Response to David Graeber: If basic income is so good, why not start with the Koch Brothers?

Par7731873This 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:


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.

19 thoughts on “Response to David Graeber: If basic income is so good, why not start with the Koch Brothers?”

  1. Hours of labor my indeed be going away regardless of what anyone person or groups intends to do about it. Money, whatever it’s particular form, appears likely to be here for a little while. I wonder how, assuming money continues beyond the life-span of labor, you would propose to limit the consumption of the Koch brothers absent state intervention.

    It’s beginning to appear that your arguments are more messianism than materialism, which is fine, but I still wonder when the number of your pronouncements might be tempered with a few examples of concrete advocacy.


    1. First money is already gone. It ceased to exist in anything but name in 1971.

      Second, define state. Do you mean force or Congress?

      Third, messianism is not fine with me. So define what you mean by it.


      1. I apologize for my imprecise language.

        To your first point, commodity money is gone, not money as such. If this were not the case, your very instructive method of assuming the continuation of commodity money as an index against which to measure fiat currency would be incomprehensible, as would your proposal to limit the Koch brother’s consumption to $11,000 a year. Ones and zeros changing hands at incomprehensible speeds counts as monetary transaction as long as those bits of information have the backing of a central bank.

        On the second point, and I take full responsibility for being clumsy about this: I would define the state as any force adequate to the task of limiting the consumption of the Koch brothers. That would probably not include Congress.

        Thirdly, I would borrow from Dominco Losurdo in order to describe what I mean by messianism (knowing full well that I’m providing you the noose with which to hang me by citing him):

        “In general, one can say of Marx and Engels that politics, after playing a decisive role in the conquest of power, apparently disappears along with the state and the use of political force. This is all the more true when (in addition to the disappearance of classes, the state, and political power) the division of labor, nations, and religions, in short all possible sites of conflict, are thought to have disappeared.

        This messianic vision ultimately leads to anarchism, and has also played a deleterious role in regard to the economy. A socialist society is quite unthinkable apart from a more or less extensive public sector (or one regulated by government) within the productive apparatus as well as within the service industries, the functioning of the public sector being decisive. The solution to this problem can be left to the anarchist myth of the emergence of the “new man,” who, it is alleged, will spontaneously identify with the collective without the appearance of any sort of conflict or contradiction between private and public, individual and individual, social group and social group. This is obviously a secular version of the religious notion of “grace,” which would make the law unnecessary. Or the solution can be sought in a system of rules and incentives (both material and moral), and of controls that are intended to secure the transparency, efficiency, and productivity of this sector. Certainly all of this is made more difficult, if not impossible, by an (anarchistic) phenomenology of power that situates domination and oppression exclusively in the state, the centralized power, and the general social rules. In this manner, the dialectic of the capitalist society as Marx described it is quite reversed. In “real, existing socialism,” anarchism led to terror as compared to a civil society. This terror became all the more unbearable as exceptional circumstances faded, and the philosophy of history that promised the withering away of the state, of national identities, of the market, etc., increasingly lacked credibility.”

        Of course, this is all with the acknowledgement that I may have entirely the wrong impression regarding your central argument.


      2. When commodity money is no longer the standard of prices, money has been effectively abolished. We can still use it for analytical purposes, but the value of commodities is no longer expressed in the prices of those commodities.

        Yes. I see your second point. But this would be the characteristic of any state and, as such, useless to us here. As a specific form of state, the capitalist state is the ideal representative of the material conditions of capitalist production. Now the question is why these condition cannot be directly represented in the capitalist class itself? Because the condition exist split up among many competing capitals. The common material conditions of capitalist production, therefore, are quite independent of the members of the class itself.

        It is otherwise with the proletariat. Its association cannot exist independent of it. Its “state”, therefore, is not in any sense a state as might be seen in the bourgeois state. It is an association of producers and can only take this form. This is not a messianic conception, but a practical one. The critical role of the bourgeois state is that nowhere in bourgeois society do the common interests of the mode of production exist except in the form of the state. Thus there is the apparent fissure between public and private activities, which expresses the division of the total social capital of society into competing private capitals. This fissure is done away with simply because the conditions of social production are no longer split up into competing capitals — not because of the emergence of some mythical new man.

        Losurdo is an idiot.


  2. Why advocate a basic income rather than to abolish wage labour outright? Well, the one is on the fringes of the possible, the achievable – all it would require is a few minor changes to the existing state bureaucracy. The result would be, if not the end of wage slavery, then a profound change in the power relations in society (between employers and employed, between breadwinner and dependents, between the state and benefit claimants, etc) and the freedom of every individual. (It would instantly transform my whole life – what about yours?)

    Abolishing wage labour, on the other hand, is a long term project that we don’t even know for certain is possible – certainly not without the prior existence of a mass movement organised to achieve it. It may put a low limit on fucking consumption, but a lot of fucking people, myself included, don’t feel that fucking consumption is anywhere near the whole fucking problem. The main problem is a lack of power and control over your choices, including the lack of meaningful work (including the meaningful work of instantly quitting your job and finding something better to do).


    1. I understand. however I suggest you would be no more free of labor than retirees who end up working at WalMart. Moreover, the end of wage slavery must happen for all of us together. There are no shortcuts to the process.

      The relation of power here is that the worker is bereft of the entire world but her own labor, which she must then sell for means of subsistence. Keeping her in that relation is essential to the self-expansion of capital. No UBI scheme could long violate this condition. We are thus left with the conclusion that UBI won’t (and can’t) work as advertised by its supporters. So either it is a trick to force the working class to accept lower wages or an impossible scheme.

      Every argument in favor of UBI is already an argument for reducing hours of labor, since the scheme aims at just this result. What UBI has that reducing hours of labor doesn’t is that the worker is still tethered to money and can, on this basis, be forced to provide surplus labor time.


      1. But for most of us, being a part-time retiree and a part-time worker in WalMart would be a fantastic leap forward into freedom and possibility – including the possibility of spending more time organising or arguing for the end of wage-slavery.

        The argument that it couldn’t work would have to be made. I have often asked (on the Chittersphere and on Friendface and so on) if someone could point me to a decent (or even a crappy!) Marxian critique of basic income, and I’ve not yet found one. The arguments I’ve seen, from Marxists and others, including conservatives, is that it would work rather better than the current system, might even make (labour) markets work as they are supposed to in theory. The argument is indeed that UBI would relieve (especially small) business of some of their wage bill, but this wouldn’t make workers worse off. They’d just be getting (part of) their wage from the state, not their employer (which isn’t all that different from the current situation for most of us anyway).

        As for reducing hours of labour, yes, hurray! Why is it either/or? A UBI would make it easier for workers to self-reduce their own hours of labour, regardless of what their bosses or the state thought about it (would at the least increase the bargaining power of workers).

        UBI would also be a strike fund for everyone, paid without condition out of general taxation. What Marxist could object to that?!


      2. The right supports it for various reasons: because they believe it is the most efficient form of providing welfare, because it will, if set low enough, free up labour markets, because it will lead to a reduction in the welfare bureaucracy, etc. I see no reason not to support it just because some on the right are sensible enough to do so too. As an economist I like put it, it’s not really a left/right issue. The left can argue for a high BI. The right for a low one. But the case for a BI has cross-party appeal and is an obvious answer to various economic trends recognised by left and right because undeniable – rising unemployment due to mechanisation, rise of the precariat, etc.


      3. I want to emphasize I do not suggest UBI will not happen. I only argue it will not work for the results you seek; namely to address rising unemployment and precarious labor. Anything that extends capitalism will only impoverish the working class further. This is because the impoverishment of the class has nothing to do with how much it is paid, but its labor.


      4. In the long run you might be right, but in the long run we’re all dead. The impoverishment of the working class has everything to do with how much it’s paid. Obviously.


  3. I am sympathetic to Jehu on this. I am not against a UBI, but the whole direction of capital over the last 40+ years has been to eliminate any resistance to its domination. At times this has meant eliminating some forms of de jure discrimination that impeded the development of fluid labor markets, but largely it has meant forcing everyone to find wage-labor or drop into the underworld (extra-legal industries like the sex and drug trade; homelessness, etc.)

    Direct dependence on the welfare state, while less horrible than starving to death, is participation in a punitive surveillance system that has innumerable advantages for control, even if it is also less rational than a UBI from the perspective of markets.

    I am a little surprised as the lack of comprehension of the degree to which labor is a form of domination and under the current conditions, the mitigation of that domination (either through lower hours or a UBI or, preferably, both) is not something capitalism seems to have any reason to acceded to at the moment.

    UBI globally (outside of local instances) is arguably more utopian that the abolition of labor since it seems more reasonable within the coordinates of capital, but overlooks that the rationality of capital is always essentially a rational form of domination, or rational irrationality.


  4. Basic income is not the idea that everyone who isn’t rich should only get a small amount of money, and therefore are limited to it. The idea is that everyone, unconditionally, should AT LEAST get a basic amount of money.

    It’s not about limiting anyone’s consumption, it’s about ensuring they have the basic resources to be secure and free.

    It seems in your critique that you’ve made the mistake of assuming people in the working class would somehow only be allowed to have the basic income. That’s not the case, everyone would get it regardless of whether they work or don’t, make more or other money, or not.


    1. Interesting. So, you sit on the House Appropriations Committee? Or, are you just offering your ideal version of UBI — as if your opinion mattered?


      1. The HAC has very little to do with the widely used definition of UBI. I doubt the Swiss government, currently considering a vote on UBI, citizens of Alaska whom all receive a form of UBI as their petroleum dividend, or anyone else currently experimenting with or receiving an UBI looks to them for the definition.

        Any basic Googling on the topic will find it’s definition to be something like: “x amount of money to all people, unconditionally, regardless of whether they work or not, regardless of whether they are in a special group, or not.”

        Perhaps you have read sources on the topic that disagree with the first 10 pages of search results I get when I Google it, in which case I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

        And yes, our opinions matter. Rudeness, matters less.
        Cheers 😀


      2. I wasn’t being rude. I was asking you to rethink your assumption that you can describe “How UBI works” when there is no UI in the abstract, but only an actual program, that will be implemented by an actual committee, in an actual government.

        On another note, if your view of UBI is possible, it is essentially Social Security for everyone, right? Just as the best path for healthcare insurance would have been Medicare for everyone. Is it useful to look at how that worked out in practice to see how little chance you view has of being implemented?


      3. Apologies for not reading you right.

        I’m not making any assumptions about how individual UBI implementations operate, I’m simply restating the commonly used definition as I’ve read it in dozens of articles. Every implementation of a concept will be different, but the root concept is still what it is – like how our democracy is more of a republic in its implementation, but that doesn’t change the definition of a democracy.

        I wouldn’t say it’s social sec for everyone – that can imply a lot of things about funding, and particulars that maybe make it more complicated than it needs to be. In the plainest terms it’s a cash transfer of equal amount to all citizens regardless of circumstance, status or other eligibility.

        It’s more like the Alaskan oil dividend where every citizen of Alaska just gets money for being there. There are a lot of ways people have discussed funding it, some suggest a carbon or climate change tax, other just taxing the rich – you name it.

        You can also consider it to be similar to payouts for Native Americans from casinos their tribes operate – everyone who is a member gets the payout, regardless of whether they work or not.

        Finland, Spain and Switzerland are all considering this sort of program, I’m sure with each of them having their own variations. Canada had an experiment in it. I’ve heard of one in the South and Germany is crowdfunding one right now. I’m crowdfunding one in the US to explore the human-side of it, as most people tend to have strong opinions about the abstract, big scale side – even though data is very limited.

        You’re welcome to check it out at

        I agree that it’d be a huge pain to get involved at the national level, and who know what kind of BS would be brought to bear as the insurance industry did to influence the ACA – which is why w’re not futzing with government at all at this point. Getting support from government is more challenging than it’s worth, and we can do the same thing without them.





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