It was interesting to spend a few weeks in London recently and catch up with…
This is the third part in my historical excursion tracing where progressive forces adopted the idea that it was fair and reasonable for individuals who sought income support from the state to contribute to the collective well-being through work if they could. As I noted in Part 1, the series could have easily been sub-titled: How the middle-class Left abandoned the class fundamentals, became obsessed with individualism, and steadily descended into political obscurity, so much so, that the parties they now dominate, are largely unelectable! Somewhere along the way in history, elements of the Left have departed from the collective vision that bound social classes with different interests and education levels into a ‘working class’ force. In this Part, we disabuse readers of the notion that the ‘duty to work’ concept was somehow an artifact of authoritarian regimes like the USSR. In fact, we find well articulated statements in official documents in most Western democracies.
The earlier parts in this series are:
1. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 1 (August 4, 2020).
2. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 2 (August 11, 2020).
I thought the responses to my first were very illustrative of the modern state of so-called progressive thinking, which is a separate research program in itself.
Regular readers will know that I have long been interested and researching the question as to how the neoliberal paradigm has dominated for so long and why the progressive position in politics has failed to articulate a powerful and successful challenge to it.
Thomas Fazi and I also articulate our ideas on those questions in our book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017).
It is clear that the Left side of politics, the traditional social democratic forces, have largely abandoned the contest with conservatives over macroeconomics, and, have instead, sought to differentiate themselves from the conservatives by identifying identity issues, in which they define what they perceive as the modern progressive view.
So questions of ‘right to work’ and the state’s responsibility in ensuring that there are sufficient jobs and the partner expectation, ‘the duty to work’, both of which were the cornerstones of progressive thinking and practice in the Post World War 2, have been abandoned in any meaningful way.
There is no Left commitment to the practicalities of ensuring a ‘right to work’, and, as a consequence of the human damage that has followed the mass unemployment and underemployment that has become the hallmark of the neoliberal period, these politicians get diverted into proposals like basic income guarantees and all sorts of justifications of why we should be relaxed about proposals that allow individuals to receive state income support when they are clearly able to work.
It has become a gospel of progressives that this is somehow a basis for a coherent and connected society. That some people who can work will be able to ‘express themselves’ without having to work but still receive sufficient income, while enjoying the products and services created by others who are working.
The willingness to promote the ‘individual’ over the collective is, of course, another hallmark of the neoliberal era, and progressives, in their willingness to abandon economic class as an vehicle for understanding the social location, have aided that culture of the self over responsibilities to be a societal member.
Further, one of the reasons that this positioning by the traditional progressive political parties have made them largely unelectable (with exceptions) is that the views do not resonate with the mainstream view among workers, who still consider that people who can work should do so.
I am working on a research project at present where we hope to generate the evidence to support that conjecture.
But there is a disjuncture or dislocation between the views found in traditional working class communities and the views that are expressed by educated, urban middle class (I use the term in the social sense) who have largely benefited from globalisation and neoliberalism.
The Brexit vote and the Yellow vest movement are two manifestations of that dislocation.
My earlier parts started with the concept of a duty to work as espoused by Marx in the – Critique of the Gotha Programme 1875 – which was one of Karl Marx’s last important works.
We then followed the historical train to consider how his views had been implemented and as a result we ended up in the USSR, where the concepts of a ‘right to work’ and a ‘duty to work’ were well articulated.
I found it extraordinary how much angst that exercise caused. All the ‘Reds under the Bed’ paranoia came to the fore.
Apparently, I was portraying the Job Guarantee as a path to socialism – then Stalin gulag-style oppression. These claims were pathetic. Sorry.
The fact is that progressive intellectual history is replete with similar debates about the necessity for the state to ensure there is sufficient work for all, and, in return, the citizens had a responsibility to contribute to society, through work, if they were able to.
Otherwise, citizens who were not able to work, would be supported in a material sense by the state.
That sort of duality defined the progressive Post World War 2 period.
It had nothing to do with being an exclusive ‘socialist’ ideal. It was the core ‘bread-and-butter’ social democratic tradition in Western democracies.
That is how we chose to define good societies and these ideals were found in official documents from most nations – such as the nation-building strategies outlined in the – 1945 White Paper on Full Employment – published by the Australian government – and in constitutions of various Western, non-Socialist countries.
The – Preamble to the Constitution of 27 October 1946 – which defined the foundation of the Fourth French Republic (it was the result of a constitutional referendum held on October 13, 1946) is illustrative of Rousseau’s concept of – General Will.
If you study the historical period you will appreciate that France was in turmoil at the end of the War and de Gaulle had a task in normalising France after the disgraceful Vichy period.
There was a huge debate about the way in which a return to constituent government could be accomplished.
Those debates are very interesting but tangential to my objective here.
The historical study by Jon Cowans – French Public Opinion and the Founding of the Fourth Republic – (published in French Historical Studies, Vol 17, No. 1, 62-95 – link is for JSTOR subscribers through your library) – makes it clear that public opinion at the time was definitely in favour of the new constitution.
There was disputes about the role of the presidency etc, but Article 5 reflected the strong public sentiment of the time:
Chacun a le devoir de travailler et le droit d’obtenir un emploi. Nul ne peut être lésé, dans son travail ou son emploi, en raison de ses origines, de ses opinions ou de ses croyances.
Which in English reads:
Each person has the duty to work and the right to employment. No person may suffer prejudice in his work or employment by virtue of his origins, opinions or beliefs.
Further, consistent with the idea that if you were unable to work for any reason, then the state would provide material support, Article 11 reads:
Elle garantit à tous, notamment à l’enfant, à la mère et aux vieux travailleurs, la protection de la santé, la sécurité matérielle, le repos et les loisirs. Tout être humain qui, en raison de son âge, de son état physique ou mental, de la situation économique, se trouve dans l’incapacité de travailler a le droit d’obtenir de la collectivité des moyens convenables d’existence.
It shall guarantee to all, notably to children, mothers and elderly workers, protection of their health, material security, rest and leisure. All people who, by virtue of their age, physical or mental condition, or economic situation, are incapable of working, shall have to the right to receive suitable means of existence from society.
The progressives did not challenge these aspects of the Constitution.
A similar evolution of thinking is embodied in the – La Costituzione – of Italy, which by the way is one of the most progressive of its type (pity it is not followed).
Article 4 defines the ‘right to work’ and the ‘duty to work’ expectations of the Republic:
La Repubblica riconosce a tutti i cittadini il diritto al lavoro e promuove le condizioni che rendano effettivo questo diritto.
Ogni cittadino ha il dovere di svolgere, secondo le proprie possibilità e la propria scelta, un’attività o una funzione che concorra al progresso materiale o spirituale della società.
Which in English reads:
The Republic recognises the right of all citizens to work and promotes those conditions which render this right effective.
Every citizen has the duty, according to personal potential and individual choice, to perform an activity or a function that contributes to the material or spiritual progress of society.
Now the ‘right to work’ is not the same as a ‘duty to work’.
The former reflected the longstanding progressive view that full employment was a legitimate goal for any nation state and that the government should use its capacity to ensure there is work for all.
So, there had to be a buffer of sorts to ensure that fluctuations in ‘market’ work (private sector decision-making) did not compromise the capacity of workers to work.
History tells us that the former has not been respected by the Italian government nor the European Union.
In part, this failure reflects the tension within this neoliberal era between the economic responsibilities of the state to provide sufficient work (the pre-neoliberal construction) and the later views that emphasised the role of government as being limited to making the ‘market’ work better, which we can translate to mean producing the conditions that allow profits to boom, without respect for the labour market consequences.
Despite all the talk in the European Union about ‘social Europe’, the balance has shifted sharply over the last three decades towards the second construction of the role of the state, and as a consequence, the ‘right to work’ lacks any intent or weight.
The second sentence in Article 4 relates to the ‘duty of work’ statement in the Italian Constitution.
The interesting aspect of this clause is that it defines ‘work’ more generally than we would associate with traditional notions of the ‘right to work’.
It is also clear that the evolution of the European Union has made it difficult for the Italian government, even if it had the will, to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities to the Italian people and has split the historical logic that is embodied in Article 4, that being:
1. All citizens should be able to work and the state was historically seen as ensuring there were sufficient jobs.
2. In return, citizens were responsible for contributing effort by way of work, if they could, to advance the commonwealth of the nation.
The neoliberal period compromised the second expectation because it denied the capacity of the state to achieve the first requirement.
It is also clear in the Italian constitution that anyone who could not work would receive adequate material support from the state.
While Article 4 does not really bind the state to guaranteeing sufficient employment, even though that is how such an article has been interpreted, Article 38 does impose direct responsibilities on the state:
Ogni cittadino inabile al lavoro e sprovvisto dei mezzi necessari per vivere ha diritto al mantenimento e all’assistenza sociale.
Which in English reads:
Every citizen unable to work and without the necessary means of subsistence is entitled to welfare support.
Taken together, these articles reflect the overwhelming social democratic consensus that prevailed in the Post World War 2 period.
I could relate many more official statements across many nations to the same effect.
The concept of the ‘right to work’ and the ‘duty to work’ were ground into human aspiration and were very clearly embedded in progressive thinking.
They may be foreign to Americans, which does not provide any specific statement about expectations in this regard, but for most Western democracies, these concepts were unexceptional.
However, the concept of a ‘work ethic’ was not foreign to the Americans.
There is an interesting strand of debate within the philosphical literature about liberty.
So-called ‘defenders of freedom’ abhor the ‘duty to work’ concept even if it provides benefits to society in general.
They claim that it is “artificial rather than natural” and “must be subordinate to the demands of liberty” (see Lawrence Becker provides an excellent discussion of these points in his 1980 journal article – The Obligation to Work – library subscription needed)- published in Ethics (Vol. 91, No. 1, pp.35-49).)
But as Lawrence Becker notes (p.39):
This is a simple non sequitur. It must be granted that nonvoluntary obligations to pay taxes and to do socially useful work are artificial, that is, that their moral basis lies in the ongoing human artifacts known as social institutions rather than in an imaginary state of nature. But it does not follow that their justification is any more difficult than the justification of the (equal) right to liberty or that they must be subordinate to liberty.
That is, the concept of liberty is a ‘social institution’ rather than a state of nature.
And the claim that it is more just for a person to refuse to work when they can, yet live of the work of others, than the requirement that everyone contributes to the commonwealth of society if they can is also spurious.
We will take up that strand of argument in Part 4.
In Part 4, we will discuss the concept of reciprocity, scaling of policy, the concept of the maverick and concepts of justice and coercion.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.