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Emancipatory Politics

Freedom From Jobs

by ELLIOT SPERBER

As the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on Washington DC – the March for Jobs and Freedom immortalized by Martin Luther King’s iconic I Have a Dream speech – is celebrated and discussed around the country, it is important to note that though some gains have certainly been made over the past half-century toward a more inclusive, egalitarian society, in many respects – particularly in economic matters – there has been little or no progress whatsoever. Indeed, by certain measures equality has diminished considerably. 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 the two extremes of rich and poor, and squeezing the middle class into little more than a memory. This lack of change is observable in, among other places, 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, however, 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 – in spite of the job’s actual 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 is less a natural fact than a cultural one.

Additionally, we shouldn’t 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 employment will count as a “good job” in spite of the fact that an enterprise like that wreaks more 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.

Another thing that should be pointed out when discussing the relationship between jobs and freedom is that, though owners cannot function without workers’ cooperation, jobs are not extended to workers out of any generosity or concern from owners for their workers’ well-being. Unless the amount of money a worker’s work brings to the owner exceeds the amount of money the owner pays the worker, the owner won’t hire anyone. This simple, 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 value that that worker creates for the owner exceeds what s/he is paid by the owner. 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. This is just the name of the proverbial game, however. 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, of course, is not limited to people. 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. So-called externalities – wholly preventable harms ranging from the ecological devastation caused by such practices as fracking, to preventable occupational and environmental diseases like cancer and asthma, among other concrete, systematic harms – are regarded as little more than inevitable, collateral damage.

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. It should be pointed out here that Thomas Jefferson’s thought is being cited not as an appeal to his authority, but to provide 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 – and, insofar as one is dependent on an employer, one is clearly not independent. In order to rectify the unequal conditions in his home state of Virginia, Jefferson advocated distributing land in such a manner that would allow people to not be dependent on others’ 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 those who did not already have 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. Of course, people would still have to work the land. But such work is of a qualitatively different nature than the alienated labor of serving a master. Although Jefferson’s thought is marred by 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. For, 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, but access to resources, then, is what one needs to be free. And though one must work to some degree to maintain these resources, along with one’s standard of living, one should not work more than is necessary. Indeed, one would think that in a free society people would not work anymore than they would want to. And it is telling that the mechanization and the automation of agricultural and industrial work that has been developing for well over a century has not resulted in an overall diminution of work. One would imagine that a free society would employ these technologies in a manner that would create more free time. Indeed, 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 (toxic, that is, for all but the bank accounts of the rich).

Whether these are the toxic plastics that are polluting the world, or the toxic derivatives and other financial instruments that are further enriching the 1%, the toxic food industry, or the unnecessary advertisements inducing people to buy this garbage, people are working more “productively” than ever, while earning less and less. To be sure, not only are people less free to relax and rest these days, 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.

As such, not only should jobs be recognized for what they are – a means to an end, and not the end itself – an emancipatory politics should advocate for fewer, not more, jobs. Though a free society necessitates creating certain social conditions – the conditions of health, for instance, and equality – we should work to create these directly. As they are rooted in exploitation and inextricable from the harms they spread, jobs for the sake of jobs are simply obstacles to conditions of equality, peace, and well-being. People may wonder just how people’s daily needs will be met if we transition to creating the conditions of well-being without creating the millions of jobs required to employ the unemployed and underemployed. Distributing 50 acres of land to every person, as Jefferson suggested, is just not practicable in our contemporary economic situation. A simple solution – one advocated, by the way, by Martin Luther King in his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here – would be by adopting a basic income law. Such would allow for a transition from our present-day war economy to an actually just, economically democratic, peace economy. If we are to overcome our contemporary barbarism, we must recognize that our “job” requires creating these conditions of well-being directly – in many respects not by creating, but by eliminating, jobs.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to hygiecracy.blogspot.com He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com.