That Time @DavidGraeber Called Me An Asshole: Fictitious Politics, Socialism in Reverse, and UBI on Twitter.
It’s not everyday a best-selling writer and leading anthropologist calls you an asshole. UBI Twitter is a hell of a place, where valid arguments are not required, and things tend to escalate quickly.
This all started innocently enough, @mempko posted a message asking @davidgraeber what he thought of my critique of UBI.
I responded with a link to my essay, which best expresses my views on the subject.
Graeber, quickly responded that there where two kinds of UBI, and my article was true of one.
My article spends quite a bit of time on the existing policy proposals and reasoning that form neoliberal support for UBI, like that of Milton Friedman. They see it as a means of cutting social programs, eventually leading society back to place where people in need are looked after by beneficent private charity.
However, my article does not only critique this neoliberal vision of UBI as a road back to Dickensian hell, it also acknowledges that there are those on the left that support UBI, and explains why I don’t share their enthusiasm.
The fact that I do not deny the existence of left support for UBI is right in the first sentence of article. “Basic Income is often promoted as an idea that will solve inequality and make people less dependent on capitalist employment.”
There is a whole section that begins with “Many people don’t dispute the fact that establishment promoters of UBI are only doing it in order to eliminate social programs, but they imagine that another kind of basic income is possible.”
Yet, like Graeber, the most common “refutation” of my position is that not all UBI supporters are neoliberals. As if, by illustrating that not everyone is in on a plot, you have shown that no such plot exists.
This great example from Twitter calls my article “tinfoil-hattery”
Once again, this tweet claims I am somehow denying that left support of UBI exists, despite the direct reference to it in my text. This gem of an argument was liked by many UBI supporters, including Graeber himself. Dozens of other responses doubled down on the same argument throughout the multi-day thread. Invariably, getting a like or nice comment from Graeber, despite my repeatedly pointing out that I have not argued that left support of UBI does not exist or that all UBI supporters are in on a neoliberal plot.
At the same time, another argument, also popular on UBI Twitter is pretending my article is simply an association fallacy, that I’m saying UBI is bad because neoliberals like it.
Graeber didn’t click like on this tweet, he upped the ante with this zinger in response:
So, this is where we’re at. I make many specific arguments in my essay. The claim that left supports of UBI do not exist is not one, nor is the argment that we should oppose UBI merely because some neolibs are into it.
What I do argue is that economics suggests that gains from UBI would be lost to rising prices, citing Minsky, and that as a result of the well known neoliberal support that it does have, it would serve as political cover for cuts and privatization.
Citing Kalecki, I ague that as the struggle between labour and capital has not gone away, business leaders and business friendly politicians would continuously push to reduce UBI, eliminate it after all other social benefits have been cut and privatized, or simply allow it to fall behind inflation.
The issue is not that left supporters do not exist, the issue that that left support for UBI is based on bad reasoning.
Oh, and Graeber didn’t just call me an asshole once, but again.
The second time, publicly muting me, After making and liking many tweets repeating the two cheap fallacies described above, he calls me a dishonest debater.
And again, calling me an ass and not a “non-asshole,” muting me a second time.
Interestingly, he feels that in response to him calling me an asshole, and repeatedly making strawman arguments, I should have politely asked which points of mine he might like. If I were nicer, that is, he might acknowledge valid points, presumably as a gift to me.
Throughout the thread Graeber repeatedly calls me not only an asshole, but a “fanatic” and a “blind idealogue” also spreading rumours, apparently, he has been “warned not to debate me.”
So, there it is. I’m an asshole, a fanatic, and a blind ideologue with a bad reputation.
Yet, a week into the thread, he seems to still be arguing that I am ignoring the “overall program in which it is embedded,” instead of addressing the actual prospects for a left UBI program.
So how did we get here? I mean, he can think I’m an asshole if he likes. Definitely, the never ending bad faith arguments he made and liked where frustrating to deal with, and didn’t do wonders for my mood, but fanatic? Blind ideologue?
11 days into the thread, here is another claim that I am denying that left support for UBI exists, once again liked by Graeber:
A full 11 days after the original post, during which time I had repeatedly pointed out that this was not my argument. For instance, this tweet, from 17 minutes earlier, which the above is a response to:
I tried many times to bring the conversation around to the actual concerns raised; The gains of UBI being lost to rising prices, while the policy provided political cover for cuts and privatization. I kept trying to discuss the arguments that are in my article, which was the actual topic that this thread was meant to be about. What happened?
Let’s start with “blind ideologue.”
I support expanding and improving existing social infrastructure, this, I suppose, makes me an “ideologue” as he despises the “vast bureaucracy” of social programs.
Though Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders built massive movements based on platforms to support vast bureaucracies, these apparently make working class people hate the “mainstream left.”
Graeber seems to see the reason for “immoral monitoring and discipline” not as a feature of class antagonism within capitalism, but merely a poor policy choice that can be changed by way of UBI.
Yet, a UBI policy, being vulnerable to being reduced or eliminated by the same political forces that push to “monitor and discipline” the poor, would face the same antagonism. This is one of the main arguments in my essay, following Kalecki.
However, Kalecki ultimately argues that full employment policies will be abandoned: “The maintenance of full employment would cause social and political changes which would give a new impetus to the opposition of the business leaders. Indeed, under a regime of permanent full employment, ‘the sack’ would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow.”
The conflict between the worker and the capitalist, or between the rich and the poor, can not be sidestepped simply by giving people money, if capitalists are allowed to continue to monopolize the supply of goods. Such a notion ignores the political struggle between the workers to maintain (or extend) the “basic income” and the capitalists to lower or eliminate it in order to strengthen their social position over the worker and to protect the power of “the sack.”
If existing programs face challenges because of class antagonism, why would UBI be free of these?
Graeber hates “vast bureaucracies.” His commitment to this ideology turns anyone who disagrees into a “blind ideologue.” Graeber never responds to this argument in my article, nor explains which ideology I am blinded by.
Graeber’s ideology sounds mighty close to that of American Enterprise Institute Fellow and Libertarian Charles Murray, as quoted in my article: “The first rule is that the basic guaranteed income has to replace everything else — it’s not an add-on. So there’s no more food stamps; there’s no more Medicaid; you just go down the whole list. None of that’s left. The government gives money; other human needs are dealt with by other human beings in the neighborhood, in the community, in the organizations. I think that’s great.”
However Graeber, though sharing a dislike of government programs, opposes Murray’s “first rule.”
When I argue:
Graeber responds with:
Graeber does not support a neoliberal UBI that cuts and privatizes social programs, but believes that we should keep vast bureaucracies for health, education and housing, just eliminate the vast bureaucracy of welfare by giving everybody welfare, making welfare unconditional. Some “vast bureaucracies” are better than others.
The business leaders that Kalecki speaks of would clearly not support a UBI that kept “the whole list” in place while massively expanding welfare eligibility, as Charles Murray and Milton Friedman make perfectly clear. Thus the broad support that UBI supporters imagine exist, suddenly vanishes for the promoters of a left UBI.
as right wing governments and political parties directly linked to the most reactionary business interests consider BI and set up pilot projects that provide meagre payments and focus on how to ensure people on social benefits become low waged workers, what reason is there to imagine that a progressive BI, rather than the neoliberal variant, is being cooked up?
The idea that left supporters of UBI will be able to, not only halt privatization of social programs, but also massively expand welfare eligibility, is clearly fictitious politics. This is illustrated by the fact that the current policy initiatives and pilots going on today generally budget UBI in terms of what programs it could replace.
The vision of UBI promoted by it’s supporters on the left is expanding existing social programs while giving welfare unconditionally to everyone, even the rich.
Graeber has taught the world a tremendous amount about money and debt, a contribution that he deserves great respect for. This makes it all the more unusual that, in addition to fictitious politics, he falls for fictitious socialism.
While providing income to those that need it is certainly important, and we should fight to improve and expand welfare systems, and yes, we must fight against the class antagonism built into the system and urgently expand eligibility to welfare such that more people receive support.
However, income support can not ever be unconditional. In particular it must place conditions on income. Unconditionality effectively extinguishes income support, because this would mean that it’s benefits are lost to rising prices. This is argued in my article, citing Hyman Minsky, and also argued by many others, including economics professor Bill Mitchell, a leading thinker in the Modern Monetary Theory movement.
It’s unclear how making income support conditional on having a low income would even require much of a “vast bureaucracy.” So long as we have income tax, the requirement to officially report your income is already present.
Instead of imagining a entirely new form of “unconditional” welfare, why not simply fight for welfare where the condition of having low income is the only condition, while at the same time, firmly breaking with neoliberal UBI supporters who want to cut and privatize social programs.
This would mean no longer being a UBI supporter.
Welfare that is only given to those with low income is exactly what UBI seeks to replace. As Wikipedia puts it: “universal basic income […] is a form of social security in which all citizens or residents of a country receive a regular, unconditional sum of money, either from a government or some other public institution, independent of any other income”
Instead of dropping the unconditionality on income, left UBI promoters either adopt strategies similar to those of climate change deniers, simply rejecting the prospect of gains being lost to rising prices out of hand, while citing random economists who have might have a different view, without addressing the actual evidence or arguments presented by Minsky and his followers at all, or not in good faith, or by smuggling in neoliberal arguments to refute it.
This tweet is a good illustration of climate change denial 101:
This article doesn’t mention Minsky. When the prospect of UBI gains being lost to rising prices is acknowledged at all, it is waved it away with “it would depend on how BI is implemented” without really considering the viability of any proposed countermeasures, or not proposing any at all.
Refusing to accept arguments that don’t deal with the arguments of Minsky, Bill Mitchell and others is what makes me, in the eyes of Graeber, “a fanatic”
Graeber makes this clear when he finally acknowledges the need to address this point (and to exclude me):
The following tweet is an example of smuggling in neoliberal arguments, to refute the inflation argument.
Scott Santens is more or less a career UBI promoter, and the above article clearly states that:
The money for a basic income guarantee would be already existing money circulated through the economic system. It would not be new money, just money shifted from one location to another. This means that the value of each dollar has not changed. The dollar itself has only changed hands.
Thus, the budget of UBI must entirely come from either cuts and privatization to other programs, or new taxes.
Far from being a refutation of Minsky, it is exactly this version of UBI that Minsky analyzes, and concludes to be inflationary.
Later in his thread, @JimbauxJournal argues:
So, even assuming that UBI would actually allow people to forgo employment such that they have this kind of freedom of relocation, people being driven out of their communities by rising prices, and forced to moved to areas with little employment prospects and worse infrastructure is not a problem it seems, at least not for neolibs.
David Graeber liked that tweet. In fact, when the person who created this thread criticized me for not noticing and refuting his 30+ tweets within a few hours, Graeber bragged about muting me again. And calls me a fanatic again.
Some might say he’s kinda being an asshole. But let’s move along.
Given that supporting a policy for welfare where the condition of having low income is the only condition, while at the same time, firmly breaking with neoliberal UBI supporters who want to cut and privatize social programs is an option that UBI promoters refuse to take, I might suggest that it is their position that is somewhat fanatical.
So where does this fanatical devotion to a dubious policy initiative come from? This tweet from Evgeny Morozov, an author and journalist who has done incredible work in the critique of Silicon Valley tech utopianism, gives us a clue.
This sentiment is echoed a few times in the thread, by other left UBI supporters as well.
The idea here is that by expanding welfare eligibility to everyone, this money would allow people to set up and become consumers of a new breed of co-operative institutions.
They see UBI as the long sought-after lynch-pin that would finally make these dreams possible. They reject simply calling for welfare where the only condition is low income, because they want more than income support, they see UBI as capital a for new wave of social institutions.
In essence, they want to build Socialism in reverse.
Instead of socializing the means of production, such that unconditionality of consumption is possible because production and distribution is in the workers’ own hands, they want to socialize the means of consumption first, by giving everyone money, and leaving providing the goods to be consumed to the market.
Yet, any sober analysis is certain to conclude that whatever market UBI creates will be captured by well financed capitalist providers, and not by new co-ops funded by way of the support of UBI recipients.
This kind of Socialism in reverse, is already addressed by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
The more important leaders of the proletariat in the Assembly and in the press successively fall victim to the courts, and ever more equivocal figures come to head it. In part it throws itself into doctrinaire experiments, exchange banks and workers’ associations, hence into a movement in which it renounces the revolutionizing of the old world by means of the latter’s own great, combined resources, and seeks, rather, to achieve its salvation behind society’s back, in private fashion, within its limited conditions of existence, and hence necessarily suffers shipwreck.
As a result of the suppression of proletarian struggles, left UBI supporters are among the “more equivocal figures” who have emerged to mislead the workers in the dark days of “The Third Way” and Tony Blair’s New Labour.
With movements around the world rising around explicitly socialist campaigns, we can hope that the tide is turning and the masses are rejecting UBI charlatans and committing to fight and win a society where necessities are socially produced and available to everyone for free.
If we’re going to dream, let’s dream of a world where we have left money and markets behind us and won not merely basic incomes that keep us tethered to capital and bourgeois fantasies, but where we have won the basic outcomes of health, housing, education, food, water, culture and joy for all.