Towards a Basic Income Law

Excerpted from R.C. Smith:

keep_your_coins_i_want_changeElliot Sperber’s recent paper ‘Toward a Salutary Political-Economy – Freedom from Jobs’ has received some interesting comments, questioning the basic income law and its practical consequences. In this paper Elliot wonderfully argues that freedom is not dependent on jobs, and what we should really be arguing toward is a ‘freedom from jobs’. I interpret this argument as meaning that we must free ourselves from the burden of ‘jobs’ as presently conceived in contemporary capitalist society. In other words, we should be working toward not creating more jobs within the context of the modern political-economy, but rather toward a reconceptualisation of the modern political-economy that frees people from the contemporary definition of ‘jobs’ as principled on the division/exploitation of human labour. In turn, I read Elliot’s argument as an affirmation of the need to transcend the idea of ‘jobs’ as based on the capitalist mode of relations on behalf of a socially constructed alternative that frees human labour from coercion and domination.

In relation to the basic income law, I would argue that one of the most important reasons why we should look to the possible implementation of the basic income law is that it would free a lot of people from having to work meaningless, part-time jobs in often very destructive and highly-exploitative industries (consider fast-food work, for example). If the basic income law were, for instance, set at £15,000 per annum, it would mostly affect what is presently classified as ‘low income earners’, helping to alleviate financial pressure and the burden of the oppressive and coercive cycle of highly exploited (often minimum wage) labour (commonly associated with retail and fast-food and so on).

Furthermore, I see the basic income law as being vital when it comes to potentially implementing Economic Democracy (in the greater transitional process toward a non-market style economy). It would not only free people from their dependency on highly exploitative capitalist labour cycles, particularly in industries that depend on low-wage labour, philosophically speaking it would also provide necessary economic space for the individual to rediscover the meaning of a ‘free’ society.

On an economic level, moreover, I see the basic income law as an important step transitionally toward what Adorno once theorised as the free individual: i.e., the subject no longer objectified into character to satisfy one’s basic needs within the coercive economic conditions that capitalism creates. One of my favourite passages that expands on Adorno’s view in this regard is by David Sherman, who writes in Dialectics of Subjectivity (2007):

We should see that while the free individual (in the free society) would not be “guarding the old particularity”, there would still be an “old particularity” or “subject objectified into a character” to be continuously worked through. The individual would be a work of art ceaselessly in progress. And, indeed, it is each individual constantly reworking his self (and, impliedly, the collective of which he is a part), that is the essence of the notion of a mediating subject. In contrast, what impels the individual to hypostatize the “old particularity” in its presently existing form – that is, to undertake the “bad faith” project of making himself into a thing – is the fear that by not making himself into a thing …/ he will die under the weight of an indifferent economic system (Sherman, 2007). While Economic Democracy, supported by the implementation of the basic income law would by no means represent ‘free society’ or the final, ideal state of affairs as witnessed by the free individual, it would provide in the first instance more sympathetic political-economic conditions, which would support the alleviation of such a fear, allowing the individual to feel more free to open him or herself up to the world. “And, by opening himself up to the world, which would mean that self-identity would become more fluid (and conditions less authoritarian, coercive and exploitative), the individual would be in a position, as Nietzsche states, to become who he is” (Ibid; parenthesis mine)

As Elliot points out, the basic income law would still presuppose a market-style economy and should not be considered as any sort of final solution. Rather the basic income law is but one policy in a network of coinciding policies, which should be seen as transitional in nature. Its purpose is, in other words, to support a sustainable and historically transitory theory of social change (for more on this alternative theory of social change, please see several of my past papers) alleviating the horribly oppressive conditions that are the result of economic coercion in capitalist societies.

Practically speaking, if the basic income law was to be implemented within the context of Economic Democracy (it should be noted that the law is presently being debated in Switzerland in the context of the modern political-economy) it would represent a step in the transitory process toward a non-market style economy, because it would provide enough space for the individual to reconceptualised the meaning of his or her labour and would support Economic Democracy in eliminating highly exploitative industries (which operate, almost entirely, on cheap labour).

In response to criticism of this law, particularly around the idea of ‘freeing people from jobs’: it is wrong to conflate the concept of the basic income law and freeing people from the oppressive cycle of capitalist labour with ‘simply giving money to people for nothing’. This ideological perception, which very much originates from a capitalist view of the world, only sees State funds being provided to people to sit on their arse. The common myth here, however, is almost a mirror of the fundamentally false presupposition that we can either have direct or in-direct forms of domination: i.e., that people need to be coerced in order to ‘work’ or contribute toward society.

It’s true that the purpose of the basic income law doesn’t fit within the ideological coordinates of capitalist society. It doesn’t fit within the contemporary, neoliberal view of the world. In fact, it is completely incongruous with contemporary capitalist society because, in essence, the basic income law is social-based and not capital-based. Its purpose is to support or assist in fostering more healthy social conditions, wherein people are allowed the democratic right to have power over their labour and choose in what way they want to contribute to society. It allows the person forced to quit school and undertake two part-time jobs flipping hamburgers and selling mass consumer goods to free themselves from this oppressive cycle and its psychological/emotional weight in order to pursue life/existential/labour interests that happen to be meaningful to them. Freeing people from having to get a meaningless job just to scrape by enough money to barely ‘survive’ (if that), the basic income law would support a more socially-geared political-economy, especially if integrated within the context of Economic Democracy.

Within the capitalist horizon, the problem is that the basic income law gets quickly reduced to the reactionary and simplistic assertions of ‘people not working while earning’. But this ideological account is based on a falsified concept of what it means to offer one’s labour in support of the advancement of society in the first place.

As a recent commenter reacted in response to the Elliot’s paper:

– “So the idea is not to work but to get income? … I remember when the Soviet Union fell it was because there was no toilet paper to buy. If nobody works who would make the basic things we need. Utopia is what you are talking about here and because of human frailties and imperfections that will not happen on earth. Whether you know it or not there were the 1% in communist Russia. There will always be a 1% wherever you go on earth. It is human nature the same that you try to dismiss. If we distributed all the wealth in the world equally right now, how long before there will be the 1% again? I say 150 years as my guess, but do this mental exercise and you can see that to stay true to the cause the cause must be reasonable. Let’s stay focused on crony capitalist, corrupt labor unions, and bankrupt politicians. P.S. Get to work.” The idea that Elliot presents in his paper that we could transcend ‘jobs’ as presently conceived – this does not necessarily mean people don’t work. Again, this is a rather archaic distinction just as is the position that we will always have social hierarchies (i.e., the ‘1%’ will always govern the majority). Such assertions are the product of a (false) universalisation: i.e., a perception of human nature that is largely conditioned within the context of ‘(bad) society’, which is more often than not defined in the context of the history of capitalism and genesis of ‘bourgeois subjectivity.

The common misconception here, moreover, is rooted in an ideological view of society and of history. While the basic income law would help free people from horrible jobs, oppressive labour cycles, and unhealthy working conditions – to be free from “jobs” doesn’t mean to be free from work, from creation, from one’s own existential projects, from partaking in social enterprise, and contributing toward society.

It often seems that what people criticise about the basic income law is actually criticism of the modern political-economy.

Let us consider the following comment for example:

– “I just work to gain financial security so I can do the things I want to (and not have to work once I’ve accumulated enough claim checks). I’m reasonably sure that many Black Diamond employees (one of the makers of rock climbing gear I use to safely climb said rocks) would likely feel the same way. Those assumptions established, how is it that my needs, or Black Diamond’s needs, will be met? If I’ve no need to work, others will go without my skills in computer networking. If Black Diamond employees have no need to work, I will go without their engineering and manufacturing skills, resulting in me not having access to their goods that I rely on for my primary hobby.”

The question here is a perfect example of my point around how animosity toward the basic income law has not so much to do with the basic income law itself, but with what might an alternative political-economy look like. I claim, moreover, that the question actually being encircled here cannot be answered by the basic income law itself, because that’s not the purpose of said law. In order to answer the above question, we would need to look to alternative economic systems presently being formulated, such as Worker Self-Directed Enterprises (WSDE’s), Economic Democracy, Participatory Economics, and so on.

In an Economic Democracy or Participatory Economic system, one would still hypothetically have “Black Diamond” as a company, wherein people interested in rock climbing come together to produce rock climbing gear as a democratic (i.e., non-hierarchical, non-dominant, etc.) workers co-op. People interested in making honey or video games or tools or windows or medical equipment or whatever would likely do the same. The difference is that the motivation is no longer for profit, but typically for social advancement and enterprise. While Economic Democracy would still be orientated toward profit, on my own formulations it would not be driven toward ‘excess profit’. Rather it would be driven on the basis of social enterprise, which happens to utilise a limited concept of ‘profit’ to maintain its market-system.

If we allowed ourselves to be idealists for just a moment, one could argue that an alternative society principled around a freedom from jobs would be even more creative, more open to creation and social enterprise and socially meaningful work – and all within a non-coercive, non-dominant social context. There are lots of examples – even today in the midst of an extremely alienated social world – of people carving out alternative spaces and labour-practices that evidence the basics for an alternative political-economy that’s creative, inspiring and more humane than ever before. These alternatives range from agricultural communities to alternative education facilities, arts councils or groups, and political networks, many of which I’ve discussed in the past or intend to in the future.

To claim, as the above commenter posits, that ‘many things aren’t readily accomplished without the use of bureaucracy’ is, to be blunt, a false assertion. We can say it is false when so much evidence points to the contrary. In my own studies on alternatives, which I write about frequently, I have seen nothing that honestly justifies this claim in the same way that I’ve observed nothing that honestly justifies the need for social coercion and hierarchy.

Further, one’s passion for rock climbing doesn’t need to be seen as a “luxury” – as though such activities and interests are limited purely to one’s ‘leisure time’ as presently designated in contemporary capitalism. To move beyond capitalism doesn’t mean to move back to the Stone Age or to simply live for basic necessities –this would defeat the notion of ‘social historical progress’ that, in truth, motivates and inspires the most basic critique of the system of capital and formulation of alternatives. I’d like to think that in an alternative economic circumstance people would get to pursue, advance and contribute to their interests more than they do now.”

1 Comment Towards a Basic Income Law

  1. AvatarEd Dolan

    You write ” it is completely incongruous with contemporary capitalist society because, in essence, the basic income law is social-based and not capital-based.”

    I disagree. Support for a universal basic income is strong among market-oriented non-Marxist progressives, conservatives, and libertarians. For some of their perspectives on a UBI check out and others in the series

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