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– (“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.

What’s Left, Toronto? Part Seven

As I indicated in an earlier post, on September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The talks were posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (also posted on YouTube) (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election). As I indicated in my earlier posts, over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

This post is the last post in the series since it looks at the last talk by David Kidd, introduced by Herman Rosenfeld as a community worker, trade-union activist and as a political activist. Mr. Kidd was supposed to talk about some of the challenges and options the left have.

Mr. Kidd opened by claiming that he was going to provide a Twitter version of some of the left-activist projects in Toronto since he had limited time. It was indeed a Twitter version–and the weakest “analysis” of all the talks.

Mr. Kidd first outlines how, in the 1970s, he took a stance between either the choice of liberal or Tory (conservative) at the municipal, provincial or federal level (Canadian politics is usually analyzed at one or more of these three levels). Mr. Kidd acted negatively by tearing down any Conservative signs since he aimed to ensure, where he immediately lived, that it was a Tory-free zone.

He then refers back to the 1950s and 1960s. The Toronto Labour Council was instrumental in obtaining a public transit system and a public education system. In the 1950s, it campaigned against the racist discrimination of blacks and other people of colour to gain access to restaurants and other places as well as against the anti-Semitic and racist policies of exclusion to recreational facilities.

The 1970s and the 1980s were a period of struggle of massive community mobilizations and organizations for, for example,tenants’ rights and against gentrification. Women’s groups emerged to fight for their rights. This period also saw opposition to the far right and to fascist movements. A movement against carding also was initiated as was a movement for police accountability. The fight for gay and lesbian rights started to develop despite violent attacks against gays and lesbians.

Fights against business-oriented initiatives, such as the attempt to bring the Olympics to Toronto, were defeated in 1996 as organizations for the rights of the homeless fought back. The left gained a victory in this instance.

The 1990s and 2000s saw the public-sector unions and environmental groups fight back against privatization. This period saw the fight against the amalgamation of the city and the emergence of such leftist organizations as Black Lives Matter, No One Is Illegal and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).

Mr. Kidd then tries to explain the shift towards a right-wing populism because of two economic crises in Toronto and the increase in homelessness. Deindustrialization has led to a decrease in decent paying jobs. The emergence of a substantial working-class poor has led to their blaming others and to a shift towards right populism. The municipal left also failed to offer solutions to problems they were facing.

Municipal activism is rooted in the communities in the city, but so too is the fight for democracy. The fight for democracy is like the fight against oppression. Both involve a daily fight and should not be conceived as something that you win and then is finished.

What is necessary is to renew the left’s analysis and its strategic sense of how to build working-class power.

Mr. Kidd then refers to Doug Ford’s elections and the need to build community councils again. In particular, it is necessary to build parent councils once again that, in the past, had some decision-making power at the school-board level.

Ultimately, the left cannot count just on the elected officials at City Hall but need to build local community organizations that will fight for people’s needs.

Mr. Kidd then claims that, as socialists, the left need to build programmatic unity on where it needs to go. The fight against the Conservative Harris Ontario government in the past was purely negative–to stop Harris. Consequently, welfare rights 20 years later are still at the same level. Subsequent governments did not raise them nor did they undo some of the attacks on welfare rights instituted by the Harris government. The same logic applies to subsequent governments after Ford loses power, Mr. Kidd implies–unless the left does something different.

What Mr. Kidd means by “programmatic” is what the audience has heard from other presenters, who have shown what is necessary in order to talk to people about where to go. The free transit movement and Stefan Kipfer’s presentation on housing are examples of what needs to be done (descriptions of these are found in my previous posts on this topic–as are criticisms of them). The left cannot count on the market to achieve its goals. It needs public land banking, expropriation, public housing, co-ops and nationalized affordable housing. It needs to maintain free public education and healthcare. The left needs to protect and expand public assets in Toronto.

Finally, what is needed is a Municipal Human Rights Code since discrimination is still the daily experience of queer, racialized and elder members of Toronto. What is needed is a city that is for all its citizens and not just taxpayers.

Mr. Kidd’s description of various struggles sounds very radical–but it really is a rehash of social-democratic demands of an expanded public sector, supplemented by non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that are linked to community organization. Mr. Kidd’s socialism is really welfare capitalism. Not once does Mr. Kidd question the power of employers as a class.

Mr. Kidd mentions necessary community organizations required to fight for what he calls socialism, such as the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), and yet as I showed in a previous post, OCAP, although it recognizes economic coercion via the power of employers as a class with one hand, ignores it subsequently when dealing with social proposals and solutions with the other hand (see “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)

Mr. Kidd, like much of the social-democratic left, idealizes the public sector. What is needed, for them, is the expansion of the public sector. The social-democratic left, however, rarely inquire into the adequacy of the public sector to express either the interests of public sector workers or the interests of workers in general. They assume that the existing relations will prevail and that all that will change is the quantitative weight of the public sector relative to the private sector.

Mr. Kidd, like many of the social-democratic left, do not bother to consider the adequacy, for example, of the current educational system in terms of quality. What they propose is an expansion of services under present conditions rather than a radical restructuring of education in relation, for instance, to work.

Rather than repeat what I have written elsewhere, I refer the interested reader to links to some of my publications and writings as found on my home page. I am adding another link that is directly more relevant to educational issues: A Deweyan Review of the the Chicago Teachers’ Union Publication The Schools Chicago Students Deserve: Research-Based Proposals to Strengthen Elementary and Secondary Education in the Chicago Public Schools (2012).

Although Mr. Kidd’s proposals may help people in one way or another, they also can be co-opted and integrated into the capitalist economic and political structures. Each proposal he has made has nothing specifically socialist about it. Such proposals are socialist only if they are linked to a more radical program of eliminating both the power of employers as a class and the social, economic and political structures associated with that power.

The same could be said of Mr. Kidd’s reference to the need for a Municipal Human Rights Code. Although this and other such measures may help workers and citizens in particular situations, such measures fail to address the issue of the power of employers as a class. None of the references made by Mr. Kidd have any link to questioning the power of employers as a class. They are reformist measures as such. Furthermore, in a post that I will send in the distant future, I will point out the inadequate nature of “human rights” personally, when I filed a human rights complaint for political discrimination (something which Mr. Kidd fails to mention–typical of the social-democratic left).

Mr. Kidd did indeed provide a twitter version of the struggles in which he has been involved. Such struggles are reformist through and through. This should surprise no one. Mr. Kidd has been a Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) organizer and executive member of local 79. He evidently prides himself on his activism–but there is no indication whatsoever that Mr. Kidd has ever intended, through his activities, in contributing to the creation of a new kind of society without classes in general and without employers in particular. His reference to “decent paying jobs” tips his hand.

There is no indication that Mr. Kidd has ever intended to contribute to the radical restructuring of social, economic and political institutions in such a way that human beings finally control their own life process rather than having their lives controlled by objectified social, economic and political structures which they create but do not control. His aim is to achieve “decent paying jobs” supplemented by a welfare state–hardly anything “radical.” Mr. Kidd, like much of the social-democratic left, want to turn back the clock to the 1950s and 1960s, when workers obtained increased wage gains and expanded their benefits–but he forgets that the economic times have changed and that the capitalist economy is not the same as it was then. Moreover, even during the 1950s and 1960s, workers were treated as things–something about which Mr. Kidd is silent. As long as workers receive “decent paying jobs” while being treated as things, Mr. Kidd will be content. Such is the implicit view of those who refer to “decent paying jobs.”

In general, then, the series of talks which claim to be radical fall far short of being radical. They are all in one way or another reformist and have no intention of questioning the class structure of modern society. Even the most radical of them–presented by Michelle Lee of No One Is Illegal–fails to live up to its own potentiality.

This series of talks should have been named: What’s Left, Toronto? Social-Reformist Alternatives for the City Election.

I will leave these radicals to their own delusions. I hope that by exposing the limitations of such views, others will abandon such delusions and see more clearly what needs to be done.


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.