The “socialist” argument for Universal Basic Income

by Jehu

karikatur-das-verhaeltnis-arbeiter-unternehmer-559b3ce83fafbd59048b4567Every movement that hopes to be embraced by society at large must be translated into the specific class consciousness of each of the various classes prevalent in that society. This was once true for socialism, and it is no less true for Universal Basic Income. UBI has become the elephant in the room that a motley collection of blind wise men are each trying to describe to their followers in words appropriate to their particular worldview.

Here is an interesting set of talking points for UBI someone developed for socialists, which invokes Marx and equates UBI to the free universal public education he proposed in the Communist Manifesto.

“While a UBI won’t lead us straight into a worker-owned, democratic economy like what a socialist would advocate for, you would find that many socialists advocate for a UBI because it satisfies one of the biggest tenets of socialism; collective efforts from society that would benefit all of society, which by any means could mean heavier taxation that goes right back to the community equally. This is why Marx was such a heavy advocate for the Public School system, and prominent socialists like MLK supported a movement that would limit the socio-economic disparity between Whites and Blacks. While Public Schools and Equality aren’t socialism (since they don’t lead us to worker-owned cooperatives), they are definitely socialist, and intrinsically socialist, because they are all necessary to socialism.”

The author of the socialist talking points admits UBI is not itself socialism, (which is here narrowly defined as a ‘worker-owned, democratic economy’), but neither is free public education. Despite this, Marx included free public education in the programmatic section of the Communist Manifesto, because it “would benefit all of society”.

This is a persuasive argument to anyone who has no idea what socialism is and seems to have been written by such a person. If you are convinced by Bernie Sanders that the police department and public schools are socialism, you’ll be convinced by these talking points.

In fact, while Marx included a demand for free public education, he never included a demand for a basic income in the Manifesto. And this is despite the fact he included a monopoly by the state on credit. Why? Since the state would have a monopoly on the credit, why would it not have used this monopoly to pay out a living income to everyone? Would this not have eliminated poverty and inequality even in his own time?

The reason why Marx did not include this demand is that he thought money itself expressed the domination of the bourgeois class in society. The aim of communism, as Marx conceived it, was to abolish money, not hand it out.

Marx was in favor of free public education because this was a means to ensure the most rapid increase in the productive power of labor. The important benefit of this rapid increase in productivity was to free society from labor and money, not share the fruits of labor equally.

Equality ain’t equal

Marx did not even believe the fruits of labor could be shared equally, because he thought people were not equal in their needs.

For instance, a single mother with a large family had different needs than a single person living on their own. On what basis were these sorts of disparate needs to be met equally? To be equally shared as households, Marx argued, the shares would have to be unequally shared as individuals. If you shared by individuals, this would be unequal in terms of households. And if you shared by households, this would be unequal in terms of individuals.

Basic income as described by its proponents has this same problem. Is the money to be distributed by families or by individuals?

What happens then in the case of a family of four versus a single person living alone or independently but in a common space with others? If you distribute to each household, does each single person living independently in a common space count as a single household? Or do they count as a single household, composed of all the roommates? If they all divide up into separate spaces do they now constitute multiple households?

Millennials especially live in these sorts of informal settings including a host of non-traditional arrangements. Four persons can be each living alone; four other persons might be living in a common space as roommates; another four persons with their parents or siblings. However, if money is abolished and everyone has access to the means of life according to their needs (or even their whimsy), the question of equality in access to the fruits of common social labor vanishes.

However, to get to this point obviously requires a very high level of development of the productive power of labor. The Manifesto focuses on this development, not on the problem of equality.

It comes down to this: the proponents of basic income want to redistribute poverty equally among society.

Money doesn’t overcome poverty, it only redistributes it.

Freeing the artist from profit

The author continues:

“It also becomes evident that a UBI would guarantee that people wouldn’t be tied down to profit for their entire lives. In his “Base and Superstructure” Theory, Marx mentioned how it was the “Base” (the economic means and distribution of production) that affected the “Superstructure” (the relationship between people and the economy and general mindset of it, etc.). With a UBI, an artist or a scientist wouldn’t have to be tied down by profit in order to innovate or express themselves, individuals would be given the time and opportunity to do as they please, and in turn give back to the community not for the purpose of profit, but for the purpose of contribution in the field they feel they have an interest in be it sports, physical work, art, etc. “

How does UBI free people from profit? To explain how, the author then begins to make this silly argument: According to Marx the economic base determines the superstructure of society. Basic income seems to be included in this base as what the author calls “distribution of production”. With their individual portion of the “economic base of production” in hand in the form of cash, artists will be freed from profit to create art.

Really? Who wrote this shit? Clearly, whoever it was has never read even a single sentence of Marx, much less any socialist who came before or after him.

Let’s see if we can fix this argument for the author.

The sum products of labor, after profit, wages and the state share, will be divided equally among individuals according to some formula. This division will take place without regard to the labor contribution each person makes to the common effort.

Thus, two different sets of rules will determine the division of the social product: one based on labor, the other based on an equal division of a sum of money.

But it turns out the division according to labor is in fact not really a division according to how much labor each contributed. The capitalist contributes nothing, neither does the state. What they get to share “according to labor” is the product of the labor of the wage worker. On the other side is the share according to an equal division of a sum of money. However, this money is itself only the expression of labor.

Thus, the only person making any actual contribution of labor in this scheme is the wage worker.

On one side the wage worker must share the product of his labor with the owners of capital and the state. On the other side, the wage worker must share the product of his labor with all citizens who share equally in it in the forms of an equal sum of money-income.

If we summarize this arrangement then we get this:

  • STEP ONE: The Wage Worker contributes his labor to society.
  • STEP TWO: No sooner does he punch out and go home, then a gaggle of assorted parasites — capitalists, state bureaucrats, ‘artists’, Olympics swimmers, etc. — descend on the social product of his labor to divide it up among themselves.

The poor wage worker, who must sell his labor power to live, and who is thus forced to produce surplus value for the capitalist and the state, now sees an additional portion of his wages taken from him and shared with ‘artists’.

In this way we can abolish the need for labor from everyone — that is, everyone but the poor worker, who is the only one producing anything to be ‘shared’.