“Jobs” Don’t Work!

This is a shortened version of an article I wrote in the wake of the 2003 Mayoral campaign in San Francisco, and published in The Political Edge. With all the excitement and promise of the occupation movements around the world, I still find myself balking at the slogans and framing, whether the “corporate greed” idea I critiqued in the previous entry, or the incessant clamor for “jobs”… if you want to pursue a radical reformist strategy in the here and now, i.e. in capitalism, please, AT LEAST demand a basic minimum income for all (say $1,500/mo for all residents of the planet) rather than asking to be put to work on agendas over which we have no control… anyway, here’s the piece, with an old graphic Jim Swanson drew in the early 1990s (can that really be 20 years ago?) when we were blasting demands for “jobs” at Processed World.

“Jobs” Don’t Work!

?With mind-numbing regularity, we are expected to trudge to the polls and cast votes for politicians who promise to pursue policies that will “fix the economy” and “create jobs.” Predictably, nothing much changes. Why do we expect politicians and their policies to affect “the Economy,” when the rest of the time we treat it more like the weather, something that gets “better” or “worse” according to events beyond anyone’s control? The label “economy” is used to cloud in abstraction specific choices made by specific people that shape the rest of our lives for better or more usually, for worse. By framing our own daily lives of work within the abstract framework of “the Economy” we disconnect ourselves from a deciding, subjective role in determining our own activity and instead leave ourselves as unaware and relatively helpless pawns of forces beyond our knowledge or control. “The Economy” becomes a mystifying category, full of nonsensical and inexplicable categories that only experts can decipher; it is our era’s religion, an explanatory framework that offers fictional and strangely “natural” explanations for what are simple (albeit confusing), observable relations between human beings. Politicians and economists who claim they will fix “the Economy” are playing the role of contemporary priests in the Church—they and they alone are competent to communicate with the higher power that ultimately controls our lives.

This underlies the emptiness of our democracy. Clearly there is little democracy in our lives when it comes to “the Economy.” Our much-vaunted “freedom of choice” supposedly allows us to “choose” any jobs we want. By this “free choice” we exercise our tiny influence over the giant “invisible hand” of the market. But as we all know, most of us are only “free” to take one shitty job or another (or several!). In taking a job, no one asks for our ideas about what kind of work the enterprise should do, how the company impacts the environment locally and beyond, or what quality standards our work should meet. We have no say over who works there or how hiring is decided. In fact, on the job we lose most of the basic rights we take for granted as citizens in a democracy, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from search and seizure, freedom from random drug testing, right to due process, trial by peers, and so forth. On the job we are wage-slaves—if we depend on our wage, our condition can easily be construed as a version of slavery “with a human face.”

Curious, then, that people across the political spectrum, especially “progressives,” are so ready to demand “jobs” without a murmur of qualification or criticism (at best, the demand is qualified as being for “good jobs”). Most jobs today are a waste of time at best, if they aren’t actually pernicious. As a social mechanism for allocating tasks that keep us all alive, “the Economy” and its foundation on “jobs” could hardly be less efficient, less fair, or a bigger waste of time and resources. One of the most glaring failures of the so-called free market is the well-paid elevation of patently useless and/or dangerous activities and the unpaid denigration of vital human tasks. Juxtapose bankers and weapons designers to child care workers and nursing home employees, for example. Even within ostensibly useful human work, for example, doctors and nurses, at least half of their work time is spent fulfilling the parasitic, useless demands of insurers and the bureaucracies of business, instead of providing the medical care that so many can no longer afford.

Graphic by JR Swanson, c. 1991, for the Committee for Full Enjoyment.

San Francisco’s current economy is awash in the inflated equity of a housing market unmoored from historic values. This has greatly rewarded the lucky fraction that owns at the expense of the majority of renters. Meanwhile people work in offices, restaurants, stores, and hotels where real wages are stagnant or actually falling. In a city with a dozen major hospitals and tens of thousands of medical workers, at least a quarter of the residents are uninsured and prone to destitution through catastrophic illness or injury. A construction boom fueled by the dot.com frenzy, sustained after the frenzy’s collapse by the spiraling inflation in real estate and long-term infrastructure programs of the city (San Francisco airport, BART, and MUNI expansions, Bay Bridge retrofit, Moscone Convention Center expansion, Transbay Terminal) is also helping to keep economic collapse at bay for the moment.

But all the signs for a major reckoning are before us: Unsustainable debts (government, corporate, and individual); absurd investment in useless office towers and unneeded hotels and shopping centers; stagnant or falling incomes and savings; soaring rates of illness and unmeasured workplace injuries; radically increasing homeless population; food programs serving more meals than ever—the list goes on.

Newspapers regularly report “outsourcing,” the increasing transfer of even high-tech and service sector expertise to India, China, and other low-wage, high-skilled areas. These new boom zones have been knit together precisely by the globalization spearheaded by San Francisco–based multinationals (Standard Oil of California, now Chevron-Texaco, Pacific Bell, now AT&T (again), Southern Pacific Railroad, now merged into Union Pacific, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo have all fled, though Bechtel, Levi’s, The Gap, and PG&E are still homegrown, world-spanning engines of economic exploitation and environmental devastation). “Competing” in the twenty-first century means lowering wages and giving tax breaks, creating conditions for the maximum profitability of business. If lower costs and bigger tax “incentives” are offered somewhere else, most jobs these days are pretty easily moved.

Primary education in San Francisco, not to mention the rest of the U.S., is abysmal. The destruction of public education corresponds to a destruction of skilled work and a reduced need for intelligence at work. (To say nothing of the problems created by thoughtful, critical citizens!) Beyond some thousands of programmers and the skilled trades, most jobs are easily learned in a day or two, and most workers are easily replaced—skills are much less important these days than attitude. And even if you have great skills and a Mormonesque enthusiasm for your job, chances are the company will move or restructure or change its focus to increase profitability—leaving you out of work and wondering what to do next. In those increasingly rare examples of stable companies that provide decent, steady wages, and benefits, there’s still a total absence of self-management or worker participation in determining what the company does, what its ecological impact is, how it connects to subcontractors and suppliers and their practices, and so on.

In 1991, former police chief Frank Jordan was elected mayor. As soon as he took office, he began trumpeting the northeast Mission district as a new “industrial zone” (Northeast Mission Industrial Zone, or NEMIZ) for the emerging biotech sector. This chimerical planning never really took hold due to neighborhood objections and an indifferent business community. The NEMIZ eventually filled up with the short-lived “Audio Alley” and other dot.com startups, only to empty out again after the dot.com bubble burst. In this new era of “vaporware” the Mission’s warehouses and garages are again brimming with hi-tech peasants. Meanwhile, a mile eastward a whole “new neighborhood” (anchored by a forty-two-acre parcel for the biomedical campus of the University of California) called Mission Bay was started during Willie Brown’s regime. Again, the assumption is that by investing public money in a fancy new campus and giving incentives to the developer (Catellus Corporation, a spinoff of the former Southern Pacific Railroad real estate division—“owners” of a real estate empire spanning the west, gained through corrupt land grants provided by the federal government in the nineteenth century as an “incentive” to build the railroads!), jobs and housing will be created. For over a decade, San Francisco has been waiting for the biotech ship to come in.

But that ship is just another in a long line of Potemkin-village promises of so-called “good jobs”:

On bad days Toby said he worked as a “pipette bitch.” With no interests other than computers, a few select hormones, and science fiction novels, Toby was perfectly poised to work as a low-level researcher in yet another lab where the muckety-mucks studied genetic tagging. And so that’s where he found himself most days, holding his trusty pipette over a box of clear gel attached to some electrodes . . . Usually he thought about nothing at all. He didn’t achieve a Zen-like state of pipette-mediated calm. There was no enlightenment. He simply immersed his entire consciousness in the tiny movements of his body, the precise measurements and procedures . . . After almost a year of unbroken routine . . . Toby realized he could spend an entire 24-hour period without ever having a single, extended thought . . . he didn’t have the kinds of multilayered or complex ideas he used to have back when he was hacking hormone pathways in graduate school.

Here he was, a hypereducated twentysomething, his whole life before him, and his supposedly professional middle-class job had turned his brain into nothing more than basal ganglia . . . according to all the usual news sources, his job was hot. Supposedly Toby was at the center of an economic revolution in biotech. The most-wanted jobs of the new millennium were in genomics; cities like San Francisco were developing vast office parks full of proto-wet lab spaces and special cold rooms for all the code-crunching clusters . . . Toby [felt] like he worked at McDonald’s: The plastic gloves were practically the same. But more important, there was an almost unbridgeable gulf between what he actually did for a living and the hype about it. Reading the papers was like looking at one of those glossy ads suggesting that women kicked off welfare would have great futures if they just took jobs at fast-food restaurants. Look at our shiny kitchens! Full of happy people in hair nets and gloves making toasty burgers and crispy fries! Fast food is at the center of the restaurant economy! Just like biotech. (* Annalee Newitz, “Techsploitation: Pipette Bitch Blues,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, February 18, 2004.)

This pattern of exaggerated expectations attached to what are quickly discovered to be boring, routine, mind-numbing jobs is all too common, and yet rarely reported with such clarity and wit. Another place to find compelling accounts is among the “Tales of Toil” featured from 1981–1994 in San Francisco’s Processed World magazine (full disclosure: I was a participating collective member). From word processing to desktop publishing and web design, jobs in new technologies paid relatively well until the field filled with thousands of people following the false promise of “good jobs,” only to find that high pay rates had disappeared. Irrespective of the pay, the crucial issue of content—of what we do, why, for whom or what, and usually how—is never confronted. And with almost no exceptions, the creative component of any job is what disappears soonest, replaced by management-controlled pacing, productivity demands, routinization, and bureaucratization.

This year’s Mayoral candidates are all promising to create “jobs.”  But if public monies are invested in training citizens to become so skilled and desirable as workers, we would still have to question which world economy we are getting prepared for. And just how this training would make San Francisco workers so well-paid (that is, expensive for their employers) that they could afford to live here! Everything going on in economic development—locally, nationally, or internationally—indicates the key trends continue to be lower wages and higher productivity (that is, longer hours, harder work).

A real alternative is called for. Tens of thousands are occupying public plazas across the U.S. and the world.  While participants have reported frustration at the absence of concrete alternatives, many people around the world are confronting the same problems. And clearly the answers require a break with the dynamics of a world economy that pits city against city, country against country, human against human. The role of government, so diminished as the power of corporations has grown unchecked during the past quarter century, requires revision. Limiting local government to public spending on infrastructure and training for the benefit of private business is clearly self-defeating. Limiting local economics to a system in which private capital employs people as wage-laborers is to guarantee that the logic that imprisons us in a suicidal and degrading system will only grow stronger.

With my tongue only partly in cheek, I propose that San Francisco take the lead in visionary urban transformation. “Jobs” as we know them are an obsolete way of organizing life. I propose a complete rethinking of what municipal government does, no longer “governing” so much as facilitating, allowing us to grow together, to begin building a life outside and against the Economy. If we are nearing a collapse in housing and other asset bubbles fueled by the insane expansion of credit, as it seems we are, then visionary citizens need to start redesigning the role of local government now, while we still have time and resources and before the coming depression and collapse begins. Not entirely seriously, but not altogether frivolously either, I propose the following New Department of Public Commons for a New Municipality, all of which can and should be integrated into our public education system for children and the continuing education of adults. A casual examination will reveal that there is a lot of work to do! But not the kind that generates private profits and sales.

Department of Public Commons

Overall, the city must focus its efforts on an economic strategy that grows the commonwealth and steadily shrinks the private sector. This is a program of decommodification, reframing work as a shared adventure in shaping and extending the quality of our lives.

A.    Division of Public Space In charge of plazas, parks, and common lands, and their expansion, maintenance, and programming, this division would administer public libraries, tool and technology libraries, and public workshops, amply stocked with materials recycled from existing stocks. It would also begin the process of converting many streets into gardens and parklands (see “H” below).

B.    Division of Agriculture With the goal of San Francisco feeding itself as much as possible, it will expand community gardens, urban farming, and aquaculture projects, working with the Division of Public Space to reappropriate the vast acreage dedicated to moving and parking cars. Relationships will be cultivated between existing slow-food restaurants, local farmers, and local markets to create an unprecedented abundance of outstanding, healthy, tasty food, eliminating hunger and radically reducing dependence on fast-food outlets.

C.    Division of Aquifer and Liquefaction Management (and Deconstruction) Irresponsible building patterns on historic mudflats and landfill should be removed before the next big quake; plans will be made for how to manage collapsing streets and buildings and how to reuse areas prone to liquefaction. Expanded use of existing aquifer will promote local self-reliance and reduce current dependence on quake-vulnerable aqueducts.

D.    Division of Creeks and Wetlands Working with the three previous divisions to open streets to make creeks visible, restore wetlands, and establish areas for aquaculture, farming, fishing, and recreation.

E.    Division of Highest-Ever Tides and Seawall Construction Preparation is needed for rising sea levels and catastrophic high tides from global warming. Technologies to protect the city from inevitable flooding should be explored now. Also, San Francisco’s strong technology-savvy population can take the lead in developing techniques for adapting existing transportation and structures to widespread flooding.

F.    Division of Work Reduction Most work done in this culture is a waste of time, if it’s not actually dangerous and counterproductive. This division will facilitate the creative reappropriation of our time and talents, redirecting our work (which is inherently social after all) toward socially determined needs and desires (see “I” below).

G.    Division of Co-ops and Collectives Businesses will be encouraged to convert themselves from private ownership to worker-owned and -run co-ops and collectives. As much as possible, such enterprises should be encouraged to contribute to the commonwealth without measurement or pay . . . from each according to their abilities and to each according to their needs and desires.

H.    Division of Recycling and Reuse This important division will be responsible for innovation in more than just recycling garbage, but also in spawning whole industries to rehabilitate and reuse the discarded junk of the twentieth century. Long-term goal: Stop importing new junk!

I.    Division of Crackpot Realism Thousands of techies, artists, and tinkerers live in San Francisco. Already this city has served as world HQ for rapacious exploitation of huge swaths of the planet. It’s time to make it up. Technology transfer of global-warming-reducing technologies: energy efficient transit, shelter, appliances, and communications. Reengineering technologies to last at least twenty-five years with minimum maintenance and energy use (see “J” following). (Bechtel engineers, for example, should be encouraged to direct their own time and creativity towards projects of social importance—something useful for a change!)

J.    Division of No Home Is a Castle Housing is one of the most intractable problems facing any social transformation toward equality. A focused effort will be made to raise everyone’s dwellings to a shared standard of space, safety, comfort, and beauty. Land trusts will be established to remove all land from the market, and housing will be owned and controlled by those who live in it. Reengineering every dwelling to be as self-sufficient as possible in water, power, and waste management (fertilizer manufacturing for “B” above).

K.    Division of Free Mobility
•    First on the agenda will be the creation of a Bicycle Library with a fleet of 5,000 yellow bicycles. A municipal contest will be held annually for bike design and local manufacture with local materials.
•    To support the Bike Library—a network of 100 bike huts and repair shacks will maintain the publicly owned fleet of bikes.
•    The Panhandle will be expanded and extended on converted streets in dozens of directions to crisscross the city with greenways. The DFM, with the Division of Creeks and Wetlands and the Division of Public Space, will build green corridors along the natural terrain of creeks and shorelines, with meandering bike and multiuse paths.
•    Public transit will be free, with radical expansion of routes for full city coverage. Rapid development and adoption of new transit technologies based on wind, solar, biofuels, and magnetic, “frictionless” tracks will revolutionize energy use.

L.    Division of Public Memory
•    Publicly owned and produced media will be expanded, and multiple daily newssheets and Web sites advanced, with independent editorial boards elected by districts.
•    There will be oral history collection booths, and the Living Archive of San Francisco history will be available online and at a new city museum. Satellite museums in every neighborhood, where techniques of oral history collection and digitizing of archival materials is shared and learned, will reduce social amnesia.
•    Public history forums will be held regularly throughout the city, debating various points of view on how life has changed over the years in San Francisco.

M.    The James Brown Memorial Division of Feeling (Good)
•    Everyone will have free comprehensive health care—state-of-the-art preventive care covering medical, dental and mental for all. San Francisco is a town overrun with care practitioners of widely differing quality and philosophy. A clearinghouse and licensing system will help residents get what they need.
•    We will encourage the public declaration of desires, whatever they may be.
•    Fear abatement will get top priority with programs to help people overcome fear of others, fear of disapproval, fear of speaking out, fear of not owning enough, fear of losing possessions.
•    There will be a vigorous program of shame and guilt reduction.

N.    Division of Public Art This division will involve itself in all urban projects, ensuring a high level of artistic participation in urban design, food preparation, historical presentation, and transportation design. Sculptures, paintings, multimedia installations, soundscapes, and new art experiments will fill the city, eliminating the visual blight of advertising in favor of art.

2 comments to “Jobs” Don’t Work!

  • CWM

    That was a fun article, Chris. Thanks for that!

  • One of the notions which came up at yesterday’s Assembly was about whether the Perthian 99% should bring forward a list of demands. I argued against laundry list of reforms as I think this would stifle the organisation of worker-citizens in motion (which is what is happening on a global scale) i.e. dividing those who supported such and such a reform from others in the general movement of the 99% against the power of the 1%. But of course, demands for reform of the capitalist system will continue to be argued for. It’s inevitable, IMO. So, the way I see it, the best way to deal with lists of demands is to try to get the Wobbly notion of ‘it’s the wage system’ to take hold amongst the assembled citizenry. To this end, I will argue that the 1% have power because they own the wealth we produce in exchange for wages. Actually, I think it’s more like 10% versus the 90% of wage workers. But not to quibble. The movement is going along very well with the vague outlines of class consciousness embedded in the 99% vs the 1%. The question to be posed is how the 1% ended up with the power to screw up our lives with climate change, lack of democratic rights, austerity for the 99% and so on….and the Wobbly answer is, “It’s the wage system, mate. We get the wages, they get the wealth and that’s why they have the power to control. IOW..Wealth IS power and we give to them in exchange for wages”.

    Once that principle is grasped, we can move on to demands and my proposal is that we argue for demanding MORE of what we have won from the past class struggles. This should resonate, as most people already understand that we have Medicare, Homes West etc. People outside the Occupy Perth will ask, what are you here for and we can answer MORE. More what? More public housing (eliminate the 89,000 on the waiting list, already). More Medicare e.g. bulk billing for all citizens, not just the poor. More workers rights, not just Fair Work Australia but eliminating all laws which tie labour’s hands behind its back. More Aboriginal rights up to and including the rights of Aboriginal people to control the wealth extracted from their lands. Two sources of wealth, right? Labour power producing goods and services and natural resources lying in the land. As for the labour end of the wealth equation, we deserve more of what we produce and we’d get that by having
    the right of union solidarity (eliminate the ABCC for example), shorter work time (e.g. the four hour day with no cut in pay) and additions/more to the social wage e.g. dental care being added to Medicare bulk billing.

    In other words, what do we want? MORE! The 1% are hogging the wealth we produce and treating us like their wage-slaves. That should be the principle, IMO. More of what? More of the wealth we create and are entitled to, including most especially our time. We want more free-time: more free-time will shrink the labour market and boost demand for labour power i.e. wages. We want MORE freedom and more democracy.

    Why are we entitled to this wealth? Because we, the 99% create it for wages and that part of the 99% who are Aboriginal should have the right to control their land/wealth. Who are the 99%? Those who are obliged to sell their skills and time to the employing class and those whose land this was before the European owners declared it theirs by force of arms. Who is standing in the way of us getting more the wealth we create and deserve? The 1% who control the wage system. It’s wage system. If a substantial number of Occupy Perth come out of the movement with this understanding, the IWW in Perth will have made a contribution toward the self-emancipation of the working class, for without that level of class consciousness, worker-citizens will remain pawns in the reformist games of people who want to run a wage system on us (both official and unofficial). In the coming days, we will become subject to the inevitable wave of cooptation from the velvet glove which will follow on from the iron heel. Let’s try not to get stepped on.

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