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A Society of Universal Unemployment

Views: 957 In 1848 the Prussian government sent a young physician named Rudolf Carl Virchow to Upper Silesia (now in Poland) to investigate a typhus epidemic. His …

by Stephen Shenfield



2 min read

In 1848 the Prussian government sent a young physician named Rudolf Carl Virchow to Upper Silesia (now in Poland) to investigate a typhus epidemic. His Report was a striking document. Indeed, it still is. He attributes the epidemic to the abject poverty of the region’s working people. Typhus, he observes, is typically accompanied by malnutrition. He lays the blame for the misery squarely on the shoulders of all the upper strata of society:

The bureaucracy would not, or could not, help the people. The feudal aristocracy used its money to indulge in the luxury and the follies of the court, the army and the cities. The plutocracy, which draw very large amounts from the Upper Silesian mines, did not recognize the Upper Silesians as human beings, but only as tools or, as the expression has it, ‘hands.’ The clerical hierarchy endorsed the wretched neediness of the people as a ticket to heaven…

The interests of the human race are not served when, by an absurd concentration of capital and landed property in the hands of single individuals, production is directed into channels that always guide back the flow of the profits into the same hands…


Clearly Virchow is especially indignant at the practice of calling workers ‘hands’:

People only count as hands! Is this the purpose of machines in the cultural history of nations? Shall the triumphs of human genius serve no other aim than making the human race miserable? Certainly not… Man should work only as much as is required to wrest from the soil … as much as is needed for the comfortable existence of the whole race, but he should not squander his best powers to amass capital. 


Today, after almost two more centuries of capitalist development, these words ring as true as ever.[1] Yes, it does seem old-fashioned nowadays to call workers ‘hands’ – although the terms ‘farm hand’ and ‘ranch hand’ are still current. Nevertheless, the same dehumanizing attitude is expressed in other ways. 

Take the modern expression ‘human resources.’ It reduces people to just one type of the various resources at the disposal of companies, alongside financial and material resources. 

And when you come across words like ‘employer,’ ‘employee,’ and ‘employment,’ please remember that the meaning of ‘employ’ is ‘use’ – no more and no less. Our 21st-century plutocrats still treat their workers not ‘as human beings’ but ‘only as tools.’  

The great moral philosopher Immanuel Kant taught the ‘categorical imperative’ that

we should never act in such a way that we treat humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as a means only but always as an end in itself. 

Immanuel Kant

This is an ideal that we socialists share. We dream of living as full human beings in cooperation with other full human beings. But rarely is it feasible to live in accordance with such an ideal within a social system based upon the use of human beings as means to others’ ends. And because this use – or, dare we say, abuse — of human beings takes place mainly through employment, we aim to abolish this institution.

Socialism, you might say, will be a society of universal unemployment. Of course, there will still be work that needs to be done. People will perform certain agreed tasks as their contribution to social projects that the community judges necessary in order to satisfy human needs and rehabilitate the environment. 

But even in this situation might people not feel that they are still ‘employed’ (though without wages) by ‘society’ or ‘the community’ – imagined as a power external to themselves?

Maybe. Although social projects will be proposed, designed, and chosen for implementation through a democratic process, there may be people who for one reason or another do not participate – or at least not fully – in that process. Some of those people may come to feel alienated from and employed by society.


[1] I am not claiming that Virchow was a socialist, only that some of his insights have a ‘socialist’ flavor. He was a co-founder of the German Progress Party, established in 1861 as a liberal alternative to the conservative Establishment of Bismarck. 

Tags: categorical imperative, employment, human resources, Kant, Virchow

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I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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