Basic Income, Public Ownership and the Radical Left in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Critique

In a couple of posts, I criticized John Clarke’s opposition to a particular form of basic income. Mr. Clarke is a former leader of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Mr. Clarke continues to oppose any alternative universal  basic income scheme (see  ‘Pandemic Basic Income’ Gets It Wrong). He has ignored my criticisms, of course. As I pointed out in one of the posts, his opposition then turns into a social-democratic or social-reformist criticism; he ignores entirely his own observation that capitalist society necessary involves economic coercion, which forces workers to work for employers. At the time, he offered no alternative solution–other than an implicit return to the welfare state of the earlier post-war era. In his new post, he does offer an apparent solution. Before looking at his proposed solution, let us briefly look at his analysis of the problem of universal basic income.

Rather predictably, this situation has led to a bit of an upsurge in calls for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). To the liberal and left thinkers who promote this idea, it naturally makes particular sense to put it into effect at a time such as this. Of course, the last thing I want to oppose is the idea of emergency payments to those without adequate income, as COVID-19 impacts our communities. However, the ‘pandemic basic income’ solution of simply distributing state payments to everyone ($1,000 a month has been suggested) puts into exceptionally clear focus the basic problem with UBI. In more normal times, the scheme represents an ill considered effort, as I’ve argued elsewhere, ‘…to make its peace with (the) neoliberal order and accept a commodified form of social provision.’ It doesn’t challenge low wage precarious work or the degrading and privatizing of the social infrastructure but asks only for a basic payment, paid out of general revenues, and it is taken on faith that the adequacy of this can somehow be assured.

Mr. Clarke still remains riveted to proposals for a basic income that remain well within limits acceptable to employers. However, what if a movement for a minimum basic income of $3000 per month per household member (or even more) emerged? Why limit such a movement to $1000 a month? A universal income that threatens the existence of the supply of workers on the market would not only “challenge low-wage precarious work” but would challenge in many instances the very employer-employee economic structure. Mr. Clarke simply implies through his silence that such a movement is not feasible.

What is his alternative proposal, or his alternative solution?

A fight for no bailouts without public ownership is the only approach that makes any sense if the current period is not to become the greatest free ride for the rich in history and a prelude to austerity on an unprecedented scale.

Mr. Clarke’s reference to a move towards “austerity on an unprecedented scale” is likely true if experience from the 2008 economic crisis is to be our guide. However, the idea that bailouts tied only to “public ownership” is a sufficient solution to the problems that workers and communities face. This reference to “public ownership” or nationalization is a staple of the social-democratic left. How does public ownership solve the problem of a society out of control by those who work and live in it?

The view that public ownership or nationalization by itself implies that  the state is a neutral instrument which merely needs to be captured by the left in order for social problems to be solved. I criticized this view in another post  (see The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two).

Public ownership certainly addresses some of the concerns of workers and communities–specifically, the need for certain services without having to pay money for them. However, as long as the general process of producing our lives is out of our control, public ownership is bound to result in distorted and inadequate satisfaction of our needs.

This call for public ownership as a solution to the problems that we currently face is also proposed by other social democrats. For example, a social-democratic organization–Rankandfile.ca (“Canadian Labour News and Analysis from a Critical Perspective”) Emily Leedham refers to Tony Leah (ex-worker at GM Oshawa), who calls for public ownership of the plant:

While many workers are encouraged by GM’s decision, Leah says Green Jobs Oshawa will continue to push for public ownership of the plant.

“If it’s under public ownership, then it can be the basis for expanding and becoming an important manufacturing centre that provides a security of supplies for future crises,” he explains.“That can’t happen if it’s left up to a corporation that’s always driven by maximizing their own profit.”

In one sense, public ownership can overcome some of the problems associated with the limitations of private capitalist employers: production need not directly be produced for profit. However, if it is not produced for profit, what of its inputs? Public ownership exists alongside private corporations in a world market, which is the main driver of our lives

Neither Mr. Clarke nor Mr. Leah discusses at all the limitations of public ownership. They do not discuss the nature of the modern state and how it, magically, is to enable us to control our own lives. Should we not be discussing the adequacy of the modern state and public ownership or nationalization to enable us to control our own lives rather than assuming that it satisfies our needs?

When we look at the modern government or state, we see a political organization designed to ensure the continued maintenance of a society characterized by classes, specifically, on the one hand, the class that owns and controls the means for us to produce our lives–buildings, factories, computers, raw materials and so forth–the class of employers–and, on the other, those who work for them, the class of workers. Of course, in the real world it is more complicated, but such complications should not blind us to the basic class structure.

Werner Bonefeld (2014) in his Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: On Subversion and Negative Reason, points out how the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel characterized both modern “civil society” or a society characterized by an antagonism of individuals and modern classes, and it was this specific antagonism that required the modern political form (pages 166-167):

Hegel conceived of bourgeois society as antagonistic in character. It was because of its antagonistic character that it required a political form. He develops the necessity of the state from the innate character of bourgeois society. … He then argues that the division of labour crystallizes ‘into systems, to one or another of which individuals are assigned – in other words, into class divisions’.

These divisions are antagonistic in character as the development of bourgeois society leads to its polarization into antagonistic class relations. According to Hegel, the polarization of society into two opposing classes is an innate necessity of bourgeois society. It belongs to its constituted dynamic. As he sees it, bourgeois society ‘results in the dependence and distress of the class tied to [work]’. Dependence and distress are also entailed in the ‘inability to feel and enjoy the broader freedoms and especially the intellectual benefits of civil society’. Moreover, the expanded reproduction of bourgeois society results ‘in the creation of a rabble of paupers’ and the ‘concentration of disproportionate wealth in a few hands’. What to do ‘when the masses begin to decline into poverty’ and start to rebel? He rejects redistribution of wealth as this ‘would violate the principle of civil society’. He also rejects what today is called a policy of full-employment as contrary to its logic. Rather than solving the problem, it would intensify it. Thus, ‘despite an excess in wealth, civil society is not rich enough, i.e. its own resources are insufficient to check excessive poverty and the creation of a penurious rabble’. There is no economic answer to the polarization of society. Economy does not provide order, nor does it curb the ‘rabble’. In fact, ‘the inner dialectic of civil society . . . drives it . . . to push beyond its own limits’. How to keep the class antagonism within the limits of its bourgeois form? For Hegel, there is only a political answer. He saw the state as the political force of bourgeois society and charged it with containing the class antagonism.

The modern form of government, or the modern form of state, emerges simultaneously with the emergence of the class of employers and the class of employees or workers. To treat this modern political institution or modern political form as somehow capable of realizing our class interests as workers seems far fetched–and yet this is what the social-democratic left do when they call for public ownership or nationalization without further ado.

Note how the call for public ownership or nationalization is often not linked to the critique of the general class relation between employers and employees. It is seen as a solution to specific problems–a stop-gap measure needed to address specific problems that workers face. In such a situation, there is no challenge to the general power of employers.

What of the more general call for the nationalization of industry, means of communication and the like? This often has reactionary overtones since there is then an alliance between workers and employers within one country against workers and employers in other countries (Bonefeld, page 151):

The notion, then, of a ‘national economy’ makes little sense; it is a regressive concept that lends itself, at best, to ideas of national developmental methods associated with the theory and practice of economic nationalism or, at worst, and as Chapter 9 sets out, to the reactionary ideas and practices of nationalism that in reaction to world-market disturbances assert the regressive equality of the imagined national community as the rallying cry against the external enemy within. Of course, protectionism remains a very powerful device to protect a ‘national economy’. However, the national economy is neither independent from the world market nor does it merely exist in relation to the world market. Rather, the national economy subsists in and through the world market. Protectionism, then, amounts to a ‘measure of defence within free trade’.

The more general view that somehow public ownership leads to control over our lives and thus to freedom simply ignores the nature of the modern state.

Mr. Clarke’s solution to the problem of the current crisis idealizes the modern state. A call for a radical basic income, on other hand, pushes beyond the existing society by challenging on the one hand the power of the class of employers over the class of workers. As workers become more independent of the class of employers, they will be required to change the nature of the modern state since the latter is, by its very nature, designed to ensure their continued real subordination to the power of employers while making it appear that workers freely subordinate themselves to that power (Bonefled, pages 176-177):

Liberalism therefore does not demand ‘weakness from the state, but only freedom for economic development under state protection’.58 In this sense, the state of the free economy does not really govern over society. Rather, it governs through the individuals. There is no freedom without the order of freedom, and order is not only a matter of law. It is also a matter of morality. The order of freedom entails surveillance as a means of freedom. The premise of government is that economic ‘security is only to be had at a price of constant watchfulness and adaptability and the preparedness of each individual to live courageously and put up with life’s insecurities’. There really is only one freedom, and that is the freedom of the self-responsible economic agents who adjust to the price signals with the will of and for enterprise, the one buying labour power with the expectation of making a profit, the other selling labour power as the dispossessed producer of surplus value, seeking to make ends meet. That is, poverty is neither unfreedom nor is it primarily material in character.60 Rather, poverty expresses a moral form of deprivation that is characterized by a poverty of aspiration, requiring state action to transform the sellers of labour power from quarrelsome proletarians into citizens of private property. As such a citizen the worker personifies labour power, which she takes to the market to trade for a wage. She appears thus as an entrepreneur of labour power, always ready to compete for a contract of employment. She thus perceives poverty as an incentive to do better, sees unemployment as an opportunity for employment, prices herself into jobs willingly and on her own initiative and takes her life into her own hands, gets on with things, lives courageously and puts up with life’s insecurities and risks. For the neoliberals, unemployed workers are fundamentally entrepreneurs of labour power in transit, ‘floating’ from one form of employment to another. However, the sociological condition of the worker is based on ‘the transformation of labour power into a commodity, which results from the separation of the worker from the means  of production’. There is thus a ‘natural tendency towards proletarianisation’, and government is therefore required to counteract this tendency, time and time again, to secure the order of freedom. Government over society is government in and through society to ensure ‘the will’ for enterprise and labour market competition, integrating the free labourer into the capitalist relations of ‘coined freedom’ as a willing employer of labour power.

By labour power is meant what the worker sells to the employer. Labour power is what workers sell to employers, not their labour. Labour is what workers do when they work, and it is already controlled by employers when workers work.

Proletarianization here means the formation of workers into organized opposition to the class of employers (in other contexts it has a different meaning). The modern state not only attempts to monopolize the physical forms of violence (police, courts, prisons, military) but also attempts to forge the hearts and minds of workers so that they accept their situation as “entrepreneurs” or vendors of their labour power. In other words, it indoctrinates workers and their children into accepting their unfree status as somehow free.

Mr. Clarke’s assumption that public ownership, then, is a solution to the current crisis is conservative. It does not really address the class nature of modern society nor the class nature of the modern state. A drive for

Such is the nature of the social-democratic or social-reformist left.

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