A post on why workers should oppose automation unless we can carry it out in our own interests and why a Universal Basic Income is not going to be the answer to the resulting immiseration
What freedom is there in the wage system, the system of propertied and propertyless people, when the majority must sell their physical and mental faculties, their time with their families and friends, their freedom to be who and what they are, in order to obtain what they need?
What justice is there in a system where those who do the vast majority of the work see little of the product of that labour? Where do we find justice in a system where the workers who create the wealth see hardly any of it?
The idea of a Universal Basic Income posed as a solution to this problem is alluring. It’s a recognition that human life and existence has value beyond a person’s ability to perform labour. And while, like the benefits system and the NHS, it might be a welcome concession granted to working people, it is not the salve to cure all ills. Certainly not if it’s posited as a wholesale replacement for the current benefits system.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) at its heart is little more than a change to the benefits system that already exists. It does little to address the need for real change in relations of production. There is little that is truly radical about UBI on these terms.
It may, by a relatively small amount, possibly raise the lot of the worst off, but we ignore the opportunist and anti-humane nature of capitalism at our peril. Capitalism has a habit of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Production will still occur on the basis of profit and not need. A small number of people will still be accumulating more and more wealth at the expense of those living on the UBI crumbs that fall under the table. How would we ensure that UBI is and remains enough for people to not just get by on, but live a full life if production is still carried out for profit and if capitalists are still willing and able to fleece people for what little crumbs they get?
At the end of the day, the benefits we gain in freedom to pursue our own leisure will only change in degree and not in kind. We will still be limited to what we can afford, and what we can afford may not change as much as we think it would. Our lives would still revolve around the prices and availability to us of things. Even the basic necessities of life would still be treated as commodities to be produced, bought and sold on the basis of profit and not produced and distributed freely on the basis of need. UBI won't democratize the workplace where human labour is still required. It won't democratize production and distribution where this labour has been automated. It won't reorganize production on the basis of need rather than profit. UBI isn't the solution we need to the problem of production relations between capitalists and the people who are currently forced to sell their labour in order to live.
The people who will need UBI to survive are still reliant on a political and capitalist class being willing to allow them the means of that survival. There is a danger in selling UBI as a solution to poverty and inequality. UBI is nothing of the sort. It doesn't change the relationship between the propertied and propertyless classes nearly enough, and radical change here is necessary if we are to safeguard our freedom to live against propertied vultures. We need to be in charge of our own destiny.
What happens if a change of circumstances comes along where automation of labour is no longer cost-effective or viable, or when new industry comes along which requires a significant supply of human labour? Capitalists will be under pressure to find this supply of labour and will place pressure on politicians to make changes which make this supply easier to procure. Would we be in a position to resist the partial or total withdrawal of our means of life that might result from this, forcing us back into wage labour?
With current trends in the cost of education, healthcare and transport to workers, will a large part of our UBI be spent on getting this education for ourselves and our children? Will we be using it to pay for privatized healthcare, and more expensive bus and train fares? Will it be an excuse to cut further help for those who would still be in need even with the UBI? Or to cut pensions?
And with more voices on the right of the political spectrum coming round to the idea of a Universal Basic Income on their terms, we need to recognize that UBI appears to be simply an adjustment to the way capitalism currently functions. It doesn’t offer a foundational challenge to capitalism. If it did, no self-respecting advocate of capitalism would consider it. So let’s briefly examine the foundation on which capitalism is built.
The basis of capitalism rests on the relationship between the capitalist and the worker. The worker must sell his or her labour in order to live. The capitalist needs that labour to produce things to sell. So a capitalist will buy and own the raw materials, tools etc. necessary for production and will then hire workers to work with the tools and the raw materials to produce what the capitalist tells the workers to produce. The workers will then use the tools to turn the raw materials into something the capitalist then sells.
So far, so logical. But let’s look a bit more closely at the relationship and how it benefits the capitalist. Let’s say the capitalist owns a factory that makes wooden tables. This means he needs to buy an amount of wood and the tools to make the tables (hammers, nails, glue etc). He also needs workers to come and use the tools to turn the wood into tables he then sells. Let’s say he spends 10 on the raw materials for one table and when it’s finished the table is worth 20. The worker who comes in to turn the raw materials into a table uses his or her skills and energy, takes the raw materials and adds value to them in the form of a finished table. The capitalist then pays the worker. The table immediately belongs to the capitalist and the capitalist sells the table for 20.
Now let’s look at the process in its simplest terms. The capitalist has spent money on tools and raw materials and on a worker to build the table. The worker has used brain power and muscle power to turn the raw materials into a table (which immediately belongs to the capitalist and not to the worker), adding 10 units of value to the raw materials in the form of labour. The capitalist then sells the table. But something is missing. What did the capitalist pay the worker?
If the capitalist paid the worker the value of his or her labour, this adds up to 10. The capitalist has spent 10 on the raw materials and tools, and 10 on the labour to use these up and produce a table worth 20. The capitalist then sells the table for 20. What’s in this for the capitalist? He’s spent 20, and at the end of the process he’s received 20. So what was the point? The capitalist hasn’t got anything out of this arrangement.
But what happens if the capitalist pays 10 for the raw materials and tools, but only pays the worker 8 for his or her labour? The capitalist sells the table for 20, but it only cost 18 to produce. The 2 left over is the capitalist’s profit.
So the key is in the nature of the relationship between the worker and the capitalist. One capitalist isn’t likely to sell wood or tools to another capitalist for less than what they’re worth. So where does a capitalist find a reason to be in production in the first place? The reason is profit, and that profit is found by the capitalist paying the workers less than the value of their work.
To make this a little bit clearer, consider that the capitalist rarely pays a worker based on the number of finished items they produce. The capitalist pays the worker to come to work and work as hard as they possibly can for a set amount of time. This obscures the real relationship between worker and capitalist somewhat and leads to the situation where the worker works half the day to meet his or her own immediate needs, and the rest of the day works to create wealth just for the capitalist.
It is this relationship between the worker and the capitalist that is central to how the capitalist system functions. It is in work done by the worker above and beyond that needed to meet his or her own immediate needs that the capitalist finds a reason to be in business. This relationship is the basis of profit. We can see it most clearly, and it begins to explain the situation, where labour is cheap and where it produces expensive commodities, places where the weekly wage of a person sewing sports shoes isn’t enough to buy a single pair of the shoes they’ve been working on all week.
Any campaigning for UBI must be done with the future of workers in mind and not simply just an improvement in immediate conditions. Conditionality must be refused. This is not to downplay the importance winning a UBI might have for working people, but to stress that the fight must go beyond just this concession.
With those on the right who are open to the concept using UBI as a means to prop up and reinforce existing socio-economic relations between capitalists and workers by making the relationship slightly more palatable to workers without jeopardizing too much the capitalist's privileged position in society, and simultaneously balking at the idea that the UBI would be enough to live comfortably on, a consensus on the nature of UBI is likely only going to be a compromise. In essence we as workers have been reduced, by the capitalist class and the politicians who support them, to tools of work; a cog in a machine; essentially born to work for them, and have our work make them money.
If we're going to be truly free, we need to have the freedom to pursue our goals where and when and how we see fit. Wage labour is fundamentally incompatible with this. The right's vision for UBI is as a replacement for the benefits system already in place. Just enough for the absolute basics of survival and only because dead workers can't be exploited. This is clearly of limited value to workers. The left's vision for UBI must be as a step on the path to true freedom for working people and not seen as the solution to poverty and inequality. And not as a necessary step, but one possible step.
What is needed is a fundamental shift in attitudes towards work and the relations that make work necessary; a left that is much less concerned with the plight of the capitalist. In this we've got at least a head start because most people already hate work and resent having to do it. People feel undervalued and underpaid because they are. People can see the inequity in their relationship with their bosses. What isn't seen so well is the fact that we're literally selling our ability to work and a good third of our lives, giving up our freedom in the process, in order to live. But people weren't born simply to work. We instinctively know this and we value our lives more than this because none of us really likes work, but this is balanced against the necessity of work for the vast majority. If we don't do it, we can't really live at all. These are conditions imposed on us by capitalism.
We need to continue the task of attempting to reconstruct society and recognize reforms of capitalism for what they are: helpful stepping-stones on that path. We also need to recognize threats to the conditions of working people, such as those posed by automation and those posed by an unfavourable compromise on the question of UBI. Capital is bound to try to take advantage of the opportunities offered by automation while also trying to safeguard its dominant position in production and distribution. And while automation offers hope of one day ending labour, we have to recognize that automation as carried out by capitalism is ruining lives and making many destitute, forcing millions into precarious, low-paid and ever more demeaning labour. While automation remains a capitalist project, workers will not be allowed to benefit from it.
We can’t ignore this. We can’t put our eggs in one basket where UBI is concerned and allow capital to automate millions of jobs out of existence. If the battle for what is essentially a reform of the benefits system is lost (and there is every reason to suspect it could easily be), then the potential for the immiseration of swathes of workers is very real. The political establishment has shown no real signs of being concerned with the lot of workers. The past 40 years have seen continuing and intensifying attacks on welfare and social security programs throughout the developed world and these have shown no sign of slowing down. The environment isn’t exactly ideal for the introduction of a Universal Basic Income favourable to the working-class. It would be naïve to think that UBI wouldn’t quickly become entrenched in the same ideological war, and bureaucratic and legislative nightmare the current benefits system is caught up in and has been for the duration of the neoliberal project. With publicly funded welfare and health programmes under constant attack all over the neoliberal world, it would be naïve to believe that the introduction of UBI would favour working-class interests over those of the capitalists in this environment.
Universal Basic Income offers no concrete alternatives to the current wage system. It doesn’t point a way to overturning existing property relations. It is designed specifically to work within those social relations, to prop them up and to at best offer the most meagre of concessions to the people who are forced to sell their capacity to work. Many will still need to top up this income by performing wage labour. It also makes no effort on its own to address the differing needs of people who may have disabilities or who may have a larger family to support, for example. With all its faults, and there are many, this is something the current benefits system does actually address.
Simply nationalizing a business or service or industry isn't going to help deliver economic democracy either. The people who work there, and workers generally, would have no more control over how the business is run or what happens to the product of their labour than they would if the business was in private hands. Nationalization without addressing the relationship between employer and employee is simply a case of swapping one group of expropriators and facilitators for another.
What is needed is a full reappraisal of what the aims of the left should be. The trade union movement is concerned with higher wages, sometimes with shorter hours (or at least limiting increases in hours), protecting jobs, but these days never, it seems, with the way production and distribution is organized. Such concerns are pushed to the fringes of left-wing discourse. Universal Basic Income is still a fringe concern for the mainstream left, but is increasingly gaining traction in liberal circles. However, it doesn't go anything like far enough in addressing the real economic problem facing workers and society at large: the problem of how we should organize production and distribution of what workers produce. In fact, it makes no attempt to address this problem at all.
We need to make economic democracy a cornerstone of left-wing thought again. We have to offer workers a future where they decide democratically, and in collaboration with the community at large, what to produce, how to produce it and then how to distribute it. We can’t simply settle for automation and UBI, or for the nationalization of industry. To really change capitalism, we need to change its core: the relationship of workers to the production, appropriation and distribution of the surplus they create. Looking at the problem this way, it’s much easier to see how the capture of the state by electoralism or force isn’t really a necessary step on this road. Indeed, where the state has been captured by a vanguard party, very few steps on this road to economic democracy were taken in the decades afforded those regimes. The basic relationship between the workers and their employers and facilitators remained largely unchanged.
It seems we've got a long way to go with persuading unions who haven't even got the vision to offer an alternative to the renewal of Trident. It's here that contemporary social democracy may offer one of its few positive lessons, with the battle over the nature, influence and politics of the British Labour party in the previous couple of years. The story is far from written but it at least shows that such change within a formerly condemned house, and in the face of obvious opposition from the media, may at least be possible.
With the continuing capitalist drive towards automation in order to reduce labour costs, the capitalist system lurches towards a great contradiction: with fewer and fewer workers being paid less and less money, how does capitalism maintain and reproduce the markets for what it’s producing? Here we can see a situation where capitalists might favour UBI, at least for workers in the developed economies, where the cost of a worker’s wage makes the most compelling case to the capitalist for increasing automation or the offshoring of jobs. Accelerating automation as a capitalist project, continuing to erode the organized workforce, will also make organizing industrially in the developed economies an increasingly difficult prospect. There is no reason why capitalists would not think they’d be able to reproduce the conditions of early-mid capitalism in the developing economies and continue to accumulate profit from these economies. A Universal Basic Income in the developed economies may be seen by capital as another concession, just a way to keep the lowest of the populations of the developed economies away from its door while capital carries out this project.
This is essentially a continuation and intensification of the exploitation of these developing economies largely to the advantage of capitalists in developed economies but also of some benefit to workers here, who because of this can at least in the short-to-medium term continue to benefit from cheap goods made in these developing economies. In the long term, there’s no reason why capital can’t roll back such concessions once profitable markets have been established in the economies currently classed as developing. It would be a mistake to think that the introduction of a Universal Basic Income in the developed economies would be, or from the point of view of capital, would need to be a permanent state of affairs. The past 40 years of neoliberal hegemony provides the lesson here, with the post-war concessions made to the working-class now under constant attack. In the long term, with a Universal Basic Income being funded from increased taxation of the rich and corporations, it’s hard to see capital being happy with a situation where they’re essentially propping up Western markets, paying consumers in developed economies to buy from them without receiving something substantial like productive labour in return. Capitalists are more likely to abandon the developed economies in much the same way as communities like Britain’s former mining centres and Detroit have already been, in favour of developing and expanding markets in Asia and South America.
Realistically, without extreme pressure from a rank-and-file labour movement threatening something the capitalists see as worse, a flat-rate Universal Basic Income will be proposed as a replacement for the current benefits system either in full or in part and would only be implemented in the interests of capital. Replacing the current benefits system with a Universal Basic Income could be seen by capital as a favourable exchange. While the introduction of the Universal Basic Income without cuts to existing benefits would be a welcome concession for workers, this is very unlikely in the current climate. A compromise version that takes little to no account of the individual needs of recipients would be no more than a means to prop up existing relations of production, providing another leg for capitalists, rentiers and the banking sector to stand on.
Workers need more radical solutions. The ultimate aim must be not to prop up capitalism but to destroy it. To overturn the relationship between employer and employee. To abolish the root cause of our economic misery – the employer, the rentier and the banker – and to take control of our own working lives by whatever means necessary. This should begin with a fight to control the ground on which this battle is being fought but the focus overwhelmingly seems to be on fighting for a few extra crumbs from the table. With the conditions of so many workers at stake, ceding ground to capital over the issue of automation and hoping capitalists and governments step in to mitigate its effects is a dangerous ploy for the left. It looks like a gambit. But it’s a gambit that millions just can’t afford. We’re in danger of being subject to yet another layer to the contradictions and cyclical whims of the capitalist system. What is needed is not a concession of the ground to capitalists and politicians where automation is concerned but a vision of workers taking control of the process themselves so we can free ourselves from the misery of wage labour.