Hey y’all, sorry about the delays!
I’ve been getting caught up in a lot of debates online as well as being backlogged by other projects. I actually tried to write this article out last night but got screwed by a combination of a poorly timed Windows Update that I scheduled and then forgot about. As well as not saving my work even though I thought I did. Anyways I downloaded the Lazarus add-on for FireFox so hopefully that’ll stop.
Sometimes there are articles I see that are coming from an anti-work or at least work skeptical point of view that I like quite a bit of. They make some solid points and are fairly well written and look like a good overall fit for the website. But then they get marred by their conclusions or ways of decreasing (or even abolishing) work. It usually comes in the form of advocating for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and as an anarchist I always have to shake my head and just shelve these articles.
It isn’t that they’re bad just because their conclusions are wrong. I mean, a lot of the premises and argumentation for the premises are still fairly solid a lot of the time.But the conclusions or ways to get us out of our work obsessed society just don’t do it for me. And if a conclusion is something that people consider themselves working up to (no pun intended) then isn’t that really one of the lynchpins of their argument? And if so, I have trouble, as an anarchist, wanting to predominately focus on or feature articles that call for more state intervention and control in the economy when I want the state gone.
I intend to serve as the grave digger of the state, not its savior.
We Need Less Work, Not More
Alexandra Bradbury on Labor Notes disagrees has such a post, We Need Less Work, Not More and thinks that what we should have to get less work in our lives is more government control over certain services. Things like healthcare, people’s income, tuition, transportation and so on, ya know, the little things!
This isn’t to say there aren’t good things in this essay, I want to start with those things just to be fair to Bradbury because I believe she makes some good points. Most of her good points happen in the first few sections of the article anyways so it works out rather nicely.
She starts off strong:
I keep getting these emails from the Laborers union: “The Keystone XL Pipeline isn’t just a pipeline, but a lifeline to good, family-supporting jobs.”
In the labor movement we’re supposed to be for anything that creates more paid work. But here’s some heresy for you: I think we need less work.
This is a great intro because it correctly positions Bradbury’s even moderate and reformist positions (though she may think otherwise) as something that may get reactions of shock and horror by many on the mainstream or liberal “left”. Many on the mainstream left seem to think that work for its own sake is a great and fine thing and something that everyone should aspire to do whether they’re actually interested in the job or not.
Usually more jobs in the economy is unambiguously and joyously celebrated. They celebrate these jobs even though in some cases the workers in those jobs or the people in certain fields don’t actually want to be there or have little choice in being there. And sometimes (but only sometimes, of course) those jobs are actually just about as effective as digging holes for creating value in the economy. I’ve touched on this before so I don’t want to doddle on this point too much but suffice it to say, Bradbury’s position here is certainly radical within some segments of the left.
Still, all of that aside it’s great to see someone point this problem in the mainstream left and make it obvious that anyone who takes the opposite stance (i.e. less work and not more, less jobs and not more) are’ going against a lot of the sentiments of liberals in the US.
Bradbury continues by saying that jobs are killing us, what is her evidence?
Exhibit A: the tragic death of New Jersey fast food worker Maria Fernandes last August, napping in her car between shifts. She was cobbling together at least three Dunkin’ Donuts jobs to make ends meet.
But it’s not just non-union jobs. Exhibit B: Jenny’s story last month on “Fighting Fatigue.” Even unionized pilots, train engineers, and bus drivers are working extreme hours that endanger themselves and others.
…Then there’s Exhibit C: the Keystone XL pipeline itself. As we near a climate-change point of no return, scientists say we must drastically reduce carbon emissions. The pipeline only worsens the threat.
I’m not gonna lie but it feels good to say that I’ve already covered Exhibit A here and here. I don’t mean to suggest I’m happy someone died due to working too hard. But just that I’ve written enough at this point on work in the last year to be able to say once in a while, “Yeah I know about that, I wrote about that here!”. Maybe that’s just me though.
Exhibit B I haven’t covered and to save some space I think I’ll address it in a forthcoming article about it. The basic gist is summed up pretty well by Bradbury but to take one extreme example from the article she cites:
Pilots of U.S. passenger planes are operating under new occupational fatigue rules since January, rules that could be a model for other transport workers. … Workers should work fewer total hours if they are scheduled during those hours, the new regulations acknowledge.
The change was a long time coming. After two decades of inaction, U.S. aviation authorities were ordered by Congress to redo the regulations after pilot error resulting from fatigue was blamed in a 2009 Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, New York. Fifty people died, including everyone on the plane and one person on the ground. Their families pushed Congress to act.
I’m not citing the example because I think it was a good thing that Congress acted (I’ll tackle that in the forthcoming article) but just that here we have a pretty stark example of work literally killing people. The ability for employers to demand their workers to come in even when they’re tired and even when it’s an obvious safety risk is definitely a huge issue.
I also don’t agree with saying, for example there should be “one level of safety for everybody” as one person in the article is quoted as saying. Trying to create overarching systems just doesn’t account enough for all of the different factors each section of transit has to go through and deal with. Not to mention the different technologies, schedules, individuals and structures that each section of transit is made up of.
But those things aside I think it’s good to point out fairly literal cases of work killing people. Because lots of people would just say, “Oh, you’re just being melodramatic! You’re just being rhetorical! Work doesn’t actually kill people! Sure it sucks and lots of people dislike it but killing people? Come on!” But no, I’m not being rhetorical and I’m not being melodramatic. It may not happen all of the time in every place but work does and can kill people.
As for exhibit C…well I don’t know much about carbon emissions or the science behind global warming. So I’ll stay out of that one.
One last positive thing here, I like how Bradbury is understanding towards her interlocutors (something I feel we all could use more of):
But it’s not hard to understand why the Laborers are pro-pipeline. Workers need to put food on the table today. So unions push for more work, however awful it might be.
It’s always helpful to charitably reconstruct your opponents arguments. That way when the argument is at its strongest you’re still able to show anyone involved in the debate who has the better argument a little more definitively than you would otherwise.
For instance, not all liberals and mainstream leftists are crazy about work like Krugman, obviously. While the trend Bradbury and I are reacting against are very real trends that can be easily found in mainstream discourse amongst the “left” it isn’t really going to always be the case that your average liberal is going to totally agree that “more jobs = good!” and no other questions are asked.
It’s much more likely that they see jobs as good for the same reasons Bradbury gives for why labor movement people might be pro-pipeline (even though the pipeline is a massive example of land theft). Now, they might not be good reasons in the end (as I’d suggest) but you can certainly understand them a bit better then if you just assert they just want folks to die.
But that’s just about where the positives end, let’s look at the rest of the article to get an idea of what’s wrong with this article.
We Need Less Government, Not More
I’ll try to take this bit by bit as much as possible, let’s start at the beginning of the end (I’m witty),
We wouldn’t need to work so hard if the rent (and mortgages) weren’t so damn high. If transit were free, and frequent enough. If we had free health care and higher education.
Okay, who doesn’t agree that if things were free that we wouldn’t need to work so hard? This is fairly obvious but it doesn’t seem so obvious how we’d exactly get there.
For example, we”ve seen proposals from folks like Elizabeth Warren that want to turn the college system into a structure less about profit and market mechanisms and more about government control.
Jeff Ricketson of C4SS points out in the linked article above:
Government distorts supply by propping up banks whose oligopoly power makes the real cost of lending money obscure from public view and undiscoverable even by the banks themselves. When costs are unknowable, market-clearing prices are unknowable to at least the same degree. Neither government nor banks can set efficient prices. However, even if the government were capable of effectively pricing loans, there’s no good reason to believe it would try to. Politicians, bureaucrats and their lobbyist friends aren’t interested in market efficiency. Politicians like Warren get elected by trumpeting the cause of the debt-drowned graduate while others get campaign support by driving students from expensive government loans into the hands of private banks.
The government, when it injects new processes into the market place or we remove those market mechanisms already in place (that are heavily distorted by government involvement in society) make things harder and not easier for people. Turning the higher education system more fully over to the government isn’t an idea that’d somehow make working less attractive in a given society. I mean, have you seen how students operate and especially when it comes to things like final exams?
I’ve seen advertisements completely based around the fact that students aren’t getting enough sleep, are overworked and so on and therefore need some nice McDonald’s coffee in the morning. With the added joke that a small coffee is just for a quiz, a medium is for a big test and a large is for finals.
These sorts of advertisements aren’t funny so much as cringe-inducing. I mean, we’re supposed to find it funny that lack of sleep and overall energy in students is such a big deal that McDonald’s has advertisements on the road specifically tailored towards them? I’m sorry, but where exactly is the funny part here?
More to the point though, I don’t see how these students aren’t being driven by the work-ethic that envelopes our society. It just has different tinges or in other words goals and means. Students are working as hard as possible for better grades, favors from teachers, a better job (so they can work some more of course!), a place to intern at (do I even need to go over all of the awful things that interns sterotypically go through?) and so on. But these things are sometimes only being done because students feel like they have no other choice. They need that diploma to at least stay above water in some sense and without it they’ll be lost to the seas of the job market.
So study (work) and study (work) harder, students!
But Bradbury thinks this’ll all be easy:
Sound utopian? It shouldn’t. Take the federal money already going to higher ed in loans and grants, hand it straight to public universities instead—and you could have free tuition for all, tomorrow. Same with health care: single-payer would cost less than we already spend on our dysfunctional private system.
Wait, what doe she mean take the federal money? How? By who? Who is going to do that? Is there somebody in Congress who wants to do this? Who are they? Do they have a lot of people on their side?
I mean, I get it, this is hypothetical but how in the world would this actually happen? I mean, just hand all of the federal money going to higher education in loans and grants and…just give it to the public universities? I don’t mean to be disparaging here and I appreciate Bradbury’s intentions for sure but…how? And why would this transaction be so easy to begin with?
As Ricketson points out above it doesn’t seem like politicians have the sort of incentives that’d encourage them to do what Bradbury is looking for. And even if they did have those incentives I think there are better vehicles for higher education or learning outside of school than shifting tax-payer money between different institutions in society.
I think Ricketson gives us some good ideas on alternatives:
However inscrutable the precise equilibrium price, it’s reasonable to think that, without government, the supply of student loans would skyrocket, making education exceptionally affordable. Without barriers to entry, crowd-funded education loans might allow people to make small investments in many students, spreading risk and decreasing upfront costs to any individual lender. Mutual funds in student loans provided through Indiegogo or Kickstarter analogs would open the floodgates of investment money even from those just barely out of poverty. With the possibilities for new funding mechanisms, interest rates on student loans would fall enormously.
Among the alternatives: Praxis is building an education program designed to compete with bachelor’s degrees in the job market on a mere ten month learning period, $12,000 tuition and paid partnership with businesses that pay ten dollars per hour for forty weeks at thirty hours per week, covering that $12,000 tuition. Surely Senator Warren would agree that ten months at no net cost is better than four years at even a low-interest loan if it creates the same job opportunities.
It just doesn’t seem reasonable to me to prefer the government doing all of these things when we have pretty cool (but certainly not perfect by any means) alternatives that many people are doing instead of going to college.
Let’s look at another chunk of Bradbury’s conclusion:
In the Netherlands if you want to reduce your hours to part-time, by law your employer has to let you, unless they show it would be a hardship. Lots of workers have taken advantage. Of course, universal health care helps make this option viable.
In a recent issue of Jacobin, Daniel Aldana Cohen tells the wonderful story of 1936 France, where workers struck for and won two weeks’ vacation for everyone.
That summer, “the sub-minister of leisure and sport mandated 40 percent discounts on train fares for once-a-year trips. Hundreds of thousands took advantage right away, nearly two million the following year. Many visited the beach for the first time, while others traveled to see relatives or camp in the countryside.”
Okay, but a few problems here:
- The Netherlands and the US are two totally different landscapes with very different and distinct histories, cultures, traditions and value systems. Not to mention the US is far larger than the Netherlands so having one federal law or program in one country isn’t the same as having it in the other.
- This isn’t 1936 and the same problems of comparing the Netherlands and the US apply here. Though, to be fair, they apply a bit less because France and the US have a much more explicitly shared history of ideas, traditions and value systems. But still they have different systems of governance in some ways and different histories. Plus, comparing the size of France’s federal government and the US’s federal government seems like just another case of apples and oranges.
- I’m glad that it worked out for France and it’s great that many people got to visit the beach (how do they know this? and for the first time? that seems oddly specific…but I’m nitpicking) but this doesn’t tell us how France managed to do this and the US did. Maybe the Jacobin article makes it clear but if so, Bradbury doesn’t tell us as much.
To wrap things up:
Imagine it! For the planet and our health, it’s time to build a labor movement that stands for less labor—not more.
I agree, for ourselves and our environment it’d be good if we worked less but why does that require the government, exactly? Isn’t the government one of the biggest perpetrators of pollution through its wars and its bailouts and subsidies of big polluters in industry?
I understand Bradbury most likely had limited time and probably a limited word space (and I clearly don’t) and only one of her main points is that government could be a possible solution. She doesn’t say it’s the only way there (at least not explicitly) and she raises other good points before she draws her article to a close.
Still, it always pains me to see the anti-work and the anti-work sympathizers get lost in the machinations of government reform.