We are republishing an interview with the German work sociologist Gunter Voss.
Interview with Gunter Voss
[Would an unconditional basic income lead to many doing nothing? No, work sociologist Gunter Voss says. An unconditional basic income would be the basis for a meaningful life of personal responsibility. This interview published in: die tageszeitung, 12/2/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.taz.de/dx/2006/12/02/a0171.1/textdruck.]
Taz: Mr. Voss, if all people received a basic income tomorrow of 800 or 1000 euro monthly, would some people not lift a finger?
Gunter Voss: Introducing a basic income abruptly would be problematic. Social policy must support this step. I have a positive view of the person and am sure people would make something of their life without pressure.
Still we all function according to internalized systems of acknowledgment and reward. Paid work is a vital component. Therefore Hartz IV recipients are depressed more often than other persons.
When the unemployed become depressed today, this is because they feel excluded, stigmatized and superfluous. But this negative message would not occur with a basic income for everybody. Everyone would be offered a basis for building a meaningful life out of their own strength.
What would that look like? Would all people pursue video projects or cultivate their own garden?
Perhaps. A sociologist who develops a career in coaching or an artisan who designs his own furniture would receive a basic income for a transition phase. Not accidentally, the financial promotion of personal companies was relatively successful.
Would the basic income only be a transitional phase in life?
For many persons, yes. The basic income could relieve people in transition to jobs during a family phase, in retirement and during a retraining time. But there would also be groups who would permanently depend on that income.
But wouldnâ€™t such a basic income divide people into those who can organize their life by themselves and those who would depend more intensely?
This division exists now on the job market. Whoever cannot market himself independently has a bad hand. The future of work depends on people who are busy out of their inner motivation. A basic income would also promote this.
In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a creative scene in West Berlin and Amsterdam that obviously lived from unemployment benefits or income support. But orienting themselves in a market and overcoming an aversion to work are hard for many sometime in their life. Isnâ€™t this incapacity fatally promoted by a basic income?
Many creative things arose from these alternative scenes. Nevertheless socialization handicaps leading to social exclusion and overstrain may predominate for some groups. We may not be naÃ¯ve. Supporting measures must be offered.
You allude to the lower class debate. But doesnâ€™t this debate make you suspect that people earning their money on the normal job market would be constantly distrustful or envious toward those receiving basic income without working?
No life of luxury would be possible with the basic income. People in paid work would always be financially privileged by the promotion prospects. This gradation would continue.
But wouldnâ€™t a basic income be an essential violation of the protestant work ethic that allegedly keeps the paid work society going?
That is a widespread misunderstanding. The protestant work ethic as described by the sociologist Max Weber does not aim at persons only motivated by material reward. Rather this ethic consists in a strong inner drive, in a â€œcallingâ€ to work even without pay. This is necessary more than ever today and could be promoted by a basic income. A basic income would offer people a basic existential protection encouraging them to take new flexible ways. People would have more trust and confidence in our society.
In my opinion “if all people received a basic income tomorrow of 800 or 1000 euro monthly tomorrow” the result would be price inflation, especially due to increased competition for location rents, and after some adjustment, the overall structure of wealth distribution would not change.
Basic Income is part of the same delusional mindset that unionist Collective Bargaining comes from, an inability to see through what Keynes called “The Money Illusion.”
So long as they do not own their means of production and do not retain product of their labour, whatever workers gain in incomes, they lose in prices.
Of Statist wealth distribution schemes, the only plausible one seems to be the Georgist idea of a “Citizen’s Dividend” derived from publicly captured economic rent via Land Taxation, also a recommendation of many others in some form or other including Turgot and the Physiocrats and Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto.
However, as with all Statist schemes, the implementation of such recommendations requires the State to be the agent, and the State is the executive committee of the rent-collectors, as such it is not likely to do anything that broadly reduces rent-extraction and thus makes wealth distribution more equitable.
It is by way of State granted and enforced privilege, like land ownership, intellectual property, trade and market regulations, control of the money supply and direct corporate subsidy that Capitalism is able to appropriate the product of labour, accumulate great wealth and power and create poverty, the idea that the State, the agent and instrument of wealth and power, will do anything against the general interests of the wealthy and powerful is hopelessly naive.
“Basic Income” is nothing but a distraction, a day-dream of progressives who would rather not confront the real political economic challenges that result from State-enforced private property rights.
i like the ‘basic income’notion as expressed by voss.what i don’t get is why the ‘protestant work ethic’, even as wonderfully clarified here,is a necessary element at all? it’s been the polluting combustion engine of the nervous system that brought us to a present filled w/caffeinated anxiety,ozone holes,unending ever more ‘efficient’ war & terror! it’s the continuing,fatuous promise,even at this ‘in extremis’ moment of the world, that continued economic growth is both desireable & a must that’s brought us to an evolutionary pressure only relieveable by radical insight & inquiry into the of this ‘I’that can’t stop. and kleiner’s response,breathtaking & incisive as it is,still seems in the context of present day us vs. them modalities.
“So long as …” and what about the meantime?
The basic income, as long as it is not the result of simply printing additional money, would not be inflationary (see basicincome.org). Furthermore, it would substantially alter the balance of forces in favour of the producers, who would have increased bargaining power, and at the same time, would increase the scope for social experimentation and increase the size of the cooperative economy.
So this measure “in the meantime”, would bring the “so long as …” closer to home.
I think that Gunter Voss is simply addressing here the fear that people wouldn’t work. The basic income would change, and is a recognition of the already changing attitude to work, as described for example in Pekka Himanen’s hacker ethic (http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Hacker_Ethic). The key is that it would increase the opportunity for choosing meaningfull activity.
The link is not often made, but it is especially the emergence of peer production which is the strongest argument for the basic income, as we now know that people can and do create an immense amount of value outside of the monetary economy.
Hi Michel, it may not be inflationary in terms of market commodities (in the way that monetary inflation is), but it would be in terms of scarcity rents, especially due to increased money competition for locations driving up land rents. The only way to create a basic income that would not increase scarcity rents is to base it on taxation of such rents, i.e a citizen’s dividend based on a Georgist Land Value Tax. In my opinion, the basic income promoters need to come to terms with the facts of economic rent.
Further, your claim that basic income “would substantially alter the balance of forces in favour of the producers,” is exactly why it will never come to being in any form that would make such a difference as you have an agency problem: you are supposing the agent of the rent-collectors, the State, will do something against the interest of property in order to benefit the producers. In my opinion, that is an unrealistic expectation.
As I have argued before, only Venture Communism, which creates a sort of basic income derived from mutualized rent, can actually be accomplished as a income sharing scheme, because the basis of income sharing is rent, and the agent is voluntary association of producers themselves, not the State.
I do agree with Voss that the idea that people would not work if they received a basic income is nonsensical.
I believe that there are many different ways to conceive of the basic income, including some neoliberal conceptions that would make it so low that it could actually be a means of depressing real wages, as did the poor laws at the end of the 19th century.
The state is not just a simple tool of what you call the rent class, it also protects the system as a whole, and is subject to the balance of forces in society. I would claim that it has a relative independence and that it is also partially a protector, of those that create the value in society. No society can exist on force and coercion alone, without a consensus of the majority of the population. Hence, it has introduced a great many measures in favour of producers. Historically, we have achieved many reforms.
As you know, my take is different from yours, I claim that only in the immaterial sphere can we have nonreciprocal relations, and that in the material sphere we need reciprocity and exchange. I don’t believe in the socialist vision that first, all political power has to be won, and then, everything will change. Rather, as we are constructing alternative non-monetary relationships and increase its weight, at some point a shift may occur. I do not want to preclude how this change will occur politically, as there are many different historical examples. If you have read my recent peer to peer and the feudal transition, I’m suggesting that this transitory period may offer more clues than the feudal to capitalist transition which is what inspired Marx and the socialists. What I know is that our means must be congruent with our ends, and that historically, ‘taking power from the state’ has resulted in the emergence of new elites, and that ‘revolutions eat their own children’ and cause untold hardship. But if they will or not occur is not under anyone’s control.
What we need to do imperative is increase the sphere of social cooperation, and for that ,the basic income, perhaps in the form that you propose, is a key enabler. Such a major reform however, can only come in times of systemic crisis, after a series of pedagogical catastrophes which bring home the point in human consciousness, that fundamental change must be on the order of the day. We are not there yet, but we can prepare, and this is what we are trying to do at the p2p foundation, and which I assume is also what you want to do.
Hi Michel, I am not sure where you got the idea that I was promototing the idea of “taking power from the State,” since that is neither what I have been proposing, nor is it a definition of Socialism. Socialism is the belief that the producer should own their means of production and that therefor extraction of Surplus Value by way of property rents is theft. What you talk about with regards to taking the State, etc, is the expected transitional stage of some Socialists (Including Marx and Engels), but is neither exclusive nor primary, see for example Hodgskin, Proudon, Tucker, etc.
I have never promoted the idea of taking power form the State, what I promote is worker self organisation, I am really confused as to how or where your comments on revolutions, emerging elites, etc, are coming from, as they are certainly not a response to anything I have said here nor anywhere else.
What is even more confusing is that you use this line of reasoning to justify your belief in a State based solution, an argument which in my opinion is lost to an agency problem that you have only wished away, and not refuted. Political power is an extension of economic power, and private property privilege allows allows rent collectors to accumulate wealth at the expense of all other economic actors, and thus have more wealth to apply to control of the State than all others. This fact of objective reality is born out in all empirical data regarding property and wealth accumulation as well as funding and election results.
The State has only introduced measures that benefit producers in the case that they either also benefit property owners, or at least when the benefits are not won at the expense of property owners. I challenge you to find a significant example to the contrary that had lasting effect.
That is why the model I propose is not based on the State, but rather on voluntary rent-sharing communities.
Thanks for these last comments which clarify how your approach differs from both the original social democratic wing and main revolutionary wings of the socialist movement. Yes, I am aware that there are other traditions, but my knowledge of them is limited, but I suspect that these civil society based approaches had much more in common with the contemporary peer to peer approach. Concerning reform measures, would you suggest that the rate of surplus value that goes to capital has only increased or remained static? My impression is that it does not, for example, the post-war social democratic reforms were a factor of significant redistribution, and that such reforms were the combined effect of the pre-WWW II economic crisis, the mass mobilization of soldiers who sacrificed themselves, and the threat of the Soviet Union. This made them rethink the underlying social contract. After 1973, the situation again reversed. All major reforms were obtained in such times of systemic crisis, of course I agree that nobody will sign a suicide pact, and that such reforms came about because a sufficient number of the ruling elite considered them necessary to retain the overall system. Despite our differences I of course say ‘go for it’ in terms of voluntary rent-sharing communities. The question is whether this requires the kind of radical language that you are proposing, and whether a mass of producers is ready to embrace such a language. This is I think what some other commentators refer to when they mention ‘binary thinking’.
I fully agree with you that libertarian socialist traditions have much in common with peer to peer approaches, this is why I, like yourself and others, also promote the ideal of peer production.
My so-called “radical” language is actually the mater-of-fact language of classical economics and modern heterodox economics, the basis of which is the simple Ricardian trinitarian formula. Notice that my citations are normally to mainstream economists such as Ricardo and Keynes.
The only reason it sounds “radical” is because of the concerted conditioning effort of the Capitalist-apologist media and education system, what Dallas Smythe called “The Consciousness Industry.”
In my opinion accusations of “binary thinking” and so forth are just a self-delusion of many people that refuse to understand the basic fundamentals of political economy in no small part because of the fear of being labelled “extremist” or “radical” by the apologist flack machine of capitalism. My thinking is not “binary” but rather “dialectic,” any analysis of power is by definition dialectic as its basis is an investigation of struggle, and any refusal to address it is such as a defacto legitimization of the status quo.
And yes, the general trajectory of the rate of surplus value that goes to capital is ever curving upward, certainly it varies up and down as it progresses, but it has never had a sustained decrease, not even in the examples you mention, because neither decreasing production output by limiting working hours nor increasing wages changes the level of distribution, only it’s volume and structure, as demonstrated in the classic essay “The Subversion of Collective Bargaining” by Daniel Bell, who is hardly a leftist radical by the way, and wrote this essay at in the hight of the pre-1973 social reforms you refer to.
As for whether a “mass of producers is ready to embrace such language,” I am an activist, entrepreneur and member of the Arts community. I am not a propagandist. I do not imagine that I am addressing the masses, which I have no access to, I am addressing only my peers, and by using the language of classical political economy and moderm economic heterodoxy, I am promoting understanding of the actual issues and struggles we face, not brushing them under the carpet as inconvenient truths.
Issues like the legitimacy and basis of State agency, the mechanics of value capture and wealth distribution and the role of Property are exactly what emerging peer producers need to understand. These issues invariably require a critical and dialectic examination of existing power structures, which will always sound “radical” because it challenges the dominant narrative of the status quo.
Here are some quotes from some wide-eyed Radicals:
“whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workers, its counsellors are always the mastersâ€ — Adam Smith
“the interest of the landlord is always opposed to the interest of every other class” — David Ricardo
“In short, the aggregate return from durable goods in the course of their life would, as in the case of short-lived goods, just cover their labour costs of production plus an allowance for risk and the costs of skill and supervision. Now, though this state of affairs would be quite compatible with some measure of individualism, yet it would mean the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital.” John Maynard Keynes.
Quite a bunch of extremists huh?
And last but not least:
“cuz’ my money is spent on the god damn rent, neither party is mine not the jack ass or the elephant” — Chuck D
(Off topic to what you and Michel are talking about)
Communist revolutions aside, I think that this is pretty darn cool: http://www.telekommunisten.net/software Wow, great work!
Also, in relation to http://www.telekommunisten.net/venture-communism you might be interested in some of the research I’ve been doing at http://coworking.pbwiki.com/DonationBasedHealthCare which is evolving into a general schema for Donation-based problems solving networks.
(back on topic)
Dmytri, I accused you of being a “propagandist” before, but I think I was wrong, because I think you’re defintely sincere about your point of view.
Although, I think that Michel is trying to communicate something to you, and I don’t think that what Michel is trying to communicate originates from the Capitalist Apologists, or from people who reject the fundamentals of Political economics.
The idea that Michel is trying to communicate to you, goes deeper than political theory, or political rhetoric. He’s talking about the Bio-Psycho-Social worldview of humans.
What you are saying, and the way that you are saying it, is not “wrong”. It’s just that it will not resonate with many very many people. To me, that is unfortunate, because I can read quite a lot of value in what you are saying. but much of it will be filtered away by many people who read it. You’ve already given one reason why: fear. Yes, one reason that people will reject what you have to say is because of their fear of what they perceive you to be saying, and what they associate it with. And, yes, this could easily be due to the conditioning we’ve all received regarding anythign associated with “Commmunism”, or similar “isms”.
But that is not the only reason. People will also reject what you are saying because it is communicating to them from a viewpoint they simply cannot understand, for a variety of reasons. Those reasons include the social litanies you are focusing on, the social, economic, cultural, political and historical factors you focus on, the “world-views” that you focus on, and the “myth-metaphor” language you are using.
check out: http://communitywiki.org/en/CausalLayeredAnalysis
Dymtri, on a fundemantal level, it seems to me that you want to help implement social change that will imporve the conditions for a greater number of people. One of the things I’ve noticed about successful social change is that:
* People were ready for the type of change that happened
* there was a rapid uptake of applicable ideas. It’s not just that the ideas were technically applicable. It is also that a lot of people were enthusiastic about voluntarily adopting the new way of solving problems.(of course, people will adopt “applicable” ideas whether or not they are “good” for them in the long run)
But why? Why would people adopt certain applicable ideas over others? I believe it is because the people who created the successful ideas were able to “tune their transmitters” to other people’s “receivers” in a way that helped the idea resonate with them. Unfortunately, we often see people “tune their transmitters to others receivers” in a very “base” way, that appeals to base emotions, like fear, anger, etc. But this need not be the only way to apply resonant communication. Dmytri, if I were in your shoes, I would toss the “communist” symbolism, and communist revolution rhetoric, and try to figure out who would best resonate with what you are saying on a fundamental level, focusing on what is original in your own work and ideas, and communicate that in a fresh, new, orginal, and humanistic way. You need not compromise your own values in order to have your message resonate with more people.
For instance, I beleive if you came over here, where I am in the economically “Rustbelt” of the US, you’d be surprised how well you ideas would resonate with people. But, I think it would be a lot more difficult to get people to adopt the ideas if they are couched in the symbology of “communism”. People’s “receivers” are not “tuned” to the communism “transmission”. And they likely never will be again.
I haven’t even addressed the discussion you guys were having about “basic income”. Without addressign point by point everything discussed in this thread, again I can agree that it’s plausible for people to by-pass the state and large corporations, and start pooling money together, even just directly sharing money. In http://coworking.pbwiki.com/DonationBasedHealthCare I focus on “Donation” because it is the freest way that you can share money in the US at this point (each of us may give one another to 1 Million over our lifetime before we are taxed). This is less formal than Cooperatives, or other arrangements, but it does need a system of trust, and a system of shared meaning to succeed.