A Robust or Ambitious Universal Basic Income: An Impossible Dream for Some Among the Social-democratic Left

Introduction

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

In a previous post (The Strawman of a Minimal Universal Basic Income by the Social-democratic Left in Toronto), I pointed out how unethical and dishonest Dhunna and Bush were in their critique of a policy of universal basic income (UBI) since they, for the most part, assume that such a UBI would involve at best a minimum and definitely inadequate level of income for Canadian citizens. There is, however, one exception.

The International Labour Organization and the Principle of a Universal Basic Income (UBI)

There is one situation in which they acknowledge a possible more generous UBI–when they refer to the costs of such a program in relation to GDP analyzed by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Thus, they write:

If our demand consists of a UBI of $24,000 per year for Canadians aged 18 and over, we are looking at a front-loaded cost of $696 billion every year. This is roughly double the current national deficit (approximately $350 billion), or put another way, 40% of Canada’s GDP (for reference, the country’s overall health spending makes up 11.6% of our GDP). A UBI at a lower level of $1,000 per year for people aged 18 and over comes with a more modest $29 billion price tag — roughly 14 percent of the entire federal budget pre-pandemic. On the other hand, a targeted basic income through a negative income tax set at $21,810 (if you are earning below that amount, you would receive a cheque that boosts you to that level) would, according to one study, cost roughly $177 billion a year (the latest Basic Income Canada Network study puts the cost somewhere between $134 to $187 billion). 

In 2018, a study published by the International Labour Organization calculated the costs of a UBI in 130 countries that would raise everyone above the poverty line, and concluded it would on average cost between 20 to 30 percent of GDP. This is a staggering annual cost for one program that, in many countries, is near or even greater than all other government expenditures combined in many countries. 

Let us take a look at the 2018 International Labour Organization report (the ILO itself is a social-democratic organization and hence is itself a reformist organization that assumes the legitimacy of the employer-employee relation–but that only in passing). From Isabel Ortiz et al (2018)., Universal Basic Income Proposals in Light of ILO Standards: Key Issues and Global Costing, page 18:

A meaningful amount of UBI benefits is generally found to be fiscally infeasible (OECD, 2017a; Tanner, 2015; Van Parijs and Vanderborght, 2017). Thus, if governments were to consider the introduction of a UBI at adequate UBI benefit levels that could have a significant impact on the reduction of poverty and inequality, they would need to explore new financing sources.

Proposals include an increase in existing taxes, for example, income, inheritance, capital, corporate, or value added taxes, or the imposition of new taxes on natural resource revenues, financial transactions or robots (Reed and Lansley, 2016). Others have proposed the abolishment of existing tax-free allowances or the taxation of the UBI alongside other incomes to reduce the cost and make it more targeted to low income earners (see OECD, 2017a); such a tax claw back approach would have similar effects to a negative income tax model 13 – care should be taken with the diminished redistributive effect of some financing proposals.

Given that UBI is proposed to redress growing inequalities caused by corporate globalization and new forms of work, it should be redistributive. UBI should not be financed by regressive methods such as taxing households or depriving them from other social benefits, as this UBI policy would give to households with one hand what it would take away with the other.

The ILO discusses three possible scenarios. Page 22:

Scenario 1 assumes the introduction of a UBI set at the level of the poverty line. 

Here social assistance funds are generally replaced by UBI; social insurance schemes are slightly reduced as UBI compensates for a small percentage of this category. Private insurance schemes (for example, private pensions) remain the same. Employers’ contributions do not decrease in this scenario. The conclusion (page 23): 

… the main winners are the majority of citizens in a country. … the majority of the population – are the net winners, a reason why this UBI scenario would reduce inequality.

The second scenario (page 23)

sketches out the introduction of UBI in exchange for cuts in employers’ contributions to social security systems.

Here the conclusion is different: 

 The net losers would be the large majority of people in formal employment who would lose the
higher levels of protection of public social security systems, including low and the middle classes. … From the point of view of financing, the net winners would be corporations….

The third scenario (the scenario generally assumed by Dhunna and Bush) 

presents the most radical neoliberal proposal, the introduction of UBI with the complete abolition of public social insurance.

The conclusion is even more negative than that of the second scenario (page 24): 

In this scenario virtually everybody is a net loser; the poorest will not receive anymore social assistance at the poverty line level; the low and middle classes, before covered by a better social protection system, now they will lose their accumulated social protection benefits.

Unlike Dhunna and Bush, the general conclusion of the ILO is–it all depends on the specific scenario proposed whether UBI will reduce inequality (in income) and benefit more most citizens than currently (page 26):

As outlined earlier, some UBI proposals are in accordance with ILO Conventions and Recommendations, and others are not.

Some scenarios could function to reduce levels of income inequality: 

Indeed, UBI could be the most radical form of the income component of a national social protection floor, an important tool for the advancement of inclusive development and social justice. UBI on its own cannot be considered a panacea to existing and future income security and social protection challenges, but can potentially help to close coverage gaps and provide a basic level of income security.

As I argued in a previous post (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), there is no reason why we should not struggle simultaneously for a robust UBI and an expanded welfare state.

It should be noted, however, that Dhunna and Bush, despite their own distorted presentation of the ILO’s position on the UBI, implicitly use the ILO as a standard for their own social-democratic and reformist aims; why else do they reference the ILO study to justify their conclusions?

They do not, however, question the ILO standards. ILO, though, assumes the legitimacy of the continued existence of a market for workers and hence fails to consider how a struggle for achieving a universal basic income could constitute a means by which to initiate the undermining of a market for workers. Thus, the ILO states (page 29):

Effective labour market institutions are necessary to ensure decent work for all in a
rapidly changing environment.

Since “labour market institutions” involve working for an employer, and working for an employer involves being treated as a thing or means for obtaining more money (the private sector) or as a means for purposes over which workers have little say in their daily lives in the public sector (see The Money Circuit of Capital), the ILO does not consider a scenario where workers seek a UBI, in addition to other social insurance schemes, that threatens the existence of the market for workers or “labour market institutions.” The exclusion of such a scenario reflects the social-democratic nature of the ILO. 

The Public Service International (PSI) and the Principle of a Universal Basic Income (UBI)

Dhunna and Bush refer to a 2019 report by the Public Services Alliance:

In 2019, Public Service International (PSI) released a wide-ranging report assessing UBI pilots and experiments globally, as well as academic literature. The report concluded that, “making cash payments to individuals to increase their purchasing power in a free-market economy is not a viable route to solving problems caused or exacerbated by neoliberal market economics.”

That document contains, ironically, to the following principle (page 3):

At the heart of the critique of UBIs contained in this brief is the failure of the most basic principle of progressive tax and expenditure, which can be summarised as “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.

This interpretation of the principle is typical of the social-democratic view: it looks at the problem from the point of view of distribution and consumption of already produced commodities and not according to the process by which such commodities were produced (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). Employers can exploit and oppress workers, and then, for social democrats, employers can be taxed and some of the revenue can be shifted to those who either cannot find employment with a particular employer or are incapable of working for a particular employer. It is more like a compensatory model than a model that permits people to control their own lives in the totality of their lives: production, distribution and income. 

Let us take a look at this document in more detail. Anna Coote and Edanur Yazici, the authors of this report, refer to the ILO report outlined above in relation to costs, implying that it would cost too much (pages 8-9). However, as has been shown, the ILO concludes that a more robust (though by no means sufficient) UBI could be viable even within a capitalist setting, depending on how it was financed.

On page 10, the authors conclude:

It is a lazy utopian remedy that fails to address issues of class, economic ownership and the productive capacity of the economy.

If a robust UBI begins to question the legitimacy of the market for workers and therefore the legitimacy of the class power of employers, it does indeed address the issues of “class, economic ownership and the productive capacity of the economy.” The authors, however, nowhere question the legitimacy of the class power of employers; they assume its continued existence. 

On pages 11-12, they make the following assertion:

UBI alone cannot build long-term economic self-sufficiency. Small injections of cash, even if regular and unconditional, will not be enough. People must also be able to control what happens to them, to have structures for shared decision-making and access to essential resources.

Since the nature of the kind of society in which we live is that workers and the unemployed are not ‘economically self-sufficient’–if they were, there would not be a market for workers (a so-called labour market). As for ‘people having to be able to control what happens to them,” working for an employer, whether in a unionized setting or not necessarily involves a loss of “control” over “what happens to them” (see for example The Radical Left Needs to Call into Question Existing Social Institutions at Every Opportunity, Part One or Employers as Dictators, Part One and , more generally, The Money Circuit of Capital ).

Although unions limit somewhat the power of employers and hence are to be supported as defensive organizations, they also often function as ideologues of employers by claiming to create conditions of fairness at work when that work is characterized by exploitation and oppression (see Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part Six: Unions and the Police). Management rights clauses in Canadian collective agreements, furthermore, explicitly express the lack of control of workers over their work and working conditions (see, for example, Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia), and even when such a clause does not exist in a collective agreement, it is implied. 

On page 12, Coote and Yazici write: 

If emancipation is the goal, not just ‘inclusion’ or reduction of poverty, UBI is not the answer. If cash payments become the preferred tool for social protection, there is a serious risk of crowding out efforts to build collaborative, sustainable services and infrastructure – and setting a pattern for future development that promotes commodification rather than emancipation.

What then is the answer if the aim is the abolition of the class power of employers and classes in general? How are we to question the power of employers without taking risks? Of course, employers could try to use UBI to dismantle public services–and to counter such a move would require organization and class struggle–as would the maintenance of public services. However, fighting for a robust universal basic income that breaks the link between needs and work does point towards a new kind of society–a society where access to expanded basic needs (since what is basic is itself variable as our capacity to produce our lives changes) do not require us to subordinate our lives to the power of any particular employer. 

The authors do not take seriously the goal of emancipation. If they did, they would at least mention the goal of abolishing the power of employers as a class. Indeed, they implicitly reject such a goal since they advocate for an enhanced welfare state or enhanced welfare capitalism–like Dhunna and Bush. From page 13 :

It is necessary and possible to raise funds to bring greater security, opportunity and power to all people, but the money needed to pay for an adequate UBI scheme would be better spent on reforming social protection systems, and building more and better quality public services.

There is little here that addresses challenging the class power of employers and the abolition of classes; it is a question of reforming capitalism in order “to bring greater security, opportunity and power to all people”–an impossible goal since the general nature of capitalism is to bring insecurity to many while providing security to a dwindling minority–by exploiting and oppressing workers, citizens and migrants. 

The priority for Coote and Yazici is to focus their energies on reforming the class power of employers, not abolishing it (page 13):

The campaign for UBI threatens to divert political energies – as well as funds – from more important causes.

It is necessary and possible to raise funds to bring greater security, opportunity and power to all people, but the money needed to pay for an adequate UBI scheme would be better spent on reforming social protection systems, and building more and better quality public services.

I guess that emancipation from the power of employers is not a very important cause–for social democrats. Indeed, it is likely that for for Dhunna and Bush, for the ILO, for Coote and Yazici and for Public Services International, the goal is not really socialism or the abolition of classes but a humanized form of capitalism, or enhanced welfare capitalism, or capitalism with a human face (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 ). 

Paying Lip-Service to a Radical Position

There is a very slight recognition of more radical positions that support the idea of a UBI, such as the late David Graeber’s advocacy of such a proposal. They write (page 20): 

Contemporary political theorists such as David Graeber see UBI allowing people to escape from ‘bullshit jobs

They then have a brief section that refers to “radical transformation” (page 21): 

RADICAL TRANSFORMATION

For some of its progressive advocates, UBI is part of a vision of a new social settlement where poverty is eliminated, where everyone has a secure income, where unpaid work is valued on par with paid work, and where inequalities are history. For UK Green Party leaders Jonathan Bartley and Caroline Lucas, it is an “exciting idea because it will help us form a clearer idea of what constitutes welfare, good work and human flourishing, and it would help us towards a more balanced economy which acknowledges what is truly ‘productive’ in its broader sense’”.11 UBI is rarely seen as the only lever to achieve these goals: it is usually envisaged as running alongside a range of progressive reforms as well as more and better public services.

The UK Green Party’s aim in adopting a UBI is not, however, to challenge the existence of the power of employers as a class but at best to restrict such power. Thus, on page 51 of the UK Green Party Manifesto (2019), we read:

Reviewing current employment law to close loopholes that allow employers in the gig economy (where workers are offered freelance work or short-term contracts only) to deny gig workers key rights. We will ensure that gig economy workers always receive at least the current minimum wage, and have job security, sick leave, holiday pay and pension provision.

On the same page, we read further: 

Requiring all employers, no matter their size, to legally recognise any union chosen by their workforce to represent them.

On page 52:

We will support employers to explore four day working weeks in their workplace, driving up productivity as well as boosting the wellbeing of staff.

There is no evidence in the UK Green Party’s manifesto that it propose using the UBI as a means by which to challenge the power of employers as a class; it, like the British Labour Party, seeks to reform the employer-employee relation and not overturn it. Hence, Coote’s and Yazici’s reference to the UK Green Party as radical is similar to some social democrats here in Toronto, who refer to social reforms that do not involve challenging the basic social relations characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers (such as a market for workers, or a “labour market.”) (see the seven-part series of critiques, beginning with What’s Left, Toronto? Part One).

Coote and Yazici’s extremely brief mention of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory fails to even address Graeber’s critique of the employer-employee relation as such. From that work:

The modern morality of “You’re on my time; I’m not paying you to lounge around” is very different. It is the indignity of a man who feels he’s being robbed. A worker’s time is not his own; it belongs to the person who bought it. Insofar as an employee is not working, she is stealing something for which the employer paid good money (or, anyway, has promised to pay good money for at the end of the week). By this moral logic, it’s not that idleness is dangerous. Idleness is theft.

This is important to underline because the idea that one person’s time can belong to someone else is actually quite peculiar. Most human societies that have ever existed would never have conceived of such a thing. As the great classicist Moses Finley pointed out: if an ancient Greek or Roman saw a potter, he could imagine buying his pots. He could also imagine buying the potter—slavery was a familiar institution in the ancient world. But he would have simply been baffled by the notion that he might buy the potter’s time. As Finley observes, any such notion would have to involve two conceptual leaps which even the most sophisticated Roman legal theorists found difficult: First, to think of the potter’s capacity to work, his “labor-power,” as a thing that was distinct from the potter himself, and second, to devise some way to pour that capacity out, as it were, into uniform temporal containers—hours, days, work shifts—that could then be purchased, using cash.17 To the average Athenian or Roman, such ideas would have likely seemed weird, exotic, even mystical. How could you buy time? Time is an abstraction!18 The closest he would have likely been able to come would be the idea of renting the potter as a slave for a certain limited time period —a day, for instance—during which time the potter would, like any slave, be obliged to do whatever his master ordered. But for this very reason, he would probably find it impossible to locate a potter willing to enter into such an arrangement. To be a slave, to be forced to surrender one’s free will and become the mere instrument of another, even temporarily, was considered the most degrading thing that could possibly befall a human being.19

As a result, the overwhelming majority of examples of wage labor that we do encounter in the ancient world are of people who are already slaves: a slave potter might indeed arrange with his master to work in a ceramics factory, sending half the wages to his master and keeping the rest for himself.20 Slaves might occasionally do free contract work as well—say, working as porters at the docks. Free men and women would not. And this remained true until fairly recently: wage labor, when it did occur in the Middle Ages, was typical of commercial port cities such as Venice, or Malacca, or Zanzibar, where it was carried out almost entirely by unfree labor.21

So how did we get to the situation we see today, where it’s considered perfectly natural for free citizens of democratic countries to rent themselves out in this way, or for a boss to become indignant if employees are not working every moment of “his” time?

Like Dhunna and Bush, Coote and Yazici do not question how we got to that situation today, nor do they question what can be done about abolishing such a situation and having workers control their own lives again. What both assume is that–the employer-employee relation is eternal and must always be regulated–but not abolished.

Their reference to class struggle, by contrast, does not have as its aim the abolition of the class power of employers and with it the working class as a class and therefore the abolition of all classes; their aim, rather, is to perpetuate class struggle–a never ending process that perpetuates a more humanized but still nevertheless capitalist society.

Their critique of UBI is, then, motivated by their implicit assumption that a socialist society is not really achievable. They do not say that, but they imply it. Alternatively, they define socialism as merely capitalism with an enhanced welfare state and protective measures. Thus, it is interesting to note that Dhunna and Bush refer to labour laws without criticizing their adequacy (whereas they do criticize the inadequacy of a minimalist UBI–almost the only form of UBI they recognize):

We stand to lose much more than we have to gain under a basic income regime doled out by the ruling class. Our energy and money is better spent waging struggle directly to strengthen labour laws and access to unionization for all, to build more power at the point of production — the source of worker power. 

Labour laws that protect workers or extend certain rights certainly should be supported and struggled for, but they are defensive in nature, not offensive. What of labour laws that protect managerial rights? (See for example Management Rights, Part Nine: Is A Collective Agreement that Involves Management Rights and the Exploitation of Workers a Fair Contract?). Can labour laws defend the interests of workers to oppose the very existence of the class of employers? Can labour laws eliminate the exploitation of workers? (For an example of the calculation of the rate of exploitation of workers, see The Rate of Exploitation of the Workers of Rogers Communications Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto).   Can they eliminate the oppression of workers? (For discussion of the oppression of workers both during the general time when they work for employers, see Employers as Dictators, Part One and The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation). 

Conclusion

This is the last post that critically looks at the specific article written by Dhunna and Bush. In the series, I have shown that the writers assume that only a minimum basic income is what is possible under existing conditions–an incorrect assumption. Furthermore, I have also shown that they often distort the references that they use by claiming that their references show that a basic income is unfeasible–when in fact their references show that only certain kinds of basic income are unfeasible whereas other kinds are feasible. 

Ultimately, Dhunna and Bush aim for an enhanced welfare state–with regulation of employers rather than the abolition of employers–and the related economic, social and political structures. 

Their criticism of universal basic income is invalid.

I will take up in future posts further criticisms of a social democrat who defend welfare reforms while simultaneously opposing basic income. Specifically, my future target will be the radical social democrat here in Toronto, John Clarke. 

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

Introduction 

This is a continuation of two previous posts (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 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 One: Oppressive Educational Services), 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 my previous post, I endeavoured to show that Dhunna’s and Bush’s aim of “affirm[ing] the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure” by calling for an expansion of public services as a solution is inadequate because they fail to consider the oppressive nature of public services in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers. Specifically, I looked at how educational services are oppressive by imposing grades or marks on students and by imposing a curriculum that often has little meaning for students.

In this post, I look at how welfare services are oppressive.

Oppressive Welfare Services

Public services include welfare services in various forms, such as child welfare, social assistance (called welfare when I was young) and unemployment insurance (now euphemistically called “employment insurance” in Canada). Related to educational services in some ways since children are often involved, do welfare services provide “”publicly owned infrastructure” and “publicly operated infrastructure?” Is there democracy within the provision of welfare services? Or is “publicly operated infrastructure” an oppressive infrastructure?

From Don Lash (2017), “When the Welfare People Come”: Race and Class in the Child Protection System:

This theory is generally applicable to child welfare workers. Workers, whether investigators, caseworkers, or lawyers, operate with some discretion in forming judgments, albeit with layers of management oversight and final say on decisions, and even greater discretion over the way in which a client is treated. Their work also has an enormous potential impact on their clients. Finally, they are accountable to managers for datadriven outcomes, to judges, to the pressures of media attention, and to countless other “stakeholders” with more influence than the parents and families with whom they work. Because of the pressure of caseloads and paperwork requirements, they are also prone to routinization and simplification to manage the work and meet management expectations. Conscientiousness, empathy, and even professional ethics may not always be trumped by the dynamics of street-level bureaucracy, but there will always be a tension that is seldom resolved solely in the interests of the client.

Two child welfare workers who worked for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) describe the position of DCFS social workers. They are nominally given professional discretion to be exercised in the best interest of the children and families to whom they are assigned, but operate under constant pressure to act in the best interest of the department. In a memoir about their work experiences, they wrote:

If CSWs [Certified Social Workers] could speak frankly without fear of retribution, many of
these well-meaning workers who should place the welfare of their case children and/or families
above all else do not feel able to do so. If they felt free to speak the truth, they would say that
they are being made to do whatever they’re told without question or hesitation, and if they do
otherwise, they would find themselves under threat of discipline. They are fully aware that to
resist certain morally questionable directives may mean putting any hopes of advancement or
even their entire careers in jeopardy. They realize that in demonstrating reluctance to go along
with these directives, they may even run the risk of facing trumped-up charges on grounds of
insubordination.

This does not sound very democratic, either from the point of view of the workers or those who receive their services. Why are Dhunna and Bush silent about the oppressive nature of the welfare state? In a society dominated by a class of employers, where civil servants are wage workers, is there not bound to be a conflict between the needs of those who receive the services and those who perform them? After all, civil servants in modern capitalist society are wage workers, and there exists a hierarchy of managers to which front-line workers are subordinate. Dhunna and Bush, however, simply ignore this fact, idealizing instead the modern state’s provision of services.

But the above quote is from a situation in the United States. What of more social-democratic states?

In Sweden, work-for-welfare was introduced in the 1990s. From Katarina Thorén (2008), “Activation Policy in Action” A Street-Level Study of Social Assistance in the Swedish Welfare State, page 5:

…municipal activation policies were introduced in the 1990s in the municipal social services organizations. The Swedish form of activation policies target unemployed social assistance recipients and require them to participate in local activation measures in return for financial support.

Of course, Dunnah and Bush would probably argue that they oppose such work-for-welfare programs. However, since they fail to engage in any way with the fact that there is a market for workers–employed by a class of employers–their opposition is more rhetoric than reality. Why would they oppose such programs? As long as there is a market for workers, there is bound to be a distinction between the “deserving poor” and the “non-deserving poor.” And the deserving poor are those who are willing to work–for an employer. Since Dunnah and Bush do not address the class relation at all in any direct fashion, any criticism they offer against work-for-welfare will only be partial and limited; to be effective, it is necessary to criticize the employer-employee relation as such.

But let us turn to the Swedish case. Do Swedish welfare services, which are “publicly owned infrastructure,” provide “publicly operated infrastructure” in a humane manner? 

In the Swedish case, there was a division of labour between social workers and “activation staff,” or the front-line workers who directly related to welfare “clients.” The activation staff tried to use this division in order to hide the oppressive nature of their own activities. Pages 130-132: 

But activation staff, for their part, admitted that they wanted to be viewed as “nice” and not part of the mandatory requirement process in order to keep a friendly atmosphere at the activation
programs. From a street-level bureaucracy perspective, the activation staff had an incentive, therefore, to conceal the coercive elements of the activation requirements. 

Local Organizational Arrangements and Bureaucratic Responsibilities

In part to limit the tensions with frustrated clients, there was an organizational divide of the formal responsibilities of social workers and activation workers. Clients were told that the social workers were responsible for all formal decisions and activation workers, whom they saw on a daily basis, would merely execute the activation requirements and related services. At the first information
meeting, clients were informed through a power point presentation that:

“WHY ARE YOU HERE? (Statement in Power Point presentation)
… You should not feel that you are forced to go here … participation here is a resource for those how are looking for jobs and receive social assistance … the goal is to be self-sufficient and to say “goodbye” to your social worker … (Commentary from job coach)

JOBBCENTRUM IS AN OFFER! (Statement in Power Point presentation)
… It’s not the staff at Jobbcentrum that decides that you are required to be here, it’s the Stockholm Municipality that has decided that and it’s your social worker that is taking care of all formal decisions. (Commentary from job coach)”

Thus, activation workers presented the activation requirement as an offer and concealed, rather successfully, the mandatory feature of the activation process, which, from a street-level bureaucracy perspective, was important for the activation staff. Clients were thereby encouraged to see activation workers as somehow removed from the formal decision-making. Clients were frequently referred to the social workers whenever they had questions regarding requirements, entitlements, and administration practices, although the activation staff was well informed about the local policy rules. But the right to social assistance was based on the clients’ performance at the activation program. Most clients could see that their first point of inquiry, negotiation, and tension would be with the activation worker who monitored their performance and attitude on a daily basis. The claim
of an organizational divide displaced this overt power held by activation workers, and tried to keep activation workers appearing neutral in an unequal bureaucratic relationship, and this may have only added to client frustrations and tensions within the program. Especially, when they found out that the activation staff reported their program performance to the social workers on a regular basis.

In one case, a client, whose social assistance had been withdrawn after her job coach had reported her as “inactive”, was very upset and told me the following:

“The social worker told me that the job coach had called her to say that I wasn’t active enough at Jobbcentrum and that he was disap-spoke with my job coach and he said that I was going good … why did he do so, he’s “my” job coach and supposed to support me….”

When it became apparent that the job coach had, in fact, reported her performance and thereby becoming a real factor in the decision-making process, the client felt she was not taken seriously and that they “gone behind her back”.

Thus, the organizational arrangement to separate the “exercise of public authority” between the social workers and the activation workers was mainly symbolic since the activation requirement indirectly determined the right to social assistance and activation staff reported clients’ activation performance to the social workers. Similar administrative arrangements have been demonstrated elsewhere.
Carstens (1998) claims that there is an underlying conflict between clients’ interest and organizations’ interest within the activation policy context and masked issues that demonstrate the asymmetric relationships in the activation policy process in Denmark.

Welfare services are anything but democratic–for both those who provide the services and for those who receive them.

The sectarian social-democratic left, of course, will claim that the oppressive nature of state work–for state workers and for citizens who receive those services–is due mainly to the neoliberal policies that currently exist. However, since neoliberalism–privatization of state services, deregulation of financial services, etc.–is only one form of the class power of employers, how any particular form of capitalist government or state can solve the problem of the tension or contradiction between state as both an employer of workers, on the one hand, and defender and supporter of a market for workers for the class of employers, on the other, is beyond me.

Of course, there are a range of possible policies that are better or worse by treating both social workers and those who use their services more or less humanely, but these are modifications around a basic point: As long as there exists a class of employers–both private and public–and a market for workers, there will always be a tension between the needs of those who provide services and those who receive them.

Perhaps the social-democratic left can provide an outline of how “publicly owned infrastructure” and “publicly operated infrastructure” can achieve this without calling into question the class power of employers

Frankly, I doubt that they can. Hence their silence about the issue.

What has been the main purpose of welfare services? There are undoubtedly many purposes, but one of the main purposes has been to reduce the aspirations of workers–as David Graeber (2015) points out in the German case, The Utopia of Rules On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, pages 154-155 :

Even though Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the great mastermind behind the creation of the German
state, allowed his parliament only limited powers, he was confounded by the rapid rise of workers’ parties, and continually worried by the prospect of a Socialist majority, or a possible Paris Commune-style uprising in his new united Germany. His reaction to Socialist electoral success from 1878 was twofold: on · the one hand, to ban the Socialist party, trade unions, and leftist newspapers; on the other, when this proved ineffective (Socialist candidates continued to run, and win, as independents) ,
to create a top-down alternative to the free schools, workers’ associations, friendly societies, libraries, theaters, and the larger process of building socialism from below. This took the form of a program of social insurance (for unemployment, health and disability, etc.), free education, pensions, and so forth-much of it watered-down versions of policies that had been part of the Socialist platform, but in every case, carefully purged of any democratic, participatory elements. In private, at least, he was utterly candid about describing these efforts as a “bribe,” an effort to buy out working-class loyalties to his conservative nationalist project. [note 117, incorrectly numbered 116]. When left-wing regimes did later take power, the template had already been established, and almost invariably, they took the same top-down approach, incorporating locally organized clinics, libraries, mutual banking initiatives, workers’ education centers, and the like into the administrative structure of the state.

Two points are relevant here. Firstly, the purpose of welfare services need not be to enhance workers’ control over their own lives but to limit their capacity of seeking to go beyond the class system of employers. Graeber argues that Bismarck consciously sought to institute welfare services in order to bribe the working class. From Graeber (2015), page 252, note 117:

As he [Otto von Bismarck] put it to an American visitor at the time: “My idea was to bribe the working classes, or shall I say, to win them over, to regard the state as a social institution existing for their sake and interested in their welfare” (cited in William Thomas Stead, On the Eve: A Handbook for the General Election [London: Review of Reviews Publishing, 1892], p. 62). The quote is useful to bear in mind since I find that the general point-that the welfare state was largely created to pay off the working class for fear of their becoming revolutionaries- tends to be met with skepticism, and demands for proof that this was the self-conscious intention of the ruling class. But here we have the very first such effort described by its founder quite explicitly as such.

It would be unfair to Dhunna and Bush to argue that they seek to bribe the working class since they seek to force the provision of welfare services through power emanating from below, of course. However, given that the ruling class has used the provision of welfare services as a means of blunting the demands of workers, it would be necessary to seek means by which to prevent welfare measures from actually blunting workers’ demands. They fail to provide any such means in their article; indeed, they seem to believe that the provision of welfare services by the capitalist state is somehow in itself socialist. They also fail to consider whether the demand for a robust universal basic income could be just such a means from below that could question the power of employers as a class. 

Secondly, the form in which welfare services are provided is top-down–a hierarchy of employees, with little democratic structure within the provision of welfare services. Dhunna and Bush are also silent over this issue.

Oppressive Administration of Welfare Services Results in Fragmentation or Division of Interests of the Public 

I have already referred to my own personal experiences of the oppressive nature of “public services” via their administration (indirectly, in this case, via the courts and a court-ordered assessor (see for example A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and its Representatives, Part One).

Dhunna and Bush do not address the issue of the administration of the decommodified programs and how such administration creates various “subpublics” that divide people from one another through bureaucratic means. From Michael Kratke (1989), “Does Social Security Create a New Class? On the Restructuring of Social Inequality by Welfare State Arrangements,” in Political Regulation in the “Great Crisis,” pages 285-315, edited by Werner Vath, pages 305-307:

At this point the fragmentation thesis enters. It says that the institutional fragmentation of the social security system, the coexistence of different systems of social insurance and social assistance, and, last not least, the administrative practice of classifying and sub-classifying client groups altogether lead to just as many cleavages among welfare state clients. Take for example the Dutch social security system once again. Its clients are officially put into a whole string of subsystems and categorized accordingly as AOWers, WAOers, WWers, WWVers, RWWers, IOAWers, ZWers, WBPers, ABWers, AWWers and so on. No doubt, European social politics have been and still are obsessed with such classifications of client groups as they were in vogue for centuries. Such classifications of inactives are part and parcel of any social security system which is built upon the principle of specific and conditional rights to specific benefits. Only under & regime of an unconditional and universal grant for all citizens such [classifications would be unnecessary.

All these classifications bear moral overtones and are burdened with notions of “decency” and “respectability”. In moral terms, social security classes are certainly divided in an upper, a middle and an underclass retired people occupying the ranks of the most respectable upper clas$»j| the sick, the handicapped and the disabled occupying the less respected] but still deserving middle class, and the (long-term and young) unemployed filling the ranks of the least respected, more or less “undeservinging” underclass. (School)children, students, apprentices should be ranked some kind of a “upper middle class”, as they are doing some useful work preparing themselves to become part of the working population in the future. Members of the upper and especially the middle class can define themselves in terms of a special profession of trade–the profession trade they once belonged to or they will belong to in the near future And they have links with the groups of the working population they belonged to or will belong to–apprentices and students much stronger ones than the retired and disabled. But the latter still know to which group they will belong and try to stay in touch with their former colleagues, their trade unions and their clubs and associations. Maintaining some kind of a professional group identity certainly works as a means to keep the less deserving welfare state clients, the people on the dole and the mass of wretches living on social assistance at some social distance at least. Pensioners of various kinds–the largest group of welfare state clients– thus keep in touch with official politics, too; they are still included to some degree in professional organizations trade unions in the first place which they expect to represent their interests.

The administration of public services through a bureaucracy also often involves complicity, where pretense of a meritocratic system of assignment of people within a hierarchy is based mainly on merit and not on other criteria–such as nepotism. From Graeber (2015), pages 26-27:

Such institutions [bureaucracies] always create a culture of complicity. It’s not just that some people get to break the rules-it’s that loyalty to the 0rganization is to some degree measured by one’s willingness to pretend this isn’t happening. And insofar as bureaucratic logic is extended to the society as a whole, all of us start playing along.

This point is worth expanding on. W hat I am saying is that we are not just looking at a double standard, but a particular kind of double standard typical of bureaucratic systems everywhere.
All bureaucracies are to a certain degree utopian, in the sense that they propose an abstract ideal that real human beings can never live up to. Take the initial point about credentialism. Sociologists since Weber always note that it is one of the defining features of any bureaucracy that those who staff it are
selected by formal, impersonal criteria-most often, some kind of written test. (That is, bureaucrats are not, say, elected like politicians, but neither should they get the job just because they are someone’s cousin.) In theory they are meritocracies. In fact everyone knows the system is compromised in a thousand different ways … Many of the staff are in fact there just because they are someone’s cousin, and everybody knows it. The first criterion of loyalty to the organization becomes complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit, and not even based necessarily on being someone’s cousin; above all, it’s based on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, even though everyone knows this not to be true.  Or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when, in fact, they are often deployed as a means for entirely arbitrary personal power.

Nor do Dunnah and Bush address how their proposals will enable people to control their own lives when the power of employers as a class is not addressed directly. From Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster (July 2010), “The Dialectic of Social and Ecological Metabolism: Marx, Meszaros, and the Absolute Limits of Capital,” Socialism and Democracy, pages 124-138, Volume 24, Number 2, page 129:

The ecological and social challenges that confront us are often minimized as the logic of capital goes unquestioned and various reforms are put forward (such as improving energy efficiency via
market incentives) under the assumption that the system can be tamed to accommodate human needs and environmental concerns. Such positions fail to acknowledge that the structural determinations of capital will inevitably grind onwards, threatening to undermine the conditions of life, unless systematic change is pursued to eradicate the capital relation entirely.

Possibility of Recommodification of Public Services

Since Dunnah and Bush fail to address the power of employers at work (see the previous post), their proposal for an enhanced welfare state would always be subject to the threat of the conversion of public services into private services provided by capitalist employers. Their approach lacks any realistic assessment of how decommodification of these services (the conversion of services into universally free and accessible) can be realized as a viable permanent solution to the problems which people face since Dhunna and Bush do not aim at dismantling the labour market, abolishing the power of the class of employers and hence the existence of classes.

Decommodification will always be threatened by recommodification (as it has been during the neoliberal era of privatization and deregulation) unless the power of employers as a class is broken for good–and they fail even to address this issue. From Chris Wright (2014), Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, pages 147-148:

With respect to the very long run, Marx was always right that capitalism is not sustainable. There are many reasons for this, including the contradiction between a system that requires infinite growth and a natural environment that is finite, but the reason most relevant to Marxism is that
ultimately capital can never stop accumulating power at the expense of every other force in society. It is insatiable; its [competition-driven] lust for ever more profit and power condemns it to a life of Faustian discontent. It can never rest. Any accommodations, therefore, between the wage-earning
class and capital—such accommodations as the welfare state and the legitimization of collective bargaining—are bound to be temporary. Sooner or later capital’s aggressiveness will overpower contrary trends and consume everything, like a societal black hole (to change the metaphor). Everything is sucked into the vortex, including social welfare, the nation state, even nature itself. The logic is that nothing will remain but The Corporation [in the plural], and government protections of the people will be dismantled because such protections are not in the interest of capital. This absurd,
totalitarian logic can never reach its theoretical culmination, but it will, it must, proceed far enough, eventually, that an apocalyptic struggle between the masses and capital ensues. A relatively mild version of this happened once before, in the 1930s and ’40s, and a compromise [in the West]—the
mature welfare state—was the result. But then, as I said, capital repudiated the compromise (or is doing so as I write these words), and the old trends Marx diagnosed returned with a vengeance, and so humanity could look forward, this time, to a final reckoning. A final settling of accounts will occur in the coming century or two.

Conclusion

Dhunna’s and Bush’s aim of “affirm[ing] the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure” through an expansion of public services in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers is more rhetoric than reality since they fail to inquire into the nature of those public services. Welfare services are often oppressive, undemocratic and divisive. Furthermore, as long as the class power of employers is not explicitly challenged, the expansion of welfare services will always be threatened with a reduction of such services. 

So far in this series, I have shown that two of the three aims implied in Dhunna’s and Bush’s article–““meaningfully improve the material realities of working-class and oppressed people” and “affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure“–are hardly solutions to the problems which regular workers, citizens and community members face these days.

I will pursue a different tactic in future posts that criticize Dhunnah’s and Bush’s article. Specifically, I will show how they almost always illegitimately assume a minimal basic income, distort the nature of the references they use to justify their claims and fail to take into consideration proposals that involve a robust universal basic income the aim of which is to challenge the legitimacy of a market for workers.

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