“Labour” is a slippery concept. Nowadays we intuitively understand it to mean “work” that is performed for which we must be compensated. But this raises the vexed, unanswered, century-old question: What about the work that is performed in the home, mostly by women? Should they not be compensated for their labour? And who will compensate them?
But there is another conundrum that arises from the unique nature of labour: when we sell it to that extent, we are also selling ourselves, since we are the ones performing the labour. And this poses the issue that should have been on our minds when we commemorated “Labour Day”, yesterday: the need for workers to retain their inalienable dignity from the facticity of them being human. And that dignity is impossible to maintain when persons cannot have the bare necessities of life, which, in the modern world, demand that persons have a basic income to procure those necessities.
To be a bit hyperbolic to make the point, we can say that a job which provides that income becomes a sine qua non for human dignity. While the state, institutions, individuals, and even family can always offer handouts to the unemployed, these inevitably reduce the dignity of the unemployed, since it constrains their autonomy. Employment, then, in addition to security of which it is a subset, becomes one of the prime responsibilities of our macro-societal arrangements. These include the state we have formed and the government we have elected to oversee it.
In the evolution of the state and its responsibilities in terms of employment of labour, there have been two paths proposed over the last two centuries. The first was “capitalism”, which leaves the responsibility to “private enterprise” that are owned by individuals and corporations (which are “legal” persons). Communism, however, insists that such an arrangement is inherently exploitative of the workers, because they never receive the full value of their labour, the “surplus” of which is siphoned off into the pockets of the capitalists as “profits”. To regain their dignity, the workers were exhorted to “unite and throw off their chains”. The communists did not consider that the owners/capitalists who launched business enterprises were also providing their own “labour” in the form of embodied knowledge and capital.
Today, after the Soviet Union and its allies abandoned communism in 1989, states are still working out the best combination of state and private enterprise that would lead to delivering the life of dignity to workers who sell their labour. Even Cuba, which has been the longest holdout for the primacy of the state, has been forced into conceding the need for private enterprise. The “mixed economies” which the Nordic countries have long practised have consistently been rated as producing the highest measure of “happiness” for their people. Here, in Guyana, we have already experienced the pitfalls of what was called “state capitalism” under the Burnhamite PNC that expropriated 80% of the economy. The PPP Government after 1992 was hobbled by the humungous debt bequeathed by the PNC. But under the mixed economy – where the state still owned GuySuCo – the country moved from being a Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) to a High Middle Income Country, where workers regained some modicum of dignity. But unemployment remained stubbornly high.
As such, with the oil revenues beginning to flow, the newly elected PPP Government has an opportunity to work out the best mix between state and privately-owned enterprises that would deliver full employment. From the experience of the Far Eastern economies of Japan, S.Korea etc, and now China, we have seen that there can be a dirigiste role for the state to act as a catalyst to move the economy into identified strategic economic activities. The Government, in our estimation, has made a wise move with the gas-to-shore project at Wales, where, as VP Jagdeo pointed out, it can become the core of a host of manufacturing activities in addition to power generation.
Workers of Guyana, you are about to cast off your chains!