Stop Digging: The Case Against Jobs

PETER FRASE

Much of the left has, mostly without debating it, coalesced around “jobs” as a unifying political demand. The motivation for this is clear: one of the biggest problems the country faces is that there are 20 million people who are unsuccessfully seeking full time employment. But while it may seem obvious that the solution to this problem is to create millions of new jobs, this is not in fact the only possible solution–and there are major drawbacks to a single-minded focus on increasing employment. For one thing, it may not be feasible to create that many new jobs. Moreover, it’s equally debatable whether, from a socialist perspective, it is desirable to create these jobs even if it is possible.

We should differentiate three separate reasons why it might be desirable to create jobs. One is that a job provides a source of income: we often talk about the need to create jobs when what we really mean is that people need income. Most of the unemployed don’t actually want jobs–that is, they don’t just want a place to show up every day and be told what to do. The real problem these people have is not that they need jobs, but that they need money. We’ve just been trained to think that the only way to solve this problem is to get people jobs.

A second argument for creating jobs, and not just handing checks to people, is that having a job gives a person a greater sense of self-worth than getting a handout. To the extent that this is true, however, it’s largely because we, as a society, treat wage labor as though it is a unique source of dignity and worth. The left has historically perpetuated this view, but we should be challenging it. We should point out that there is a lot of socially valuable work that is not done for pay. The biggest category of such work, as feminists have long pointed out, is household labor and the care of children and elders. But today we are seeing the growth of other categories of valuable unpaid work, in everything from community gardens to Wikipedia.

This is not to say that volunteers could perform all of the socially necessary labor of society. The third reason to create jobs is that some useful things won’t get done unless someone is paid to do them. But it’s difficult to make the case that there are enough socially necessary tasks out there to make up our job shortfall and also replace the destructive jobs that we need to eliminate.

Some argue that if we could build the manufacturing sector and start “making things” in America again, we could solve our unemployment problem. The reality is that we already make plenty of things, and the decline of manufacturing jobs is due more to technology than to off-shoring. The U.S. economy produces more physical output now than at any time in American history, but with fewer workers.

Public works are another of the usual suspects. Our infrastructure is indeed in a pretty sorry state, but repairing bridges is not going to create 20 million jobs–and in any case, it’s a short-term fix, since eventually we’ll clear out the backlog of neglected infrastructure projects. Then what?

Finally there is the call for “green jobs”, based on the laudable idea that we need to put lots of people to work moving us away from our dependence on fossil fuels. This may be a source of some new jobs, like people making solar panels or weatherizing buildings. But the more common pattern is that old jobs are turning into different, greener jobs. The construction worker is now a green construction worker, and the corporate lawyer is now a corporate environmental lawyer, and so on. These are positive changes–but they don’t create new jobs.

On top of all this, many of the jobs people are currently paid for are socially destructive: forget job creation, we need to do more job killing. Cutting the military budget, reining in the financial sector, and dismantling the prison-industrial complex will destroy many jobs. So, too, would a single payer national health care system;the Republican attacks on Obama’s “job-killing” health care law were lies, but only because Obama’s plan is so inadequate. As long as the left remains fixated on more wage labor as the solution to our problems, we’ll always be vulnerable to the argument that the socially beneficial changes we want will “kill jobs.”

What, then, should the left support, if not more jobs? Shortening the workweek disappeared from labor’s agenda after World War II, and we need to bring it back. We should also make unemployment benefits more generous in order to ease the pain of joblessness. Ultimately, though, we need to get more radical than that, and move away from tightly linking jobs and income. To reiterate, the real problem of the unemployed isn’t their lack of jobs, it’s their lack of money. That’s why some on the left are coming around to the idea of just giving people money: a guaranteed minimum income, which everyone would be entitled to independent of work.

The objections to these ideas are typically: “how do we pay for it?” and “how do we achieve it?” Finding the money shouldn’t be a problem where the will of a powerful political coalition is present–the richest country in the history of the world can guarantee a decent standard of living for everyone. But building that political coalition is a harder question. The first step is to admit that the current consensus around job-creation is unworkable, and not really any more “realistic” than the ideas I’ve just proposed. The next step is to highlight existing proposals that are being ignored because of the obsession with job creation. For example, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) recently proposed legislation to subsidize employers that reduce employee hours, a policy that has been effective in Germany. This is an inadequate policy in many ways, but it’s still a more useful focus than just obsessing about how to create new jobs.

John Maynard Keynes famously observed that “If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths . . . and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again . . . there need be no more unemployment”. One of the things that ought to distinguish socialists from liberals is that we think it’s possible to do better than this. Today, it seems that hole-digging has come to occupy a central place in the imagination of the left. But socialism should be about freeing people from wage labor, rather than imprisoning them in lives of useless toil.

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22 Comments

  1. I disagree. Socialists should not be against people having jobs. The author doesn’t consider that jobs do have intrinsic worth, that people are naturally productive; indeed, creation and production are the human expressions of life. As socialists, we should want people to be able to work because that is part of being human, creating more meaningful and less exploitative jobs will come when and if we start moving away from capitalist fundamentalism.

    One thing that the left, and socialists in particular, don’t seem to bother differentiating anymore is the difference between socialism and the welfare state. As a socialist I want workers and the public to have democratic control over their lives and over social production. The welfare state is necessary for that to occur, as we need education, healthcare, housing, retirement and unemployment insurance etc. in order to participate in and utilize that democratic control.

    But simply giving people an income and giving up the whole fight for transforming the workplace isn’t a solution, and it isn’t socialism. It’s an extreme form of welfare and it defeats the purpose of critiquing the production process and the fight to transform it into something humane (i.e. the entire socialist project).

    The premise that the American economy doesn’t have the capacity or need for its full workforce is wrong. If the trillions that the ultra rich and corporations are hoarding were invested in massive public works projects, and expansion of government services (more teachers, more AmeriCorps, more researchers, more individuals employed for the public good) then we could move towards solving the jobs problem. I think even the Conyers bill is a much more viable and favorable solution than what is proposed here.

    • I would caution against setting up too strict an opposition between guaranteed income and the fight for transforming the nature of the workplace and the relations of production. Theoretically, at least, a guaranteed income can do a lot to promote a shift in the balance of power between workers and bosses by beginning the process of separating the means of subsistence from participation in the wage-labor system. If workers have a significant source of income outside of their job, they might be more willing to take risks in forming unions or asserting greater control over the production process. They might also face less personal risk in simply quitting a particularly bad job and trying to find work somewhere else. It’s true that guaranteed income in itself is not necessarily socialist – forms of it exist already in Brazil and Alaska, among other places – but it’s the kind of reform achievable within the coordinates of a capitalist political economy that could change the balance of class forces, and thus help to create the conditions under which a renewed socialist movement might emerge.

      • Chris, to the extent that workers would face less risk in workplace organization or the ability to quit their jobs, you could just as easily speculate that many workers simply wouldn’t want to participate in the vast majority of low-wage labor, i.e. why would someone who worked for McDonalds even bother looking for another menial job or go through the effort of organizing their workplace if they could just as easily stay home? And I think that’s the author’s original intent – get some people out of the wage-system altogether and give them the primary thing they go to their jobs for: money. And that’s precisely where guaranteed income comes into opposition with any attempt to transform the workplace.

        • “..indeed, creation and production are the human expressions of life. As socialists, we should want people to be able to work because that is part of being human…”

          While I do agree that humans are naturally creative, assuming this means they need to work a job to channel this energy is absurd. Have you heard of the arts or culture? There are plenty of creative, productive things humans can do (and would often rather do) than rotting at work.

  2. people are naturally productive; indeed, creation and production are the human expressions of life.

    Sure. But what do creation and production have to do with jobs?

    • “But what do creation and production have to do with jobs?”

      With respect to social organization, they are the same thing. Childcare and household work are jobs, albeit unpaid ones. People with kids should get maternity/paternity leave, and universal childcare, sure.

      What does it mean to say that people don’t need jobs? Social security starting at birth? That is beyond utopian.

      Even if we decided to go this route of radical welfare, it would invariably only be sustained by exploiting the global south for cheap labor and goods. It is not a solution to the problem of capitalism or exploitative jobs in general. It just avoids the problem altogether.

  3. i recently wrote a similar comment about the icessant promotion of ‘jobs’ to ‘mike the mad biologist’ who writes at scienceblogs. (he didn’t respond, perhaps because he’s busy working—-eg blogging about the lack of jobs, which seems to be a current growth industry/emerging market. i wonder if it can be offshored.

    ‘alan”s comments seem mostly interesting from a psychological angle, somewhat similar to others with ideological blinders on. They refuse to ‘complexify’ the discussion, keeping it focused on just a few talking points (jobs, socialism, god said it i believe it and thats all there is to it, dawkins and the discovery instuitute).

    A token nod is given to the complexity issues (‘socialists are for meaningful jobs’ which vouyou also discussed—-for example one can produce ‘meaning’ —-eg the right wing talk radio industry, cigars and golf courses for rush limbaugh, books like Juliet Schor’s overworked american or paul lafarge’s (sic—marx’s daughter’s husband, if i recall) ‘right to be lazy. The whole Basic income has its own industry, set of conferences, journals, grad students, professors, etc. Then its back to repeat the talking points a la Rush Limbaugh.

    (as an aside the April post on manufacturing jobs with the graph i think is incomplete or possibly misleading. One has to remember that population has changed in size in the USA since 1940 (i think i read this on wikipedia or in the NYTimes). One might want to know percentages and share of total employment too. The output figures are somewhat interesting (though one wonders what manufacturing is since those categories are somehwat vague).
    But, the change between 2000 and 2010 in population is relatively small so the graph may be informative for the current period, not requiring renormalization.

  4. Peter wrote >there are major drawbacks to a single-minded focus on increasing employment. <

    There would, indeed, if the left was that all singularly focused. it's not. The radical left works on different levels, just as does the right and the center. When it comes to critiquing capital as a social system, conceptualizing alienated labor is a prime critique of a system that's outlived its usefulness. Once capable of revolutionizing society, capital becomes an impediment to human progress. But when the left operates politically, it makes demands on the state., and you–instead of wanting to employ the most powerful and persuasive policy argument against capital–that it doesn't even provide work anymore–want to deep six a demand that is self evident in its radical ability to challenge capital and the state. "Jobs Now" is voiced in an idiom that's doesn't need higher learning to understand,. It's like "land, peace, bread," a slogan that a Peter Frase circa 1917 could have knocked as hopelessly naive, but that was revolutionary in its implications, directed as it was at a ruling class that could deliver neither land, peace nor bread. Want to make "jobs or Income now" the left's key program if you think "jobs" isn't sufficiently subversive, then go for it. But dropping "jobs" as a left demand is idealist overkill. Even Paul Lafargue and Selma James, the first a ruthless critic of the work ethic and the second an advocate of valorizing and paying for housework as unpaid labor, never went that far. And for good reason, I think.

    • Peter Frase rightly rejects a “left” politics whose implicit goal is forever squeezing out greater per capita units of consumption. Nevertheless, the politics implicit in his argument are perverse: the working class is never *more* obsessed with jobs than in a period of joblessness, and never *less* obsessed with jobs than in a period of full employment. The only viable route to a mass politics of post-productivism is permanent full employment. (And lest we tangled in words, let’s remember what full employment means and has always meant: simply that all those who *want* a job can get one.)

      There are also some technical/factual questions that must be raised. If the demand is “jobs or income now,” who gets the jobs and who gets the income? Will there be a permanent class of jobless living on the social wage while the rest work? Would that be a politically or socially healthy development for working-class politics? Even if we could immediately impose a tax raising 20% of GDP and distribute it per capita as a basic income, it would only amount to $9000 per person. This would not come close to replacing the lost full-time income of a single unemployed worker.

      I strongly agree with Michael Hirsch. Towering over every other issue among the concerns of the working class today is the grueling prevalence of unemployment. To simply dismiss that concern as misfocused – even if, in some final and ultimate sense, it can be construed to be so – would be a criminal waste of potential radical energy. Post-productivism is a *vision* for the left, it cannot replace praxis.

      • This is kind of a horrible way of looking at it. “Nevertheless, the politics implicit in his argument are perverse: the working class is never *more* obsessed with jobs than in a period of joblessness, and never *less* obsessed with jobs than in a period of full employment. ” Yes, in this context “jobs” are the only means of income, so this is an obvious observation. The point is to not allow jobs to be the only source of income, and at the right automation and robotics is going, human labor is quickly becoming obsolete. No, we don’t need “jobs”, anymore than black slaves needed more jobs, what we need is ownership of the means of production. It’s simply inconceivable that we can have an economy based on wage labor in the future, nor should we even want that. We need capital ownership, not jobs.

  5. I think one thing we should consider is the role of alienation. Work seems so demoralizing and depressing because work can only be put to use with means of production that exist as capital. If the means of work is owned by a capitalist, then the capitalist by extension owns you. The idea that we need to create more jobs totally dismisses the material conditions that jobs exist to add value to capital, not to fulfill any human need beyond the basic means of subsistence. That is why Marx said in ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844′ that the more the worker appropriates sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life. Why? Because the means of life exist as capital to be bought in sold in the market place, which is why the capitalist mode of production exist; to circulate commodities for the sake of circulating them so capitalist can make profit.

    Jobs essentially become the means to an end. The job essentially is a form of social domination that reaffirms the social relation of power between bosses and workers, capitalist and workers, those who control the means of production, which are needed to obtain the means of life, and those who are deprived of them.

    The problem with the jobs discussion in America is that people act as if it is acceptable that we are at the whims of the ‘captains of industry and finance’ to get the basic means of subsistence we naturally should have a right to. The modern day job is a form of coercion and domination that in the long term needs to be abolished. I think a good discussion for the left is transforming how we view work, merit, reward. Why? because there will never be enough jobs. Jobs exist so long as capitalist have a need to purchase labor power. In our increasingly technological advancement, less workers will be needed in the process of accumulation; especially now that capitalism in the west is becoming increasingly digitized and the third world increase in population provides sort of a ‘comparative advantage’ against western nations where unskilled labor can’t compete due to labor protections. We need to be thinking about how to get outside this rat race of capitalism, not making it more bearable. That’s impossible.

  6. it silly to say socialists should be against jobs, the history of the left disagrees or does the term “lumpenproletariat” not spring to mind

  7. Phillip makes a good point in noting how overlooked alienation is in this article. Jobs in their current form essentially serve as ‘the means to an end’, the exploited and thus undesirable labor we are subjugated to perform for subsistence. Once this model is dismantled, jobs become an end in and of themselves in the social value they produce, and alienation in its current form ends. I think we’re all agreed that this is the desired goal. That said, I think Bhaskar’s criticism is a bit short-sighted; yes, capitalism can be made more bearable and has–particularly in the social-democratic model–but to expect that this model can continue on the current projection of capitalist development is unreasonable. The future we will increasingly be forced to endure is as Phillip suggested, one of a decreasing rate of job creation coupled with a steadily rising population. All the welfare-statism in the world won’t provide the number of jobs desired or the social services expected, without eventually bankrupting the capitalist model entirely.
    Consider Greece. Sluggish economic development and a population craving Western European social benefits led to an explosion of public-sector jobs, early retirements and generous pensions, reliant largely on unfettered access to EU finance markets. I support these provisions, of course, but there are two problems: 1) the greater the share of annual GDP social spending takes, the more vulnerable standards of living are to systemic crises caused by cyclical volatility, and 2) it creates further reliance on capitalist development and its fundamentally unsustainable model of growth.

    Thus insisting on socialist policy prescriptions within the framework of capitalist economics is not only increasingly untenable when one considers what the future has in store (i.e., Schumpter’s creative destruction on an unprecedented scale), but it also makes us socialists look willfully ignorant to economic and political reality. But, then again, maybe we are.

    All the same, there’s considerable prescience to this article, such that I hope the subject is explored on this site in greater breadth.

  8. I think we need to differentiate between ‘jobs’ and ‘work’. This article is about the situation in the US, but it applies in Europe too, esp. in the UK, where there is currently a ‘vendetta’ against unemployed people, characterising them all (I would have said ‘us all’, but I am now a pensioner) as ‘feckless scroungers’, and claiming that ‘there are jobs if people really want them’.
    There are ‘jobs’. enabling people to earn a pittance so they can pay the fare to go and do their jobs…a continuous repeating loop! – but there is very rarely WORK that enables the worker to do what they are best at, and is of benefit to society at large.
    I recommend William Morris’s “Useul Work versus Useless Toil” for an expansion of this argument.

    • True that! I am definetly adding that book to my list, comrade!

      • You will find “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” in most collections of Morris’s writings…it’s not a monograph, it’s one of the lectures he gave about Art and Socialism. Unless I’m very much mistaken, you will find an on-line edition via the Marxists Internet Archive

        http://www.marxists.org/

        And now…blowing my own trumpet _ if anyone in London is interested, I am giving a talk next week on MORRIS AND THE ARTISAN.
        (Contact me privately and I’ll give you more info).

  9. how to do this in one step, and why this hasn’t happened yet but to the contrary, people are currently working more than ever

  10. But is a stronger safety net all that matters? All we need is Keynes?

    America had a strong safety net , yet it’s effects were uneven. That net was only truly possible when apartheid existed in America. One of the reasons the welfare state is so hard to push politically is because we live in a post civil rights act society. There are a lot of Americans who don’t like their ‘hard-earned money’ going to that ‘other side of town.’ That is why we have two social welfare systems; ‘entitlements’ and ‘Welfare.’

    If I remember a report from faireconomy.org, it showed that wealth inequality for blacks won’t equal out with whites for at least a 100 years. You think just having a strong safety net will fix that? All we need is more welfare and more tolerance? It might help the middle class, which is still predominantly white, but what does that do for people who are already underneath the waves of turmoil – like people in the inner city who have been suffering before the crisis officially happened for middle class? Sorry, but I am not beholden to the view that welfare alone fixes things. The 19% in unemployment in the black community for college graduates, in comparison to 8.4% for whites won’t be fixed by more welfare (http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/05/graduates_and_unemployment.html).

    The political economy of ‘capitalism with a human face’ maybe be a bit more bearable than reaganomics, but the question is for whom exactly? What’s bearable about going from 19% unemployment to 16% unemployment, when your unemployment is still twice the rate of everyone else’s? Lets think big for once…

  11. There should be no dichotomy between making capitalism more bearable and overthrowing it, between reform and revolution. Making capitalism more bearable is all the left — and the labor movement — can do at the moment. We do not have the power yet to “get outside this rat race of capitalism,” to say the least. Regardless of our desires, it is not on the immediate agenda. What IS on the agenda is building up organized working class power so that serious reforms — radical reforms — become possible. And yes, this involves demanding both jobs AND income.

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