Working to Death: Leftist Critiques of Basic Income Fail to Offer Meaningful Alternatives
(This piece was written in collaboration with Carter Vance and has been cross-posted at his Medium page)
From Finland to Kenya to Ontario, it seems that everyone interested in social policy is talking up basic income. It’s not a new idea, having been theorized since at least Thomas Paine’s musings on a “citizen’s dividend” in the late 1700s, and with variations actually having been piloted in several US cities and in Manitoba during the 1970s. Though many variations of the concept exist, with terms such as “negative income tax,” “basic income grant,” and “universal social payment” all signaling slightly different policy approaches, the basic idea is the same: the government would ensure, either by a direc payment or a top-up in the tax system, that all citizens (in some plans, certainly those proposed on the left, this would be extended to include refugees and permanent residents) not fall below a certain level of income per year. The exact level of cut-off varies between plans, but is usually located somewhere just above the Low-Income Cut-Off (LICO) in Canada, which is roughly $24,000 per year for a single adult, or a similar poverty measure in other jurisdictions. You wouldn’t have to work, or, indeed, do anything else other than breathe and sign up for the benefit in order to receive it. Sounds simple, right? The idea is quite tantalizing in its simplicity, being touted by its boosters as having the power to, at once, end absolute forms of poverty as well as provide social support to workers buffeted by automation and outsourcing, while giving more bargaining power to people trapped in the modern piecework of the so-called “gig economy.”
At the same time, for reasons that are understandable, there has recently been a set of voices on the left calling this idea out as too good to be true. To this side of the argument, basic income is being advanced as a Trojan Horse by governments attempting to maintain and deepen a neoliberal policy project while putting a new coat of paint on it to placate an increasingly restive public. They warn that a basic income will be used as cover for continuing cuts in health and educational services, along with privatization of other social programs, and state that leftists who advance even cautious cases for basic income are being played for suckers. While such arguments are not without merit in certain respects, they nevertheless fail to recognize both the traditions of social citizenship on the left that a basic income, at least in its leftist variation, speaks to, and the necessity for positive, emancipatory policy visions. Furthermore, these critiques also have the unwitting effect of continuing to unduly valourize “work” performed under capitalist conditions in a way that testifies to the deep penetration of certain harmful ideas about the sources of human dignity and worth into our collective social psyche. Basic income, properly formulated and applied with a critical eye, offers at least the potential of thinking about social organization in a different way. Given the upsurge of interest in the idea currently, those on the left would be foolish to not at least engage with it in order to shape the policy outcome.
The Dangers Are Real
Critics of basic income are right that BI programs should not be viewed as a panacea and that, absent a political struggle to make them the kind of basic income that is actually redistributive, they are not inherently a good thing. We can easily imagine a situation where a “basic income” program is instituted by a right-wing government in such a way that it is both inadequate to purchase basic needs and has its existence used as an excuse to slash other social expenditures (that are not adequately replaced by the BI) and to privatize public goods. To this end, there is a rightful caution to not simply take something called a “basic income” as doing what it says on the label, particularly when it is being advanced by governments with questionable records on social service. The “basic income” program currently being pushed by the right-wing government of Finland, for example, is nothing of the sort, and in reality has had more to do with an attempt to cut down expenditure on unemployment benefits. However, this is more of a basic point about not being bamboozled by flashy promises and to always be skeptical of the intentions of those in positions of political power than it is about basic income as a proposal in and of itself.
Any “basic income” proposal deserves intense scrutiny, as does any government policy proposal. In particular, aside from the actual levels of the benefits, we ought to be critical about who can receive the benefits (will it be conditional on citizenship?), the ease of receiving them (are we still going to have to make humiliating trips to the social services office?), and what other benefit programs are going to be phased out as a result. This level of scrutiny, in fact, could actually temper some of the left criticisms of left BI, such as the argument that any adequate BI would be so expensive, that left proponents of it are simply dreaming.
Any evaluation of the costs of a left BI must account for the fact that it would need to be gradually implemented (just like hikes to the minimum wage), and that it could eventually adequately replace welfare, disability benefits and tax credits rendered redundant. It must also account for the money that would be saved on less-burdened healthcare and justice systems, as well as the multiplier effects attendant to cash transfers to people with little capital. Finally, left critics of BI should understand that left proponents are generally banking on significant changes to our national revenue streams to sustain a generous BI, such as quantitative easing for the people, increased taxes on the wealthy (financial transaction, corporate, income, luxury, inheritance, etc), but also increased public ownership; is it too fantastical to dream of new automation-exploiting crown corporations directly funding a BI scheme? The left critic response is, presumably, yes, because none of this is ‘on offer.’ Like so many ‘realist’ arguments, this one’s cynical assumptions have a more narrow view of reality — potential and current — than what is warranted.
One of the assumptions underpinning this line of criticism appears to be that a genuinely democratic socialist government, or at least one capable of pushing politics in that direction, is out of reach. This is presumably so, under this line of argument, because change necessarily comes from below, and worker power is not at a point where a transformational government is feasible or sustainable. This view of political change assumes the forces behind (socialist) change to be unidirectional and linear, necessarily building from below and emanating upwards. Of course, this is truer than the reverse assertion, but the reality is more dialectical: forces at the macro scale can also feed into and grow forces for change from below. This has been demonstrated most recently by the campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. History consistently demonstrates that socialist-inspired programs and policies generally appear to be out of reach — until they aren’t. Advocacy of BI within a broader left policy framework is coming to the fore in France (the programs of both Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Melenchon advocated versions of a BI), in the UK (with John McDonnell promising to win the BI argument in the UK’s Labour Party), and even the federal NDP in Canada appears to be moving in a leftward direction generally, with space for a BI as a plank in that broader program. Meanwhile, it seems highly unlikely that the — presumably outgoing — Ontario Liberals will ever convert their problematic pilot project BI into implemented provincial policy.
Further, the idea that BI is merely some kind of bait-and-switch is belied by the fact that previous BI experiments have yielded positive social results. In the Manitoba “Mincome” case, crime, hospitalizations, mental health-related incidents and general social stress all declined, while wages at entry level jobs rose at a level above the provincial average. Though that and other pilots were unfortunately terminated too early to fully analyze their effects, the evidence we do have suggests that such a program would be likely to increase bargaining power at work, rather than decrease it. It is perhaps true that some boosters for BI have oversold it by presenting the idea as a panacea to a wide variety of social ills, but that observation should not lead to the overcorrection of outright dismissal.
A further critique within this vein links basic income to its sometimes supporters amongst the likes of Silicon Valley CEOs, with the idea that the program will merely be a form of noblesse oblige whereby such crumbs stave off absolute destitution amongst the masses, while income inequality grows ever higher. Again, this is not entirely without merit, and it is certainly possible to see how such a scenario would come to pass. But, in saying that this in itself should make BI a dead letter for the left, a couple of basic historical and tactical points are ignored. For instance, even though Bismarck created the foundations of the modern European welfare state as an explicit way of heading off the rise of socialist politics, this does not mean the welfare state itself is inherently a poison chalice. Though sometimes making critiques of its paternalism, its lack of inclusivity and its need to be more democratically organized, defense of the welfare state is one of the causes most near-and-dear to the modern left, including those who critique basic income.
Guilt-by-association will not do in this case, particularly given that it could be just as easily argued that we sully ourselves by association with public healthcare and old age pensions since these programs are currently supported by so-called “welfare nationalist” groups and parties of the right, as well as being historically implemented by a wide variety of political forces for a wide variety of reasons. Indeed, Canadian public healthcare was, in part, achieved thanks to the Conservative Diefenbaker government, which helped T.C. Douglas fund the Saskatchewan Plan, and the later Liberal government who oversaw the introduction of the federal Medicare program. All of this, of course, took place in a context of social and labour mobilization and agitation in favour of such programs.
On a tactical level, dismissing BI off-hand even as there is a growing interest in it risks giving over the conversation entirely to the very neoliberal types that those doing the dismissing are ostensibly concerned about. Refusing to engage in a conversation is rarely a good way of shaping it, and the space for more radical action rarely comes in the absence of preceding reform. Even a modest implementation of basic income, which provided some benefits to a wide social strata, could be a good organization point for further reforms as it would create a more widely-held stake in cash-based assistance, which is currently deeply stigmatized and cordoned-off from the more popular parts of the welfare state. Like the introduction of other universal programs, BI would create a public that could then be mobilized to defend and enhance it.
It is sometimes said by left BI critics that the conditions for a livable basic income are impossible under capitalism, because capitalist states would not allow workers to have access to what amounts to a kind of permanent strike fund. But, again, this ignores a rather obvious point: that a welfare state of any kind should not exist if this were wholly true. Any kind of state-furnished provision, whether in-kind or cash-based, allows workers to exercise some degree more leverage when negotiating with employers (otherwise, would Republicans constantly be trying to remove food stamp eligibility for workers on strike?). To this extent, we already have some degree of “strike funds” within the current makeup of the welfare state.
Basic income can be won on the same terms, which is to say via political struggle, that those other forms of social provision were, and though it may seem impossible at the current moment to see a future with a sufficiently high BI program, it is doubtless true that public healthcare once seemed such an impossible dream as well. Even as it stands, ‘public healthcare’ in Canada, and in many other countries, remains insufficient — an unfinished project. Yet, this universal program, even in its flawed state, is doubtless worth supporting. The analogy to public healthcare is helpful, as it highlights the importance of universal programs vis-a-vis workplace contingent benefits. Certainly, the American model of healthcare, which remains very much contingent on one’s workplace, is not ideal, and would not be ideal even if the state set a floor for health benefits at each workplace. BI, then, could potentially be seen as a kind of nationalization or decommodification of the wage, on the path to increased separation of means of subsistence from capitalists and the workplace. That said, we should not expect the most ideal BI to be the one that is implemented at first, but we can struggle for BI to be enhanced and expanded once implemented.
Work Sucks! Let’s Do Less of It (but Still Get Paid)!
At a more basic level, though, the left case against basic income is fundamentally uninspiring, on both the strategic and the philosophical levels. On the first, it is curious that critics tend not to offer their own prescription for tackling some of the core concerns that BI speaks to. Yes, they will sometimes gesture in the direction of either a full-employment policy (which may be problematic in and of itself on environmental grounds, and is vulnerable to some of the same critiques of BI concerning what state and capitalism can and will permit), or some combination of increased welfare rates and expanded in-kind social service provision, but in most cases they prefer to keep the conversation on increasing wages, expanding collective bargaining and updating labour law protections, particularly for precarious workers. This is not to say that all of these shouldn’t be on the menu of left goals, in particular turning those sectors of the economy which are growing (such as home health care and customer service) into relatively desirable, secure positions. Even with a robust basic income in place, there would still be a need for increased investment in in-kind services such as health care and education and the left should be committed to fighting for those. However, we should also recognize that these programs are not necessarily a response in themselves to the questions that left advocates of basic income are putting forward. It is not exactly clear how the prescription often offered by these critics of higher social assistance rates combined with a less restrictive and punitive benefits system meaningfully differs from a system of direct cash transfers set a sufficiently high level. Further, administering this benefit through the tax system or some other state agency not heavily stigmatized and structurally problematic as the welfare bureaucracy would help to increase social buy-in to the idea of government cash transfers. Socialists usually argue in favour of universal, or at least widely distributed, welfare state interventions precisely for the reason that targeted services or benefits are more vulnerable to attack from the political right, so, it remains curious why they want to retain the structural essence of the social assistance system, even if they do want it to be more genuinely helpful in some general sense.
We are sensitive to the point that many individuals currently employed in the social assistance delivery system are genuinely attempting to help their clients and that they do, on many occasions, provide them with system navigation advice which goes beyond the monetary benefits they administer. We do not, unlike libertarian basic income advocates, see BI as a way to slash good-paying public sector jobs. However, those who oppose BI on grounds of these jobs being lost, particularly those in organized labour, should at least acknowledge that there are contradictions in the roles that workers perform within these environments, that their function has increasingly become to police the behaviour of individuals receiving social assistance, and that acting to protect these jobs without an actual stated plan to change their function appears parochial and impedes the development of solidarity between social strata. People receiving higher, less restricted, levels of monetary support would be less in need of “system navigation” assistance in the first place, and there is nothing to say that public employees currently charged with welfare case management could not be shifted to other, more genuinely helpful, functions in the event that a direct cash transfer came to replace social assistance as we currently know it.
Though it is right to be skeptical of the “automation” explanation for the loss of well-paid, unionized jobs in the manufacturing sector, it is nevertheless true that many rote tasks in factories and elsewhere no longer require nearly the amount of physical labour they once did. With machine learning and commercially-ready ‘AI,’ this effect is only likely to intensify over the coming decades. Doubtless, some new jobs will be generated to make up for those which are lost, but this points to a deeper question about what the purposes of “innovation” and, indeed, work itself are. If the left response to the proliferation of what David Graeber has described as “bullshit jobs” is simply to make them better remunerated, we would seem to simply be buying into the capitalist mindset that what society labels as “work” gives our lives meaning, regardless of how mundane and unfulfilling we find the tasks themselves. The tiresome folkloric tale of a coming ‘knowledge economy’ — told to us by neo-liberals and post-Marxists alike — amounts to little more than a euphemism for a service economy that is already here. Yet neither a job at Google nor a job at McDonalds, with their different approaches to enforced happiness, will lessen our reliance on alienated wage-slavery, even if the former is better paid and more pleasant than the latter.
Instead, why shouldn’t our program be focused on creating the maximum social benefit of technological change through political participation? In other words, in noting that technology has created vast wealth that is privatized, we nationalize it, either through a basic income, or a French-style reduction of working hours without reduction in pay, or any combination of policies in this direction. Recognizing that even those well-paid manufacturing jobs of yore were often unpleasant, alienating and intellectually numbing is not a hard thing to do (even Adam Smith wrote about it in Wealth of Nations), but when presented with at least the potential to overcome this aspect of life in post-industrial capitalist society, there is a demurring to the nostalgia of an older era. Instead of shifting the subject of social justice to a kind of social citizenship, which thinkers such as Eduard Bernstein and T.H. Marshall envisioned with the expansion of the welfare state, the thinking remains stuck on limited definitions of “work,” “worker,” and the “economy.”
The objection to this shift of emphasis, other than its fairly acknowledged political difficulty, seems to be that it betrays the classical Marxist notion of the “worker” as the central political identity and the workplace as the central point of political struggle within capitalist society. Moving away from this conception, therefore, threatens both the recognition of the capitalist economic base as the main determining factor of sociopolitical conditions and the notion of work as being key to the “species-being” of humanity. What this objection ignores, however, is that Marx was not using “work” to mean the now-general notion of remunerated employment, but rather an expenditure of productive effort. The alienation of this “work” occurs when one does not capture the full value of what one produces, but also when the work being done is not freely chosen or self-directed.
Under the utopian conception of a basic income future (in essence, automated machines do most or all of the unpleasant work and BI levels are set at a level at which no one needs to work for money if they do not wish to), people would still “work” in Marx’s sense (they would write, paint, create dank memes, etc), just not in the commonly understood sense. Marx even muses about something that sounds suspiciously like a BI proposal in his economic and philosophic manuscripts — “an equality of wages paid out by the communal capital” — as a ‘crude communist’ first step towards an end to alienated labour.
In all, such a notion of “work” appears to be deeply tied to an uncritical, productivist form of Marxist thinking which may have had relevance in another political context but appears hopelessly dated in the current reality. This is all to say nothing of the fact that there are many people who have disabilities which prevent them from “working” in the conventional sense of the term, either temporarily or permanently, who are entirely written out of this analysis and would likely stand to benefit most from a basic income. Even the removal of the often intrusive, deliberately demeaning and manipulative aspects of the current social assistance regime would be deeply beneficial here, absent higher benefit levels. Similar remarks could be made as to the way in which basic income would act to, at least in part, recognize unpaid care work, usually done by women, which is often not considered as “work” under the status quo.
A Legacy to Build On
Enhancing and expanding any less than ideal BI program will inevitably come up against the limits of state and capitalism, but it is unclear why this is a bad thing. Capitalism’s contradictions, and their attendant crises, are not going to be avoided through BI, or any other redistributive reforms for that matter. As socialists, we should hope to confront these contradictions when state supports are in place and the rungs of the societal ladder are closer together, for this is when those of us on the lower rungs are most healthy and most powerful, and least likely to be swindled by shock doctrine elites. Undoubtedly, one of the best ways to achieve redistribution is through workplace struggles, but we also need socialist governments to implement a framework that makes these more likely (and more likely to be successful). However, we must also recognize the need for socialist governments to implement other redistributive mechanisms that exist separately from the workplace, such as a BI, if we ever hope to achieve a post-work society, and not just a more equal capitalism.
Basic income-type plans have enjoyed purchase on the left for some time, with in particular such luminaries as Francis Fox Piven and Martin Luther King Jr. calling for their adoption in the late 1960s. More recently, books such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future and Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism have put the idea back on the table. At the same time, it is true that Austrian economic figures such as Fredrich Hayek and Monetarist’s like Milton Friedman also supported their own version of basic income, which involved the grant replacing most if not all of the existing in-kind welfare state provisions. It can often be unclear, in the current debate, from which direction particular proposals around “basic income” are coming from, and perhaps it is for this reason that so much confusion and discord around BI exists on the left.
However, there is a crucial difference between the two essential variations of the idea that bears repeating: the latter seeks, fundamentally, to liberate the market from the control of the state, while the former seeks to liberate human beings from the market. Accomplishing the dream of unalienated labour is no easy task, and it is doubtful that any one of us has the exact right cookshop recipe to make it so. That said, the leftist dismissal of basic income, though it emerges from genuine concerns as to the instrumentalization of BI, is at the very least premature. Moreover, it remains unclear why we should believe the public would be more likely to accept continued privatization and austerity with the presence of a BI (elites appear to be proceeding just fine without it). We struggle now for a higher minimum wage and against these forces; why would we not struggle for a higher annual income and against these forces in the future? The left should view BI, as it does most aspects of the welfare state, as a tool whose political character is dependent on a balance of social forces. Rather than dismissing the notion outright based on its also being supported by some neoliberal forces, we ought to be fighting to make it our own and to make the best version of it possible.
Carter Vance is an MA candidate in the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University and a former legislative researcher with the offices of Erin Weir and Peter Julien. His writing has appeared online at Jacobin, Truth Out and Inquires Journal.
Miles Krauter is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department, and an alumni of the Institute of Political Economy, at Carleton University. He is the Vice President External at his union, CUPE 4600, and an organizer with the Fight for $15 & Fairness Ottawa. His writing has appeared online at rabble.ca, Ricochet, and Canadian Dimension.