Full employment: Rarely has a policy aim with such radical ramifications appeared in such a wonky, stolid package. The subject of a dispassionate Brookings white paper, yes. But a way to dramatically reorient power relations in the workplace? Couldn’t be. I mean, Matt Yglesias, a bête noire for the anti-neoliberal left, relentlessly pushes the idea for god’s sake.
But its wonky exterior belies its transformative potential, as Chris Maisano explains in the current issue of Jacobin (the piece is print-only, but you should be a subscriber anyways):
“We want full employment precisely because it weakens the disciplinary powers of the boss and opens up possibilities for less work and more leisure. A full-employment economy raises the bargaining power and living standards of the working class in the short run and erodes the social power of capital in the political economy as a whole, opening up possibilities for radical social transformation.”
In short, advancing full employment is quintessential incremental radicalism; the incremental reform contains the seeds of radical social change. In this case, the hand of labor is strengthened, the power of capital weakened. That, in and of itself, is quite radical. Yet, when the labor-capital conflict really becomes a pitched battle, effaced and obscured no longer—when capital decides they won’t tolerate any additional curtailment of their authority and labor has the capacity to fight back—the yields are potentially even more profound.
Capital has long been cognizant of this overlooked tendency of full-employment. Indeed, Michal Kalecki, in “Political Aspects of Full Employment”, highlighted it as the main reason for their animus. Their objections weren’t economic or pecuniary, Kalecki asserted. Business could benefit from a fully employed workforce. They opposed full employment because they (correctly) viewed it as a threat to their power. Writing in 1943, the Polish political economist put it this way: “”[D]iscipline in the factories” and “political stability” are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the “normal” capitalist system.”
Full employment doesn’t have to mean everybody has a job. There are lots of really crappy jobs out there, and the left shouldn’t be interested in creating more drudgery. (Paradoxically, full employment could actually eliminate some degrading, non-essential jobs. If workers had more bargaining power, the worker cleaning rich people’s houses could demand better pay and working conditions, or just quit. I imagine some menial jobs would just disappear as a result.) Full employment simply means that everyone who wants a job can find one.
Consequently, it could be achieved by coupling a permanent WPA-style jobs program with a guaranteed minimum income, so people could opt out of the labor force. To my mind, this approach both would be superior to relying on general government stimulus or loose monetary policy, which would just fuel the engine of consumer capitalism. JK Galbraith’s felicitous phrase about public squalor alongside private affluence still applies; public employment programs should be designed to deliver social benefits, rectifying the ignominious imbalance.
That’s the other thing about full employment: It’s a potentially radical incremental reform, but it makes people’s lives better today. The only time in the last few decades that low-income workers saw meaningful wage growth was in the late 1990s, when unemployment was kept at bay. From what I gather this was largely accidental, but it still brought down poverty rates and increased wages at the bottom. And bringing down poverty rates, of course, has spillover effects: Our public education system, for instance, would be immeasurably better if were poverty eradicated.
So there you have it—the awesomeness of full employment. Now why is Matt Yglesias so high on it?