No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea by James Livingston
To refer to economists as a priesthood has become a commonplace. Economists practice “a religion couched in the language of mathematics and statistics,” say Yanis Varoufakis. Their church, to carry the symbolism further, has a magnificent gold and marble altar where they offer praise to Capital. And, as in the magnificent centuries-old churches of Europe, there are chapels off to the sides of the main altar.
Sometimes these chapels rival the center altar in effulgent splendor. To the right of the Altar of Capital is the shrine dedicated to the Corporation, where the well heeled worship. And across the nave stands a less splendid chapel – the Chapel of Work. There an unpretentious assemblage meekly gathers to worship. And there also you will find James Livingston raising his finger, hurtling verbal abuse and relieving himself of gas and maybe more.
Livingston’s abusive language against work lurks in the pages of a small book entitled No More Work. Too small to do any damage if thrown, but large enough to pack a verbal blow against all those – on the Right and the Left – who continue to kneel in adoration in the Chapel of Work.
It would be inappropriate to refer to No More Work as a pamphlet, since it is stitched and glued unlike the seventeenth and eighteenth century forms. Livingston’s fervent prose, however, certainly marks him a descendent of the revolutionary pamphleteers in England, France and America.
Oddly enough, his vehemence against work is not so much generated by the horrors of work, like Viviane Forrester’s eloquent, two decades-old book, as it is provoked by those who persist in promoting the work ethic while refusing to recognize the disappearance of work itself. Livingston deluges us with a bucket of references to prove his point that job loss is not a new phenomenon. For example, he documents the startling fact that two million jobs were lost between 1920 and 1929.
And most amazingly, in the Nixon era, the fear of job loss propelled otherwise conservative legislators to back his Family Assistance Plan, which would have provided a modest income to all families in need. Several studies in the 70s assuaged the conservative legislators’ concerns that “free money” would discourage job seeking. And besides, it was cheaper to administer than means-tested welfare payments. Liberals at the time objected to what they saw as another welfare program by a different name that would maintain a culture of poverty. They wanted a jobs program and full employment.
As Livingston says, this legislation was not ahead of its time, but it certainly is ahead of ours. Today, a vocal group of liberals, recognizing the reality of technological unemployment, promote what they call a Jobs Guarantee (JG) instead of cash now, despite the obvious fact that cash now would immediately benefit the jobless and those who have poorly paid jobs. Their proposal, based on government guaranteed jobs, at least recognizes that new jobs are not sprouting up like mushrooms simply because “new jobs always are created when technology displaces workers,” as the apologists of technocratic change blather.
We are plagued by this bit of buffoonery, when we all know that manufacturing jobs were massively replaced by low paying service sector jobs decades ago. Not surprisingly today, computerization also encroaches on this sector. Furthermore, what sort of argument is it that rests on the immiseration of the working class? What progress in employment do we have if the vast majority of new jobs created pay so poorly that the workers need to depend on state subsidies for food and healthcare?
The advocates of JG may be worshippers of the work ethic, but more to the point they appear to suffer from an elitist malady: condescension towards the jobless. The assumption that seems to prevail with the JG’ers is that without work people will be aimless and prone to anti-social behaviors. The studies in the 70s determined that cash now was used intelligently by recipients. Soon, to extend that research, several European countries will initiate large-scale social experiments; we should have documented evidence to confirm, or refute, assumptions in the near future.
One further claim is made by supporters of JG – “there will always be socially necessary work that needs to be done,” which usually means infrastructure projects. On the face of it, this assertion seems obvious, however complications arise when we examine it critically. Characterizing a job as socially necessary implies that it satisfies all the criteria the disciples of the work ethic preach: useful, steady work at good pay. Those who hold the view that a guaranteed job will provide for a middle class life-style can hardly define cash now as utopian.
Livingston directly confronts the issue of socially necessary work with what he calls socially beneficial work, a somewhat slippery concept The former faces the same forces of routinization, speed-up and, finally, elimination like many jobs, whereas the latter retains its desirability – as meaningful work – even though it is often valueless as a source of compensation.
The ultimate question for Livingston – “Why can’t we stop working?” Or, to rephrase it, why can’t socially beneficial work become dominant?
Livingston approaches this question by extending the discussion beyond jobs to define the larger issue here: what do we need to live full lives? He begins by referring to Freud’s statement that to be fully human we need love and work. Both propel us out of ourselves and into society where we define ourselves through relationships.
To quote Livingston in reference to Freud’s dictum:
Love and work . . . get us beyond the mere repression of our instincts; they move us toward the social labor that makes us human. They just are social labor. (93) [Emphasis in the original]
According to Livingston, “work can no longer serve this socializing purpose.” So, this leaves only love, or socially beneficial work, “the love of our neighbors.” Livingston makes this explicit in an article he wrote recently:
The labor of love, caring for one another and learning how to be our brother’s keeper – socially beneficial labor – becomes not merely possible but eminently necessary, and not just within families, where affection is routinely available. No, I mean out there, in the wide, wide world.
Is Livingston using Freud to lead us back to the Chapel of Work? The labor of love sounds a lot like what I would call solidarity, which is a commendable virtue to be cultivated in society, but as an overriding value, it too easily falls prey to manipulation by the super-righteous and to self-sacrifice. Various social contexts nurture solidarity, however the most enduring, the sort that crosses cultural markers, arises from grassroots activity organized to develop camaraderie by overcoming obstacles to its realization.
In his condemnation of full employment, Livingston turns a great slogan: “To hell with full employment. How about full enjoyment?” (98) This was the rallying cry, unattributed by Livingston, of the 1980s of San Francisco-based journal, by and for temp workers, Processed World. It was relevant then when temporary work agencies absorbed the labor of a large pool of underemployed college graduates, but it is even more relevant now when precarious work is practically the only kind available.
“Full enjoyment” comes closer to the goal of repudiating work than Livingston manages to define with his notion of socially beneficial work, however, it can be taken as narcissism and self-indulgence. “Full enjoyment” is a provocative slogan but is it a program? If it means play, it misses the mark. Play is not an alternative to work, as we know it. If by “full enjoyment” is meant “serious play” then maybe we come closer to identifying a society without jobs.
This is the problem we, including Livingston, face – we lack the vocabulary for what we need to conceptualize. How will a society beyond work develop a moral universe for us to live an ethical life – a life of virtue that is not imposed on us, but which develops from everyday life?
In No More Work, Livingston introduces us to the philosophical basis for worker cooperatives that the economist David Ellerman has formulated. While Marx defined the necessity for labor power and said it was all that the worker could sell, his only commodity, so to speak, for Ellerman, the very notion of selling one’s self, or more precisely, renting one’s time, is “no less unnatural and unthinkable than slavery.” (49) It is in fact, as the early labor movement said – wage slavery and it should be abolished.
Worker cooperatives remove the muddle of ownership by establishing a democratic economic structure where all who participate become members and have a vote – one member, one vote. A worker cooperative can be thought of as a commons and the members as commoners. Livingston too quickly dismisses cooperative structures as simply another endorsement of the work ethic. And undoubtedly much of their appeal is based on the internalization of the work ethic amongst the membership. In fact, adhering to the work ethic is the major means of enforcing collaboration and preventing the “free rider” problem.
However, there is an aspect of egalitarian collective effort that motivates the membership to create, if not a joyful workplace, at least a companionable one, instead of tolerating a hellhole of abuse often found in traditional businesses.
All ventures, especially economic ones, could learn the cooperative techniques of transparent communication, the possibilities of structural forms to facilitate empathy and the social skills necessary to enhance personal expression. Worker cooperatives are like social greenhouses where a crew, forced by economic circumstances, must grow together or wither and fail. These are unique institutions – not more than five hundred in the entire US – and they function as learning labs for democratic practices that transform work, as we know it.
This perspective is in the DNA of worker cooperatives, but unfortunately, it is not affirmed as a major goal of the movement. Cooperatives therefore forsake a truly radical, non-alien, potential, and instead advocate for the mainstream (and reactionary) goal of growth and more jobs.
We can achieve some clarity here if we emphasize how socially necessary work is to be done and not what work should be so classified. Work as we know it is drudgery, it’s a job. Worthwhile work as practiced by a cooperative is not a job, because not only is hierarchy gone – the worst job aspect – but also, the element of sacrifice that defines the work ethic is missing, as least as far as the boss is absent. Defining “post-work” does not mean that the expenditure of difficult physical labor has been eliminated. It means that stress, while present, becomes secondary to commitment and collectivity.
The “socially beneficial work” that Livingston emphasizes may not be lost to computerization and automation, but it relies too much on the notion that the only work available in the future will be a form of social welfare. Given the catastrophes we face with climate change and environmental devastation, it seems likely that a sector of the economy, which today is underrepresented in the workforce – environmental mitigation – will escalate beyond healthcare employment. And with cash now to support that work, since the marketplace won’t, volunteers could take on worthy tasks. Like the Hoedads of the northwest who in the 80s formed tree-planting cooperatives, we would have Livingston’s love of neighbor ideal transcended to the larger world around us. It would be ironic if the worst catastrophe humankind faces (aside from nuclear extermination) should be the force that compels us to love the earth first.