It is only because of audience member Ken Bone’s question about the effect that energy policy would have on employment at power plants that the presidential candidates addressed jobs at all during their debate Sunday night. But the night’s biggest statement about work didn’t come in response to Bone.
It came instead as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton answered a question about Islamophobia. She said, “My vision of America is an America where everyone has a place, if you are willing to work hard, do your part and you contribute to the community. That’s what America is.”
The idea that work is a key component to social citizenship has been prominent in the American mind for centuries, so it is not surprising to see Clinton advance it. But labor force participation is in long-term decline, and according to Oxford University researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, automation could make nearly half of U.S. workers redundant within the next two decades.
The idea that Clinton sees as inclusive could therefore end up excluding millions of people from the social contract. If we want an egalitarian society in the decades ahead, we need to replace this vision. It won’t be easy.
For as long as English-speaking people have been in the United States, they have imagined that you belong only if you work. The idea has roots in the New Testament. Paul writes in his second letter to the Thessalonians that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Following this principle, Captain John Smith decreed to the Jamestown colonists in 1608 that “he that gathereth not every day as much as I do, the next day shall be set beyond the river, and be banished from the Fort as a drone, till he amend his conditions or starve.”
Two and a half centuries later, in the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln declared that newly-liberated African Americans should, “in all cases when allowed, labor faithfully for reasonable wages.” This ideology was known as “free labor” – in opposition to the ideology of slavery – and was a major plank in the early Republican Party’s platform.
In the free-labor model, waged work encourages economic and ultimately political independence. Following the Civil War, the ideology was promulgated in the South by figures, such as the educator Booker T. Washington, who wanted blacks to prove their dignity through diligent labor.
In the 20th century, mainstream activists aimed to build an inclusive society on the same idea. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at a gathering called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – the two were inseparable in the original spirit of the event. Feminists from Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Betty Friedan argued for women’s social inclusion by pointing to them as an untapped labor source in the commercial economy. These feminists and activists for racial justice had a point; working does afford a person some economic freedom, which can in turn reinforce political rights.
And the idea that you earn social respect through work seems egalitarian. You do not have to be born into money to count, socially speaking. You just have to roll up your sleeves and work. But in recent years, the principle has been used in the way John Smith did: to exclude nonworking people from social benefits. A work requirement was the key element in the 1996 welfare reform bill that Clinton still supports. Shouts of “Get a job!” directed toward Occupy protesters used the prevailing work ideology to delegitimize their movement. It’s as if even the First Amendment right to peaceable assembly is contingent upon being a worker.
The ideal also fosters inequality when economic and technological changes threaten to put people out of work. While white men’s dignity has been largely unquestioned in American history, that status has historically been propped up by their near-monopoly on paid labor. The social ideology was constructed for their benefit, but now we can see that even their position was always somewhat contingent. White men in counties with high rates of unemployment fill arenas to hear Donald Trump speak.
As labor unions have weakened and manufacturers have turned more to automation, blue-collar men have lost both income and dignity. As automation expands in the coming decades, the professional class may suffer a similar fate, leaving us with an employment-based apartheid: a small aristocracy of highly-skilled workers ruling a mass of unemployed second-class citizens.
Clinton is not one to get ahead of public opinion. Her vision of citizenship earned through work probably resonates with most voters. In a Pew Research Center study last year, 80 percent of respondents described themselves as “hard working.” Only 3 percent described themselves as “lazy.”
But if greater automation is in our future, then appealing to Americans’ work ethic will ultimately set them up for a harder fall. Bone understandably worries about people’s jobs. But we also need a way to imagine modes of flourishing that don’t depend on jobs at all. It’s time we got to work on a new vision.
A better vision would found social citizenship – as well as some level of guaranteed economic security – on the person’s simple humanity. One example is the emphasis in Roman Catholic social ethics on the inherent dignity of the person and the common good as a condition in which each person has the opportunity to flourish. A more secular approach could draw from Henry David Thoreau, who believed that we would begin to see the dignity in ourselves and others once work has been stripped away. In Thoreau’s vision of democracy with much-reduced labor, we are all philosopher kings and queens, freed to live in pursuit of our “genius”, that is, our highest individual aspirations. Perhaps the task of becoming our own best selves could, in time, replace work as a binding factor in society.