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Material of Interest to People on the Left 




 Daniel Zamora 
 December 28, 2017

	* [https://new.portside.org/node/16186/printable/print]

 _ A universal basic income would shore up the market. We need ideas
that shrink it. _ 

 Fibonacci Blue/Flickr, Fast-food workers in St Paul, MN on strike for
a higher minimum wage and better benefits, April 14, 2016. 


In her campaign memoir _What Happened_
Hillary Clinton wrote
that the idea of a universal basic income
(UBI) for all Americans “fascinated” her. Reflecting on her wholly
uninspiring campaign, she explained that she wanted to include it in
her platform but “couldn’t make the numbers work,” so she
dropped the idea.

She had planned to call it “Alaska for America,” referring to the
Alaska Permanent Fund. Established in 1982, that program gives each of
the state’s citizens an annual dividend from oil revenues. The idea
gained popularity in the mid-sixties, and Nixon almost implemented
it nationwide. American researchers conducted large-scale experiments
in New Jersey, and a Canadian study took place in Winnipeg
during the mid-seventies. At the time, the proposal produced heated
debates in continental Europe and North America, but the decades that
followed led to a slow but steady decline in support. The conservative
preference for the “workfare” and “activation” policies that
characterized welfare reform
in the nineties — led by a different Clinton
— turned basic income into a utopian fantasy.

But as interest in UBI from one of the planet’s most powerful
political figures attests, the last ten years have given new life to
the idea. Indeed, it’s now on the agenda of many movements and
governments. For Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght
[http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674052284], two of
UBI’s leading proponents, “the conjunction of growing inequality,
a new wave of automation, and a more acute awareness of the ecological
limits to growth has made it the object of unprecedented interest
throughout the world.”

Finland’s right-wing government is testing the idea
replacing part of its unemployment benefits
system with a basic income distributed
to all Finnish citizens. In Canada, the government of Ontario has been
conducting a large-scale experiment
[https://www.ontario.ca/page/ontario-basic-income-pilot] since the
summer of 2017. The Netherlands has the most developed
UBI program experiment in Europe. Several municipalities are testing
the program’s effects on its beneficiaries. And in France, the
unfortunate socialist candidate for president, Benoît Hamon
made basic income his key measure.

Political parties across the globe are now openly discussing the idea
of distributing an unconditional income to every citizen. Each side of
the political spectrum points to different supposed benefits
the Right praises UBI for getting rid of outdated state bureaucracies;
the Left for eradicating poverty.

Appearing at once “liberal” and “social,” basic income,
according to a popular view, divides those who still think about class
and the industrial revolution in old-fashioned terms from those who
recognize that the “knowledge economy” has profoundly transformed
our economy and society. For this latter group, full employment
is utopian, stable work is an outdated demand, and the old
institutions of wage labor — social security, unions, and so on —
are obsolete, brakes on progress and individual freedom. For radical
left “accelerationist” theorists Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams,
basic income constitutes a “post-capitalist” exit path, while the
self-described “entrepreneur” Peter Barnes
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Barnes_(entrepreneur)], whose
bestseller _With Liberty and Dividends For All_
inspired Hillary Clinton, sees it as a way to create a
“better-balanced capitalism — we would call it
everyone-gets-a-share capitalism.”

The studies, experiments, and debates are multiplying, making UBI once
again an idea “whose time has come.”

Paradoxically, then, UBI seems to be a crisis demand, brandished in
moments of social retreat and austerity. As politics moves to the
right and social movements go on the defensive, UBI gains ground. The
more social gains seem unreachable, the more UBI makes sense. It’s
what botanists would call a “bioindicator”: it indexes
neoliberalism’s progress. Support for basic incomes proliferates
where neoliberal reforms
have been the most devastating.

In this sense, UBI isn’t an alternative to neoliberalism, but an
ideological capitulation to it. In fact, the most viable forms of
basic income would universalize precarious labor and extend the sphere
of the market — just as the gurus of Silicon Valley

The Impossibility of a Left Basic Income

The question of UBI’s economic viability, though basically
technical, is vital for determining its political character. That’s
because UBI’s effects depend on the amount distributed and the
conditions of its implementation.

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, in their accelerationist manifesto,
_Inventing the Future_
[https://www.versobooks.com/books/2315-inventing-the-future], write
that “the real significance of UBI lies in the way it overturns the
asymmetry of power that currently exists between labour and
capital.” Its establishment would allow workers to have “the
option to choose whether to take a job or not.… A UBI therefore
unbinds the coercive aspects of wage labour, partially decommodifies
labour, and thus transforms the political relationship between labour
and capital.”

But to do this, the authors insist, it “must provide a sufficient
amount of income to live on.” If the payment isn’t high enough to
let people to refuse work, UBI might push wages down and create more
“bullshit jobs

Despite the key importance of size and implementation, the countless
texts dedicated to establishing a UBI — including Srnicek and
Williams’s work — rarely discuss the policy’s concrete details.
Many of basic income’s benefits would only arrive if it provided a
generous monthly amount, meaning that a moderate or low-amount version
could have potentially negative effects.

Guy Standing [http://basicincome.org/news/2017/04/new-book/], a
pioneer of basic income in the United Kingdom, currently defends the
low-amount version. To advance his proposal, he points to the think
tank Compass, which produced several micro-simulations to assess the
effects and feasibility of the measure in the UK context. Compass’s
shows the risks of any basic income scheme that tries to replace
existing means-tested benefits: such a “full scheme” would, in its
simplest version, give every adult $392 (£292) each month while
existing means-tested programs would be abolished. The results would
be catastrophic: child poverty would increase by 10 percent, poverty
among pensioners by 4 percent, and poverty among the working
population by 3 percent.

Compass also analyzed a “modified scheme,” with a monthly basic
income of £284 ($380) for working-age adults (and smaller payments
for others) that would stand alongside, rather than replace, most
existing social programs. But it would also count as income when
calculating recipients’ eligibility for those programs, as well as
for tax purposes; this “add-on” structure makes the measure less
expensive than it would otherwise be, since a large part of the cost
is included in existing social spending. But that also dampens the
total boost to the net income of the poor. Nevertheless, the total
cost of this version — the amount of new taxes that would be needed
— is £170 billion or 6.5 percent of the UK’s GDP. This is the
version now promoted by Standing.

Despite the fiscal effort that would go into implementing the new
system — 6.5 percent of GDP, or nearly twice the share of GDP that
the US currently spends on its military — the results are rather
disappointing. Child poverty shrinks from 16 to 9 percent, but for
working-age people it decreases less than 2 points (13.9 to 12
percent), and among pensioners it declines only 1 point (14.9 to 14.1
percent). The considerable sum of money mobilized has only a modest
effect on poverty and doesn’t specifically benefit those who need it
most. As economist Ian Gough writes
the idea looks like “a powerful new tax engine” that “pull[s]
along a tiny cart.”

This fact is even more striking when we consider that the cost of
eradicating poverty in any developed country is around 1 percent
of GDP. An individual unemployment benefit set at the poverty line
(around $1,200 a month) and granted to all jobless individuals
regardless of their place in the family structure would not only pull
everyone out of poverty but also end workfare, challenge the normative
dimensions of family structures, and fundamentally alter the labor
market. All this, for somewhere between six to thirty-five times less
money than a universal basic income.

The same criticism applies to the moderate version from Philippe Van
Parijs, one of the founders of the Basic Income Earth Network
[http://www.basicincome.org/] (BIEN), which has promoted UBI since the
mid-1980s. Van Parijs calls for a “base” income of €600 ($710),
which, like Standing’s version, is not fully added to existing
social benefits. This program would cost a bit over 6 percent of GDP
in a country like Belgium, with an already high level of social
spending and benefits — for a system that fails to increase the
meager incomes of the vast majority of people dependent on social
services. This is a remarkable fact about a measure so often described
as “revolutionary” — a fact made explicit in the Finnish trial:
it cites its “primary goal” as being to “promote employment”
by incentivizing people “to accept low-paying and low-productivity

Of course, we could plead for a more generous version, closer to
anticapitalist or accelerationist proposals, like that of French
economist Yann Moulier-Boutang. His UBI proposal amounts to €1,100
($1,302) a month for each citizen and would be added to existing

In France, it would cost €871 billion, or 35 percent of GDP. When
the French socialist party’s think tank, Fondation Jean Jaurès,
studied the budget impact of a €1000 monthly UBI, it estimated
that it would cost as much as all current social spending —
pensions, unemployment, social assistance, and so on — plus the
budgets for either national education or health care. Suffice it to
say, this version is unlikely to see the light of day.

Moulier-Boutang himself acknowledged
this, writing that although “a detailed balance sheet must still be
drawn up,” “one thing is certain: the current income tax system
can only fund a small partial application of this measure.” To solve
this problem, Moulier-Boutang suggests replacing the current taxation
system (including progressive income tax) with a 5 percent tax on
financial transactions — a “fiscal revolution” that would
“reduce the budget deficit” while “keeping the current level of
social spending and adding a UBI of 871 billion euros.”

The author’s rather fantastic calculations sound tempting, but a
financial transaction tax could never collect such a large sum. The
volume of financial transactions is vast — currently ten times GDP
— but that’s precisely because they’re _not_ taxed at 5 percent.
Since financial transactions are typically carried out to achieve
profit arbitrages as small as a few tenths of a percent, they would
simply cease if we set up Moulier-Boutang’s proposed tax. By way of
comparison, the “Tobin tax,” the only financial transaction tax
being seriously considered today, is generally envisioned at between
0.05 percent and 0.2 percent at most — one hundred times smaller
than Moulier-Boutang’s proposal — yet it’s specifically designed
to _reduce_ speculation (and thus transactions).

No existing economy can pay for a generous basic income without
defunding everything else. We would either have to settle for the
minimalist version — whose effects would be highly suspect — or
we’d have to eliminate all other social expenditures, in effect
creating Milton Friedman’s paradise. Faced with these facts, we
should question UBI’s rationality; as Luke Martinelli put it
“an affordable UBI is inadequate, and an adequate UBI is

Until we profoundly transform our economies, we can’t implement a
measure that would cost more than 35 percent of GDP in economies where
the state already spends around 50 percent of GDP. The power relations
needed to establish this level of UBI would constitute an exit from
capitalism, pure and simple, rendering depictions of UBI as a
“means” of social transformation nonsense. Indeed, many defenses
of basic income can be classified as what Raymond Geuss called
[https://press.princeton.edu/titles/8809.html] “nonrealist political
philosophy”: ideas formulated in complete abstraction from the
existing world and real people, completely “disjoined from real
politics” — like to the Rawlsian model of justice that serves as
an important inspiration to figures like Philippe Van Parijs.

If UBI does take shape, current power relations will favor those who
have economic power and want to profit by weakening the existing
system of social protection and labor market regulations. Who will
decide the monthly amount and who will dictate its terms and
condition? Who do today’s power relations favor? Certainly not the

The Crisis of Work?

When asked about work, Philippe Van Parijs likes to quote the
physician Jan Pieter Kuiper, who launched the debate on basic income
in the Netherlands in the 1970s: “Among my patients there are guys
who are sick because they work too much, and guys who are sick because
they are unable to find work.” This contradiction runs through the
history of capitalism, and it motivates Van Parijs and many of his

UBI would create a society
in which “those who work too much … work less, in order to avoid
burnout, breathe a little, retrain for new work, or care for their
loved ones, and the jobs thus freed up could then be taken by
others.” That is, it doesn’t aim at “working less, so all can
work,” as the workers’ movement traditionally did, but letting
everyone choose how much to work at any given moment. Proponents
present it as a way to achieve a more harmonious distribution of work.
That objective may seem sensible, but it raises several questions.
Most important, it risks amplifying employers’ current race to the

Today’s labor market is highly stratified: some people enjoy access
to good jobs
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2012/10/working-for-the-weekend-2] while
others, subject to harsh competition, can only find precarious and
unstable work. A low or moderate UBI — too low to let people refuse
job offers — could relegate the least qualified people to more
intensely precarious situations. As Luke Martinelli puts it

The lack of an exit option for such workers, and their weak bargaining
position with respect to employers, means that basic income could end
up exacerbating poor pay and conditions if other workers were willing
to reduce their wage demands as a result of the unconditional payment.

Martinelli highlights “the danger that basic income ‘would
aggravate the problem of low pay and subsidize inefficient
employers,’ leading to a proliferation of ‘lousy’ jobs.” In
this scenario, those with good jobs will continue to lead fulfilling
lives, now supplemented by universal income, while others will have to
combine their UBI with one or more “lousy” jobs, with little gain
in income. The proposal makes no attempt to help those without a job
today get one tomorrow or improve the job they have. Indeed,
everything suggests that the opposite will happen: the UBI will
function like a war machine for lowering wages and spreading
precarious work.

This aspect of basic income isn’t new: it explains why the
neoliberal economist George Stigler originally proposed a UBI, in the
form of a negative income tax. In contrast to Keynes, who downplayed
the role of wage levels in his explanation of unemployment,
Stigler’s famous 1946 paper “The Economics of Minimum Wage
argued that the minimum wage reduced employment. He called on the
government to abolish such regulations so that workers could accept
wages that don’t exceed the market price.

Stigler’s negative income tax, which would supplement incomes up to
a certain point, would allow workers to accept low-wage jobs while
still living above the poverty line. In effect, the system guarantees
a minimum income without affecting the wage price. As Friedman wrote
in 1956, the program, “while operating through the market, [does]
not distort the market or impede its functioning,” as Keynesian
programs do.

Today, one still commonly sees UBI advocates resort to neoclassical
platitudes about employment. We can only be astonished, for example,
at the dubious claims made by Van Parijs and Vanderborgh in their
recent book _Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a
Sane Economy_
[http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674052284], such as:
“where the level of remuneration is and remains firmly protected by
minimum wage legislation, collective bargaining, and generous
employment insurance, the result tends to be massive losses of

We shouldn’t be starting from the premise that too-high wages
generate unemployment by disrupting the economy’s optimal
equilibrium: that’s precisely the idea we should fiercely challenge.
Indeed, recent studies seriously undermine these claims. Contrary to
neoclassical predictions
countries that tax work the most have the highest employment rates
because income taxes fund social services, which promote labor market
participation, especially for women.

Who Works?

Still, imagine that it was mathematically possible to establish a UBI
high enough that none of us would have to work. Suppose we could have
this generous basic income and still have a strong welfare state.
Certainly it would be a game changer. Yet even this utopia rests on
two problematic assumptions work.

First, it assumes that unemployed people don’t want to work or would
be just as happy to receive a generous monthly check. But what if
that’s wrong? The notion that we should reduce the demand for jobs
rather than fight for full employment
fails to consider that many people _do_ want to work. As Seth Ackerman
has argued
it assumes that the despair expressed by unemployed people amounts to
false consciousness, a problem that can be mitigated by propaganda
campaigns promoting non-work.

This is a faulty explanation of what’s at stake with the question of
work. There’s something deeper at play: work is more than a means
for earning money. That’s not just due to “pro-work ideology,”
but also to the objective conditions of a society based on a
large-scale division of labor in which everyone contributes
individually to collective production. This system generates a certain
income distribution as well as a certain distribution of work. People
are obviously worried about income inequality, but aren’t they also
worried about job inequality? As Ackerman writes, “so long as social
reproduction requires alienated work, there will always be this social
demand for the _equal _liability of all to work, and an uneasy
consciousness of it among those who could work but who, for whatever
reason, don’t.”

That’s why a universal job guarantee
and a reduction in work hours still represent the most important
objectives for any left politics. Collectively reducing work time is
politically and socially preferable to creating a socially segmented
pool of unemployed workers, a situation that would have serious
consequences for the employed. It’s not hard to imagine how this
situation could foster divisions within the working class — as it
already has over the last several decades.

Second, such a “utopian” UBI raises questions about _how_ the
distribution of work — that is, the division of labor — would be
determined in a society where we could choose not to work. Under
capitalism, the division of labor is set in a brutal fashion,
relegating large sectors of the population to jobs that are difficult
and badly paid, but often of great value to society. A “utopian”
UBI, by contrast, simply assumes that in a society liberated from the
work imperative, the spontaneous aggregation of individual desires
would yield a division of labor conducive to a properly functioning
society; that the desires of individuals newly freed to choose what
they wish to do would spontaneously yield a perfectly functional
division of labor. But this expectation is assumed rather than

If we want to envision a society where the division of labor is no
longer determined through compulsion, then we will have to rethink
work itself. And a rethinking of work will only point in an
emancipatory direction if work is made more meaningful and attractive.
In a society where the nature of work is profoundly unequal — not
only in its _distribution_ but also in its _content _— transforming
it becomes fundamental.

Cash or Decommodification?

Beyond arguments of feasibility or the effects on the labor market, we
need to ask a more fundamental question: is distributing €1,100 to
the whole population the best use of 35 percent of GDP? Isn’t the
best way to fight against capitalism to limit the sphere in which it
operates? Establishing a base income, by contrast, merely allows
everyone to participate in the market.

Our current economic crisis goes beyond the problem of income
inequality. While inequality garners the most attention, it’s a
secondary feature of capitalism. One of capitalism’s most remarkable
achievements (but also one of its most violent) is that it made market
exchange the nearly exclusive means to acquire the goods necessary for
our own reproduction. In doing so, it turned money into almost the
only valid medium of exchange and it made the majority of the
population dependent on capital, enforcing a fundamentally asymmetric
power relation between the boss and the worker. This profoundly
unequal relationship not only subordinates people within the sphere of
labor, but outside it as well, through the powerful influence economic
power exerts on politics, ideology, and culture.

By the end of the nineteenth century, leftists understood this problem
perfectly well. The welfare state tried to limit the areas in which
the market and economic power could operate. If industrialization had
made only owners full citizens with real rights, then social security
and unemployment insurance established what Robert Castel
called “social property,” marking “the emergence of a new
function of the state, of a new form of rights, and a new conception
of property.” As the British sociologist T. H. Marshall explained,
equality isn’t possible “without restricting the freedom of
competitive markets,” without opening socialized spaces free from
market imperatives. In other words, for the Left, the economic
_effects_ of extending the market (as well as the political and
cultural effects) were never divorced from a questioning of the
_logic_ of the market itself.

Though this perspective has suffered enormous setbacks since the early
1970s, it still offers a vision radically different from our current
neoliberal consensus. The ultimate aim is not to make competition more
“fair,” less “discriminatory,” or less “normative.”
Instead, it seeks to curtail the space in which competition exists. In
this sense, freedom doesn’t signify the ability to access the
market, but rather the ability to reduce the space in which it

Hillary Clinton was right to say that she underestimated the power of
“big ideas.” But that doesn’t mean UBI is the big idea we need.
We should reconnect with the postwar period’s emancipatory heritage.
The institutions workers established after World War II did more than
stabilize or buffer capitalism. They constituted, in embryonic form,
the elements of a truly democratic and egalitarian society, where the
market would not have the central place it now occupies. And if the
recent successes of Bernie Sanders
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/01/what-did-bernie-do] and Jeremy
are anything to go by, the door may now be open to a rebirth of
socialist politics.

Utopia is not beyond our reach — it’s closer than we think.

An earlier version of this article quoted Philippe Van Parijs as
having written in Le Monde that “the level of universal income must
not be so much as to allow a person living alone to escape poverty.”
According to Van Parijs, his meaning was, rather, that such a level a
basic income is “not necessary” to produce positive effects. The
article has been updated accordingly.

_Daniel Zamora is a postdoctoral sociologist at the Université Libre
de Bruxelles and Cambridge University. _

_Translation by Jeff Bate Boerop._

	* [https://new.portside.org/node/16186/printable/print]







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