Here, Jon Cruddas makes the case that the dignity of work must be the cornerstone of a common good politics. A seasoned politician and policy expert whose analysis is underpinned by the tradition of Catholic social teaching, Cruddas walks us through the meaning of the dignity of labour in theory and in practice, showing why labour takes precedence over capital. Rejecting proposals for a Universal Basic Income, he examines the arguments for and against. His conviction is that work is fundamentally a spiritual activity through which people collaborate with God for the redemption of humanity.
The Common Good, Universal Basic Income and the Dignity of Labour
The Common Good
The notion of the Common Good is concerned with personal and mutual flourishing in terms of our talents and vocations, treating people as belonging to families, localities and communities and to shared traditions, interests and faiths that have been neglected by an exclusively legalistic, managerial and technocratic conception of justice and politics.
The guiding philosophy of the Common Good is the mutual recognition that we depend upon other people throughout our lives; that we need one another to succeed individually. In industrial society, the call of solidarity upheld this interdependency especially in terms of the dignity of labour. It did so by appealing to an underlying, common identity in terms of human dignity. As politics has become increasingly instrumental and economistic, the idea of the Common Good helps us retrieve a language around what it is to live a good life. Not least because globalisation tends to detach economic and political power from locality, tradition and interpersonal relationships.
The aspiration to lead a meaningful life goes deep into our consciousness. The desire is individual, but it is not selfish. For writers such as Charles Taylor it involves the right of everyone to achieve their own unique way of being human. To dispute this right in others is to fail to live within its own terms. Our social bonds are realised in the ethic of reciprocity – do not do to others what you would not have them do to you. Our freedom is conditional upon the constraints of our obligation to others. Equality is not the imposition of sameness, nor the standardising of our individuality: it is the ethical core of justice. It holds that each individual is irreplaceable, and it is the necessary condition for social freedom. It is an ideal in which freedom finds a synthesis with equality in an expression of our common humanity. Equality is bigger than distributive justice.
What is Dignity?
We can identify a ‘thin’ version of dignity which originates from Latin notions of worthiness, to describe something concrete achieved in terms of respect and status. Yet the word also suggests something more significant, something that we acknowledge when lost; the negation of dignity. It implies a process of reduction, degradation, or dehumanisation. This is captured both by religious and secular humanist appreciations of intrinsic human worth and acceptable moral standards. In this sense dignity has real significance across a variety of spiritual, ethical and human rights traditions.
My early Catholic catechism insisted that the “dignity of the human person is rooted in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God.”  In secularized traditions, dignity relates to notions of agency and the ability of humans to choose their own actions.
This idea of an essential dignity implies ethical duties to remedy things or processes that violate dignity – such as genocide, torture, tyranny and exploitation. Our dignity – both in a personal sense as well as in society as a whole – is shaped by what we tolerate and what we do not.
This was famously captured in the aftermath of the inhumanity of genocide and Nazi degradation in Articles 1 and 2 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 
- All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
- Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
It is important to emphasise that Article 2 follows Article 1, whereby the essential dignity of the person became the organising principle informing international human rights.
The Dignity of Labour
The dignity of labour can also be understood in terms of worthiness and status, that all types of jobs be respected equally, and no occupation considered superior in terms of awarding esteem and reward. Yet within Christian ethics and specifically Catholic Social Teaching, the dignity of labour stretches beyond such a thin usage. On May 15th 1891 Pope Leo XIII published Rerum Novarum – in Latin meaning ‘of revolutionary change’ – on the ‘Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour’. 
It remains an extraordinary condemnation of industrial capitalism and the immiseration of the working class. It asserts the moral imperative to regulate capitalism and established ‘a preferential option for the poor’ in the evolution of Catholic thought. This creed advocated unions, collective bargaining and a living wage to maintain and respect the dignity of the person in the workplace, created in the image of God. It urged the capitalist ‘not to look upon their work-people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character’.
Ninety years later in Laborum Excercens , an encyclical “On Human Work”, Pope John Paul II offered a restatement of this tradition. It began by elaborating why work is not simply a commodity or random action but essential to human nature, ‘a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth’ and ‘man is the subject of work’ and by acting on nature through work finds fulfilment and becomes ‘more of a human being’.
The text asserts that labour takes precedence over capital and the need for work protections to halt the violations of dignity including unemployment, wage inequalities, job insecurities and technological change. The last of which can ‘supplant’ the person ‘taking away all personal satisfaction and the incentive to creativity and responsibility, when it deprives many workers of their previous employment, or when, through exalting the machine, it reduces man to the status of its slave’. Work is a spiritual activity, following in the footsteps of a carpenter, through which man collaborates ‘for the redemption of humanity’.
Pope Francis has been a radical advocate of this intellectual inheritance stating on Twitter in 2014: ‘How I wish everyone had decent work! It is essential for human dignity’. 
The Dignity of Labour Today
Until recently the idea of the dignity of labour appeared somewhat old fashioned, dated. Indeed, until recently, if we discussed dignity we were likely to be contemplating how we die rather than how we are to live. Yet the pandemic changed this. In confronting death we once again recognised the worth of others and the dignity of their contributions.
We applauded care home workers, nurses, porters, orderlies and doctors. We were moved by the sacrifice of tube, bus and lorry drivers, cleaners, teachers, the police and fire service, front line council workers – welfare and housing officers, maintenance and refuse operatives – as well as delivery drivers, supermarket employees and many others. These jobs are now more visible and have acquired renewed standing. We recognise the dignity of the labour.
Until recently we were told many of these jobs would soon be automated and few cared. This work is often poorly rewarded, performed by those considered part of the ‘left behind’. Yet we clapped in appreciation of this labour; these vocations gathered esteem.
Dignity is not just about status; worthiness in a job hierarchy. It is also about something we acknowledge when lost. It implies intrinsic human worth and acceptable moral standards in terms of rights, freedoms and obligations in the ways people live and work together. These are questions of justice. They suggest ethical duties in how we order society. In tolerating forms of death, punishment, slavery, abuse and exploitation we compromise both our personal and collective dignity.
As we emerge from the pandemic, this idea of human dignity, specifically the dignity of labour, could become the organising principle for a new approach to politics built around a revived sense of justice and the idea of a renewed Common Good – and a new kind of ethical leadership. For instance in a renewed sense of duty to properly reward and support our vocations – callings – and to confront the modern degradation of work across much of the gig economy, like zero-hours contracts and the practice of ‘firing and rehiring’ such as at British Gas. The pandemic has once again put the dignity of labour centre stage.
Universal Basic Income
UBI in Theory
UBI is a big powerful idea. There are strong arguments for and against it. Yet in terms of upholding the dignity of labour we should remain cautious.
Before the pandemic amongst a growing vocal movement UBI emerged as the economic and social antidote to automation; after the virus struck many embraced the idea to remedy the fallout from contagion. All sorts of people, for completely different reasons, often bitter political opponents, think it’s an idea whose time has come. It should therefore be treated seriously and investigated thoroughly.
UBI is generally understood to mean a regular, state administered, universal unconditional payment. But is often used to describe all sorts of things not technically UBI.
A series of left-wing arguments have been made in favour. It clearly appeals to a left utilitarian case for maximising the welfare of the maximum number of citizens. Some argue it helps resist the commodification of labour. Others assert that it nurtures ‘unalienated’, non-market labour and helps the bargaining power of workers.
Yet UBI is also rejected on the left. Many think it underplays the democratic qualities that should characterise a just society. It oversimplifies and standardises economic and social need through a universal monetary figure, triggers ‘free rider’ concerns, and underplays the significance that contribution should play in building a just society. Citizenship consists of deeper relations, duties and obligations to fellow citizens – questions of fraternity – above and beyond money transfers.
Liberal arguments in favour include the libertarian desire for individual freedom and release from an over mighty state bureaucracy and collectivised public services. From a more progressive perspective, it can express a basic human right to a certain level of subsistence. There is also a liberal argument, traced back to Thomas Paine, that UBI respects the shared human inheritance of all citizens.
UBI can also appeal to those operating within republican traditions of justice. It can secure freedom from domination, or provide the freedom in time and resources to help citizens to flourish and participate and contribute to a just society.
From an alternative feminist standpoint, it challenges the idea of the male breadwinner and the character of domestic labour.
Yet the idea also has political support on the radical right. Milton Friedman advocated a not dissimilar negative income tax to roll back the state. Charles Murray saw UBI as a vehicle to dismantle public services, labour and social security protections. Under such approaches real freedom is secured by replacing the architecture of the welfare state with a personalised fiscal transfer.
Yet to left wing advocates it offers precisely the opposite. It complements rather than substitutes for welfare systems and labour market protections. UBI separates wage labour from income, and thereby confronts the very nature of capitalist reproduction. For others it simply acts to correct in-work poverty or the bargaining power of labour.
Other advocates of UBI claim political neutrality and suggest it offsets the unequal consequences of automation: UBI will distribute what the robots, AI and machine working will produce.
The point I am trying to make is that UBI is difficult to assess in terms of competing theories of justice or on a simple divide between left and right. At a minimum however, we might suggest that its confident utopian advocates should remain cautious when their most committed opponents are also likely to support the idea in order to secure radically different outcomes.
UBI in Practice
There are also more mundane, practical issues that confront advocates of UBI. Is it financially feasible? Is it more effective in securing what its advocates desire compared to, say, Sovereign Wealth Funds, Federal Job Guarantee Programmes or Universal Credit? How has it operated in practice? Who benefits and who does not? What policies need to accompany UBI to ensure desired outcomes? Much of the practical evidence is inconclusive.
The available evidence basically concludes that affordability is linked to the level of the UBI; it costs more to introduce a generous payment and this in turn shapes the concrete effect. The scale of ambition appears to define both its cost and consequences.
Then there is a basic category issue regarding citizenship and the defined community with UBI. Advocates must grapple with the politics of migration, free movement and modern ‘insider/outsider’ dilemmas that bedevil politics and any attempts to redraw the social contract.
The writer Louise Haagh has suggested that to survive, UBI needs to be rescued from the hands of the polemicist, populist and reductionist. The tendency has been to create a solve-all or solve-nothing debate, whereas the strongest case for UBI is as part of an overall anti-poverty strategy – not so much as an antidote to the problems of modern capitalism. I agree with this type of analysis.
The Dignity of Labour and the Case Against UBI
We might suggest that the real problem with the debate around UBI today is how it is driven – despite protestations to the contrary – by deterministic assumptions of technological change; by those who celebrate the inevitable ‘end of work’. Yet technology is not destiny – if it were, we might all support UBI.
If work were to end, the case for UBI would be much stronger than if full employment was feasible. The best arguments against UBI relate to questions regarding the dignity of labour.
If politics matters, and could help create good, purposeful, rewarding work, then the case for UBI would be less overwhelming than in a world of inevitably degraded jobs.
I believe work to be fundamental to humanity and a vital source of dignity. Today the basic case for UBI is to offset future structural unemployment given inexorable technological change and automation. Yet there is no evidence that work will end; the picture is more mixed, messy and political.
There is literally no compelling evidence that the robots are taking over. Down the ages the case that automation would induce mass unemployment has regularly been made, yet it never turned out as predicted. This is a political contest.
The danger is that UBI becomes an ‘I give up’ policy in terms of the dignity of labour. In the UK before the virus struck, we had the highest levels of employment for over 40 years. Yet when the pandemic arrived, worked stopped, and the furlough programme was effectively a UBI test drive. Nothing is predestined.
You can accept and support UBI as a short-term remedy to correct a unique short-term shrinkage in work, but also believe such a collapse should be used as an opportunity to challenge the dominance of capital: to rebuild the nature of work – to commit to securing the right to decent, purposeful work as part of a renewed Common Good.
The UBI debate reveals profound disagreements about what we value and the dignity of human labour. Even if technological change is wiping out millions of jobs, should we just accept this?
If we believe in the dignity derived from good work, if we understand that through work the person finds fulfilment and becomes ‘more of a human being’; if we agree that labour takes precedence over capital; if we believe that work is fundamentally a spiritual activity, through which people collaborate with God ‘for the redemption of humanity’, then we cannot give up.
If we believe these things, then we are duty-bound by conviction to apply our ingenuity to create new forms of employment, to organise and campaign for decent job and income guarantees, collective rights, strong unions and decent public services, not to give in to a vision of mass welfare with UBI.
There is a strong case against UBI if you believe the end of work thesis to be fundamentally flawed, if you believe the nature of work to be an inherently political question, if you reject a politics over-reliant on questions of distribution and utility, and if you recognise the intrinsic value of work in the lives of people – corroborated by all the survey evidence available.
Indeed, UBI could embed destructive properties – robbing people of meaning and dignity, leaving them more isolated, vulnerable, angry and humiliated, rendering society less fraternal and solidaristic. It could offer the final neo-liberal endgame of isolated consumption with citizens transformed into the ultimate passengers of capitalism.
It could be a dystopian nightmare. Seen in these terms, fashionable interest in UBI should be rejected because of the indignities of life without purposeful work. The embrace of UBI could hinder rather than help forge a renewed sense of the Common Good as we emerge from the pandemic. The dignity of labour must be at the centre of our politics if we wish to uphold what it means to live a good life.
© Jon Cruddas
Jon Cruddas is a British Labour Party politician who has served as Member of Parliament for Dagenham and Rainham, and formerly for Dagenham, since 2001. He is the author of The Dignity of Labour (Polity, 2021), which Michael Sandel describes as follows: ‘Ranging brilliantly across economics, ethics, politics, even film, this humane and hopeful book points the way to a new politics of the common good. It is essential reading for everyone who cares about repairing our civic life.’ Touted over recent years as a potential candidate for the leadership of the Labour Party, and regarded as one of the Party’s intellectual heavyweights, he has repeatedly ruled himself out saying his wish was to influence policy.
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church https://www.vatican.va/archive/compendium_ccc/documents/archive_2005_compendium-ccc_en.html
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights
- Rerum Novarum http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html
- Laborum Exercens http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html
This article was featured in T4CG’s Pentecost 2021 Newsletter. You can subscribe to our newsletter here
You may also like To live a decent life (the story of the dock strike and Rerum Novarum) by Jenny Sinclair.