Towards the Garfield Left (Away from Basic Income)
Can there be a Garfield Left, one that can help channel the wave of interest in a basic income away from a libertarian dead-end and towards a more broad-based, emancipatory politics? I’ve been watching the new Lasagna Cat episodes on repeat and just read Rich Yeselson’s history of the SEIU, which covers the odd but prominent role a universal basic income (UBI) has come to play in elite post-political imaginations. I think there’s a way to combine them.
Here’s a simple test: any demands for a basic income need to also be paired with a demand for fewer working hours. A politics of hating Mondays, and demanding a four-day work week in return. This Garfield Left can help manage three essential problems that the new wave of UBI interest is going to run up against. It will alleviate the intra-working class antagonism that would show up as work declines. It boosts an ideology different from the libertarian one that threatens to poison the enterprise. And, ironically, only by boosting worker power can we get the innovation necessary to even imagine the post-work future.
There’s many reasons to support a basic income. For children, a child allowance is crucial in reducing debilitating poverty. It’s also important to consider as a developmental strategy as developing countries miss out on industrialization. But right now the basic income has become such a focus that it’s easy to miss how vulnerable such a demand when it isn’t coupled with broader worker power.
There’s also a lot of debate over whether liberals and Democrats should move left economically to fight Trump, but less on the specifics of what that looks like. I’d say, no matter what your level of support of basic income was before Trump won — won based on a message of jobs, market income, and more jobs — it should be less now. (Josh Barro wrote it’s “an idea that should die” as a result of the election.) However there’s a lot to salvage, and putting it next to a broader pro-worker message will help ensure that it doesn’t simply form yet another reason for the working class to go further towards Trumpism.
Extent versus Intensity
The first reason for shorter hours is that it can help us escape a political trap that automation will bring. Much of the reasoning for a basic income comes from the idea that the ability to keep workers employed will fall in coming decades, through automation and globalization. Computers and robots will take all the jobs, and how will people support themselves?
It’s not clear this will happen, but let’s say it does and suddenly the economy will employ 20 percent less of the workforce. It’s a twisted capitalism we have where we see this scenario as a threat rather than something to celebrate. But given how, left to its own devices, people will starve and the surplus will all go to the top, it is such a threat. How to respond?
As the translator Seth Ackerman notes, we can take this surplus on the extensive or intensive margin. We could reduce the number of people in the workforce by 20 percent, leaving 20 percent of workers to not work at all, and support them at near-poverty level of consumption. Being near poverty isn’t much more fun than being just below poverty. This will also create a class divide between those still working and those that don’t, one that we’ve seen traditional politics fail to hurdle and usually ends up benefitting owners and bosses. Alec MacGillis’ reporting on how this who-is-working divide has driven blue areas red in recent decades is very relevant.
Alternatively, we could reduce the amount that people work, letting people work 20 percent less (i.e. destroy Monday). This would employ the same amount of the workforce, spreading the benefits wider through fewer hours. This would unify, rather than split, workers, all against bosses and owners.
Two Views of the World
Beyond the better political coalition, a politics against Monday also is an easier ideological organizing tool. A lot of the interest in basic income comes from Silicon Valley, and it mimics the libertarian mindset. The glorious new future is being built by the elite, and so many people will be useless in this world they will build, but through a combination of pity, charity and fear of food riots, we’ll make sure they don’t starve to death through a basic income.
Ignore the fact that so much of Silicon Valley shuffles rather than creates property ownership. Also look past that the value comes collectively from those who do the work of driving cars, renting out spare rooms, and posting even if the profits accrue to a tiny few. Skip over that so much of the automation and innovation is built on a base of publicly provided research and technology. Who is excited to knock on doors to organize around this message of “we love our meritocratic elite, and pity the poor people who don’t measure up”?
Instead imagine building support on the idea that “we are all becoming richer, we are doing this collectively, and we should all benefit by getting to work less too while also ensuring a base level of incomes. This ensures everyone has work, and that we can take Monday to spend in our communities and with our families eating lasagna. Because we love lasagna, and hate Mondays.” Don’t you want to start knocking on doors right now?
It’s not just the pitch though. It’s telling that when many libertarians put their numbers on the table those numbers don’t add up. They don’t add up because they rely on ideological muggings — they assume wasteful corruption in programs that have been stripped to the bone. This is part of a broader project to discredit government, which works against any egalitarian project but also poisons the support you’d need for cash transfers.
Worse, it will come with demands to weaken worker power and public programs, on the assumption that it’s a useful tradeoff to get elite support on basic income. Why do we need a minimum wage or free college when we’ll be getting a basic income soon enough? Yet we know we’ll get the deregulation and abandonment of public programs while we still wait for that basic income to show up. Those that would trade decommodification and worker power for basic income deserve neither. That liberals would mimic libertarian language is a problem when they should be following the left’s lead towards broader worker empowerment rather than starving the beast.
(Also if Trump’s success showed us one thing it’s that nobody cares about libertarianism; they care about the government’s role in ensuring jobs and security and public programs, things libertarians hate.)
The third case for tying basic income to broader worker empowerment is that all the action is inside the firm right now. Not just because workers are getting screwed. And not just because Trump won campaigning for jobs. Between monopoly consolidation, skyrocketing payouts to shareholders, manipulated CEO pay, and tax haven exploitation, all the corporate innovation is going into how to make the rich richer, rather than in actually creating the research and development that will lead us into a more productive future. By ignoring the status of workers within the firm, we ironically make it harder to get the innovation necessary to allow us to ignore the firm and just focus on how to live with less work and basic incomes.
We are stuck in a position of low incomes and weak demand driving weak investment. If workers work less and are paid more, there’s more of an incentive for bosses and owners to innovate and automate more. Workers become more productive with those investments, allowing them to be paid more or work less. That’s the virtuous cycle, the one we’ve fallen away from in the past decades.
But it’s one that we can bring back. And an important way to bring it back is for the Garfield Left to update an old slogan: more lasagna, fewer Mondays.