Race To Washington: The #BlackLivesMatter Case For Guaranteed Employment

(Photo by Robert W. Kelley/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

By Scott Ferguson & Mark L.

Neither individuals nor the private sector of the economy has [taken], or can take responsibility for full employment in American society. This is the responsibility of all segments of the society and thus, finally, of the government. 

- Bayard Rustin, “The Anatomy of Frustration” (May 1968)

Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland: from Ferguson to Cleveland to New York to Baltimore to Waller County, the effects of systemic racism and racialized violence have once again become acutely visible in the United States. Those with a sense of history know that unchecked police violence against communities of color is nothing new but, rather, comprises a permanent feature of American society from its inception to today.

The more present media technologies make racialized violence perceptible, the more we are able to address it. Yet the question remains: beyond expressions of collective outrage, beyond calls to end racial discrimination and brutality, what can be done?

Among the many transformative ideas gaining traction today, and the one that goes furthest in immediately addressing racial injustice, is the proposal for a federally-funded and locally-administered Job Guarantee. Ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to participate in meaningful work and be compensated with a living-wage and health care, the Job Guarantee promises to enfranchise those who have been systematically subordinated by and excluded from the formal employment market, to actively shape and repair damaged communities, and to raise the foundations of economic life from the bottom up.

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economist and Black Studies scholar Mathew Forstater argues that the Job Guarantee answers the racialized, if not outright racist, logics that have long structured unemployment in the United States. Since Reconstruction, unemployment in the Black community has remained stubbornly high. Forstater, however, shows that a currency-issuing state such as The United States is not revenue constrained and argues that Black un- and underemployment is a political decision rather than a market outcome. With this, Forstater not only reveals money to be a limitless public instrument, but also throws new light on seemingly intractable problems, such as the growing crisis of state imprisonment, which disproportionately affects people of color.

In Forstater's analysis, the state implements a racist policy of structural unemployment and then creates below minimum-wage work camps to contain and exploit the social fallout. To make matters worse, when prisoners re-enter civil society, their criminal record radically reduces their job prospects, they are typically strapped with private debt accrued both before and during incarceration and, without anywhere to turn, they are the most likely group to be fined by municipalities like Ferguson, Missouri. This is the sort of vicious cycle that a public Job Guarantee can play an integral role in reversing.

Such a program will not instantly purge American society of racist feelings and practices. It alone will not eliminate wide-spread discrimination and brutality. We must restructure the legal system and dismantle the carceral state. Yet the Job Guarantee would introduce a reparative and potentially revolutionary mode of valuation into present circumstances by involving historically disenfranchised persons in socially meaningful forms of world-making and ensuring their rights to dignified compensation and adequate healthcare. 

MMT helps us understand the true affordability of a Job Guarantee and, in so doing, shows that government’s failure to provide full employment for the Black community (and American society as a whole) is the primary crime looming behind today's viral videos of police brutality.

MMT's Job Guarantee, meanwhile, is more than a targeted remedy for today's un - and underemployed. Rather, it stands to reconfigure all economic relations by actively defining the minimum terms for compensation, health-care, working conditions, paid leave, etc. In empowering the disenfranchised, it will involve working people in shaping the values that drive economic production and distribution on the whole. But above all, MMT's Job Guarantee promises to become a foundational social institution from which others can be demanded and developed. Socialized child and elderly care; affordable education for all ages; low-cost postal banking; community land trusts; ecological cleanup, maintenance, and retrofitting; a public arts infrastructure: such institutions can be more readily fought for and won when launched from the place of empowerment, solidarity, and reciprocity the Job Guarantee promises to  create. For these reasons, we argue, MMT's Job Guarantee is the key to all political goals.

The Black Lives Matter movement is now actively exploiting the power of contemporary media technology to aggressively confront political leaders. As an article in The Nation has characterized it, BLM chapters are demanding that Americans value Black life and that they place this value “above the property rights of Ferguson and Baltimore residents, above the rituals of holiday commerce, and, yes, above the inspiring surge of a socialist presidential candidate.” Given the historical oppression exerted by white supremacy, the BLM intervention is both urgent and necessary.

As part of this intervention, BLM has created a comparatively less publicized list of demands for change wherein full employment features prominently. “Every individual has the human right to employment and a living wage,” states BLM’s “Vision for a New America.” “Inability to access employment and fair pay continues to marginalize our communities, ready us for imprisonment, and deny us of our right to a life with dignity.”

Regrettably, and for reasons that are in part out of the movement’s control, BLM’s demands for full employment have not yet been adequately heard and the Black employment crisis remains largely unknown outside of the Black community and those who make it their business to know. One cannot help but wonder what BLM and other avowedly leftist movements might accomplish with a tool like Modern Monetary Theory and what a revolutionary weapon MMT stands to become in their hands.

Moving forward, it shall be crucial to revisit the historical struggle for a public Job Guarantee waged by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as to draw upon recent scholarship regarding race and full employment carried out by economist William A. Darity and his colleagues. But in an era defined by myths of insufficient taxation and falsehoods about government debt and “affordability,” addressing the invisible violence of systemic unemployment that undergirds today’s spectacles of police brutality will only be possible if we are willing to expand our imagination regarding what money is and what it can be made to accomplish.

If one believes that full employment is vital to liberation, then Modern Monetary Theory's radical departure from orthodox political economy provides a roadmap for actualizing it.


A version of this article appeared previously in Arcade


Scott Ferguson is professor of Film & New Media Studies at the University of South Florida. His present work involves bringing Modern Monetary Theory into dialogue with humanities research and pedagogy. His co-author, Mark L., prefers to remain anonymous.