“People can also do horrible things, you know, when they’re working together”

- Rutger Bregman

Spoiler/Godwin’s alert: This Blog post contains both spoilers from Amazon Prime’s The Man In The High Castle, and comparisons of my intellectual opponents to Nazis.

There’s been an increasing number of attacks on the institution of work over recent decades. Recently they have begun to build into a quiet little philosophical crescendo.

Usually these critiques focus not on labour generally, but the institution of employment. They come from the left, and attack the usual suspects: capitalism, the ruling class, neoliberalism and commodity fetishism.

But there’s a left wing version of the pro-work position, too. It’s manifest in the idea of a Jobs Guarantee, promises from centre-left parties to “deliver jobs” like they were delicious pizzas, and in defences of the unemployed which depend on the claim that they’re “not lazy” and would prefer to work for money than get it for free.

It’s worth digging a little deeper into the philosophy, usually implicit, that animates and structures these conversations. I contend that when we do so we’ll find anachronistic and confused assumptions that are deeper than the left right divide within politics, and speak to the need for a more profound interrogation of accepted social norms.

Few have done more in this regard than the deeply critical sci-fi author Phillip K Dick. Below is a scene from the Amazon Prime adaptation of his novel The Man In The High Castle, which explores an alternative history where the axis powers won the second world war.

The point being made here, and throughout TMITHC, is not simply that things could have been different in this timeline where the Nazis won, but that they could in many ways be the same. The value set espoused by John Smith in the scene seems compatible both with the Nazi worldview and our own. It’s bad to do things for yourself. It’s good to do things for others.

Taken to its logical conclusion, as it is in the Nazi regime depicted, this line of thinking precludes any intrinsic human value — i.e. the idea we are inherently valuable, by virtue of just being people. Our value instead is extrinsic, or instrumental, and comes from what we can do for others. Yet it’s important not just that we do these things, but that we do them for the right (unselfish) reasons.

Even the satisfaction of a job well done is suspect. “A boy like Randolph” might perform well on the test, or even a task in the workplace, but so what if the only reason he does it is for “his own gratification”?

Then again, you wouldn’t want to say you don’t enjoy serving your family and your country, would you? You can’t win. It’s a trap.

But it’s a convincing, attractive trap, and it totally captures Smith’s son Thomas. Later in the series, upon discovering he suffers from a degenerative disease, which will make him a net-cost to the broader community of the Reich, he calls the authorities. They arrive and take him off to be euthanized, foiling his father’s secret plan to smuggle him to safety.

Of course we don’t kill the chronically unwell or disabled. We even provide them with money to live on — payments we don’t give to the able-bodied idle. The assumption is then, as with payments to the (involuntarily) unemployed, that the person would be working, contributing to the common good, if they could be. Indeed a willingness to work is a formal requirement, which those who receive unemployment payments are required to demonstrate.

And the interrogation of our desires doesn’t stop there. Once at work you must act happy, or at a minimum, grateful, to be there. It’s not enough to show up and do your job. You have to act like you like it, that you’re grateful for the “opportunity”.

You must demonstrate that you’re committed to the company. The fact you’re only doing it for the money is known by all, but rude to point out, like a sex worker saying she’d never fuck a client if he wasn’t paying her.

People do talk about the “emotional labour” workers are increasingly called upon to perform. But this is in regards to dealing with customers and their emotions. The emotional cost of interacting with bosses and co-workers, under the duress of these expectations, is taken for granted. Being a good team player and having a positive attitude isn’t considered part of the job, just part of being a reasonable person. As usual, there is nothing more political than common sense.

One way to understand this is through the work of Michel Foucault. He takes what is in philosophy called a “genealogical” approach. This means tracing an idea back and seeing where it came from, to understand how that idea functions as in society and who it empowers. Foucalt noticed that modern societies were dominated by various institutions — factories, hospitals, schools, and that all these societies shared common structures, even if the content of what they were doing was different. The artisan’s household or workshop, which had once been the site of labour and production, was replaced by the factory. The royal household and court had been replaced, in stages, by the professionalised parliament and institutions of government. Foucault looked for the origins of this institutionalism and found it in prisons and the disciplinary systems of the military.

A soldier must be willing to die to advance the goals of the army as a whole. There is no space for their preferences or emotions in the face of this brutal necessity. Deep, powerful instincts, ones which put the group before the individual, must be mobilised on command, and a science of sorts was developed to this end. Just as the science of metallurgy had been developed over millennia to turn naturally occurring elements into weapons, so the science of military discipline had developed to turn men not just into killing machines, but also into dying machines.

These techniques, it turned out, were fantastically effective in other areas, too, and so crept out gradually and into every element of human life. In the scene above, this process is shortcut, as Obergruppenführer Smith applies the rigid formalism and glib, simplistic morality that work so well for him in the military context, in the intimate setting of the home. His tools for developing his son into a good man are a version of the tools he uses to turn a fresh recruit into a ruthless soldier, torturer, or spy.

And so we too, must be willing, eager even, like a young soldier dreaming of heroism, to sacrifice our lives for the institutions in which we work. Usually this is just one day at a time, but in the age of the Coronavirus, things can get even uglier, with low wage workers especially expected to put themselves at serious risk.

Why This Matters Now

The need for big new economic ideas has probably never been more widely and clearly felt than the current moment. Only two serious and constructive proposals which approach the required scale have come forward: A Basic Income and a Job Guarantee. The former clearly generates more interest among the general public, as the google trends screenshot below demonstrates.

[EDIT: If you compare the acronyms UBI and FJG, the difference is even more extreme.]

But politicians and the wonks of the world, even (or maybe especially) the left leaning ones, seem to favour the latter.

Which side wins the political struggle will depend to some extent at least on the ideological framing we bring to the question of mass unemployment. Is the problem that unemployed people aren’t working, or that they don’t have incomes?

The overwhelming tendency is to rush past this question and conflate the two things. People need money and the right way for them to get it is by working. The labour market isn’t just how we find people to do things, it’s the primary means by which people are meant to guarantee their economic welfare. This is even accepted by many advocates of a Basic Income, who center their arguments on the idea that as automation advances it will be impossible to create enough new jobs for everyone, without really questioning if doing that is even desirable.

This assumption sits squarely and silently behind the Jobs Guarantee proposal. A Jobs Guarantee works like this: The government will offer an unlimited number of decent jobs with decent pay. No one who applies will be turned away. This would force other employers to raise their pay and conditions, since there won’t be a standing reserve of unemployed workers, ready to replace any difficult or demanding employees, so if employers aren’t paying their workers sufficiently or treating them well enough, the workers will switch to the federally funded (“locally administered”) jobs.

There are a myriad of reasons why this wouldn’t work, and would be a bad idea if it did: the near impossible administrative workload involved, the inevitability of people falling through the cracks and missing out and of make-work, the potential for corruption or abuse and the immense opportunity cost to the individual and society of keeping people busy with low value tasks.

The idea is fundamentally unsound. If it’s a job, it cannot be guaranteed, a job is conditional on attendance, performance, workplace behaviour, etc. If it is guaranteed, it’s not a job, it’s adult daycare. I’ve explored all that before.

But let’s assume all those problems away for a moment. What is the philosophical grounding of a Jobs Guarantee? How does this fit with the question of extrinsic vs intrinsic human value?

A Jobs Guarantee has many advocates, including the fictional (and sociopathic) Frank Underwood from House of Cards. But in progressive contexts it mostly is advocated by proponents of a broader theoretical framework called Modern Monetary Theory.

In the MMT narrative, money is, via taxes, intimately linked with labour. By demanding taxes from people in a currency, the government gives it value. Once this value has been established by force or the threat of it, they can then use the currency to raise armies, build public works, purchase goods and services and so on.

One Jobs Guarantee advocate, Rohan Gray, used the example of the british Empire in Africa, trying to get people to collect rubber on its behalf: The British tried to pay people in shillings to collect the rubber, but since the people weren’t part of a monetary economy the shillings had no value to them. So the British imposed a hut tax, “they said we’re going to come burn down your house at the end of the week unless you pay your tax”. Thus compelled, the colonised were forced to perform labour by the colonisers, collecting rubber to earn money to pay their taxes to avoid having their huts destroyed.

The whole monetary economy then, is a huge trap “rooted in hierarchical power, violence”, set up by the rulers to coerce the previously autonomous population into toil and drudgery. Yet MMT does not seek to liberate us from this fundamental coercion, merely to improve the conditions under which it functions, and make it as humane as possible. “Unemployment” (not employment) in the words of Pavlina Tcherneva is “the monetary system’s original sin”. The problem, somehow, is not that everyone was forced to work, but that some could not.

It’s worth contrasting this with a similar narrative put forward by Basic Income advocate Karl Widerquist. He too tells a story about people being brutally forced into the monetary economy. In his telling it’s not taxes, but property rights which, by ending people’s access to common land, created the conditions of unfreedom and deprivation which forced people to perform work for money to survive. The story starts in a slightly different place but comes to the same sad conclusion: Violent authority has cornered us, and forced us into a labor market that is fundamentally unfree. His response though, is to say that we should not accept this coercion. That our right to independent sustenance has been taken and we are therefore owed a living. We are entitled to the freedom to opt out.

Both Widerquist and the Job Guarantee advocates seek to strengthen the hand of workers relative to capital. Both seek to do so by giving the individual worker a position of non-desperation from which to bargain. The MMT crowd, though, locates this position inside the labour market, whereas Widerquist locates it outside the labour market. They see the workers as workers. He sees the workers as people.

The MMT view objectifies workers, seeing them as “human resources” even as they seek to empower them. Bill Mitchell, the most prominent Australian advocate of MMT even compared the idea of a Jobs Guarantee to the “wool floor price scheme”, in which the Australian government bought wool at a fixed price to protect farmers from fluctuations in the global market. Except instead of wool being warehoused till the market turns, it’s human beings.

We can perhaps excuse this on the basis that, whereas Widerquist is a philosopher, they are economists. But hidden in their apparently neutral technocratic thinking, philosophical assumptions lurk. They always do, that’s why we still need philosophers.

Subjectivity, intention, obligation and morality do play an important role in MMT. The problem they are trying to solve, they insist, is “involuntary unemployment”, people who want to work, but can’t. They show no concern at all about the issue of involuntary employment- people who don’t want to work, but have to. For them compelled labour and the loss of autonomy is not a legitimate problem.

The government’s role is to make sure there’s enough different flavours of shit to choose from. Yours is to pick from this menu, say thank you, and eat.

The alternative to this need not be a wild swing in the opposite direction. Our economic system need not say all human value is intrinsic. Some portion of our worth could be considered intrinsic, and recognised with an income sufficient to keep us alive and healthy. Further value could be added by doing things others deem useful and are willing to pay for (especially since everyone would have some money, and therefore some say as to what is useful).

But the workerists of this world, both left and right are committed and dogmatic, and will fiercely resist this. They already do. The taboo must not be breached.

The Gentle Ubermensch

This imposed selflessness facilitates self sacrifice in the workplace but begins before it and extends far beyond it, and is so ingrained we often barely notice ourselves enforcing it.

Before Foucault applied the genealogical techniques to institutions, Friedrich Nietzsche applied it to (European) morality. He saw the dominant morality, even among modern secular thinkers, as emerging from Christianity, which was itself a “slave revolt” against the “master morality” of the classical world. The master morality, espoused by the dominant (slave owning) class in antiquity celebrated power, strength, pride, self assertion, and self love. But this strength was experienced by the majority as oppression. So in response they asserted that “the meek shall inherit the earth”, and collectively imposed a morality of self-denial, restraint, selflessness and sacrifice, on these masters (and themselves). Nietzsche wasn’t advocating a return to the master morality of the ancients, but was (rightly, I contend), arguing that such “self abnegating” thinking acted to a certain extent as a retardant to progress, preventing full realisation of our potential. If we could overcome the limits it imposed we would be one step closer to becoming the ubermensch, or “superman”.

The obligation to work happily, to define one’s own value exclusively by the good one can do for others, rather than for our own gratification, is one expression of this slave morality. But it is not the only one.

The other day I bought burgers for my family. I had unloaded the food on the kitchen counter and started transferring it to the table. My son arrived and surveyed the table, looking for his cheeseburger (with no pickle) which was still on the counter. In a perfectly neutral voice he asked “where’s my burger?”

He wasn’t being impatient. I had asked him an hour ago if he wanted a cheeseburger. We had spent that hour in the car, going to get it. Then he went to wash his hands, and came back to the table but couldn’t find it. He just wanted to know where it was. Where’s the crime?

But my wife and I had both had to stop ourselves from addressing his “tone”. Why wasn’t such a question dressed more respectably, with a “father dearest” at the front and some less direct sentence formation, like “do you happen know where my cheeseburger is?” As if he doesn’t expect me to have thought too hard about it.

On some level we have accepted that it’s rude to directly just say what you want, and people will get angry if you don’t know that. Communication must be torturous. Signal is bad. Noise is good.

This is even true, perhaps especially so, when all you want is to be left alone.

There’s a point at which our society’s push towards selflessness becomes oppressive, and must be balanced by self love — the same self love might let us imagine that we are, before we “earn” it, deserving of a materially decent life, of love, of respect, by the mere virtue of our personhood.

This doesn’t mean a world without obligations — but a world with different obligations. First among these might be the obligation to take care of yourself, to be the best possible version of yourself, on your own terms, and show up to participate only when you feel a genuine interest in the task at hand, or a genuine desire to contribute, driven by generosity rather than desperation, fear and shame.

Recovering journo. Still at war with bullshit. Cofounder of the Stone research transparency system. www.writeinstone.com