27 May 2015

Universal Basic Income

"Basic Income Triptych" Photo by Russell Shaw Higgs Some Rights Reserved

As the struggle to break through political malaise and to find an adequate response to the 2008 economic crisis continues, the left seems to have regained a certain amount of vigor. Populism seems to offer a way forward by tapping the pervasive anger towards wide and growing inequality that most mainstream politicians still seem frightened to fully embrace. Policies aimed at national redistribution and strengthening infrastructure would be welcome, of course. But there is as yet no well articulated vision for the future beyond the near-term, leaving open questions of whether a potential populist political movement will remain compatible with the goals of the left. It is important to ask, then, whether the left possesses proposals that might give shape to a wider political vision for the future.

Among the proposals on offer, universal basic income (UBI) is enjoying renewed interest, though it remains well outside of the political mainstream. UBI is generally defined as a cash payment of a certain amount made to every citizen of a nation without regard to income. One of UBI’s strengths is that it seems able to please everyone. Proponents say that it can end poverty by guaranteeing everyone a subsistence. In the USA, such guarantees—if far from perfect—already exist in the form of various entitlement programs from social security to food stamps. UBI, however, removes the burden and inefficiencies of proving need and submitting one’s family to the surveillance of the state. At the same time, UBI would benefit all (like social security without an age restriction) and therefore naturally enjoy a huge base of support.

There is also a more radical perspective that sees UBI as a way of empowering workers by decommodifying labor. In other words, by pushing back at the necessity of waged work just to get the necessities of life, a guaranteed income would allow people to be choosier about the jobs that they would accept. Why do dangerous or excessively hard work when you can use your guaranteed income to hold out for something better? Arguably, the ability to withhold one’s labor would increase the pay for undesirable jobs there is increasingly little reason to accept and increase the control of workers over their own lives. But whether or not the full radical implications of this argument would obtain, there is a solid case to be made that the UBI would increase the economic and political power of workers.

But against these progressive arguments for UBI one should weigh the libertarian and technocratic attractions to it. For some, UBI is meant to perpetuate the status quo in the worst ways. A recent article by Nathan Schneider documents how UBI is seen by some as a technocratic fix for extreme inequality—though certainly not inequality per se—that has the virtue of reducing supposedly wasteful government services. In other words, UBI can be a substitute for other services or benefits the government provides, and might be funded by cuts to them. Noah Gordon’s consideration of the cost of the UBI assumes, “[c]utting all federal and state benefits for low-income Americans.” This perspective explains the wide-ranging support that UBI has received not just from libertarians, but also from neoliberal heroes like Milton Friedman, an era-damaging former President, and outright cranks like Charles Murray1.

This support deserves further consideration. UBI guarantees a basic income and allows recipients to spend that income on anything they want, doing away with the patronizing aspect of a program like food stamps, which imagines that the poor will spend everything they have on liquor and cigarettes. But the conservative implications of UBI’s implicit consumer choice orientation become clearer when we consider a collective good like health care. This is a service that is best provided through a single-payer system that does away with the need for parasitic insurance companies. Yet from a libertarian perspective, the point of UBI is precisely that it would allow services like health care to be more fully marketized by defunding federal health care spending. The UBI is great news for many on the free-market right because it could act as a kind of economic trojan horse that, ironically, advances further marketization on the basis of what appears to be a major public benefit.

Along with these political goals of the libertarian and policy-oriented right, a more typically demagogic right wing response is also to be expected. The inclusion of immigrants without citizenship in a UBI scheme would certainly be opposed by the right under the threat of foreign hordes of the shiftless hoping to enjoy a free lunch. If the right were successful in excluding immigrants from the UBI, it would undercut the power of workers and create the potential for increasing tension between poor citizens and non-citizens. Such a confrontation could badly set back efforts to unite Americans under a shared progressive political agenda.

The point is that such potential consequences have to be weighed and evaluated from the standpoint of the current balance of political forces.

Left advocates of the UBI emphasize that its introduction will naturally have to be accompanied by sustained popular pressure to ensure that its results are progressive. But this is to seriously beg the question, because it presumes that the left has the strength and unity to wage this struggle. In other words, to adopt a strategy that depends on the ability of the left to outmanoeuvre not only the trenchant right wing, but also the wily and resolutely self-serving politicians of the ideological ‘middle,’ is not only ineffective but dangerous. In light of the disparity between left and right tendencies in the current political field, introducing something like the UBI in this context could very well produce unintended, retrograde consequences.

So the question, as so often, is how to strengthen the left. Right now, leftists have more than enough ideas about what’s wrong with the world, but very few programs or demands that seem like potential cornerstones of a genuine popular political movement. From this perspective, what is needed is not just good ideas, but attainable political goals that will unite and build the power of the left as they are fought for and won.

There are good reasons to think that the UBI, while certainly holding value as a long-term objective, would not build the strength of the left in the current moment. As has been argued, perhaps the key structural disadvantage of the contemporary left is its fragmentation, not only in its widely varying perspectives towards society, identity, and social change, but also geographically. International solidarity may seem more like a dim memory or wishful thinking than reality, but narrowing the gap between ability of capital to pursue its objectives across national boundaries and the strength of left forms of solidarity and cooperation across them is indispensable, however difficult it may seem.

As long as the imagination of the left remains bound within the framework of the nation-state, it will remain next to impossible to think and act in a way that is capable of restoring working people’s democratic control over the political process. Yet there is still a pervasive sense on the left that the task of the moment is essentially one of reinvigorating national economies, and this is an understanding that is shared with the still somewhat inchoate discourse of populist politics in the US. UBI as a policy fits into this framework. We must seriously consider the pitfalls to this localized approach to global problems.

"Sterling Heights Assembly Plant" Photo by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles: Corporate Some Rights Reserved

Despite inflated rhetoric, manufacturing jobs will not be repatriated to the US. As is well known, the labor movements of the richer countries have been in stark decline since the late 1960s when workers in the poorer countries began to become their “competitors” for jobs in an increasingly global labor market. This supposed competition, best understood as a corporate strategy to hold down the power of workers worldwide, has allowed a global race-to-the-bottom to arise, depressing wages, devastating communities that relied on manufacturing jobs, and boosting corporate profits through brutal exploitation of low-paid labor. The clock can’t simply be turned back on this structural transformation of the global economy, but a politics that is equally transnational in scope could transform it for the better.

Neoliberalism as a system of accumulation is gradually unraveling, constituting an ongoing crisis that is fundamentally global. In part, the system is a victim of its own success in extracting so much profit from its employees that they are increasingly unable to drive demand through consumption, and increasingly unwilling to consent to a system that seems designed only to oppress them. This economic crisis will only be resolved through a global economic reorganization, as the history of the Great Depression and the crisis of the early 1970s has demonstrated. For such a reorganization to stand any chance of being progressive will require a massive reinvestment of capital in countries that are not yet industrialized where hundreds of millions are cut off from the benefits of the modern economy. Sharing the fruits of industrial production is in any case a moral imperative for anyone who hopes for a more equal world.

The impulse behind the UBI is to shelter the nation from the ravages of a brutal, dying global economy that undermines itself by demanding more and more austerity from the majority while further concentrating wealth in the hands of the richest. However understandable this impulse is, it cannot touch the heart of the economic crisis or serve to unify a fragmented left. While the moral impulse may be entirely reversed, a similar logic of the nation as ultimate guarantor of its citizens' economic well-being perpetuates the horrendous refugee crisis that is occurring in South-East Asia. Rather than withdrawing behind the borders of the nation for protection from the turmoil that rages outside, we should forge an agenda that attacks corporate control over politics and stands as a banner for all to rally beneath. If UBI were instituted today, the basic causes of the global crisis would not be resolved and its egalitarian agenda could quite possibly be discredited. This in turn would exacerbate inequality and disenfranchisement.

The alternative to a nationally-based defensive strategy is taking the struggle to multinational corporations, forcing them to reinvest in the society that allows them to exist in the first place and to break their oligarchic control over the political process. This is not an easy goal and it will require international cooperation to win. In many ways, however, it is a struggle that the left has already begun to wage.

One element of this struggle is demanding that corporations make good on their responsibility to all the employees in their supply chains, including those sub-contractors and temporary workers who suffer from the worst wages and working conditions. A key feature of the global supply chain is the reduction of pay and benefits through creation of bodies of temporary or subcontracted labor. This practice is being challenged everywhere from McDonald's restaurants in the US to a huge French oil company to auto factories in India. This is a line of attack that begins at the local level, but has the potential to reverberate through the global system of production as workers demand compensation appropriate to their efforts, not subject to arbitrary and artificial divisions.

Another priority is improving working conditions for workers from the bottom—the lowest paid and worst protected—up. Rather than looking at the conditions endured by these workers with the thought of “there but for the grace of God…”, the left needs to build the tide that will raise all boats. Factory monitoring, adequate workplace safety and health practices, and living wages are all demands that can be won through international coalitions of workers, worker advocates, students, and consumers. Bangladesh’s vigorous unions, with the support of an international coalition including European and US labor unions, have enshrined such gains through the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The benefits of such campaigns don’t end with the poorest workers, but will spread more broadly as the bar is raised globally. The initiative for this kind of campaign begins at home and scales up from there, as shown by the work that United Students Against Sweatshops has done for years on college campuses and the anti-sweatshop bill recently passed by Chicago’s city council.

Finally, it is vital to combat corporate tax avoidance to reverse the devastating effects of austerity on collective well being and the erosion of public goods like health services and education. At the local level this means reversing massive tax breaks for corporations that come along with chummy and corrupt relationships between neoliberal politicians and the corporate elite. Community organizing campaigns have already begun pushing for these reforms. More comprehensively, a global system of tax enforcement is needed to return some of the corporate spoils currently sitting idle in tax havens to the parts of the economy that can benefit the majority and begin to reverse our economic malaise.

By building its political power and reorienting the left towards the global roots of inequality, all of these proposals will set the stage for massive reinvestment of idle capital in the nations and communities where it is most needed. This is the sole means of ending global inequality, the foundation on which the disenfranchisement of working people around the globe is built on. It is also the only way of ending the current global economic crisis that threatens political stability and the security of people everywhere.

While there is nothing in a UBI to point towards the common interests of working people around the world, the suggestions above not only provide that common basis, but also local entry points for a comprehensive, global movement towards equality and shared prosperity. None of these battles will be easily won, but the emergence of “inclusive capitalism,” a new trend in economic policy aimed at reducing inequality through strengthening workers, suggests that aggressive and creative popular movements could be poised to win substantial gains from elites hoping to avert further economic chaos. We should never expect policymakers to hand the left its demands—indeed that would be a sure sign that far too little was being demanded in the first place. But, to return to the domestic scene, the willingness of Obama and others in the Democratic party to invoke inclusive capitalism under the title of “middle class economics” signals a significant shift in the political common sense that may prove to be salutary to a lively and globally-oriented left.

In surveying the state of political struggles after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Marxist thinker Aijaz Ahmad argued that, “[t]o the extent that the metropolitan Left has come to concentrate so entirely on improvement in the quality of life in the respective metropolitan countries, speaking of social movements within the national boundaries of imperialist countries and the perfection of democracy for the historic beneficiaries of imperialism as the immediate goal, it has abandoned the fundamental project of socialism, which is none other than the destruction of the imperialist character of modern capital.”

These words were published in 1992. Given current geopolitical upheaval it is no longer so easy to speak of imperialism as the most relevant feature of global capitalism, and we may wish to question whether this was ever a fully adequate way of conceptualizing the global order imposed by capitalism. Nor does “the perfection of democracy” accurately convey the struggles of the contemporary metropolitan left, who are no longer sure if they live in democracies at all. But to whatever extent time has rendered Ahmad’s diagnosis outmoded, it is surely an indication of our delinquency in addressing the parochial nature of our politics and the lateness of the hour, steadily creeping towards midnight, while so much still remains undone.

Given the urgency of the moment, why concern ourselves with UBI, an idea that even populist politicians will ignore in the foreseeable future? While there is no doubt of the importance of political strategy growing from present conditions, no matter how adverse they may seem, one must also have a firm sense of the direction such a strategy will take. There is no shortage of ideas for the improvement of society, and the chance to implement these ideas always seems to be just around the corner, after the next election, once the base is finally organized. But the truth is that near future will be just as treacherous and politically unforgiving as the present. The populist agenda, insofar as it actually exists, is lacking in ideas that can sustain it beyond tomorrow. While UBI seems to hold enormous potential as a useful strategy for reducing the necessity of repetitive and dehumanizing labor, it is an idea whose time may be long in the coming. The task of the immediate future is to embrace struggles that lay the groundwork for a united, global movement for democracy and shared prosperity.


1. In 1969, Richard Nixon proposed Guaranteed Annual Income legislation to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which in 1996 was replaced by the notoriously difficult-to-access Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

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