paid a third of union rates and have
benefits docked if they are late for "work". Or those in Britain whose special economic horror is to
have achieved invisibility - the "economically inactive" who don't even count as unemployed for
Forrester: "The feeling that we must prove ourselves useful to society, or at least to the
market economy, is rooted in the value system of a world which no longer exists. As we are unlikely
ever to have a culture of full employment again, we need to stop basing our identities, individually
and communally, around the idea of employment. First and foremost, the new millennium calls out
for a new culture, with a new social structure which is not centred on paid employment ..."
- Meanwhile, in France, Forrester's book title has become the catchphrase of all kinds
of protest movements. But French economists have generally been reluctant to discuss the
book, with some describing its arguments as "irrational" and "irrelevant to a serious discussion of
The liberal French economist Alain Minc, who is also chairman of
Le Monde, has described the book a "rubbish". He recently told Forrester: "Your book is a talented opinion poll. It is a
publishing success because it plays on people's fears. But it would have sold far fewer copies if it
had been signed by [Communist party leader] Robert Hue..."
Minc argues that the prosperous French workers and their unions have refused to trade some
of their benefits for wider employment. Minc: "Since 1973, average purchasing power has risen
by 40 per cent in real terms in France. If we had accepted a rise of only 35 per cent, there would be
a million more jobs..."
Minc nevertheless concedes that Forrester has articulated a popular feeling which, for him,
demonstrates "the confusion in society at large about current economic developments..."
Sources "L'horreur Economique" by Viviane Forrester published 1999 by Polity Press; The Guardian Weekly 4
November 1999 "Labour of Love" by Ian Cotton; Prospect August 1997 "Letter from Paris" by Anne-Elizabeth Moutet
The Economic Horror
by Viviane Forrester
(pub 1999 by Blackwell )
Viviane Forrester on a Profound Change
- I think that each of us, whatever our walk of life, should feel concerned about the
present state of the world, which is entirely governed by economics. If Shakespeare were to come back
to life today, I think he would be fascinated by the tragic interplay of powerful economic
forces which are stealthily transforming the lives and destinies of the citizens or rather the
populations of all countries.
- To my mind we are witnessing a profound change, a transformation of society and
civilization, and we are finding it very hard to accept. How can we say good-bye to a society that
was based on stable jobs that provided a safety net and the basics of a decent existence? Job security
is on the way out.
For the first time in history, the vast majority of human beings are no longer indispensable to
the small number of those who run the world economy. The economy is increasingly wrapped up
in pure speculation. The working masses and their cost are becoming superfluous. In other
words, there is something worse than actually being exploited and that is no longer to be even
- It is true that this state of affairs is not being concealed, but there is a tendency to
avoid talking about it clearly. In democratic societies, at any rate, you don't tell people that they
are regarded as superfluous. Under totalitarianism there might be an even worse danger than
joblessness and poverty. Once salaried work has disappeared, why should a totalitarian regime
not simply eliminate those forces that have become useless?
In democratic countries there is an urgent need for vigilance. It is often claimed that the
industrial age, when a regular wage provided the means of subsistence, can somehow be patched up.
But those days are over. Wage-earning is disappearing and the panoply of temporary doles and
allowances designed to replace it is shrinking, something that is nothing less than criminal.
- The managers of the economic machine exploit this situation. Full employment is a thing
of the past, but we still use criteria that were current in the nineteenth century, or twenty or
thirty years ago, when it still existed. Among other things, this encourages many unemployed people
to feel ashamed of themselves. This shame has always been absurd but it is even more so today.
It goes hand in hand with the fear felt by the privileged who still have a paid job and are afraid
of losing it. I maintain that this shame and this fear ought to be quoted on the stock exchange,
because they are major inputs in profit. Once upon a time people pilloried the alienation caused
by work. Today falling labour costs contribute to the profits of big companies, whose
favourite management tool is sacking workers; when they do this, their stock market value soars.
- Today we hear a lot about "wealth creation". In the past it was simply known as
profit. Today people talk about this wealth as if it will automatically go straight to the community
and create jobs, yet at the same time we see highly profitable businesses cutting down heavily on
Today the great thing is to be "profitable", not "useful".
This raises a very serious question: Should people be profitable in order to "deserve" the right to
live? Viviane Forrester
When people talk about society's "movers and shakers", they aren't talking about the bulk of
their country's population but about business leaders who relocate at the drop of a hat.
Politicians make jobs their priority, but the Stock Exchange is delighted whenever a big industrial
complex fires workers and gets worried whenever there's the slightest improvement in the
unemployment figures. I wanted to draw people's attention to this paradox. A company's stock market
quotation depends largely on labour costs, and profit is generated in the last analysis by reducing the
numbers of those who have a job.
- The present situation raises a vital question for the future of the people of our planet,
above all for young people and their future. Today the great thing is to be "profitable", not "useful".
This raises a very serious question: Should people be profitable in order to "deserve" the right to
live? The commonsense answer is that it is a good thing to be useful to society. But we are
preventing people from being useful, we are squandering the energies of young people by regarding
profitability as the be-all and end-all.
- Most countries have lost their sense of priorities. There is a greater and greater need
for teachers and medical staff, but governments are increasingly aggressive towards them. These
are the professions where posts are abolished and funding is cut. Yet they are indispensable to
the welfare and future of humanity. This confusion between "usefulness" and "profitability" is
disastrous for the future of the planet.
Young people live in a society which still regards salaried employment as the only
acceptable, honest and lawful way of life, but most of them are deprived of the opportunity to achieve this.
In deprived inner city areas this is a major problem.
At the same time I often meet young people with armfuls of degrees who are out of work.
What inexcusable waste! For generations study was young people's initiation into social life. I
admire young people today because they go on with their studies fully aware that they are running
the risk of rejection by society.
- Only twenty or thirty years ago, there was still reason to hope that the relative prosperity
of the North would spread all over the world. Today we are seeing the globalization of
poverty. Businesses based in the North that set up in the so-called "developing" countries, do not
create jobs for the people of those countries but generally make them work without any kind of
social security protection, in medieval conditions. The reason is that the workforce underpaid
women and children, as well as prisoners costs less than automation would cost in the country
of origin. This is colonization in another, equally heinous, form.
I am not pessimistic, far from it. The pessimists are those who say there is no alternative
to the present situation, that we have no choice. My book is an attempt to describe what is going
on. It's true that the situation is dramatic. All the same I am, like many other people, the citizen of
a country whose democratic regime makes it possible to reflect and freely resist the growing
pressure that the economic factor is exerting on our lives.
- I would like there to be checks and balances, alternative thinking, conflicts of ideas
and interests. Not violent conflict, of course, but we should wake up and stop being petrified,
prisoners of hackneyed thinking. Already in countries where my book is being translated-especially
in the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Lithuania, Poland and in others such as the Republic of
Korea it is causing something of a stir even before publication.
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