Universal Basic Income: The great escape?

Universal Basic Income: The great escape?

Universal Basic Income (UBI) in its most common form is a proposal to issue a stipend at a set monetary value, provided unconditionally to every registered citizen, usually from an arbitrarily determined age. It has garnered support from a diverse range of currents across the political spectrum. In the United Kingdom it formed part of the Green Party’s policy on economics in the run up to the 2015 general election and has the backing of a number of economists and academics. In the United States it has become a popular proposal among the Silicon Valley tech elite and even Free Market Libertarians. Trials have taken place in several places across the globe such as “Mincome” in the small Canadian town of Dauphin, Manitoba, the BIG Coalition in Namibia and the Madhya Pradesh Unconditional Cash Transfer Initiative in India.

Its popularity stems from its possible utilisation in addressing and overcoming the current economic crisis. For some, this is not just the present financial crisis but also what has been termed the secular crisis of capital, or “a crisis of the reproduction of the capital-labour relation itself” which is becoming manifest through the global restructuring of capital and its current turn toward automation and widespread austerity measures. Whilst it is interesting to see support for UBI across the political spectrum, what is most intriguing is support for UBI from those who identify as communists. They suggest the introduction of UBI could not only be used to solve the current economic crisis, but also to put those who have been most heavily impacted on by the excesses of capital’s instability into a position of power, or at least one that is advantageous in the struggle against capitalism.

It is worth noting at this point that this is not a critique from a non-reformist position. The gains of certain reforms particularly at times of low struggle are evidently advantageous in some respects. Any collective victory that is able to further strengthen or enable the struggle against and beyond capital is beneficial; struggles around the shortening of the working day and week are testament to this. This critique is based on the idea that the UBI could be a regressive and dangerous step and potentially antithetical to any movement beyond capitalism.

Wages for Housework

Some recent proponents of the idea such as Jacobin editor and contributor Peter Frase have presented the argument for the implementation of a universal basic income with reference to the “Wages for Housework” campaign. The campaign originated in the 1970’s and was an attempt to draw awareness to forms of domestic labour that were not traditionally thought as being within the sphere of ‘wage-labour’. The key difference here is the absence of a wage for those who work within the home.

The wages for housework campaign attempted to make the argument that capitalism and a layer of workers rely heavily upon all sorts of unpaid (and gendered) work. We also find this argument present in ‘The Problem with Work‘ by Kathi Weeks, in which she locates the demand for basic income as an immediate successor to the wages for housework campaign. For Weeks the point of the demand is to highlight “the arbitrariness with which contributions to social production are and are not rewarded with wages.” This has parallels with the later work of those associated with Post-Autonomia such as Antonio Negri who, through an analysis relying on the extension of the sphere of value production into the “social factory”, argue that work and therefore value creation is being performed almost everywhere. It is at this point that some have taken the argument as reason and justification for the introduction of a citizen’s or unconditional income, one which would be based around remuneration for this “work” in which each and every person would be paid for this ‘social work’.

Silvia Federici, who was originally involved in the group that started the campaign, has argued that wages for housework is useful in the sense that the demand addresses the worker in the home as worker in the home. What the demand allows is an acknowledgment of this position where it had been previously overlooked or unacknowledged. For Federici the wages for housework campaign helped to identify women qua women as productive of value. Therefore the campaign represented a progressive step toward overcoming this very relation through the realisation of (typically) women as producers of value in the home.

Interestingly then the wages for housework campaign has at times been taken at face-value as a realistic demand wherein each worker in the home would be paid for labour performed in the home. While in some senses it could be argued that this would be in some ways an improvement on the current condition of labour in the home. Yet, the payment for the performance of this role does not point toward, nor provide, any necessary means from which to overcome it.  If, then, we follow Federici’s argument that the strength of such a demand is in its potential to reveal further degrees of, and enable the recognition of, instances of exploitation and oppression, can this be said about UBI?

Wages for housework was useful in reconceptualising a particular form of (gendered) oppression and to show how those subject to this relation were also inherently bound within the wage-labour relation too. If we accept that wages for housework could highlight unpaid work in the home by women, can we see the UBI as doing something similar in addressing the exploitation of all of those who produce value without recompense? Is the UBI ever going to undo that relation? If, along with Federici, we can see that one of the key strengths of such a demand is that it brings to light some of the ‘hidden abodes’ of production and sites of exploitation and oppression. Recognising this hidden work will aid in addressing and exposing one’s own subjective position (and therefore allowing the possibility of challenging or negating that position) as producer of value.

While perhaps useful as a perspective from which to frame and realise the extent to which capital and the production of value are becoming further embedded within our everyday lives, we can easily lose the argument in taking it too literally and, framed specifically as a demand, it easily becomes problematic. As Federici finds, “[m]any of the difficulties and ambiguities that women express in discussing wages for housework stem from the fact that they reduce wages for housework to a thing, a lump of money, instead of viewing it as a political perspective.”[1] It is seemingly this political perspective that is neglected with the demand for a basic income. This is evident when we look at Frase’s rebuttal to those that ‘would reject basic income as an unearned handout’; he states “[that] we can respond that it is capitalism which arbitrarily refuses to pay for a huge proportion of the labour that sustains it.” To follow the argument for basic income through on these terms, on the basis that ‘we are all workers now’, we begin to encounter the problem of arguments based over remuneration and surplus value production.

Instead of arguing against work and its arbitrary forms, Frase makes the argument that the basis for which these differing forms of work are remunerated is arbitrary. The logic of his arguments does not undermine the logic of an exchange based economy, it simply moralises over it. For Frase it seems a simple case of capitalism choosing to pay some and not others: If only capitalism could pay all of us for those things that we do to sustain it then things would be alright.  If only we all had an equal and unconditional payment, if only we could buy away immiseration, if only we all had an equal and unconditional payment. However, as noted, an integral aspect of the wages for housework campaign was its ability to re-conceptualise Marxist orthodoxy through the argument centred around value-production. Through the demand they were able to show how workers in the home were not just subservient to patriarchal forms of dominance, but also how these forms were intricately bound together with capitalist value production.

The actual critical power of the wages for housework demand was therefore its ability to undermine the process of value production. What was sought was not necessarily the actual remuneration for this housework but rather the realisation that there was unpaid labour taking place in the home and that this could be conceptualised within a broader framework of capitalist exploitation and subsumption. The point here then is that we perhaps should already have learnt that the way out of capitalism is not through arguments over remuneration or surplus value. We are not looking for another variety of wage-labour; what we want are exit strategies from this relation rather than having them reconfigured or prolonged.

Perhaps a major aspect of the appeal of UBI is that it can be seen as a solution to many of the problems plaguing contemporary capitalism. As we move to a world of surplus labour and lack of employment through increasing automation and austerity measures it offers us an egalitarian measure to ‘aid’ in overcoming the ills of crisis-prone late capitalism. However, this also undermines the intention with which many are engaging in this debate. Ideologically the UBI harbours the inept notion of equality – why is it that we all need a basic income when a vast number of the population already have a more than liveable income? On a comparative level of reform, the proposal for a payment of £72 a week – recently waved about but now seemingly off the table – to each citizen, could be increased if given to those truly in need. Given no increase on current unemployment benefits and the commitment to diminish the social wage, we have to question why any of the left would argue for this. As it stands presently it is not everybody that is in need of this amount of money and while the egalitarian aspect sounds appealing we must realise that actual material needs are neither equal nor quantifiable; an equal monetary payment used to address this is nonsensical.

Those against capital and currently looking for methods and ideas that may allow us the possibility of moving beyond it should refrain from utilising dead abstractions such as equality. To address needs is not the business of equality, equality suits capital. It is precisely the logic of equality, exchangeability and generalised equivalence that capitalism relies upon, a state of affairs in which people and their needs become subordinate to the dictates of the market. Given such an analysis, the UBI provides no means to begin questioning the production of value, if anything it could be said to perpetuate these relations.

Pay-as-you-go welfare

One of the immediate practical problems can also be seen in the pitfalls of the introduction of previous benefits such as child tax credits, where following their introduction the cost of childcare significantly increased as a direct result and is now one of the highest in the world. This demonstrates the extent to which capitalism will always recuperate and exploit any opportunity. That which is given with one hand is taken with the other. Whether child tax credits were intended as a means to subsidise business, or actually intended as a social democratic reform with the best of intentions is irrelevant. The inherent tendencies of capital ensured that the outcome would be the same regardless. Rather than allowing those to whom the payment was made a relative degree of autonomy, this welfare payment actually served to further exacerbate the problems produced by capitalism.

To prevent this UBI then would have to be followed up with measures such as rent caps, amongst a significant amount of changes that would prevent the rentier economy from taking advantage of the introduction of such money. The question that must be asked, then, is in what sense would the introduction of a basic income ever be able to allow us to ‘swim against the neoliberal current?’ Rather, if implemented, it will more than likely struggle along in a highly individualised form, not necessarily providing the desired outcome of radically undermining the market economy but instead reconfiguring the form of the market to account for its present contradictions. If its introduction is accompanied by the dismantling of the welfare state and forms of the social wage as we know them could we not see the beginning of individualised neo-liberal welfare? In the case of the dismantling of the NHS and the on-going privatisation of healthcare the UBI would be an unnecessary and retrograde step for some. Perhaps this could be the start of pay-as-you-go welfare?

A further and no doubt interesting part of the appeal for the necessity of the UBI seems to be based on the hypothesis of the problem of a growing surplus population – that is a population surplus to the needs of capital – due to various factors such as automation and the re-structuring of capital. Certainly it is true that fewer people are needed in the production process and this is increasingly becoming one of the prevalent issues surrounding the present crisis. With the widespread adoption of automation and its inevitable expansion, the UBI would function as a means by which to address the problems of this growing surplus population. Those who have found themselves forced out of the labour market would be re-integrated as potential consumers. Can we see the implementation of UBI as addressing the needs of a population that is surplus to the needs of capital? Or is it rather a case of the management of a population constantly subjected to “improvement” and “reskilling”at the behest of the economy? We have seen this outcome previously in attempts to improve the way that welfare support is delivered. The welfare reforms of the old Labour government were based on increasing population satisfaction with the intention that this would maintain the sphere of work, not abolish it.

It will also prevent improvement, and perhaps regress, working conditions through the extension of unpaid internships, reduction of wages and the extension of working hours into your ‘lived’ life. No government will provide a large enough stipend to allow citizens to completely avoid work, simply enough to ‘get by’ (and based on the quantities considered, perhaps not even that), while indirectly giving this money, raised through taxation, to private businesses, which gain increased profits as well as a more flexible workforce through the implementation of UBI.

It could be argued then that the UBI simply ensures that capital and the state are further bound up and implicated within our lives. This becomes problematic when we consider the possibility of the disappearance of differing forms of social and public services and the dependency that this would produce on the UBI. If we consider this in terms of a scenario such as the widespread call for the termination of benefits for those involved in the riots of 2011 – which was not enacted due to European human rights legislation – then we can see easily how this could function as a form of social control. Not only this, but proposals made for the introduction of ‘pre-paid benefit cards’ similar to the Azure card currently given to asylum seekers in the UK, will not necessarily disappear. At this point we begin to see how benefits can be controlled and restricted in such a way as to ensure a relative lack of autonomy for those relying solely on them. This is seen particularly in housing where rentiers can legally exclude tenants who are in receipt of housing benefit.

Consequently we cannot get behind any demand or reform if it does not take seriously a critique of both the state and capital, especially something such as the UBI which perhaps dangerously implicates us within capital and potentially erodes some of the material gains that we already have. The very fact that right-wing economists have pushed this idea must lead us to seriously question any suggestion that the introduction of a UBI could ever be part of any radical challenge to capitalism as we know it. These arguments made for UBI as containing the possibility for the abolishment of capitalism are seemingly not grounded within a real analysis of the present material conditions, as a political argument it falls in the realm of social democratic reforms in that it serves to act (not only) as a neo-Keynesian form of stimulus but also a re-configuring of what is currently acting as the welfare state.

The problem with demands is that, by formulating needs in terms that make them audible to power, they say nothing about those needs, and what real transformations of the world they require. Thus, demanding free public transportation says nothing of our need to travel rather than be transported, of our need for slowness.

As noted at the start of this text the problem with the UBI is not that it can be considered a ‘reformist’ tactic, but rather that it does not lend itself to any obvious strategy within the struggle against capitalism.  Many struggles in defence of the social wage and services are highly necessary. Yet, what we get with UBI and through the rhetoric deployed by the vacuous left-liberal language its proponents use is a cross-class tool of persuasion and discipline, rather than an opening to escape capitalist relations.

  1. Federici, Wages against housework 1975

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