Response to David Graeber: If basic income is so good, why not start with the Koch Brothers?
This Graeber article, “Why America’s favorite anarchist thinks most American workers are slaves”, is just chock full of the most egregious bullshit on the basic income issue possible.
There are two possible directions for the Left to take at this point and both are said to achieve the same goals. The first is basic income and the second is reduction of hours of labor. For some reason, David Graeber has suggested the working class should be fighting for the first, not the second.
The oddest thing, however, is that I have very little to dispute with many of Graeber’s points in the article. His argument for basic income is a convincing one that any supporter of reducing hours of labor would embrace — and this might just be the problem.
First, Graeber lashes out at the welfare and social benefits bureaucracy:
“The problem is that we have this gigantic apparatus that presumes to tell people who’s worthy, who’s not, what people should be doing, what they shouldn’t.”
Against this massive and utterly useless bureaucracy, Graeber proposes individuals should be able to choose for themselves the activity they value most:
“We don’t really know how to assess the value of people’s work, of people’s contributions, of people themselves, and philosophically, that makes sense; there is no easy way to do it. So the best thing to do is just to say, alright, everyone go out and you decide for yourselves.”
Not only is the fascist bureaucracy unable to decide for each individual what is most important for them to be doing, the present system inevitably destroys the true source of innovation in society. Graeber speaks of a friend who, unable to make it as a ‘professional’ musician, opted to be a corporate lawyer. He also raises the spectre of innumerable Derridas or Sartres who, absent sufficient income, deliver our mail. The Left, says Graeber, has not taken into account the millions of program beneficiaries and enforcers who might otherwise compose music or profound philosophical treatises.
By far his most important, salient and biting observation is that the Left has little or no understanding of the insidious and oppressive nature of the fascist bureaucracy as seen from the viewpoint of the worker who is unfortunate enough to fall under its domination:
“I think that one big problem we have on the left is we don’t really have a strong critique of bureaucracy. It’s not because we like bureaucracy very much; it’s just that the right has developed a critique. I don’t think it’s a very good critique, but at least it’s there. I think this is a perfect left critique of bureaucracy: Who are all these people sitting around watching you, telling you what your work is worth, what you’re worth, basically employing thousands of people to make us feel bad about ourselves.”
The Left doesn’t really want to think about this because of the profound implications for its sordid, squalid, filthy little love affair with fascist state food-stamp socialism.
Graeber’s solution to this overbearing machinery of state is simple: replace all of these useless bureaucrats with a cash handout to everyone — “Those people [making the decisions] don’t really contribute anything to society; we could get rid of them.” Indeed, says Graeber, when they tried this in Namibia, people decided to pool their resources and create a post office. Society knows exactly what it needs to function in a civilized fashion without an army of bureaucrats making this decision for them. Moreover, even in prison, where, arguably, people have every simple need provided for, people have shown they value productive activity and make an effort to secure productive labor as the alternative to being stuck in a prison cell all day.
“I think that it’s really important to bear in mind two things. One is it’ll show people that you don’t have to force people to work, to want to contribute.”
Motivated by their own desire to express themselves in their creative activity, once set free of abject poverty people will produce things we cannot imagine. Human beings are, by nature, creative animals and, given the opportunity, will come up with all sort of innovative stuff in a society no longer characterized by wide-spread poverty:
“The other point we need to stress is that we can’t tell in advance who really can contribute what. We’re always surprised when we leave people to their own devices.”
There is, of course, nothing about what Graeber has said in all of this that can be disputed. There is little in his argument against fascist state bureaucracy, the innate creativity of human beings and their desire to express this creativity to be disputed. Since there is very little to dispute in his argument, why then does he think this requires, or can be addressed by, basic income, when the same argument easily could be made for reduction of hours of labor or abolishing wage labor outright?
What is it about basic income that makes this solution the policy to be preferred by an anarchist and activist? At the outset, Graeber makes this revealing argument: Giving people money won’t eliminating a market system. It levels the playing field between the two classes:
“If everybody has the same means to vote [money — Jehu], then the market will actually represent what most people want.”
Really? How does a handout do this?
“First of all, survival needs would be taken care of, so that skews people, and you could see what people think is actually important in life. I think that’s why even a lot of libertarians, whom I don’t agree with on a lot, actually kind of like the idea of basic income — because they know that it would make the market work the way they say a market should work.”
Graeber seems to think that by giving people basic income, you can fix the negative outcomes of the capitalist mode of production. I am not sure why this particular argument appeals to Graeber — or to the many folks on the Left who think that, somehow, the mode of production can be fixed by handing out money to the working class. But Graeber is not alone in this particular delusion by any means and I don’t mean to single him out except that he is a juicy target.
I want to be serious about this: What Graeber has said is not at all unusual on the Left — he just can say it with a high profile.
I cannot quite wrap my head around why people want to save the market, or why they think saving the illusion of exchange relations works; because, frankly, basic income really is just an illusion of market exchange — some bureaucrat goes into a room and inputs so many dollars into a computer. This completely imaginary “money” is then transferred to your account. The balance in your account is a total illusion in every way except one extremely relevant way:
IT DEFINES THE LIMIT ON YOUR FUCKING CONSUMPTION.
Now you can extend this limit by $1000 or even $10,000, but your consumption is still fucking limited by whatever number you want to imagine. Why does the Left think the consumption of the working class – the fucking source of all wealth in this fucking society – need to be limited? Really, who the fuck do the supporters of basic income think they speak for! Because it seems to me you have no fucking right to speak for the working class: the only goddamned group producing anything in this society.
If basic income supporters want to limit the consumption of anyone to a pittance, I suggest you start with Warren Buffett and the Koch Brothers; expropriate their wealth and make them live on $11,000 a year. If this turns out to be insufficient to address their needs, they can go out and get real jobs like the rest of us.