#NovaraIRL: Money For Nothing

Alex Worrad-Andrews
Apr 15, 2017 · 11 min read

Yesterday I attended the #NovaraIRL event on Money For Nothing, an event on automation, work and the universal basic income with panelists Jeremy Gilbert, Joanna Biggs, Alex Gordon and Aaron Bastani, chaired by Eleanor Penny. The standard of debate was very high and I thought that it was really interesting to see an open space for in-depth debate of issues, not simply a top-table chat followed by a Q and A. There were only a few “more a comment than a question” but when there were it was actually an interesting comment! The person with the most lengthy “more a comment than a question” was Barb Jacobson, an activist actively campaigning for UBI at the European level. Considering her considerable expertise on the subject, someone shouted out “she should be on the panel”, which caused a big round of applause and Novara Media to pull her up a chair alongside the other panelists, where her contribution was really valuable. Which was really nice to see. It would be interesting to see Novara try and incorporate this into future events. Maybe if you turn up and think you have relevant experience or just fancy it you should be able to be put into a hat and then one random audience member joins the panel. Or use alternative models of how to arrange the room or the flow of questions for such events. It was a lot less “academic” than the last #NovaraIRL on populism. It was far more as if the whole room was talking, rowdily, partly because questions were accepted from the floor pretty much from the start. So this was good. It was stimulating, serious without taking itself seriously but never dull.

Although the event was billed as being Keynesian full employment versus UBI, the former didn’t really get a look in at all, which was good because UBI is enough to be getting along with. I haven’t watched the video so this is from memory and notes and I think it might be interesting for others to read. Pretty much all the standard objections to UBI were heard from either the panel or from the floor throughout the night.

The most obvious objection is that it has neoliberal precedence and was favoured by the likes of Milton Friedman. Jeremy Gilbert was right to say that the neoliberal version of the UBI is more of a negative income tax and has significant structural differences to any version advocated now by the left. Contemporary right wing advocates of basic income like the Adam Smith Institute still recognise it as a negative income tax. This always seems to me not an especially strong argument in the field where there are significantly better arguments against the UBI and plenty of left wing counter examples. The current enthusiasm for it in Silicon Valley amongst both market libertarians and (to be honest) nudge-wink social democrats cough socialists wasn’t talked about, especially the enthusiasm of the former. But as with any omissions here there is only so much time in such an event and I am sure conversations continued into the night as there was a party afterwards.

A major concern with UBI is it would gut existing welfare provision by removing it and replacing it, effectively throwing everyone to the market. Panelists responded that no one thinks a UBI is a the silver bullet and that it must form part of an ensemble of left wing demands and that current welfare provisions and services must be maintained. This was replied to by the idea that in current conditions the left would have no way of imposing continued or improved service provision and the “version” of the UBI got would be the one that is designed to remove existing gains. In turn the reply was that UBI may provide a better basis — a platform if you will — which will enable people to organise better to defend those provisions as it loosens the stranglehold of waged labour over all human life. Much of the argument, this included, focussed on the current position of the left right now, which is taken as being historically weak, which seems true. Given the weakness of the left right now, it was argued, it seems difficult to imagine getting a version of UBI on “our” terms, being properly universal, properly basic and a proper income. This being the case pro UBI people argued that it is a demand to revitalise the left around, reach out beyond the bases of the left (i.e. people in that room), more suited to the conditions of low union participation (for example) for organising, more open to the imagination of a better and richer life not dominated by work, a fresher demand that fits naturally in our current context. There was also some consideration towards the end of the fact that some version of the UBI was likely and that therefore the left needed to “get its shit together” and organise for a version of it on our terms rather than on the terms of the right. Some kind of basic income was thought to be on the way and the terms of that income were up for political contestation. I actually think that in the UK context the likelihood of a version of UBI from the right seems highly inplausible although someone said that they could see it in the lifetime of Theresa May’s tenure! There was also a question of if UBI would continuously have to be fought for to keep in line with inflation: it is never a done deal compared to other gains. To which it was replied that the same is true of any state benefit.

Related to this was I think a strong line of questioning about the question of borders and the UBI. Couldn’t the UBI, especially given decades of anti-immigrant and anti-benefits sentiment, serve as a further punitive tool to aggressively assault immigrants and people who tend to live on its auspices? Wouldn’t widespread consent for the UBI be more likely if it was attached to some version of citizenship, further creating an “us and them”? This slippage is already evident, say, when the Green Party talk about a “citizens income” not a UBI. In order to make the extravagant if not utopian dynamics of the UBI more palatable for actually getting it done, people tend to restrict its scope, making a nativist version more plausible. In short, immigrants would be portrayed as “coming over here, taking our UBI”. In reply to this and a cluster of other points regarding the possible weaponisation of UBI against the left and against marginalised groups in society, the not unfair point was raised that this is the case with any historic demand of the movements. The welfare state can be used highly punitively as a method of discipline. Indeed for these reasons leftists at the time of the implementation of the welfare state argued against it: the welfare state was a sop, some pocket money, a sticking plaster that would buy off the working class and mollify them, disempowering their civil society institutions in favour of the state; a distraction compared to the real work of social revolution. But at the same time, it is difficult to argue the welfare state was not a concrete gain for working class movements and the population as a whole, even if it could be weakened or removed. Jeremy Gilbert noted this is a general problem related to all welfare state provisions, not restricted to UBI. It was interesting that no one brought up provisioning anything by the means of the state as being a problem in itself.

Again the point was raised about the likelihood of the punitive version not falling out given where the left was. It was also noted that even if the left “got its way” the provision would be highly fragile. Unlike, say, a reduction in the working week or hours, it would be easy for an incoming right wing government to either reverse the UBI (as we have seen with reversal of other benefits) or transform it into a punitive and disciplinary version, as they have done with the move from “the dole” to workfare. Which seems fair, but the argument in opposition is clear also: of course any gain can be reversed or made punitive but one has to hope that you would be organised enough to prevent this and/or have a constituency of people who, having received the UBI, will now fight for it being removed. Okay, but it seems to me we have little evidence in the UK context that people would organise against it if it was going to be removed. Many benefits have been stripped, but the level of social unrest around these issues seems relatively low considering the scope of the changes. I am not saying this is a good thing or blaming the victims but it seems to be the case. I am sure if UBI was implemented in contexts where kicking back against changes was more common (a society less deferential or conservative or with more leftist organisations or social solidarity at scale and so on) then this would happen, but it is hard for me to imagine in the UK.

Naturally the question of paying for the UBI arose. There seemed to be a few proposals on the table. A increase in general taxation and a tightening of existing loopholes in the tax system. An automatic right to dividends from a corporation for employees paid into the pot for UBI. A tax on robotics and automation. A tax on land, which unlike other assets could not be moved around to avoid it. A heavy tax on financial centres like the City of London. The financial transaction tax, the Tobin tax, was mentioned but for Jeremy Gilbert it was probably left to its original intent, redistribution from the global north to the global south if implemented internationally. Aaron Bastani suggested an aggressive consumption tax on expensive goods and services that would only hit the rich. Alex Gorton — who was the only panelist totally opposed to the UBI — made the very strong point that any implementation of UBI that raises taxes will cause problems with capital flight, with companies implementing a “spatial fix” to route around taxes and thus underfunding the UBI, as they did in the movement of production away from the global north in the 1980s and 90s. A strong point, but applicable to any left-wing demand within the parameters of a single state.

This raised two further questions. First, it should obviously be kept in view that the rest of the world exists (!) and that if we are thinking of a nice UBI for us in the UK, it may well be at the expense of others in funding it, in the same way — for example — the welfare state in the UK was part funded by colonial expansion and so on. Given that no one was arguing that UBI means the end of capitalist social relations and capitalist relations tend to globalised and exploitative supply chains and neo-colonialist extraction this seems plausible. Here defenders of the UBI were keen (as the alter-globalisation movement as similarly keen) to emphasise that all demands should be in a spirit of expanded international solidarity and a centring of struggles elsewhere: to which I am inclined to say, sure, but will this really happen? One speaker noted that numerous groups outside of Europe and North America advocate for the UBI, which is a fair point, as, again, UBI seemed to be one of the few “policy demands” of the alter-globalisation movement which made a go of trying to ensure demands from the global south were privileged. Secondly, the environmental and in some sense anti-productivist case for UBI is not clear. Some say that UBI will be a step in removing the relentless drive for growth in capitalist economies which will have knock on effects for carbon reduction with more people doing less work. However other advocates of the UBI claim it will make society more productive by allowing richer more creative work, which seems to push in exactly the opposite direction. So: difficult.

There were also several questions considering the relationship between a demand for the UBI, care work and the feminist demands in the wages for housework movement. The problem with UBI is that is doesn’t specifically target care work or “women’s work”, valuing it specifically and compensating for it in the way the wages for housework movement does. Its universality is perhaps a flaw, because its subject is everyone, not targeting to ameliorate structural inequalities in existing society in an empowering way. However, as the recent school meals debacle shows, universality in benefits generally is also a important principle worth defending. Again, complex. Both Aaron Bastani and Joanna Biggs made the point that UBI would precisely permit people to have their care work paid for. Bastani made the point the oncoming crisis in geriatric care with an older population would necessitate people being freed to care for their older relatives. Biggs said that wages for housework was one way of thinking of UBI or presenting it to newcomers as a whole. This is a point made by Kathi Weeks in her 2001 book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, repeated in later interviews and echoed by the likes of Selma James. Jacobson mentioned she saw her work on UBI as in continuity with her earlier work on wages for housework in the 1980s. Some pointed out that the likelihood of simply handing out cash will change gender relations seems slim, but others said that given women’s financial independence would enable them to leave situations of domestic violence there were immediate pragmatic gains.

Naturally, there was the most direct question: given the left’s todo list of things that require defence — basic provisions, rights, defending people against heightened racism and so on — would it not be better just to concentrate on these burning dangers rather than some potentially destructive decision that is highly ambitious and speculative and perhaps not even achievable? Is this not a waste or resources? Indeed, wouldn’t an expanded and refined version of welfare provisions and free services be better and less of a complex political orchestration to navigate? Alex Gorton noted that the UBI was both a subsidy for employers for low wages, a common accusation from the left on the Swiss referendum debate on the UBI. Gorton saw it as a total desertion of the left’s consistent desire for democratic control of the means of production: let the capitalists have everything, every control of work, just give people a handout from a benevolent dictator. To which most other panelists replied that, again, UBI wasn’t to be seen in insolation and no one would argue for it to weaken trade unions, indeed, the time freed up might allow more time for organising and the ability for workers to hold out longer before taking jobs with reduced pay and conditions. They also made the point, especially in the light of automation, that it was a useful tool to change the way people thought about work as their primary reason for existing, sundering the relationship between activity and the wage, enabling free time and a more rounded existence. Points commonly made in the debate, repeated in Kathi Weeks’ above mentioned book.

Overall I thought the debate was wide-ranging, very interesting and covered off most of the arguments for and against a UBI from the perspective of the left. Having been a strong advocate of UBI, moving into a more agnostic mode more recently though still leaning towards it, reflecting now, the event opened more questions than it answered, even having heard most of the arguments on either side before I came along. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not! It was striking that the voices both for and against were not very homogenous. The idea still has a strong pull for me imaginatively, but my pragmatic side doesn’t know and my strategic side recognises quite a few dangers of it outlined above (as it did before the event). Think I am going to have to reflect a good while longer.

Alex Worrad-Andrews

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