For Jobs and Freedom

Peter Frase has an essay at The Activist arguing that the Left’s focus on “jobs” as a political demand is wrongheaded. He’s even so bold as to headline his piece: “Stop Digging: The Case Against Jobs.” Frase’s underlying point is straightforward: the Left at its best has always opposed alienated labor, so there’s something paradoxical about the demand that lots more of it be created. What people really need is income — not jobs — he says, and we should keep our eyes fastened on a politics of basic income, work-sharing and free time rather than demands for more bossed drudgery. In these respects, Frase’s view is quite close to Chris Maisano’s in his recent Jacobin piece “Take This Job and Share It.”

What should we make of arguments like these? I have more to say about the Frase-Maisano view than can fit in this blog post. (Even the internet in its great infinitude imposes some limits.) But what I’ll say here is this: Although Frase is right to reject a left vision whose goal is forever squeezing out more per capita units of consumption, the politics implicit in his argument are fundamentally perverse. For the fact is that the working class is never more obsessed with jobs than in a period of joblessness, and never less obsessed with jobs than in a time of full employment. The only viable route to a mass politics of post-productivism is a permanent plenitude of paid, alienated work. If that seems like a contradiction, it is not. It is simply a paradox. And it is borne out by history. (And lest we get tangled in words, let’s remember what full employment means and has always meant: simply that all those who want a job can get one.)

There are also a few technical/factual questions to be raised. Even if we could immediately impose a tax raising 20 percent of GDP and distribute it per capita as a universal basic income, it would only amount to $9000 per person. This would not come close to replacing the lost full-time income of a single, unemployed worker. So if the right demand is “jobs or income now,” who gets the jobs and who gets the income? Would there be a permanent class of jobless living on the social wage while the rest work? Would that be a politically or socially healthy development for working-class politics?

Towering over every other issue among the concerns of the working class today is the grueling prevalence of unemployment. Its effect is devastating not only for the 9 percent who are unemployed but the 91 percent who face a terrifying and possibly fruitless job search in the event that tomorrow they should find themselves out of work. To simply dismiss that concern as misplaced — even if in some final and philosophical sense it can be construed to be so — would be a criminal waste of potentially radical energy.

Post-productivism is a vision for the Left, a vision that should by all means be spread, through agitation and propaganda, including in Jacobin or The Activist. But it can’t be confused with praxis in the here and now.