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Universal Basic Income demand: ain't working for workers' liberation

Universal Basic Income demand: ain't working for workers' liberation

Parts of the radical left see the Universal Basic Income (UBI) demand as a potential vehicle to a) ‘make people think’ about productive potentials and wealth distribution in capitalism; and b) unify a (fragmented and atomised) working class through a common demand. We think that the demand ain’t helpful for the following reasons.

Some of us went to a Novara public debate on Universal Basic Income yesterday. Hackney Showrooms was packed with mainly hip people in their twenties, who paid for the event and £4 for a can of Red Stripes beer. must have been over 100 people (if such big a crowd would turn up at the next cleaners’ picket, that would be splendid - but hey). it was a bit of a show event, panel focussed - some talked like wanna-be finance ministers on bad protein shakes, solving one major global problem after the other. the person who made most sense was a not so hip old man from the rmt, despite his ‘we have to nationalise everything and give everyone a job’ spiel. the rest of the contributions was the usual ‘what if’-talk: if we just all had a stable income without pressure, we could all be creative and active. we could solve the care crisis, climate change and revolution would be so much easier! we prepared some very basic points for discussion...

Can’t buy me love – UBI ain’t working for workers’ liberation

Parts of the radical left see the Universal Basic Income (UBI) demand as a potential vehicle to a) ‘make people think’ about productive potentials and wealth distribution in capitalism; and b) unify a (fragmented and atomised) working class through a common demand. We think that the demand ain’t helpful for the following reasons:

* The demand takes a problematic starting point. In capitalism individual income disguises the fact that in order to live we depend on each other. The wage in particular disguises exploitative relations as a ‘fair deal’. Capital and the state seem to be the productive social forces which hand out an individual income to us – although it is the social work of all of us which makes us survive. In capitalism the social cooperation of workers appears as the power of capital and the state – the UBI demand doesn’t help to question this. This also means that the UBI doesn’t help us discover the potential power that would be needed to enforce itself against state and capital. It remains a nice, but lame idea – even in a reformist sense.

* UBI doesn’t help challenge the hierarchy within the working class. Division of labour is hierarchical, some people clean up mess all day, others can think creatively about Apps or PhDs. Some are isolated in the home, others socialise at work. It is also no wonder that the demand is often raised within a European framework, cementing global inequalities within the proletariat. The focus on a general income does not challenge the destructive nature of capitalist production to both humans and nature.

* The UBI also fits nicely within the restructuring of the welfare state – it is no coincidence that the ruling class promotes Universal Credits. In Germany in the 1990s parts of the (not so) radical left raised the demand of 1,500 Deutsche Mark per month – roughly £1,200 in current terms. This sounds a lot if you are healthy, live in a squat and don’t have kids. If the state had levelled all incomes of proletarians who don’t work (pensioners, sick, unemployed) to 1,500 DM at the time, they would have saved a lot of money and cut a lot of benefit bureaucracy!

* The UBI demand is based on a fucked up relationship between the (middle class) left and working class. The idea that ‘UBI would give people more time and security to be politically active’ sees ‘activists’ as the main social agent. This view is in a historical continuity with the paternalistic and abstract approach of ‘transitional demands’ as some kind of consciousness raising trick: workers are thick and divided, we have to unite them behind a demand which they understand – in the process we will explain the more radical stuff to them. Get lost!

There is no easy way out. We have to start from what workers are already doing and from the material divisions within the class. These cannot be overcome by some external policies, but only in and through struggle. It is not wrong to put forward concrete demands, but the question of how to organise and expand our struggle under concrete conditions is the main one. We have to analyse the organic links between unemployment, reproductive work, casual jobs, collective power in the work place – as workers and co-militants! For that purpose we circulate our west London newspaper in front of job centres, warehouses, factories and housing estates and try to link solidarity networks with workplace groups.

A common revolutionary strategy can only be found in the ongoing struggles: what do prison hunger strikes, protests against benefit sanctions, riots against racist/anti-poor police violence, protests against migrant deportations or ‘women strikes’ against sexist/anti-poor state measures, strikes of Uber workers or in fast food chains for higher wages and discontent amongst industrial workers have in common? Where do different segments of the class meet each other – and what prevents them from doing so? Let’s look into the mirror…

angryworkersworld@gmail.com
http://www.angryworkersworld.wordpress.com
http://www.workerswildwest.wordpress.com

Posted By

AngryWorkersWorld
Apr 15 2017 08:52

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  • UBI doesn’t help us discover the potential power that would be needed to enforce itself against state and capital. It remains a nice, but lame idea – even in a reformist sense.

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Chilli Sauce
Apr 16 2017 14:01

How was the response?

ChjornayaGvardiya
Apr 16 2017 16:06
Quote:
mainly hip people in their twenties, who paid for the event and £4 for a can of Red Stripes beer. must have been over 100 people (if such big a crowd would turn up at the next cleaners’ picket, that would be splendid - but hey). it was a bit of a show event, panel focussed - some talked like wanna-be finance ministers on bad protein shakes, solving one major global problem after the other.

Calling others "hip" - check! Complaining about prices of beer - check! Complaining that those attending were more worthwhile going to your thing - check! Near perfect bingo card!

Was this little preamble really necessary to make the valid political points about frothing leftist enthusiasm for universal basic income? How do you know people in the crowd wouldn't turn up for a cleaners strike? The aside about protein shakes, eh?

This sort of bollocks really undermines the otherwise really interesting stuff you seem to do.

Quote:
a nice, but lame idea

Nice ableism to offset you later talking about people organising against benefit cuts.

Quote:
For that purpose we circulate our west London newspaper in front of job centres, warehouses, factories and housing estates and try to link solidarity networks with workplace groups.

Good luck to you, but engaging your brain a bit as to why such tactics haven't really worked in the last 100 years might be a worthwhile exercise alongside analysing the completely obvious failings of the universal basic income. Might want to publish more than one copy every six months though?

fingers malone
Apr 16 2017 17:45

Well that escalated quickly.

To be fair I was on a picket line the next day and two people I had met and chatted to at the novara thing were there.

TalKing to people afterwards these points came up a lot:

The devil is in the details, you could have a terrible UBI because it was exclusionary (only for British citizens, people without criminal records) or as a benefit cut or excuse to cut services, or you could have a quite nice UBI, so you can't discuss it in the abstract. How much? and Who gets it? are crucial questions.

If we were strong enough to be able to force capitalists to give us a really nice UBI, we'd have to be pretty damn strong, in that case, why bother with UBI? Why not just demand loads of resources and free time in other ways?

There are a lot of other demands that are more familiar to people, the problem isn't really a shortage of demands. More council houses was suggested as a better demand and more familiar.

But I enjoyed the event, it was a proper discussion with loads of speaking from the floor, I felt I had lots of useful discussions afterwards, people were friendly and I talked to total strangers about union organising in computer games and about anti racism in Birmingham, so I think it was a good evening.

bootsy
Apr 17 2017 00:57

Thank you, this is probably the best critique of the UBI demand I've come across so far. It eloquently puts together some of the disjointed thoughts I've had myself.

I would add that the long term effectiveness and stability of any Universal Basic Income would depend upon the stability and profitability of the capitalist system, a context completely at odds with a situation of heightened class struggle (where profitability would inevitably become unreliable and chaotic). So a UBI could create the ironic situation where beneficiaries of the UBI and partisans of the reform have an interest in opposing class struggle in order to maintain the stability and effectiveness of the reform! Otherwise, in a period of economic crises, what will be the first state policy to get scrapped? The luxurious UBI no doubt. Particularly if some first world nations adopt it, it would foster division and undermine solidarity between those workers and workers in the hyper-exploited developing world who would probably end up creating the wealth needed to pay for the UBI.

This dynamic is a problem for many reforms. Take pension funds for example, which are still a major gain of the union movement and social democracy. Pension funds actually played a leading role in the neo-liberal attacks of the 1980s since it was the pension investment funds which provided much of the capital used by neo-liberal investors to buy up and sell of American, British and other Western companies before basically gutting and selling off those companies in return for huge profits, which then lead to the deindustrialisation of western industry. Of course this process probably would have happened without the aid of the pension investment funds due to the working class offensive of the 60s and 70s, but its a stark example of how reforms can become completely embroiled in the more destructive side of capitalist production. It also completely undermines the simplistic leftist separation between social democratic capitalism and neo-liberal capitalism, demonstrating the inherent continuity between the two forms of capitalist society.

I imagine a similar dynamic occuring with any Universal Basic Income.

That doesn't necessarily mean all reforms should be opposed (whereas reformism as an ideology definitely should) but it does undermine the simplistic and moralistic analysis of reforms being a good achievement of popular struggle and democracy. Not that anyone here would hold that opinion but it is still popular amongst leftists. The reality is that reforms can be very useful and beneficial for capital.

Edit: Added some words and some commas

Chilli Sauce
Apr 17 2017 08:32

Yup, it's a problem with liberals, this idea that we can create some sort of fair/sustainable/balanced capitalism. I mean, right-wingers aren't wrong when they point out that that things like increased wages could lead to decreased employment. Gains we make in one area, capital will try to claw back in another.

A successful political demand for UBI, if such a thing can be achieved without a massive surge in class struggle, would undoubtedly lead to an attack by capital in some other area of living standards - inflation, welfare programs, intensified pace of work, whatever.

What it does show is that capitalism itself needs to be overcome. As for me, I'm yet to be convinced that demands for UBI can somehow be a springboard for the wider realization of that across society.

fingers malone
Apr 17 2017 10:26
Chilli Sauce wrote:

What it does show is that capitalism itself needs to be overcome. As for me, I'm yet to be convinced that demands for UBI can somehow be a springboard for the wider realization of that across society.

I hang around with a lot of poor people and it's not something I hear come up, 'build more council houses' is the number one most 'popular demand' I hear.

bootsy
Apr 17 2017 22:55

Yea I don't think its even on the radar for most people, not in this country anyway. Its only popular amongst leftists, academics and other "progressives"... People who ultimately can't envisage working class self-organisation as a vehicle for Revolution.

Spikymike
May 4 2020 11:02

So with the increased role of the state in subsidising the finances of both capitalists and workers in the short term as a means of preserving the social relationship during the coronavirus lockdown of the economy, consideration of UBI or similar proposals are coming to the fore again and this critique from the AWW is still valid.
Another short update from the Socialist Standard here:
https://worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/2020/2020s/no-1389-ma...