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.

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

This is a continuation of my last post. In this post, I will address Mr. Bush’s confused analysis of relations at work and in exchange in a situation dominated by a class of employers, which he confusedly analyzes in his April 26, 2017 article published on the Socialist Project website (Basic Income and the Left: The Political and Economic Problems).

As I noted in my previous 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.”

In the section of that article, entitled “The BI and the Logic of Capitalism,” Mr. Bush has the following to say:

Capitalism operates on the extraction of surplus labour from workers. Workers sell their potential to work on the labour market and employers put them to work, paying them a wage that is less than the value they produce with their labour. This surplus labour is ultimately the source of profits. Capitalism needs workers. Much of the history of capitalism centres around the creation of a working class that is more or less reliant on selling its labour power for a wage in order to live.

If workers in large enough numbers are able to sit outside of the labour market and sustain their basic needs, capitalism would cease to function. BI naively assumes that capitalists and the state would not respond politically and economically to the changing market condition of labour. The logic of capitalism would push capitalists to, at the very least, raise wages and increase prices on goods and services. The ultimate goal would be to compel workers back into the labour market, and make them dependent on selling their labour power in order to live.

It is fascinating to see how a social reformist tries to turn  a radical social theory into a conservative one that agrees with his own reformist conclusions. Let us look more closely at this “analysis.”

Firstly, Mr. Bush simply draws a false conclusion: “BI naively assumes that capitalists and the state would not respond politically and economically to the changing market condition of labour.” Some versions of BI may naively assume that, but certainly not a radical version of basic income (see a previous post  A Radical Basic Income as a Radical Reform). Mr. Bush simply wants to exclude all consideration of radical basic income policies that go beyond the present system of capitalist system consciously. He likely does so because he wants to draw reformist conclusions from Marx’s radical social theory.

Secondly, let us now turn to how capitalism operates. Mr. Bush claims that the essence of capitalism is the extraction of surplus labour from workers that is greater than the wage that the workers receive. For example, if workers at a brewery work for seven hours a day, and they receive a wage of $35 an hour, then if for every hour they produce a value of $70 an hour, they are exploited 100 percent. If they produce a value of $105 an hour they are exploited 150 percent, and so on. The point is that if there is to be a profit, the workers must produce more than the cost of their own wage, or the $35 an hour.

The problem with this view is that it is only a partial truth, or a one-sided view of what Mr. Bush calls “the messy business of material reality.” Mr. Bush evidently prides himself in being practical, and yet he fails to link up his reference to costs (referred to in my previous post) and the theory of surplus value.

Workers are costs to employers, and the worker receives the cost of what is required to produce “their potential to work” as Mr. Bush says. They receive, apparently, their full value, in exchange, for their wage. They certainly do so when considered only in the immediate exchange between the employer and the workers. Mr. Bush, however, excludes from consideration the question of time and prior conditions.

I will provide a long quote from Karl Marx since Mr. Bush, without referencing him, provides Mr. Bush with the theory of surplus value–but Mr. Bush omits any consideration of Marx’s theory of costs  as it relates to wages–conveniently for Mr. Bush. From Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, pages 727-728:

Let us now return to our example. It is the old story: Abraham
begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob and so on. The original capital of
£10,000 brings in a surplus-value of £2,000, which is capitalized.
The new capital of £2,000 brings in a surplus-value of £400, and
this too is capitalized, transformed into a second additional
capital, which in its turn produces a further surplus-value of £80.
And the process continues in this way.

We leave out of account here the portion of the surplus-value
consumed by the capitalist. We are also not interested, for the
moment, in whether the additional capital is joined on to the
original capital, or separated from it so that it can valorize itself
independently. Nor are we concerned whether the same capitalist
employs it who originally accumulated it, or whether he hands it
over to others. All we must remember is this: by the side of the
newly formed capital, the original capital continues to reproduce
itself and to produce surplus-value, and this is true of all accumulated
capital in relation to the additional capital engendered by it.
The original capital was formed by the advance of £10,000.
Where did its owner get it from? ‘From his own labour and that of
his forefathers’, is the unanimous answer of the spokesmen of
political economy.4 And, in fact, their assumption appears to be
the only one consonant with the laws of commodity production.
But it is quite otherwise with regard to the additional capital of
£2,000. We know perfectly well how that originated. There is not
one single atom of its value that does not owe its existence to unpaid
labour. The means of production with which the additional
labour-power is incorporated, as well as the necessaries with which
the workers are sustained, are nothing but component parts of the
surplus product, parts of the tribute annually exacted from the
working class by the capitalist class. Even if the latter uses a portion
of that tribute to purchase the additional labour-power at its
full price, so that equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, the whole
thing still remains the age-old activity of the conqueror, who buys
commodities from the conquered with the money he has stolen from
them.

If the additional capital employs the person who produced it,
this producer must not only continue to valorize the value of the
original capital, but must buy back the fruits of his previous labour
with more labour than they cost. If we view this as a transaction
between the capitalist class and the working class, it makes no
difference that additional workers are employed by means of the
unpaid labour of the previously employed workers. The capitalist
may even convert the additional capital into a machine that throws
the producers of that capital out of work, and replaces them with
a few children. In every case, the working class creates by the surplus
labour of one year the capital destined to employ additional
labour in the following year.5 And this is what is called creating
capital out of capital.

The accumulation of the first additional capital of £2,000 presupposes
that a value of £10,000 exists, advanced by the capitalist,
and belonging to him by virtue of his ‘original labour’. The
second additional capital of £400 presupposes, on the contrary,
only the prior accumulation of the £2,000, of which the £400 is
the capitalized surplus-value. The ownership of past unpaid labour
is thenceforth the sole condition for the appropriation ofliving unpaid
labour on a constantly increasing scale. The more the capitalist
has accumulated, the more is he able to accumulate.
The surplus-value that makes up additional capital no. 1 is the
result of the purchase of labour-power with part of the original
capital, a purchase which conformed to the laws of commodity
exchange and which, from a legal standpoint, presupposes nothing
beyond the worker’s power to dispose freely of his own
capacities, and the money-owner’s or commodity-owner’s power to
dispose freely of the values that belong to him; equally, additional
capital no. 2 is merely the result of additional capital no. 1, and
is therefore a consequence of the relations described above; hence
each individual transaction continues to conform to the laws of
commodity exchange, with the capitalist always buying labour power
and the worker always selling it at what we shall assume is
its real value. It is quite evident from this that the laws of appropriation
or of private property, laws based on the production and
circulation of commodities, become changed into their direct
opposite through their own internal and inexorable dialectic. The
exchange of equivalents, the original operation with which we
started, is now turned round in such a way that there is only an apparent
exchange, since, firstly, the capital which is exchanged for
labour-power is itself merely a portion of the product of the labour
of others which has been appropriated without an equivalent; and,
secondly, this capital must not only be replaced by its producer,
the worker, but replaced together with an added surplus. The relation
of exchange between capitalist and worker becomes a mere
semblance belonging only to the process of circulation, it becomes
a mere form, which is alien to the content of the transaction itself,
and merely mystifies it. The constant sale and purchase of labour power
is the form; the content is the constant appropriation by the
capitalist, without equivalent, of a portion of the labour of others
which has already been objectified, and his repeated exchange of
this labour for a greater quantity of the living labour of others.

The immediate exchange between workers and employers is an exchange of equivalents, so that workers receive the value of their cost of production. However, when considering the larger context of previous production, then the immediate exchange between employer and workers is a semblance. The employer uses a part of the surplus produced by the workers in a previous round as means of production (machines, raw material, buildings, etc.) and another part (socially as money and physically as means of consumption, such as food, clothing, shelter) to further employ them (in addition to the initial investment).

As “costs,” the workers’ previous products are used against them to further exploit them. Mr. Bush entirely ignores this fact. He ignores the wider context. He ignores “the messy business of material reality.” Why is that? Mr. Bush is really quite arrogant. He pretends to be a very practical person, but he is in reality a very impractical person since he disregards the wider context when engaging in practice. Is this not folly?

In a previous post (Intelligent Activity According to John Dewey: Its Political Implications for the Left), I wrote the following:

The lack of such discussion among most workers shows the extent to which those who call for “practice” and believe that they are eminently practical are eminently impractical; they neglect one of the fundamental conditions for practical intelligence: taking into account the social context when acting. To neglect the social context when acting is to act unintelligently.

What exactly is the aim of those who engage in “practice” among the left? Is there any real discussion about the aims? Or is there simply a rush to engage in one “practice” after another without really engaging in any attempt to unify in a consistent fashion the various actions? If so, is that acting intelligently? Or is it acting unintelligently?

Mr. Bush proposes, practically, that the working class engage in unintelligent activity. More colloquially expressed, he proposes (even if he is unaware of this) that the working class act stupidly.

This is hardly in the interests of the working class.

I strongly suggest that Mr. Bush alter radically his theory and practice.

Unfortunately, there is already evidence that he will not do so. On Facebook, he and I engaged in in a short debate over the issue of whether the fight for $15 and an hour (and various employment reforms) should be paired with the concept of fairness (as indeed it was in Ontario). Mr. Bush explicitly stated that it was fair. I argued that such reforms indeed should be defended–while criticizing any concept of fairness.

My prediction for Mr. Bush’s future is that he will end up with a similar attitude to Mr. Urkevitch (see an earlier post,   Comments from John Urkevich, AESES-UM Business Agent, to my Critique of the Grievance and Arbitration Procedure: Letter to the Editor, Inside The Association of Employees Supporting Educational Services (AESES), Vol. 17, No. 4, May 1994). He will become a staunch defender of practice within the status quo of the employer-employee relation–like Mr. Urkevitch and many other union representatives.

It should be remembered that Mr. Bush is seen by many in Toronto, the largest city in Canada, as a practical leftist, a socialist and a good trade-unionist. That his views have not received any critical scrutiny illustrates the dominance of social-reformist leftism in Canada and the need for the creation of a more critical  but also practical leftism in Canada in general and Toronto in particular.

 

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

Introduction

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
compulsion.

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.”

 

 

A Radical Basic Income as a Radical Reform

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) argues against any kind of Basic Income (Basic Income in the Neoliberal Age ). I have argued against their opposition on their own terms in two previous posts.

Others, too, argue for a radical basic income as a proposal that breaks the “economic coercion” required by the class of employers and its representatives by breaking the link between need and entrance into the job market.

I remember reading somewhere (I cannot remember the author or title) of a proposal for a basic income of 45 000 euros a year. Of course, such a proposal could not be realized within the job market of capitalism. That, however, is just the point. Aiming for a goal that cannot be realized in terms of “economic coercion” prescribed by the job market would question the need for such economic coercion. It would also promote discussion about the need for the creation of alternative economic relations and processes. Of course, the exact level of basic income proposed would be open for debate, with variations according to needs, but the principle of making demands that the capitalist job market cannot satisfy permits a policy for organizing and for going beyond a society characterized by the power of a class of employers.

A radical basic income, therefore, needs to become part of the process of questioning the economic coercive power of employers as a class and the associated economic, social and political structures that support such economic blackmail. It is not, in itself, the goal but part of the means for creating a world free from such economic blackmail.

That it is impossible to realize a basic income that threatens the job market within the social relations characterized by a society dominated by a class of employers is hardly a reason to abandon a demand for such a basic income; it is, rather, a reason for making this and other proposals that begin to question economic coercion.

Several writers have argued for basic income, not as a cure-all, but as a means of addressing that economic coercion. For example, Tony Smith, in his book Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism: Marx and Normative Social Theory in the Twenty-First Century (Leiden: Brill, 2017, 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
compulsion.

The alternative is to delude yourself by using such rhetoric as “economic justice,” “decent work,” “fair contracts,” “good contracts,” a “fair wage” and “fairness” (as much of the social-reformist left does in Toronto). This is what the social-reformist left has done and continues to do. Should not those who claim to be radical break with such reformist ideology and begin the long road towards the construction of a society worthy of human beings.

Unless of course human beings deserve to be “economically coerced.” That is the hidden assumption of the social-reformist left.

The social-reformist left (and much of the radical left, at least in Toronto) certainly fails to question such economic coercion. It seeks reforms entirely in terms of economic coercion and economic blackmail. Is that rational?

The social-reformist left, however, do not see it that way since they assume that it is possible to achieve economic justice, decent work, fair wages and fairness in a society dominated by a class of employers.

Should not the social-reformist left listen to OCAP’s very realistic description of the nature of social world in which we live in their pamphlet mentioned above: “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (page 6)? Should they not take that fact seriously? Given that fact, should they not aim to abolish such a situation by advocating measures that question the need for such coercion? Or should the so-called radical left at least start to openly criticize the absurd rhetoric of “decent wages,” “fairness,” a “good contract,” and a “fair contract?” Unless the racial left are really social reformists and do not, in practice, question the economic coercion that characterizes the job market.

 

 

“Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)

In a previous post, I pointed out that the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) explicitly indicated that economic coercion or force is a basic condition for capitalism to continue to exist (Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance ).  The following quote agrees with OCAP in so far as economic coercion or economic blackmail characterizes modern capitalist society, but Kay implies that, as a consequence, it is necessary to redefine the nature of poverty. Many social-reformist organizations define poverty exclusively in terms of the level of income, with the poverty line (defined according to a certain level of income) separating those who are defined as poor by the social-reformist left and the rest, who are supposedly the middle class. Such a definition, according to OCAP’s own recognition of the economic coercion required in the job market, is inadequate.

Consequently, OCAP should, in accordance with its own recognition of the economic blackmail characteristic of capitalism, start to organize for the purpose of eliminating poverty conditions that require such economic blackmail. It should, in other words, start to engage in the formation of a movement for the abolition of the power of employers as a class and the corresponding economic, social and political structures.

From Geoffrey Kay, The Economic Theory of the Working Class. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1979, pages 2-3:

The absolute poverty of the working class is visibly present in the conditions of work where everything the worker touches belongs to another. The means of production he uses, that is, the machines, buildings, materials, etc. all belong to the employer, who also owns the output. The only thing the worker owns is his capacity to work, and his economic welfare depends upon his being able to sell this at the best possible price. In the course of this [the twentieth) century, particularly during the period of the post-war boom, this price measured in terms of the commodities it can purchase, the real wage, has risen to unprecedented heights, at least in the advanced industrial countries of the west.

As a result of this and the maintenance of full or near full employment backed up by social welfare, the working class has enjoyed greater prosperity and security than at any time in history. In these circumstances it appears strange to talk of absolute poverty, and the old socialist claim that the working class has nothing to lose but its chains seems and archaic relic of the past when the working class did indeed live in dire poverty. Yet the fact remains that the working class today has no greater economic autonomy than its forbears a hundred years ago.

Consider the situation of a contemporary worker who loses his job. This has happened to several million workers in the industrialized world since the long boom faltered in 1973 not counting the other millions of young people who have never found jobs at all. Many of the workers who have recently suffered unemployment for the first time, earned wages that allowed them to enjoy all the trappings of ‘affluency’—decent housing, cars, television, refrigerators and so on. But the loss of the job puts the standard of living immediately in jeopardy, particularly if unemployment lasts for anything more than a few weeks. In the unlikely event of a working class family having a large private income, its initial response to unemployment is to cut back spending on marginal items, and attempt to maintain its lifestyle intact in the hope that new work will be found shortly. As the period of unemployment lengthens, it begins to eat into savings, but this does not hold out much hope.

Working class savings are notoriously low, and often take the form of insurance policies that can only be cashed in at a considerable loss. If the family decides to sell of its consumer durables, apart from reducing its standard of living immediately, it will invariably make further losses as second-hand prices are always far below prices for new articles. Moreover, many working class purchases are financial by hire purchase where the interest element makes the actual price higher than the market price, and the family that sells off relatively new times bought in this way often finds that, far from releasing cash, it lands itself in further debt. Working class affluence is entirely dependent upon wages: remove these—i.e., unemployment—and the absolute poverty of its social situation shows through very quickly. In the nineteenth century unemployment meant immediate destitution; the modern worker is clearly much better off than his forbears—for him and his family poverty is a few weeks, maybe even a few months away.

The social-reformist left, however, will probably not acknowledge the need for a redefinition of poverty that includes the economic coercion of the vast majority of workers. They prefer to deal in platitudes, such as calling the work characteristic of economic coercion “decent work,” or reforms in employment standards and increases in the minimum wages (all necessary, of course) “fair,” or claiming that they are fighting for “economic justice” (while not engaging in any activity that moves towards abolishing the economic coercion characteristic of the capitalist job market dominated by a class of employers).

Another post will briefly refer to a proposal of a radical basic income that may form part of a movement that does indeed question economic coercion and an economy dominated by a class of employers.

 

Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance

In the pamphlet published on the Socialist Project website, Basic Income in the Neoliberal Age (Toronto, 2017), the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) implies that only a social-reformist vision–maintaining the welfare-state–is a viable option; it implicitly assumes that going beyond it is not viable. Its argument combines both a realistic assessment of the impossibility of an adequate universal basic income for all as long as the power of the class of employers exists, and an implied conservative call for maintaining the existing welfare state rather than going  beyond it.

It–correctly–argues that we should be very skeptical of proposals for basic income originating from liberals and conservatives (and, it should be added, the social-reformist left). Those who believe in an economic system characterized by a class of employers are hardly going to break the link between having to work for an employer and receiving an income. Indeed, as OCAP argues, the current benefits that the government does offer would probably be substantially reduced or eliminated and replaced by a basic income that was even more inadequate than current welfare and other social assistance rates.

However, the skepticism about implementing a basic income scheme that is acceptable to the class of employers is illegitimately extended to skepticism about its viability for a movement that seeks to go beyond a society dominated by the power of the class of employers. They write,

page 6:

These kinds of left advocates are easily able to show how providing a
universal adequate payment, while maintaining other elements of social
provision, would weaken or even eliminate the basis for exploitation of the
working class under capitalism. However, where they uniformly fail is in
the not unimportant area of showing how this is all possible. Capitalism
needs economic coercion for its job market to function and decades of
neoliberal austerity have intensified that coercion considerably. With
trade unions weakened and powerful social movements conspicuous by
their absence, it is doubtful that a major social reform, such as the
proponents of progressive and transformative BI advance, is likely.

At least this paragraph realistically argues that “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function.” Let us stop at this sentence. If capitalism indeed requires economic coercion if the job market is to function, then should not OCAP be advocating for the abolition of such coercion?  That such a process requires a movement with substantial organizational power goes without saying, and that will take time, energy and much organizing and debating. Of course, this requires a desire to orient social movements towards abolishing the power to coerce, but OCAP is silent about what to do about this coercion that many experience on a daily basis at work (which, of course, spills into situations outside the workplace). Should not OCAP address what it itself admits is characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers?

OCAP excludes any discussion at all in the document about what is to be done about economic coercion (aka economic blackmail). Its critique of basic income presumes that economic coercion is the order of the day–that there is no alternative–except to maintain the current welfare system, flawed though it may be.

OCAP uses the fact of the weakness of trade unions as a reason for opposing the principle of basic income. Surely one of the reasons why trade unions have become weaker is because they have failed to question the coercive power of employers as a class. For example, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, in his open letter of January 30, 2018 ( An open letter to our movement) , wrote the following: “We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.”

If, however, economic coercion or economic blackmail is required in the kind of society in which we live, how is it possible to “achieve dignity and economic justice”? If such rhetoric has contributed to the current situation, then should not its criticism form part of the solution? Does OCAP take a stand by taking seriously its own assertion that economic coercion is a necessary feature of the power of employers as a class by criticizing union representatives who talk of economic justice under such dictatorial circumstances?

Throughout the whole document, there is nothing that links this requirement of capitalism–needing “economic coercion for its job market to function”–to the need for a movement that goes beyond such economic coercion.

Ultimately, as noted above, this document is a social-reformist document–a document that has no better solution to “economic coercion” than implicitly proposing that we return to the so-called golden age of capitalism, where employers had accepted, within limits, the need for a mor generous welfare state. OCAP does not explicitly state this, but it implies it.

Would it not be possible to propose a basic income that cannot be satisfied within a structure defined by economic coercion or economic blackmail? The document does not even refer to such a possibility.

Logically, if OCAP takes seriously the view that “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function,” should it not redefine the nature of poverty? Should not the definition of poverty include taking into account this economic coercion? Does OCAP do so?

In another post, I will refer to an author who does indeed take seriously OCAP’s view that “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” and proposes a redefinition of poverty. In that post or another post I will also refer to a proposal for a radical basic income as part of a movement for a different kind of economic, social and political life–a life not characterized by economic, social and political coercion.