Does capitalism maximize the life-chances of working people? This old Marxian question is the context in which we should judge the Bank of England’s interest rate decision tomorrow.
What I mean is that conditions for many working class people are poor. My chart shows one measure of this. It shows a wider measure of unemployment – the officially unemployed plus part-time workers who want a full-time job plus the inactive who want to work. There are almost 4.4 million of these – over one in ten of the working age population. As Danny Blanchflower and David Bell point out, under-employment is endemic.
Of course, some of this unemployment is frictional – employable people who are briefly between jobs. But it also means that hundreds of thousands of the worst-off – the unqualified, disabled, those with mental health issues – can’t find work. This matters enormously because unemployment is a major source of unhappiness: the jobless are three times as likely to report low well-being as those in work*. In this sense, capitalism is still inflicting misery upon millions.
And not just upon those at the bottom of the pecking order. For the average worker, real wages are still lower than they were before the 2008 crisis. And they are barely growing at all – which tells us that unemployment a few months ago was not low enough to significantly push up wages.
Not only are we not seeing meaningful pay rises, we’re not seeing much of what we’d expect to see in a boom. Not many employers are greatly improving working conditions (which are desperately bad for millions) as they should if they can’t attract or retain staff. Nor are they investing much in new equipment to raise productivity: the volume of capital spending is barely growing. The innovations gap of which Simon speaks is still big.
In this context, what would the Bank be saying if it raises rates tomorrow, as most economists expect?
It would be saying that all the above is close to as good as it is going to get for workers: in May, the Bank forecast (pdf) that the narrow measure of unemployment will fall only very slightly over the next two years. It would be saying that mass unemployment is necessary to hold down inflation. And not just mass unemployment, but the things it entails – tyrannical bosses, poor working conditions and low productivity for those in work. This is all the more true because it’s possible that a rate rise now would do more than usual to depress employment.
Of course, in a big sense the Bank is not to blame for this. It is not its job – and certainly not its job alone – to ensure a low Nairu. If it does raise rates, the Bank is just being the messager - the message being that actually-existing UK capitalism is unable to provide decent living standards for millions, and that genuinely full employment is impossible. This is a Marxian message.
Of course, it might be that the Bank would be wrong to raise rates. Personally I suspect that, with wage inflation not yet rising, the Bank can afford to wait before moving. Which means that if the Bank does raise rates tomorrow, it would be more Marxist than I am.
* As Joan Robinson said, the one thing worse than being exploited in capitalism is not being exploited.