Jobs for All: A job guarantee puts workers in the driver’s seat
The demand for “jobs for all” was, in some form or another, a cornerstone of the Left’s political agenda in the 1930s and ’40s. Unfortunately, in the postwar decades and beyond the demand to end unemployment altogether was repeatedly thwarted or shelved. And with the decline of the Left’s political fortunes the imaginative vision of an economy free from joblessness faded from memory for nearly a half century. Yet today, thanks to Bernie Sanders, the call for a right to a job is once again gaining momentum.
Naturally, the contemporary demand for a job guarantee has been dismissed by the business press as “absurd” and unworkable.1 Meanwhile, liberal outfits have urged caution and restraint.2 This sort of hostility is to be expected; after all, a federal job guarantee would cost in excess of $500 billion, and the political ideas that inform such a program have not been up for serious debate since the 1970s.3 To boot, a federal job guarantee would undermine the logic of a ruthless labor market, challenge management’s absolute power over employees and vastly improves workers’ leverage on the job. Elites are justifiably worried, defensive and lashing out.
What is less expected, however, has been the skepticism of the job guarantee idea expressed by some on the political Left. Some claim the program wouldn’t challenge the form of the wage relation itself, or that it would be logistically impossible to administer; that its realization would result in nightmarish work camps or that it would end up looking like Clintonian workfare on steroids. Much of this skepticism comes from those who advocate for, and often prefer, basic income as a solution to the challenges of the contemporary labor market. Ironically, what the business press gets exactly right about a job guarantee is what most skeptics get wrong. Tightening the labor market would ratchet up pressure on private employers to raise wages and massively increase the size of the federally employed workforce. Employment assurance programs have historically evoked elite pearl-clutching precisely because they are among the few political demands that put workers in a position real power. Criticism of a job guarantee, then, reflects a misunderstanding of the political logic of working-class demands, the power that a job guarantee affords workers and finally the central and enduring role of wage labor in socialist strategy.
The Political Prehistory of the Job Guarantee
New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Works Progress Administration were the first successful American experiments in state-led civilian employment assurance. Of course, these initiatives were designed as relief projects, born of a deep crisis in the state and economy, and their implementation was possible because of the profound weakness of the domestic capitalist class during the Depression. Nonetheless, just as these “relief” programs took hold the labor left tried to deepen President Franklin Roosevelt’s employment initiatives. To transform them from temporary and partial to permanent social programs. Walter Reuther, as early as 1940, advocated for an ill-fated plan to have the federal government transform manufacturing plants for war needs. And while the ‘Reuther Plan’ was sold to policymakers as a wartime necessity, the CIO’s goal was to restructure economic relations, hire workers en masse and insist on the federal government’s heavy intervention in the economy. Similar ideas informed the expansive reports of Roosevelt’s National Resources Planning Board (NRPB). In 1943 the NRPB released—to wide circulation—two reports intended to shape the future of postwar planning: Security, Work, and Relief Policies and After the War—Full Employment. Both reports advocated for expansive and generous social programs to complement extensive jobs programs administered through a proposed Federal Work Agency in order to employ “all who are willing and able to work.” And in his 1944 State of the Union Address, Roosevelt himself called for the recognition of “the right to a useful and remunerative job.” The cumulative fruit of all these plans was James Murray’s Full-Employment Bill of 1945. The bill is arguably the first American attempt at a job guarantee. It would have guaranteed state-led full-employment as a legal right. In particular, it called for a yearly employment budget based on estimates of “the number of jobs needed during the ensuing fiscal year or years to assure continuing full employment” and would have specified that if the private sector was unable to meet that number the federal government would step in. Unfortunately, by this time the capitalist class was recovering from the economic crisis of the 1930s and the war. The business community was reorganizing politically and while the strength of the newly organized industrial working class was unprecedented, it was met by an unparalleled organizing drive among business elites.4
As Micha? Kalecki observed over three-quarters of a century ago, elite resistance to employment assurance is due to fear that “under a regime of permanent full employment, the ‘sack’ would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure.” Accordingly, across industry, workforce and region, business leaders worried that under full employment “[t]he social position of the boss would be undermined and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow.”5 In other words, by substantially tightening the labor market workers could be emboldened to strike for higher wages and shorter hours all while capitalists would be compelled to either raise wages or risk losing profits to work stoppages and labor market competition from state industries. The United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Farm Bureau Federation all understood this and acted accordingly. Business leaders organized civil society, the courts and Congress in a campaign to sink what they saw as a major threat to their interests (a threat, perhaps, second only to that of socialized medicine). The ruling class won and the pursuit of full employment in the 1940s was sunk.6
By the 1960s a renewed interest in the problems of poverty raised the demand for jobs once again. So great was the demand for a solution to the unemployment problem that it was expressed in what was arguably the principal political demonstration of the decade: the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Yet the ambitious employment assurance programs demanded by the likes of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin in their Freedom Budget were once again derailed.
This time, in addition to intransigent business opposition, the labor left had a new competitor for the political limelight: liberal advocates of the anti-poverty agenda. These advocates insisted that programs like Community Action would alleviate the crushing effects of poverty, without causing a major intrusion of the federal government into the affairs of private enterprise, and, if successful, these efforts could even ignite a potential new basis for emancipatory politics. Anti-poverty programs were perfectly compatible with the full-employment ideal, they argued, and robust anti-poverty programs could only help pave the way to a politics of full employment. In reality, the Ford Foundation and the nascent layer of Kennedy-era Ivy-educated postwar intellectuals designed ameliorative anti-poverty programs that would be modest enough to attract business support (or at least neutralize their opposition). They built an anti-poverty policy that was perfectly compatible with a new model of commercial Keynesianism. Instead of anti-poverty as a road to employment assurance, liberal elites saw anti-poverty advocacy as an alternative to the demand for jobs and wage hikes.
The Left, for their part, failed to see how an anti-poverty political agenda put them in a back-seat position. The endemically poor, while no less morally deserving of social solidarity than the more economically stable working class, are not easy to organize, and their demands can be mediated through church leaders, nonprofits, and community organizations. Rhetorically, a language of “shoring up the bottom” did little to advance an egalitarian agenda focused on challenging the immense power at the top of society. Instead of “us against them,” anti-poverty moralism relied on a narrative that painted liberal crusaders as heroes of the poor. The War on Poverty became less a means for working-class political power and social solidarity and more a politics of state-administered charity.
Unions saw little upside to an anti-poverty agenda that failed to provide wage gains for the vast majority of craft, trade, and industrial jobs. The popular counterbalance needed to implement a robust anti-poverty agenda never cohered. Anti-poverty demands were isolated from a mass base, primarily supported by the middle-class liberal Left, a band of intellectuals, and foundation giants. It’s not surprising then that the resultant programs of the War on Poverty reflected an elite policy consensus. The major anti-poverty programs targeted the poor with the aim of changing the cultural characteristics of workers, rather than the structure of the economy. And even those programs aimed at the labor force at large—in particular the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962—quickly transformed into targeted, localized initiatives. President Lyndon Johnson worked closely with business executives to build the National Alliance of Businessmen where executives were given the opportunity to burnish their liberal bonafides while being assured by the government that the anti-poverty initiatives posed no threat to their profits.
Tragically, liberal anti-poverty advocates found themselves in a cross-class coalition and the labor left found itself politically enfeebled and isolated in the pursuit of a more robust agenda. With the added power of the business community liberals sacrificed the jobs agenda. By the end of the decade the vision of “jobs for all” in the United States was again shelved.
In the 1970s the employment demand again gained prominence. With unemployment hovering at a staggering 10 percent, employment policy was politically unavoidable. As such, it is perhaps not surprising that the first efforts to reintroduce employment assurance did not come from the Left but instead through a bipartisan effort. In 1973 the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) was passed by Congress and signed into law by Richard Nixon. CETA was a pale imitation of a public works program. The business community was relatively undisturbed by its passage, assured again that the program would not be inflationary but instead hire only unemployed workers with the intent to retrain them and send them back into the private sector. In a sense, CETA was more a subsidy to business than an employment assurance program for workers. Through a commitment to “job training” CETA alleviated the need for businesses themselves to train new employees, and by limiting eligibility to the unemployed the program did not succeed in raising the wage floor. Worse, because CETA was crafted explicitly as a decentralized and anti-federal solution to the jobs crisis it was beset with problems from the beginning. The lack of centralized control opened the door for local mismanagement and political clientelism. But more importantly, the failure of the program to provide permanent and purposeful work led many to see the program as a symbol of government’s inability to solve the employment crisis. Temporary, countercyclical jobs were effective at reducing unemployment during recessions, and probably somewhat effective at spurring demand, but politically the countercyclical solution was a tough sell.
By the late ’70s CETA was proving inadequate, and even as the campaign for the Humphrey-Hawkins Act kept the question of jobs in the public eye, liberals like President Jimmy Carter were pressured by anxious business leaders to shrink an already inadequate program. Revisions made only the poor eligible for CETA jobs, and by 1978 CETA represented little more than the War on Poverty-era policies of the 1960s. The passage of the largely symbolic Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act the next year did little to counter the declining fortunes of progressive employment policy. The Act, insofar as it was ever taken seriously, limited public employment only to low-skill and low-wage positions so as not to compete with private enterprise. And by the late 1970s the business partners of Great Society liberalism proved fickle. With the election of President Ronald Reagan, the business community abandoned even rhetorical commitment to a jobs agenda.
In the post-war era employment assurance was raised and defeated by a combination of labor weakness, business strength, and liberal triangulation. Liberals in particular played the dangerous role of proposing half-measures and alternative policies that succeeded in drawing attention and resources away from adequate employment policies while orchestrating cross-class political coalitions with business leaders. The repeated attempts by liberals to pull in business as a key partner resulted in either policy weakness or political failure. Avoiding the same fate today will not be easy. Just as in the mid-century, contemporary alternatives to a jobs agenda, most notably the demand for a basic income, are often precisely the kinds of demands that would invite liberals to side with major foundations and corporate sponsors. But despite similarities in the political field, today’s job guarantee proposals do look quite different from their mid-century predecessors.
What Is a Jobs Guarantee Today?
The contemporary interest in a job guarantee, the idea that the state can and should directly employ workers, is certainly a welcome development. However, there has been some debate about whether the phrase “job guarantee” refers to a stable programmatic demand or something more nebulous.
Matt Bruenig criticizes the idea for its lack of clarity.7 He claims that “the flowering of dozens of mutually incompatible proposals that all go under the name ‘job guarantee’” suggests that the proposal is more of a rhetorical move than a policy proposal.8 Bruenig is of course right to notice that there have been multiple policies floating around that go by the name of “job guarantee,” but this only indicates interest and affection for the slogan, not some weakness inherent in the motivating ideas. My own feeling is that the interpretation of any policy by the press, the public and political leaders is more important than the myriad micro-policy mechanisms of any given white-paper. It follows then that defining the phrase “job guarantee” is the business of political campaigners, leaders and advocates, not policy writers alone.9
A survey of contemporary proposals suggests that a “job guarantee” refers to a set of policies that, when combined, are meant to remedy both structural and cyclical unemployment through direct state-led employment. Good proposals do this by combining massive public infrastructure projects—thus creating expanded permanent or semi-permanent public sector employment—with a more flexible solution for cyclical downturns (in Bruenig’s terms, “make-work” jobs). In other words, a robust job guarantee combines the “employer of last resort” (ELR) principle (where the state swells to absorb unemployed workers in periods of recession and contracts during periods of recovery and stability) with an old-fashioned public works program. Good proposals also set a wage floor that is well above the current minimum wage and stem the possibility of downward pressure on wages through prevailing-wage clauses and limitations on redundant jobs. Such a policy also requires the establishment of employment offices and complementary active labor-market policies (to fit job-seekers to jobs).
The combination of the ELR model with a public works program is important if a job guarantee is going to succeed politically and be effective once implemented. The major political weakness of CETA was the liability introduced by so-called “make-work” jobs, which came to be seen as a symbol of liberal government profligacy. But when we combine countercyclical job creation with a major public works program the political implications could be positive. The program could demonstrate that jobs generated by the government are not just meant to absorb surplus labor but they also perform an independent function valuable to the whole society—like building infrastructure, telecommunications, public transit. If implemented, the ramifications of a program like this would be massive. Without exaggeration, a job guarantee of the type described here would partially socialize the labor market. And there is, as yet, no surer way to move us closer to the achievement of a social right to employment.
Economically, the job guarantee would—by providing income to those who currently have none—greatly raise purchasing power and aggregate demand. This would itself be an engine of economic growth. Yet its economic effects could be even greater if planners use the program as a means of reorganizing the industrial structure of the United States. Massive public investments in manufacturing and heavy industry in particular would not only provide permanent or semi-permanent sites of employment, they would also help considerably raise wages across the labor market. Indeed, there is something special about the “secondary sector” as it relates to wages. It’s not a coincidence that maintaining high levels of wage growth depends on significant investments in manufacturing.10 This is largely because, unlike the agricultural and service sectors, manufacturers create durable forward and backward linkages in the economy and, in advanced economies, produce high-value-added goods in firms with large profit margins.11 And while the private sector is unwilling to invest in manufacturing, there is no reason the public sector cannot do so and to great effect.
First Jobs Then (Maybe) Basic Income
Of course, some leftwing skeptics are not in principle against the policy but argue against prioritizing the job guarantee. One version of this critique is to suggest that we can and should have it all: a robust welfare state, a full-employment economy, and a basic income. Pitting any social policy against another is then seen as counterproductive, as David Calnitsky puts it:
Framing the question in narrowly economistic terms, however, posits a false choice between decommodifying labor power and decommodifying services—as if both cannot be pursued at once. In a rich, productive society we ought to be able to afford both a basic income and high-quality public goods.12
Sure, we ought to be able to afford all sorts of social policies, and popular mobilization ought to be able to make progress on securing a broad spectrum of public goods. What a world we would live in if we secured a basic income, a job guarantee, and the decommodification of health care, education and transit, et cetera. Such a society might even qualify as democratic socialist.
Regrettably, focusing largely on the ends of social policies leads Calnitsky (and others) to presume away the messy business of politics.13 He says of both basic income and employment assurance “[w]ere popular forces powerful enough to make progress on one, they very well might be powerful enough to make progress on the other” (“Debating Basic Income”). This is wishful thinking. The “let’s have it all approach” leaps from the obvious truism that we can and should have it all to an assumption that the social forces necessary to attain this basket of public goods are readily available. As we’ve seen above the jobs demand has been routinely derailed by liberals who insist on pursuing anti-poverty policies, balanced budgets and retraining programs (not to mention the immense and overwhelming power of the world’s premier capitalist class). As Alex Gourveitch and Lucas Stancyzk point out, the success of a demand like a meaningful universal basic income—and really any liberatory working-class demand—relies not on the perfection of the policy, or the good intentions of political militants, but on the strength of a workers’ movement equipped with the political and shop-floor power to force concessions from the state and the ruling class.14
We ought to have it all but we need to rebuild dynamic mass organizations of the working class if we want to win anything. Today socialists have precious few resources and our political organizations have tenuous connections (at best) to the working-class majority. Out of necessity, as Nye Bevan put it, “the language of priorities is the religion of Socialism.”15 The operating question, then, is not “why not both?” but “which comes first?”
Political priorities cannot be determined by asking whether and to what extent an array of policies are sufficiently socialist in the abstract. Nor do I think they can be determined by speculating which policy would best serve socialist ends once implemented. Any number of policies might meet these criteria. Focusing only on the ends of social policy neglects an analysis of the political terrain at large. Instead of treating public policy as an endless menu of desirable outcomes or succumbing to the utopian injunction to “have it all,” we should prioritize demands that put workers and their organizations in the driver’s seat not only in their implementation but also through the campaign for their actualization and implementation. This orientation differs from the way that Calnitsky, and others, formulate political priorities. In his response to critics Calnitsky argues “policies that are achievable in the world today may confer power onto people, which facilitates the realization of further policies that again empower them to demand even more” (“Debating Basic Income”). Who could disagree with this? I doubt Gourevitch and Stanczyk would. I know I do not. But this is not really what is up for debate. Again, any given set of policies could theoretically confer power onto people and potentially unlock the virtuous reformist cycle that Calnitsky envisions if—and only if—they are effectively implemented. Therefore, choosing political priorities is how we move from matters of principle to matters of strategy, or how we move from the scientific analysis of policy to the art of politics. For my own part, an analysis of the ends of social policies only informs part of such a strategic assessment. To get the whole picture we must also envision what the political struggle for the fruition of any policy looks like, we need to analyze what kind of agitational campaign would be necessary and what constituency would be needed to realize such reforms. When we do this we can see which policy demands have legs among a working-class base—that is which engender a potentially explosive class mobilization—and which tend to invite the attention and affection of foundation giants and big business.16
Unfortunately, basic income demands—no matter how emancipatory on paper— seem unlikely to engender a majoritarian coalition or working-class political independence. Basic income attracts some of the worst bedfellows socialists could imagine—Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and other tech and finance billionaires. As a result the political struggle for basic income immediately invites divergent interests and serious political contradictions. Already, we see how entrepreneurial politicians like Andrew Yang have championed basic income as a solution to the jobs crisis. Yang, for his part, couches his rhetoric in strongly anti-statist, pro-market and pro-business terms. While he borrows from Calnitsky, arguing that his “Freedom Dividend”—a paltry $1000 per month—“increases bargaining power for workers,” he also insists that a basic income is simply good for business, claiming that “UBI encourages people to find work,” “UBI reduces bureaucracy” and “UBI increases entrepreneurship.”17 It’s important also to note that Yang, despite his vaguely workerist rhetoric, does not support Medicare for All or many of the other social programs advocated by Sanders. I don’t suspect this is a coincidence; for many, the basic income solution is not meant to supplement universal social programs but to supplant them. Indeed, Yang himself has boasted of how his plan would help cheapen the overall costs of welfare state administration by defunding more generous social provisions to stabilize the cash transfer scheme. As basic income becomes more and more the preferred solution of millionaire reformers it should be clear that it represents a path least threatening to capital.
What’s more, the presence of elite advocates is only compounded by the labor movement’s decline and the hollowing out of historic working-class political institutions—a weak and embattled labor movement could hardly counterbalance Silicon Valley. Advocating for basic income without a robust labor movement consigns the already weak workers’ movement to the role of junior partners. The technically perfect basic income won’t make it much beyond the magazines of the socialist left.
The Right to Employment or The Workhouse
Still, for other critics the problem of a job guarantee is less a question of strategy and more a question of outcomes. Skeptics worry that the realization of a job guarantee could result in a program that resembles the eighteenth-century English workhouse. Of course, this exaggerated concern is hardly defensible, not least because the Dickensian workhouse was a policy intended to deal with a labor shortage, it was never meant as a solution to unemployment. Other critics, like Bruenig, conflate a job guarantee—the social right to a job should you want one—with a work requirement. Bruenig, and Jonathan Chait, also, compare the potential program with Clintonite workfare.18
Skeptics’ concerns are valid if the job guarantee is narrowly defined solely as a countercyclical employment policy. That is, if policy-makers designed a program built exclusively to hire workers in periods of recession (and some have done just this) the program would likely be a flop. But if a job guarantee means a traditional public works program combined with the countercyclical solution then the workfare and workhouse comparisons make little sense analytically (unless critics consider most public sector workers part of a dismal forced-labor regime). In fact, the most successful predecessors to a program like this—the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps—were hardly the grey work camps of critics’ dystopian imagination.
The guiding principle behind a job guarantee, the affirmation of the social right to employment, does not and would not, impose work on anyone. Just as the guarantee of any particular right almost never means the compulsion to exercise it. The goal of employment assurance is, as ever, to end involuntary unemployment. People unable to perform paid work should still be eligible for unemployment benefits, and they would not be expected to work against their will or ability. And of course, no left-wing advocate for employment assurance (and there really are no other advocates for it) would argue for a program that would force people into soul-crushing jobs.
But there is a stronger point to be made here. Not only is the vision of the workhouse rejected by job guarantee advocates, I don’t think capitalists even find this vision particularly desirable in the long term. Consider that even if a job guarantee resulted in nightmarish working conditions, such conditions have a low likelihood of persisting because a tight labor market with a state guarantee of employment would necessarily lead to greater structural leverage for workers. Workers under a system where employment is guaranteed would have the same “exit option” praised by basic income advocates: they could walk off the job knowing that another job is secure. But they would also have the option to strike. Of course, such options are only political potentials but I think it safe to bet that under the tight labor markets wrought by such an aggressive employment policy workers would be more emboldened to strike.
Further, the workforce itself would grow. Under conditions of state-led employment assurance a twin phenomenon occurs: the wage floor rises and the overall labor force participation rate increases. The simple explanation for why Nordic countries are able to raise wages while expanding their workforce is that active labor market policies and public employment—especially in the care of children and the elderly—allow women and other traditionally disadvantaged workers to enter the job market while sectoral bargaining puts upward pressure on wages across the workforce. (This in turn explains how the labor force participation rate, the rate of wage growth and the levels of social equality for women in these countries far outpace the outcomes of the “free” labor market in the United States.)
The knock-on effects of a job guarantee also bolster the mobilization capacity of the working class by providing new avenues for organizing drives. An invigorated public sector would make mass unionization a possibility again. And given that public-sector unionization and public-sector worker militancy have been less vulnerable to deterioration than their private sector counterparts it’s reasonable to assume that a union drive among millions of new federally employed workers would have legs.
If we understand neoliberalism to mean, as Adolph Reed Jr. and Mark Dudzic usefully defined it, “capitalism that has effectively eliminated working-class opposition,” then our political aims should be to increase the social leverage and class self-assurance and consciousness needed to rebuild that opposition.19 Without the assurance of a perennially tight labor market and with the looming threat of automation many workers rightfully fear that they are disposable. A late-career pink slip could mean you will never work again. A job guarantee could alleviate that crushing fear. It could help facilitate the growth of wages, labor force participation and workplace militancy—the policy could literally grow the working class in size and strength.
Compare this to the potential institutionalization of unwaged earners through a stand-alone basic income scheme. Basic income proponents praise the potential freedom afforded by a no-strings-attached income guarantee. But with a growing low-wage service sector, high rates of secular under- and unemployment and, in the United States, a uniquely weak union movement, it’s unclear how low-waged and unwaged basic income earners would have anything close to the social leverage that workers have through the power of the strike. This is one reason I think some of the super-elite tech and finance gurus are enamored of the basic income solution. While the precaritization of wage work and the growth of the gig economy is often overstated, it seems obvious that a non-waged cash benefit would only help fortify that sector and weaken the potential for collective action among those trapped in low-wage gig jobs or long-term unemployment. How would the unwaged basic income earner flex her muscles? How could a stand-alone basic-income provide the kind of economic environment conducive to workplace organizing? Socialist skeptics of a job guarantee tend to minimize the central position that wage labor plays in capitalism and the potential social power that workers have by virtue of their structural position—indeed some tend to downplay the meaning and significance of work altogether.
In Defense of Work
Hesitation about the appeal of a job guarantee might reflect a deeper political division over the nature, desirability and central position of work itself in socialist strategy. Some basic income advocates do concede that the social right to work is a desirable goal, but they tend to mean this in a rhetorical way. They define “work” not as a form of wage labor or some other compulsory activity in a social division of labor; instead, as Philip Harvey shows, basic income advocates often seek to redefine work as its opposite—work is expanded to encompass nearly all of human activity.20 By expanding the concept of “work” into meaninglessness skeptics can confidently claim that a basic income fulfills the social right to work just as much as a job guarantee does.
On the other end of the spectrum, critics insist that advocates of a job guarantee are hung up on some old-fashioned and romantic notion of a bygone “worker.” Today we live amid infinite precarity, they argue, and as automation dominates more and more of the labor process the social change agents of the future will be the ubiquitous “precariat.” Some go so far as to celebrate a future without work and paint any socialist who clings to wage labor and the primacy of the working class as an anachronism. Yet the fact remains that wage labor informs the daily lives of the majority of adults in the world, and ignoring the aspirations, desires and goals of this group is precisely what the American “Left” has shamefully done over the past half century.
It should be said that advocates for a job guarantee are not cultural workerists—we don’t want to send people into coal mines so they can have big strong muscles and look like Soviet posters. Instead, we see the workplace as foundational because it is in the workplace (and so far only in the workplace) that durable and democratic working-class organizations that cut across race, gender, region, language, ethnic and other divisions have been formed and fortified. Where other social-movement organizations rise and fall, the labor movement remains remarkably consistent in its form and substance even as its institutions have shrunk dramatically.
Finally, these workplace organizations provide more than just shop-floor leverage—in the form of the strike—they also make possible the resources, broad mass base and common political subject necessary for mass working-class politics. I remain unconvinced that such organizations can be built and sustained outside of the shared class grievances that inform workplace organizations. And I’m skeptical of the possibility that non-workplace-based organizations would have anything near the social leverage and political capacity that unions do. Despite the Left’s repeated gamble on “new social movements” this combination of civil-society organizing, mass-media pageantry and protest tactics has never won the breadth and depth of concessions that robust labor movements have.
Few socialists would disagree with the above analysis, but taking it seriously has implications for our political strategy. Some proposed social policies, like basic income sans full employment, put workers and workplace organization in a weaker socio-political position overall. Basic income proponents argue that workers would be free to pursue vocational activities that aren’t found on the job market—think of all the boutique Brooklynite crafts that could be subsidized by a new permanent petty-bourgeoisie—but in practice a basic income would work to subsidize low-wage jobs that are highly profitable. Consider the Uber drivers who would rely on both the state subsidy and their dismal wages.
Policies that seek to minimize the central position of work effectively do rob workers of the power they have in their ability to strike, by curtailing the possibility of building workplace organizations, and importantly by weakening the sense of class solidarity developed through shared class experiences. And here is where a job guarantee—unlike basic income, anti-poverty programs and other solutions to economic deprivation— could fulfill an often under-analyzed social function: organic solidarity.
Individual Consumption or Collective Cooperation?
Waged work, in an advanced capitalist division of labor, is predicated on cooperation among workers. Workplace cooperation is often obscured by the competition workers face on the job market. But the former is just as much a feature of capitalist society as the latter. And cooperation at work is what provides the practical and human foundation of class solidarity. Think of the teamwork needed in a restaurant to ensure that front-of-house staff get orders to the back of house in a timely manner, the reliance each group has on the other and the trust built among relative strangers through a complex division of labor and the external pressure put on workers to perform certain tasks well. It’s no secret to union organizers that workplace leaders are often those who are respected and admired on the basis of this workplace cooperation. The best organizers on the shop floor are those who have won the trust and admiration of the widest group of workers based on their skill and ability to perform their jobs and communicate with the broadest layer of their co-workers.
It’s the kind of solidarity engendered among co-workers that transforms a working-class political program from abstract ideas into concrete demands shared by a collective. In other words, workplace experiences make the thing we call “class interests” a felt reality. It is primarily through work that we get to know, interact, cooperate and bond with people across all sorts of social partitions. The external pressures of a job transform our co-workers into our comrades when dealing with a belligerent manager, during cigarette breaks and at staff meals. Workplace solidarity demonstrates the socialist truism that workers can overcome their narrow personal interests and petty divisions and come together to advance collective aims.
Today, however, work is a dirty word among some socialists who imagine a future free from any and all drudgery. To me, such a future vision seems unlikely in the near term and undesirable in the long term. Work could be, if engineered toward social ends, a rewarding and socially fruitful endeavor, even beyond questions of economic scarcity or productive utility. Anti-work advocates argue that the post-work future is already here and we should accept the permanency of a non-waged class. But this raises yet another challenge to solidarity. Wouldn’t it be entirely rational for wage workers to resent their non-waged counterparts and vice-versa?
Imagine a system where the majority of wage-earners pay a tax into a basic income to support a minority of the permanently non-waged class. Wouldn’t such a system perpetuate conflicts—and potentially exacerbate antagonisms—between better-off workers and worse-off non-workers? A future where only some have access to the labor market seems to only sectionalize and segregate the mass of people that make up the non-elite majority. We are too familiar with worker resentment of supposed “freeloaders,” who receive measly social benefits like Medicaid, by those marginally better-off workers who pay through the nose for their own lousy health insurance. A post-work future seems less likely to facilitate any sort of organic solidarity between these groups.
Post-work utopias are often painted in rosy colors where individuals are free to explore their own drives and desires. But without the bonds and shared class experiences developed through the workplace—and without any institution binding individuals to some larger collective endeavor—alternative forms of mechanical and artificial solidarity are likely to become more, not less, attractive. Nationalism, racism, misogyny and xenophobia all perform a similar function to that of organic solidarity without the potential for class-based unity. We know that people tend to find joy and comfort in collective endeavors. Instead of nation, race or other artificial “imagined communities,” shouldn’t the communal endeavor socialists desire be built on a shared commitment to cooperation? Marx clearly thought so. It’s this desire for a collective and productive society—where each of us contributes and each of us benefits—that inspires the eighth demand in the Manifesto: “equal liability of all to work.”21 If we care about equality in wealth, shouldn’t we care about equality in the distribution of work? The equal liability to work, and the distribution of it, were once considered keystone principles of socialism.
Ironically, some post-work socialists seem to celebrate an individually oriented consumptionist approach to social policy. Unlike earlier traditions that stretch from the early New Deal back to the classical period of prewar European social democracy, contemporary utopians feature visions of luxury and abundance but curiously do not suggest a liability to labor. In fact, work is often thought of in purely negative terms. Socialists don’t need to embrace the misguided traditions of cultural workerism, nor the grueling American work ethic, to acknowledge the benefits that dignified and purposeful work provides. Boredom, isolation and emptiness are the most damning and socially pernicious effects of unemployment and underemployment today. As Joan Robinson had it “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”22 And even under a system where joblessness was accompanied by a decent “wage” there is no good reason to assume that the misery that accompanies the social isolation of joblessness would cease. And while any good socialist should insist on raising income for wage workers and stimulating aggregate demand, we should also concern ourselves with a vision of society that takes more seriously the restructuring of the labor market to avoid the worst effects of unemployment. That means policies aimed at building a more equitable, productive, and social division of labor.
Toward a Social Labor Market
Frankly, no significant constituency is demanding an end to work itself; rather, most people want the fair distribution of work and wages. And it’s not because most workers prefer being exploited nor because they are dupes of a capitalist ideology, nor because unemployment is particularly high—even under tight labor markets, the demand for jobs has been historically popular. I think to some degree the popularity of the “jobs for all” vision is born out of a commonsense understanding that collective and productive activity is meaningful. By working in purposeful and well-paying jobs we feel we have contributed to society in a real way—think of the joy teachers feels when they finally see the eureka moment in their students’ eyes, or the sense of accomplishment an electrician feels when she finishes wiring a new library, or the pleasure of a nurse when he tells a family good news about a loved one. These are genuinely human experiences and they are made possible because these workers perform socially productive jobs. With a job guarantee we could drastically curtail the feeling of being “left behind” and isolated by a job-light or jobless economy and create meaningful jobs that inspire a broad, organic solidarity and deep class unity that will make it easiest to imagine and bring about workplaces free of capitalist exploitation.
Too often liberals sneer at socially undesirable jobs. They see the jobs at slaughterhouses, sewage treatment plants, and coal mines as tragedies that should be abolished. And while some jobs do serve anti-social ends, the liberal lament of socially undesirable work combined with the omnipresent threat of automation or the potential of being forced onto the state dole comes off as condescending to workers who depend on such jobs and who, believe it or not, often find dignity through them. Scoffing at “make-work” jobs—like much-needed support staff for schools and care facilities or clean-up crews for public parks and neighborhoods—serves a similar function. Socialists need not affirm the necessity for socially isolating and meaningless work, but if we want to end the tyranny and drudgery in our socially unproductive labor market we must endeavor to create jobs that provide both a living wage and a meaningful social function.
The good news is that there is plenty of work to be done—ork that is both socially productive and desirable: the work needed to care for an aging generation, the work needed to teach our children, the work needed to emancipate working families from the thankless and exhausting task of child rearing, the work needed to build monumental infrastructure projects and reinvigorate our mass transit or update our electric grid. All of these jobs have two things in common: first, each could only be created through massive investment and central planning and, second, they are all jobs that capitalists are unwilling or unable to provide.
A robust job guarantee can do all this while inspiring a collective vision of a society and strengthening the leverage that workers have to demand more. After all, the essence of a socialist economy is the regulation of production, distribution and consumption for social ends through democratic means. What better way to foster the tender shoots of a such a system than by democratically regulating the distribution of work? The fruits of such a program would be countless. Not only could we build the self-assurance and class consciousness needed to inspire a renewed labor movement, we would create a robust political base that would help keep the programs around. Once good jobs are provided by the state and once workers see the usefulness in such a massive program good luck trying to take it away.
It’s for these reasons that the demand “jobs for all” is now and always has been wildly popular among working people. It’s time to affirm once again that workers deserve shorter hours, better wages, more freedom and dignity at work, more control over their work lives, and, yes, they deserve the social guarantee that work will be available to them.