Zygmunt Bauman, in Postmodernity and Its Discontents, writes that religion, in its traditional form, used to celebrate human insufficiency. With a path more or less outlined for her entire life, the individual found herself powerless to change the conditions she was inserted in. In contrast to what he considers the “postmodern” condition, of uncertainty, premodern life was based on a certainty particular to stratified and caste societies.
Postmodernity, always according to Bauman, forced a change of religious discourse: life, which used to be grounded on certainty and human powerlessness, becomes one of uncertainty. Thus, the individual, who is unclear about her destiny, must now feel self-sufficienty. Why? Because that way there’s at least the appearance of being capable of effecting change in her life. If the changes that occur in her life (and which cause this uncertainty that is typical of postmodernity) are not subjected to the person’s control, they cease to be a human subject and people lose interest.
In practice, it’s a marketing strategy: religion must guarantee to us that “we can,” that “we’re capable,” that “we’ll achieve” our maximum potential, otherwise they cease to be relevant to us — death, the classical religious theme, has lost its luster, since it can’t be changed through human action.
I was reminded of this observation by Bauman — about the current need for a guarantee of individual self-sufficiency — with the beginning of the electoral campaigns in Brazil. A very common line of thought has predictably found its way back into political discourse: there are enough jobs, what we need is professional training.
The idea is analogous: if we say that there are no jobs, the problem is structural and very little can be done on an individual level to change the situation. By contrast, if “there are job openings, but people lack the required skill to fill them,” the individual becomes the center of the discussion. Unemployment is now not a systemic problem, but the exclusive problem of the unemployed. If they can’t leave their unemployed situation, it’s their fault, because they have all the tools to do so. They only have to want it.
Truth is that we have to want it and use the appropriate middlemen. In religion, you can reach salvation by wanting it — but don’t forget that God answers through our temple. In the neoliberal economy, you have to want it and find the right middlemen to provide you with jobs and abundance. In Brazil, ironically, these middlemen are the unions.
As Raúl Zibechi notes in The New Brazil: Regional Imperialism and the New Democracy, the main proponents of this neoliberal idea that we don’t lack jobs but training are the largest unions in the country: CUT (Unified Worker’s Central Union) and Força Sindical (Union Force), which also control the largest pension funds in the country.
To CUT and Força Sindical, the current system is extremely convenient, since they are wholly inserted in the Brazilian corporate capitalism. To them, it’s not a good idea to fight for a deep structural change; they want workers to try and insert themselves in the market through these unions, through their “training programs” (which, because of FAT — Worker’s Support Fund —, guarantee a steady flow of money from the government to these organizations), and trust their “propositive” rather than “combative” unionism. It’s not by chance that May Day celebrations in Brazil are marked not by protests but parties sponsored by unions.
This enthusiasm for training and professional qualification programs is quite convenient to businesses, specially large ones, which frequently advertise the fact that they have many “job openings” that can’t be filled for the lack of skilled workers. Government is always all too happy to propagandize the story, because that allows it to keep the current system intact, spend a lot of money in frankly irrelevant qualification programs, and afterwards state that that’s how “unemployment is fought,” at the same time that it elevates work requirements, cutting low-skill workers off. Businesses, on the other hand, get giddy when they find out they can externalize their costs, turning the responsibility to qualify workers over to the government, and eliminating the need of spending on capital, raising wages, or even shrinking their firm size in response to the lack of labor.
In 2014, as always, candidates are going to show up on your TV to say that you are able to realize your every dream, provided you want it really badly, because it all depends on you. Look for a nearby community college, qualification program, or union chapter.
The same way salvation depends on you (through church), your economic welfare is your problem. If you fail, it’s your fault.
But if you manage to get a stable job, with a carreer plan and benefits, thank the government and the unions. You wanted it, but they made it possible.