'Work' refers to an activity that is performed in order to produce a result and that generally contributes to the good of society. Work can be creative, artistic or done on a voluntary basis. The term ‘employment’ dates back to the Middle-Ages and refers to work that is done in exchange of a wage. Employment is paid work. The difference, beyond semantics, is that employment is disappearing while there will always be work.
In 2015, a report from the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) forecast that more than 5 million jobs would disappear in the next 10 to 15 years. In 2018, research from the Australian Institute’s Centre for Future Work revealed that less than half of Australian workers had a permanent full-time job. I wrote about underemployment a while ago. In brief, underemployment is creeping up, casual is the new normal and an increasing number of workers are only a couple of bills away from poverty.
The situation we experience today is the result of advances in automation and technology as well as neoliberal economic policies pushing towards work casualisation. Nobody is safe, from the bottom of the working pool to the most qualified workers. Our current system has reached its limits: economic growth doesn't equate to employment growth anymore. It’s not all doom and gloom though.
There will always be people to feed, roads to repair and things to build or fix. Employment will never completely disappear. Certain jobs simply can’t be replaced by robots. I'm thinking of jobs that require human physical interaction such as nurses or physiotherapists. The remaining jobs, however, will be precarious, highly competitive and will leave many people behind.
In order to produce the article you are reading, I have to research, write a draft then edit it. You can argue that writing a blog is a leisure activity, it is a lot of work nonetheless. Stay at home mums may not be employed either, yet they work hard to raise and look after their children so they can be healthy and educated. Volunteering is working too. Volunteers feed the poor, clean the environment or look after the elderly - all of which are the government's responsibilities by the way. Meaningful work also contributes to boost workers’ self-esteem and feeling of contributing to society.
Any work that contributes to the overall good of society should be compensated. Another avenue worth exploring is the concept of universal basic income. A universal basic income is a government allowance granted to every resident of a country so they can meet their basic needs such as food, health and accommodation. The idea appeared in the early 20th century and was supported by Australia’s Labor Party’s Barry Jones in the 1980's before the idea was dropped by the Bob Hawke Labor government. More on universal basic income in another blog.
A word to the wise
For Ancient Greece philosopher Aristotle, work is a means to an end. For 19th century German philosopher Karl Marx, work is the essence of man but hard labour is alienation. As for me, I think there needs to be a discussion about the place of work in our society today and how to prepare for the future before it is too late.
The European Union as we know it today started almost 70 years ago as a cartel of coal and steel producers from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. There have been different names over the years and twenty-two countries have joined the European Union since its creation. The single market was created to allow capital, goods, services and people to move freely and the common Euro currency was introduced to stabilise prices in the Eurozone.
The 7 crystal balls
The European Union is made up of 7 institutions: the European Council, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, the European Court of Justice, the European Central Bank and the European Court of Auditors. The only European institution whose members are democratically elected is the European Parliament. Elections take place every 5 years, however turnout has been historically low at less than 50% for the last 20 years.
The main role of any parliament is to make laws. Yet the European Parliament does not have such power. Legislative power - the power to make laws - is in the hands of the European Commission. The European Parliament is a parliament in name only. Members of the other European institutions are designated by their respective governments and approved by the Parliament, except for the European Council whose members are the heads of states or governments.
One ring to rule them all
Over time, the European Union took over the national sovereignty of its member countries through the cunning use of treaties. The Maastricht Treaty (1992) took away the right of member countries to borrow money directly from their central banks at a low or nil rate and imposed neoliberal policies to all member countries. Other treaties such as the Stability and Growth Pact (1998) or the Fiscal Compact (2012) imposed European economic directives to all members and gave the European Union the power to veto any fiscal policies of any member country.
One-way democracy is not democracy
There is no way for ordinary people to vote against European policies. Yet, when a country disagrees with the European Union, their decision is systematically overturned. The examples of the French, Dutch, Greek and British referendums speak for themselves. ‘There can be no democratic choice against European treaties’ said Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, following the result of the Greek referendum about the EU's proposed bailout plan. The Greeks voted against Brussels' austerity measures and ended up with an even harsher deal than what they were negotiating before the referendum.
In 2005, France and the Netherlands rejected by referendum the proposal of a European Constitution. Two years later, the Treaty of Lisbon - a rebadged European Constitution - was signed by both countries. Other countries such as Denmark (1992) or Ireland (2008) held referendums twice until the result was is favour of the European Union. Democratic decisions are OK as long as they don’t interfere with the EU’s agenda. The European Union crucified Greece as a warning to the other countries and is trying to do the same with the United Kingdom.
Something is rotten in the state of Europe
In addition to an absence of democracy, there is a lack of transparency and non-accountability from the European institutions. The Eurogroup, a shadow institution of finance ministers, meet behind closed doors to discuss trade deals that undermine safety and environmental standards such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
There's also the question of the EU's imperial ambitions behind the creation of a European army and its interference in foreign countries' political affairs such as Venezuela's. Last but not least, the European Union - via its Central Bank - has proven its incompetence in managing the Euro debt crisis. To put it into the words of Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister: ‘The European Central Bank lent the biggest amount of money in the history of capitalism to the most bankrupt state in Europe.’ I couldn’t have said it better.
The European Union is on the brink of disintegration, as can be seen with the rise of nationalism and far-right political groups or the Brexit in the UK and the yellow vests movement in France. I wrote about the yellow vests a few months ago. The main demand of the protesters is citizens' initiated referendums, which is a means of direct democracy. French citizens could submit or repeal a law proposal, modify the constitution or remove any politician from office.
French President Emmanuel Macron said during an interview on the BBC that French people would probably vote to leave the EU as well if there was a referendum. This is precisely why he won't grant the yellow vests the means to make democratic choices that would endanger the European Union further. The definition of a democracy is governance of the people, by the people, for the people. A definition that clearly does not apply to the European Union.
No light at the end of the tunnel
There’s a crisis of democracy, or lack thereof, in the way the European Union is run and the way it operates, which leans more towards that of a mafia than a democracy. The European Union restricts the freedom and liberties of its member countries at the expense of the people. Competition between member countries associated with privatisation and austerity policies have resulted in more social injustice and the impoverishment of the people.
Reforming the European Union is impossible. The probability of 28 governments from all sides of the political spectrum agreeing to reform the European Union couldn't be closer to zero. Take it apart and rebuild as new. I will conclude with a quote from British political economy professor Mark Blyth: 'At the end of the day, if the European Union is not improving the lives of the majority of the people, what is it for?'
This blog follows my previous one about the yellow vests movement in France. If you haven’t read it yet, I invite you to do so as it is clear and complete. One idea broadly supported by the yellow vests movement is citizens’ initiated referendums. Public referendums are a means of direct democracy. I thought I should elaborate on democracy before moving on.
Direct democracy versus representative democracy
Direct democracy is a form of government in which people vote directly on the laws of a country. They can submit proposals to public referendums and revoke their representatives when they cease to act in the general interest. Direct democracy works best in smaller countries or at a local level. Representative democracy is a form of government in which people elect representatives who will legislate on their behalf. All democracies today are representative. This form of government is preferred in countries where the great number of people makes direct democracy difficult to implement.
The social contract and the drift towards authoritarianism
The social contract is a philosophical and political theory that is the basis for representative democracy. People accept to give up some of their rights to their representatives - or government, who will legislate on their behalf in order to guarantee their rights and liberties. John Locke, a 17th century English philosopher whose ideas influenced the Enlightenment period, was one of the pioneers of the social contract theory.
When the government and elected representatives can no longer guarantee people’s rights and liberties, the social contract is broken. When democracy fades away, we drift into ‘soft’ authoritarianism. John Locke argues that when this happens, people are no longer bound to the social contract and have the right to take action to replace the representatives or the government in power.
The example of the Athenian democracy
The Greek city-state of Athens became the first democracy in the 5th century BC. Citizens - which didn’t include slaves, women, and men who hadn’t accomplished their military service - were allowed to take part to popular assemblies during which they could debate and vote on every single issue affecting the city. Athens’ direct form of democracy was groundbreaking in the sense that it involved ‘normal people’ in the decision-making process of their city. Unfortunately Athens’ democracy was short-lived and the city fell under Macedonian rule less than 200 years later.
Democracy needs education to work
There was however one limitation to Athenian democracy: education, or lack thereof. Many officials in Athens managed to talk their way into positions of power without the proper knowledge to perform their duties. Socrates, a Greek philosopher who experienced Athenian democracy, criticised and exposed some of these demagogues in public. He would be sentenced to death for it.
Democracy without education leads to populism. This is one of the reasons why we are seeing extreme political groups gaining popularity across the world. Education is the cure for society’s ills and it should be the priority of any government that claims to act in the interest of its citizens. One can argue that most governments today are better off with a dumbed down population.
You may disagree with my following statement but to me, voting should be a privilege, not a right. Giving voting rights to uneducated or uninformed people is like playing Russian roulette. Some thinkers have formulated the idea of a voting licence, similar to driving. While I'm not entirely sold on the idea, I do think we need to open the debate on the importance of education for democracy.
The example of workers cooperatives
A workers’ cooperative is a business that is owned and controlled by its employees. No more middlemen, or stakeholders, to pull the workers' strings. Workers cooperatives are true democratic workplaces. Employees decide on their working conditions, what they produce and how they produce it. They decide what to do with profits, they elect their leaders and they have the power to revoke them.
The side effects of having a business owned by its workers is that better working conditions produce happier workers, which in turn drives productivity up. So far, the data available has shown that workers’ cooperatives are beneficial for local economies, have a higher success rate than standard business structures and are less affected by economic downturns.
I hope you now have a better understanding of the origins of democracy, its different forms and why it is worth fighting for. I welcome any comments or ideas and if you made it to this final sentence, I greatly appreciate your taking the time to read my work.