Guy Standing is a demanding and challenging scholar. In a somewhat meandering article on the meaning of labour, Standing asks a pertinent question that has deep implications for left strategy on inequality. He writes:
It is intellectually excusable for those on the political right to want to restrict the meaning of work to labour, or income-earning activity. It is inexcusable for those on the political left to do so. Social democrats are paying a heavy political price for having done so throughout the 20th century. They fell into their own political trap, putting the notion of Full Employment on a pedestal, when that meant little more than maximising the number of people in labour, in positions of subordination to bosses.
Unless the left can escape from the folly of equating labour with work, they will continue to hemorrhage support and drift into the political margins. Why should putting as many people in ‘jobs’ be construed as defining progressive politics?
I am not certain such a dismissive stance of social democrats is justifiable, but the broader question certainly is an intriguing and important one. Later on, the routes of this dismissiveness become clearer, as he cites disagreements on a Basic Income Grant. This is a debate I am not entirely familiar with, but something worth exploring in greater detail. (Than again, maybe we just use the term social democrat differently in South Africa)
Standing concludes as follows:
If work that is not labour were given equal (or ideally more) weight and attention in statistics, in progressive rhetoric, and in articles and books written by progressives, that would enable everybody to measure ‘growth’ in a more ecologically sensible way. I am sure many of us on the left feel uncomfortable with calls by quasi-Keynesians and others on the left for more growth when that might just mean more rapid resource depletion, global warming and loss of work in favour of labour.
There is no escape from the social democratic trap. In conventional thinking, if you shift from doing a boring job going to an office each day to spending the same time looking after elderly relatives or your local community, economic growth goes down, which is regarded as ‘bad’. If that care work were valued at no more but no less than that office job, the shift would not lower growth. Some of us would wish to be more radical still. But that would be a great start.
Feature image credit: Photo by Tomas Anton Escobar on Unsplash