A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist

Introduction

Simran Dhunna and David Bush have written an article that criticizes moves towards a universal basic income (see https://springmag.ca/against-the-market-we-can-do-better-than-basic-income).

The Aim or Goal of Their Intervention

The first question to ask is: What is the aim or goal of their intervention? What are they seeking to achieve?

They write:

But those committed to principled class struggle should strive for the decommodification of public services. Compared with universal basic income, universal basic services cost less, meaningfully improve the material realities of working class and oppressed people, and affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure. That’s our bread and butter.

They seek to achieve three things, it seems:

  1. “meaningfully improve the material realities of working-class and oppressed people”
  2. affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure
  3. achieve points 1 ad 2 at minimal cost.

In this post, I will critically look at the first point.

In another post, I will look at the second point, and in a final post I will address the issue of costs–and how they create a strawman of a minimal basic income.

Meaningfully Improving the Material Realities of Working-Class and Oppressed People

Part of the title of their article claims that they are against the market–apparently against the market providing certain services; their alternative is having the government provide those services (hence the term “decommodification”–the conversion of services from services or commodities that are purchased on the market via money to the offering of such services without the direct mediation of money). This idea of supporting the working class by means of state services rather than through the capitalist market is supposed to “meaningfully improve the material realities of working-class and oppressed people.”

They write:

At the cost of $29 billion annually, we could have free transit in major cities ($10 billion), clean drinking water for every First Nation ($4.5 billion), eliminate tuition fees at all universities ($11 billion), and end homelessness ($4.5 billion). If we are spending $177 billion dollars a year (the cost of a negative income tax model to raise people to $21,810), we could have all of the above plus a universal pharmacare program, universal childcare, universal dental care, and begin to implement a robust public housing policy.  

It may not appear that they are social democrats since they evidently state that class struggle from below will be necessary to realize the provision of such services:

But those committed to principled class struggle should strive for the decommodification of public services.

The state is supposed to be forced to provide such services through class struggle (I will address the adequacy of the term “decommodification” later in this post). Now, I certainly agree with the need to engage in class struggle in order to provide as many services as possible without the direct mediation of the market. The realization of free tuition, for example, would have saved me the need to work for an employer in order to pay off students loans that I had needed three times in my adult life. Struggles to achieve such services furnished by the state rather than directly through the market should therefore be supported.

One of the questions to be asked is: What is the purpose or aim of shift from the provision of services provided by the market to the provision of services provided by the state or public services? Is it to move towards the elimination of the power of employers as a class? Towards the elimination of corresponding oppressive and exploitation structures at work in the private sector (see for example a general outline of such oppressive and exploitative structures in Employers as Dictators, Part One)? Towards the elimination of oppressive structures of the government as a public power (the oppressive structures of the government in relation to citizens and residents internally and military structures externally)? Towards the oppressive and exploitative relations of the government as an employer? (See the post referenced above as well as The Money Circuit of Capital). It would seem not.

Rather, the main aim is to “meaningfully improve the material realities of working-class and oppressed people” in order, ultimately, to eliminate “the level of poverty and inequality”–presumably measured according to the level of income. The focus is on the elimination of poverty and inequality (defined according to level of income):

Some of the appeal of UBI comes from the wishful idea that it can solve all of our problems at once, lifting people out of poverty and making education and public services accessible. But the basic costs show that UBI is, by any measure, a terrible use of resources to address inequality and poverty. As the CCPA’s David MacDonald noted in his study, the $29 billion spent on such a UBI scheme would achieve — at best — less than a 2 percent reduction in the poverty rate, which would “be quite wasteful” when considering the amount of money spent.

The first aim of the authors, then, is limited to an enhanced welfare state–something like what John Cartwright, president of Toronto and York Labour District Council, called for (see my critique in The Limitations of Social-Democracy in the Face of the Coronavirus). Mr. Cartwright wrote:

Reinvestment in our public services and social safety net is the right thing to do – not only now, during COVID-19, but permanently in Canadian society.

The Feasibility of Their Goal

Are such reforms feasible? There is evidence that their proposals could indeed be achievable within the existing social structure and social relations, and such reforms should be supported–all the while criticizing any attempt to limit the class struggle to such goals.

I have pointed out in another post how free transit has already been implemented in various capitalist countries (see What’s Left, Toronto? Part Four). Free tuition at the undergraduate level is available in Germany.

Homelessness has been addressed without changing the basic class structure by combining the aim of eliminating it with other measures that facilitate achieving that aim. In the northern Italian city of Trieste, for example, homelessness was reduced by providing supports for those with mental health problems since around half of those homeless have mental health issues (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/dec/10/homelessness-is-not-inevitable-and-can-be-solved-these-cities-show-us-how). Helsinki, the capital of Finland, by contrast, addressed the issue of homelessness by providing access to housing while providing other social supports through the Housing First program. From https://borgenproject.org/homelessness-in-helsinki/:

In Helsinki, homelessness decreased to 35 percent, with 1,345 people now off the streets. Rough sleeping is almost non-existent, and there is only one 50-bed night shelter remaining. This is good news for street sleepers who have endured deadly winter temperatures as low as -7C° (19F°). “If you’re sleeping outside [in the middle of winter], you might die,” said Thomas Salmi, a tenant at a housing facility in Helsinki. Deputy Mayor Sanna Vesikansa, who witnessed a large number of homeless people in Helsinki as a child, said, “We hardly have that any more [sic]. Street sleeping is very rare now.”

Since 2008, Housing First has spent over 250 million euros in creating new homes and hiring staff. Meanwhile, Helsinki has seen savings upward of 15,000 euros a year in emergency healthcare, social services and the justice system. In 2018, some tenants moved out of Rukilla, able to live independent lives. The benefits outweigh the cost.

Eradicating homelessness in Helsinki is far from complete. However, the major reduction in long-term homelessness must be applauded. Helsinki has proven when authorities are fully committed, positive change can occur.

There is therefore room for reform in various social domains within societies dominated by the class of employers. Such reforms undoubtedly improve the lives of some of the workers and community members, and as a consequence they should be praised and fought for.

Limitations of Their Goal

I fail to see anything wrong with aiming to improve the material well being of workers and oppressed peoples. The problem arises when the advocates of such proposals simultaneously limit the goals of workers and oppressed peoples by ignoring their problems or by criticizing alternative proposals that address such problems.

It is my contention that their opposition to basic income does just that: it limits the aspirations of workers and oppressed peoples to a society that continues to be dominated by a class of employers despite calls for class struggle and material well-being. They oppose a policy of basic income in part because it might free workers from the need to work for an employer–which they implicitly identify falsely with the need to work:

Basic income would have the effect of distancing workers’ labour from their wages. Instead of being paid directly for their work, part of the wage of workers would come from their own tax dollars in the form of basic income. 

Dhunna and Bush object to aiming for the goal of “distancing workers labour from their wages.” There is, however, a tradition of aiming for the goal of separating or distancing labour from the needs of workers and others.

Distancing workers’ labour from their wages” is itself a worthy socialist goal. From Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly- only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

By focusing mainly on consumption, income level, the standard of living and poverty rates as defined by the level of income, Dhunnah’s and Bush’s goal, ultimately, is social democratic despite the reference to class struggle; many social democrats in the past have referred to class struggle without really aiming for the abolition of the power of the class of employer nor the abolition of classes–such as the German Social Democratic Party in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three).

From Moritz Muller (2019), “Of (Anti-)Capitalism, Countermovements, and Social-democratic Bedtime Stories. A Review of Recent Literature on Polanyi,” pages 135-148, Culture, Practice & Europeanization, Volume 4, Number 1, page 136:

social democracy’s concept of socialism centers around the idea that private ownership should be replaced by public and/or cooperative ownership, together with the state’s acceptance of its role as the responsible institution for social welfare.

Dhunna and Bush, like Cartwright, only look, one-sidedly, at the problem since their focus is on poverty rates, standard of living (defined by consumption) and level of income. Their implied emphasis on distribution and consumption as opposed to production and employment fails to consider that production, distribution and consumption are interrelated since human beings produce their own social lives. Distribution and consumption are two aspects of this process, but they are part of a process of socially reproducing our live through the use of means of production (machines, buildings, tools, land, raw material, auxiliary material and so forth). There is no reference to employers and their power at work in their article at all, however.

Indeed, their focus is exclusively on issues of distribution of income and consumption; they neglect to include in the concept of “the Material Realities of Working-Class and Oppressed People” material interests of workers in controlling their own lives as they produce those lives over time. The “material realities” or workers include being oppressed and being exploited–which they never address (see for example The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One and The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation).

Their article reflects Marx’s characterization of the liberal reformist John Stuart Mill. From Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, page 87:

The aim is, rather, to present production – see e.g. Mill – as distinct from distribution etc., as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded.

Here is what the reformist John Stuart Mill wrote (quoted from Judith Janoska, Martin Bondeli, Konrad Kindle and Marc Hofer, page 104, The Chapter on Method of Karl Marx: An Historical and Systematic Commentary (in German, but the quote is in English):

The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths [they cannot be changed–they are natural and eternal]. There is nothing optional or arbitrary in them. … It is not so with the Distribution of wealth. That is a matter of human institutions solely.

I have criticized the definition of poverty mainly according to level of income (the poverty rate) (and the corresponding standard of living) in another post since the definition fails to capture the continuing lack of freedom characteristic of work relations characterized by a market for workers (see “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)). I also criticized, in two other posts, Mr Bush’s inconsistent views (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part One and Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two). At least in his earlier writing, he tried to link production to distribution (though inadequately). Now he has abandoned all pretense of being concerned about the working lives of worker–despite the rhetoric of “class struggle.”

The push for a shift of many services from the private sector to the public sector will meet substantial opposition when it begins to affect the market for workers since the market for workers is a basic condition for the continued power and existence of employers as a class. Of course, the fact that there will be determined resistance and violence by employers and the government to ensure a ready supply of workers does not mean that such a policy should not be pursued. The authors do indeed imply that class struggle will be necessary to achieve their limited aims, but their form of class struggle works well within the limits of the continued existence of the class power of employers. However ironic it may sound, their form of class struggle is a reformist class struggle. Its aim is not the abolition of classes and therefore the class struggle, but rather the permanence of class struggle.

Their aim, in other words, is to humanize the class power of employers through class struggle rather than abolishing that class power. Their concept of socialism is really an enhanced welfare state–not the abolition of the class power of employers.

Struggles for an Expansion of Public Services and Socialism

There is no necessary connection between struggles for the expansion of free public services (free in terms of the consumer of such services not having to pay personally for such services and everyone having access to such services) and socialism. Should socialists, though, ignore such struggles? Of course not. The expansion of free public services can indeed enhance the life of workers and oppressed peoples, and it can, perhaps, permit a great possibility for the creation of a socialist society (I say perhaps for all the reasons above–the expansion of free public services often becomes a substitute for the creation of a socialist society–a society without the existence of a class of employers).

Socialists should support the expansion of free public services while simultaneously criticizing the limitations of such proposals. As Daniel Ankarloo (2009) writes, “The Swedish Welfare Model: A Road Ahead? A Road to Socialism? Or a Dead End?,” Rethinking Marxism Conference:

the first presupposition for the Left of coming out of this impasse in welfare policies is the abandonment of ‘the social policy road to socialism’ [the kind of socialism advocated by Dhunna and Bush]. And in its place embrace the seeming paradox – that even if the welfare state model in Sweden is not socialism, not even a road to socialism, as a precondition for socialism, it is vital to fight for.

Socialists must strive to integrate the present and future rather than separating them–which is typical of both social democrats and the extreme left:

as regards the welfare state, the Left in Sweden has for the most part … been unable to deal adequately with the relation of ‘welfare’ to socialism. Some in the Left – having found out that ‘welfare’ is not socialism – have denounced previous welfare achievements and current popular welfare struggles in Sweden altogether. This has left the playing field open for social democrats to
lead the movement on issues of ‘welfare’ and subsequently ‘the social policy road to
socialism’ has largely remained unchallenged. More prevalent, however, has been to try to
overcome this impasse by balancing the ‘reformist’ policies of ‘welfare’ with the
‘revolutionary’ goal of ‘socialism’ as the overthrow of capitalist relations.

Unfortunately within the Swedish Left this has almost exclusively led to a de-habilitating
gap between theory and practice, between today and tomorrow. Just as historical social
democracy in Sweden in the 1940s tried to overcome its contradictions between the Marxian
vision of socialism and ‘Functional Socialism’, … by ‘pushing socialism ahead in time’, the Left in Sweden has inherited the same problematic. Hence, for this Left, socialism is always something that happens ‘in the future’ or ‘somewhere else’ – but it is never something existing in Sweden here and now. From this perspective, at best, all we can do is to support the ‘reformist’ Swedish welfare
model, in wait for socialism. In theory the Left has adhered to ‘revolutionary socialism’, but
since this is never an immediate presence, and only happens ‘tomorrow’, in practice one is at
best ‘reformist’ in welfare issues, i.e. exponents of ‘the social policy road to socialism’.

But, the challenge of the Left today is to break with ‘the social policy road to socialism’,
with the realization that although the Swedish welfare model is not socialism, not even a road
to socialism, there is indeed an alternative way to connect welfare struggles to socialism.

We have seen the issue of how the social-democratic or reformist left break the link between the present and future before (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three and Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part Five: More Philosophical Considerations).

Fighting for welfare reforms that enhance the immediate lives of workers and oppressed peoples–the “bread and butter issues” to which Dhunna and Bush refer–while striving for socialism in the present–this is what is needed (and this is what this blog is for).

Returning to the issue of basic income–there is no reason for socialists to see welfare reforms that enhance the lives of workers and oppressed peoples and the proposal for a robust basic income as mutually exclusive; we should struggle for both. However, the struggle for a robust basic income is more fundamental since it has greater potentiality for questioning the power of employers as a class at work than the distributional struggles over what is produced.

Both a robust basic income and the expansion of public services, however, are means to the end of the creation of a socialist society and not ends in themselves.

Conclusion

Dhunna and Bush’s first aim–to “meaningfully improve the material realities of working class and oppressed people”–sounds both practical and radical. It is actually conservative since its focus is entirely on distributional struggles rather than struggles over control of working conditions at both the micro and macro levels. Indeed, since this is their primary goal, they practically define a socialist society as an enhanced welfare state–capitalism with a more human face.

By focusing on distributional struggles, they imply, without ever saying it, that wider struggles to control working conditions are impractical and utopian. They, the realists, know what “bread and butter issues” are relevant for the working class, and such “bread and butter issues” are purely distributional struggles. Such a stance is conservative–its aim is not to end class rule, but to perpetuate it–though in a more humanized form than at present.

So much for Dhunna’s and Bush’s first aim. In a second post, I will address the second aim, probably more briefly–the aim of affirming the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure.

The issue of basic income and costs and how Dhunna and Bush present mainly a straw basic income model, however, will be addressed only in the last post of this series.

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