A Note on Work and Dignity

“The only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited.” – Joan Robinson

One of the purported benefits of a job guarantee is said to be the dignity it confers on otherwise unemployed people. Matt Bruenig is at pains to explode this idea. His argument is tendentious. However, I would frame the benefit slightly differently, besides the obvious one, that a job guarantee provides a guaranteed income in a socially approved way.

Work in and of itself, under capitalism or any other real-world economic system thus far in history, can be personally rewarding or sheer hell. Of that there can be no doubt. Nevertheless, there is work to be done. People need goods and services. No small share of useful goods and services is most efficiently provided by the public sector.

I would stay the dignity potential of work stems in the first instance from its communal implications. We look with favor upon those who contribute to the general welfare. This does not have any negative connotations for the young, the disabled, those charged with work in the home, or the retired. It is commonly understood that many of those not employed have good reasons. The young are being prepared for work, or at the very least, allowed some fun time until the daily grind begins. The elderly have already done their bit. The disabled may be prevented from work, through no fault of their own. Work in the home, by which I mean caregiving, contributes to the general welfare no less than does work under formal employment.

The act of contributing to the good of the collective confers respect and thus dignity, and why shouldn’t it? Any other view would stink of ingratitude. Not only do you add to the national product, your financial independence relieves me of the burden of supporting you. This would follow even if a technologically advanced society was able to provide all the necessities of life, free of charge.

Of course, there will always be prejudices against those in certain types of jobs, because there are always assholes. If they didn’t look down on ditch diggers, they would find somebody else who didn’t deserve their opprobrium. People in low-wage/low-skill jobs are looked down upon out of intra-class bigotry, regardless of whether they work in the public sector. This will probably be with us for some time.

The right counterfactual is someone not working on public support, or someone not working at all but otherwise able to work. In either of the latter cases, they are likely to receive less respect than someone working in a low-status public job. On balance those who are able to work and do so enjoy superior social status than those who do not. In this sense a job guarantee offers a public option for dignity that the private sector might otherwise deny.

Moreover, the output under a job guarantee could confer greater dignity than in private employment. Maybe you work in a factory making widgets, but maybe I have no use for widgets. Alternatively, under a job guarantee regime, you could be employed providing public goods that are positively valued by the community at large.

That work affords dignity does not imply that more work brings more of it. Obviously, such dignity depends on the conditions of work, the nature of the labor process. Jobs – real jobs – in the public sector have historically offered superior labor standards, compared to the private sector. This competitive edge naturally puts upward pressure on standards maintained by private sector employers. The weekly hours of any worker is an aspect of labor standards, one of the most important ones, and the case for contracting hours of work for all remains salient.







Comments are closed.