by Scott Ferguson
By revealing that money is a limitless public utility, Modern Monetary Theory opens the door to socialize everything from banking and electoral campaigns to higher education and non-commercial artmaking. But the lynchpin of MMT’s intervention is its commitment to full employment and what its adherents call the Job Guarantee.
The appellation “Job Guarantee” is cringeworthy, to be sure. At best, its reduction of social labor to a “job” demonstrates a lack of critical savvy. At worst, its promised “guarantee” conjures neo-Puritan fantasies of salvation through work.
Yet the implications of MMT’s ill-termed proposal could not be more radical. As I wrote previously, MMT’s Job Guarantee involves the permanent financing of community-organized public works programs, which would give every person the right to non-corporate living-wage employment, compensate and reorganize much feminized and unpaid care work, and force service sector employers such as Walmart and McDonalds to outdo the public sector’s wages and working conditions. Hence far from a neoconservative prop for capitalist interests, the Job Guarantee is designed to involve people in the labor of serving communal and ecological wellbeing, while transforming the social totality from below.
When a governing body elects to maintain even a small percentage of its population in conditions of unemployment and moneylessness, it sends capital into global tailspins in search of cheap labor and profitable investment, shackles disparate classes to unredeemable private debts, prevents alienated communities from addressing local crises, and debilitates everyone’s capacity to demand a better world. In its neoliberal instantiation, this Liberal gambit then shores up the fallout with punishing fees and taxes, paltry welfare checks, an out of control prison industry, and vast informal care networks.
In contrast to this frenzied and inadequate supplementation, MMT’s Job Guarantee aims to endow local councils with funds to furnish every market reject with living-wage employment (say $25 per hour plus health care, to start). The program would expand and contract countercyclically with market fluctuations and would involve its participants in meaningful social and environmental projects. Drawing upon non-profits and existing informal support networks, such projects might include child and elderly care facilities that socialize what Marxo-feminist Nancy Fraser has called capitalism’s hidden abode; sustainable gardens and public beautification services that bring dignity and vitality to the other side of the tracks; and art and cultural centers that help communities simultaneously imagine and shape the transformations the Job Guarantee makes possible.
The Job Guarantee would not be beset by financial constraints. Unlike the ludicrous America Works program proposed by President Underwood on Netflix’s House of Cards, MMT’s proposal does not require draining funds away from FEMA or dismantling the Social Security System. Instead, the Job Guarantee is to be limited only by real resources, the collective imagination, and political will.
Some participants may make a life in the public sector. Others will undoubtedly join the private domain. But no longer will market activity be predicated upon a moneyless underclass or will it be acceptable to pass off systemic abandonment as the vagaries of nature.
MMT’s Job Guarantee is no cure-all or quick-acting salve. It will not eradicate injustice or turn the greedy into saints. What the Job Guarantee will do, however, is introduce a radical new directionality into the present totality, which shall drastically curtail systemic poverty and shift the structural foundations of economic life. It will set the agonies and ecstasies of the marketplace atop a resilient care economy and give every member of society basic access to the combined yields of public and private labor. It will force today’s low-paying service sector to either offer better wages and working conditions or risk losing laborers to local public works projects.
But the Job Guarantee is by no means a total loss for capital either. Creating a stable consumer base that in turn increases private profits, the Job Guarantee would soften the blow of its wage increases, while making socially productive business investments far less risky. With this, the Job Guarantee promises to lessen the structural need for hazardous speculation and private usury. Surely, this increased stability and reduction in indebtedness would amplify everyone’s capacity to demand better living conditions.
If such a program were implemented by a global hegemon such as the United States, moreover, threats of mass emigration and economic collapse elsewhere would impel other governments to follow suit. The result will not immediately liberate Chinese factory workers or impede corporations from looting of African minerals. Nor will it reign in Wall Street or the City of London overnight. But it will reorganize global supply chains and multinational finance by confronting them with new pressures and prospects. For example, an international political economy driven by robust full employment programs would decouple problems of employment and social welfare from capital’s erratic global trajectories in addition to mitigating the market hazards that condition such movements in the first place. Supplanting what economist Abba Lerner once termed the myth of world money with an interdependent politics rooted in strong public spending regimes, the MMT Job Guarantee would thus begin to turn neoliberal financial capitalism outside-in.
Though seemingly unromantic and bureaucratic, MMT’s Job Guarantee offers today’s Left an ulterior erotics of struggle, which avoids the twin pitfalls of “no alternative” zealousness, on one hand, and the disastrous exits proposed by accelerationists, autonomists, and communisation advocates, on the other. While neoliberal apologists promise capitalist renewal with the same monetary imagination in view, radicals imagine bohemian coalitions leading the multitudes through the rubble to a moneyless beyond. MMT’s proposal lacks the allure of both visions. Yet as I wish to argue, it courts the future in a manner that is at once more stirring and far-reaching than either.
Oriented toward a sublime everydayness, the Job Guarantee promises to arouse the center anew without obliging quotidian relations to adopt the colors of particular vanguards or to suffer the injuries of infrastructural disintegration. The excitement of this intervention is that it manages to address the contemporary as an ineluctable totality, while making room for the stubborn facticity of incongruous ways of getting by and along. Rather than delimit the future to a neoliberal nightmare or to contingent rebel poetics, then, the erotics of struggle ushered in by MMT’s Job Guarantee embraces the present totality in all its heterogeneity, horror, and gaucheness.