Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part One


I am dividing the post into two parts, with the first part devoted to more concrete concerns, and the second part to more theoretical concerns.

David Bush, in an April 26, 2017 article published on the Socialist Project website (Basic Income and the Left: The Political and Economic Problems), argues that the proposal for a basic income is unrealistic in terms of capitalist relations. Like the later pamphlet by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) (Basic Income in the Neoliberal Age) (Toronto: 2017), he does not consider the basic income proposal strategically worthwhile since it cannot be realized within capitalist relations.

As I argued in an earlier post (Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance), proposing a basic income that contradicts what even OCAP recognizes is economic coercion is a strategy that calls into question the power of employers as a class and hence economic coercion. David Bush, though, considers that the debate among the left does not take “material reality” into account. He says the following:

Instead of a concrete debate about the economic and political aspects of BI, it is discussed as an ideal separated from the messy business of material reality.

Mr. Bush is going to give the idealist left a lesson in the “messy business of material reality.” What is material reality for Mr. Bush?

Mr. Bush obviously believes that he is a realist–he can deal with “the messy business of material reality”–whereas the radical left are idealists. He says the following:

The strategy of those advocating BI centres on crafting policies in a vacuum and hoping governments enact them.

This romantic idealism has stymied serious analysis of the policy from the Left. Taking a step back and looking at the economic and political logic of BI, I hope to show that however well-meaning the policy is, it is economically flawed and a politically dangerous demand for the Left to adopt.

Mr. Bush is a grass roots organizer and practitioner, and because of this he believes that he has a better grasp of the “messy business of material reality”–whereas the radical left, romantic idealists that they are, are unrealistic.

Let us now look at the beginning of this “serious analysis of the policy from the Left.” But just a point: Some who advocate a basic income have no illusion that governments in their present structure will institute a policy that will eliminate economic coercion; such governments, rather, thrive on economic coercion and will not institute a policy that will undercut their own existence.

Costing Basic Income–An Employer Approach

The title of Mr. Bush’s next section is “Costing BI.”

Mr. Bush then refers to three models of basic income. He then makes the following astounding assertion:

The first question we should ask is, what are the basic costs of these models? Looking at Ontario, Michal Rozworski has pointed out the cost of the universal model, even when set at a low rate, is exorbitant.

This is a good example of Mr. Bush’s way of dealing with the “messy business of material reality.” We are not to question the fact of costs; we are to assume that costs are somehow sacred and propose policies only on the basis of costs within the structure of the power of the employers as a class. Mr. Bush’s “first question” assumes that we are to measure a policy on the basis of money–this is his way of dealing with the “messy business of material reality.”

In other words, Mr. Bush does not inquire into why things in our society have a price and in fact why human beings have a price–they simply do. We are then supposed to be “realistic” by accepting this “fact” (and it is a fact) rather than investigating the conditions and implications of this fact for human life and welfare. See The Money Circuit of Capital for the social implications of measuring human beings and our life process in term of money (costs). I will further criticize this approach in the next section.

This jump into costs is related to the inadequacy of Mr. Bush’s next section (entitled The BI and the Logic of Capitalism). The inadequacy of this section will be addressed in the subsequent post (part two).

However, in relation to  OCAP’s pamphlet on basic income, Mr. Bush’s analysis is inferior: at least OCAP managed to express part of the truth of the fact of measuring human life and human welfare in terms of “costs.” In the OCAP pamphlet, it is written:  “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (page 6). If economic coercion is characteristic of the job market, then the left should adopt a policy that short-circuits this economic coercion–such as a radical basic income policy (see an earlier post,  A Radical Basic Income as a Radical Reform).

By treating human beings as “costs” (purchasable with money), Mr. Bush assumes that economic coercion is inevitable without connecting the dots. By nonchalantly accepting costs as a fact of life and a so-called necessary part of the world–part of the “messy business of material reality” (actually part of the messy business of capitalist reality), Mr. Bush becomes an ideologue of employers without realizing it.

Mr. Bush continues this illogic of treating human beings as costs; the reader will be spared any further reference to this “messy business of material reality.”

In the subsequent post, I will pursue Mr. Bush’s illogic by looking at his next section, entitled “The BI [Basic Income] and the Logic of Capitalism.” It will be shown that Mr. Bush fails to connect up treating people as costs with what he thinks is Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value.

However, I will not wait until the next post to expose Mr. Bush’s real intent.

He gives his own position away when he states the following:

Rather than raising the rates for social assistance, increasing the minimum wage or spending more on social services the government is touting its BI experiment.

These reforms are what Mr, Bush is really after. The basic income experiment as proposed by the Liberal government and even right-wing parties and governments would interfere with these reforms. The real alternative is “raising the rates for social assistance, increasing the minimum wage or spending more on social services.” These reforms are all–within the context of economic coercion and economic blackmail, are they not? There is nothing wrong with fighting for reforms–workers need to improve their lives, but why not improve their lives but not having any illusions about the fairness of such reforms? Why not propose some reforms that do definitely exceed the power of employers and the government to meet them? Mr. Bush is really a social democrat who wants social reform while assuming the eternal nature of the power of employers as a class.

Mr. Bush further gives himself away as a social reformist who accepts the inevitability of the power of employers as a class when he says:

The very same forces that make it difficult to win improvements in current social programs….

That is what Mr. Bush really calls dealing with the “messy business of material reality.” The only viable strategy is–improvements in social programs. Forget about eliminating the economic blackmail characteristic of the power of employers as a class. Forget about trying to develop policies and strategies that address the root of “material reality” characterized by economic coercion and economic blackmail. We need to fight–for social reforms only; everything else is idealistic nonsense. Such is the way in which Mr. Bush deals with the “messy business of material reality.”

Mr. Bush, like other social-democratic reformists, then refers to dignity for all without explaining how this is to be achieved within the context of the class power of employers:

Burying the idea of BI as a viable strategy to respond to inequalities and injustices of capitalism allows us to focus on strategies that can help us build the power we need to achieve economic justice and dignity for all.

Mr. Bush, like other social-reformist leftists, has no intention of really questioning the power of employers as a class. Social reform, and more social reform, and more social reform–that is all they have to offer.

Perhaps Mr. Bush can explain how “economic justice and dignity for all” is possible in conditions characterized by “economic coercion?” By the money circuit of capital? By treating human beings systematically and necessarily as means rather than ends?

I prefer the analysis of Tony Smith, in his book Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism: Marx and Normative Social Theory in the Twenty-First Century (Leiden: Brill, 2017, pages 342-343) to Mr. Bush’s reformist rhetoric:

The abolition of labour markets, that is, the abolition of wage labour as
a social form, would contribute greatly to overcoming the ‘bifurcation of the
political’. It is also required if we are to ever attain a world in which the [sic] ‘all persons are equal, so far as the importance of their basic interests are concerned’.3
To accomplish this, the production and distribution of goods and services could
be undertaken by worker co-operatives, with managers democratically elected
by, and accountable to, those over whom they exercise authority.

Smith refers specifically to a demand for a basic income that goes beyond anything that the class power of employers could satisfy (page 346):

It is not the mere presence of markets that establishes the alien power of
capital. What makes capitalist market societies so different from pre-capitalist
societies with markets is the society-wide compulsion to place the accumulation
of surplus value above all other ends. The democratising of decisions regarding
the levels and priorities of new investments, combined with full employment
and basic income guarantees that are not feasible in capitalism, removes the

Note that Smith does not limit the proposal to only a basic income that is not “feasible in capitalism.” Mr. Bush, by contrast, will always propose policies that are feasible within capitalism. This is his way of dealing with the “messy business of material reality.”

Rather than concluding on a purely negative note, however, it should be recognized that Mr. Bush at least should be commended in putting into writing and publicly his beliefs. How else can errors and hence corrections arise? Many of the social-democratic left here in Toronto (and I suspect elsewhere) hide behind their “practice” and are unwilling to come out publicly to expose their beliefs to criticism. Mr. Bush should be commended for having the courage for publicly declaring his beliefs.

Given the inadequate nature of Mr. Bush’s views, he should modify his beliefs and thereby change his practice. If he (and other social reformers) should, however, persist in their dogmas, both theoretically and practically, then of course they should be thoroughly criticized.

In my next post, I will show that Mr. Bush, on the one hand, uses Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value for conservative purposes and, on the other, that he fails to connect Marx’s theory of “costs” to Marx’s theory of surplus value–a connection that has radical implications. Such implications, at the practical level, permit us “to focus on strategies that can help us build the power we need to achieve economic justice and dignity for all”–that really go beyond the class power of employers rather than the pseudo-radicalism offered by Mr. Bush’s “messy business of material reality.”



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