When Charles Murray met David Graeber

by Jehu

charlesmurrayOne of the great difficulties Leftists who support the idea of basic income have is trying to explain why some of the most notorious Rightists in post-war United States have, at one time or another, embraced this idea themselves.

In this vein, there was an interesting exchange between David Graeber and PBS Newshour concerning his rather startling agreement on the issue of basic income with the conservative intellectual, Charles Murray. One 2012 profile of Murray described his intellectual accomplishments this way:

“Murray tells me he first dined here in the early 1980s with two social psychologists and the conversation helped spark the idea for Losing Ground (1984), his first major work. The book, which argued that the expansion of the welfare state in the 1960s had created a culture of dependency that was sapping America of its vitality, was a big influence on the welfare reforms of the 1990s. A decade later Murray brought out The Bell Curve, his most famous book …, in which he said that IQ was the biggest dividing factor in society. Most controversially, Murray refused to rule out that race and genetics played a role in the uneven distribution of intelligence.”

When asked about this odd agreement on the issue of basic income with a Rightist intellectual who, apparently, thinks social spending on the poor is “sapping America of its vitality” and who is even unwilling to dismiss the idea that social inequality results from the inferior intelliegence of black people, Graeber’s response left far more questions than it answered:

PBS Newshour: “Are you surprised that there’s right wing support for this?

David Graeber: Not at all. Because I think there are some people who can understand that the rates of inequality that we have mean that the arguments [for the market] don’t really work. There’s a tradition that these people are drawing on, which recognizes that the kind of market they really want to see is not the kind of market we see today.”

It is quite possible that Graeber is right about the Right: The support for a basic income in some form has a very long pedigree on the Right going well back to 1930s populism and includes such darlings of the intellectual Right as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. It is entirely possible that support for a basic income among conservatives  is intended only to ensure a well functioning free market. And this might even be linked to some mild concern about the social implications of inequality.

My only real beef with Graeber in this argument is that he is an anarchist and anarchists have terrible economic theories. If Graeber was familiar with labor theory he would at least know inequality is not cause by insufficient wages, but by wage labor itself. It is not the wage the worker is paid, but the worker’s own activity that produces both her own poverty and the wealth of the capitalist. Which means a well functioning market, even if this was the sole interest the Right has for supporting basic income, only allows the self-impoverishing activity of the worker to be more faithfully expressed.


Which got me thinking about the Speenhamland System and why Karl Polanyi’s writings on this experiment during the first industrial revolution convinced Richard Nixon a basic income was a really bad idea.

According to Karl Polanyi, the Speenhamland System was an attempt to resist the formation of a market in labor power in England at the close of the 18th century. The aim of the Speenhamland System was pretty simple and might be embraced by many on the Left today as a laudable reform. Like the basic income idea, it introduced a social and economic innovation of a ‘right to live’” and attempted to enforce this right through a basic income tied to the price of bread:

“The justices of Berkshire, meeting at the Pelikan Inn, in Speenhamland, near Newbury, on May 6, 1795, in a time of great distress, decided that subsidies in aid of wages should be granted in accordance with a scale dependent upon the price of bread, so that a minimum income should be assured to the poor irrespective of their earnings.”

The local practice was soon widely adopted through most of England and continued in placed from 1795 until 1834. Polanyi describes it as an attempt by rural England to maintain itself in the face of the changes wrought by the industrial revolution:

“Eighteenth Century society unconsciously resisted any attempt at making it a mere appendage of the market. No market economy was conceivable that did not include a market for labor; but to establish such a market, especially in England’s rural civilization, implied no less than the wholesale destruction of the traditional fabric of society.”

Polanyi covers Speenhamland in chapter 7 of his book, “The Great Transformation”, where he writes:

“To later generations nothing could have been more patent than the mutual incompatibility of institutions like the wage system and the “right to live,” or, in other words, than the impossibility of a functioning capitalistic order as long as wages were subsidized from public funds.”

Since the capitalist mode of production is founded not on the worker’s “right to live”, but her “right to starve”, it soon became apparent that the system of basic income subsidies had to go — and they did by 1834.

Polanyi essentially concurs with the Left advocates of basic income that such a program of subsistence support for the working class is incompatible with a market in wage labor; that the working class would be freed of the necessity to labor altogether if they could be assured some minimum income no matter their contribution to the production of surplus value. It took a few decades, but eventually English society realized what an awful mistake they had made by trying to protect the dispossessed from starvation:

“Only when a grave deterioration of the productive capacity of the masses resulted—a veritable national calamity which was obstructing the progress of machine civilization— did the necessity of abolishing the unconditional right of the poor to relief impose itself upon the consciousness of the community.”


Polanyi’s argument that wage slavery meant the wage worker must be left on her own to starve or sell her labor power to the capitalist impressed even Richard Nixon — who, in 1969, was set to propose a basic income scheme of his own. I first found a reference to Polanyi’s take on the Speenhamland System in a very interesting piece by Corey Robin: “When Richard Nixon Met Karl Polanyi”. According to Robin:

“When Nixon began mooting his version of Speenhamland in the early part of 1969, talk of perversity (in all senses) was very much in the air. In mid-April, the economist Martin Anderson … prepared a report on the history of poor assistance, which was essentially little more than a series of extracts about Speenhamland from The Great Transformation.

So troubled was Nixon by this history that he had Moynihan personally undertake an assessment of Polanyi’s findings. Moynihan set his staff right to it, resulting in a team of bureaucrats surveying all the most up-to-date historical literature on Speenhamland.

As Fred Block and Margaret Somers—from whose wonderfully informative 2003 article in Politics & Society “In the Shadow of Speenhamland: Social Policy and the Old Poor Law” I have cribbed this story—concluded:

The Family Assistance Plan was ultimately defeated in the U.S. Senate but only after Richard Nixon had a conversation about the work of Karl Polanyi.


If Polanyi’s argument on the incompatibility of basic income and wage slavery was convincing enough to end Nixon’s support for the idea, why would a conservative like Charles Murray be in favor of an income guarantee? The question raised by Polanyi’s history and the Left advocates of basic income is whether a dyed in the wool conservative like Charles Murray is seeking some sort of return to the patriarchal relations of 18th century rural England. Does Murray look on the fascist state as the modern incarnation of the Industrial Revolution-era English rural society unconsciously resisting any attempt at making it a mere appendage of the market. Why, in this case, would conservatives like Murray be so gung-ho to reintroduce the principle of “the right to live” after having so successfully established the laws of the capitalist mode of production, i.e., the “right” of the worker to starve should she fail to provide sufficient surplus value to the capitalist?

This is all the more bewildering, since Leftists do not have at their disposal their usual stock excuse for why some meaningless bourgeois reform represents a victory for the working class:

“Yah know, it’s a concession to working class militancy.”

No one is in the streets militantly demanding anything for which the fascist state has to make a concession — there is no class struggle. So what might explain calls on the Right for this sudden turn by the fascist state toward the old patriarchal values of pre-1834 England?

I would suggest the answer to the puzzle of Murray support for basic income can be found in the fact capitalism has changed a lot since the early decades of the 19th century. There is no question that Polanyi, Gorz, Graeber and other advocates of basic income are correct — basic income is incompatible with wage slavery — but clearly we are not today facing the problem that the productivity of labor has sunk to that of pauper labor; if anything, we are facing a general and chronic overproduction — or, in the words of the simpletons, secular stagnation.

The fact that basic income is incompatible with wage slavery has no relevance whatsoever to the discussion of basic income today. We already know for a fact that the high level of productivity of labor — augmented by the application of machinery, science, improved organization, scale of operation and technology — 180 years after the end of the Speenhamland System’s collapse, is itself incompatible with wage slavery. The call for basic income by the likes of Charles Murray is not coming at a time when capitalist relations of production are being constrained by outmoded patriarchal relations, but at a time when the mode of production faces absolute overaccumulation of capital throughout the world market. The question is not, as it was in 1834, how to facilitate the formation of a market in labor power, but how to maintain wage slavery in face of overaccumulation.

So, can a basic income guarantee maintain the wage slavery system in the face of chronic overproduction of capital; and, if so, what would such a system look like?