Is a Universal Basic Income the Solution?
“. . . [A] so-called universal basic income (UBI) is currently one of the most hotly debated policy topics being floated as a means to address income inequality and the disruption that technology poses to the workforce,” wrote Lauren Thomas in a CNBC March 2017 report. As an example of this disruptive technology worldwide in February 2017 a Chinese factory reported that it replaced 90 percent of its 650 workers and increased its productivity at the same time. China has become the leading edge of the robotics revolution. These advances have catapulted China toward overtaking the U.S. as the largest economy in the world.
Extrapolate this trend to find that in the next 20 years as many as 47 percent of U.S. jobs and more than 2/3 of jobs world-wide will succumb to the electronic revolution. Unemployed workers have no way to buy the food, clothing, shelter and other basic needs for survival – those goods and services that the new productivity is making abundant. On the other hand the capitalist owners of the corporations watch the products pile up. They can’t realize their anticipated profits. It’s the same problem, but from two points of view.
That’s the problem, but what about the proposed solution? It would seem self-evident that “universal” means everyone, and that “basic” should provide enough to obtain the means of survival. But even the proponents of the UBI cannot agree on who is included in “universal” and a meager amount of $10,000 annually is frequently thrown out as “basic.”
UBI is on the agenda because normal wage and wage-supplement solutions do not solve current problems. Proposals to raise wages for the employed, such as “Fight for Fifteen,” do not keep pace with the rising cost of living. More important, these proposals do not touch increased unemployment and underemployment – or the increase of those condemned to absolute destitution. The problem of supplying money to the unemployed has been a temporary phenomenon for what has been termed a “reserve army”: that is, for those temporarily laid off. Welfare programs, food stamps and unemployment benefits are examples of this kind of temporary assistance.
Proposals for a guaranteed income were proposed earlier in U.S. history, for example by Thomas Paine. In Agrarian Justice, Paine argued that land speculation led to extreme inequality, and that dispossession of many from land holdings created mass poverty. He proposed to alleviate the problem, conceived as the denial of the right to existence, by a guarantee of a basic income. In our own time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his 1968 work Where Do We Go From Here: “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. . . I’m now convinced that . . . the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by . . . the guaranteed income.”
As J.E. King and John Marangos point out in their 2006 article, “Two Arguments for Basic Income,” classical liberals have defended the UBI, “primarily because it offers a clear alternative to socialism . . .There is even a neoliberal strand in support for Basic Income, [it] could make it possible to eliminate much existing labor market regulation and drastically reduce social welfare expenditure.” Or, as Annie Lowery wrote in the New York Times in February of this year, “Silicon Valley has recently become obsessed with basic income for reasons simultaneously generous and self-interested, as a palliative for the societal turbulence its inventions might unleash.”
The Difference Now
Something is different now. According to all sorts of economic analysts, jobs are not coming back. Even the wages in places like Bangladesh are driven down below the cost of a robot. To solve the otherwise intractable problem of emerging permanent unemployment, futurists like Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg, and writers from Martin Ford to Charles Murray have gotten behind UBI schemes. The ruling class is now faced with a problem of how to provide the means of exchange to people who will never have access to a job. This is the environment in which a section of the capitalist class is seriously floating UBI proposals. Segments of the working class are engaged in a fight to raise the minimum wage and sections of the workers are joining a battle for a UBI.
Granting reforms aided the expansion of capital in earlier eras. Now capitalism has reached its global limits. Electronic technology is destroying the value of labor power, making workers superfluous. The ruling class has less and less need for workers and therefore less need to maintain a surplus population. Capitalism cannot accede to the demands of people it has no need to support. Every fight for the basic needs of the people comes into conflict with the inability of the ruling class to meet those demands. This antagonism threatens to rip society apart.
Still, there is something encouraging about a debate that implies that money should be given to people, without the requirement that they work, simply because they need to survive. A basic income for everyone not connected to a job introduces the new idea that the sale of labor power is not necessary for survival. It poses a question about what will replace the labor market when labor is no longer a commodity to be bought and sold. At the same time that the labor market is ending, automation produces abundance coupled with the end of value, where this very abundance renders the old distributive market obsolete. The UBI challenges us to imagine a world where goods can be distributed not because we can pay, but because we are human.
Beyond the UBI
There is also a dead end to these questions. The UBI still presumes some kind of market, where money has value. While UBI gives people money to purchase goods, the goods they are purchasing contain less and less value. Even more, by offering this solution, the ruling class maintains its power relation over the rest of society. This power relationship stems from the right of a small ruling class to own that which produces the means of survival for all. Even with a UBI, the eight wealthiest billionaires (as reported by Oxfam in January, 2017) would still own more than the poorest 50 percent of the world’s population.
Human labor alone creates new value. Robotics can’t do that. Robots only transfer whatever value is embodied in their dead arms bit by bit as they wear away. Labor increasingly evaporates from the production process – in the factory, in retail and transportation, or in education, and as a result value shrinks. Money, which acts as a way to measure value and serves as a grease to promote exchange, can no longer perform its function as a measure of value. Once again the ruling class finds itself at a dead end. Money becomes more and more worthless, yet the ruling class can only print more money to get temporary relief.
As further economic crises expel more and more workers into the limbo of permanent unemployment, more workers will begin to turn toward reorganizing society to meet the needs of all. This idea challenges the private property rights of a tiny ruling class that owns everything produced. To protect its private property ownership, the ruling class is developing a full-fledged police state.
In this fashion the debate around UBI gives revolutionaries real opportunities to introduce new ideas about how a new society can be created and a strategy to get there. Why does control of private property give the ruling class, to which these eight billionaires belong, the right to control the rest of the world? Doesn’t UBI chip away at the argument that people should only be paid for their work? If the money paid through UBI no longer represents the labor embodied in commodities, what does it represent, if anything? These are all questions that could not be taken seriously until the present moment, when the robotic production of abundance shatters all preconceptions, and allows us to rely on the fight for basic needs as the actual fight against fascism and beyond UBI, for a new, cooperative world.
This Building Block article is one of a series that explains a basic concept of the revolutionary process, challenging readers to explore its meaning for political work in today’s environment.
July/August 2017 Vol27.Ed4
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011