Basic Income as a System of Control

“Basic income – in both the north and the south – all depends on how we frame it. Will it be cast as a form of charity by the rich? Or will it be cast as a right for all?”[1]. This quote encapsulates both the promise and potential consequences of a basic income. Much has been made of the radical potential that a universal basic income inculcates in our sclerotic neoliberal societies, supposedly able to end the necessity of work and make wages a tool of social policy rather than simply an economic consequence of the labour market. It is easy to see the potential when labour markets are extremely sticky, with low-pay staying low and wages continuing their decoupling from productivity gains. Technological unemployment presents the dystopia of a world where further productivity that is reaped from machines is controlled by a transnational capitalist class of international investors and corporate megaliths, continuing the monopolisation of the economy and entrenching a precarious form of wage labour relation.

With radical political discourse losing its imaginative touch, a UBI presents that mix of utopian thought and realistic policy that actually can provide real, radical change in a postcapitalist direction, whether that be in instituting a new form of democratic mutuality, or reasserting the right to the commons. “A basic income might defeat the scarcity mindset that has seeped so deep into our culture, freeing us from the imperatives of competition and allowing us to be more open and generous people”[2]. Such is the thought of UBI’s most vociferous proponents.

However in their zeal they miss the fundamental issues with these grand reforms that purport to change the directionality of the modern world and restructure both our institutions and sets of values. They fail to account that capitalism, as a generalisable system of capital accumulation for profit, has an extreme institutional quality which has made it very difficult to combat. Processes and relations of capital effect all areas of life, from the social relations of the household through to the social provisioning found in welfare states. As witnessed under the New Deal, forms of social provisioning involved explicit methods for the integration of work that was “socially useful” i.e. easy manipulated for government projects and particular business interests. This is a major method for the development of a fully integrated wage labour relation. Similarly, the integration of trade unions in the national framework of the New Deal involved not so much a social revolution of the aims of the state, but an institutionalisation of centralised labour-pricing that was amenable to particular trade associations[3]. In constructing the Fordist mode of production (of which the New Deal was a significant part), the welfare state and the representation of labour were important in constructing a generalisable consumption standard and the production of a system of general equivalence for the products of mass production.

What this shows is that radical movements, such as trade unions in the early 20th century and the concept of a basic income now, are easily co-optable. As Gramsci noted in his concept of trasformismo in relation to the convergence of politics around a centrist mode of political understanding, movements that define civil society, that realm of politics that is not fully integrable to the state, are an integral part of the way the state legitimates itself. These include trade unions, forms of mutual aid and the multiple voluntary governance structures which inform daily life. The state as a coercive structure cannot itself exist with any true legitimacy. It would either crumble and be replaced by the adhoc, pluralistic nature of civil society governance, or descend into authoritarianism. The legitimation provided by forms of everyday governance and its institutions are integral to the full functioning of the state. Basic income is just as equally co-optable into this framework of governance, as were trade unions in the 1940s. Capital, as a social relation of power, has regularly used the state and ameliorative mechanisms to introduce capitalist relations into non-capitalist areas as well as sites of resistance, such as by instituting welfare and allowing for trade union representation.

The neoliberal transformation of the welfare state toward workfare, and the revolution of working lives toward precarity and flexibilisation, has been a defining characteristic of the development of a post-Fordist form of production, where automation and the gains from it are increasingly aggregated and centralised under corporate control via IP rights and the siphoning of the scientific and knowledge commons into private capital. It has also been a newer method for integrating welfare-related institutions into the frameworks of neoliberal growth regimes, as was done under Bretton Woods with the development of corporatist welfare arrangements. Work is made flexible and precarious[4], with workers acting as contracted parties to corporations who no longer own the means to production, but the means to knowledge, information and finance capital.

Basic income potentially fits this neoliberal growth regime by allowing for the further centralisation of control over production and consumption. The flexibility of work and the increasing focus of job growth concentrated either in skilled work in the technological sector, or low-paid work in the retail and services sectors, has led to the development of a generalisable consumption standard that is stratified into a new class system of technological managers, a transnational capitalist class, and a general lumpenproletariat of precariatised workers in multiple sectors of the international economy. “What the economists call “labor force participation” is declining for a reason. We probably reached Peak Employment in 2000. It simply takes less labor to make the things we need”[5]. Without higher labour-force participation, the development of a consumption standard has become more difficult, with individuals in poverty being the main bearers of this problem by taking increasingly higher levels of private debt and relying on temporary work contracts.

The development of low-skilled workers, temporarily employed and made movable by the interests of capital, are the main candidates for a basic income as it can maintain a flexible work ethic, provide a safety net to high levels of debt, and provide the ability to maintain levels of consumption amenable to production of goods in the international economy. As the original quote said, basic income is what one makes of it, and with private capital in its globalised systems, basic income becomes something amenable to low-pay, centralised economies of knowledge production, where the gains of automation and technology cannot be distributed and the welfare state becomes the basic income guarantee, made universalisable and stringent as new forms of gainful exchange and the development of the entrepreneur of the self (as seen in Uber and AirBNB) become the stigmatising conditions on which one can actually access the ability to consume and thus be part of the wider economy.

This thus raises issues surrounding the institutionalisation of basic income. It is one thing to call for basic income and make it into a radical proposal that turns capitalism on its head. It is another to truly institutionalise this value structure and create systems of plural governance that can implement it. The main problem seems to be basic income’s unitary focus on the distribuendum, whereby the distribution of resources (nominally through centralised state structures) is the main axiomatic variable in determining justice and fairness[6]. This fundamentally ignores the value structures that inform this initial distribution of goods, and its further redistribution relative to political negotiation and institutionalisation. The purposes for redistribution, and the forms of governance that decide and politicise it, are just as important as the distribution itself.

In constructing a society that inhabits anarchist values of the distribution of politico-economic power, we cannot simply rely on the distribution of goods. As seen with the integration of trade union power in the New Deal, this can simply replicate capitalist structures, mitigating their worst excesses but never fundamentally getting to the root of the issues of wage labour and exploitation. The lack of a fully-fleshed distributional nexus that controls basic income is problematic when considering its radical potential. Who controls the mechanisms of distribution-and-transfer? What forms of income should be redistributed? How can these distributions reproduce themselves, and how they can minimise their coercive capacities?

A fully thought out answer to these questions is well beyond the scope of this essay, but I have some preliminary answers that flesh out my own thoughts. It seems the best methods to raise funds toward a basic income must originate from the re-commoning of collective resources (land, knowledge, infrastructure of various kinds) that can raise funds from the socialisation of rent accruing from its initial privatisation. Such a concept can be seen in the idea of a land value tax, where ground rent that normally unjustly accrues to private landlords and state-backed landowners can be re-socialised, with land recognised as a commons that cannot be truly owned by any one person. Similar transfer systems can be implemented into an understanding of other commons, where tolls/charges are applied to private capital owners who want to appropriate these collectively-owned resources for their own ends. By providing an economic price to the negative externalities produced via public subsidy, one can push against megalithic corporate power and develop a commons economy where power is distributed into public hands.

Further from this funding question, the issue of institutions is also extremely important. Many basic income advocates see it as a replacement of the existing welfare state. However, allowing this supposedly radical reform to be in the hands of the centralised state is a grave error. As seen with the production and deconstruction of welfare structures since World War II, the state in its current form is a tool of capital, and thus welfare is itself amenable to changes in capital’s regulative structures. Instead of a focus on the state as the locus of change, there needs to be a constitutive set of regulations and structures[7] which produce methods of governance that fit into value structures akin to a democratic mutuality (similar to Anderson’s democratic equality[8] and Cohen’s understanding of political community[9], both relational concepts of egalitarian theory) that is both plural and multi-sited in network distributions. This sees institutions as sites of mutual exchange, either economically or politically, that encourage horizontal relations with the ability to confederate vertically.

This is encapsulated in the idea of reflexive metagovernance[10] that can combine the distributional effects of markets with forms of social provisioning and decentralised planning systems, creating an economy-without-adjectives. Examples can include the system of savings banks and income-pooling in the Mondragon cooperative system, the forms of gift economy provision engaged in by the Piquetero movement, and the decentralised elements of participatory budgeting and welfare systems (Bolsa Familia and the Porto Alegre budgeting system) in South America[11]. Conceptually, Chris Cook’s ideas on the application of public company law in the UK and US to blockchain governance can incorporate new knowledge and technology infrastructures on the internet into a public system of governance that controls the distribution of these commons and the rates of rent relative to their private appropriation[12]. Kevin Carson also points out decentralised methods of governance:

“As both states and corporations approach fiscal exhaustion and retreat from the social sphere, employer and government-based safety nets will be increasingly replaced by extended family, multi-family, or neighborhood cohousing projects, micro-villages, etc., for pooling incomes, costs and risks. Or by friendly societies and mutuals, or guilds providing unemployment and health insurance for the self-employed. In such a society, the typical person might be born into a multi-family compound or mini-village with a guaranteed right of subsistence and access to tools or productive land in return for contributing a modest amount of labor (if capable) to common needs”[13].

Basic income, as something that reorients society away from neoliberal value structures, is just as integrable with democratic mutuality and systems of reflexive metagovernance as it is with the corporate-state nexus. Basic income can be important in transforming society at the meta-level, as a complement to insurrectionary politics and as something that can be developed outside the networks of the state, and in the emerging forms of multi-scalar governance in distributed networks, cities and regions. However, basic income’s contradictory nature also means that it is amenable to capitalist and statist interests, and thus an imperfect concept when thinking of radical discursive politics. Fundamentally, UBI must be seen as one reform in a radical alternative that develops a plural world of multiplicitous governance and a resistance to capitalist globalisation. It comes down to an argument between state structures of distribution-and-transfer, and cooperative structures developed organically from the ground-up.

[1] Hickel, J. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/mar/04/basic-income-birthright-eliminating-poverty

[2] Hickel, J. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/mar/04/basic-income-birthright-eliminating-poverty

[3] Kolko, G. http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/08/29/the-new-deal-illusion/

[4] https://c4ss.org/content/47925

[5] Carson, K. https://c4ss.org/content/40806

[6] Schemmel, C. Distributive and Relational Equality, 2012

[7] Sinclair, T. Let’s Get it Right This Time! Why Regulation Will Not Solve or Prevent Global Financial Crises, 2009

[8] Anderson, E. What is the Point of Equality?, 1999

[9] Cohen, G.A. Incentives, Inequality, and Community, 1991

[10] Jessop, B. Governance and Metagovernance: On Reflexivity, Requisite Variety, and Requisite Irony, 2002

[11] Houtart, F. https://www.opendemocracy.net/fran%C3%A7ois-houtart/citizen-revolutions-in-latin-america

[12] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/chris-cooks-p2p-foundation-email-collection/

[13] Carson, K. https://c4ss.org/content/40806

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