As a college student, there is always a lingering question gnawing away at my insides every single day: will there be a job at the end of this?
I suspect this is something of a universal experience. Unemployment is a fact of life under capitalism, and in fact is an inevitability of the system, and this makes life precarious for the overwhelming majority of us.
To make matters worse, the government has no intention of doing anything about this. Millions of Americans are already unemployed, and current government policy actually seeks to increase the number of unemployed in order to combat inflation. Working people thus face a two-pronged attack from the capitalists and the government that protects them.
Marx wrote in “Capital” that “it is capitalistic accumulation itself that constantly produces… a relatively redundant population of laborers…” He called this “redundant population” the “industrial reserve army,” his term for the unemployed and underemployed in capitalist society.
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Capital will only employ labor if it is profitable to do so. If a technical innovation occurs which reduces the need for labor, or if the economy enters a crisis, workers will be thrown to the wayside.
What’s more, the industrial reserve army also plays a beneficial role for the capitalists, according to Marx, in that they drive down wages. If the worker gets too uppity about their low pay, the unemployed serve as a constant reminder that there are always others who would be willing to work for less simply to have a job.
There’s also the problem of globalization – the industrial reserve army does not simply consist of those in the U.S. Capital, unlike labor, is mobile, and if it is more profitable for capital to leave the home country, then it will do so, employing cheap labor in the developing countries while not giving a second thought to the unemployed at home.
But if we were to follow where the capital goes, we would find the 21st century living alongside the 19th, as we see in the global South where many laborers toil miserably in sweatshops for shockingly little pay. And they must accept it, for these countries too have their own reserve army of labor always ready to accept worse just to survive.
With all this in mind, I’d like to argue something quite radical: life should not and does not have to be this way. We could organize our society differently. We could guarantee everyone a job.
Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”
The human rights of billions worldwide are thus violated everyday by the capitalists and the governments of the world.
Historically, it has been the socialist countries who have led the way in upholding this human right of dignified employment. The former Soviet Union, for example, enshrined in its constitution the guaranteed “right to employment and payment for… work in accordance with its quantity and quality.” Cyclical unemployment virtually disappeared in the U.S.S.R. after 1930 – though frictional unemployment still existed.
But if Red Scare propaganda about the Soviet Union makes you uneasy, take it from Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote this in 1968: “We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all who are not able to work.”
The capitalists, of course, will not guarantee employment for all of the reasons listed above, so the government must step in by providing a good job to everyone who wants and needs one. This is the essence of the job guarantee.
Policies with similar aims have been pursued in the past, notably Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which lowered unemployment through vigorous infrastructure and public works projects. Today’s proposed Green New Deal, in fact, is best thought of as a job program, as it seeks to employ workers to massively expand environmentally sustainable infrastructure.
Such programs should serve as an inspiration for us today, and if our constitution was worth anything, the right to a job would be enshrined within it. The government shouldn’t be trying to increase unemployment – it should be actively trying to eliminate it entirely.
The U.S. postures itself as a beacon of freedom, but all of the so-called freedoms in our constitution are secondary to our material needs. What good is the freedom of the press if all of the journalism jobs are being eliminated? Why do we need the right to bear arms if we can’t even put food on the table?
A government that was worth anything would not leave the fate of its citizens to the whims of the market. Every one of us should be able to leave IU with a job – it is, after all, a human right.
Jared Quigg (he/him) is a junior studying journalism and political science.