Basic Income is Coming

Universal basic income is having a moment. The problem is that it's a complex subject (anyone who says "it's simple" either hasn't thought about it enough or is spinning a line) whose design is highly political. The media desire to reduce it to an easily-understood trope ("This one weird idea might just work!") is ideological as much as functional, reflecting an acceptance of existing power (let's not talk about who will own the robots that will take our jobs) and social relations (let's not question the hierarchy of income types - i.e. why can some people live off capital while others can't).

The higher popular journalism on the subject often cites a lineage from Thomas More via Thomas Paine to the Utopian Socialists of the nineteenth centuries, but this is misleading. These thinkers were addressing what they saw as the inequity of land ownership - land being the commonly-understood source of value - arising from historic injustice (conquest, dispossession, enclosure). But rather than socialise the land, they proposed that current owners should pay a rent (i.e. a tax) to all members of society as a quid pro quo for the loss of the latter's rights to a common share of nature's bounty (and as an implicit bribe to prevent revolution).

This rent was not to be paid on a regular basis but as an endowment (i.e. a capital sum) at the age of majority, with any subsequent need (arising from misfortune or old age) to be met by a means-tested dole. In other words, these schemes avoided questioning the role of labour, either as a source of contemporary value or as a social construct. Ironically, they were still progressive because they questioned, albeit indirectly, the ownership of capital. A feature of the current debate on basic income is that it does not address existing accumulations of capital at all. Historically, there is more capital in the world today than there has ever been, and the amount of labour required for subsistence has never been smaller, due to technology and commodity deflation. From a capitalist's perspective, there has never been a better time to consider a basic income.

The modern interest in UBI is a product of the 1960s and two distinct tendencies: anxiety on the right over the growth of the welfare state (i.e. the cost to capital) and uncertainty on the left as to the potential of organised labour to lead social change (i.e. embourgeoisement). This resulted in a variety of schemes across the philosophical spectrum, from the negative income tax advocated by Milton Friedman to the post-work proposals of Andre Gorz. By the late-70s, basic income had taken a back seat on the right to welfare reform, while the broad left prioritised the right to work in an era of growing unemployment. Through the 80s and 90s, the hegemony of welfare reform across the political spectrum restricted the topic to Greens, who unhelpfully yoked it to zero-growth, and smaller left-wing parties preserving the idea of the social dividend, an idea that found an ironic second life in the vogue for sovereign wealth funds.

The growing contemporary interest in basic income is attributable to three factors. First, the increased flexibility of the labour market and inflexibility of the benefits system, which means more episodes of temporary unemployment and difficulties in securing income support. Second, the "threat" of robots and technological unemployment, which leads to the "opportunity" of pro-social work subsidised by the state. Third, the intractability of welfare - i.e. that decades of reform have neither reduced costs nor perceived dependency. The emerging argument is between a rightist view of UBI as a parsimonious dole that enables the shrinking of the welfare state and a leftist view of a generous social dividend, progressively uprated to distribute wealth through growth, that enables individual flourishing. Between the two, the neoliberal case is UBI as a mechanism to alleviate labour market frictions and encourage optimum allocation (which means ever more flexibility), and thus a complement to the welfare state rather than a full substitute.

Here be my further thoughts ...

Scoubidou and the Protestant Work Ethic - The fundamental premise is that late capitalism cannot provide full employment in an advanced economy, largely because technology substitutes capital for labour (automation) and simultaneously leads to commodity deflation ("the coming abundance"). This pincer movement makes more and more people surplus to requirements as labour, but maintains their usefulness as consumers, assuming basic commodities remain within their reach.

The Golden Age - A review of Nesta's Our Work Here Is Done: Visions of a Robot Economy, which shows the sherpas of thought-leadership still faffing about in the foothills, largely reluctant to address issues of class and property, and still hoping that a consensus among the well-bred will produce a "vision" of the future in which we can all, in Keynes' phrase, "live wisely and agreeably and well".

Raging Bull - Instead of following the sterile lead of the mainstream media and quibbling about whether a particular scheme would be "affordable", it is worth looking at the wider arguments in favour of a basic income in light of these three key aspects: personal dignity, the distribution of the fruits of growth, and the social relations of capital and labour.

Countering Basic Income - Basic income sceptics think that housing is a killer issue, but it's simply proof that when we talk about "the housing problem" we're talking about the same issue that underlays the basic income: social protection in a post-social democratic world. The problem with the basic income debate is that it is being dominated by centrist liberals in denial about the structural inadequacies of capitalism and reluctant to engage with the instrumentalism of the right.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good - Though the subject of basic income has been introduced to mainstream media debate in recent years, the political dimensions have largely been ignored, with most discussions on the subject adopting a technocratic and utilitarian approach. The political discussion of basic income needs to expand from a focus on the level of income to the principles of distributive justice and the social dividend, which are truly transformative.

An Incredibly Simple Idea - Since Thomas More's Utopia, basic income has often been advanced as part of a wider scheme of social transformation. This hasn't done the concept any favours as it has found itself either twisted to fit a particular frame or dismissed as redundant when the larger scheme has been marginalised by history. An unwillingness to address the ownership of capital has led to modern basic income schemes that either hark back to the idea of a dividend derived from the "commons" or treat unconditional income as compensation for the impact of automation.