Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 6

This is Part 6 of my on-going examination of the concept of ‘duty to work’ and how it was associated with the related idea of a ‘right to work’. Neoliberalism has broken the nexus between the ‘right to work’ responsibilities that the state assumed in the social democratic period and the ‘duty to work’ responsibilities that are imposed on workers in return for income support. That break abandons the binding reciprocity that enriched our societies and has spawned a solid argument for a basic income. But the solution to the problem is to reinstate the link between opportunity to work and the societal benefits of work, especially as it enhances the material well-being of the least advantaged. In this part, I explore that theme.

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).

3. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 3 (August 20, 2020).

4. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 4 (September 1, 2020).

5. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 5 (September 8, 2020).

In Part 5, I introduced the concepts of justice developed by John Rawls in relation to work.

His work has a broad remit and I am only focusing here on what he said about full employment and work, although I provided a basic introduction to the development of his idea of justice.

We also learned that John Rawls had a complex view of work.

On the one hand, he tied it in with the production of ‘primary goods’ – the act of transforming nature in order to survive and achieve higher material standards of living.

But in his conception of justice, work goes beyond that narrow aspiration, and, includes the advancement of “self-respect”, which necessitates a much broader conception of work.

Meagre redistribution of income, according to Rawls does not provide for ‘self-respect’ because it does not “put all citizens in a position to manage their own affairs on a footing of a suitable degreee of social and economic equality”.

Those who just take when they can also give are considered operating outside of societal norms.

John Rawls clearly considered the opportunity to work to be a crucial path to achieving self-respect, and, in that respect he advocated that government should maintain a Job Guarantee (employer of last resort – in his terms) as a pre-condition for social stability.

This is because the lack of work was in his words “destructive .. of citizen’s self respect”.

So when the ‘market’ doesn’t produce enough jobs, the state must fill the gap.

Self-respect requires a mutuality, which in his 1971 book said depended on us:

… finding our person and deeds appreciated and confirmed by others who are likewise esteemed and their association enjoyed.

This can be taken to mean that an emphasis on what each person does for work might obscure the social aspects of work – that is, the contribution of each individual to society, which is how we measure that mutuality.

Thus we encounter in John Rawls a notion of citizenship and reciprocity.

He wrote in his 1980 article ‘Kantian constructivism in moral theory’, which was published in the Journal of Philosphy (Vol. 77) (p.546) that citizens are:

… fully cooperating members of society over the course of a complete life.

This cooperation involves the sharing of the returns to being a member of society but also the burdens (see the 1994 article by Elizabeth Anderson, ‘Welfare, Work Requirements and Dependent-Care in the Journal of Applied Philosophy (Vol 21, No.3)).

Elizabeth Anderson writes (p.245):

Rawls’ scheme allows income inequalities if they provide incentives that maximize the prospects of the least advantaged. If these prospects were unconditionally guaranteed, a substantial portion of the population would not work. This would depress total production, and thereby reduce the size of the social minimum. Work requirements, by enlisting all in production, would arguably maximize the social minimum.

It, of course becomes a rather sensitive issue how we construct ‘work requirements’ in moral debates within society.

We can cast ‘non-work’ in a stigmatising way, which does not enhance the concept of reciprocity or self-respect. Alternatively, we can think of ‘work requirements’ as being a social act to maximise the resources available to enhance the lives of the poorest – the ‘social maximum’.

The conservatives tend to emphasise the moral failing argument while collectivists emphasise the contribution to the greater good motivation. They are quite different in meaning and impact.

This difference is especially important when considering what the state’s responsibilities are in this.

If the state is deliberately maintaining policies that ensure individuals are not able to gain access to work or the hours of work they desire and then impose work requirements in return for the welfare payments (‘work for the dole’, ‘workfare’) then that is an entirely different moral canvas to one where the state takes responsibilities to ensure everyone who can is able to work so as to maximise the potential of its citizens to promote material well-being for all.

A Job Guarantee wage payment is not welfare!

It is a job offer with a socially-inclusive array of wages and non-wage entitlements (holiday and sick pay, special leave payments, training, superannuation, choice of hours, etc) within an environment of other broader social wage universality (free health care, public transport, child care, etc).

One might argue that requiring the most disadvantaged workers to work as long as there is a reasonable job offer from the state places too much emphasis on activities that elicit a wage payment to define a contribution to society.

It is often pointed out that mothers who decide to stay at home to rear their young children are making a valuable contribution to society, which means that not all contributions can be measured in terms of paid work.

That is clearly true and in a progressive society such mothers would be funded properly for their work in recognition of its value.

And what about the idle rich? What do they do by way of reciprocity? Not much.

Which is one of the reasons that steeply progressive tax systems are required. I emphasise that the tax revenue gained has nothing to do with funding government (standard disclaimer).

Returning to the self-respect argument, John Rawls criticised what he termed Welfare-State Capitalism (WSC) for adopting an excessively narrow conception of a social minimum, the latter being an integral aspect of his concept of justice.

He wrote in his 1985 book – Justice as Fairness – that the (p.59)

social bases of self-respect … [are] … those aspects of basic institutions normally essential if citizen are to have a lively sense of their worth as persons and to be able to advance their ends with self-confidence.

Samuel Freeman’s 2007 book Justice and the Social Contract (Oxford University Press) also discusses this point at length.

The point is that in designing the jobs that are guaranteed the state has a choice.

It can limit its imagination and require workers to dig holes and fill them in again, which will accomplish the goal of having workers do something in a day but achieve little else. It will certainly not engender the broader goals of advancing self-respect.

Alternatively, it can ensure all the jobs add social value and be visibily demonstrated to do so. Then workers will enjoy self-respect from being engaged in these activities.

Which is where the Job Guarantee can play a major role in pushing out the boundaries of what we call productive work.

Notice I used the term ‘social’ value. In my own research work, we have found almost unlimited activities that require human effort which would enhance unmet social needs, community well-being, environmental care etc but which no profit-seeking employer will offer any wage for.

There is huge scope for the state to expand these activities within a paid-work environment to increase well-being and enhance the self-worth of workers.

Michael Festl (in the journal Analyse & Kritik, Vol 1 2013, pp.141-162) distinguishes between two perspectives of work in relation to how we view the conceptualisation of work in the writing of John Rawls – instrumentalism and sentimentalism.

The former relates to work as “providing the necessary means for a good life” and is “a necessary evil until technology is sophisticated enough to provide the resources needed for fullfilling each individual’s conception of the good life without the help of labour” (p.143).

The latter considers work more broadly to be “a vital part in the building of … character and identity” and therefore provides the opportunity to pursue a “good life”.

Again, in this second conception, work needs to be meaningful – adding social value. Self-respect requires that richness.

Self-respect, according to John Rawls is “perhaps the most important primary good” (1971: p.386):

Without it nothing may seem worth doing, or if some things have value for us, we lack the will to strive for them. All desire and activity becomes empty and vain, and we sink into apathy and cynicism.

Now it can be argued that one doesn’t need to work to gain self-respect, which is true.

John Rawls talks about “communities and associations” (1971, p.387):

For while it is true that unless our endeavors are appreciated by our associates it is impossible for us to maintain the conviction that they are worthwhile, it is also true that others tend to value them only if what we do elicits their admiration or gives them pleasure …

It normally suffices that for each person there is some association (one or more) to which he belongs and within which the activities that are rational for him are publicly affirmed by others. In this way we acquire a sense that what we do in everyday life is worthwhile …

To be sure, men have varying capacities and abilities, and what seems interesting and challenging to some will not seem so to others. Yet in a well-ordered society anyway, there are a variety of communities and associations, and the members of each have their own ideals appropriately matched to their aspirations and talents.

We know that for those of working age and who are not infirmed, a dominant association or community is the work place.

As Micheal Festl writes (p.144):

… for a majority of citizens … the workplace is the place where they spend most of their time awake, it is of vital importance that they get respect for what they do at work …

So while John Rawls clearly considered work in instrumental terms and argued that government should use its policy capacity to maintain full employment (where “those wo want to work can find it” (1971: p.244)), he went beyond that to construct work as an essential element in providing the opportunity for individuals to attain self-respect.

It is also not the case, that John Rawls focused only on how society might view an individual’s work – in the sense that we have indicated that self-respect can come from a worker observing that their contribution is viewed warmly by others.

Michael Festl (p.150) also noted that:

Individuals are supposed to be aware that it is a reasonable demand that they contribute to society’s overall well-being and are not only fixed on their personal well-being.

In his 2001 book – Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, John Rawls wrote that (p.179):

In elaborating justice as fairness we assume that all citizens are normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life. We do this because for us the question of the fair terms of cooperation between citizens so regarded is fundamental and to be examined first. Now this assumption implies that all are willing to work and to do their part in sharing the burdens of social life, provided of course the terms of cooperation are seen as fair.

He wrote this in relation to the counter-argument, expressed by UBI advocates, who considered it fair that the surfers of Malibu should be able to receive income support without working.

Samuel Freeman clarified this position in this way (2007: p.229):

… does not regard it as appropriate to provide people with full ‘welfare’ payments if they are able but unwilling to work. By providing a social minimum for all whether they work or not, the welfare state can encourage dependency among the worst-off, and a feeling of being left out of society.

John Rawls considered this issue in relation to his ‘difference principle’ (see Part 5) and asked whether it was true that the “least advantaged” are “those who live on welfare and surf all day off Malibu”.

His response was to argue that “a certain amount of leisure” must be included in the index of primary goods so that “those who do no work have eight extra hours a day of leisure and we count those eight extra hours as equivalent to the index of the least advantaged who do work a standard day.”

The conclusion for a just society:

Surfers must somehow support themselves.

In this context, if we consider leisure to be among the primary goods, then:

… society must make sure that opportunities for fruitful work are generally available.

So the two aspects are essential – to demonstrate a willingness to contribute to society through work there also has to be the opportunity to work.

To take this further and to understand why John Rawls was opposed to basic income we need to extend his reasoning about the “social union of social unions”, which will help us understand the idea that work and community awareness are interrelated and take us well beyond the idea that we are individuals seeking to maximise our own well-being.

In turn, this will help us understand how we construct societal justice and why most workers are opposed to the idea that a person who can work should be supported by all others when they refuse to contribute in this way.

In other words, we now have a third reason for considering work is important in a just society that takes us beyond the need to transform nature to survive and a vehicle to attain self-respect.


In Part 7, we will explore why we should assume that through work that willingness is manifest and perhaps some other issues that arise.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. A perfect illustration of the mind and soul warping of neoliberalism is that “welfare” has become a dirty word.

  2. I think it’s a mistake to try to tackle neobliberalism head-on. So much sturm and drang in online forums from “the left” about the nasty corporate-owned political system misses the point: the masses have virtually no power. Fantasising about a grassroots leftist uprising is pretty much like barbarians sitting around a campfire plotting the fall of Rome. When Rome collapses it will be under its own weight.

    In the current context, if you were successful in implementing a Job Guarantee and its accompanying MMT understanding of how the economic world really works with a smart political team, you’d have the accumulated weight of the world’s capital working against you to regain their power. You’d lose, eventually, and all the momentum you’ve built in articulating a better world will be lost too. MMT will be co-opted as an understanding -they- invented, and the next incoming pack of their political stooges will twist things back to the right and proper state of affairs.

    There is no such thing as state-based collectivism. The only way forward has to be from the grassroots up. This has only become truly possible in the last decade or so. UBI and “the rise of individualism” is a reaction to a neoliberal world with a proletariat connected by information technology in unprecedented ways. -It beats MMT as a psyops weapon-, because people can innately understand how the machinery of the political world actually works and have an idea of where they sit in the pecking order – with the 99% at the bottom of the economic heap. An MMT understanding and a bottom-up job guarantee could be a competing force, but only if it can articulate a way to permanently transfer power to the bottom of the heap.

  3. Mark H: “you’d have the accumulated weight of the world’s capital working against you to regain their power. You’d lose,”

    Capital is not so sure that they would win, The self-assured defeatism of the Left is a wonder to behold. Whenever the Left thinks it is winning. it shrinks in abject terror and resigns won games. France in the 80s. Greece in 2015. Brazil more recently. etc etc

    “An MMT understanding and a bottom-up job guarantee could be a competing force, but only if it can articulate a way to permanently transfer power to the bottom of the heap.”

    A job guarantee does that, by its very nature. Plutocrats understand that, which is why they hate it, hate full employment and are for the UBI, which preserves and increases their power.

  4. >The self-assured defeatism of the Left is a wonder to behold.

    Governments change. That’s a fact, not defeatism. When they change, either via the ballot box or through internal factional shifts, your well planned JG will be redesigned to suit their plan. If they are owned by capital, and both sides of politics everywhere are owned by capital, that re-imagining will transfer power away from labour. A neoliberal JG really wouldn’t be a wonder to behold.

    >A job guarantee does that, by its very nature.

    Not permanently it doesn’t. Because …

    >Plutocrats understand that, which is why they hate it,

    Capital isn’t going anywhere, even if you get a coup at the ballot box friendly to a JG.

  5. “Capital isn’t going anywhere, ”
    No. Plutocracy know their Marx, know that true full employment, the JG, strangles the principle of plutocracy, their labor monopsony. “Behind the right to work stands the power over capital …” (Class Struggles in France – a passage that Engels almost 50 years later in a very important preface pointed to as the first expression of Marx’s mature thought)

    The right has been trying to destroy Social Security and Medicare etc since they were created. They haven’t succeeded and aren’t going to. Took the full employment of the biggest war of all time to kill the New Deal work programs.

    An (MMT) JG is a very robust thing – it cannot be “redesigned to suit their plan.” and still reasonably be called a Job Guarantee. A neoliberal JG is a contradiction in terms. If plutocrats could redesign it for their purposes, they would. They never have. They just work night and day to kill it. (E.g. the New Deal work programs), The full employment era described in Bill Mitchell’s book Full Employment Abandoned.

    Like I said, the way that so much of the modern “Left” is so utterly convinced against all facts and reason that they must always lose and how this “Left” bends its efforts to fulfill such demented prophecies of impotence and doom is amazing. After all, winning would deprive them of their true profession – posturing and excuse making.

    This obsessive defeatism is mainly a disease of the rich countries in the “West”. Latin America has cases that are not quite as bad, but then they aren’t as rich, there was enough of the disease and just plain stupidity and ignorance to quell the Pink Tide.

    With enemies like these, the insane billionaire class doesn’t need friends.

  6. Some Guy observes that “obsessive defeatism is mainly a disease of the rich countries in the West.” This defeatism and fixation on dystopian thought and feeling–a morbid manifestation of TINA in all its “glory”–is the only thing that has kept neoliberalism “alive” in zombie-like fashion after its GFC corpse was feebly resuscitated for a decade or so by massive transfusions of fiat money. Now neoliberalism is suddenly flatlined again by Covid and its coming catastrophic repercussions on the individual, social, political, and economic levels of what has become global civilization. At this critical and unprecedented juncture, can the left recapture its Enlightenment heart and soul and begin to think again in uplifting, courageous, utopian modes that celebrate the possibilities of the human spirit, as the left found the capacity to do when similarly facing plutocratic strangulation in the first Gilded Age? Or will the contemporary left, long mired in dystopian despair–God forbid, to the point of liking it?–remain content to bitch and moan about the innumerable miseries and injustices of the second dark age neoliberalism brought us, an age which began in the 1980s and expired in 2020. THERE WILL BE NO RETURN TO “NORMAL” LIFE, THANK GOD. Yet if what’s left of the left fails to rise to the challenges of this turning point in human evolution/devolution, fails to think bigger and bolder than it ever has before, the reactionary right will surely step into the vacuum, and the second dark age will be followed by a third one even darker.

  7. “Governments change. That’s a fact, not defeatism. ”

    Until it isn’t, whether due to effective disenfranchising of the untouchable, or direct usage of armed thugs to to scare or illegalize opposition. If people lose enough hope to keep throwing rocks at the process, the revolution will not be inevitable.

  8. If Michael Festl was in the room right now I’d slap him in the face, if for no other reason than using poor language framing. To refer to work as,
    “a necessary evil until technology is sophisticated enough to provide the resources needed …”
    buys in to the conservative attitude that work is oppressive, coercive, dull and that we must force others lower down in society to do all our dirty work. Work is not evil. People make work evil.
    We can choose to build a society where the most dangerous, difficult, strenuous and messy work is rewarded and compensated the most. I would, for example, love to live in a country that pays sanitation workers a whopping great salary, way more than mine. I might even give up teaching and do waste management work myself, if the labour conditions were fair & democratic, and the salary was high. I would not consider this an evil. The oppression of work is subjective. What we do not want is social conditions forcing people to do work they find oppressive. I get it that some work is going to be subjectively onerous no matter what the salary, but that doesn’t mean people should be forced into such work, if it is necessary work the labour time claimed from workers should be voluntary or strictly limited, even when it means society goes without the goods produced by such labour. Collective suffering compensating for lowering individual suffering. This is not “evil,” unless you redefine the meaning of the word. It might be unpleasant, but not evil.

  9. Hey Paulo Marques: your counterfactual is ridiculous. In general, throughout all known history, the more you squeeze and oppress people the more likely they are to revolt. Hopelessness is an intermediate phase which occurs when people are thinking, “ok this is bad, but not intolerable,” it is not the limiting phase.

    Think “cornered rat” metaphor. Or, when has fascism ever been sustainable? Heck, there are clear fascistic elements in centrist neoliberalism, and even this milquetoast version is proving unsustainable.

  10. “buys in to the conservative attitude that work is oppressive, coercive, dull and that we must force others lower down in society to do all our dirty work”

    And the idea that technology works itself. I’ve asked the Combine Harvester repeatedly to cut the corn in the field, but it is still sitting there. As is the tractor that transports the grain to the store.

    Technology is always the extension of a person’s effort – enhancing the productivity of their hours.

  11. “… there are clear fascistic elements in centrist neoliberalism…” (Bijou Smith)

    Such as?

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