Redundancy (I): Is redundancy bad or good news?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Redundancy is bad news for workers in the U.K., for to be made redundant there means to be dismissed from their jobs. Redundancy occurs when a business enterprise decides to reduce its workforce due to a slowdown in its business or the introduction of a new technology that replaces labor. Once made redundant, workers join what Karl Marx (1818-1883) called “the reserve army of labor”, which is an unavoidable feature of the capitalist mode of production in which those who possess capital have the power to hire and fire those who do not.

There are actually two kinds of redundancy—voluntary and compulsory. It goes without saying that compulsory redundancy is the worse of the two, as those workers who are made redundant compulsorily are forced by their employers to leave their jobs against their will unlike those workers who, having found alternative employment opportunities or having decided to retire from their jobs, quit their jobs voluntarily. For example, Honda UK, a carmaker that produces cars for European and UK markets at its Swindon plant, cut 38 workers as compulsory redundancies and 554 workers as voluntary redundancies in 2013. With the prospect of further slowdown in European markets, Honda UK wants to cut another 500 jobs in 2014 and announced, according to the BBC News reported on April 24, that it needs to make some 150 compulsory redundancies for lack of those workers who are willing to take voluntary redundancies.

Whether compulsory or voluntary, there is no question that redundancy is bad news for workers. To alleviate the misery of workers who are made redundant, the UK government makes sure that workers are entitled to redundancy pay and consultation with their employers in their search for alternative employment opportunities. But the government does not go all the way to banning redundancy altogether, recognizing, it seems, that redundancy may not be bad news for the economy as a whole in the capitalist society. But how can redundancy be good news for the economy? Useful insights into this question may be obtained by investigating the meaning and function of redundancy in areas of inquiry other than economics.

The concept of redundancy appears in many scientific disciplines—from engineering to information theory, from biology to linguistics. In engineering, for example, redundancy means duplication of critical components of a system. Engineers create such redundancy because it plays a positive function in that having extra components reduces the possibility of a system failure. Linguists also note the useful function served by redundancy in language, namely, the presence of extra components, even extraneous repetitions, in a phrase or a sentence. The reason redundancy appears in language is to facilitate communication: “Communication would be extremely precarious if sentences lacked all redundancy, since the loss of merely a sound or two through inattention by the listener, mispronunciation by the speaker, or background noise might make the entire sentence unintelligible.”1

Of particular interest to us in relation to the concept of redundancy in the capitalist society is to be found in the area of biological evolution. While biologists only roughly understand the meaning of redundancy in biological systems, they do know that “systems with some kinds of redundancy are almost certainly far more readily evolved than those without redundancy”, as Stuart Kauffman observes in his At Home in the Universe.2 Redundancy, in other words, gives certain advantages to biological systems such as robustness and structural stability.

In addition to giving robustness and structural stability, redundancy enables biological systems to perform new functions that have not been possible without it, leading to what Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan call “redundant innovation”. Human hands are a good example of such a redundant innovation, for “the potentialities of hands would never have occurred were they not freed from the redundant tasks of locomotion.”3 But the potentialities of hands could be exploited for beneficial as well as malignant purposes: “those animals with their heads up ultimately freed their hands to dig for roots, to throw rocks and wield sticks as weapons, to build and explore.”4 Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the rise of civilization that has give rise to the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution was made possible when our ancestors started to walk on an upright posture, enabling them to use their hands for tasks other than locomotion.

While many tasks still require the use of hands, the Information Revolution has introduced robots that can perform the tasks that used be done by humans, especially those tasks on the assembly lines on the factory floor. Redundancy innovation is thus a double-edged sword in the case of human evolution, for it introduces ever-sophisticated machines that would raise productivity on the one hand but make workers redundant on the other. To be sure, creating redundancy is the way the capitalist society transforms itself, with an old industry being constantly replaced by a new one, the process which Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1960) characterized as the process of “creative destruction”5. But as far as the workers are concerned, redundant innovation is a painful reminder of their vulnerability in the capitalist society: they are after all “factory hands”, like the Coketown Hands whose misery Charles Dickens (1812-1870) vividly described in his 1854 novel Hard Times, who are under the constant threat of being made redundant by the capitalists who own the means of production.

  1. Farb, Peter, Word Play: What Happens When People Talk, New York: Vintage Books, 1973, pp. 273-274.
  2. Kauffman, Stuart, At Home In The Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 153.
  3. Margulis, Lynn, and Sagan, Dorion, Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution, New York: Touchstone, 1986, p. 207.
  4. ibid., p. 207
  5. Schumpeter, Joseph A., The Theory of Economic Development, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949.