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The Dignity of Labour

Jon Cruddas

"The Dignity of Labour", Jon Cruddas

A failed attempt to discredit basic income policy

Jon Cruddas delivers a deep review of British socialism, running from its philosophical roots, through to Labour party politics, ultimately incarnated in the unionised Ford plant at Dagenham. His chapter 5 on Marx is heavily intellectual and not easily accessible. He doesn’t mention Keynes’s pathbreaking diagnostic in his General Theory on wage in the economy. His chronicle of the British political left offers an intense history of leading figures, movements and ‘isms’ which he deftly covers as a well-versed insider, but which is more accessible for other insiders rather than the general reader. The treatment might have been better presented as thematic rather than chronological. He could have fingered poor management to blame for the demise of manufacturing in the UK, from the car industry, through GEC, Marconi, ICI, and ICL. Equally, a more balanced assessment of the outcomes of UK trade union action would have been helpful.

Chapter 8 on justice contrasts ‘economistic’ definitions of policy to a focus on ethics and virtue. This promises to be very relevant and could helpfully be expanded. But Cruddas gives only 2 pages (136-138) to discussing virtue, mentioning only Aristotle, without making any reference to a secular interpretation of Christ, or the philosopher of virtue, André Comte-Sponville.

Given his evident erudition, his superficial scathing dismissal of arguments on automation and associated proposals for basic income is hugely disappointing. He far too frequently describes these concerns as ‘fashionable’, as though this simple repetition will suffice to discredit them. He particularly dismisses technology determinism, repeating that ‘technology is not destiny’ (p125,171 etc), without any proper treatment of this core issue in philosophy. Much technology evolution is a host of micro-developments, under the radar, and so determined by embedded processes. Large scale technology developments like stem-cell research, GM crops, nuclear fission, are obvious in the public domain, but we may lack total power of choice and control over them. Philosophers of technology such as Andrew Feenberg and Jurgen Habermas advocate a democratic process to determine technology choices, but it is not clear exactly how this could operate. Cruddas ignores all this.  It’s not clear whether he is proposing an Amish solution to avoid technology and automation?

The case for basic income (see is far stronger than Cruddas allows. It is based on social justice, effective and non-intrusive welfare, human flourishing in lifestyle choice, and is environmentally responsible. It's funding by debt-free sovereign money is entirely feasible, as has been demonstrated by the £875bn recently created by the Bank of England to fund the furlough scheme and other expenditure. This would finally address the debt-ridden structure of modern economies.

Cruddas claims that there is no evidence that work will end or that robots will take over (p172). But this ignores very clear evidence that aggregate labour income in the UK economy has declined against consumer expenditure constantly from 1948 to now. It also ignores academic evidence that technology is a main explanation for the reduction in the labour share of output.

He ends by describing features and characteristics of the good work he advocates (p175), but fails to demonstrate that the production function of a high technology economy can deliver such work. He calls for a ‘job guarantee’, a proposal that fails to show how suitable jobs can be specified, created and managed. For these reasons, his book is very disappointing. Keir Starmer has written an endorsement, but it can only be hoped that this muddled thinking doesn’t become the basis for Labour’s next manifesto.

The book is available here.

Geoff Crocker
Editor ‘The Case for Universal Basic Income'

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