Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jobs for All

In the midst of skyrocketing unemployment, it is perfectly reasonable to put forward demands such as "jobs, not cuts!" or "jobs for all!". Likewise, the call for full employment is similarly reasonable amidst a deep-seated bi-partisan consensus on the "need" for austerity. Many workers are fighting for dear life against employers who are downsizing workforces. Public sector workers, in particular, are facing brutal attacks from above. For the unemployed, the battle cry of "jobs for all" carries a burning urgency. For the precariously employed, which is a group of immense size right now, the most resonant battle cries have to do with staving off cuts, furlough days, and layoffs from above. The battle is to preserve what they've already got and beat back ruling class attempts to worsen their condition. It would be deeply abstract and ultra-Left to denounce demands such as these on grounds that they ultimately preserve the status quo and fail to fundamentally challenge the class relations that are the core of capitalism.

Nonetheless, it remains deeply important that socialists keep alive the radical critique of jobs and work under capitalism. These radical concerns should not be seen as contradicting the anti-austerity struggles already underway in the US. On the contrary, the present struggles against austerity have to be seen as a necessary condition of building the kind of movement that it would take to radically reconfigure work-life, the division of labor, and class relations. The key is to concretely link together immediate grievances with more systemic complaints against capitalism itself. The fight for reforms in the here and now need not be reformist. Even small victories can increase the confidence and courage of the working class to fight harder and ask for more. It is in the course of collective struggle--for what are, at first, no more than modest reforms--that people learn that their not alone, that they have the power to fight and win.

But it remains true that socialists have to make sure not to dilute their politics in the course of struggling for reforms.

For example, when discussions about jobs and employment operate abstractly, that is, simply in terms of who has a job and who does not, many important concerns fall by the wayside. Among other things, abstract discussions of employment tend to take the existing division of labor as given. Taking this for granted, questions are then asked about how, in Iris Young's words, "pregiven occupations, jobs, or tasks are allocated among individuals or groups." But the question is never raised as to why we should accept pregiven occupations and jobs that are handed down from above. Why shouldn't we also have a democratic say in what work is like in a qualitative and substantive sense as well?

Now, I certainly don't mean to say that the abstract way of examining unemployment is unimportant. Given how devastating unemployment in capitalist societies is, whether or not one can find work--even poorly paid and highly exploitative work--is an issue of grave importance. The fact that capitalism can't even deliver poorly paid and highly exploitative work to everyone who wants it shows that it is highly dysfunctional--even by its own standards.

But important though the "abstract" question is, it's not the whole story. As I suggest above, the abstract question leaves much unexamined and uncriticized. It's not just about who has work and who doesn't. For socialists, it also matters what the content and structure of that work is like, what kind of power you have in the workplace, and who is in a position to make decisions about what gets produced, according to what rules, and so on.

For socialists, we also have to examine the "range of tasks performed in a given position, the definition of the nature, meaning and value of those tasks, and the relations of cooperation, conflict, and authority among positions." This, in turn, requires that we consider "the corporate and legal structures and procedures that give some persons the power to make decisions about investment, production, marketing, employment, and wages that affect millions of other people." In short, it means that we have to draw capitalism itself into the discussion.

More often than not, work in capitalist societies is alienating. Most jobs do not give workers the space to cultivate their creative potential, to exercise and develop their talents, or have the autonomy or decisionmaking power to determine the character of their own work life. Most workers are simply told what to do while their at work. While on the clock many workers are determined by forces outside of their control. And despite all of the obscene mantras about "team building" and so forth, most workers have no immediate stake in the goals of their company at all. They are merely subordinate servants of some other person's bigger project to amass profits. They're along for the ride and they have no say in where the company is heading. Many service employees have to endure strict dress codes and repeat inane advertising jingles to help their boss sell more products. And, of course, the bosses don't just enjoy authority and arbitrary power in the workplace, they profit from extracting surplus value from those beneath them who do all the work.

So, in fighting alongside people struggling against brutal regimes of austerity, socialists must always push the envelope. Once people see that they can fight austerity and win, there's no reason why that confidence shouldn't lead them to ask for even more. Asking for more has to mean challenging the class relations at the sight of production. It must also entail a rejection of the alienating character of work under capitalism, where a minority ruling class determines the basic priorities or production, the basic organization of the workplace, and so on. Workers power isn't just about winning concessions from the ruling class in terms of pay, that is, negotiating the terms of exploitation. The working class movement must ultimately aim to challenge the very exploitative core of capitalism itself. The key is to find ways to concretely intertwine the fights for demands in the here and now with these more global concerns about the system itself. Doing this well, of course, requires an organization, rooted in struggle, that is capable of generalizing the experience of local struggles and linking them together with broader struggles against the system.

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