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Tag: basic income

Husson’s and Treillet’s call for labor hours reduction: Important but seriously flawed

I just finished reading this article by Michel Husson & Stephanie Treillet on the significance of labor hours reduction, Liberation Through Vacation. I want to offer some thought on why I think it is, on sfweek29ethe whole, as important as it is disappointing. I make these points, not because I disagree with what I think was the intended thrust of their article, but because certain folks will go after Husson’s and Treillet’s argument. For instance, A. Kliman has already taken David Graeber and others to task for their weak arguments on labor as just another attempt to rebrand social democracy. (See Kliman’s, Post-Work: Zombie Social Democracy with a Human Face?) My point here is to expose weaknesses in their argument because Husson and Treillet’s main thrust is, after SYRIZA’s election, the most important development to emerge from the crisis in 2015.

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Hours, Wages and Poverty: On the introduction to Kathi Weeks’ “The Problem with Work”

I have been spending some time reading Kathi Weeks, “The Problem with Work”, and find myself unable to get beyond this sophomoric statement in her introduction:

“I focus on the demands for basic income and shorter hours for two reasons. First, like the demand for living wages and others, they represent important remedies for some of the problems with the existing system of wages and hours. A guaranteed and universal basic income would enhance the bargaining position of all workers vis-il-vis employers and enable some people to opt out of waged work without the stigma and precariousness of means-tested welfare programs. A thirty-hour full-time work week without a decrease in pay [my emphasis] would help to address some of the problems of both the underemployed and the overworked. The second reason for focusing on these demands—which I think distinguishes them from many other demands for economic reform, including the demand for a living wage—is their capacity not only to improve the conditions of work but to challenge the terms of its dominance. These demands do not affirm our right to work so much as help us to secure some measure of freedom from it.”

I am not going to argue this passage characterizes the whole of her book, but I find it bizarre that a Marxist like Kathi Weeks considers a demand for a 30 hour week utopian. She seems to have no clue that there is a relation between hours of labor, on the one hand, and wages and prices, on the other. Moreover, she never mentions the connection between hours of labor, competition among workers and racism, misogyny, anti-migrant sentiments.

186225ebe6_93261970_o2Coupling the demand for a six hour day with a demand for no decrease in wages or a demand for basic income actually shows why Marxists secretly fear the demand for fewer hours of labor is utopian: If there is the slightest danger the subsistence of the working class will fall if hours are reduced, no worker will ever support it. A very large section of the working class lives hand to mouth at a level where they would be homeless and hungry within a month. Another section would be in the same position within a couple of months, once they have exhausted the meager savings.

What compels the working class to sell their labor power is that they cannot live without doing this. But Weeks implicitly “admits” in her introduction that a reduction of hours will have a negative impact on their income, that it will further reduce their subsistence. How are you going to sell this “utopian” demand to the working class? Do you tell them that being idle, homeless and destitute is an improvement on their current position in society?

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The Left will come to deeply regret its cowardice on basic income

prijem-2Peter Frase wrote an interesting piece in 2011, Stop Digging: The Case against Jobs. The essay was pretty popular and was re-blogged widely on various sites. In the article, Frase challenged a consensus that has emerged on the Left without much debate which places jobs at the center of demands:

“Much of the left has, mostly without debating it, coalesced around “jobs” as a unifying political demand.  The motivation for this is clear: one of the biggest problems the country faces is that there are 20 million people who are unsuccessfully seeking full time employment.  But while it may seem obvious that the solution to this problem is to create millions of new jobs, this is not in fact the only possible solution — and there are major drawbacks to a single-minded focus on increasing employment.  For one thing, it may not be feasible to create that many new jobs.  Moreover, it’s equally debatable whether, from a socialist perspective, it is desirable to create these jobs even if it is possible.”

Frase questions whether it was possible to create that many jobs, but he goes further to ask why should the Left be demanding this sort of job creation. He gives 3 reasons why the Left might demand job creation:

  1. People need income and job provides that.
  2. Work gives dignity
  3. Things need to be done that won’t get done unless someone is paid to do them.

Frase points to the apparently irresolvable paradox the Left encounters whenever it tries to go beyond its limited demand for jobs: the real problem of the unemployed isn’t their lack of jobs, it’s their lack of money. If the real problem is not a lack of jobs but a lack of money, why can’t we just handout money to everyone? This argues Frase, is why some on the left are coming around to the idea of just giving people money whether they have a job or not.

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Basic Income: Which class will be writing the legislation?

Since our Left supporters of universal basic income, like the working class in general, think they live in a classless society, it is no surprise that they forget there are two classes in society, each with antagonistic interests which will be dollarhandcuffsexpressed in whatever basic income scheme finally comes into being.

For our Leftists supporters of basic income, this interest may be expressed in a desire to see the end of poverty, to reduce the impact of unemployment on the wages of the employed, and to increase the capacity of the working class to fight against the other class, however, since there two classes showing an interest in basic income, we should not neglect the interests that stand behind the advocates of basic income on behalf of this other class and to examine basic income from the viewpoint of this other class.

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The core fallacy of Leftist basic income schemes

I am spending some time looking into the argument for basic income made by some of its defenders. In the course of my surfing, I came across this article by Carl Gibson, “The Case for a Basic Guaranteed Income for All”, which attempts to popularize the argument of basic income advocates.

logo-UBIEAccording to Gibson:

“By providing a basic income for all citizens through ending tax loopholes and preferential tax treatments for the super-wealthy, we’re directly correcting the ever-growing gap between the few who have more than they could ever spend in multiple lifetimes, and the vast majority fighting over crumbs.

More importantly, we’re also giving the poorest Americans a fighting chance at fulfilling their dreams, rather than spending their best years slaving away for a corporate giant that doesn’t respect basic human needs. We can’t call ourselves a free country until working Americans are freed from poverty wages and dead-end jobs.”

From the point of view of getting completely beyond capitalist society, basic income poses at least two obvious problems: First, a basic income does not and cannot get beyond money relations. Second, a basic income cannot get beyond the state. If basic income cannot get beyond money and beyond the state, it cannot get beyond labor despite what its defenders argue.

Why can’t basic income get beyond labor when so many of its defenders claim it can? The reasons are simple: First, although almost all basic income supporters never realize this, money itself is only an expression of socially necessary labor time. Typical of the sort of thinking in our society, most basic income supporters simply see money as a numeraire, not an expression of value. Second, the state itself is wholly funded by surplus value.

These two facts together mean basic income itself is funded by the surplus value, (i.e., the surplus socially necessary labor time) of the working class.

Making Capital Pay?

This presents us with the bizarre situation where one section of the working class lives parasitically on the surplus value squeezed from another section of the class. The typical response of basic income supporters to this bizarre situation is that this is not necessarily true. Instead of adding taxes to the employed sections of the working class, the fascist state could garnish some portion of already idle capital.

Carl Gibson, for instance, proposes the following measures to employ the excess profits of capital to fund a basic income scheme:

“The cost of guaranteeing every adult citizen (approximately 225 million, according to census figures) $12,000 a year is roughly $2.8 trillion. That sounds like a lot, until looking into just one of the least-mentioned sources – offshore tax havens.

Currently, $32 trillion is stashed in offshore accounts in notorious tax havens like the Cayman Islands and Bermuda. Much of that is profit made in the US by American corporations, but booked overseas to avoid taxes. And as journalist Nicholas Shaxson wrote in “Treasure Islands,” much more of it is held in blind trusts operated by oppressive authoritarian regimes, drug cartels, human traffickers, and other unsavory characters. $2.8 trillion isn’t even 1/8 of that amount. We aren’t asking for the whole pie, just a piece. And we’ll even save them a bite.

A few commonsense loophole closures like getting rid of the “carried interest” loophole, eliminating transfer pricing schemes like the “Dutch Sandwich” and “Double Irish” tax loopholes, and instituting a one percent sales tax on all financial transactions on Wall Street would be more than enough to cover the cost of a universal guaranteed income for all. And we still haven’t even discussed other widely-supported, commonsense initiatives like turning wasteful Pentagon spending like the F-35 project into money set aside for a universal basic income, taxing investment income at the same rate as real, actual work, raising the inheritance tax to pre-Bush levels, or creating new tax brackets for millionaires and billionaires.”

Thus, Gibson believes capital can be made to pay the cost to support idled workers through a combination of taxes on offshore accounts, closing loopholes, ending defense contracts and raising inheritance and capital gains taxes to pre-Bush administration levels.

This proposal, however, is simply a shell game since the origins of this idle capital is none other than the excess labor time of the worker. Assuming all of these forms of subsidy to capital were eliminated, we would still face the same problem — only now the capitalists would be intermediaries for an indirect tax on the employed workers. The capitalist would extract surplus value from his wage slaves and split the proceeds with the fascist state. The fascist state would then hand out the loot extracted from the workers by capital to the unemployed.

Although it appears as if capital is being taxed to maintain those unable to find work, in fact one section of the class is being made to support the other by working longer hours than is necessary.

Unemployment and Poverty as the Product of the Employed Worker

Supporters of basic income argue the scheme would make it possible for a large portion of the class to withdraw from the labor market; giving freedom to some workers to live entirely without laboring. In fact this is only true for that portion of the class that has already been rendered superfluous to productive labor. So long as the portion of the working class that composes the surplus population depends on value squeezed out of the employed section, the “freedom” to live without labor is materially limited by the rate of surplus value.

In any case, the mass of surplus value extracted from the employed workers must be equal to the average rate of profit, plus the expenditures of the fascist state, plus the basic income paid to those not working. The social spending formerly undertaken by the fascist state has not disappeared at all — it has only been reorganized. In place of a host of targeted programs, we now have a cash allotment handed out to those who have already been rendered surplus by capital. Assuming the program is revenue neutral, it only represents a change in the form of distribution of social spending and who receives it.

By and large the supporters of basic income will not listen to this argument, since they are not familiar with labor theory or think it is wrong. In their view, money and profit has no necessary relation to labor time. Money can be created out of thin air and is simply a numeraire, while commodities enter circulation without values: in this confused argument, the commodities only actually acquire value in the market when they are bought and sold. Thus, profit is produced by capital, not labor, and can be taxed without any impact on labor time generally.

Finally, there no recognition of the connection between the excess population of workers on the one hand, and the overwork of the employed. If there is any connection acknowledged in this regards, it is only that the unemployed represent a threat to the employed by holding down the wages of the latter. The essential role the employed workers play by actually producing the unemployed workers is never acknowledged.

Along with a steadily growing mass of commodities, resulting from improvement of the productivity of labor, the employed workers produce a steadily growing mass of workers who cannot, under any circumstance, find a place in productive employment. The unemployment of one section of the working class is, thus, the aim and purpose of the activity of the other. The employed worker never realizes this, until she is confronted by a mass of unemployed who attempt to undercut her wages by offering themselves on ever more desperate conditions. The worker, therefore, never recognizes these competitors as her own special product — the direct product of her own labor.

The advocates of basic income believe this mass of workers, who are now utterly dispossessed even of their labor power, can be made to disappear simply be taxing capital. This is their ignorance, their stupidity: they refuse to recognize that their own labor is the sole basis and fundamental premise of capital and its profits.

Stranded on a dark, deserted road somewhere between reform and revolution

A comment on my last post makes three rather interesting and concisely formulated points:

getfctIf activists want to achieve anything they need to be political and they need to have a program which places demands on the state. That is not a statement that the state or the capitalist economy can satisfy these demands in anything more than a marginal way. It is a strategy, and your contribution does not seem to indicate any strategic direction except for a maximum program.”

I think at least two of the three points cannot be disputed. Here is a response from my perspective.

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Piketty is singing to our choir

Okay, so here is an argument unfortunately touching on the subject of M. Piketty and the whole inequality thingy. For those who have had enough of the mention of this simpleton’s name, I can only ask you to bear with me for the next 1000 or so words: I promise this will not be a simple regurgitation of what has been previously stated in the arguments of other writers for or against Piketty.

17-4094_hiresI want to draw attention to the parallels between Piketty’s work on inequality and the thinking of activists in the movements for an increased minimum wage, basic income and jobs guarantee. In large measure, Piketty’s work shares many of the same assumptions of activists in these movements and could be thought of as a theoretical argument for them.

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How the basic income scheme could become the Left’s worst nightmare

So, let’s do a thought experiment just for the hell of it.

WARNING: This exercise is definitely not recommended for the fainthearted nor for those trapped in the social democratic delusion that the fascist state is a neutral field for competition between classes:

generation-basic-income-1024x682In my last post I asked if basic income can be employed to maintain wage slavery in face of chronic overproduction of capital. I explained, in this regard, the fact the basic income was incompatible with wage slavery has no place in the discussion, because chronic overproduction itself is already incompatible with wage slavery.

This means chronic overproduction itself should have already brought down wage slavery whether a system of basic income existed or not. Given this fact, the task is to explain why chronic overproduction did not bring down wage slavery and how  the capitalists managed to prevent this from happening.

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When Charles Murray met David Graeber

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.

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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.

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