Work and leisure
Work can give people a role in society for which they can be respected, as well as a sense of meaning in their lives, and paid work provides them with an income. However, there are many forms of work that are financially unrewarded or socially undervalued, but which nevertheless are essential to the smooth functioning of society, or in other ways of real value.
Capitalism is essentially ‘value-free’, in the sense that moral principles and notions of good and bad practice are not inherent in it, even if they appear to emerge in practice. Admittedly it tends to cause things to be produced that satisfy a demand, and it can therefore be seen on balance as a mechanism for good that has served human society well. There is much to be said for this point of view, but it is only part of the story. Capitalism has also produced exploitation, the arms trade, drugs dealers, and slavery.
Unfortunately alternative economic systems, however humane their theoretical rationales, have also created appalling excesses, and the verdict of history at the present time favours a regulated capitalism as the system that gives the greatest scope for enterprise, creativity, and ‘progress’.
The idea of work as a social imperative
What most modern economic systems have in common is that they see ‘work’ (that is, paid employment by someone else) as a social imperative: the maxim is, ‘If any would not work, neither should he eat.’ This makes sense from an economic perspective since economic theories can only quantify the creation of wealth that can be traded.
But this is a narrow, inconsistent and, we believe, inadequate view. It is inconsistent in that it exempts the rich entirely, but more importantly it overlooks the many contributions people make to society in ways other than through paid work, and the fact that paid work is not always beneficial to society. A stand-up comedian gets paid, but someone who makes people laugh in the bus queue is also making a contribution. A carer gets paid (though not usually enough), but people all over the country are caring for others in return for neither reward nor recognition. Cigarette manufacturers get paid, but their main contributions to society are lung cancer, emphysema and huge NHS bills.
From time to time some of these discrepancies are recognised and there is an attempt to canvass public opinion on what would be ‘fair’ wages for different occupations. The result is always and inevitably inconclusive, for the reasons we have already considered — and because what is of value for one individual at one point in time is not the same as for another individual at another point in time.
An alternative approach
The Peace Party would disentangle the basic human right (as we see it) to a decent quality of life from the moral responsibility to make a contribution to society. That is to say, everyone is entitled to a ‘decent life’. Everyone also has a moral responsibility to make a contribution to society. But each of these principles stands on its own — if they are linked in practice it is only by economic necessity.
Of course it is possible to take the view, as many do, that you should only ‘take out’ of the system as much as you ‘put in’, and this is no doubt an excellent guiding principle for one’s own actions. The difficulties arise when it is applied to the conduct of others — who is to decide ‘how much’ a person ‘puts in’? How is it to be measured? The conventional answer to the last question is that it is that economics will decide. But as we have just seen, capitalist economics is amoral. It can only value commodities that can be traded, and ‘demand and supply’ can be a perverse indicator of value. There is a huge demand world-wide for AK47s and crack cocaine, but the world would be a much better place without them.
In principle, the Peace Party supports the view that people have a right to live and work wherever they wish. There is something strange about a system in which capital is able to move freely across national boundaries (sometimes, it has to be said, with disastrous consequences), but people cannot.
In times of national stress immigrants make a convenient target for blame and resentment. It is easy to find, and easier to invent, stories in which immigrants appear to have been favoured over the indigenous population in the allocation of social housing and other resources. Then there is the argument that immigration cannot be supported because resources are not available, an argument which generally overlooks the fact that resources may actually be increased by the immigration population.
Of course, there are limits to the rates of immigration a country can support without undergoing radical change, but it is doubtful if such levels would ever be reached in practice. Instead of panicking about the possible effects of excessive immigration it would be much more sensible to concern ourselves with how immigrants are treated when they are here. For example it makes no sense to bar an immigrant from employment, and then deny him or her access to social security.
It is sometimes claimed that employing immigrants tends to reduce the standard of working conditions for everyone else. There is some justice in this view. Immigrants will usually come from a part of the world where standards are lower than they are in the UK, and they may be prepared to work for lower wages and in poorer conditions than their British counterparts. Consequently they can be exploited by unscrupulous employers to reduce costs and increase profits, with the result that standards are lowered and indigenous employment is increased.
Part of the solution to this difficulty is to make it illegal for an employer to employ immigrants for lower wages or in poorer conditions than British employees. This would only have an impact on employers that relied primarily on British workers, and would not help very much in seasonal casual work, and in these situations proper enforcement of minimum wages is the only solution.
British immigration policy is at present openly hostile to immigrants. This seems to be a deliberate policy designed to ‘send a message’ to potential immigrants that the UK is not a good destination. The Peace Party would reverse this policy and set up a Department charged with the specific task of finding ways to settle immigrants, be they economic or political. There would have to be co-operation with other European countries, up to and including arrangements for helping immigrants to settle in the most appropriate place.