Good Forms of Collectivity: Low-Carbon Care Work and a Federal Job Guarantee

April 26, 2021   •   By Natan Last

IN HIS 1944 State of the Union address — forwarded to the Hill at midday and then delivered by radio to the American public because he’d taken to bed with the flu — Franklin Delano Roosevelt pressed for an Economic Bill of Rights. “We cannot be content,” he said, “if some fraction of our people […] is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.” To Roosevelt, freedom from want and fear would cement the core civil and political rights then so cherished by a nation at war. As he put it, “Necessitous men are not free men.” First and most fundamental among his list of entitlements was “the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.” In a time when unprecedented collective labor — often designed and guided with a visible federal hand — was displacing a global threat, Roosevelt wanted to spirit into the future with the best of New Deal progressivism in tow. To guarantee a decent job, he reasoned, would not only ensure a peacetime focus on “new goals of human happiness,” it would also “spell security” — inaugurating a thriving domestic body and preventing a future slide from home to homefront.

In invoking the Bill of Rights, Roosevelt was developing a lexicon of economic entitlement that bridged the Founders’ bitter correctives and a ripening postwar idiom of human rights. FDR’s language, or a less decorated version of it, appears in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23(1), which reads: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” Scores of political economists and development scholars — Amartya Sen, Sandy Darity, Amit Bhaduri, among others — have since depicted full employment as the economic fundament of participatory democracy, a policy that underwrites “the right to regular income for a decent living” alongside “the duty to contribute to social production.”

Two decades after the New Deal, proposals for a federal job guarantee (FJG) were at the heart of the Poor People’s Campaign led by an increasingly radical Martin Luther King Jr. In 1965, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin’s “Freedom Budget” demanded, in the name of poverty eradication and racial equality, “full and fair employment for all.” Coretta Scott King — who in 1974 co-founded the National Committee for Full Employment/Full Employment Action Council (NCFE/FEAC) — christened the movement’s next phase, offering a more transformative vision of what the “job” in “job guarantee” might be. Scott King wanted to angle our conception of work toward “jobs that would serve some human need” — spotlighting health care, education, arts, and cultural workers in the spirit of FDR’s “new goals of human happiness” over jobs “created with the profit-making motive.”

While the profit-making motive in FDR’s day co-occurred with — and in many senses gave rise to — war and economic depression, today the twin catastrophes of insecurity are unemployment and environmental decay. Even before the pandemic, joblessness affected millions of Americans, with underemployment touching millions more. By some Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, nearly 20 million Americans, at any given time, are unable to secure adequate work. The pain of joblessness is immense, whatever disciplinary tally we call up — from sterile neoclassical models lamenting dips in aggregate demand or bedraggled “human capital”; to rising “anti-social” behavior and crime; to spiking rates of depression, reports of uselessness and a narrowed sense of dignity, disrupted and sometimes ruptured family and friend dynamics, and amplification of gender asymmetries and racial tensions. (Citing telework and job loss, Japan, in the isolation wrought by COVID-19 as all of us make cubicles of our homes, has become the latest country to appoint a Minister of Loneliness.) Were instrumental reasoning enough, you would expect economists to have jettisoned unemployment from model and policy alike; instead, macroeconomists peddle a measure called the “natural rate of unemployment” that, so the toy model goes, beats back inflation.

Happily, a recent chorus of heterodox thinkers have argued fears of inflation are consistently overblown — materializing only to consolingly pat the invisible hands of elites and muzzle the labor movement. Just as happily, some economists are beginning to challenge the premise that joblessness is a “natural” phenomenon at all. As Pavlina Tcherneva suggests, the same way we might squint at similar economic neologisms — imagine a “natural rate of homelessness” — so should any rights-centered approach denaturalize involuntary unemployment.

If unemployment is unnatural, perhaps employment need not despoil the natural either. This notion, too, has roots in a deep lineage of scholars, artists, and activists envisioning an economy centered on “care work,” with care construed as stewardship that might secure — indeed, help heal — the personal, the public, and the environmental at once. Whether it’s teaching, tending public parks, or elder care, care work has the benefit that it’s often low-carbon. And from Scott King to today’s proposals from segments of the eco-socialist left to the abundance preached by Modern Monetary Theory, a key demand is working less (which would, say, reduce emissions from commuting) without reduction in pay. But beyond its greener ends, grounding economic life in care — and changing our orientation toward work, more than just tweaking the number of care jobs on offer — might also help lift our politics up from the neoliberal muck that’s gridlocked environmentalism for decades.

It’s no coincidence that Coretta Scott King, and the Black working-class movement behind her, advocated for guaranteed jobs that were “meaningful,” that “[served] some human need.” The other side of the crisis in unemployment is invisible, unpaid caretaking labor often done by women of color. Climate activists and writers like Naomi Klein, particularly amid a pandemic, have pushed a similar concept of “repair work,” where repair is tangibly civic (“battalions of tree planters”) but also “intensely inward”: “[T]he practice of connecting, or re-pairing, those many crucial connections that our culture so systematically severs.” Repair, then, must also mean reparation: to repair inner narratives means dissolving false national myths — Klein imagines, drawing on demands from contemporary Black and Indigenous activists, a Truth and Reparations Commission — and toppling the false idol of the border wall, including proposals for an Indigenous Land Back program.

But what of the “remunerative” part of FDR’s Bill of Rights, and what of his assumption that this work will take place in shops, farms, mines? The reparative possibilities of a job guarantee have another forebear in Silvia Federici’s 1975 essay, “Wages Against Housework,” an intellectual lodestar of the Wages For Housework campaign and a call-to-arms against the injustice of women forced into roles as unpaid care workers. “They say it is love,” the piece began, in a riotous slice of collective prosody:

They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.
They call it frigidity. We call it absenteeism.
Every miscarriage is a work accident. […]
More smiles? More money. Nothing will be so powerful in destroying the healing virtues of a smile.
Neuroses, suicides, desexualization: occupational hazards of the housewife.

Federici sought to “refuse that work as expression of our nature, and therefore to refuse precisely the female role that capital has invented for us.” Naturally, her detractors claimed “Wages Against Housework” would inevitably fuse homo economicus with home ec., dragging the capitalist’s ledger into the home in a way that would further dig women into a cultural trench of cooking, cleaning, and consoling. But this misses Federici’s point. She wanted an entanglement of for and against, arguing recognition and compensation of care work were shifts that could augur both its refusal and renovation: throw sand in the capitalist gears whose teeth only ever turned to nominate a gendered and racialized class for the task of social reproduction — but do so in a way that acknowledged the creeping traumas that care might answer.

It seems fitting that Federici’s essay should open with a kind of choral protest in unattributed verse, capacious and transpersonal enough to stress this dual noncompliance: as Leigh Claire La Berge, author of the Federici-inspired Wages Against Artwork, writes, “Wages are needed and wages are not enough.” True remuneration alone will go a long way — for the precariat, the federal guarantee is the legal backstop that allows for a foundation in care work to begin with.


Just as proposals for a federal job guarantee must deal in these contradictions — recasting the more fallen aspects of the care work tradition, while highlighting invisible lines of mutual dependency around us — so have artists rethought the labor/leisure dichotomy in view of ongoing climate crisis and austerity. In particular, it’s worth returning to artists like Jenny Odell and Ben Lerner, darling chroniclers of late capitalism whose work nevertheless breaks out of mere orthodox opprobrium and into rosier figures of care and maintenance work. Both writers depict traditional sites of labor struggle (the Occupy movement for Lerner, labor union history for Odell) alongside the many kinds of volunteer or underpaid work (at food-co-ops or art galleries, as afterschool teachers or sculptors) a FJG would underwrite.

In Lerner’s novel 10:04, for instance, the narrator, an author and autofictional double for Lerner, tells his agent that for his next book (the one we’re reading), “I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously […] a minor tremor in my hand; I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.” The narrator is obsessed with how “bad forms of collectivity” are “figures of its possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body.” A subway car of strangers swapping tips and predictions before Hurricane Irene illustrates the dissolution of social partition — though it’s born of emergency, not revolution. And the narrator, in an address on writerly origins, cites Ronald Reagan’s oratory after the Challenger disaster in 1986, in which speechwriter Peggy Noonan ends with a snippet of lush tetrameter cribbed from a poet (“slipped the surly bonds of earth” … “to touch the face of God.”) The narrator and his family, “basically communists” and staunch opponents of Reagan, nonetheless feel the glimmer of political language’s power to connect with and charge the masses. Lerner’s negative figures of collectivity also appear as negative figures of connectivity — the downed power lines of Lower Manhattan post-Sandy, now invisible, grace the novel’s cover, in which the only lit building downtown is the Goldman Sachs complex, thanks to a cache of private generators.

Another of the narrator’s fixations is care work: he lets an Occupy protester shower in his home (“briefly placing a tiny part of the domestic — your bathroom — into the commons”) and cooks him something quinoa-y; he ruminates on the biopolitics of immigrant women strollering white toddlers through Central Park; he tutors (seemingly unremunerated) an undocumented boy named Roberto, with whom he later “co-constructs” a picture book on dinosaurs. (The prefix “co-” recurs in the novel, a linguistic tic of installing collectivity in as many load-bearing verbs as Lerner can find, but also, perhaps, a pun on how new imaginations of the corporate can and must reclaim collectivity from the corporation, abbreviated “Co.”) 10:04 is interested in the extent to which the line between work and leisure, if work consists in care, might blur:

Bernard and Natali were always working and never working, that is, they were always reading and writing when they weren’t hosting receptions for other writers; there was no division between labor and leisure; their days were not structured conventionally; the house was not subject to quotidian rhythms but to the strange duration of the literary. 

And his desire to emulate Whitman is as much about the poems as it is an effort to rethink work, too: Whitman, the narrator reminds us, is “always ‘loafing,’ always taking his ease,” despite ambitions to write a kind of secular Bible for the Union — a “textual commons” whose first person “I” stands for everyone and is “a marker for democratic personhood.” It isn’t lost on the narrator that Whitman, in addition to loafing and versifying, was a nurse in Washington, DC, during the Civil War, and that unconventional constructions of leisure might convene the necessary infrastructure for care.

Of course, the work/leisure line can be grayed out for good capitalistic reason — to extract more labor from workers. Among the swelling ranks of artist testimony to Big Tech’s ongoing conquest of the West Coast, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy shows both how unions fought dearly for the formulation “8 hours for work, 8 for rest, and 8 for what we will,” and how 21st-century corporations, particularly in the tech sector, weaponize foggy lines between work and leisure to induct employees into perpetual on-the-clockness, one that itself boosts productivity, melds personal and professional development, and inverts Lerner’s “strange duration of the literary.” 

Odell’s work as a visual artist helps train our attention on figures of collectivity already present, negative and positive, apocalyptic and blithe. Her collages and Google Earth cutout art literalize what Jedediah Purdy calls “the manufactured exoskeleton of human life,” the 27 tons of built environment per capita that prove, if by a shiver-inducing contradiction, our profound interdependence. Upkeep of that dependence can be unclean work, though it’s often the best economic game in town. Odell’s office workers tethered to a lambent sun (Orb of Ambivalence) or her wastewater and coal plants Photoshopped onto blank purgatory, foregrounding invisible networks of fossil fuel infrastructure (Satellite Landscapes), all use line in a demonstration of Lerner’s bad forms of collectivity, a negative dependency on carbon-intensive industry co-sponsored by sunny industriousness itself.

Odell refers to these structures as “monuments,” artifacts of a time when the world clutched at the ledge of ecological insecurity, “when more and more was borrowed against a disappearing future and we knew it.” In How to Do Nothing, Odell connects her work to that of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, another artist famous for confronting reproductive labor and infrastructure. Ukeles has been the artist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation since 1978 (an unsalaried role). In her Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!, she proposed a show entitled Care, made up of three parts that pursue similar commitments to FDR’s domestic and geopolitical securities: personal — Ukeles doing housework, but in an art museum, thus “flushing them up to consciousness”; general — interviews with the public on maintenance, their relationship to it, the relationship between “maintenance and freedom”; and earth — various kinds of refuse (polluted air, water from the Hudson) delivered to the exhibition to be rehabilitated and recycled.

Ukeles’s early work after the Manifesto performed what critics, after her 2016 retrospective at the Queens Museum, called the “feminist Duchampian trick” of defining her motherhood not just as labor (after Federici), but labor, in the dictum of Odell, worth paying attention to. Her most famous piece extended the idea to the organism of the city: in Touch Sanitation Performance, Ukeles spent 11 months shaking hands with — and thanking — New York City’s sanitation workers, all 8,500 of them, visiting crews across the five boroughs, shadowing SanMen as they traced route lines (“sweeps”) through the city, delivering speeches about the value of her own work and theirs. “Thank you,” she told each one, “for keeping New York City alive!”

In a departure from traditional critical reimaginings of political economy, Ukeles’s work, per the scholar Scott Ferguson, “turns artistic particularity toward the repressed background of social infrastructure and environmental maintenance.” If Whitman’s loafing generated the secular Bible of America, then Ukeles’s handshaking was, according to The New York Times, “a kind of secular benediction,” politicizing the carelessness of the supposedly broke city while calling attention to the labor of those who, each morning, cared to repair it. And though Ukeles and Federici might have co-signed one another’s views on care work (“Maintenance is a drag,” Ukeles writes, “it takes all the fucking time”), there is a sense in which the seeming nothing of maintenance work, of long hours spent on care, can not only be reinvested with value but saluted as a Whitmanic collapse of self and society, the poet-nurse pumping the organismic city free of toxins. “After the revolution,” Ukeles asks, “who’s going to take out the garbage?” In a sense, though here Federici would likely disagree, the revolution is taking out the garbage — under union conditions and a four-day workweek.


The project of a federal job guarantee, then, is to make policy of the good forms of ecological collectivity found in Ukeles and Odell — to not only adequately pay people to take out the garbage but to celebrate it. Already, Americans do countless hours of unpaid, volunteer labor, in tutoring or afterschool programs (like Lerner’s narrator), in soup kitchens, nursing homes, and hospitals (Whitman was a volunteer nurse): still, most feminized care work is unpaid or underpaid, and nearly always undervalued.

If these laborers evoke Ukeles’s sense of the personal, many also work the earth: America’s parks, for one extreme example, draw on over 300,000 unpaid volunteers alongside a mere 23,000 paid staff. As noted by the co-authors of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, much “vital ecological care work is simply not being done at all. We don’t need to make work — we need to pay for it.” Beyond the anthemic three R’s, that means paying for re-making (retrofitting buildings; decarbonizing transit infrastructure; co-constructing millions of no-carbon public housing units) and restoration and re-wilding (rehabilitating prairie grasslands, exemplary carbon sinks; reintroducing keystone species, like woodland beavers whose dams are a natural buffer to floods).

A job guarantee is also, necessarily, a mechanism of racial justice. Public sector jobs, and the protections therein, are critical in combating the discrimination that makes Black and other workers of color “last hired, first fired.” FJG eligibility can sow protections and formal inroads to decent employment for the formerly incarcerated. It can build on the example of the original Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed tens of thousands of Indigenous people and supported Indigenous self-rule. Of course, the FJG is a tool of progressive economics as much as it is a green jobs corps: when private firms can’t rely on a reserve army of the unemployed as implicit threats to their workforce, labor’s bargaining power goes up; FJG working conditions set a floor the private sector must outcompete.


In 10:04, the narrator and his friend Alex often meet at the Met on weekday afternoons, “since Alex was unemployed, and I, a writer.” The life of an author offers spontaneous adherence to the strange durations of the literary; for Alex, it’s state unemployment benefits that bank her midday enrichment. “If fought for and won,” Scott Ferguson writes in Declarations of Dependence, “the [FJG] stands to function as not only an economic floor for collective production but also a sensory floor for worldly experience,” that is, as benefactor of both poet and nurse, guarantor of both new verse and universal health care. Its prior incarnations did just that: the New Deal’s Federal Art Project (FAP), a component of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), hired, paid, and in some cases launched the careers of photographers, actors, and painters. Indeed, the last time the federal government directly employed civilians was in the 1970s, under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), in which tens of thousands of dancers, painters, writers, and musicians formed mobile troupes of poets and authors (Words to Go), ran mural workshops in elementary schools, and put on public concerts. CETA, with its federal funding but municipal execution, became a model for community arts programs.

Fittingly, Tcherneva, the author of The Case for a Job Guarantee, argues that a FJG ought to be designed as a “National Care Act” — like CETA, federally funded, locally organized — not like the CARES Act in response to COVID-19, which is more corporate intravenous drip than ecological lifeline, the ultimate in bad forms of collectivity. But the job guarantee has only just garnered popularity; a recent Gallup poll showed 93 percent of Americans support it — including nearly nine in 10 Republicans — up from 73 percent in 2013. In February 2021, Representative Ayanna Pressley unveiled a historic resolution for a federal job guarantee, citing FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights and committing to the unfinished legacy of Coretta Scott King and Sadie Alexander, the nation’s first Black economist. It’s an astonishing document, not least for its boldness, its attempt to act as a maximalist sanctum for care workers and artists (modeled after FAP), for educators and environmentalists, for economic inclusivity (residents, not just citizens, are eligible) and protection (complementing the right to employment with a Workers’ Bill of Rights).

By setting up shop as a permanent program and directing funds from the US Treasury, it also forces a reckoning with the counterfeit logic of American austerity politics. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), a cutting-edge branch of macroeconomics endorsed by Darity, Tcherneva, and some of Pressley’s advisors, exposes fiscal cliff mythology for what it is, showing federal spending need only consider physical resource limits, not deficits or surpluses, and stressing that just because a project isn’t financially profitable doesn’t mean it isn’t socially profitable.

Ukeles’s role in the Department of Sanitation was supposedly unpaid because the city was on the brink of bankruptcy — she was “hired” just two years after New York’s fiscal crisis in 1975; the SanMen she collaborated with were between strikes, protesting local budget cuts. But MMT demonstrates that austerity, even within municipalities unable to easily deficit spend, is always a political act, not purely an economic one, and, either way, it’s one a federal job guarantee could countervail.

In this sense, 10:04 is a kind of proto-MMT chronicle, the narrator “work[ing] his way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city” just as we work our way from zero-sum deficit alarmism to MMT’s abundance, so that we might pay people to lift the city back up — whether through shoreline remediation or public art. Whereas MMT thinks of a budget, in the legacy of Rustin, King, and Randolph, as a moral document, today’s democratic commitment to tomorrow’s social provisioning, the plot of 10:04 turns on the book advance, tomorrow’s prose provisioning today’s social world:

After my agent’s percentage and taxes […] I would clear something like two hundred and seventy thousand dollars. Or Fifty-four IUIs. Or around four Hummer H2 SUVs. Or the two first editions on the market of Leaves of Grass. Or about twenty-five years of a Mexican migrant’s labor, seven of Alex’s in her current job. Or my rent, if I had rent control, for eleven years. Or thirty-six hundred flights of bluefin, assuming the species held. I swallowed and the majesty and murderous stupidity of it was all about me […] coordinated, or so it appeared, by money.

That coordinative feature — money as a social form — has led Lerner, in interviews, to quote the poet Robert Graves, who famously quipped, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.” A federal job guarantee ought to take care of the first part. As for the second, MMTers — or anyone sensitive to the prosody in the excerpt above — would disagree. “Money,” for MMT researcher Nathan Tankus and others, “isn’t just a representation of how much of one thing it takes to buy another thing” — dollars for IUIs or Leaves of Grass. “[I]t’s the expression of our politically molded collective understanding of what’s truly valuable.” That is, we can value, and bankroll, majesty: funding, by way of budgetary infinity sign, environmental revival on our finite planet, nursing and poetry, repair on to reparation, murals and sanitation, the right to meaningful work, a striving toward goals of human happiness, re- and co-constructed.


Natan Last is a graduate student in public policy at Columbia University. He writes crosswords for The New Yorker and The New York Times. His poetry and essays appear in The Atlantic, Narrative, Money on the Left, and The Asheville Poetry Review.