Jean Lievens: Toward a Salutary Political Economy – Freedom from Jobs

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Jean Lievens
Jean Lievens

Toward a Salutary Political-Economy – Freedom from Jobs

By Elliot Sperber

While gains have certainly been made toward a more inclusive, egalitarian society over the half-century since Martin Luther King delivered his iconic I Have a Dream Speech (as part of the March for Jobs and Justice in Washington, D.C.), in many respects – particularly in economic matters – there has been little or no progress at all.

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Indeed, by certain measures equality has significantly diminished in the US. Accompanying a minimum wage that, when adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 1968, and wages that – except for the wealthy – haven’t risen in decades, the economy has polarized wealth to a greater degree than ever, reducing the economic classes more and more to two – rich and poor – and squeezing the middle and working classes into little more than a memory in the process. In among other places, this lack of change is observable in the fact that it’s five decades later and people are still talking about jobs – coveting jobs as though jobs were those necessities and luxuries that work is obtained to secure.

Notwithstanding this culture of work’s ideological claims to the contrary, jobs are less preconditions for freedom than impediments to freedom’s concrete realization. Beyond consuming most of workers’ waking hours (consuming that which constitutes the precondition for freedom – time), jobs also wreck people’s health, vitiating freedom in the sense of bodily movement as well. Moreover, that people are compelled to work a job – irrespective of the job’s need, or function – demonstrates the consanguinity of jobs and dependency, rather than in-dependency. Some may counter at this point that needing a job is just a natural, unavoidable fact – that people must work to live. But the inordinately excessive amount of time that people devote to work in the US (and capitalist societies in general) is less a natural fact than a cultural one.

Indeed, let us not neglect to consider the fact that when people talk about “good jobs” they are not necessarily discussing the correction of some pressing problem, or providing some truly desired service, or satisfying some actual need. When people discuss “good jobs” they are primarily discussing ways to make money. If one can turn a solid profit selling known carcinogens, such will count as a “good job” – irrespective of the fact that such enterprises wreak far more concrete, objective harm than good.

Contrary to popular opinion, then, people don’t actually need jobs; we work jobs in order to acquire money. And money’s another thing we don’t in truth need – we need those things that this socioeconomic system only provides in exchange for money: food, housing, clothing, etc. Jobs are but a middleman – a means to acquire resources, not an end. Rather than representing any instance of simple irrationality, however, this treatment of jobs as ends, rather than means, reflects the upside-down logic of capital – a rationality contrary to critical reason, for, more often than not, jobs don’t rectify problems so much as they reproduce them.

Another aspect of this that should be pointed out when discussing people’s demands for jobs is that, though owners cannot function without workers’ cooperation, jobs are not extended to workers out of any sense of generosity or concern for the public. To be sure, the public is only valued to the degree that it can be transmuted into the private. Unless a worker’s work brings the owner an amount of money that exceeds the amount that the owner pays the worker, the owner won’t hire anyone at all. This simple, straightforward, arithmetical fact is commonly referred to as “business sense.” For a hire to make “business sense,” an owner will only hire a worker if the owner can derive more value from the worker’s efforts than the owner pays the worker. Another way of saying this is that jobs are exploitative. Workers provide more value to owners than they receive in return. As such, in asking for jobs, people are asking to be exploited – which, by definition, is the opposite of freedom. Of course, as they say, this is just the name of the game. And, as Dolly Parton informs us in her hit song 9 to 5, “it’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it – and you spend your life putting money in his wallet.”

This exploitation is not limited to people. To be sure, it is hardly limited by anything at all. Even advocates of capitalist economics admit that capitalism functions by exploiting as much as it can: people, animals, plants, earth, water, etc. All are regarded as materials to be bought and sold, their value reduced to a price – their unique qualities to interchangeable quantities. So-called externalities – wholly preventable harms ranging from ecological devastation caused by such practices as fracking, to preventable occupational and environmental diseases like cancer and asthma, among other concrete, systemic harms – are regarded as little more than inevitable, collateral damage. And though the historical record is replete with examples of unregulated business producing poisonous foods (such as the notorious swill milk), killing workers through negligent and reckless practices, and trashing the ecosystem in order to yield higher profits, contrary to all but blind faith, ideologues of capital insist that it is only through the unimpeded exploitation of the resources of the world that humanity can flourish.

To the extent that it bears on the relationship between freedom and jobs, it is worthwhile to reflect on the political thought of Thomas Jefferson – not because his thought is authoritative, but, rather, because it provides an example of mainstream, if not canonical (i.e., not alien) US political thought on the matter. As Michael Hardt informs us in his Jefferson and Democracy, Thomas Jefferson maintained that a society could not be truly free if its people were not economically independent. Economic independence for Jefferson, it should be stressed, did not mean possessing a job. Having a job simply meant that one was subject to the caprice of one’s employer – that is, not independent. In order to rectify the unequal conditions extant in his home state of Virginia, Jefferson advocated distributing land to (certain) people, enabling them to be independent of others’ power and caprice.

As Hardt informs us, in order to create a democratic society Jefferson’s original draft of the Virginia state constitution included provisions bestowing 50 acres of land to all who did not already possess at least 50 acres. In other words, freedom required that people possess those resources necessary for economic independence; and land was fundamental to this end. People would still have to work the land, of course. But such work is qualitatively different than the alienated variety of labor involved in serving a boss (a word, by the way, derived from the Dutch baas, which means master). Although Jefferson’s thought is marred by, among others, his racist perpetuation of slavery, his misogyny that relegates women to little more than servants and playthings, and his imperialism that seizes the land for his “democratic” distribution from the autochthonous people, one should not throw out all of Jefferson’s babies with his backwards bath water. In spite of his flaws, Jefferson still makes a vital point concerning the relationship between equality and independence. There is a crucial difference between being free, or independent, and having a job. Not only are these diametrically opposed, the above example also highlights the distinction between jobs that are exploitative and meaningful work.

Not jobs, then, but free access to resources is what people need to be free from dependence on others, and equal in any meaningful sense. And though one must work to some degree to maintain these resources, along with one’s standard of living, any work beyond what is necessary or voluntary is inimical to equality. In this respect, it is telling that the ongoing mechanization and automation of agricultural and industrial work (continuing more or less apace since the 17th century) has not resulted in an overall diminution of work. In many respects mechanization has even increased burdens on workers. Though electric lights allow people to see at night, they also enabled the world of work to colonize what once was outside its domain. Though computers may drastically increase productivity, this increase is not accompanied by any corresponding diminution in work. The demands only increase. To be sure, one would imagine that an egalitarian society would employ these technologies in a manner that would create less work, not more. And in the 1930s, people thought just that – that the mechanization of production would lead to a three day work week. This was the goal of the more critical factions of the labor movement: not jobs, but the elimination of jobs and the development of a just society. Needless to say, such has not transpired. People are working more than ever – producing, it should be added, largely toxic products.

Whether these are the toxic plastics that are polluting the world, or the toxic financial instruments that are further enriching the 1%, the toxic food industry, or the unnecessary advertisements inducing people to buy this garbage, it is an economic fact that people are working more “productively” than ever, while earning less and less. Not only are people less free to relax and rest, and less free from stress – among other occupational and environmental diseases – the pollution from our incessant work is increasingly destroying our natural environment as well. Every way you cut it, jobs do not bring freedom so much as they preclude it.

Not only should jobs, then, be recognized for what they are – means, not ends – an emancipatory politics should work toward creating fewer, not more, jobs. Though a just society requires the presence of certain conditions – the conditions of health, for instance – a just political-economy would create these conditions directly, as a social priority, not as a more or less incidental outcome of profiteering. Because they are rooted in exploitation, and inextricable from the harms they spread, jobs for the sake of jobs are simply obstacles to conditions of health – such as equality, peace, housing, nutrition, etc. As such, they should be retired. By itself, however, this does not adequately respond to the question concerning how the multitude’s daily needs will be met; if we transition to a political-economy that eliminates millions of jobs that serve no salutary purpose, how will the unemployed and underemployed pay the rent? Distributing 50 acres of land to every person, as Jefferson suggested, is obviously not practicable today. A simple solution – one advocated, by the way, by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here – would be by adopting a basic income law.

Unlike a guaranteed minimum income, or a minimum wage, a basic income is not contingent on work. Basic income laws (such as the one the Swiss people are presently debating) provide that each person receives an income sufficient to live well irrespective of whether or not s/he is employed. While a basic income law still presupposes a commodity economy, and is therefore not desirable in the long term, in the short term the implementation of a basic income would not only free people from poverty, it would allow humanity to dismantle harmful industries and institutions without compromising the well-being of those presently dependent on these industries for survival. In freeing people from destructive labor, implementation of a basic income would open space necessary for rest and recovery from the present abusive political-economy, all the while creating conditions that would support the development of an actual politics (as opposed to the semblance of politics – the political theater – that we are subjected to today). In other words, a basic income law would allow for a transition from our present-day war economy to an actually just, economically democratic, peace economy. If we are to overcome the contemporary barbarism presently determining our lives, we must recognize that our “job” requires creating the conditions necessary for collective and individual well-being directly. This can be accomplished – not, however, by creating more, but by creating fewer, jobs.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and theorist. He lives in New York City. You can find Elliot’s blog here: