The Strawman of a Minimal Universal Basic Income by the Social-democratic Left in Toronto

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

In two previous posts, I questioned Dhunna’s and Bush’s proposed solution to the problems which members of the working class face, namely an enhanced welfare capitalism (see The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services and The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part Two: Oppressive Welfare Services). Now I will look at their criticisms of the idea of a universal basic income (UBI).

I will endeavour to show that the authors of the article mainly create a straw concept of universal basic income (in order to criticize it all the more easily).

A Straw Minimal Universal Basic Income

Dhunna and Bush assume that, firstly, there would be a minimal UBI and, secondly, that it would somehow be realized immediately and without a struggle–since some members of the class of employers and their representatives advocate a minimal basic income.

They write the following:

Some on the left look to basic income to complement workers struggles, but the ruling class looks to basic income to blunt class struggle. When the fight to raise the minimum wage was at its height in Ontario, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce countered calls to to raise the minimum wage by stating, “we support the Government’s piloting of a Basic Income, which we see as a more efficient and realistic means of ensuring Ontarians are given greater security.” The business community was in favour of basic income because it acted as a political shield against reforming labour laws, and because a basic income also acts as a wage subsidy for businesses. Employers would be relieved from the pressure of increasing wages from their own coffers and put the onus on the state to top up incomes through general revenues. The burden of payment would shift from the employing class to the rest of us.

Of course, the class of employers would try to minimize basic income–just as it tends nowadays to try to minimize expenditure on public services for the working class (and increase expenditures, if necessary, on services that serve to oppress the working class–such as the police). The authors assume magically that employers will in fact get their way–without a struggle. If, however, an organized movement for the realization of a robust basic income (not the minimal basic income that Dhunna and Bush assume) were to develop, aiming for all to obtain a relatively high standard of living without having to work for a particular employer, then there is little reason to believe that the basic income would be merely a “burden of payment from the employing class to the rest of us.” To pay for such a robust universal basic income would require making inroads on both the power of employers (since it would attack the economic dependence of workers on particular employers) and on their income (since funding would involve substantially increased taxes on corporations).

There is no warrant for their assumption that there could only be the realization of a minimalist universal basic income–as I indicated in my last post on this subject.

References to “class struggle” in their article sound radical, but they really do not aim to question those premises.

The Alaska Model of Basic Income

It is interesting that these Dhunna and Bush refer to experiments in UBI that hardly are robust as so-called evidence that UBI would not work:

Many of the basic income experiments piloted by local governments ended rather abruptly, either running out of money, or ending after a newly elected government without the political commitment to the project axed the program. These are not just unfortunate bumps in the road, but speak to the real political and economic inviability of basic income. As the report summarized, “there is no robust evidence relating to UBI defined as unconditional, regular cash payments to individuals regardless of income or status. The schemes have seldom lasted long enough to test viability over more than a few years.” Thus, there is “no evidence that any version of UBI can be affordable, inclusive, sufficient and sustainable at the same time.”

The longest and largest sustained experiment in basic income is Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend. Starting in the 1970s, the Alaskan government created a special state-run fund from a portion of oil revenues. Since 1982, the fund pays out a dividend to every permanent resident of Alaska (this annual amount has ranged from $1000 to 2000 per year in recent years). The newly elected governor of Alaska campaigned to increase the dividend, but this came at a cost. To pay for the increase, Governor Mike Dunleavy has pushed a series of cuts to the public university system, ferry service, and other public services. The economic crash in 2020 reduced the dividend payment to $992, and there is now a real question about whether the fund will be able to issue any dividends at all in the coming years

Here is what it says from one of the articles to which they refer above:

This year’s oil royalty check [for residents of Alaska] will be $992, one third of what is should have been under the statutory calculation, but all that the Alaska Legislature’s majority members could give, since they needed the rest of the Permanent Fund dividend dollars to pay for government programs.

If $992 is one third of what recipients normally received, then $2976 per year is what they normally received. If you divide that by 12 months, then you obtain $248 per month–hardly a robust level of basic income! Indeed, the yearly basic income in Alaska was usually less than this.

From Karl Widerquist (2012), “Exporting the Alaska Model to Alaska: How Big Could the Permanent Fund Be if the State Really Tried? And Can a Larger Fund Insulate an Oil Exporter from the End of the Boom?” in Exporting the Alaska Model Adapting the Permanent Fund Dividend for Reform around the World, page 173:

The most recent dividend was $1,174 in October 2011, and dividends have tended to be between $1000 and $2000 per person per year for the past 15 years.

Dividing $1000 and $2000 by 12 gives the low and high range of $83,33 per month to $166,66 per month. Using this model to refute the basic income model is grasping at straws.  Referring to such a basic income as if it were evidence of the infeasability of such a policy is illogical. It is an extremely weak counterexample, and yet they decided to include it in their “critique” of UBI. 

David Macdonald’s Study on Basic Income

The writers refer to David Macdonald’s estimate of a $29 billion federal fund required for one kind of scenario for a basic income. They write:

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

I assume that they are referring to the following scenario (from David Macdonald (2016), A Policymaker’s Guide to Basic Income, page 21):

In Scenario 4, the government issues a $1,000 universal cheque in addition to offering all existing income support programs. In essence, this would be the 34th Canadian basic income program, and by providing support over and above what already exists, it would lower poverty rates across all age groups (see Table 6). An annual $1,000 cheque or bank transfer to all Canadians could either be taxed back at year’s end, or clawed back from existing programs.

Under this scenario, the overall poverty rate would fall two percentage points — taking 713,000 people out of poverty. The biggest impact would affect child poverty, which would drop three percentage points, from 10.9% to 7.9%. Adult poverty would drop from 11.8% to 9.9%. Seniors would see the smallest, though by no means insignificant, benefit under this scenar-

A $1000 cheque a year is, again, hardly a robust universal basic income–even if it were a top up to present income-enhancing schemes. Why do Dhunna and Bush fail to mention, once again, the wider context that shows how minimal such a scenario would be? Perhaps they want to create a straw model of basic income so that they can then proceed with their idealized solution to the problems that face the Canadian working class and community members face by proposing an expanded public service? Is this ethical? Is it honest?

Stereotypical Presentation of Those Who Advocate a Robust Universal Basic Income

Dhunna and Bush say this

Some of the appeal of UBI comes from the wishful idea that it can solve all of our problems at once, lifting people out of poverty and making education and public services accessible.

They present no evidence to show that those who advocate a robust universal basic income somehow “can solve all of our problems at once.” 

Bryant Sculos (2018), in  “Socialism & Universal Basic Income,” Class, Race and Corporate Power, Volume 6, Issue 1, shows that their view finds an echo in other stereotypical criticisms of a robust UBI: 

Most of the critics of UBI treat its advocates as though they believe UBI would solve all or most socioeconomic problems, at least in the Global North. I have yet to come across any serious UBI advocate who takes such an expansive position.

Contradictory Conception of the Capitalist Government or Capitalist State: 

Dhunna and Bush argue, contradictorily, the following:  

Instead of ending poverty, UBI could in reality entrench low wages and precarious work, and reduce workers’ bargaining power. In part, this reflects an analysis that understands that the state’s role under capitalism is to create conditions of profitability for capitalists, such that workers are further pushed into the labour market [my emphasis].

They also have the following to say: 

Our energy and money is better spent waging struggle directly to strengthen labour laws [my emphasis].

Of course, labour laws should be strengthened–but how does this come about except through–the capitalist state. They can argue for state intervention in the form of strengthened labour laws, but those who advocate for a robust UBI provided by the capitalist state cannot. Why is it that they can rely on the capitalist state whereas those who advocate for a robust universal basic income cannot?

In addition, as I have shown in a number of posts, labour laws (for example, relating to collective bargaining and management rights) may restrict the power of the class of employers but they in no way question the legitimacy of that power (see, for example, Management Rights, Part Nine: Is A Collective Agreement that Involves Management Rights and the Exploitation and Oppression of Workers a Fair Contract?Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?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). 

Why is it that Dhunna and Bush are silent on the limitations of labour laws and reliance on the capitalist state? Perhaps because they are biased towards reformist unions? Perhaps because they idealize unions and labour laws? 

I will let the reader figure out why Dhunna and Bush express such contradictions. Or why they propose the following: 

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

Would not such policies be implemented–by the capitalist state? They criticize advocates of UBI for pressuring the capitalist state to provide for a universal level of income above the poverty line, but they rely on the capitalist state to provide free state services. What is sauce for the goose is apparently not sauce for the gander.

Furthermore, if the proposal for a robust universal basic income is used as an organizing tool and linked to the aim of abolishing the class power of employers and all classes, the issue of going beyond the capitalist state and indeed beyond capitalism arises–but that question never arises for Dhunna and Bush.

In a follow-up post, I will look at the one example which they provide that involves a more robust or ambitious UBI–the one referred to by the International Labour Organization.

An Implicit Assumption of a Zero-Sum Approach to Struggling Against the Class of Employers

Dhunna and Bush in the last quote above imply that improvements in the level of UBI will likely lead to reductions in services in other areas–a kind of zero-sum situation. However, reduction in social services have occurred over the years without the existence of UBI; there is no necessary connection between the two.

As I wrote in my first post on this topic, the struggle for a robust universal basic income and the expansion of public services need not be mutually exclusive. The working class should struggle for both–all the while aiming to abolish the class power of employers and not just reform it, as Dhunna and Bush aim to do (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).

Their implied zero-sum analysis in the following quote thus is also illogical:

The business community was in favour of basic income because it acted as a political shield against reforming labour laws, and because a basic income also acts as a wage subsidy for businesses. Employers would be relieved from the pressure of increasing wages from their own coffers and put the onus on the state to top up incomes through general revenues.

To claim that the “business community was in favour of basic income” is, again, true only on a minimalist assumption of a basic income–the “business community was in favour of [a minimalist version of” basic income–not a more robust version. The assumption for most of their article operates on this assumption so that they can easily refute such a model and provide their idealized version of the expansion of public services–their humanized version of capitalism, or humanized welfare capitalism (see my critique of that version in 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).

Conclusion

Dhunna and Bush assume a minimal universal basic income in order to provide superficial evidence against it. They stereotype the position of radical advocates of a universal basic income and have a contradictory conception of the nature of the capitalist government or state; they idealize labour laws and, implicitly, union as well as the provision of public services. In addition to these problems, they assume that there is necessarily a zero-sum situation facing the working class: either a (minimal) universal basic income or an expansion of public services. They exclude from consideration a simultaneous struggle for a robust universal basic income and an expansion of public services. Finally, they exclude any consideration of aiming to abolish the class power of employers and thereby the elimination of class exploitation and class oppression–once and for all. 

In a future post, I will look at their references to studies by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Public Service International (both international social-democratic labour organizations).

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.