Basic Income as A Radical Reform That Points Beyond Capitalism and Towards Socialism

This is a continuation of a previous post (see 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), which critically analyses Simran Dhunna’s and David Bush’s article that criticizes moves towards a universal basic income (see https://springmag.ca/against-the-market-we-can-do-better-than-basic-income).

In previous posts on this topic, I have mainly focused on a negative critique of Dhunna and Bush’s views on basic income.

This post will look at proposals for a more robust form of basic income–a form that could begin to challenge the power of employers as a class. In other words, rather than engaging in a negative critique of the social-democratic critique of basic income, I will look at basic income from a positive point of view. In future posts in this series, I will, however, continue with the negative critique.

The main point is that a radical proposal for universal basic income can have two distinct aims: one aim may be to realize such a proposal within the confines of the class power of employers. Another aim–the one that will be discussed in this post–is to use a radical proposal for universal basic income to push beyond a society dominated by a class of employers and the associated economic, political and social structures and relations.

Of course, a universal basic income that questions the very existence of a market for workers and the existence of a class of employers would meet with organized opposition from the class of employers. And? Dhunna and Bush do not even address this issue, but assume it away–because their aim is not to question the premises of a society characterized by the class power of employers and the economic, political and social structures that are associated with such class power.

A generous UBI would undoubtedly be robust. It would undoubtedly also be ambitious, as David Calnitsky (Fall 2018) points out. From “Does Basic Income Assume a Can Opener?” Catalyst, Volume 2, Issue 3, no page number):

It is true that the policy is incredibly ambitious, but ambitious thinking about transforming the world is at the core of the socialist project, and basic income would not be exciting if it wasn’t so ambitious.

It is necessary to distinguish, though, between a policy of basic income that aims to be as consistent with a society based on the power of employers as a class and a policy that aims to question the power and legitimacy of the class of employers.

Any socialist policy should involve a springboard for providing, on the one hand, a critique of the present class power of employers and, on the other, a vision of an alternative kind of society.

The strawman approach of Dhunna and Bush to basic income (which I will outline in another post in this series) does not permit such a springboard. Their strawman approach is countered by Bryant Sculos, in his article (2018), “Socialism & Universal Basic Income,” Class, Race and Corporate Power: Volume 6, Issue 1 , Article 9 (no page number): [What Sculos calls “thick” I call “robust” since Dhunna and Bush use that term]”:

My point here will be to provide reasons for why socialists should support a thick conception of UBI as a kind of radical reform from within capitalism, as part of a broader left agenda. …

First, it is quite true that not all UBI programs would be worth supporting. Any UBI program
that would have the likelihood of leaving the poor and vulnerable worse off should certainly
be opposed by any socialist or progressive. This kind of welfare-state replacement UBI is the
kind that white supremacist and conservative thought-leader Charles Murray and other
libertarians often support. However, simply because not all UBI programs are worth
supporting, does not mean that there are not thick or expansive conceptions of UBI that
absolutely are. An example of a conception of UBI that socialists should support would be
one that is—as the acronym requires—universal and also set at or above subsistence. This
means that all people, regardless of their ability or willingness to work, would at least be
much more likely to live a life without lacking any fundamental necessities.

Why cannot workers organize and create a movement for the establishment of a level of basic income that ultimately questions the premise or assumption of the permanent existence of a market for workers and the existence of a class of employers?

There are policies that can indeed be realized through modifications of the economic and political structures and relations of capitalism–and there are policies that challenge such economic and political structures and relations. A movement towards the establishment of a robust basic income could do just that. Furthermore, as I stated in an earlier post, a social movement for basic income could complement existing public services and not abolish them; they are not mutually exclusive.

Some, such as Tony Smith, may argue that an adequate basic income is incompatible with capitalist relations and therefore, presumably, should not be considered–but how we are going to get from the present class society to a challenge to that society remains unspecified. From Tony Smith, Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account (2006. Boston: Brill), pages 269-270:

Another sort of contradiction arises when cosmopolitan theorists call for proposals that are effectively ruled out by the social relations defining the model they defend. Measures designed to provide high levels of basic income and meaningful ‘access avenues’ to industrial and financial decision-making throughout the global economy are ultimately incompatible with the capital/wage labor relation that remains an essential feature of the democratic cosmopolitan model [my emphasis]. The reproduction of this relation requires that those who do not have access to capital continue to see entering into wage contracts as their best available option. This implies that social assistance must be quite limited, since few will choose to sell their labour power for the low wages most workers in the global economy are offered if acceptable alternatives were available. The limited level of basic income compatible with capitalist property relations is unlikely to provide the material conditions for effective exercises of autonomy to anything approaching the extent required by the precepts of cosmopolitan democratic theory.

Although Smith cannot be accused of not providing proposals for moving from the present to the future (see for example How to Aim for Socialism Without Aiming for It, or The Nature of the Social-Democratic or Social-Reformist Left), his proposals still remain less concrete than is necessary to begin to move in the direction that he proposes.

There are those, of course, who propose a minimal basic income that would not challenge the basic premise of an extremely dependent class of workers on not just the class of employers but even specific employers; such a minimal basic income has nothing to do with a socialist proposal for a robust basic income.

It is precisely because a robust basic income begins to question the link between living and having to work for any particular employer that it is potentially a transitional demand that can form a link between the present society dominated by a class of employers and a future society not only without employers but without classes. .

Radicals who reject a basic income as a radical reform are often left with nothing concrete to propose in moving from the present to the future, as David Zeglen (2018) argues, in “Basic Income as Ideology from Below,” Lateral, Issue 7.2, (no page number):

After his demolition of the impossible economics behind universal basic income, Zamora concludes
that we should “reconnect with the postwar period’s emancipatory heritage,” while
Gourevitch and Stanczyk similarly finish their piece arguing that socialists need to “build a
new working-class consciousness.” These seem like obvious points that socialists can
broadly agree upon and yet there is no clear rhetorical strategy or narrative for how to
accomplish this within a political organization. Indeed, the question boils down to a
double bind regarding the state’s position in relation to basic income: what kind of
narrative can encapsulate both the necessity for a demand for a basic income from the
capitalist state, while acknowledging the realities of the limitations of the capitalist state
to offer a universal basic income, thus necessitating the historical negation of the said
state?

The proposal for a robust basic income would, of course, not free the working class from the class of employers. I have argued in a couple of other posts that a worker in a society dominated by a class of employers works for a particular employer (workers generally are conscious of this, of course) as well as for the class of employers (workers are more or less conscious of this).

A robust basic income would likely increase the freedom of workers to move from one particular employer to another particular employer. James Hickson (2020) recognizes this (although he disagrees with such a proposal, on such grounds as the threat of capital flight due to the level of taxation needed to fund a robust basic income, for example). From A Political Theory of Precarious Work. Ph. D. dissertation, pages 127-128:

In this respect, the introduction of a basic income could be particularly impactful for precarious workers. The provision of a basic income would disarm the extraordinary discretionary power that employers hold over precarious workers: the power to demand extra work, to withhold work, and to deny work altogether without reference to the interests of the individual worker. For example, the zero-hours contract worker would have less to fear from a week without any shifts from their employer if they know they can fall back on a guaranteed income paid as right by the state. Meanwhile, the temporary agency worker in the Amazon fulfilment centre may feel less inclined to bend over backwards to meet the company’s ever-more intense performance targets when they know they can walk away from the job and still have access to an income. The effects of their precarious employment would be mitigated by an alternative source of economic security that is independent from work. when they know they can walk away from the job and still have access to an income. The effects of their precarious employment would be mitigated by an alternative source of economic security that is independent from work.

To finance a robust basic income, workers and employers would have to be taxed–and that presupposes the continued existence of a class of employers; there would still be social forces that would oblige workers as a class to work for the class of employers. A proposal for a robust basic income would still need to be linked to an explicit program for freeing workers from the power of the class of employers and not from the power of a limited group of employers

That the class of employers would try to take measures that would undermine increased freedom of workers from particular employers and from power of employers as a class goes without saying, and any socialist movement that aims to abolish the power of the class of employers would have to take measures that would need to prevent the class of employers from undermining a socialist movement. (I ignore Hickson’s further objections and his proposed alternative solution of what he calls a “republican political program” since it it parallels Dhunna’s and Bush’s social-democratic proposals for an enhanced regulatory welfare state–and not the abolition of class relations).

Indeed, the proposal for a robust basic income may be similar to proposals and measures taken by the Paris Commune in 1871. (The Paris Commune arose when French army was defeated by the Prussian army; the French representatives of the class of employers, such as Adolphe Thiers, wanted to disarm Parisian workers, but the Parisian workers initially repulsed such efforts. A civil war ensued, in which thousands of Parisian workers were massacred and many others were imprisoned or exiled.) From Monty Johnstone (1971) The Paris Commune and Marx’s Conception of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, The Massachusetts Review (pages 447-462), Volume 12, Number 3), page 451:

This placing of “the unconscious tendencies of the Commune … to its credit as more or less conscious plans” was in Engels’ view “justified and even necessary under the circumstances.” In
doing so, Marx was anticipating the socialist measures that his class analysis of society (as well as his knowledge of the socialist trends and demands in the Paris labour movement) led him to expect sooner or later from a workers’ government. “The political rule of the producer cannot coexist with the perpetuation of his social slavery,” he wrote in the Address. Such a concept was nothing new for Marx: it belonged to the heart of his dialectic of social development. Already in 1844, in The Holy Family, he and Engels had written: “The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the
proletariat at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.” In the first draft of The Civil War he wrote: “The Commune does not (do) away with the class struggles, through which the working classes strive for the abolition of all classes . . . but it affords the rational medium in which the class struggle can run through its different phases in the most rational and humane way.”

Just as the Commune was a political “rational medium in which class struggle can run through its different phases in the most rational and humane way,” so too is the policy of a robust basic income one of the rational forms through which the different phases of the class struggle can develop in the most rational and humane way.

Formulated another way, the proposal of a robust basic income could lead, given the economic and political situation of the working class as a class, to measures that would enable them to work out the conditions for their own self-emancipation, From Marc Mulholland (2009), Marx, the Proletariat, and the ‘Will to Socialism’,
Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory (pages 319-343) Volume 37, Issue #3, page 340:

Of course, a revolutionary situation promised a much deeper working out of the logic of class consciousness. Marx extrapolated the potential of working-class consciousness in the light of a brief revolutionary episode, the Paris Commune of 1871. He explicitly stated that the proletariat carries to power ‘no ready made utopias to introduce par ‘decret du peuple’. Class instinct instead realises itself as a drive towards the practical ‘co-operative production’ of workers which, when challenged by the countervailing logic of capital as expressed in ‘constant anarchy and periodical convulsions’, gropes towards horizontal and vertical collaboration in ‘co-operative societies’. This generates the desire to
‘regulate national production upon a common plan’: what Marx called ‘possible communism’. Even this, however, is only preparatory to the resolution of that philosophical conundrum that had first propelled Marx into politics: the estrangement of the individual from society.

Dhunna and Bush, however, do not even address the issue of ending a class society characterized by the domination of a class of employers, in association with the economic, political and social structures that reflect that domination.

There may be other policies that are superior to the policy of a basic income in initiating a movement towards the abolition of the class of employers and the associated economic, political and social structures–but then it would be necessary to indicate how and why they are superior in relation to the goal of abolishing the class power of employers and the associated economic, political and social power structures.

Dhunna and Bush, however, have different aims–social-democratic or social-reformist aims. They want a more humane capitalism–a refurbished welfare state.

Their critique of the proposal for a basic income is a social-democratic or social-reformist critique. In their critique, they fail to address the need to overcome the class power of employers.

Further posts in this series will critique Dhunna’s strawman approach to basic income; in other words, they create an easy (and distorted) target so that they can easily show its inadequacy.

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