My chart below puts today's unemployment data into long-term historical perspective. Using Bank of England data, it shows the unemployment rate since 1855.
What stands out here is that a highish rate of joblessness is quite normal. It is the 1945-73 period of full employment (for men!) that is historically odd, not today's joblessness. In fact, between 1855 and 1939 the unemployment rate averaged 5.1% - higher than the claimant count rate is now.
I reckon there are several important messages here:
1. Marxists are right. From the point of view of workers, capitalism tends to stagnation, in the sense of being unable to provide work for all. Michal Kalecki was spot on: "unemployment is an integral part of the 'normal' capitalist system."
2. The idea that free market policies can generate sustained full employment lacks any historical foundation, unless you want to argue that there were severe labour market regulations that caused mass unemployment in the 19th century; "Damn those Factory Acts!"
3.Claims that the welfare state has created a culture of dependency in which folk don't want to work look silly. High unemployment was the norm in the pre-welfare state era.
4. Unemployment is not merely a cyclical problem remediable merely by counter-cyclical macroeconomic policies. It is more permanent than that.
5. If we want full employment - and we should - we need something like the post-war settlement. Which poses the question of whether this is feasible. Personally, I fear it's not; the post-war reconstruction and Fordist manufacturing which created ample jobs for the unskilled are gone for good.
6. If full employment is impossible under capitalism, the question arises: how can we mitigate the misery it causes? I'd suggest active labour market policies that do not stigmatize job-seekers, and a more generous welfare system (clue - basic income.) But I don't expect such suggestions to be heeded.
Help for right-wingers: the data are consistent with the idea that there are lots of people who are unemployable, but that this has always been so, except when demand for the unskilled was very high in the post-war era.