Canadian Dimension: No Deal without Nature

Relentless reports of the escalating climate emergency have given impetus to appeals for a Green New Deal. Most recently in Canada, a coalition of NGOs, activists and celebrities has rallied around the still somewhat inchoate idea (greennewdealcanada.ca) with a call to collectively devise a plan based on the laudable goals

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Canadian Dimension: Tick Talk

Painting by Jan van Kessel (1626–1679) Human knowledge will be erased from the world’s archives before we possess the last word that a gnat has to say to us.” -Henri Fabre As an urban dweller temporarily abandoning the city for the verdant charm and calm of the countryside, one of

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Canadian Dimension: Taking Basic Income beyond the market: The Unconditional Autonomy Allowance

“Gears” by
Eric Drooker.
A collection of
the artist’s works
can be seen at
ericdrooker.com.

French Social Theorist André Gorz predicted that
as technology rendered a growing portion of living
labour increasingly superfluous to the production of
commodities, the state would have to begin paying
people to consume, independently of their participation
in the labour market, in order to ensure the stability
of the system. That is the logic behind the
massive expansion of credit in our era, and it is also
one of the driving forces behind the proliferation of
what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit
jobs” — everything from telemarketers and PR flacks
to corporate lawyers and lobbyists. And it may ultimately
prove a propellant for the inauguration of
some form of unconditional Basic Income in hyperdeveloped
capitalist countries. As Erik Olin Wright
has observed, a Basic Income would solve a number
of problems facing capitalism, one of which is to stabilize
the consumer market.

The prospect of shoring up consumer capitalism
by strengthening effective demand is not, however,
what the radical Left generally finds appealing in the
prospect of an unconditional Basic Income. On the
contrary, a guaranteed income at a level that would
afford people a frugal but dignified living is considered
by many a potentially revolutionary reform that
lays some of the groundwork for a movement beyond
the market society by freeing people, at least to
some extent, from the tyranny of the labour market
through the decoupling of work and income.

As Gorz argued, industrial capitalism had sundered
work and life. “No longer is work a way of
working and acting together, no longer is the workplace
a place of life, work time a reflection of seasonal
and biological rhythms. Money in the form of
profits and wages is the overriding goal of every
activity, rather than pleasure or satisfaction. The triumph
of market relations over relations of reciprocity,
of exchange value over use value, has impoverished
our lives and abilities” (Paths To Paradise,
South End Press, 1985 p. 49).

But to what extent does unconditional Basic
Income, as a simple transfer of money in the form of
a monthly cheque, undercut the dominion of market
relations? How far does it go toward restoring relations
of reciprocity and the reign of use values? Not
far enough, at least for the advocates of the Unconditional
Autonomy Allowance (UAA).

The UAA is an approach to Basic Income developed
by members of the French wing of the degrowth
movement in the short book Manifeste pour une
Dotation Inconditionnelle d’Autonomie
(Les Éditions
Utopia, 2013). The authors, including 36-year old
engineer Vincent Liegey, the spokesperson for
France’s degrowth political party, see Basic Income
as a necessary tool to combat social inequality and
reduce the centrality of wage work in our lives, but
they fear that it may become “a palliative measure
for a sick society, that will only address some marginal
symptoms (inequalities, exclusions) without
addressing the root of the problem: productivism,
capitalism, consumerism, and in general the absurdity
of a Growth society.”

Challenging the growth model

To avoid that trap, To avoid that trap, Liegey et al.
outline their proposal for a UAA. Like unconditional
Basic Income, the UAA is a taxable income granted
to everyone equally regardless of labour force participation.
The critical difference, however, is that
the UAA would not be disbursed solely as a cash
transfer in the national currency but also in the form
of local money, alternative services and what the
authors call “drawing rights” (droits de tirage), a
concept which appears to have originated with a
report to the European Commission spearheaded by
French labour law specialist Alain Supiot. Published
at the turn of the millennium, the study grappled
with the effects of labour market flexibilization and
the erosion of the standard employment relationship
in Europe, exploring ways to adapt social insurance
to the new realities and support involvement in
non-remunerated activities by enabling people to
move in and out of the labour market. It explored the
possible establishment of a voucher system through
which people could choose to reduce their working
hours, for instance, and take various kinds of
extended leave for the purposes of studying or caring
for children or infirm relatives.

The UAA authors build on the idea of a voucher
system with a view to enabling people to engage in a
wide variety of freely chosen non-market activities
by providing free access to certain resources
(energy, water), public services (health, education)
and goods (housing, food) as a share of social
wealth to which everyone is entitled. (It is worth
noting here that this idea of Basic Income as a dividend
deriving from the social production of wealth
and the social investment in technology clearly
demarcates Left approaches to the policy: it is
framed as a universal right, not a grudging concession
to the disadvantaged.)

They discuss drawing rights as part of a larger
project of urban ecology involving rural revitalization,
densification of cities and decreasing dependence
on fossil fuels. The UAA would serve to support
citizen initiatives aimed at reappropriating land
and urban space. As an example, the right to housing
might be conceived as free access to a minimum
square footage, with any amount exceeding that
level to be purchased at the market rate (within the
confines of a democratically regulated market). It
would entail renovation and retrofitting of older
housing stock and the appropriation of additional
housing stock by reclaiming vacant buildings from
the grip of speculators. It would also involve greening
urban space through the development of collective
gardens and food belts linking rural and urban
areas. Short distribution channels and a lively local
economy could be built up with the help of local currencies
and alternative services, such as self-managed
workshops dedicated to the repair and recycling
of existing goods.

The drawing rights on energy and natural resources
would be designed to reward sustainable consumption
and discourage waste. For example, there could
be free access to a certain number of kWh of electricity
and cubic metres of water, but beyond that
the prices would rise so as to penalize waste. It is
preposterous, Liegey et al. remark, that there is no
difference between the price of water used to meet
basic household needs and water used for washing
a car or filling a private swimming pool.

Democratizing resource allocation

They also stress that key decisions about allocation
of resources — how much water, food, or energy
should be considered a right and at what point it
should be a taxable market good — must be the
object of democratic deliberation. The point here is
to begin asking questions about our individual and
collective needs and wants, which have been deeply
shaped, both deliberately and indirectly, by consumer
capitalism with its hierarchical management
system and vast marketing apparatus.

UAA supporters place a great deal of emphasis on
restoring democracy by creating the material conditions
for an active citizenry. When people’s minds
are not monopolized by wage labour, they are freer
to participate in meaningful ways in collective decision-
making processes.

The UAA is thus intended to go beyond the sole
aim of redistributing wealth and income in order to
lay the foundations for a transition to a degrowth
model where the goal is not to increase the quantity
and value of goods and services to be exchanged on
the market (regardless of how and under what conditions
those goods are produced, what ends they
serve or the perverse effects of that activity on the
biosphere), but rather a downscaling of production
and consumption — one that is freely chosen for the
benefits it offers of liberation from the tyranny of
the market and the innumerable social and environmental
ills of capitalism. One of the main goals of
the UAA from a degrowth vantage point is to allow
people to “cease spending their lives producing useless
things to be sold to other people who don’t
need them. …”

As an integral counterpart to the UAA, the authors
propose the implementation of a democratically
determined maximum wage to combat the absurd
pay gaps that exist today, whereby executives
receive hundreds of times the compensation of average
workers. At 206 to 1, Canada’s pay ratio is among
the highest in the world. (The idea of limiting the pay
gap is now widely discussed in the global North, and
was even the object of a referendum in Switzerland in
2013, where voters were invited to consider implementing
a 12 to 1 pay ratio; it garnered the support of
just shy of 35 per cent of voters.)

The UAA proposal has resonated with the outlook
of some radical Left thinkers in other French-speaking
societies. For Québec degrowth philosopher
Louis Marion, for instance, a basic income in the
form of a cash transfer alone reinforces the monetarization
of the world and the individualism it engenders.
Marion invokes arguments similar to those of
sociologists such as Georg Simmel, who maintained
that by facilitating indirect exchange, money favours
impersonal social relations and acts as a solvent on
social ties. For Marion, a basic income in exclusively
monetary form cannot foreshadow a genuinely Left
alternative to capitalism because the exercise of
individual freedom remains purely formal insofar as
it is contingent on having money. “By contrast the
UAA moves us beyond the market because it is
based in part on ensuring free access to basic goods
and services such as housing, food and transportation,
thus promoting use value over exchange value.
Moreover, by expanding the role of alternative currency,
the UAA encourages informal production and
the relocalization of the economy.”

“Escape” barcode
graphic by Marc Delong
(Melbourne, Australia)
first appeared in
Adbusters no. 34
(March/April 2001);
adbusters.org.

Decommodifying basic needs

The UAA also answers the objection raised by Vida
Panitch, among others, that far from having a decommodifying
effect, basic income, when accompanied
by downsizing public-sector service provision, actually
reinforces the dependency of people on the market
as they will be compelled to rely on it to meet
more of their needs. In her view, what Basic Income
may achieve in freeing people to some extent from
dependency on the labour market, it negates by
commodifying their basic needs. In the case of the
UAA, however, the incorporation of social drawing
rights ensuring free access to goods and services is
aimed precisely at decommodifying basic needs.

Naturally, all the usual objections to Basic Income
schemes can be applied to the UAA — Is it affordable?
How can it be financed? Won’t it promote loafing?
— undoubtedly with additional charges of utopianism
and unworkability levelled against the proposals
for social drawing rights, the use of alternative
currencies and the maximum wage. Like Basic
Income supporters, UAA proponents stress that the
technical difficulties of financing the UAA are not an
insuperable obstacle, provided the political will
exists. Liegey et al. enumerate various methods of
funding a UAA, all of which hinge on a very different
balance of forces than that which prevails today:
cancellation of the portion of the debt deemed illegitimate,
a tax on speculative transactions, the abolition
of tax havens and full or partial nationalization
of the banks, among others.

Many of the proposals outlined in the Manifeste
pour une Dotation Inconditionnelle d’Autonomie

presuppose a prior shift away from the capitalist
market economy, and the UAA authors, to their discredit,
fail even to broach the problem of getting
from here to there. But the general concept of a partially
demonetized Basic Income disbursed in the
form of vouchers for goods and services in addition
to cash amounts in both national and local currencies
is an interesting angle on Basic Income that
warrants further consideration as a roadmap for
how to “free our time and minds from subjection to
capitalism” while moving in an ecologically sustainable
direction.


This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Canadian Dimension (Basic Income).

Subscribe today and receive every issue of Canadian Dimension hot off the press.

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Canadian Dimension: A friendly disagreement

CGT demonstration
in Marseille, May 26,
2016, part of nationwide
strikes and
protests against
Hollande Socialist
government’s antiunion
labour bill.
Posted on
theguardian.com;
By Bertrand Langlois/
AFP/Getty Images.

One of Canada’s leading young Left economists, MICHAL ROZWORSKI
is co-author of a forthcoming Verso book on economic planning.
He is a union researcher and writer and blogs at Political
Eh-conomy. NICK SRNICEK is the author of Platform Capitalism
(Polity 2016) and co-author of Inventing the Future:
Postcapitalism and a World Without Work
(Verso, 2015).
He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics.
CD’s Andrea Levy talks to both about Basic Income;
the transcript has been edited for length, style and clarity.

Q: The Left has long been divided on the issue of
Basic Income. The argument recurs every generation
or so. In the last few years it has resumed
throughout much of the global North, especially in
the wake of campaigns and initiatives in Switzerland
and Finland, for example. And the debate is now
ablaze in Canada, where apparently serious interest
in some form of BI is being expressed by the neoliberal
governments of Kathleen Wynne in Ontario,
Philippe Couillard in Québec, and Justin Trudeau at
the federal level. Broadly speaking, what is your
position on Basic Income?

Nick Srnicek: I think there are many reasons why a BI is a useful
policy option. For instance, some point to the salutary
effects of BI experiments on mental and physical
health. For other mainstream proponents, the
argument for BI tends primarily to be an economic
one: they see it as a way to redistribute income in an
era of high inequality and to provide the basic means
of consumption to sustain consumer capitalism. My
chief argument for supporting BI is a political one,
however. If people are less dependent on the labour
market for an income, they suddenly have much more
political power. They can turn down jobs that are
demeaning or unhealthy or simply too stressful. And
they can withdraw their labour at any point and for an
indefinite amount of time, rather than relying on a
dwindling strike fund from the local union. None of
this is revolutionary in itself, nor is it an endpoint in
the struggle, but it does offer a major step forward
from neoliberalism’s onslaught against workers.

Michal Rozworski: For me, there is a big difference between the idea of
a universal BI in the abstract and what is concretely
on offer. Even within the bounds of today’s slightly
fraying neoliberal consensus, it is curious that BI is
being embraced by various forces on the right and
centre-right. This alone shouldn’t make us discount
the idea, but it does say something about how it is
liable to be implemented in our present
political situation. For the right, BI is a
means of extending markets and ousting the state
from the role of providing social services such as
healthcare and education. Because BI programs are
so expensive if truly universal, they would only be
funded today with enormous cuts to existing services.
BI is a backdoor to commodifying social services
and subjecting people further to the vagaries
of the market. The Ontario Liberals, by the way, are
likely to implement a “minimum income” that is simply
a rationalization and reorganization of welfare.
Like their “free tuition” policy, it is a way of putting a
progressive spin on small potatoes.

Contrary to Nick, I doubt that BI would truly challenge
the power disparity between labour and capital,
particularly when labour is so weak. It can just
as well be thought of as a subsidy to employers, giving
workers some breathing room but potentially
have little effect in the long term, especially if the
new money is accompanied by new markets for previously
free public services.

If the rallying cry of the Left has been to democratize
more spheres of life, I worry that BI would actually
diminish democracy by relegating more of our
lives to the market and foreclosing even the possibility
of popular control. All this doesn’t mean that
labour and the Left shouldn’t make utopian
demands, only that our demands should be strategic:
more public services that take more dimensions
of our lives off the market; workplace democracy;
higher wages, full employment — these are
demands that directly challenge capital. In this
sense, my main reason to oppose BI at present is
also political.

Basic Income vs. full employment

Q: One of the key arguments made for Basic Income
is precisely the improbability if not impossibility of
anything approaching full employment (defined
here as ensuring that everyone who wants a decent
job can have one). The trend in recent decades,
especially in Canada, is toward the growth of nonstandard
employment, including a significant
amount of involuntary part-time and temporary
employment, on top of an unemployment rate that
remains higher than what it was prior to the financial
crisis. Moreover, the technological displacement
of work looks more and more to be a tidal wave, with
jobs disappearing through automation (and not just
low-skill jobs either) at a rate faster than new jobs
are emerging. A higher minimum wage doesn’t
amount to a living wage for the barista working 20
hours a week and isn’t much use to the translator
whose job just disappeared because the federal
government is now using machine translation to cut
costs. Isn’t BI a worthwhile option in this context?

MR: Worries about technological unemployment are as
old as capitalism itself. I recently saw a compendium
of headlines from the last 200 years, all warning
that this time really is different, this time the robots
really are coming for all of our jobs. So far capitalism
hasn’t had a problem finding new ways to keep us
busy. Work isn’t just a technological process but a
social relation.

In fact, the rise of temporary employment, involuntary
part-time and such, while much-heralded in
the press, is not that visible in the data in Canada or
the U.S. The so-called gig economy remains a small
part of the labour market, and in fact may be accentuated
in popular perception because journalism is
one of the fields that has seen a marked shift to contract
work.

This isn’t to say that working conditions haven’t
deteriorated and wages haven’t stagnated over the
past several decades — they have enormously and
across the global North. But this is a reflection of
labour’s weakness and capital’s strength. The major
transformations we are witnessing are not primarily
in how work contracts are organized but how work
itself is organized — its speed, the way tasks are
assigned, how production (whether of goods or services)
is managed, and so on. Globalized and ever
more finely-grained supply chains have been instrumental
to this.

Without looking to the root cause in the weakness
of labour, demands like BI will play out in a neoliberal
guise. We have to think about how to overturn
the ability of capital to capture an ever greater part
of the social surplus. Full employment, shorter
working time for all and a rising share of national
income for labour are the major risk to capital, not
an increase in income security. With capitalism
lately returning to its more conflictual roots, we
should return to the original vision of the labour
movement: less work for all and a socialization of
the products of work as the way to harness the fruits
of technology.

NS: I think there are two issues worth separating out
here. One is whether we can imagine/design a universal
BI that would be worth fighting for, and the
other is whether that particular BI could be implemented.
Most of Michal’s points here tend to emphasize
the latter issue, and of course there are very
legitimate concerns about how it would be implemented
in the current context, and what it would
mean for the nature of work. I think we could come
to an agreement, though, about what a desirable BI
would look like: it would be set at a high level (typically
indexed to a country’s poverty level), it would
be universal and not means-tested, and it would
supplement most of the welfare state rather than
replacing it. If those conditions were met, I think BI
would bring about an immense power shift in favour
of labour.

But the real question is what is achievable — what
would a universal BI look like if it were implemented
tomorrow, or in the next five years? And here I think
Michal is right that we are looking at a largely neoliberal
approach which deploys BI as a pretext to
replace the welfare state and commodify ever
greater swaths of the public sector. It might well go
hand in hand with eliminating the minimum wage,
thus serving as a wage supplement to business. I
think that is a very likely outcome if there is a push
to introduce BI right now. The question for me, then,
is how do we build up the political power to implement
a more meaningful universal BI?

That brings us to another important question,
namely whether full employment is possible and
desirable. Presumably, if we had the political power
to implement a meaningful universal BI, we’d also
have the political power to implement other desirable
policies (like full employment or the extension
of the welfare state). As important as it is to continue
defending and extending the welfare state,
this is not going to lead to social transformation. We
would still remain bound to a system of wage labour
and market dependency, and the welfare state
doesn’t give labour any new means to exert power.
So that’s one point. But perhaps we could imagine
pushing for full employment? Here there are two
points to be made.

First, capitalism does appear less and less able to
produce good (secure and well-paying) jobs. In the
U.K., for instance, after the 2008 crisis, over twothirds
of net job growth was from self-employment
that on average involves lower pay and longer hours.
In the U.S., all of the net job growth since the crisis
has been in contingent and non-standard employment
arrangements of which the gig economy is only
a small part. We’ve seen high levels of unemployment
across Europe, and we’ve seen sluggish job
growth globally since the crisis — remaining far
below pre-crisis trends. All of which suggests that
capitalism is not capable of producing full employment
today. Second, let’s say we could press government
to introduce massive stimulus programs to
produce jobs (green jobs, for example). Here we run
into the problem that full employment makes all the
new automation technologies very desirable for capitalists.
If workers are pushing for higher wages and
there is a shortage of labour, that new robot will
look like a very attractive investment, with the result
that capitalists will start increasing business investment
levels and raising productivity levels as they
automate in the face of full employment. In this way
full employment negates itself.

MR: There is much truth in the argument that if we were
powerful enough to extract a socially progressive
universal BI, we would be powerful enough to have a
full employment economy and much else. But there
remains the strategic question of how to acquire this
power: which demands could start to create conditions
that end up breaking the back of capital’s
reign, of its domination of both the distribution of
goods and the nature of work?

That capitalism doesn’t seem to be able to produce
full employment today only seems novel because of
the anomalous post-war period. This anomaly was
complex in its origins, although it was in part about
the subordination of the labour movement into a
short-lived grand bargain that, as Nick points out,
marginalized radicalism. But while I generally take
full employment to mean a job for everyone who
wants one, that says nothing about the length of the
working day or average annual hours worked, nothing
about the nature of work and nothing about the
distribution of employment between private and
socialized branches of the economy. Full (or
approaching-full) employment would, of course,
provoke capital to introduce more mechanized forms
of production, but it would also give labour a greater
share of national income, which would raise effective
demand. This expansionary pressure and the
need to produce investment goods would at least
offset technological unemployment. Full employment
also fulfills one of Nick’s goals for a BI: the
ability of workers to hold out for better jobs. It gives
workers greater power to press for more favourable
working conditions, from reduced working time to
workplace democracy. It is precisely because of this
potential for transforming work that full employment
is most dangerous.

NS: There is a fundamental philosophical divide here: I
take it that waged work is what we want to eliminate,
not produce more of! But even if one thinks
work is a fundamental good, job growth is dependent
on economic growth which is dependent on
growth in greenhouse gas emissions. I think any
future society that is going to deal with climate
change will necessarily have to move towards less
work, rather than job guarantees.

Further, if we can agree that full employment is
unachievable, the problem then becomes how people
interpret that inability to attain it. I think the
most likely answer under current conditions is that
people do not blame capitalism, but rather blame
foreigners, laziness, and welfare-scrounging. I don’t
see the demand for full employment as leading to
anything that strengthens the hand of workers.

Now there’s an alternative way to reach full
employment, and that’s through reducing the working
week. I’m entirely in favour of this, and for a
number of reasons I think it’s a more immediately
achievable goal for the Left than a universal BI.
But here’s a key issue that never seems to be
raised when claims are made for full employment
giving power to workers: namely, that we have
empirical examples of hyper-employment societies
— Japan and Germany in the 1960s — where unemployment
was below 1 per cent and there were more
jobs available than workers.

Yet even in these conditions of full employment,
we did not see wages rise any higher than productivity.
If labour was significantly stronger under full
employment we would expect the gains from productivity
to be distributed more in favour of labour,
but they weren’t.

MR: I brought up full employment as a demand not
because it is the pinnacle of my dreams if achieved,
but because it can be used instrumentally. It is precisely
because full employment may be unachievable,
as Nick maintains, that it is useful. It exposes
the system’s need for the heavy hand of the boss,
for unemployment and for precarious life.

Put differently, it is easier for capitalism to accommodate
BI than it is for it to accommodate any type
of full employment for an extended period of time
and especially within its metropolitan centres. The
examples from the 1960s are short-lived, from a
period of labour’s waning power as we’ve already
discussed and with women still unabsorbed into the
labour force. Today, on the other hand, it is primarily
governments of the right that are experimenting
with BI (or, more likely, minimum income schemes
that are not universal and are clawed back against
earnings and other sources of revenue). BI doesn’t
challenge the fundamental dynamics of private ownership
of capital and workplace exploitation central
to capitalism the way full employment does.

Unconditional Basic
Income in Montreuil,
France, December 6,
2015. Posted by
Revenue de base.

A unifying demand?

Q: Arguably one of the virtues of Basic Income is
that it has the potential to appeal to constituencies
beyond organized labour. A well-formulated demand
for a reasonably robust universal BI that would not
dispense with all other social programs could conceivably
create a rallying point for a broad social
movement. It could mobilize many women, for example,
who may not wish to engage in full-time waged
work, by recognizing and rewarding their unpaid
reproductive labour (which remained unrecognized
and uncompensated during the post-war period).
Other significant groups who might welcome the
prospect of a BI are the underemployed and precariously
employed, and artists. Rather than rejecting
BI for fear of a neoliberal contortion, mounting a
dynamic Left campaign for a socially progressive BI
could have real educational value, allowing us to
talk, for instance, about who appropriates the
returns on the social investment in technology and
to undermine prevailing notions of labour market
participation as the sole valuable activity.

MR: I completely agree that the post-war consensus continued
the domination and discrimination of women,
racialized minorities and others in significant ways.
It was an anomaly and not something to which we
can return. What it showed was the power that
labour could have over capital. Rebuilding that
power will require new strategies and new tools. I
simply don’t see BI as a major fulcrum. Work has
always been mostly precarious. This is the normal
dynamic of capitalism. We should acknowledge this
and not look for an easy out, especially in view of
the risks associated with BI today. Talking in terms
of cash transfers risks re-creating markets for those
spheres of life we’ve managed to extricate from the
market. A reduction in working time and more socialized
investment and production also aim at the key
goal of undermining the labour market.

NS: I agree with Michal about the overemphasis on precarity.
Precarity is a long-standing feature of work
under capitalism, not something particularly new.
But I think the notion of precarity can usefully be
applied to household finances, given that levels of
household savings across many countries have been
dropping for decades, and this has been accelerated
by the crisis. Large numbers of people have no savings
and would be unable to support themselves in
the event of a financial emergency.

And I think Andrea’s point about the constituency
that can get behind a universal BI is also important.
Unlike full employment policies, we can see how
students, stay-at-home parents, care givers, and
other unwaged workers could immediately benefit
from BI. And universality would make it harder to
scuttle the program down the road. A significant
body of research shows that universal programs are
significantly more difficult to scrap once implemented,
precisely because there exists a vast political
constituency who benefits from it. A full-employment
focus risks reinstating traditional divides
between waged and unwaged workers.

MR: I think the constituency argument is important, but I
would look in the other direction. BI has support
among the charter school executives who would like
to privatize education, the healthcare companies
who would like to privatize hospitals and many
right-wing ideologues who would like to extend the
reach of the market to all spheres. This isn’t to imply
guilt by association, but simply to point to a real
danger. The Finnish BI pilot project, one of the more
likely to get anywhere, explicitly makes the connection
between BI and greater market provision.

I whole-heartedly agree with Nick that not only is
universality a desideratum of social programs, but it
also protects them from attrition. I worry though
that BI can yet undermine the drive for deeper
democracy by enlarging and extending the sphere of
“one dollar, one vote” implicit in the market. New
public programs that guarantee services as a right
follow a different logic and offer greater openings
for transformative change.

Finally, compare UBI to a campaign like the Fight
for 15. The latter engages people not only as workers,
but also as future workers (students) or as family
members of workers or as dependents on the
wage income of others. The challenge is to broaden
the constituency and include the non-waged as community
members, but with less concomitant risk of
co-option from capital as this campaign challenges
it directly. At best, campaigns like this can be
infused with clear class content, open confrontation
and real organizing (with the caveat that this is a
reality not always lived up to).

The point, however, is not to pit demands and campaigns
against one another. I think this debate is useful
because it draws out the bigger picture of tensions
within capitalism and the space for new movements
to exploit them. A friend of mine recently remarked
that while people make much of Marx’s musings on
the tendency of rate of profit to fall, and on automation
and technology, there is much less attention
paid to his understanding of capitalism’s tendency
to socialize production and ownership in the long
run. The latter, though, may be more important to
how we build a better world. It is also a reason why
I focus so much on the work process and on the prospects
for democratic control over direct distribution.

A cost-prohibitive reform?

Q: A final question on financing: We are right to
worry when we hear about BI schemes that are “cost
neutral,” which usually implies dismantling existing
social programs. But there are certain programs that
would be made redundant by a universal BI, such as
means-tested welfare. Beyond that, various proposals
have been put forward, such as a tax on financial
transactions or the diversion of subsidies to ecologically-
destructive activities. Is it impossible to imagine
a viable approach to funding BI?

MR: If indeed BI is to be truly universal and provide for a
liveable income without the sacrifice of public services,
the cost would be enormous. My point
here isn’t to sound like the right-wing economist
spreading doom, but simply to raise awareness
where it is often lacking. Much of what I’ve read
about BI, and many of the private arguments I’ve
had, have either neglected or dismissed this point
out of hand. Even assuming less spending on health,
police and other government services that are overused
due to the ill effects of poverty, a decent BI
would require a near doubling of government revenues
in a province like Ontario. The social power
necessary to extract these kinds of revenues from
the wealthy (and the wealthier) is sorely lacking.
The central question here again is that of power
dynamics and of what strategy is most apt to change
them in our favour.

I did a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation for
Ontario. Even given the elimination of welfare, child
benefits and low-income pension supplements
(replaced by BI) plus a one-third reduction in healthcare
and police budgets (due to less crime and
improved health owing to poverty reduction), we
would need nearly 20 per cent more of GDP to fund a
universal BI guaranteeing every person $15,000 per
year. These figures are just an example and we could
quibble about details but they indicate the scale of
the necessary expenditure. For comparison purposes,
PERI at the University of Massachusetts-
Amherst (a Left economic research institute) calculates
that a viable financial transactions tax could
raise 1.7 per cent of GDP in the U.S.; the figure is
probably lower in Canada due to the smaller role of
finance and the openness of our economy.

I’m all for increasing government expenditure,
albeit while democratizing the state, but we have to
understand the class battle that would be required
to win a decent universal BI. I fear that few proponents
are truly aware of the economics.

NS: Yes, it would cost lot of money to fund a universal BI,
although for most countries, even with targeted benefit
supplements, it would reach roughly the same
percentage of GDP as the Scandinavian welfare
states, which is not out of the realm of possibility. Of
course, we all agree that it won’t happen anytime
soon. But I think that as part of a broader push to
reduce the amount of work we need to do, BI is an
important goal, even if it is never fulfilled. Which
brings me to a final point I want to make: universal BI
tends to get pitched as a single cure-all policy. I think
this is entirely wrong. It needs to be situated within a
broader narrative that gives meaning to what its
advocates hope it can help accomplish. If the aim is
to help the worst off in society, that means that BI
can’t eliminate targeted benefits and the provision of
public goods. If, on the other hand, the intention is to
diminish government intervention, then that may
well mean demolishing the welfare state. If, by contrast,
we hope that BI will contribute to reducing our
reliance on the wage, then we start to get a properly
Left vision of what it must mean. Universal BI is useful
as a goal, and a potential policy, but only in the
context of a much wider conversation about the role
of wage labour in society. And that conversation has
to address concerns about minimum wage and public
ownership and workplace democracy.


This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Canadian Dimension (Basic Income).

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