Living well

The obsession with full employment is a dead end in a world on the ecological brink. Richard Swift explores what could sustain us instead.

Cueca dancers celebrate the indigenous Aymara  culture of the Andes – but in modern garb – as a  carnaval parade gets under way in Arica, Chile. JEFFREY ISAAC GREENBERG 20+/ALAMY
Cueca dancers celebrate the indigenous Aymara culture of the Andes – but in modern garb – as a carnaval parade gets under way in Arica, Chile. JEFFREY ISAAC GREENBERG 20+/ALAMY

It is hard to overstate the importance of ‘the job’ in our current political economy of growth. Elevated to the raison d’etre of most of our waking hours, not having one leads to great anxiety and the race to get one. Survival without a job seems simply impossible. In short, it often defines us and how others think about who we are: whether its ‘managing’ people’s money, harvesting crops or collecting the garbage. Those who hold power over us are often those who can hire or fire us, those who own or control the places where we work.

The promise of ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ has become the electoral chant of most of the political class. Whatever they may actually do, what they promise is jobs. The reality is often of poorly paid, temporary, part-time or non-existent work, but no matter, come the next electoral cycle the promise is renewed.

Jobs can overshadow every other value – mental and physical health, national independence, democracy, our increasingly threadbare environment – and all too often they steal the joy from our lives. While there are certainly those who enjoy their work, an increasing number feel that their hours spent on modern flexi-jobs is simply time they allow to be stolen from them in order to survive. There is a vast literature that shows that the deskilling of jobs through the decline of craft work, through industrial employment and then into low-paid job precarity has sapped the pride and status from careers and the self-definition of workers.1

But the political class likes to keep people’s noses to the employment grindstone, as time spent at work keeps them off the streets and out of trouble. Rightwing populism feeds on work anxiety, accusing people of colour, immigrants, refugees or foreigners of ‘stealing’ ‘our’ jobs. Donald Trump promised to bring the jobs back. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil promised to remove troublesome obstacles (labour unions, environmentalists protecting precious Amazonian wilderness, human rights, Covid-19 restrictions) that stand in the way of job-based prosperity.

The late anthropologist David Graeber, in the preface to his seminal work Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, concluded that:

‘We have become a civilization based on work – not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself... half the time we are engaged in utterly meaningless or counter-productive activities – usually under orders of a person we dislike… [and] we rankle with resentment that there may be others out there that are not in the same trap.’

Elusive stability

It is hard to fathom in our job-obsessed culture but many people, particularly in the Global South, do not have anything like regular employment, scratching together a living in what economists call the informal sector. In the small Caribbean island of Dominica (one of the region’s poorest) less than a third of the population enjoys permanent employment, making do by combining agriculture with occasional work clearing roadside brush or catering to the tourist trade. In the cities of the Global South multitudes of urban workers live in an informal-sector limbo, having been drawn to the city in the hope of finding jobs. The history of both colonialism and neocolonialism is filled with coercive measures such as poll taxes used to force poor peasant farmers into the urban labour market to be exploited. In China the iron rice bowl of Maoist communism, which guaranteed prices for agricultural produce (among other things) and provided a floor of security for farmers, was removed in order to force the peasants into factories, thus paving the way for the transition to Chinese capitalism shaped by Deng Xiaoping in the 1990s.

Today there are more humans who live off recycling garbage from massive urban dumps in places like Manila, Mexico City and Nairobi (an estimated 15 million in 2018) than those holding relatively well-paid jobs in the car industry worldwide (about 14 million pre-Covid-19). To such people the promise of packaging their hard work as stable ‘jobs’ remains a sad joke. The need for workers to fill regular employment opportunities is outstripped by an endless stream of candidates. They won’t get soaked up by industry, which is getting less labour-intensive and resulting in a decline in the percentage of people in industrial employment around the world.

This way to the dead end

David Graeber and a number of other critics of full employment focus on the arbitrary and useless nature of what pass for far too many jobs. They have a reasonable point – wouldn’t the world be better off free of telemarketers, consultants, layers of middle management and a good deal of what is euphemistically called ‘the financial services industry’? However, as we enter the crisis of the anthropocene with its dark threats of climate collapse and a cascading series of accompanying ecological crises, we need to think about the jobs we do in an entirely different way. If we continue to examine jobs as simply a quantitative statistical category underpinned by the notion of ‘the more the merrier’, our survival as a species in any convivial sense is very much in doubt. Carbon capitalism and its attendant industries (oil and gas, petrochemicals, coal and other mining, car manufacture, weapons production… to name but a few) simply cannot be counted on to provide the healthy employment of the future.

Take the case of plastics, which our planet is literally choking upon. Production in 2020 was 244 times what it was in 1950. It is everywhere; despoiling even the most remote beaches, clogging rivers, destroying coral reefs around the world, strangling wildlife from seabirds to whales. There are now even two large floating garbage patches – one in the Western and one in the Eastern Pacific Oceans – made up of shifting acres of micro-plastic waste and held together by discarded commercial fishing gear.

Perhaps most disturbing is the carbon-intensive life-cycle of plastic – its base resins are drawn largely from petroleum which must be extracted and distilled before being formed into products, transported to market and finally dumped, incinerated or occasionally recycled. A 2019 study by UC Santa Barbara found: ‘On the current course, emissions from plastics will reach 17 per cent of the global carbon budget by 2050.’

To significantly reduce their use, employment in the plastics industry needs to fall dramatically. Just 20 big companies (with ExxonMobil and Dow in the lead) produce half of the world’s single-use plastic. If challenged, these big players would undoubtedly have a litany of justifications and near the top would be the wonderful job opportunities they were providing to desperate workers around the world.

But plastics are just the tip of the iceberg. There are millions of other kinds of jobs we need to transition away from if we intend to keep our planet habitable.

Where do we go from here?

The long and the short of it is this: the elusive full employment that continues to be advocated by politicians across the political spectrum will be the death of us as a species. ‘Jobs for all’ (the way the world is currently organized) will continue to pile up irreversible damage to the natural world and undermine the ecological basis for the existence of many species, including our own. Full employment is intimately connected to full-throttle growth – a growth we simply cannot afford.

Not that there isn’t work to be done – lots of it. But we need to carefully evaluate the content of that work to make sure it sustains rather than obliterates life. Work should help build social justice and ecological viability. Work needs to be organized so that it can be fairly distributed and reduced to what is necessary for modest convivial survival rather than unequal lopsided growth. Like it or not, an increasing number of ecological economists – along with a lively degrowth movement – believe this is where our future rests.

To do this it will be necessary to move the distribution of wealth and income away from a labour market where for the vast majority of people one’s income is based primarily on the job one does. A whole new era of distributive policies needs to be on the horizon. These include a universal basic income, reduced working hours, an international tax regime that dismantles billionaire-centred inequality and guaranteed basic services such as decent healthcare and free education.

Many things in the world of work need turning on their head. We need to value slowness instead of speed and replace competitive efficiency with thoughtful collaboration. We need to replace hierarchical employment that saps democratic capabilities with a system which gives workers power and lets communities make decisions on what needs producing. Mostly we need to embrace buen vivir, a social philosophy and movement that started among indigenous peoples in South America, to learn to live well rather than always trying to live better in the quantitative sense.

Can we do it? We won’t know unless we try. Ever since early Homo sapiens painted horses and cows in the caves of Lascaux, France, people have sought totemic animals to represent their era. The imperial lion and eagle are well known. Perhaps the best mammalian representations of aggressive high capitalism are the jaguar for its speed and power and the beaver for its frenetic busyness (busy as a beaver, as Canadians put it). Our new era of modesty and limits might best be represented by the lowly sloth with its aversion to unnecessary effort and the redoubtable snail which has become the symbol of both the slow food and degrowth movements. The jobs we do despoiling nature are simply in contradiction to our own evolutionary survival.

1 See, for example, Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the 20th Century, Monthly Review Press, 1974.

Richard Swift is a Montreal-based writer, activist and a former co-editor and regular contributor to New Internationalist. He is the author of SOS: Alternatives to Capitalism.