The Fraud of Jobs
by Stephen Fortunato
Lies abound. There are the mostly benign “white lies” of the insincere compliment or the fabrication to avoid a social obligation, and there are the grander and more poisonous ones that can shape and undergird an entire political culture, or at least its dominant class. Some lies eventually assume the status of myth or religious doctrine: for example, the United States is always a force for good in the world; or that favorite of political panderers: that the common sense and basic decency of the American people will triumph over any adversity.
A current lie that is as dangerous as it is fantastic, and which mesmerizes the two major political parties as well as the punditocracy and the public, is that the creation of jobs and “putting people back to work” is the motivating objective behind all economic policy. This lie is repeated as a mantra in stump speeches, legislative debates and op-ed pieces in ways that always mask its deeper and more metaphysical premise that it is only economically productive labor performed for a wage which entitles a person to the resources that will allow for a life of dignity and contentment. Poverty and privation necessarily become the only alternatives for the millions of people who perform no such work or are compensated meagerly for the jobs they have.
Put another way, the managers of the current economic system — whether it is called capitalism or globalization — insist that the unemployed seek jobs even when not enough exist for everyone and the jobs that remain available after outsourcing and automation often pay less than a living wage. Anyone who has shopped for food or rented an apartment knows that the federal minimum wage of $7.25 is a joke as cruel and fraudulent as the poverty demarcation line of $23,050 for a family of four.
The detritus of the departed manufacturing base is observable everywhere in the form of abandoned factories, desolate towns and aisles in megastores filled with imported goods, most of them shoddy. And the assault on human labor by automation and robotics is ubiquitous as well, from the self- checkout scanners that convert customers into unpaid replacement employees to the cranes and containers in our ports that have decimated the ranks of longshoremen.
This state of affairs, with cybernetic machinery relentlessly displacing workers, was predicted more than a half-century ago by economists and social critics in a sadly ignored document titled The Triple Revolution (full text available at www.educationanddemocracy.org) which was submitted to President Lyndon Johnson and other political leaders. Its conclusion that work as it had been known for centuries was changing qualitatively because of technological innovation should be no surprise when the core principles of capitalism are considered. The animating force of free enterprise is the maximization of profits but this is no more a moral precept than its corollary of minimizing the costs of production. Because labor is usually the major cost of any capitalist enterprise and therefore an impediment to profit growth, the elimination of this “problem” through locating a cheaper labor supply or, better still, by substituting a machine for workers suits the capitalists’ goals just fine.
It should not be forgotten that for more than two centuries the United States economy, as well as that of other empires, was built largely by slaves, the classic unpaid labor force. Today, modern forms of wage slavery in such places as China, India, Mexico, and the United States — for agricultural and menial workers — is the model applauded by contemporary economic buccaneers who, far from being the job creators their political apologists claim they are, employ every opportunity to exploit, and ultimately eliminate, labor.
Nowhere in the capitalist universe is there anything approximating the Buddhist precepts to save all sentient beings and to act with compassion toward all including one’s self. Nowhere in the capitalist universe are there found any rudimentary notions of social justice as taught by all of history’s prophets and poets.
So the Big Lie is that everybody is obliged to contribute toward production, though jobs are too few and many pay inadequate wages, or else face a marginalized existence of poverty and privation. And a significant footnote to the Big Lie is that production can be of anything, regardless of social benefit and even if the methods of production degrade the environment or endanger the worker, or both. The Lie, once exposed, thus presents the question: What must be done?
The answer must be explored along two channels: individual and social. Individually, through meditation and activities with the sangha, or other small groups, an awareness arises that lasting contentment comes not through the accumulation of things inspired by advertisers manipulating desires, but rather through simple joys like cooking, gardening, making art, or activism. The simple, non-acquisitive life is something taught by the Buddha and modern guides such as Thich Nhat Hanh, and sages from other times and places as well, from Horace and Seneca, to Ryokan and Thoreau, to Dorothy Day and Helen Nearing.
To address the question of the political and plutocratic demand that work is an absolute prerequisite for sustenance, if not survival, is more difficult; but there is a growing movement pressing for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) which would, in essence, provide each individual with an annual government stipend without any work or means-test requirement.(See,e.g., www.usbig.net and www.basicincome.org.) Though current political discourse would lead one to think otherwise, the United States committed to the notion of BIG in theory when it signed the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Article 25 of that international agreement provides that governments must assure that all people have
a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself [sic] and of his [sic] family,” and declared importantly that this minimum must be guaranteed even when a person experienced a “lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his [sic] control.
Needless to say, the BIG contemplates a significant rearrangement of budgetary priorities, not to mention a tectonic shift in political consciousness and will. Surely the megabillion defense budget requiring bases and the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction along with personnel, public and private, to maintain the Empire will have to be cut back; and a tax system that encourages the concentration of great fortunes in the hands of a few while necessary services like education and fire protection are curtailed must be reconfigured. And activists, whether in Occupy and Living Wage organizations, or the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, must educate the public and their elected leaders about the obvious: among the vaunted, inalienable rights that inhere in all people are the rights to food, shelter, healthcare, and a dignified existence allowing for educational and spiritual growth, regardless of any so-called productive labor performed at a “job.”
Some may object that these demands are utopian. My response can only be that the prevailing ludicrous insistence that people obtain jobs that do not exist — or which are being phased out into oblivion — is a cruel fabrication that will result in nothing but the continued dystopian consequences of poverty, marginalization, and oppression.
Stephen Fortunato was a trial judge on the Rhode Island Superior Court for thirteen years after serving as a civil rights lawyer for more than two decades. He has been a Zen practitioner for at least forty years.