Much of the left has, mostly without debating it, coalesced around “jobs” as a unifying political demand. The motivation for this is clear: one of the biggest problems the country faces is that there are 20 million people who are unsuccessfully seeking full time employment. But while it may seem obvious that the solution to this problem is to create millions of new jobs, this is not in fact the only possible solution — and there are major drawbacks to a single-minded focus on increasing employment. For one thing, it may not be feasible to create that many new jobs. Moreover, it’s equally debatable whether, from a socialist perspective, it is desirable to create these jobs even if it is possible.
We should differentiate three separate reasons why it might be desirable to create jobs. One is that a job provides a source of income: we often talk about the need to create jobs when what we really mean is that people need income. Most of the unemployed don’t actually want jobs — that is, they don’t just want a place to show up every day and be told what to do. The real problem these people have is not that they need jobs, but that they need money. We’ve just been trained to think that the only way to solve this problem is to get people jobs.
A second argument for creating jobs, and not just handing checks to people, is that having a job gives a person a greater sense of self-worth than getting a handout. To the extent that this is true, however, it’s largely because we, as a society, treat wage labor as though it is a unique source of dignity and worth. The left has historically perpetuated this view, but we should be challenging it. We should point out that there is a lot of socially valuable work that is not done for pay. The biggest category of such work, as feminists have long pointed out, is household labor and the care of children and elders. But today we are seeing the growth of other categories of valuable unpaid work, in everything from community gardens to Wikipedia.
This is not to say that volunteers could perform all of the socially necessary labor of society. The third reason to create jobs is that some useful things won’t get done unless someone is paid to do them. But it’s difficult to make the case that there are enough socially necessary tasks out there to make up our job shortfall and also replace the destructive jobs that we need to eliminate.
Some argue that if we could build the manufacturing sector and start “making things” in America again, we could solve our unemployment problem. The reality is that we already make plenty of things, and the decline of manufacturing jobs is due more to technology than to off-shoring. The U.S. economy produces more physical output now than at any time in American history, but with fewer workers.
Public works are another of the usual suspects. Our infrastructure is indeed in a pretty sorry state, but repairing bridges is not going to create 20 million jobs — and in any case, it’s a short-term fix, since eventually we’ll clear out the backlog of neglected infrastructure projects. Then what?
Finally there is the call for “green jobs,” based on the laudable idea that we need to put lots of people to work moving us away from our dependence on fossil fuels. This may be a source of some new jobs, like people making solar panels or weatherizing buildings. But the more common pattern is that old jobs are turning into different, greener jobs. The construction worker is now a green construction worker, and the corporate lawyer is now a corporate environmental lawyer, and so on. These are positive changes — but they don’t create new jobs.
On top of all this, many of the jobs people are currently paid for are socially destructive: forget job creation, we need to do more job killing. Cutting the military budget, reining in the financial sector, and dismantling the prison-industrial complex will destroy many jobs. So, too, would a single payer national health care system; the Republican attacks on Obama’s “job-killing” health care law were lies, but only because Obama’s plan is so inadequate. As long as the left remains fixated on more wage labor as the solution to our problems, we’ll always be vulnerable to the argument that the socially beneficial changes we want will “kill jobs.”
What, then, should the left support, if not more jobs? Shortening the workweek disappeared from labor’s agenda after World War II, and we need to bring it back. We should also make unemployment benefits more generous in order to ease the pain of joblessness. Ultimately, though, we need to get more radical than that, and move away from tightly linking jobs and income. To reiterate, the real problem of the unemployed isn’t their lack of jobs, it’s their lack of money. That’s why some on the left are coming around to the idea of just giving people money: a guaranteed minimum income, which everyone would be entitled to independent of work.
The objections to these ideas are typically: “how do we pay for it?” and “how do we achieve it?” Finding the money shouldn’t be a problem where the will of a powerful political coalition is present — the richest country in the history of the world can guarantee a decent standard of living for everyone. But building that political coalition is a harder question. The first step is to admit that the current consensus around job-creation is unworkable, and not really any more “realistic” than the ideas I’ve just proposed. The next step is to highlight existing proposals that are being ignored because of the obsession with job creation. For example, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) recently proposed legislation to subsidize employers that reduce employee hours, a policy that has been effective in Germany. This is an inadequate policy in many ways, but it’s still a more useful focus than just obsessing about how to create new jobs.
John Maynard Keynes famously observed that “If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths . . . and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again . . . there need be no more unemployment.” One of the things that ought to distinguish socialists from liberals is that we think it’s possible to do better than this. Today, it seems that hole-digging has come to occupy a central place in the imagination of the left. But socialism should be about freeing people from wage labor, rather than imprisoning them in lives of useless toil.
Peter Frase is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently a Predoctoral Scholar at the LIS Cross-National Data Center, funded by a grant from the Fonds National de la Recherche Luxembourg. This article was first published in The Activist on 21 June 2011 under a Creative Commons license.