hans groen *17 09 1959 - †11 08 2022

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the ruminant economy 1 – introduction

At the European Social Week in Milan, Februari 2019, I heard two presentations that shed an interesting light on the current state of labour and employment in Europe. In a number of articles, I would like to discuss some aspects of this situation that I think are important. The ‘ruminant economy’, as I would to call the part of the economy that I think is at issue here, leads to questions about labour and work and rest, and about (un)employment and the idea of a basic income and I hope the following will shed some light on these questions. I shall split up my argument over 5 articles which each also can be read on their own.

There is a general feeling that robotization leads to less employment; at the ESW in Milan, John Hurley of Eurofound indicated that ICT and robotization also create jobs. He and Bea Cantillon further on showed how underneath a low unemployment rate for the EU as a total, there is a remarkable difference in unemployment rates and job security between the top 20% of high skilled workers who mainly have tenured jobs, and the 80% lower skilled workers who to a growing majority hold flexible jobs and are faced with little job security. The 20%, people like you and me, call these workers with precarious work ‘losers of globalization’, which is a bit merciless because ‘we’ are the adaptable front runners who constantly change the playing field for the 80%.

We have just recovered from a world-wide crisis in our financial and monetary system. That crisis has given a boost to the sharing and platform economy that already was developing. This platform economy is an important asset that absorbs workers who otherwise would have lost their job. This is part of the shift in employment where mass industrial production is either being replaced by robots or moved to lower wage countries. One can say that mass employment is shrinking and individual employment is growing. People to a growing degree earn a living either in the platform economy, or with flexible jobs, or being self-employed.

It is hard to value these developments. Is our labour market functioning? Certainly not, when one reads the blurb of Not Working Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone? by David G. Blanchflower (Princeton U.P., 2019): “Not Working is about those who can’t find full-time work at a decent wage—the underemployed—and how their plight is contributing to widespread despair, a worsening drug epidemic…”. Profits in industry and the platform economy skyrocket, as do prices of shares. But actual median income has not grown over the last decades.

In 2003 Thomas Piketi showed how work does not pay anymore, and capital is where wealth accumulates, again. Currently, there is growing discontent that ‘capitalism’ does not deliver anymore: the promise that profits from industry will trickle down to even the people who are now on welfare, has shown to be false. Within industry, and even within right-wing liberal parties, such as the VVD in the Netherlands, there is open and vocal criticism that industry does not invest in society and people anymore (see NRC-Weekend, 6 July 2019). The profits of Apple, Shell, Unilever, and ASML, to name a few, have been used for buying back shares, thus raising share prices and giving more to those who already have. Money is being held captive by money and not used to raise the well-being of many.

Looking at these developments, I see an image of a ruminant economy taking over more than its necessary share for creating wealth. Cash cows are the cattle of the ruminant economy. The economy starts with labour through which we can provide for our daily needs. If we only produce what we need today, we won’t be much better off tomorrow, and we do not have any resilience for times of hardship. Luckily we do produce more than we need today: in whatever circumstances people always have been able to enjoy days of feast and to save for tomorrow and to care for those who are not productive yet, the children, or anymore, the elderly. The ruminant economy with the herd of cash cows lives on this surplus value that we produce with our labour.

This ruminant economy has grown beyond proportion. It lives on our productive economy by charging on the services we offer to earn our living, like Uber, Air BNB, and Deliveroo, or it makes money on our loans by selling our mortgage in a derivative. These charges can be as much as 20% of the transaction, thus equaling roughly the VAT or sales tax that is due to the government. Money is made by repackaging the work other people do and taking more than a fair share. A cow produces valuable food, milk and meat, from the grass it eats; the cows of the ruminant economy produce less milk and more meat and refuse to be slaughtered. They rather advice to go vegan – all the big players who caused the crisis of 2007 demand austerity and claim they do not have enough flesh on their body for making contributions to the common good; likewise more generous schemes for welfare, care, unemployment, pension, are all deemed to be too expensive, as the recovering economies of Europe have been told. Meanwhile, the cash cows of the ruminant economy grow bigger and fatter.

The riddle to be solved is how huge profits in industry go together with stagnation of growth in individual income. I won’t be able to solve that riddle, but I can add observations and insights that clear up the picture, or make it more complicated. I shall try to stay away from big and sweeping concepts, a few of which might already doom up in the mind of the reader. First, I shall talk about employment, then about unemployment, then in more depth about the ruminant economy, and finally more normative about labour and rest. With some concluding statements and some indications on how my discussion connects with other studies I’ll end this series.


[*] In 5 articles I shall discuss some current trends in labour and the social dialogue. If you want to react, please drop a line at

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