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The Case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI)

UBI from a marxist point of view

Tuesday 31 October 2017, by mond


Some people on the left do not support the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). They think it is a "neo-liberal plot".

While it is true that UBI is an idea that was first promoted by neo-liberal thinkers, there are many reasons why we on the left should also support the idea. One key aspect is that there is not a UBI but there are many different versions. Key questions are:

a.) what is the purpose of the UBI?

b.) how is it funded?

c.) how is society organized? will we continue to have publically or co-operatively organized services?

I think, in the end the neo-liberal economist recognized the shortcomings of their theory. So they invented an "easy way out" of these problems. The UBI. If the neo-liberal economist would have been smart, they would not have been neo-liberal economists but would have turned to the left side. What they did not realize is that the UBI is not only a way out of their theoretical problems but a way out of capitalism itself.

Here is why we need an UBI:

1.) Technological Progress: Due to the recent progress with AI, within the next 20 years a lot of labour that is done by machines. Self-driving cars are just the most visible of these. Progress in speech recognition will make call-centers obsolete and the retail sector is also a field where there is a lot of potential for automation. Even some highly skilled labor (e.g. IT) is made obsolete (e.g. Sysadmins are replaced by using cloud infrastructure, etc.).

We recommend to watch the "Humans Need Not Apply" video.

So we can react to this with demanding radical reduction of working hours and working time, but this alone will not solve the problem. With the rapid change in technology most jobs will be short lived: where there is a high demand in certain skills that can at a certain point in time not yet be done by machines, this might change within a few month or a few years. While people might be trained to do new jobs these same jobs might have been obsolete by the time the training is finished.

The only permanent and sustainable solution to all these issues is a UBI. People need to be able to live a decent life without having a payed job.

In a sense: The time for capitalism (in the sense that it is exploitation of labor) is almost over. We will see the end of capitalism within the next 20 to 40 years. The only open question is: will it grow into a dark dystopia or will we manage to turn it into a paradise for all.

2.) With an overabundance of productive forces, capital will try to create new demands. This is done by advertisement (creating artificial needs where there where none before), by planed obsolescence of goods, artificially restricting access to goods that should be free (e.g. "intellectual property") and most effectively through war (this helps twice: once the investment in arms and after those are used to create damage, the need for rebuilding). UBI helps in 2 ways: on the one hand it also reduced working time (as some people will choose to not participate in labor - especially if it is of the sort that is damaging to society) and as it ensures that people have purchasing power - thus creating a motivation for the system to produce products that people actually need.

3.) In a world where there is an overabundance of labor, the price for this good: labor is destined to fall, but sure enough people will only want to work if the wage is significantly above the UBI. Thus the existence of an UBI is a guarantee for people who choose to participate in wage labor to have fair wages. I, thus do not see that the UBI would create an antagonism between working people and unemployed. I also do not see how an UBI would undermine the existing welfare state: Of course, a lot of transfer payments would be unnecessary if people receive a basic income anyways. But all parts of the welfare state that work well now (e.g. a public health system, public or cooperative housing, etc, ) would not be replaced. It just does not make sense to privatize things that are working well in the public realm. This is the part where critique from the left is most violent: they assume that an UBI would mean that e.g. a public healh system would be abandoned. While it is possible to think of such a system where this happens, it would be really stupid move. It would just make those services more expensive and thus would reduce the value of the UBI. What should happen is quite the opposite:

4.) With the freedom to spend time on work that is not payed for by the capitalist system, we should expect that many people will spend their time with work that benefits the public. The development of free software is a good example of this as are people who create works of art, produce educational videos, maintain Wikipedia articles or engage in housing, agricultural or research collectives. An UBI is thus a good way to gradually move our society away from the more then obsolete capitalist system and towards co-operative production. Even today, where only a few people have the luxury to donate their time to useful co-operative projects like free-software or Wikipeida, we see that this model works much better. In a world where, through UBI, a lot of people can afford to do useful work, chances are that very quickly we will be out-cooperating the remaining capitalist production.

5.) Last but not least we should also consider how a UBI could help us in our struggles for a more democratic and social just world. As mentioned above, we do not think that an UBI necessarily would create an antagonism between people with pay jobs and those without. Any job where one would not be able to quit it without fear is sure to be hell. Also: Once transfer payments like different forms of unemployment benefit, retirement pensions, etc, run under the same title, we should expect that many people have a combined collective motivation of fighting for it, where on the other hand: divide and conquer is a strategy where we are loosing.

From a marxist point of view: UBI undermines the core of what capitalism is: a social relationship where some only have their labor to sell and others own the means of production. When the need to sell your labor is gone, so is capitalism. Marx illustrates this with a footnote in "Das Kapital", describing the story of Mr. Peel, a capitalist who went to Australia:

"Mr. Peel, he moans, took him from England to Swan River, West Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. Mr. Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 300 persons of the working-class, men, women, and children. Once arrived at his destination, ’’Mr. Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.’’ Unhappy Mr. Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River. — Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol I

If an UBI is high enough to have a decent live, the need to sell your labor at any cost will be gone.

So I think the left should fully embrace the idea of an UBI: But what is necessary is that we fight for is that it is high enough and that around the UBI we need co-operative production. We must, under no circumstances give up public or co-operative production where we already have it. We must fight for widening this, which should be much easier once we have an UBI.

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