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Basic Income or Job Guarantee: What is to be Done?


Official unemployment in Australia is at 5.9%, youth unemployment is increasing in full time AND part time labour markets, the number of hours worked is declining each month, and the labour under-utilisation rate at 14.6%. Is it time to start implementing a universal basic income because there is simply not enough work? Or is it time for a job guarantee so that we can do all the work that we need done to create a fairer, sustainable society, fully automating as much useless toil as we can, and allowing us as humans to reach our full potential?

I am personally in favour of the latter. There is plenty of work, just an unwillingness to pay people a real wage to do it.

My inspiration for this view comes from the over 130 years ago, with William Morris’  Useful Work versus Useless Toil .

Morris was aware of automation and where the power and motivation for its introduction comes from. In his words:

“They are called “labour-saving” machines – a commonly used phrase which implies what we expect of them; but we do not get what we expect. What they really do is to reduce the skilled labourer to the ranks of the unskilled, to increase the number of the “reserve army of labour” – that is, to increase the precariousness of life among the workers and to intensify the labour of those who serve the machines (as slaves their masters).”

Michael Kalecki in Political Aspects of Full Employment made the same point as to how capitalism used the threat of unemployment to discipline workers into accepting the useless toil and on how threatening full employment was. He said:

“Industry leaders…dislike of the social and political changes resulting from the maintenance of full employment.”

His contemporary J M Keynes, from a different perspective, was aware of the need to have decent work for a decent society, rather than servant work (waitering, cleaning) to keep us in harness.

Recently the useless work we do has been highlighted by David Graeber writing about Bullshit Jobs:

“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have a achieved a 15 hour week…Instead technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.”


Women march for jobs in New York, 1933. Library of Congress

Work: workers control or technocracy?

In the 1960s, Andre Gorz developed a strong position on these issues, one that many on the left saw as a betrayal of the working class as the agents of historical change. My reading of Gorz was that he recognised the drudgery and mindlessness of much paid employment, saw that automation was not a threat to workers but a means of liberation, given worker control (see Gorz: Critique of Economic Reason; Capitalism, Socialism and Ecology; Farewell to the Working Class; Workers Control (a pamphlet); and in particular A Strategy for Labour (from 1964) where he stated clearly that the development of a technocracy was not a necessary condition of increasing automation of work. A technocracy saw itself as being outside class, in Gorz’s view. This mentality can be seen in the neo-liberalism of all major political parties today.

Worker control reinserts people in the centre of technological change. A job guarantee would help this process because it means that all who can work are able to for a real living wage, as in the notion “from each according to their ability to each according to their needs”. Combined with workers control, they would have agency at workplaces to determine how work is done, what is produced and when they will produce it. The role of worker organisation (i.e. trade unions) is central here, with workers able to organise around a common interest in decent material living standards and decent environmental and social standards in what they produce and distribute.

A universal Basic Income (BI), determined by the experts of the state apparatus (the technocracy), leaves little room for contestation of that income or social and economic policy. As Gorz put it, a new agenda and new purpose for unions must come from moving from “the self-management of work to the self-management of life”.

More recent work on job guarantee ideas in Australia has been driven by the tireless Bill Mitchell, whose Billy Blog gives a daily dose of modern monetary theory (an approach to political economics that a job guarantee marries to). He has been a fearless champion of those who are unemployed and cut off from society, and his work with colleagues at the Centre of Full Employment and Equity at the University of Newcastle has put a solid research focus on how to develop full employment, why it is not only possible but necessary, and why ecological sustainability is at the heart of full employment policy.

Internationally, Robert Pollin (Back to Full Employment, MIT Press, 2012) and Heidi Garret-Poltier (Creating a Clean-Energy Economy: How Investments in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Can Create Jobs in a Sustainable Economy Lambert Publishing, 2011)) have outlined how the USA can develop full employment via the creation of a sustainable green economy, Pavlina Tcherneva has pointed out that a job guarantee gives a sound basis for a good society and ensures full participation (without coercion) to women and “minority” (i.e. less powerful) social groups. Stephen Hail, another economist working on this in Australia (in Adelaide) and who regularly promotes the idea (see his facebook page Green Modern Monetary Theory and Practice for regular updates) argues strongly that a BI promotes the division in society between unemployed and employed, despite providing an income to all unemployed. This division excludes and does not seek inclusiveness.

As Hail has expressed it:

“We need never run out of useful things people can do for each other or for the eco-system, so we need never run out of potential paid occupations. Automation frees us up from doing some things so we can spend our time on others.”.

A job guarantee would define a minimum living wage, as opposed to a BI that would provide a state-sanctioned allowance and thus most likely act a subsidy for employers. A BI would allow employers to get cheap labour because those workers will be getting a certain level of income from elsewhere. Moreover, BI does not act in a countercyclical economic way, as the job guarantee would in providing a “buffer” to the unemployed, thus reducing the power of management over those dependent on a wage.

Recent work by scholars on labour market transitions (e.g. Gunder Schmid and Bernard Gazier in Europe, John Buchanan and Ian Watson in Australia) emphasizes the need to provide income and thus health and security to people as they transition through life. A flexible labour market that workers want would allow people to easily move in and out of jobs into training, sabbaticals, child birth, child care, general study, other types of work without the stresses we all face in trying to find new jobs if we drop out of paid employment.

Ongoing controversies and lessons from labour struggles

The BI has thoughtful and influential supporters, not least Philippe van Parijs, Robert Skidelsky, Paul Mason, Yanis Varoufakis, Guy Standing, Daniel Raventos and Julie Wark, for example. All these thinkers have strong egalitarian a social justice standpoints from which they approach the issue. As Navarro has argued  there is no uniform interpretation of a BI, just as Bill Mitchell notes that the job guarantee idea is not a locked in program.

Navarro points out that the reason Keynes’s idea of the 15 hour working week (or Gorz’s 1,000 hour year) are not in place is because of political variables, particularly the power of capital versus labour. It is not technology that holds back reducing the work week. High unemployment and social deprivation are not the result of technological advancement or the lack of need from humans, but a deliberate political choice by conservative forces who hold the power of the state and corporations in their hands. Organising against these forces can be done via work which remains central to humanity, and provides shared feelings, experiences and assumptions at a collective level, and allows local development of alternatives and local power.

Small examples may be seen in the Spanish cooperatives of the 1930s and the Spanish town of Marinaleda today (see Dan Hancox: The Village Against the World, Verso, 2015). Hilary Wainwright has set out the great potential of the Lucas Aerospace example recently:

“We are in new times for trade union organisation but interest in democratic economics is increasing, with the spread of green and solidarity economies and commons-based peer-to-peer production. All of which has deepened ideas about connecting tacit knowledge and participatory prototyping to the political economy of technology development…”.

The Green Ban movement and worker control on some building sites in Sydney in the 1970s were other examples of the assertion of worker and community power at local levels that challenged employer/government technocratic assumptions. How work was organized is central to these struggles and victories:

“We need to control the production of that wealth so that it can be allocated towards social need not profit” 

The current state of the labour “market” is not technologically driven, inevitably eliminating work, but a function of capitalism’s drive to accumulate more wealth for the few. To accept this state of affairs and to ameliorate it by paying a BI does not challenge that inequality or the power structures. It depoliticizes, just at a time when the need for political economic opposition and alternatives are more crucial than ever for planetary survival. A BI seems an acceptance of the oft repeated Thatcherism “there is no such thing as society.

The Maoist nation of contradiction (it is not either/or but both/and) indicates a way forward. My conclusion from the current discussion is that the job guarantee provides a superior political economic approach as a way of attacking unemployment, a situation caused by politics not technological advancement. Providing jobs that are constructed for and created by workers who are able to use their imaginations and creativity together provides us with a way to shape an ecologically sustainable future ourselves, rather than having a technological state apparatus imposing its form upon us.

Neale Towart


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