As COVID-19 begins to strike the global economy, it is bringing to the forefront of conversation and policy topics otherwise rarely discussed (outside of leftist circles) — in some countries, governments are keeping businesses alive by paying their workers. In others, rent has been cancelled and delayed. In others, effectively nothing has happened — small stimulus packages and a lack of regulation look to be leading to an eviction landslide in the USA. Worldwide though, many are out of work — and now, many will be out of their homes.
This is, perhaps, the most visceral window imaginable into neoliberalism’s long term failings — its repetitive (and highly damaging) booms and busts, and its brutal punishment of those it deems sub-par (normally, those born below a certain economic threshold). These features are evident in capitalism as a whole — but without a large dose of Keynesian economics to stabilise the (supposedly all-knowing) capitalist market, and to keep its citizens alive, they’re accentuated further. Coronavirus, alongside the ongoing (and ever-climbing) ecological crisis, teaches us as a species a valuable set of lessons — as nice as it may feel (to some) to base a society on the supposed “human nature” of everlasting growth and greed, with the invisible hand of the market guiding us towards some prosperous future, it is as horribly unsustainable and downright cruel as much as it is resilient and hard to replace. For a select few, that resilience is a boon — for most others, it’s a curse that feels inescapable, repressed to the back of the mind as capitalist realism, or brought to the forefront through anger, pain, and protest.
I don’t need to tell you which of those groups has more power, and which of them actually keeps it all ticking.
Whenever an event like this occurs, there are political shifts. Normally, they lean to the extremes of the ever-present Overton window of the day. It often leads to populism. On the left, many are radicalised (not necessarily a bad thing, despite the connotations of the word). People advocating neoliberalism tend to hide a bit more, with those in power throwing bones to the masses in order to prevent something they really don’t want — a success of that first radical group I mentioned. The lot that appear to grow most prominent however, are those in between — the soft-ish left, as I like to call them. A mixture of Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats, this group of political reformers tend to bring a mixture of policies to the table — UBI, state/public ownership of services, increased benefits — maybe even worker ownership of firms — and more. This group can gain traction shockingly quickly in an electoral setting.
One policy I’ve seen discussed amongst this group interests me the most, however, and that’s a job guarantee — alongside regulating capitalistic firms, a state can essentially regulate their job markets too, by offering guaranteed work to all. Think of the productivity we can gain — if everyone who can work is given the opportunity to, every aspect of our society can improve, no?
Aside from the purely technical difficulties to such a scheme — and there are many (training for high-skilled work, difficulties for disabled people and others unable to work, hiring and firing, how you ethically allocate the workforce) — the main issue I have with this policy is that it misses some rather essential points.
For one, it keeps at its core one rather horrific component of our current system — the notion that if you don’t work, you die. Advocates for a job guarantee tend to miss that for the logic of “just give everyone a job and it’ll (at least help) fix the system” to be functional, the underlying assumption that work is itself a necessity for all must be kept. It assumes that there’s always more work to be done, always a void to be filled, always a niche to be entered — it ignores the fact that for work to be truly fulfilling, it has to mean something — and even with current rates of unemployment, lots of our jobs simply don’t. If you know, you know; I’m rephrasing David Graeber’s now famous theory of “bullshit jobs”. Essentially, the theory states that as our economies have grown, and automation and technology advanced and deployed, the underlying idea I alluded to prior has, rather than given us plummeting working hours and a glut of free time, given us millions of meaningless jobs — jobs that could simply disappear, and the world could keep operating as normal. Productive jobs have been automated away, and instead of allowing those former workers time to follow their own endeavors, bullshit jobs have spiked. In terms of mental health and our attitudes towards work, this is reflected in the data — YouGov found that 37% of Britons thought their jobs did not contribute “meaningfully” to the world.
Graeber’s theory highlights some important points about how we are conditioned to view work. It’s subliminally viewed as the defining metric of a person. If work determines worth, work is dignity — if work is dignity, we should make sure everyone works (or, at least, heavily imply that they should). In our current society, that means opening up more and more meaningless positions. Rather than giving people the economic opportunities to experience their life how they please (and this is often productive — think of how many people wish to start a business or trade, but never can!), we simply add more unnecessary jobs into the stack. We also increase our levels of overproduction — something we really do not want/need to be doing, at least in the wealthier parts of the world.
Other aspects of a given human being — their personality, hobbies, relationships, etc — are sidelined. After all, the first question everybody asks is quite simple — “so, what do you do?”.
This notion mingles nicely with another — the idea that in order for people to work, they must be forced to. The most dignified are those who don’t need to work, but choose to. Then it’s those who work hard, because they must. At the bottom of the stack are those who can work, but choose not to. Maybe they don’t feel any job they can find is their chosen path, or maybe they really are just very lazy people. Whatever their reasoning, there is one constant factor — this group is often despised. But can we really tell people to just go “make themselves useful”, when huge swathes of useful jobs have been automated away, and replaced with meaningless ones? That would seem unfair to me.
I fundamentally disagree with the notion that if one is to work, they must be forced to, under threat of losing their home, food, family, and overall livelihood. Apart from anything else, it’s simply not a useful notion anymore. In an age where automation and machine learning can do so much for us, we must fundamentally rethink how we consider work and the economy, not only for curbing disasters such as climate change and COVID-19, but to fix the fundamental injustices present in our societies. We must focus on decentralisation and resilience, social ownership and worker ownership, universal services and a viable standard of living for all. We must focus on cooperation and coordination, curbing overproduction and decreasing inequality, and we must rethink how we can restructure our society so that for one to begin to follow their personal endeavors, they’re not forced to work long hours at a job they hate, or know is purposeless.
A job guarantee feeds into these underlying concepts. This isn’t to say that government shouldn’t create jobs, and provide employment to many — after all, this will be essential to building green infrastructure and countering climate change, in the short term (hell, so many productive jobs might be available that it does essentially become a guarantee). It’s simply to say that our society needs to be more fundamentally altered, and our views towards work fundamentally shifted. We have the resources and the technology to create such an alteration, without relying on capitalist markets or Soviet-esque centralised planning.
We must rethink the role of said market, rethink how we allocate resources, rethink the role of governance, and rethink how we handle decision making. The underlying issues are solved neither by a job guarantee or even the most substantial UBI program — an atomised society driven and permeated on every level by profit-driven market forces — from global economics, to local economics, to interpersonal communication and the inner workings of a firm, growth and profit are the defining aspects of our society. It’s a method of organising society that has been pouring gasoline on the planet, and is about to set it alight.
When the world is burning, one should ask for more than just a glass of water.
I should clarify — I do not mean to say that politicians running in the electoral space shouldn’t push for, in part at least, the policy of a job guarantee (or, as I mentioned earlier, a jobs guarantee in all but name and formalisation). Rather, I’m saying it’s just a small part of a much more important package — and this is forgotten all too often. Cutting bullshit jobs, reducing the working week, and some form of expansive government hiring, can go hand in hand — but that last part has to be managed carefully, to ensure we don’t counter-intuitively increase the amount of unnecessary work done, and resources used.