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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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