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.

Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part Two

This is a continuation of a previous post. It is a response to Mr. Sam Gindin’s article, We Need to Say What Socialism Will Look Like , where he argues that under socialism the government or state will not “wither away” but will expand as public services expand. Mr. Gindin’s conception of the expansion of public services is, however, largely quantitative and has little to do with fundamental qualitative changes in public services.

The issue has to do with the idea of a “transitional socialist society.” Mr. Gindin assumes that such a society will come into existence through the expansion of public services that already exist. Compare his assumption with the following (from Rob Bryer, Accounting for History in Marx’s Capital: The Missing Link, pages 279-280):

…he [Andrew Kliman] makes a helpful suggestion: “except to say that I have increasingly come to suspect that the very idea of ‘transitional society’ is incoherent, and seems to stand in the way of thinking things through clearly” (Kliman 2004, 11). Rather than opting out, or making a transition from capitalism to socialism, Kliman
(2004, 12) argues “what requires explanation is the essential character of the change, which is not gradual quantitative decrease, but [quoting Hegel’s Science of Logic] the ‘abstract transition of an existence into a negation of the existence,’” Kliman (2004, 14) therefore suggests, “Capitalism . . . cannot ‘become’ a new society; it cannot gradually cease-to-be as the new society comes-to-be. Is it not the case, then, that revolutionary transformation can only be comprehended as absolute liberation that begins the day after the revolution, rather than as gradual transition?”

A transitional mode of production is incoherent, but history shows pre-capitalist transitional societies in which different modes co-existed, where class conflict was driving change in which one became dominant. Changes in the dominance of pre-capitalist modes—slavery over primitive communism, feudalism over free peasants, and capitalism over feudalism— were transitions. In his early work, Marx used the idea of transitional societies, changing from one ‘mode of commercial intercourse’ to another to explain history and, particularly in The Communist Manifesto, argued for a transition to socialism. However, from Grundrisse onward he argued that the
change to socialism was unique because, rather than an unconscious change in dominance from one form of exploitation to another, socialism results from consciously changing the social relations of production, and creating the necessary superstructure, to abolish it. Socialism becomes possible only if all (or the vast majority) of workers understand Marx’s theories of value and history and, when they do, they ‘inevitably’ change society’s social relations of production on Day 1 to abolish all exploitation.

There can, therefore, according to the mature Marx, be no transition to socialism, no ‘transitional society,’ part capitalist, part socialist, but only a once for all, immediate and comprehensive, qualitative change in the social relations of production.

Although history will undoubtedly be much messier than this “once and for all, immediate and comprehensive, qualitative change,” the basic idea of a vastly different kind of society emerging from capitalism than the emergence of capitalism from earlier kinds of society is something which Mr. Gindin ignores. The need for a conscious and organized effort to eliminate classes needs to be explicitly put on the agenda from the beginning in order to make a qualitative change in our lives.

Mr. Gindin does speak of the “transformation” of the capitalist state into a socialist democratic state, but his complete neglect of the repressive aspects of the government and his insistence that “scarcity” and “external motivation” will necessarily characterize socialism means that such a transformation will continue to possess repressive features.

Many members of the working class (especially the precarious members of the working class in Canada since many unionized members of the working class no longer engage in illegal strikes), however, experience the capitalist government or state as repressive. Mr. Gindin simply ignores this feature of working-class experience when he refers to the “transformation” of the capitalist state. The need to abolish a separate police power was formulated long ago, when the Paris Commune emerged in 1871 in France.

Let us continue with the issue of the repressive power of legal system. Last time, we looked at the police. Let us now look briefly at the criminal courts. An accused is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty–so says the rhetoric (rhetoric characterizes much of a society dominated by a class of employers). Is this really the case, though?

From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, page 2:

The whole flavour of the
rhetoric of justice is summed up in the idea that it is better for ten
guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be wrongly
convicted. Why then the paradox that the vast majority of cases
processed through a criminal justice system so geared to favouring
the accused results in a finding of guilt?

For they do. According to the criminal statistics for 1978,
conviction rates were as follows: 8o per cent of Scottish cases
involving crimes, 95 per cent of Scottish cases involving offences, 84
per cent of English Crown Court cases, 93 per cent of indictable
cases, 95 per cent of non-indictable cases, in the English magistrates’
courts.3 Some samples show even higher rates-a 98.5 per cent
conviction rate for magistrates’ courts in Sheffield (Bottoms and
McClean, 1976). Conviction depends in court on the plea or the
verdict. If the accused pleads guilty to the charge against him,
conviction follows as a matter of routine. If he pleads not guilty, a
contested trial follows. According to Bottoms and McClean, 72 ·5
per cent of those contesting the case in magistrates’ courts, 55 per
cent of those choosing jury trials, and 71 per cent of those allocated
to the higher courts were convicted on some or all counts (pp. 106,
209). In the rhetoric of justice everyone is entitled to a fair trial; yet
most defendants plead guilty. In the rhetoric of justice any
reasonable doubt should result in acquittal; yet for the clear
majority of cases the court is convinced beyond reasonable doubt,
despite all the rhetorical hamstrings on police and prosecution, that
the accused is guilty. Why?

One answer might be quite simply that the defendants are guilty;
the case against them is too strong to be plausibly disputed; the facts
speak for themselves. Sir Robert Mark has suggested indeed that the
very limitations placed on police and prosecution bringing a case to
court make it highly probable that only the indisputably guilty
come through the process at all….

Mr. Gindin probably has been indoctrinated into the ideology of law, which presents courts as areas where legal due process is dominant–whereas the opposite is the case.

From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, Page 153:

Legal policy has established two tiers of justice. One, the higher
courts, is for public consumption, the arena where the ideology of
justice is put on display. The other, the lower courts, deliberately
structured in defiance of the ideology of justice, is concerned less
with subtle ideological messages than with direct control. The latter
is closeted from the public eye by the ideology of triviality, so the
higher courts alone feed into the public image of what the law does
and how it operates. But the higher courts deal with only 2 per cent
of the cases that pass through the criminal courts. Almost all
criminal law is acted out in the lower courts without traditional due
process. But of course what happens in the lower courts is not only
trivial, it is not really law. So the position is turned on its head. The
98 per cent becomes the exception to the rule of ‘real law’ and the
working of the law comes to be typified not by its routine nature, but
by its atypical, indeed exceptional, High Court form. Between them
the ideologies of triviality and legal irrelevance accomplish the
remarkable feats of defining 98 per cent of court cases not only as
exceptions to the rule of due process, but also as of no public interest
whatsoever. The traditional ideology of justice can thus survive the
contradiction that the summary courts blatantly ignore it every
day-and that they were set up precisely for that purpose.

The real world of courts (and the police) needs more than “transformation”–it needs abolition since they function at the level of real law and not at the level of the rhetoric of justice. From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, pages 154-155:

The rhetoric of justice requires incriminating evidence as the
basis for arrest and search; the law allows arrest and search in order
to establish it. Justice requires that no-one need incriminate himself;
the law refuses to control the production of confessions and allows
silence as a factor in proving guilt. justice requires equality; the law
discriminates against the homeless, the jobless, the disreputable.
Justice requires each case be judged on its own facts; the law makes
previous convictions grounds for defining behaviour as an offence
and evidence against the accused. Justice places the burden of proof
on the prosecutor; the law qualifies the standard and method of
proof required and offers the prosecutor opportunities for making a
case which the accused is denied. Justice proclaims the right to trial
by one’s peers; the legal system ensures that 91 per cent of all
defendants plead guilty, and of the rest most are tried without a
jury.

If, then, the process of conviction is easier than the rhetoric of
justice would have us expect-and easier still the lower the status of
the defendant-it is hardly surprising. A wide range of prosecution
evidence can be legally produced and presented, despite the
rhetoric of a system geared overwhelmingly to safeguards for the
accused, precisely because legal structure, legal procedure, legal
rulings, not legal rhetoric, govern the legitimate practice of criminal
justice, and there is quite simply a distinct gap between the
substance and the ideology of the law.

This conclusion has two direct and immediate implications. First
it places the contemporary policy debate over law and order in a new
light. The police demand for more powers, for the removal of the
hamstrings of the right to silence, the limitations on arrest and
search-and indeed the civil liberties camp’s agitated response that
the legal checks of British justice must be upheld-begin to appear
rather odd. Both sides of the debate are framed in terms of the
ideology of civil rights, not in terms of the realities of legal procedure
and case law which, as I hope this analysis has amply shown, have
all too often already given the police and prosecution the very
powers they are demanding. The law does not need reform to
remove hamstrings on the police: they exist largely in the unrealised
rhetoric.

Second, more theoretically, this analysis has implications for the
explanation of law-enforcement and its outcomes. A whole range of
excellent sociological studies has pointed out situational, informal,
non-legal factors in police-citizen encounters and courtroom
interaction to explain who is arrested or convicted, and to explain
why the system so often seems in practice to be weighted against the
accused. Their answer lies essentially in the complex nature of social
interaction and motivation; in the fact that people do not merely
administer the law but act upon and alter it as they do so. This study
offers a supplementary perspective, making the law rather than the
activities of its administrators problematic. The conclusion is quite
different. Given the formal procedures and rules of the law and the
structure of arrest, investigation, plea and trial, one could not–even
if human beings acted entirely as legal automatons–expect the
outcomes to be other than they are. If the practice of criminal justice
does not live up to its rhetoric one should not look only to the
interactions and negotiations of those who put the law into practice
but to the law itself. One should not look just to how the rhetoric of
justice is subverted intentionally or otherwise by policemen bending
the rules, by lawyers negotiating adversariness out of existence, by
out-of-touch judges or biased magistrates: one must also look at how
it is subverted in the law. Police and court officials need not abuse the
law to subvert the principles of justice; they need only use it.
Deviation from the rhetoric of legality and justice is institutionalised
in the law itself.

Mr. Gindin’s implicit contention that the “withering away of the state” is utopian expresses his own middle-class experiences and bias. He probably has not experienced the repressive nature of the police and the court system. He vastly underestimates the importance of that repressive apparatus and implicitly idealizes the current state system.

To what extent, for example, is the modern welfare state not only the provision of needed public services but also oppressive? Mr. Gindin has nothing to say on this score. Yet if we consider how social workers are linked to the police and to the courts, then we can see that the modern welfare state is itself often repressive and needs not just transformation but substantial reconstruction as the repressive apparatus of a hierarchy of managers is abolished and work is democratized. What of faculties of education and schools? Would they not need substantial reconstruction as their repressive aspects are abolished in conjunction with the repressive apparatus of employers? And so forth.

For those oppressed by the police, criminal court systems and various social agencies, there is a need for the abolition of such structures and the “withering away” of such structures as workers and the community finally develop processes that enable them to control their own life process.

Mr. Gindin’s article, then, ultimately serves as a reminder of just how distant “real socialists” (actually, social-democratic reformers) are from the daily experiences of billions of workers and community members.

Mr. Gindin’s “realistic” socialism, then, fails to address either the nature of modern capitalist society or the qualitatively different kind of society which would characterize a socialism without a repressive government apparatus.