The Left needs to take a timeout

by Jehu

I have been thinking about universal basic income and the demand for a jobs guarantee – two ideas floated by, among others, a former Occupy activist, Jesse Myerson; and the relation between labor, money and goods like food, clothing, shelter. My thinking about the relation between these three was triggered by two comments from a tweep:

“There simply is not a one-to-one correspondence between labor under capitalism and use-values like food.”

Later he made an assertion that is incontrovertibly true:

“Currency, use-value, & labor are all separable.”

I like these statements because they get to the heart of my problem with UBI, a jobs guarantee and the discussion of issues related to both.

I am pretty sure no one would take exception to the idea that, no matter the type of society we consider, the members of that society always need, among other things, food, paycheck-for-allclothing and shelter. We, of course, need more than this basic stuff, so I don’t want to suggest that my list here is exhaustive or could ever be. Rather, let’s assume food, clothing and shelter, stand in for a host of concrete needs that must be satisfied by the means provided by nature. These needs require some definite level of interchange with nature, which are the source of the material means to satisfy them. And to appropriate these means to life from nature, requires some definite expenditure of human effort — labor.

So here is the thing:

While food, clothing and shelter are always necessary in definite quantity under all conditions, the labor required to appropriate them has steadily declined over the past 200 years or so as a consequence of several big bursts in the productivity of human labor. We call these concentrated bursts of improvement of the productivity of human labor industrial revolutions and there has been at least three by the reckoning of many writers. So, while labor is still necessary to produce food, clothing and shelter, the quantity of labor necessary for this purpose has clearly declined over time.

On the other hand we have currency: Under existing relations food, clothing and shelter are not acquired directly through the labor of each individual separately, but through exchange in which we each acquire money by selling our labor power and use this money to buy the things we need to satisfy our needs. Again, the relation between the things we require to satisfy our needs — food, clothing and shelter — and the currency we require to acquire them has not been fixed, but has changed. The change here however, shows a markedly different tendency than the labor it takes to appropriate them from nature: While the labor required to appropriate them from nature has clearly declined over time, the currency required to acquire them in society has clearly increased over time.

So, we have these three things: labor, the means to life, currency. In the relationship between the means to life and labor, the tendency has been toward a reduction in the amount of the latter required to produce the former. But in the relationship between means to life and currency, the tendency has been toward an increase in the amount of the latter required to acquire the former. As the amount of labor required to produce food, clothing and shelter has fallen, the currency required to acquire them through exchange has risen.

How does anyone explain these two obvious, empirically verifiable, long-standing, secular relations?

Let’s throw in another factor: in the discussion above I have discussed the relation between social needs in the form of food clothing and shelter to the labor required to appropriate them from nature, on one hand. I have also discussed the relation between social needs in the form of food clothing and shelter to currency required to appropriate them from society, on the other hand. The inverse relation between the first and the second means as the amount of labor it takes to satisfy human need declines, the amount of currency it takes to acquire these means increases. Thus, counterintuitively, less actual labor requires more actual currency.

Now what do you suppose explains that perverse result?

This is important when discussing UBI, because UBI is about currency, but prices keep rising, although UBI — if the minimum wage is any indicator — will not keep up with this rise. It is also important because the single over-riding problem of present society is “not enough jobs” and this “problem is so great many on the Left propose a job for everyone in society guaranteed by the state. But how does the Left reconcile the fact that income is such a problem when the amount of labor necessary to appropriate the means to life has declined to such an absurdly low level we have to actually demand the fascist state create work for people?

The Left needs to take a fucking timeout and ask itself why jobs have to be created. They need to take a timeout and explain why as the labor required to produce goods declines, their prices keep increasing. Really, if you cannot explain these two things, you have no fucking credibility. And no worker with any sense should listen to you when you demand more money and more jobs.