You can’t beat UBI without a real alternative

by Jehu

If there is anyone who is as opposed to universal basic income (UBI) as I am, it seems to be Andrew Jackson. His most recent polemic of this failed idea, Basic Income and the left: The political and economic problems details an exhaustive list of defects that are often overlooked or swept under the rug entirely by UBI’s supporters:

  • First, Jackson explains why UBI is very expensive when compared to its limited impact on poverty. Studies done in Canada show that a UBI, even one that pays an extremely low basic income still requires the state raise massive tax revenues over and above present social welfare spending. Even at this cost UBI will have only a negligible impact on poverty.
  • Second, UBI sets one group of workers against another: Think, for instance, the political impact of a program that sacrifices Social Security for income support for GenXers and Millennials, that sacrifices the income of the employed for the unemployed, that privileges native-born workers against migrants.
  • Third, UBI is inconsistent with the requirements of the capitalist mode of production. UBI allows workers to access the means of subsistence without selling their labor power. If, as UBIers argue, a UBI makes it possible for workers to avoid labor completely, and if profits are dependent on labor, how will this not have the effect of undermining capitalist production for profit?
  • Fourth, despite running into the logic of the capitalist mode of production, advocates for UBI want to leave that logic in place. Capitalists continue to own and manage the means of production and the vast majority of society remains dependent on the sale of their labor power to secure the means to life.
  • Fifth, the advocates for UBI appear not to take the role of the state as the embodiment of capitalist relations seriously. UBIers don’t grapple seriously with the role the state plays in propping up capitalist profits through its various fiscal and monetary policies.
  • Sixth, advocates for UBI ignore the likelihood that UBI, rather than adding to wages, will allow capitalists to cut wages proportionally. This is already apparent in the fact that Wal-Mart and other employers routinely pay so little wages their employees often qualify for public assistance. Are we to believe these employers will not take the opportunity offered by a UBI to add further pressure on the wages of their employees? Essentially, UBI could act as a subsidy for capitalist profits.
  • Seventh, UBI can serve as a means for the state to attack employment in the public sector and destroy public unions. UBI does away with a whole class of public employees who are now necessary to administer numerous social welfare programs. Once it is implemented, these employees will join their peers in the ranks of the reserve army of labor. Potentially, UBI can add to the problem of unemployment rather than address it.
  • Eighth, UBIers conveniently ignore that UBI requires legislation: This means the specific flavor of UBI that ultimately emerges from the Washington sausage factory will be determined by a political struggle between classes. How many people are ready to let the level of their benefits be determined by Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. How many have faith the their interests will be looked after by Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer or the next corporate Democrat that wins the Oval Office.
  • Ninth, UBI is seen by the Right as a way to abolish the social welfare state. Few people even realize that Obamacare was originally developed by the Heritage Foundation as a GOP alternative to single payer and first implemented by a Republican governor, Mitt Romney. Today, the Heritage Foundation’s Charles Murray is championing UBI as the 21st century alternative to the social welfare state. He is not doing this because he wants to raise benefits and improve the conditions of the working class.

I wasted a lot of space in this post going over Jackson’s argument in detail for a simple reason: Not for want of effort, but I think his argument on basic income misses the essential reason why basic income is a dead end for the working class. While the list of defects of UBI as Jackson shows are numerous, I don’t think these arguments will have any impact on the debate. People are looking for a way to cope with the crisis of the social welfare state. For many UBI advocates, these defects, while real, can be addressed down the road.

To give an analogy, while Obamacare wasn’t single payer, it keeps the issue of health insurance alive. The defects of Obamacare create hope among many progressives and radicals that Obamacare will be eventually replaced by single payer. Similarly, these same people support UBI because they see it not as the ultimate solution to the financial problems they experience, perhaps, but as a step along the path to ending poverty an inequality.

In other words, a negative critique of UBI like the one Jackson levels is necessary but not sufficient if we hope to avoid wasting many decades getting to a real solution to poverty and inequality. People who know UBI only offers decades more of useless debate on the problem of declining wages and growing inequality have the responsibility to offer an alternative, not simply criticize UBI.

And here is where Jackson’s effort collapses: Jackson offers no realistic alternative to UBI but the same old outdated programs of the collapsing social welfare state. Fearful that UBI will ultimately undermine the minimum wage, public full employment policies and targeted poverty programs, Jackson still offers nothing in place of the obviously politically vulnerable institutions during a time of deep crisis and the specter of automation, which waits in the wing.

If UBI is an expensive way to deal with the next generation of automation, the old social welfare state is equally as expensive. This means UBIers have on their side that the existing social welfare state is already dead and automation will make this clear in the coming years. It is not as though we have a choice — UBI or the old welfare state — the welfare state is dead. What will replace it?

If UBI is the only alternative to the failing welfare state, Jackson’s critique of UBI’s defects is the worst possible news for us; a catastrophe is coming and that catastrophe’s name is UBI.

Our only chance of breaking this cycle is putting an end to wage labor. As I have shown, with adequate planning, the complete end to wage labor can be achieved in as little as five years simply by reducing hours of labor the equivalent of one working day per year. In five years the working week would be zero and there would be no need for any wage labor at all. If Postone is correct, the material basis for the complete elimination of wage labor — a huge hidden block of unnecessary labor time — already exists in our economy. All we have to do to realize this superfluous labor time as free disposable time for everyone is prevent the state from extending the life of wage labor through schemes like UBI.

Communism simply progressively eliminates the worker’s dependence on the sale of her labor power. This elimination is made necessary by the fact that, with the development of the forces of production, so little labor is required from workers to produce commodities that conditioning consumption on wage labor becomes superfluous to the production of material wealth and an actual barrier to the production of material wealth.

UBI tries to address this problem by giving everyone money for basic necessities but it does this in such a way that the connection between consumption and production is still maintained for anything beyond sheer physical survival. The advocates for UBI think they can abolish the dependence of consumption on labor for necessities but keep it for “luxuries”. The worker should be able to afford chicken but not steak, a mass transit ticket but not a Lexus, an apartment but not a McMansion.

In other words, for the Right, UBI, like wages now, should be an instrument to reduce the consumption of the working class to a level consistent with capitalist profits.

Essentially, the distinction between UBI and labor hours reduction comes down to the proposition that wage labor is necessary and should be continued in a form consistent with capitalist profits versus the view that wage labor is unnecessary and must be abolished. Whether one side or the other in this debate admits it or not, their approach is determined by their opinion on whether wage labor is now necessary or not.