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Issue 45, September 1999

The Economic Horror

By Viviane Forrester, 1999, Polity Press £9-99
Reviewed by
Mark Wainwright

THE INVESTMENT bank, Merrill Lynch, reported last May that the world's six million millionaires are now 'worth' - that is, they have got their hands on - around $21,600 billion (£13,320bn). This makes them $2,000 billion richer than was previously thought. Apparently they had managed to 'shrug off' the effects of the world financial turmoil that unfolded in 1997/98: 'The rich were, in general, able to survive the crisis with their wealth intact'. The corollary of this, of course, is that others, further down the league, have paid the price.

This is the central point of Viviane Forrester's book: the consequences of the market economy have 'such inattention that the inattention itself is not even noticed'. In other words, a blind eye is being turned to the inequalities created by the capitalist system. She adds that, 'achieving general indifference is more a victory for the system than gaining partial support'. Her contention being that what is more important to the representatives of capital is ensuring that people do not question or care about what is going on, rather than trying to win positive endorsement for the way the system is run from the majority of the population.

Whereas Will Hutton's, The State We're In, is a reasoned, ammo-loaded engagement of small-arms fire - with the occasional missile launched - Forrester's is more of a one-off explosion. Without cataloguing a mass of facts and figures, she rages against 'a defunct and bankrupt system'. She says 'bankrupt' because of the 'casino betting' at the heart of financial investment. For example, the Wall Street index declined in 1996 because of the 'bad news' that unemployment had fallen: 'How many politicians and managing directors swear that they are to create employment and boast they are cutting jobs all within the same speech?'


The system's advantages for the capitalists are well made: 'Why should a society burden itself with slaves if their labour is superfluous?' She starts with what it means to be unemployed: the shame, alienation and dislocation - that it's your own fault. This is based on the system's justifying idea that people have to be 'useful' to society, which really means 'profitable' to the capitalists. After all, as Forrester points out, it would be 'poor taste to say exploitable': 'The profit motive remains the great organiser in these scorched areas; it is kept secret'.

In France, where The Economic Horror was first published, the 'superfluous' are invisible, hidden behind acronyms like SDF (homeless), RMI (people surviving on the minimum social income), and SMICards (those on the minimum wage). She quotes from the World Bank in 1995: 'The eagerness of the workforce to accept low-paid jobs depends partly on the relative generosity of unemployment benefits... all countries should reduce the period of benefit where it is too long, or tighten up the conditions in which benefit is granted'.

Even concepts like 'social cohesion' (more important in Europe than in the more deregulated US and Britain) are euphemisms to maintain just enough people in work to prevent society ripping itself apart. In reality, the social cohesion concept attempts to ensure that people 'won't confront it (unemployment) but submit to it'. A way of keeping people 'anaesthetised'.

The Economic Horror was received with enormous acclaim in France, selling more than 350,000 copies and winning the Prix Medici award. It re-inforced the media reputation of its author as being a 'heroine of the French underclass'. But in reality it is really quite a basic analysis. However, even with only the temporary illumination of the field it provides, it presents an opportunity for the socialist infantry to advance.

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