An Inadequate Critique of a Radical Basic Income: The Case of the Toronto Radical John Clarke, Part Three: Basic Income

Introduction

In two earlier posts, I criticized the views of the  radical activist here in Toronto, John Clarke (see  Critique of the Limited Aim (Solution)–Decent Wages–of a Radical Social Democrat: The Case of the Toronto Radical, John Clarke: Part One and   Critique of a Limited Definition of the Problem: The Case of the Toronto Radical John Clarke, Part Two). In particular, I criticized his proposed solution or aim in the first post (decent wages) and his identification of the problem in the second post (unequal distribution of produced consumer commodities). I now address his criticism of the proposal of a basic income. 

Let me add that, in the second post, I added an addendum, in which Mr. Clarke proposed engaging in radical practice to replace capitalism (a.k.a., the class power of employers). Mr. Clarke continues to advocate for more radical solutions. Thus, he wrote on Facebook (May 3, 2022): 

The murder of Rosa Luxemburg by social democratic leaders points to something about reformism. If you think capitalism can be incrementally transformed, you need it to function well. This means, at a time of crisis, you have to be prepared to defend it against the very working class you claim your political project will liberate.

In time, the logic of the reformist approach produces representatives who dispense with any polite fictions of socialism in the cloudy future and whose loyalty to capitalism is beyond question. They then go about breaking strikes, imposing austerity, degrading the environment and dropping bombs on oppressed countries with every bit as much enthusiasm as any openly declared representative of the capitalist class.

The problem with the above is not what it states, but in what it omits. Before Mr. Clarke’s more explicit radical turn, he advocated such reformist policies as “decent wages” and a reformed welfare state (despite acknowledging that economic coercion formed a necessary aspect of a society characterized by the class power of employers). Indeed, as I wrote in another post: 

I have already criticized, briefly, his apparent recognition of economic coercion and his subsequent ignoring of this recognition in a pamphlet with several articles written by him (see  Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance  and “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)). I have, however, now come to the conclusion that Mr. Clarke recognizes the existence of economic coercion only in order to criticize neoliberalism and not the class power of employers and hence not capitalism as such. 

Mr. Clarke, if he has indeed taken a more radical turn, would do well to engage in critical inquiry into his former beliefs. He should also rethink the thrust of his criticism of basic income in light of his more explicit rejection of capitalism. Of course, if he comes to the conclusion that basic income should still be rejected, but has an alternative proposal that would link immediate needs of workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers with the long-term need to abolish the class power of employers and the associated economic, political and social structures, and he provides valid reasons for his rejection, I would agree with him. Basic income as a policy is really only a tool or means to the end of economic coercion, and if there are better alternatives that will link immediate and long-term needs, then I would support them and reject basic income. 

Let us turn to Mr. Clarke’s views on basic income–at least before his more radical turn.

Mr. Clarke’s Critique of Basic Income

Mr. Clarke has this to say about basic income (see his post, dated June 21, 2021 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r40D6fU760s&t=4s) (The following is practically verbatim):

Part 2: Basic Income

Those among the left who support basic income make a fundamental mistake in that they don’t take into account the necessity of economic coercion that was outlined above. They imagine that basic income has some magic quality that would make it exempt from the factors that constitute economic coercion and that would prevent basic income from being realized. Furthermore, they believe that existing income-support systems fail to meet people’s needs because of some design flaw; they believe that only if income-support systems could be reorganized in a better way, it would meet people’s needs. But that is not what is driving the process that is making them inadequate.

The left make an unwarranted assumption that basic income would be more adequate–that it is somehow going to meet people’s needs that existing programs do not. It will somehow be exempt from the limitations that other income-support programs are not.

Some among the left point to the pilot project of basic income instituted by the former Liberal government in Ontario. It is true that the project provided levels of income significantly higher than current social assistance levels, but to assume that such a project, if generalized throughout Ontario, would maintain such levels, is unwarranted.

Another unwarranted assumption is that basic income would be better because it would be universal. Those among the left who advance this view are filled with false hopes since no program of basic income actually being considered in the real world has universal scope; it will be targeted, with only some people qualifying.

It is also suggested that the stigma attached to existing income-support systems would be reduced if basic income were introduced and therefore would be more popular and it would be harder for governments to cut it. Mr. Clarke disagree with this. If a basic income were introduced, it would be attacked and questioned in exactly the same way as existing programs. In addition, popularity even if it existed would not save it. Public health-care programs have been under attack and faced massive austerity cutbacks despite being vital, necessary and popular.

Another suggestion is that basic income would be an unconditional benefit. In practice, that is unlikely to be the case. Mr. Clarke, on the other hand, does agree that existing income-support programs are bureaucratically intrusive. They are fused with elements of moral policing. And these things do indeed need to be challenged.

It has also been suggested that basic income will happen and will save us from the workless future based on robots. This view that we are on the cusp of an automated life is exaggerated, and the real situation is much more nuanced than that. On the other hand, Mr. Clarke does not deny that technological displacement is not a real issue. What he does question is that basic income is the magic solution to that problem. Capitalism does not function by allocating a certain adequate fund owned by billionaires in Silicon Valley so that people can receive an adequate standard of living. Since the industrial revolution, capitalists have used the introduction of new machinery to gain a competitive edge over their rivals, to displace workers and to create a greater climate of desperation and to try to drive down wages and that’s the fight that we are going to be in. We are going to have to fight in this situation as workers have always fought against technological displacement. We are going to have to fight for reduced hours of work. We are going to have to take up a whole series of important struggles.

It must be said that only under an irrational, profit-driven greedy system is this an issue. The idea that technological gains, which increase the productivity of human labour, should be something that we should be alarmed about, is confined to this system. Why should not those productive gains be used to benefit everyone? Why do we not take the machines away from the capitalists and use them to everyone’s advantage?

Mr. Clarke then refers to the various pilot projects on basic income because this is a big selling point for people who promote basic income. In Ontario, as mentioned above, a pilot project in basic income was initiated under the Liberal government for 2000 people. It provided a higher level of income than social assistance, it was relatively secure until the Tories cut it. They did intensive studies to show that people were better off. The studies prove nothing. They were not studying basic income but rather poor people. Of course, it is obvious that if you increase the level of income, people’s health is better and, in general, people’s lives are better.

The question that needs to be posed is: What effect basic income would have if it were implemented across a larger area of a capitalist economy. Basic income takes us in directions that are very dangerous–directions that we should be fighting rather than embracing. Basic income is essentially a proposal for a massive extension of social provision by way of the cash benefit. Seventy percent of the people in the pilot project in Ontario were not on social assistance. What they were primarily looking at was a wage top-up system. So the idea of basic income is to extend the benefit to a wider proportion of the working population.

This situation entails the commodification of social provisions, and such commodification is enormously dangerous. What it does is have you accept the low-wage, precarious workforce. But you then allegedly take away the worst effects of it by taking tax revenues paid by other working-class people not just a wage top up to those workers but what is in effect a wage subsidy to low wage employers. This has the effect of removing pressure on such employers to increase wages. It undermines the efforts to raise minimum wages. It simply accepts the low-wage precarious workforce but tries to provide a kind of limited sedative. This is a major mistake.

Mr. Clarke also believes that by providing so much more in the form of a cash benefit, you would facilitate the agenda of austerity and privatization. This cash benefit would be used, in practice, to justify the further gutting of public services. This is why the right is so enamored with the idea of basic income. Both eff Bezos and Milton Friedman favoured a basic income, and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce favours a national pilot project on basic income. Friedman n particular argued that unions, minimum wages and social programs were all monstrous totalitarian interferences in the freedom of the marketplace. On the other hand, he recognized that pure capitalism without limits could be counterproductive. Consequently, what was necessary was the provision of a basic income at a minimum level, without any other social support system in place. The American right-winger Charles Murray has developed this further as has the Canadian right-wing institute the Fraser Institute. Murray advocates providing a minimum basic income that does not interfere with the flow of low-wage workers but that at the same time prevents social breakdown. Basic income for Murray is not to supplement and augment existing social provisions but rather replaces them.

Focusing on basic income enables the right to divert attention from the gross inadequacy of existing income-support systems. Basic income as a social policy would thus take us to playing the game of the right in the context of a capitalist economy and especially at this time, with the present balance of forces in society.

The counterargument by progressives on the left, of course, is that that is not their vision–that that is not the kind of basic income that they want. They want other systems to be strengthened; they want good minimum wages. The problem with that is that it does not take into account the prevailing situation. It does not take into account the present balance of forces. It does not take into account the agenda of capitalism. It assumes somehow that a wish will get you there. The kind of basic income that comes into existence would be shaped by the prevailing situation. If you assume that what you want or imagine can be realized, then you can create any number of utopias. Some people claim that universal basic income could be provided at such a level that they can literally decide whether they can participate in the job market or not. Where the money is to come from, and who is to provide it is unclear.

But as Pam Frache, from Toronto’s Workers Action Centre put it so well, to expect the capitalist state to provide the working class with an unlimited strike fund is an absurdity. And to suggest at this point in time, after forty years of defeat at the hands of neoliberal attack, that we’re in a position to win even a fraction of that is preposterous. Someone the other day stated that Mr. Clarke’s arguments were wrong because his version of basic income would be universal; it must be adequate; and it must be financed entirely by attacks on wealth. Of course, you can demand that the sky rain whiskey, but it’s just not going to happen. It is not realistic. Philippe van Parijs, Belgian advocate of basic income, has even suggested that basic income could even transform, could transform society, could abolish capitalism. Of course, if wishes were horses we could bet on basic income. However, we have to deal with reality. At the moment, it constitutes a very dangerous and distracting leftist illusion.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) [the social-democratic party here in Canada) are making a lot of effort in trying to win a basic income. Mr. Clarke is sad to say that some union leaders are buying into the idea. Social movements are backing it. Even a section of the anti-capitalist left is embracing basic income in this situation. It poses sometimes as a very transformative, radical bold proposal, but Mr. Clarke believes that it makes its peace with the capitalist marketplace and the neoliberal order. It says: wages will remain low, but it will be topped up by the tax revenues. This is a mistaken direction.

The Potentiality of Radical Proposals, Such as a Robust Basic Income, to Point Beyond a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers

It should be noticed that Mr. Clarke’s soul reference to what could be considered a radical aim that points beyond a society dominated by a class of employers is an isolated reference that Mr. Clarke fails to integrate in any way with his proposal for an enhanced welfare state. Thus, he states above: 

Why do we not take the machines away from the capitalists and use them to everyone’s advantage?

Yes, indeed, why do we not do that? How would we do that? By only enhancing the welfare state? How does only enhancing the welfare state contribute to that goal or aim? Mr. Clarke’s question is actually purely rhetorical. It serves no purpose that would enable workers to organize themselves in the present to realize that goal–an internal aim. Mr. Clarke’s aim of enhancing the welfare state is the primary focus; the reference to taking “the machines away from the capitalists and using them to everyone’s advantage” is not linked in any way to that focus. 

Could proposing a radical basic income that points beyond a market for workers by involving  a robust or enhanced or thick basic income that increases the freedom of workers from economic coercion be a stepping stone to the goal of taking “the machines away from the capitalists and using the to everyone’s advantage?” 

Of course, I fully admit that a basic income can be used for conservative purposes, for social-democratic purposes or for socialist purposes–just as can a proposal for welfare reform. It is to what basic income is linked that determines its conservative, social-democratic or socialist nature and not the proposal itself. Mr. Clarke, however, cannot admit that because his goal is decidedly reformist despite his radical rhetoric to the contrary. 

Consider Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborgh’s (2017) view in Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, page 124: 

There is, however, no reason why one should wait until full abundance to start realizing partially the distributive principle that defines communism. Indeed, if it turns out—in light of historical experience and for deep-seated reasons to which Marx paid insufficient attention—that capitalism does better than socialism at developing the forces of production, this gradual transition to communism could happen in the context of a capitalist economy. The proposal of an unconditional basic income makes a lot of sense in this perspective. While not yet in a state of abundance, our society may plausibly be regarded as affluent in the sense that it could cover everyone’s fundamental needs unconditionally with a basic income, topped up in some cases to address special needs such as disabilities

This sounds fine, but I agree with Mr. Clarke that it is likely utopian–but not for Mr. Clarke’s reason that it is unrealizable. A robust basic income would interfere in the market for workers. Even if the resistance of employers were overcome–a big if–the working of the capitalist economy would be distorted substantially, leading to breakdowns in the accumulation process of capital and could be a threat to other workers–unless further measures were introduced. Thus, if a robust basic income were in place, it is likely that productivity of labour would initially decrease as economic coercion became less effective; absenteeism and other measures that entail the avoidance of work (understandable given the dictatorial nature of such work–see for example my post  Employers as Dictators, Part One) would also likely rise. For example, resistance by workers to work certainly characterized some sections of the working class during Michael Seidman (1991), Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts, page 9: 

Furthermore, I wish to bring out the utopian dimension of resistance, a word which I have chosen because of its positive connotations. The importance of resistance in two major European cities in the fourth decade of the twentieth century indicates that refusals of work should not be dismissed as the behavior of “backward” or “primitive” working classes. Certainly, resisters did not articulate any clear future vision of the workplace or of society. Unlike the Marxists, they did not fight to take state power or, in contrast to the anarchosyndicalists, abolish or minimize the role of the state. I do not wish to
ignore the fact that workers’ refusals to work harmed the fight against Franco and weakened French defenses in a period of Nazi rearmament. Yet one might interpret resistance itself as suggesting a working-class utopia in which wage labor would be reduced to a minimum. Resistance was also a conjunctural and cyclical phenomenon, but refusals remained an intrinsic part of working-class culture and manifested themselves in different periods with various divisions of labor. During the Popular Fronts, workers revolted against a variety of disciplines, including that imposed by working-class organizations. Wage earners certainly wished to control their workplaces but generally in order to work less. One may speculate that the way to eliminate resistance is not by workers’ control of the means of production but rather by the abolition of wage labor itself.

The idealization of work in its present form meets the resistance of workers in various ways. Marx recognized this. From Marx-Engels Collected Works, 1843-1844, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Estranged Labour,” page 274: 

What, then, constitutes the alienation of labour? First, the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labour is shunned like the plague. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another.

If a robust basic income were implemented, it would interfere with the accumulation of capital, leading to the emergence of problems that would require further measures that would involve further interference in the process of the accumulation of capital. It would be better to be conscious of such a possibility and the need for a conscious movement that aimed to abolish wage labour–rather than enhancing the welfare state (itself still grounded on wage labour) or in a reversion to a neoliberal paradise.

Mr. Clarke’s implicit assumption that it is utopian to propose a robust or enhanced basic income, given economic coercion, is a conservative stance. It uses a radical view–that economic coercion is a fact of life in a society dominated by a class of employers–to draw conservative (social-reformist) conclusions. The same method was used by Mr. Bush in his one-sided use of Marx’s theory of surplus value (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two and  Social-Reformist Leftist Activists Share Assumptions with the Right).

Mr. Clarke’s Inconsistent Call for Class Struggle

Mr. Clarke often calls for struggle (including class struggle) to achieve reformist aims. Of course, we should struggle to obtain higher wages, more secure employment, safer workplaces, expanded and better social housing, expanded universal healthcare, childcare and so forth. But why does he include struggle for an enhanced welfare state and exclude it from the process by which basic income arises? Mr. Clarke provides no reason for his exclusion of struggle for a basic income. He simply assumes that the class of employers will automatically achieve a minimal form of basic income–and simultaneously assumes that, if we struggle, we can achieve an enhanced welfare state despite the resistance of the class of employers.

I will simply quote from previous posts as well as from above Mr. Clarke’s many references to the need for struggle in order to substantiate my claim that he emphasizes struggle for enhanced welfare reforms, on the one hand, while ignoring the possibility and the need for struggle to achieve a robust basic income that threatens the existence of the market for workers on the other; such a collection of quotes provide a concentrated form of proof of my claim (rather than just being scattered). The quotes are sometimes overlapping since Mr. sometimes simultaneously argues for the need to fight for enhanced welfare reform while ignoring such need in the case of a robust radical basic income: 

Mr. Clarke’s Call for Class Struggle in the Case of an Enhanced Form of Welfare Capitalism

The alternative is to rejuvenate our unions and fight for decent wages, to fight to increase minimum wages, to fight for workers’ rights–rather than extend the cash benefits and extend the reach of the marketplace. It is far better to put considerable effort into the struggle for public services. … 

We need a fight to ensure that disability benefits are adequate and meet people’s needs and that they are secure. We need to challenge the intrusion and moral policing that goes on within these systems.

Again: 

But to extend the cash benefit widely out into the workforce is a huge mistake. And we could do so much better. Rather than try to get what in practice would be a meager cash benefit, it would be so much better to struggle to challenge the commodification of housing, the neoliberal city, the blighting of urban space with this agenda of greed by fighting for a massive extension of social housing. So that’s a benefit that goes to working-class people and does not go into the pocket of landlords. There’s a need to fight for increases in the adequacy of healthcare. The pandemic has made that absolutely clear. We need pharmacare, dental care, a unviersal childcare program that is not an empty perennial liberal promise. We need post-secondary education to be free; we need free public transport systems. On all of these fronts, we need to take up a fight.

But people will say: We have suffered defeats. We cannot win these things. Mr. Clarke argues that the left has for a very long time been forced on the defensive. The class struggle has not gone in our favour for a considerable period of time. But there is no alternative but to rebuild and to fight back and to win what we can. And to challenge this society but to fight for a different society. That’s absolutely indispensable. There in fact is not some social policy ruse that can just put things right.

Again: 

During the pandemic, struggles have broken out across the world, from Minneapolis to New Delhi to East Jerusalem. As the global health crisis subsides, there will be a strong determination to fight for something better. As we challenge, not just the ‘economic scarring’ left by the pandemic, but the impact of decades of austerity, we shouldn’t settle for a commodified form of social provision that makes its peace with the neoliberal order. We need to fight employers to win decent wages and to take to the streets to demand massively expanded social housing, greatly improved public healthcare, free public transit, universal child care and much else beside.

Mr. Clarke’s Lack of Reference for the Need to Engage in Class Struggle in the Case of the Proposal for Basic Income

Let us now see how Mr. Clarke presents basic income: 

Basic income is not going to solve the problem. Our lack of strength, our lack of ability to fight in the way we need to fight is the problem we have to address. We need to build that movement now more than ever. In this situation of global crisis we need more than ever to fight back, and we can do so much better in focusing our struggles than to fight for the commodification of social provision and basic income.

Again:

I wish I could convince more BI supporters to consider the foundations before they try to put the roof on. One such supporter told me a few months ago that my arguments on the role of income support in this society constituted ‘an irrelevant history lesson’ but I beg to differ. To provide nothing at all to people who are unemployed or otherwise outside of the paid workforce has proven impossible so income support emerged to contain social unrest. However, it is always provided reluctantly and to the least degree possible because it limits the economic coercion the job market rests on.

Conclusion

This inconsistency is explained by Mr. Clarke’s reformist aims. Despite Mr. Clarke’s references to exploitation  and economic coercion, he assumes that they are somehow fixed and permanent. Rather than directly trying to develop a movement for abolishing exploitation and economic coercion (with a struggle for both enhanced welfare reforms and a robust basic income being linked to such an aim), Mr. Clarke proposes reformist measures that do not address at all the issue of exploitation or economic coercion as such. Somehow, the movement for welfare reform is supposed to lead to taking over the machines owned by employers. This is utopian in the bad sense of the term as being unrealistic. 

Rather, a proposal for a robust basic income that questions the premises of the class power of employers and the associated economic, social and political relations would point the way out of both the current situation and the class situation that we constantly face. 

In a future post, I may will inquire into a possible explanation hinted at above: Mr. Clarke’s real aim is not the elimination of capitalism but of neoliberalism. 

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