Anarchism in Interesting Times
The following text is based on my contribution to the debate on Basic Income at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday 16th of April 2016. Click here to listen to the audio of the full debate.
It has been a long time since an idea has tickled the fancy of the political intellect right across the spectrum from right to left, as Universal Basic Income; That fact alone should arouse our suspicions. On the face of it, Basic Income sounds like a dream come true, and certainly, if the government announced in the morning that it was legislating to bring it into existence, despite my conflicted feelings, I should imagine I’d feel quite happy. Who doesn’t want more money in their pocket and the opportunity to work less without falling into poverty? I imagine that a fair few people in this room would feel the same way, but the effect that Basic Income would have on any given individual should not be the main consideration here, we should more so be concerned what the long term effect on society will be and how it will impact on our ability to change the world for the better. Here are some reasons why I think the left should read the fine print and then leave the idea of Universal Basic Income on the shelf.
1. Under capitalism it will never be enough
The main benefit to capitalism of Basic Income is that it gives people money to spend within the market. Capitalism needs growth, so it needs people to buy things. But it also needs to keep people buying things – if Basic Income reached a level where people were able to give up work entirely, they would have time to do things for themselves instead of paying for someone else to do them, which would cause a lot of damage to the market economy. This would also curtail tax revenue for the state, which would then possibly be unable to afford basic income anymore. We know that the main preoccupation of the establishment here in Ireland is to “keep the recovery going”, and any policy measure will have to fall in line with that mantra.
What Basic Income Ireland are proposing according to their website FAQs is that it initially be set at the current social welfare rate of €188 per week for adults between 18 and 65 years. That is barely enough to keep people ticking over – as it currently stands it’s not enough and people on social welfare often have to avail of rent supplement and even go to community welfare for emergency payment top ups in times of dire need. Social Welfare recipients also get increases for qualified children for each kid under the age of eighteen, some who qualify get a fuel allowance top up of twenty euro a week; Will these top ups still exist under a basic income regime?
Not if those who advocate it stay true to their stated aim of reducing the bureaucracy that is associated with social welfare payments. And it’s worth reflecting on what ‘reducing bureaucracy’ around social welfare payments means. Not only does it mean there will be less, possibly no payments tailored to peoples’ specific needs, but it also means drastic job losses in the most unionised sector of the economy – the public sector. When you read the fine print, UBI begins to look more and more like a neoliberal Trojan Horse.
Those who favour basic income on the left will say they want a better level of UBI, but whatever we get from a government, especially in this country will be the crap version. We can’t all be Switzerland.
2. They really aren’t going to stop bugging you to find work
One of the advantages that UBI advocates cite is unconditionality – that whether you work or not, whether you are rich or poor, you recieve a payment. But capitalists want you to have money to spend to make profits for them and the state needs to tax you, so they aren’t going to want people to stop working. In fact UBI could easily be used to institutionalise the militiaisation of labour where people are on permanent stand by to work wherever they are needed. At the moment we have the barbaric practice of zero hours contracts, the disappearance of entry level jobs in many industries, replaced by internships, and compulsory labour schemes like Tús and Gateway. The fact that jobbridge internships have not gone away, despite being introduced as a ‘supposed’ temporary measure until the economy recovered, should be a warning to all, as should the fact that the government has a long term contract with seetac, the company who runs Jobpath centres where social welfare recipients are required to attend daily for a year.
As the Basic Income Ireland FAQ explains:
“A basic income covers only a modest standard of living, so nearly everyone would want to earn more income through paid work. In fact a basic income would provide a financial incentive to unemployed people to take on paid work, because they would not lose income by doing so. It functions as a ‘work grant’ for everybody, since it supports all forms of paid work, employed or self-employed. There are also many important forms of work in society that people do not get paid for, and having a basic income would also support those kinds of work.”
The reality is, that far from being a safety net for workers and unemployed people, basic income would be a subsidy for business, allow them access to more cheap and free labour, while at the same time obscuring the connection between the labour of working class people, profit and the general wealth of society.
3. It will create and consolidate greater class stratification
The people who will benefit most from UBI are the people already advocating it, many of whom have a clear idea of what side projects they would get on with in their spare time. The middle and upper strata of the working class would see some benefit, as long as they remain in employment, but the middle in particular probably wouldn’t get to work that much less (if we’re going by BI I’s figures). I mentioned earlier that if UBI was announced tomorrow, I would possibly be happy. But that probably wouldn’t last long, as on that amount I’d most likely, a long with many others, put it away in savings for a rainy day, rather than work less.
The poor on the other hand will lose out in a big way if UBI replaces the welfare state. Even if UBI was set at a level that meant everyone got the equivalent of a SW payment and rent allowance – most people who avail of those services now have next to no disposable income and people from the lower strata of the working classes often have the wrong accent, the wrong address, the wrong educational qualifications and sometimes the wrong skin colour or gender for employers.
The science fiction series, The Expanse envisages a future Earth where UBI is a reality. People who simply subsist on it are known as basics, they live like that because they were brought up like that, because they lived in certain neighborhoods and weren’t expected to do anything with their lives. People from middle social strata end up working service industry jobs to put themselves through education. Uncritically accepting UBI could amount to sleepwalking to dystopia.
4. Universality is a right wing idea – Basic Income was born from neo-liberal conservative thought
It shouldn’t be surprising, that when examined closely, UBI looks likea neoliberal Trojan Horse, after all, among it’s earliest proponents were Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Richard Nixon. They saw the oncoming wave of automation of industry and feared social unrest and the rise of a dangerous underclass.
The idea of universality in general is a right wing one, one that sees us all as having the same needs and same ability to work. Flat taxes are an example of this, as is the current attempted water charge where everyone pays the same rate regardless of wealth. What ever happened to from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs?
5. Giving us money to spend on things isn’t the answer
At current rates of childcare, someone with a couple of kids isn’t going to be living the good life on €188 a week. The average price for a creche for one child in Ireland is €888 per month and €1,053 in Dublin. If you want decent healthcare you have to pay phenomenal amounts for health insurance and education costs an arm and a leg.
In reality, capitalists want us to spend money on is consumer goods and to spend our free time creating “good external side effects” for amazon and Facebook by creating content and providing them with data free of charge. We need free childcare, healthcare and education, not bribes and hyper consumerism. Transforming society will require and ideological awakening, for want of a better term, a spiritual transformation, and a complete overhaul of our priorities, not just a few extra quid in our pockets.
6. What the state gives, the state can take away
Under capitalism, everything positive is temporary. What one government introduces can be quickly swiped back by another. The increases in social welfare payments that occurred during the boom years in Ireland, have been chipped away and attached to conditions since the onset of austerity.
One of the big reasons that the welfare state and NHS in the UK lasted as long as it did was the existence of a powerful labour movement comprising hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. Indeed the introduction of these reforms came after the Second World War at a time that elites feared revolution would sweep Europe – as it had after the First World War. Today we don’t have that, we need to rebuild our movement and if we get to the stage where we have a movement that powerful again, we shouldn’t stop when we are on the verge of victory, we should push on to abolish capitalism and hierarchy.
What is the alternative?
Frankly, I believe that winning Basic Income Max, the kind that lefties would advocate, is less likely than winning full communism, so I’m obliged to offer some kind of short to medium term alternative.
In the short term rather than climbing aboard the UBI bandwagon, we should fight for free childcare, a shorter working week without loss of pay, pay increases well above what the establishment consider a living wage – and also agitate, educate and organise for the expansion of the sharing economy (something I like to call communism 😉 ) – unions and community resistance networks can play a crucial role in both those areas, in the latter setting up networks of people who create in their spare time that would eventually become micro-libertarian communist economies and pose a real alternative to capitalism when they begin to connect with each other.
In the medium term – because there is no long term anymore with the looming threats of environmental destruction and war – we should build towards the abolition of wage labour and monetary exchange – the technology exists to do the latter right now and is being used to gather data on natural disasters via social media, real time traffic info through apps like waze, and self bar-code scanning with personal health apps and the former is possible too, as automation can eliminate a huge proportion of work, while freeing people up to share the rest.
I’m sick of hearing that real communism is an aspiration for the future, that what we must do for the time being is fight for reforms. I’ve been hearing that since I took my first forays into left wing activism, and that was twenty five years ago. Looking for the right time to argue for the maximum feels like chasing a horizon. We can’t keep prioritising the immediate at the expense of the future, we need a road map for getting from here to there, and UBI is a dead end.
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