Unemployed Ltd.

UnemploymentA few months ago I found this absolutely delightful reflection on the value and the ethics of wage labour:

  • Is Employment a good thing? What’s the difference between the Wage System and Slavery?
  • Is Private Property a good thing? Where is this private property? Who has got it?
  • Is the property of Big Businesses Companies really private property in any reasonable sense?
  • Are the Railways any more Private Property than the Post Office?
  • Does Labour saving machinery save Labour? Is it a good thing?
  • Is there any cure for Unemployment in a machine civilisation?
  • What is Machinery? Does anyone want to abolish it?
  • What is the difference between living on the Dole and living on Dividends? Why not dividends for all?

It is from a 1933 booklet by Eric Gill, the British sculptor and famous typeface designer. Gill is a controversial figure associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, an international movement which stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often applied medieval, romantic or folk styles of decoration. It advocated economic and social reform and has been said to be essentially anti-industrial.

Not surprisingly, “Unemployment” is deeply tinted with anti-capitalist (marxist) and luddite colours, but it is nonetheless an amazingly up-to-date reflection on our present society’s woes, and it lends itself to a particularly enlightening interpretation:

Unemployment is a human problem, it is not a problem about ants or horses (…) The Society we live in is a Capitalist Society. The essence of a capitalist society is production for profit. In a capitalist society things are only made by accident. The only thing that is made on purpose is profit.


There are labour helping machines and there are labour displacing machines. The first kind has existed since the time of Adam. The second kind only came into the world after Jas Watt had made the first workable steam engine –about 150 years ago. (…) Labour saving machinery does in fact save labour. There are now in England between three and ten million people whose labour is unnecessary. In the whole world there are perhaps fifty millions of people whose labour is not needed. (…) Unemployment is the absolutely inevitable consequence of the introduction and improvement of labour displacing machinery.


Now in any period of history there are bound to be many unemployed persons –persons whose labour is not required to keep the world going.

1. Young children and students at school and college
2. Old people and mentally and physically incapable people
3. People on holiday or resting
4. Ornamental people –the idle rich; that is people who lived upon their own or other people’s savings.


What we call unemployment is not really a curse. The curse is only the smallness of the dole. There are remedies for this. (…) For everybody must agree that there is no shortage of things; there is only a shortage of money. The powers of production have increased a thousandfold but the powers of distribution have not increased correspondingly. The weakness is not in production but in distribution.


The wage system is really a slave system. But we can agree to be slaves. There can be voluntary slavery.


Pope Leo XIII said  “as many people as possible should be encouraged to become owners”. (…) In capitalist language, we must make everyone a shareholder in the concern called “Great Britain Limited”

If we have only managed to come up with two ways to distribute wealth: work and capital, why not dividends for everybody(1)?


(1) Jeff Gates’s book “The Ownership Solution“, published in 1999, basically put forward this same idea

Featured Image: Eric Gill, Unemployment

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