This is Part 4 of my on-going examination of the concept of ‘duty to work’ and how it was associated with the related idea of a ‘right to work’. In Part 3, I extended the analysis to the Western democracies of the Post World War 2 period and found that progressive political parties and movements firmly considered the two concepts to be fundamental elements of a progressive society. In this part, I extend that analysis and consider ways in which the ‘duty to work’ has been justified, drawing on the idea of reciprocity and social obligation. I also show how the emergence of neoliberalism has broken the nexus between the ‘right to work’ responsibilities that the state assumed in the social democratic period and the ‘duty to work’ responsibilities that are imposed on workers in return for income support. That break abandons the binding reciprocity that enriched our societies.
The earlier parts in this series are:
1. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 1 (August 4, 2020).
2. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 2 (August 11, 2020).
3. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 3 (August 20, 2020).
4. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 4 (September 1, 2020).
Society and reciprocity
We concluded Part 3 with the clear understanding that there was an intrinsic link in Western social democracies in the Post World War 2 Period between the concepts of ‘right to work’ and the ‘duty to work’.
These work-related concepts, upon which policy was based, were considered to be the foundations of modern, progressive societies aiming to achieve increased increased equity, effective pathways to social mobility, poverty reduction and income security.
The state was committed to using its policy instruments to ensure there were enough jobs to absorb the desires to work, and, in return, citizens who were able to work were considered to have a communitarian responsibility to contribute to the material prosperity of society through work.
As part of this consensus, it was clearly understood that those who were unable to work for various reasons (age, health, etc) were to be provided with dignified income support.
The continuity of this societal consensus did not conceive of a class of workers who would be able to receive state income support (as a right) and thus enjoy the material benefits of production derived from the work of others.
Binding this consensus was a notion of reciprocity.
This principle extends well beyond concepts of work responsibilities.
Western democracies use parliamentary authority to grant rights to citizens but these rights also carry responsibilities (duties). And many of those responsibilities are explicitly coercive, and I will talk more about that presently.
We should be explicit here to disabuse people of the idea that a ‘duty to work’ means the same thing as a legal compulsion to work. The two are different obviously, although that seems to evade the understanding of many on social media.
Of course, Marx observed that while under capitalism superficially freed workers from the manorial coercion of the feudal system, such that they could choose freely which jobs they might take and who they might work for, the coercion of capitalism lay in the fact that workers did not have a choice whether to work at all.
Unlike owners of capital, who could enjoy access to the income distribution system without exerting any labour effort, workers had to work for someone if they wanted to eat.
And within socialist thinking, that was a motivation for the duty of work type ethics being formalised because they wanted no group being able to live off the work of others (bar those affirmed or unable to work).
Within social democracies, these ideas were expressed somewhat differently (the language was different) but the sentiment remained.
Even in the US, the concept of the ‘work ethic’ was a powerful social disciplining force.
Liberals who evoke ‘natural’ rights to freedom miss the point that all these ‘freedoms’ are social products – constructs that societies agree on in some way or another.
There is no real way of determining which of these constructed ‘rights’ are more privileged over others.
In his 1980 article – ‘The Obligation to Work’ – (see reference in Part 2), Lawrence Becker wrote:
No one is self-made. Whatever good there is in our lives is, in part, a product of the acts of others. Moreover, it is also the product of others’ fulfilling their putative social obligations: obligations of restraint (such as are found in the criminal laws against murder and theft), of care (as found in the law of negligence), of effort (“trying” to help) …
All the standard theories of justice support a requirement (obligation) of reciprocity, that is, a proportional return of good for good …
Citizenship obligations may be thought of as the institutionalized demands of our benefactors for reciprocity. Thus, an important class of nonvoluntary social obligations is justified.
He goes on to discuss the complexity that can be involved in determining proportionality in the “good for good” principle.
The question he explores is whether the ‘duty to work’ can be justified within this reciprocity ideal.
He understands that “Obligations must be scaled to competence, ability, and benefits … it would be impossible to justify any proposal to require the same work from everyone”.
Why would anyone think they were exempt from a “social obligation to work”?
Some use the arguments we debated in Philosophy 101 – I “did not ask to be born”.
I did not ask my mother to nourish me when I was young.
But I receive the benefits from the work of others.
Further, Lawrence Becker notes that:
Each of us is a burden on others. Our mere existence diminishes natural resources; we pollute; we consume the time and energy of those who have to deal with us. We are a net burden on others if we do not make an offsetting contribution to their welfare. Now, it is a fact that some people do make an effort to offset these burdens and succeed in offsetting them. Reciprocity to them is as much in order as it is for people who produce “positive” good for us. And reciprocity here may also require a contribution produced by effort.
Why should we contribute to the society rather than just those who directly benefit us as individuals? In other words, do we have a sense of society?
Clearly, we accept the benefits that are derived from public infrastructure (so-called public goods). So all workers who produce these goods and services are effectively contributing to society rather than to specific individuals.
Once we have public goods, we also accept social obligations.
We also accept membership obligations of social groups from an early age, which clearly establishes the concept of social obligations that transcend our individual leanings.
Does this argument extend to work obligations?
Some might argue that a person might just contribute financial input and be exempt from having to expend effort. But that would offend any progressive sense of equity.
While nations in the immediate Post World War 2 period were embarking on a nation-building process and were keenly aware that all available labour was necessary to quickly improve material prosperity, it might be argued that we need less production now and technology has solved scarcity.
There is truth in that argument but it requires that societies always need work effort to continue functioning and we all benefit from that work.
And as scarcity gives way to material affluent (generalised), we have the luxury in many nations of being able to expand the concept of productivity and valued labour, which means there are unlimited jobs that can be created and performed which enhance our well-being, whether measured in material terms or other more qualitative terms.
In that sense, there remains an argument based on reciprocity for a ‘duty to work’.
Lawrence Becker wrote in this respect that:
People who are able to work, and do not work, are parasites, however unattractive and emotionally loaded that label is. People in this society all live, in part, off the labor of others. And there is a chronic oversupply of jobs which need to be done to sustain and improve the quality of life for us all. (I am not speaking here of simply income-producing jobs.) So reciprocity in the form of work seems not only appropriate but necessary in our present circumstances.
The neoliberal evolution – reciprocity abandoned
Over the last several decades, as neoliberal ideology has emerged as the dominant approach to policy, the foundations of the social democratic consensus have been fractured.
Thomas Fazi and I trace this evolution in our book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017).
Relevant to this discussion, is the fact that the ‘duty to work’ idea has been retained and fine-tuned (along parasitic lines), while the state has abandoned its responsibilities to provide sufficient work, which has terminally compromised the ‘right to work’ principle, especially for the most disadvantaged workers.
It is also true that progressive political parties, in many nations, have led the deterioration in this consensus by abandoning the aim of full employment and adopting pernicious activity test approaches to the unemployed that they created through the embrace of neoliberal fiscal austerity.
As an example, think about Germany (thanks to Graham and Jochem for some research help here).
I have written about the German embrace of neoliberalism many times.
Here is an early blog post – Germany attacks its unemployed! (January 4, 2005) – which was written as we learned more of the so-called Hartz reforms that transformed the way the state income support systems changed.
When the Social Democratic Party in Germany embraced neoliberalism during the Chancellorship of Gerhard Schröder (in power 1998-2005) the government made several major policy shifts.
They abolished regulative restraint on the financial markets (for example, abandoned the capital gains tax on the sale of shares) which spawned the financial excesses that are still playing out (think Deutsche Bank).
The previous Helmut Kohl CDU regime would not have been able to pull that off – a feature of social democratic parties across the globe – as neoliberal leaders!
At the same time, Gerhard Schröder’s Agenda 2010 program sought to reduce the German welfare state and impose harsh work obligations on income recipients.
The interesting point here is that at the time, Schröder and his officials made it rather explicit – that if you were not prepared to work then you would not eat!
In a Speech to the Bundestag on March 14, 2003 – Gerhard Schröders Agenda gegen den Reformstau – the Chancellor said at the 34:40 mark that (translated)
In future no one will be permitted to refuse reasonable work at the cost of the community – he must expect sanctions.
Their concept of ‘reasonable work’ was very broad.
Another example of this sentiment came from SPD politician Franz Müntefering when he was the Bundesminister für Arbeit und Soziales (Federal Minister for Labor and Social Affairs) who told the SPD Parliamentary Group on Tuesday, May 6, 2006, as part of the process for reforming the SGB II-Optimierungsgesetz (the social code in Germany) that (Source):
Wer nicht arbeitet, soll auch nicht essen … Nur wer arbeitet, soll auch essen.
(Those who do not work should not eat … Only those who work should also eat).
So for those who thought the ‘parasite laws’ were just a construct of the hideous Stalinist Soviet regime, thinking that Western democracies were exempt from such thinking, think again.
Here is modern-day Germany, under the rule of a ‘progressive’ social democratic government articulating just the same attitudes.
An interesting article – Faule Arbeitslose? (May 6, 2003) – published by the – Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (BPB) – which is the Federal Agency for Civic Education in Germany, shed some light on this debate at the time.
Faule Arbeitslose = Lazy unemployed and the article discussed the willingness to work in Germany.
It quotes Gerhard Schröder from April 2001, when he said “Es gibt kein Recht auf Faulheit in unserer Gesellschaft” (There is no right to be lazy in our society) and started the debate about “eine heftige Debatte über “Faulenzer”, “Drückeberger”, “Scheinarbeitslose” und “Sozialschmarotzer” vom Zaun” (“idlers”, “slackers”, “bogus unemployed” and “social parasites”.)
It is interesting that when unemployment began to rise in Europe and the rest of the world, this nomenclature started to enter the political narratives.
In Australia, the term ‘dole bludger’ was first introduced in 1974 by a Labor Party employment minister. It was not the conservatives who started this descent into indecency, although they certainly exploited it to the hilt once they gained power.
Similarly in Germany. The BPB article documents how SPD Federal Minister of Labor Walter Arendt “triggered the first laziness debate” in the Bundestag in 1975 as mass unemployment rose.
By the 1980s, this narrative was adopted by progressives and conservatives alike.
The obligation to work was at the centre of the debates, while the right to work had largely disappeared as a responsibility of the state to guarantee.
Of course, the obligation was applied exclusively to the working class.
The banksters who did nothing more than shuffle wealth and were thus largely unproductive were given state support to expand their profit-seeking behaviour.
But the low-paid and vulnerable were shoehorned into poverty-wage, mini-jobs because the German government refused to create the conditions for full employment.
The German derivation of this was influenced by harking back to religious documents.
In the – Second Epistle to the Thessalonians – sometimes, but not without dispute, attributed to the apostle Paul, the discussion is about the way the people of the city of Thessalonica, the “second city in Europe where Paul helped to create an organized Christian community” could maintain the traditions they had been taught (either in written form or by word of mouth) as they waited the “second advent of Christ”.
In Thessalonians 2, Chapter 3, Verse 6 begins the topic – “Warning against Idleness” and we read (thanks Tom):
6 Now we command you, brothers, sin the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
7 For you yourselves know whow you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you,
8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.
9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves aan example to imitate.
10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.
11 For we hear that some among you cwalk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.
12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.
14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.
15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
So Christians were invoking the ‘no work, no eat’ idea – as a ‘tradition’, some centuries before Stalin’s parasite approach.
In other words, these ideas have been part of human life for a very long period of time.
In Part 5, we will link the ‘duty to work’ concept with theories of justice and discuss coercion.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.