Skip to content Skip to footer

The Emancipation of the Unemployed

In 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation ended the depraved institution of American slavery. Centuries later there is a new form of slavery that affects the entire country.

An important anniversary is approaching. On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation that sounded the final end of the depraved institution of American slavery was presented to the nation and the world as an emergency war act, a “fit and necessary” measure for suppressing an armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States. The language of the Emancipation Proclamation is restrained by the customary legalisms of government writ; and yet, vibrating through and beyond the tight cords of executive propriety, the drama and permanence of Lincoln’s statement sound clearly, along with the solemn national commitment to sustain the liberation of the newly freed men and women by force of arms:

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

Slavery offends enlightened moral sensibility in two ways: as a transgression of decent boundaries in the realm of property and as an assault on human dignity and justice in the realm of labor and exchange. The first offense concerns what people should and should not be permitted to own. The relation of human beings to their property is a relation between persons and things, between acting moral subjects with aims or goals, and the mere instruments that those persons are permitted by law to control and wield freely to satisfy their wants. It seems almost unbelievable to us today that people in America should once have been permitted to own and possess other human beings, to reduce thinking and feeling women and men to the condition of property.

The second offense has to do with the preservation of human dignity and equal justice in the realm of work and recompense. The slaveholder compels the slave to labor, and then takes the output of the labor for the slaveholder’s own benefit. The slaveholder is not bound to give to the slave a fair wage in return for the service, but only the sustenance required to keep the slave functioning as a laboring machine. No standard of either fair contract between individuals or the just distribution of social obligations among equal citizens comes between the avaricious lash of the slaveholder and laboring effort rendered up by the slave.

Lincoln recognized the evil presence of this second offense in his great Second Inaugural Address. After describing the motivations that led North and South into civil war, he said,

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

And he even suggests that the war might be a severe, but correct, imposition of divine justice:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln recognizes, and expects his listeners to recognize, that there is something sinful in wringing one’s own bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, and in forcing others into unrequited toil.

Slavery still exists in this world, hiding mainly in its dark corners. But although outright slavery is rarer than it once was, some of the fundamental moral challenges posed by slavery exist in other forms. The goods we all enjoy are produced by the labor of other human beings. Can we all honestly say that the share of goods we have received has been fully merited by our own contribution to the totality of human effort? How have these things come into our hands? What would we say if, surrounded by our comforts, we were brought face to face with the choking miner, the broken-backed picker or the lonely, late shift bench worker who produced the things we have? Could we give a satisfactory account of ourselves? Has their labor been requited justly? Is what we have taken matched by what we have given in return?

And there is a related moral challenge posed by contemporary social conditions, one that equally tests our sense of justice and dignity in the realm of work. This is the problem of people who are compelled against their wills not to work. Tens of millions of people in the United States are enduring unemployment. These are people who are officially in the workforce, and who are both able to work and willing to work, but who cannot find employment. Over 8% of the workforce is in this condition. That number does not count people who have dropped out of the workforce from despair. It also doesn’t count their children and other dependents who are not in the workforce at all, but who suffer just as well from the joblessness of their forlorn providers. The percentage of the population that is employed has collapsed to levels not seen since the time when women entered the workforce in large numbers 2/3rds of the way through the 20th century. Our toleration of these conditions of enforced joblessness is a national moral disgrace. We must emancipate the unemployed.

In might seem strange to think of unwanted joblessness as a moral stain on our society to be mentioned in the same context as forced labor. After all, the jobless are generally not being whipped and beaten, or physically shackled to their jobless status. That is true. But enforced joblessness is an assault on human dignity and a betrayal of the bond of fellowship that binds citizens in a democracy to one another. To see this, we need to reflect a bit on the nature of work: on why we value it, how we reward it, how we create the opportunities for people to provide it, and what happens in a society that neglects its obligation to provide these opportunities.

Americans are a hard working people, and they honor an ethic of work. This work ethic is often seen as an attendant of capitalism, and even a religious legacy of the predominantly Protestant founders of the United States. But I would argue that the work ethic is inherent in the fundamental democratic ideals of American society. Any society that strives toward an ideal of democratic equality, based on a republican and democratic conception of equal citizenship, with all of its members possessing equal rights and obligations, will be bound to promote an ethic of work.

In an aristocratic system, or any social system based on hierarchical social order, those at the top will require work from those at the bottom, and will use that work to support their own affluent and more leisured lives. They will certainly value work in one sense, insofar as the work is something usefully performed by those in the lower orders of society to support those at the top. But the aristocrats are likely to regard work they might perform themselves as something undignified, something that is beneath their station. They will wear their idleness and abundant leisure proudly, as a mark of their exalted status. People in the lower orders will of course resent the work extracted from them in excess to support those indolent others, and in exchange for substantially less reward than is granted their social superiors; and they will seek to escape from that work, seeing it as a humiliating mark of their social inferiority. So in a hierarchical society work is likely to be viewed as something either to be disdained or resented.

But in a democratic society, citizens regard themselves as bound to one another by a social contract according each citizen equal social standing. This code of social equality fosters ideals of teamwork and mutual obligation. Just as democracies seek to erase the difference between the governors and the governed by forging a system of self-government, and by sharing the difficult chores of governance among the whole body politic under a duty of civic participation, so democracies are likely to view the sum total of labor that is needed to satisfy the society’s material needs, and to help the society thrive and prosper, as a social obligation to be shared. Not everyone can do the same things, of course, but all are expected to do their fair share of work in exchange for the many benefits they receive from living in a successful society, benefits that have been produced by the labors of their fellow citizens. If we are raised in a society of social equals, or at least a society that promotes an ideal of equal citizenship and social equality, we will have internalized this work ethic. We will see work as the means by which we earn our full place in society and declare our equal standing, and will seek to do our duty to our fellow citizens by contributing our best efforts to the common need. We will also chafe under conditions that force us into the indignity of unemployment.

Of course, in our present society these democratic ideals are practiced very imperfectly. The rewards we receive for our work are very unequally distributed. Even those who labor strenuously and do their best might receive little. And when people lose their jobs, we take little responsibility as a society for the individual costs of forcing people into unemployment. Some social support is offered, but the jobless and their families often lose substantial portions of their property, including their homes. They might lose their communities as well, being forced into a kind of internal exile in the world of shelters. They might be forced to live in their cars, or on the streets. Sometimes they lose their families, when they can no longer support their loved ones in any adequate way. And when they reach extremes of despair and shame, they sometimes lose their lives at their own hands.

But even when social welfare systems are adequate, and the unemployed and their families are able to continue with lives of minimal economic decency, the jobless are forced into a condition of social dependency: in effect forced out of full adulthood back into the humiliating condition of a repeated childhood. They are not supporting themselves and their families; they are not working shoulder-to-shoulder with their fellow citizens in the everyday work that holds the country together. Instead they are the recipients of the paternal largesse of their society, burdened with feelings of inadequacy and failure. People will stand in long lines just to get an opportunity to move out of this dependency, and into a paid position that offers material rewards little better than the alms they are already receiving, but which does offer them the opportunity to earn their way in the world with dignity.

So, seen from the perspective of the unemployed person, there is something very awful and terribly unjust about forced unemployment. But when seen from the perspective of our whole society and its needs, there is also something almost criminally stupid about a system that tolerates mass unemployment. It would be one thing if people lacked work because we had in some sense run out of useful things to do, and had achieved all of our social goals and ambitions. But this is very far from the case. We are surrounded everywhere by the evidence of work that needs to be done and is not being done. Many of our public goods are vanishing; much of our public infrastructure is falling apart; our children need better educations than they are receiving; our systems for harnessing and distributing energy need radical change; our systems for transporting people are inadequate, and in some cases embarrassingly backward. And in the background of all this is a world that needs saving from environmental stresses that have left the globe teetering on the verge of catastrophe. There is far more that needs to be done than there are people to do it. And yet millions languish in unemployment.

So: massive and critical needs for human labor on one side; unemployed humans willing to work on the other side. What is wrong with us? Surely we must be doing something very wrong as a society in the way we organize and distribute work and the rewards for work, since we are failing to find ways of connecting willing workers with the palpable need for work!

Indeed we are failing. We have fixed ourselves, stubbornly and ideologically, on a system that grants to private enterprise and the owners of private property a collective monopoly on the provision of work opportunities for our people. But it should be abundantly clear by now that, as wonderful as private enterprise and the entrepreneurial spirit are for identifying and creating most of the opportunities for useful labor that are required for the satisfaction of our day-to-day wants, private enterprise is not adequate to do the whole job. Left to its own devices, it leaves many people unemployed and many pressing social needs for useful work unsatisfied. Indeed, some of the largest and most important jobs are left undone.

This need for public involvement in the creation of work opportunities was recognized long ago by the economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith. Smith wrote that a duty of the sovereign or commonwealth was

… that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, and which it therefore cannot be expected that any individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain.

Smith offered a long list of such works, including universal public education, roads, bridges and canals. He also argued that “the performance of this duty requires, too, very different degrees of expense in the different periods of society.” Surely we have reached one of those periods in which the duty is urgent.

Some have argued that the existence of unemployment is not really a sign of a massive social failure to organize the opportunities for needed work in an effective and complete way, but more a sign of our abundance. They think we are nearing the end of the road for the need for additional human work, as technology and other productivity improvements move more and more of the responsibility for economic production to automated systems. They imagine a robot future, where machine production satisfies our material needs, and we humans devote all of our time to leisure pursuits. So rather than seeking to employ more people, they say, we should begin the process of rendering unemployment more socially and individually tolerable, and of moving people into the future of leisure that awaits us.

I am rather skeptical of this vision. There have been many dramatic improvements in human productivity over the past several centuries. But I believe historical experience suggests that as we free human beings from the need to expend as much work effort as they had previously to sustain their existing way of life, they always move on with industry and zeal to explore whole new areas for human work that they previously lacked the time even to consider. If the robots of the shiny future handle most of the production that we do now by ourselves, we will likely have moved on to apply our efforts elsewhere to open up new vitas for dramatic human improvement, scenes of progress that we can’t even imagine now. I find it hard to imagine we will ever be satisfied with what we have, and will declare an end to hard work and hard-won progress. We are mortal and finite creatures, with our backs up against an inevitable eternity and path of suffering that we always seek to hold off as long as possible. No matter what we have, the gulf between our present state and our unfulfilled dreams will be yawning.

And however much total work we choose to do, we will need to distribute that work among ourselves, and distribute the fruits of that work as well. There is no excuse for consigning some of our citizens to a lower social order of dependency, indignity, and relative poverty. Nor is there an excuse for denying them the opportunity to be full contributors to the project of maintaining our society through work.

But it is not enough to provide opportunities for work of some kind to all of our people. It is also important that we find ways of allowing people to contribute the full range of their talents and potential. Anything else is a waste for society and grief for the individual. A society is failing when it has divided its goods so unevenly that it ends up with engineers, educators, skilled artisans, clever mathematicians and talented artists scraping barnacles off the yachts of the wealthy or selling them perfume across retail counters. A society that is moving in this direction is moving away from democratic equality, and toward the gradual reduction of the majority of its people to demeaning servitude.

Lincoln concluded the Emancipation Proclamation with these words:

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Liberation from slavery meant admission into the fraternity of democratic citizenship, a fraternity of people who freely offer their faithful labor to one another in exchange for reasonable wages. In some cases they even offered their labor in the terrible field of war. I would suggest that the wages of our own present labors include not just the material goods which we directly receive from our employers, but the many benefits we enjoy every day from living in a developed society that has been built from, and is daily sustained by, the labor of others. The sidewalks we walk on, the streets we drive on, the well-educated citizens we encounter, and the civil peace and order of our communities are all the fruits of hard work. And these fruits are all part of our wages. What do we owe in return?

We have for too long prolonged a failing and barbaric social system that denies to millions of our fellow citizens – who are so eager to labor faithfully for the sake of themselves, their families, their communities and their country – the opportunity to join the ranks of the working. Yet we know how to end this system. We know what can be done, and we know what needs to be done. There is a future to be built, a planet to be saved, a stagnating country to be revived. And so many people want to help. It is time for the public to step forward, and to organize those public enterprises that are needed to perform the many unfulfilled tasks that private enterprise cannot accomplish on its own, and to give all of our citizens a chance to show what they can do. And remember this: So long as we permit a system that sets aside a degrading dungeon of unemployment for castoffs from the private sector workforce, none of us are as free as we should be, because the threat of dismissal into the dungeon can be held over our own heads by those who own the keys.

We are only four months away from the 150th anniversary of the great statement that proclaimed an end to a monstrous and cruel system of bondage and unrequited toil. On that anniversary we should proclaim a new liberation from the bondage of forced joblessness and dependency. It is possible that no American politician, no Lincoln of our time, will have the courage to lead us in making this proclamation. We must then proclaim it ourselves, affix the seal of the citizenry to it, and make it known to our elected representatives so that they will be compelled to put it into force.

​​Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.

Truthout is widely read among people with lower ­incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.

We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so — especially now, because we have just 5 days left to raise $40,000 in critical funds.

We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?