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Reinventing Employment With Solidarity Ethics – OpEd


Solidarity ethics offers keys that open many doors.  Here I suggest that if not by force of law, then by force of conscience, they oblige everyone to contribute, to the extent that they can, to the creation of employment with dignity for all those who need it.


Opening doors to employment would open doors to complying with other social rights in addition to the right to a good job. It would facilitate crime prevention. It would defuse the frustrations that drive youths toward drugs and gangs.

I refer to solidarity ethics in the plural. An ethic of care, associated with important versions of feminism, is one.   Indigenous worldviews like Buen Vivir and Ubuntu provide more.   The term “solidarity” originated in the working class movement in France, and later became a centerpiece of the social doctrines of the Catholic Church and the doctrines of several protestant denominations.  Axel Honneth in The Idea of Socialism finds two key ideas in socialism before Marx: One is that humans can remake institutions to make their institutions better serve their needs.   We need not settle for a supposedly universal and eternal God-given social order.  The other is the ideal of “communities of solidarity.”

A focus on the word “solidarity” does not imply insisting on a single vocabulary. It is common knowledge that human beings often say the same things with different words, or say different things with the same words. Every word can be abused, and “solidarity” is no exception.  When and where “solidarity” has been badly injured and has lost its force to serve the good, it may be best to silence it and use a substitute like “ethics of care. “

The key to the criteria for articulating one or another ethics of solidarity is often found in deducing virtues and duties from an imperative to satisfy human needs. Examples are found in the norms of the first Christians: “and distribution was made to every man according as he had need” (Acts 4:35, King James translation). Another example is found in the last words of the Critique of the Gotha Program: “to each according to his needs.” Carol Gilligan’s feminism is defined by its author as paying attention to needs.  Notice what others need and help if you can.

Libertarian philosophers, for their part, such as Friedrich von Hayek and Robert Nozick, are consistent. They emphatically insist that the fact that a person needs something does not impose any duty on anyone else, in the absence of an obligation created by a contract that expresses an agreement between free wills.


My thesis in this text is that solidarity offers a solution to the problem of unemployment studied, but not solved, by John Maynard Keynes. According to Keynes’s reasonable analysis, the level of employment is a function of consumer demand. If there is enough demand, there is profitability.  Then employers hire workers. And if there is no profit to be made by hiring, hiring does not happen.  Chronically, sales (aggregate demand) are insufficient to motivate the hiring of everyone who needs money to support themselves and their family. Keynes draws the conclusion from the logic and history of markets that even nearly full employment happens rarely.  When it does happen it is temporary. Keynes was often in favour of lowering interest rates and raising public spending in order to boost employment, but he recognized that such measures were palliatives and not solutions.

To his analysis of unemployment, Keynes could have added a fact documented today in detail by the ILO in Geneva. In this world the majority of jobs are precarious, poorly paid, and in one word humiliating.

The solidarity solution follows a trail opened by Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, Book Two, Chapter Three).  Smith calls a “worker” a person who produces a “vendible” good or service, which his employer can sell on terms that increase the employer’s fortune. The other type of employee Smith calls servants. Servants, by definition, do not produce anything to sell. Nevertheless, they are paid.    Smith observes that the work of servants often has great human value. Surely, if he were to review his book in 2022, Smith would add that the work of servants may have great ecological value.

The ethical criterion of solidarity builds on the principle that surpluses should be moved from where there is no need for them to where there is need.  It allows us to speak of servants whose work is financed by solidarity, and is performed to serve the common good.   The conceptual move from the ethics of solidarity to the norm of transferring surpluses to where unsatisfied needs are found uses the word “surplus.”

Briefly, the surplus is the money that can be subtracted from financing production without harming the continuation of production.   Following Alfred Marshall, we can count a normal profit, defined as a profit sufficient to motivate continuing the business, as distinct from abandoning it, as a cost of production, while “rent” is not a cost of production. Surplus is left over. It is available.

Qualifying: The technical languages of economic science (e.g. “rents”) and of accounting (e.g. “ROI, return on investment”) make valuable contributions to determining what is surplus and what is not surplus.  Nevertheless, identifying “surplus” in deliberations leading to decisions that guide actions is not just a technical exercise.   It is ethical and political too.  Participating in them competently requires ethical virtue and political wisdom (Amartya Sen spells this out in his book The Idea of Justice). This is true both of decisions drawing the line between costs of production and surplus, and of decisions to use the surplus to satisfy certain unmet needs and not others. They are ethical decisions and political outcomes.  “Rent” is perhaps best regarded as a technical economic concept that is often useful in ethical deliberation.  “Surplus” is an ethical concept.  The word “surplus,” and also the word “need” are often tentative descriptions that start necessary conversations that require the virtues of sound moral judgment to reach conclusions whose outcomes are actions.

Today, in the twenty-first century, majorities among the educated public no longer believe that the government alone can correct the failures of the market or that the market alone tends towards the optimal well-being of the majority. For my thesis that solidarity can help correct the great typical failures of market economies, this implies that those majorities no longer fall into the illusion that the hiring at a good salary of a sufficient number of workers and servants to end unworthy poverty, which is the fate of so many millions today, can be guaranteed by governments. Even Sweden had to abandon in 1970 its policy of giving public work to everyone who was left behind without decent work in the private sector.

Most nation-states today are underfunded and deeply in debt.   The principle enunciated by Joseph Schumpeter in 1918, that a state relying mainly on taxes for its income, a Steuerstaat, cannot be a sustainable welfare state, is being verified at great cost to people and planet.

Thomas Piketty has calculated that the net wealth of a typical national government is close to zero.  The sum of public assets is approximately equal to the sum of public debts. The bulk of the wealth in this world is found in private sectors.

I suggest the conclusion that today a serious attempt to end poverty has to include the reform of civil society by a culture shift toward ethics of solidarity.   The power of the state should not be underestimated or overestimated.  One step any individual can take is personally to choose to live an ethic of solidarity.

To live an ethic of solidarity, a good start can be to analyse our own budgets and the budgets of the organizations in which we participate. I believe that the great majority of the human beings now alive on this planet, when analysing their income and their expenses, will confirm what they already know: that they do not have any surplus.  In my case (not only as an individual, but as a member of a household), I find that in my old age I have some surplus, although in my youth I had none. I (we) have been able to support two “servants” in the sense of Adam Smith.  The many things they do that we support include planting trees that are native species and teaching organic gardening techniques to girls and boys in primary schools.

Analysing figures from the World Bank, I estimate that there are around 600 million people in the world with incomes higher than ours. If each would support two additional people, then more work with dignity would be created without having to comply with the barrier to employment analysed by Keynes: that there is no work for you if no employer finds it profitable to hire you.  And without having to comply with the barrier to the infinite multiplication of mini-entrepreneurs:  that no matter how enthusiastic you are about your new business, the limited number of customers entails that some –in practice most—new small enterprises fail.

When the principle is understood — the principle that employment with dignity can be created by sharing surplus–there are innumerable ways to apply it, in the private sector, in the public sector, and in any of many third sectors.

Analysing income data from the same source, I estimate that there are also around 1.7 billion people with enough surplus to donate regularly to a non-profit institution. The sums of many small donations fund work with dignity in the NGO world.

If a cultural transformation at the level of ethics paves the way —as Pierre Bourdieu suggested– to an eventual legal transformation of the now dominant social structures, the result would be even better.

Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is a philosopher of social science and Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, USA. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. He currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. His books include: The Evaluation of Cultural Action, a study of an application of Paulo Freire´s pedagogical philosophy in rural Chile (London Macmillan 1985); Letters from Quebec; Understanding the Global Economy; The Dilemmas of Social Democracies; Gandhi and the Future of Economics; Rethinking Thinking; Unbounded Organizing in Community; and The Nurturing of Time Future. His new book, written with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential for Survival, is now available from the publisher, Dignity Press, and from Amazon and other major booksellers, as a print book and as an eBook.[email protected]

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) 

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