A Socialism that Universalizes Work is a Socialism not worth Having

Sounds…ominous and unpleasant?

Recently I mused on Twitter and elsewhere that I wasn’t sure what was worse: Socialists who wanted to universalize the suffering of meetings or capitalists who want to privatize the most important meetings to themselves.

In the latter, at least only a handful of the population is (theoretically) suffering from meetings and how boring, long, tedious, bureaucratic as they often can be (especially on the left). We might not have a very democratic workplace or society, but in some instances, I think democracy is overrated anyhow.

None of that is to say I’m against meetings per se’ or that I think meetings are always a waste of time. Nor am I claiming some sort of edgy “post-left” moniker or saying socialism is a failure because of meetings, of all things. But I think it’s telling how much activist culture and meetings are often interchangeably taken as sacred givens among leftists.

What I’m saying here also applies to the idea that we should universalize access to jobs.

I’m not against someone having a job (though some are), I’m against people having to work. Which, to me, means that we’re in a relationship where we aren’t free to self-organize our work-spaces or cooperate with others. For me, a job is just something that someone does to get a paycheck and that’s neither good nor bad to me. I don’t oppose money, I don’t oppose physical labor and I don’t even see hierarchy as always being bad, e.g. apprenticeships can be a good thing.

Jacobin writers Mark Paul, William Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton aren’t talking about that:

The UBI represents one way to fight increasing deprivation. But another potential intervention — the federal job guarantee (FJG) — might be a far more promising demand.

A job guarantee is not a new idea. It has been part of the American conversation at least since populist governor Huey Long put forth his Share Our Wealth Plan. In 1934, he argued that the United States should use public works to ensure “everybody [is] employed.”

These calls were echoed by politicians from Roosevelt in his Economic Bill of Rights to George McGovern during his 1972 presidential bid. Martin Luther King also stumped for a job guarantee, demanding immediate “employment for everyone in need of a job.” He saw “a guaranteed annual income at levels that sustain life and decent circumstances” as the second-best option.

I’ll try my best to refrain from touching on the UBI comparisons and mentions since I’ve already talked about it enough in recent months. Suffice it to say, ideas being old or new isn’t any indication of whether they’re a good idea.

The authors (hereafter referred to as Paul, et. al.) have five reasons why we should accept the FJG.

1. A job guarantee means fewer poor Americans

To ensure a sufficient income, we argue for a FJG that would pay a minimum annual wage of at least $23,000 (the poverty line for a family of four), rising to a mean of $32,500.

This would eliminate the “working poor” for full-time working households. In addition to the wage, workers in the FJG program would receive health insurance and pension benefits in line with those that all civil servants and elected federal officials receive.

I think there are a few different kinds of people in the world: Conclusion-drawn and premise-drawn.

Some folks are so hyped up on either the premise or the conclusion that they don’t bother (or won’t) look at what it takes to either get started or end up where they want to. I’d say leftists tend to be more conclusion-drawn. They, of course, have deeply held values as premises (justice, fairness, equality, etc.) but the important thing to many leftists is the elimination of poverty, unemployment, disease, etc. etc. These results are typically what’s most important to a leftist, how we get there should be seen as secondary to the fact that we need to accomplish these things.

Right-wing folks tend to have deeply held premises that they’re not going to question. Maybe it’s family, religion, “rule of law” or something else but no matter what the conclusion, these premises should be upheld in society.

These are simplifications, of course. But I think proposals like the FJG are marred by conclusion-drawn thinking that’s classic within state-socialist thinking. The thinking goes something like this: We have a state so let’s think of the state as a tool of the people and use it for the ends we would like to see, as opposed to the rich and powerful!

It’s a nice idea, but it’s also completely ahistorical.

Government is almost never the “tool of the people” and when it relegates itself to such a lesser role it is almost always temporary (see: the countless revolutions in the east in Russia and China). Government’s role in society is to become a thing apart from society itself and govern it as best as its can within the parameters it wants to work in. We’ve seen this in the US whether it’s with Bush, Obama or more recently, Trump. Spying, drone bombings, constant wars, militarization of the police, locking up of innocents under the guise of “terrorism”, persecution of harmless drug users, etc.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for this to change, but especially here in the US with people like Donald Trump in charge, I don’t see how that’s changing anytime soon. And therefore how any of this is (say it with me) practical. And unlike Santens, these authors are writing in 2017 so they have a much shorter list of excuses than Santens did on that front.

2. The robots haven’t taken over yet. We still need workers.

The dangers of imminent full automation are overstated: there is little evidence that companies are largely replacing human workers with robots. As Dean Baker explains,

If technology were rapidly displacing workers then productivity growth — the rate of increase in the value of goods and services produced in an hour of work — should be very high, because machines are more efficient. In the last decade, however, productivity growth has risen at a sluggish 1.4 percent annual rate. In the last two years it has limped along at a pace of less than 1 percent annually. By comparison, in the post–World War II “Golden Age,” from 1947 to 1973, productivity grew at an annual rate of almost 3 percent.

A few things here:

  1. Just because machines are more efficient doesn’t there aren’t inefficient way to use machines. Capitalists (obviously) are not going to be using the machines as well as the workers are with their localized knowledge.
  2. Is a “sluggish 1.4 percent” per year in the 2000s the same as an annual rate of 3 percent decades ago? What I mean is, is this adjusting for population growth, et. al.? I’m not necessarily disputing the central claim here (the US economy will still need workers for a while to come) but I’m unsure how this data works out.

Technology, nor globalization, need have negative employment effects on workers — but they certainly can. It’s time to get the rules right, and ensure workers are provided the dignity of a job.

This always drives me crazy. What dignity?

There’s very little dignity in doing one of the most normal jobs in the US, retail. I can tell you that from plenty of personal experience that having any of the most common jobs (retail, cashier) isn’t a job that’s swimming in dignity. Capitalism and especially state-capitalism isn’t designed for dignity it’s designed for profit!

…Why do I have to explain this to people writing for a self-described socialist website?

3. A FJG could build an inclusive economy.

Conventional wisdom holds that people dislike work. Introductory economics classes will explain the disutility of labor, which is a direct trade-off with leisure. Granted, employment isn’t always fun, and many forms of employment are dangerous and exploitative. But the UBI misses the way in which employment structurally empowers workers at the point of production and has by its own merits positive dimensions.

This is an odd passage. Instead of actually engaging with the point that many forms of employment in the modern economy is “dangerous and exploitative” Paul, et. al. decide to just sidestep the debate entirely and just take a swipe at UBI proponents. And whether the critique is right or wrong, it also doesn’t seem promising for the FJG folks to be universalizing access to potentially dangerous and exploitative experiences.

.But for now, there is no doubt that people want jobs, but they want good jobs that provide flexibility and opportunity. They want to contribute, to have a purpose, to participate in the economy and, most importantly, in society.

I suppose there is little doubt, but what’s the hope of any of that happening under state-capitalism?

Are capitalists known for giving flexibility and opportunity to poor, disadvantaged and unemployed people?

Not according to most socialists or leftists I’ve read or talked to. So what’s going on here?

A federal job guarantee can provide workers with socially beneficial employment — providing the dignity of a job to all that seek it.

Again with this whole “dignity” thing. You ever notice how no one ever defines what dignity in a workplace would even look like or some prominent examples? These cries for “dignity” have some merit but they’re often obfuscated by a lack of engagement with what that would actually entail – like destroying capitalism and the state.

4. Federal jobs could provide socially useful goods and services

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were public employment programs designed to put Americans back to work after the national unemployment rate reached 25 percent. These programs, implemented under the Roosevelt administration, provided socially beneficial goods and services that benefited all Americans.

I’ve addressed this sort of rhetoric here and here but I want to share something from my friend Nathan Goodman:

Jobs shouldn’t be the goal. A job isn’t an end in itself; it’s a means to an end. People seek employment so that they can buy food, afford shelter, and purchase the other things they desire. As Adam Smith wrote, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.”

Still, many people measure an economy’s health in terms of employment, a phenomenon economist Bryan Caplan calls “make-work bias, a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of conserving labor.”

The same is true for jobs created by opening new prisons. It’s true for jobs created by military spending. Perhaps jobs are created, but they’re created at a serious cost to prosperity and individual choice, not to mention the destruction violent institutions like war and prison impose.

Maybe socially useful labor would be created, but I don’t trust the US government’s definitions of what that constitutes.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a D+ in infrastructure and prices necessary repairs at $3.6 trillion. This lack of investment has lowered employment rates, cost businesses sales, and reduced incomes for American families. Make no mistake, these are government choices. They could choose instead to hire unemployed workers to repair bridges, maintain roadways, and update power grids.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a mistake to see it as a government choice but…so what?

Choices are sometimes made for good reasons. The government doesn’t have a strong history of making given choices for good reasons but sometimes they do and I think this is one of those times. It’s like that quote from Jurassic Park: “[Y]our scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

And the same thing goes for state-socialists and their idea of what a state should do. They ask a lot less questions about whether a state should do something and just ask whether it’s actually a possible option. Of course, plenty of policies and ideas could be entertained by the ruling class, but they don’t have the necessary incentives to go through with many of them and that’s even leaving aside whether the FJG is a good idea at all.

He and his colleagues estimate what a Green New Deal would look like, and find that a transition to a green economy would amount to an estimated $200 billion in investment annually, resulting in a drop in “US emission by 40 percent within 20 years, while creating a net increase of 2.7 million jobs.” In part, this is due to the labor-intensive nature of energy efficiency and other “green” investments.

Here’s a much more practical idea that’ll strike at the root of global warming and carbon-based emissions:

Abolish capitalism and the government.

As the anarchist and ecologist Murray Bookchin said:

To speak of ‘limits to growth’ under a capitalistic market economy is as meaningless as to speak of limits of warfare under a warrior society. The moral pieties, that are voiced today by many well-meaning environmentalists, are as naive as the moral pieties of multinationals are manipulative.

Capitalism can no more be ‘persuaded’ to limit growth than a human being can be ‘persuaded’ to stop breathing. Attempts to ‘green’ capitalism, to make it ‘ecological’, are doomed by the very nature of the system as a system of endless growth.

5. It’ll stabilize the economy.

By full employment, we mean simply that everyone seeking a job gets one. We’d wager that if you asked the average American what full employment means to them, they’d give you a similar answer — a job for all. Indeed, a plurality of Americans will also tell you they support a FJG.

I don’t think their case is strengthened by what a majority of Americans want. Which isn’t to say that Americans are right or wrong, but Americans are largely (as far as I know) not self-described as socialists, leftists or anything of the sort. How many Americans might interpret the FJG could result in an entirely different outcome than what is desired by Paul, et. al.

And even if that wasn’t true, look at what happened to a similar program that happened in Argentina:

Myerson cites economist Pavlina Tcherneva of the Levy Institute to describe how this program might work. The video above condenses a lecture by Tcherneva explaining what a job guarantee is, its economic impact, and what we can learn from her research on the Jefes (“Heads of Households”) Program in Argentina.

The Jefes Program, in addition to driving an employment-led economic recovery, had radical social and political implications — so radical, the Argentine government had to shut it down. Many of the jobs created were proposed and organized by the workers themselves, and women were particularly empowered. Through Jefes, care work was valorized — and, in some cases like daycare, collectivized. (emphasis mine)

What hope do we have that the US government wouldn’t do much the same, even if everything went well?

Finally, as a less costly program a FJG might be easier for a future left government to enact. Some estimate that basic income could easily cost more than $3 trillion each year, while others say it will only come to $2.7 trillion. The FJG, on the other hand, will cost orders of magnitude less.

Even if we conservatively guess that fifteen million unemployed workers need jobs, funding the FJG would take about $750 billion.

I’ll grant this point and yet it still remains to be determine where the federal government would get the money for this. It’s especially puzzling how the money they would use to fund this…wouldn’t just come out of the pockets of the most marginalized and also damage their economic status the most.

This could be just the policy to reinvigorate the labor movement, spurring unionization drives to improve working conditions. These benefits will result in the federal jobs raising beneficiaries and their families above the poverty line.

Because if there’s any institution that has been friendly to unions throughout history it’s…the US government?

Sure, in terms of more mainstream unions that don’t mind having bosses, compulsory dues and reinforcing the already-existing hierarchical system in place, this may be more accurate. Governments have been fairly cooperative with those types of unions but that’s a very specific union that I don’t really want to see “reinvigorated”.

And finally:

Not only would a federal job guarantee bring justice to the millions who desire work, but it would also address the long-standing unjust barriers that keep large segments of stigmatized populations out of the labor force.

Finally, it would reverse the rising tide of inequality for all workers. By strengthening their bargaining power and eliminating the threat of unemployment once and for all, a federal job guarantee would bring power back to the workers where it belongs.

Some laudable goals here but completely counter-intuitive means.

The government has almost never been a friend of the worker and insofar as it has, its reforms have meant very little in the long-run. The safety regulations, wage boosts, union laws and so on have all been used against workers trying to actually strike a radical blow against capitalism and the state, all throughout history.

And honestly, the labor force is overrated and socialists need to stop glamorizing it. They need to stop valorizing the worker in an economy that increasingly doesn’t need them. And even if we need them now that’s no excuse to treat work as if it’s some sort of inherently valuable thing (or job, whichever). Jobs are only as useful as the people in charge make them and a FJG would put an organization that is probably one of the most useless in charge of what defines use.

I would hardly call myself a socialist and I see no point in adopting the label as long as Jacobin (and likely other publishers) keep putting out content that keeps valorizing work and the US government, of all organizations.

I’m still not sure whether socializing suffering or keeping it concentrated to the people who have the most influence in terms of material wealth is better, but I’m damn sure universalizing work has got to be one of the worst proposals I’ve ever heard from state-socialists. It’s not only impractical, it belies a disturbing amount of faith in the government, an institution that has a long and detailed history of oppressing marginalize people and constantly working against them.

Come to think of it, the FJG is worse than the UBI.

At least the UBI would cut federal programs in most scenarios.

Oh, dammit.

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