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For Jobs AND Leisure (or, Against “Against Job Creation”)

Peter Frase comes to the defense of leisure and rebels against the idea that the left should be rallying around jobs. Although we share some commonalities that are worth noting, I think Frase is way off base. I think the case is clear, though somewhat counterintuitive, that we need to create jobs in order to achieve greater leisure.

Frase argues that the Left has placed too much weight on the value of work, and that we should orient ourselves toward promoting income for all irrespective of work. I think there’s a lot to this, actually, and he raises one good set of examples in describing the many arenas of socially valuable but unpaid work – from traditional categories like child-rearing, keeping house and taking care of the elderly to editing Wikipedia and working on community gardens. He suggests that the organized Left should bring back the call for a shorter work week and focus on promoting greater income security (he never explicitly proposes this, but I would suggest a small Universal Basic Income for everyone). I want those things too! Unlike Frase, however, I think the best way to protect socially valuable unpaid work and to create the conditions for demanding more leisure time is to get back to full employment.

One of the most important, and most frequently ignored elements of high unemployment is the suffering employed people experience during these periods. During high unemployment, the positional strength of management against workers is stronger, and they can squeeze higher productivity out of workers for the same pay. There’s a larger reserve pool of labor, so competition for even the worst jobs is fierce and this competition holds wages down. Workers who might otherwise be inclined to pressure their bosses for a raise or even strike over bad working conditions, will be disinclined from doing so due to the increased risk of debilitating poverty if they are (illegally) drummed out of the firm for doing so. People who are dissatisfied with their jobs will stay at jobs they hate longer, for fear of being unable to find a better job with ease.

These are not good conditions for securing greater leisure. Full employment can perhaps be understood as a kind of (metaphorical) income security – the more readily available jobs are, the less one has to fear total poverty as a result of leaving one’s current job. It means that there’s always a fallback, even if your new venture fails, or you get sick of your job and quit, or you get pressured to leave following an unsuccessful strike. If someone wants to take time off, demand a shorter work week, or detach themselves from traditional notions of success by starting a community garden, the best environment in which to do this is full employment. After all, what if the community garden doesn’t pan out? With unemployment at 4% or lower, you can always go work at Starbucks. With unemployment at 9% or higher, you’re fucked. No one will have the leverage to demand better wages and working conditions, unconditional income, or more leisure time if there’s always a desperately jobless person willing to scab at your job for less.

More on the precarious nature of life as a low-skill worker in times of high unemployment later.