Sunday, 10 May 2020

A Point for Rousseau?


Rutger Bregman published a very interesting piece in the Guardian a couple of days ago. In it he relates the story of some Tongan children who were stranded on a desert island, after being shipwrecked whilst escaping from their dreaded school meals. The children were there for over a year and cooperated well together, building friendships and working together to overcome the trials that they faced.

This is in stark contrast to the most famous, fictional, story of children being stranded on a deserted island The Lord of the Flies. In William Golding's account, the boys fairly quickly descended into brutality and a breakdown of any cooperative structures.

The Lord of the Flies is often held as a cautionary tale about the dark evil at the heart of humans, though it has been pointed out that Golding's intent was more to point to the wickedness of the English public school system and the type of people it produces(1). Thankfully such things are not with us anymore...oh...

This story does also raise an interesting question for political theory, and sociology really, on the question of what people are like, specifically what are they like absent authority, going back to the classic debate on states of nature and the social contract. In particular, is this a point for the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau?

Thomas Hobbes had opened the arguments by claiming that people were naturally selfish and fearful which led to fighting. No cooperation was possible and their lives were 'nasty, brutish and short'. Hence what was needed was a powerful state that would police people's lives. John Locke was next, holding that people were selfish but, like a good capitalist, this was a good thing and it did not preclude cooperation. Rousseau, then, is often held as taking the opposite extreme, that people are naturally good and it's civilisation that causes the problems.

Hobbes it seems has mostly won out in his view, given that most everything is built around the idea that people are naturally untrustworthy and need supervision. It is however, often forgotten that Hobbes was not writing without influence: despite talking about the state of nature most of his ruminations were actually a product of witnessing the English Civil War (where most of this brutality was), alongside rather propagandistic accounts of the lives of Native Americans. Locke likewise can't really be understood, particularly his bizarre argument around property ownership, without the context that he was trying to justify expropriating land from the Native American people.

But is it actually Rousseau who was right all along? Despite how he's often portrayed, he wasn't the naive believer that in the state of nature (2) everything was fine and dandy. He thought people could fight and be self-interested, as well as cooperate. Rather his point was that civilisation, and particularly perhaps Western civilisation, produces the vileness and brutality that we associate with that condition. It was not, after all, the 'savages' that created Atlantic slavery and its barbarity (Rousseau's example if I remember correctly), or the massively destructive wars of our era or genocides of populations. This was, rather, coming from the supposed high-points of civilisation.

The Bregman story, however, seems to give the point to Rousseau. It's not the case that no challenges arise or fallings out happens, but that overall people are capable of getting along and cooperating. And its worth noting that they were not 'uncivilised', of course, because the Tongan boys had their own education from their parents and culture. It's only when particular kinds of civilisation arrive that status inequalities and brutality becomes a thing.

It's not to say, of course, that people are naturally good. One of Rousseau's points is that notions of 'good', 'bad' etc. are products of civilisation and have no meaning before that. Hunter-gatherer societies are not nirvanas and come with their own issues and problems. But it is always worth revisiting just what our societies believe in and just what sort of monstrosities creep in under the banner of 'being civilised'. In particular, the one thing that comes out of this is that culturally we appear to have a belief that the more brutal something is, or the more horrible it is, the more 'true' it must be(3).

Rousseau, then, seems to have the best of it; both for Golding's intent with The Lord of the Flies and Bregman's story of the Tongan children.



(1) There is still a veneer of 'savagery is only a short hop from civilisation' that underlies it though, so I don't think that point is too far off the mark
(2) A supposed state before society arose. It's historically impossible, but it's used by political thinkers as thought experiments (John Rawls having perhaps the most famous contemporary version). Whether it tells us anything useful or not is a moot point.
(3) See for instance the dismissal of Keynesianism and the belief in austerity, which is based on little more that it seems fanciful and wishful thinking to believe that the poor shouldn't get a kicking and endure pain to alleviate a crisis.

Monday, 4 May 2020

A Look At: Star Wars - Episode IX: Duel of the Fates

Screenplay Review – Star Wars Episode 9 (“Duel of the Fates”)
(http://scriptshadow.net/screenplay-review-star-wars-episode-9-duel-of-the-fates/)


The original plan for Star Wars: Episode IX  was that it would be directed by Colin Trevorrow, then most famous for Jurassic World. However, he was fired from the project a couple of months before production was due to start. The reasons for this have never exactly been spelled out, although The Book of Henry bombing at the box office, and production troubles on Solo: A Star Wars Story likely gave Lucasfilm cold feet about allowing a relatively inexperienced director to have a handle on the big tent-pole finisher for the franchise. Rian Johnson was originally offered the gig, but he baulked at the tight production schedule and so J. J. Abrams was brought back. The Rise of Skywalker was the result.

Whatever you thought of The Rise of Skywalker (my own view: fun popcorn movie, but misses opportunities to be something more), it had something of a disappointing reception. As a result of this, many people started to wonder 'what if' and whether or not the Trevorrow draft may have been better.

Well they need wonder no more. Since the turn of the year Colin Trevorrow a mysterious person has been leaking concept art that was done for the movie, followed up by the script being obtained by a YouTuber who promptly gave a rendition of the plot. And, come February, the script itself, by Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, was leaked online. You can find it here.

So, on this May the Fourth, let's try and answer the question of whether it could have been better than The Rise of Skywalker, as we take a look at Star Wars: Episode IX; Duel of the Fates.

Now, obviously, the first thing to set out is that this script is not the complete version of what the Trevorrow film would have looked like. We don't know how finished this draft was, as screenplays often undergo constant revision as production begins and even whilst filming is in motion. This draft was also before Carrie Fishers untimely and unfortunate death, so rewrites would have had to happen to account for that in any case (though perhaps less than allegedly happened with The Rise of Skywalker, as Leia's role here is not that large). Similarly we don't know how the backlash to The  Last Jedi would have effected things (as seemed to again do in the case of The Rise of Skywalker, which seemed to written with a checklist of complaints next to the monitor).

The plot essentially divides into three main strands. Rey, equipped with a snazzy new double-bladed lightsabre, is continuing her journey as a Jedi, but is struggling with the Jedi codes rulings, particularly as regards straying away from emotions of all sorts. The Resistance has worked out that all signals between planets are being blocked by the First Order, now fully, if shakily, established as a new Empire and set up on Coruscant. They realise, however, that there's an old Jedi communication network beneath the Jedi Temple that they can use to bypass the communication blcok.

Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren is off (leaving Chancellor Hux in charge) searching for a way to make himself more powerful, whilst being haunted by the (literal and metaphorical) ghost of Luke Skywalker. This journey has taken him to Mustafar, former home of Darth Vader, where he finds a Sith holocron that may provide the answers he seeks.

With that preliminary established, I'll now set out what I think are the bad parts and the good parts of Duel of the Fates (I won't do a long summary, as those are already out there if you're not inclined to read the screenplay). So, first of all, the bad.

The Dark Side

There are I think two major issues. The first is that, for some Godforsaken reason, they've crowbarred in a Rey/Poe romance. This doesn't work at all, and seems to exist for no other reason than to stop people (including Oscar Issaac and John Boyega) from clamouring for a Finn/Poe pairing. Whilst Hollywood is happy to accept that homosexual romances are a thing, in blockbusters they must be confined to the background and be short, to make it easy for the Chinese censors to snip it out. Rey's only two plausible pairings (if she had to have one) are either Rey/Ben (which Rise of Skywalker sort of went with) or Rey/Finn, and the latter was never going to happen given Hollywood's squeamishness over black male, white female pairings. As it is, then, this pairing feels forced, doesn't really add much to either character (other than a means of externalizing Rey's struggles with her emotions) and saps time and space away from other characters to develop. Which leads neatly to the second issue - Kylo Ren/Ben Solo.

Kylo here has an interesting plot. Searching for more power, but also an easy way of obtaining it, a hologram of Darth Sidious sends him out to search for Tor Vallum, a 7,000 year old Sith Lord responsible for teaching Darth Plageius (Sidious' master). With his face new mutilated by the hologram, and a new mask applied, Kylo heads out and finds Vallum. The sequence here is quite cool and Kylo goes through a parallel of Luke's journey in the Empire Strikes Back, where he faces a Vader conjured by the force. Unlike Luke, however, Kylo loses his duel (symbolizing his inability to overcome the darkness). From Vallum he also learns the power to drain the force for living beings and add it to his own. He promptly does this to Vallum.

This, then is the problem, that Kylo's motivations are never exactly clear. He wants more power, but it's never really spelled out why or what he hopes to do with it. It's a bit of blow because his more conflicted characterization is lost in favour of 'being more evil' as a motivation. Tor Vallum is also a bit of wash. Built up really well, and then having survived 7,000 years is suddenly defeated really easily by a somewhat angsty young adult. It doesn't really work and points to the general problem of the Kylo segment, lack of development.

There are some minor issues as well. I won't dwell on all of them, but I think the one that sticks out most prominently is the sequence where we meet the warlord backers of the First Order. Hux has a conference with them and we're introduced to a variety of alien lords who all appear to be the funders of the First Order. This seems to be an attempt to build on Johnson's point in The Last Jedi on the way capitalism profits from war, but it's clumsily done. It only exists for one sequence and is then never mentioned again, so it sticks out as an odd part that doesn't really add anything to the story.

The Light Side

So what's to like? Well, there's a number of things. Rose Tyco is fully integrated into the story, and gets a number of contributing parts, which is good to see (particularly after the character was more or less written out of The Rise of Skywalker)There's also no regression in the characters either. That is it feels like these are a group of people who lived through the events of The Last Jedi, rather than collectively having amnesia and only remembering The Force Awakens. The plot in general feels more coherent - that there's an actual direction to what's going on rather than a bunch of stuff happening and being thrown together. Hux is also not given short shrift and is allowed to develop as well (and he also gets an amusing sequence where it's revealed that he's a real fanboy for the Jedi and is trying to learn how to use the force - which also puts a new spin on his conflict with Kylo, adding a factor of jealousy to the mix.)

Finn also gets a good arc, as he completes his journey from coward to leader. On Coruscant he leads a revolution of the people against the First Order, including most prominently the stormtroopers. A queasy question mark that's always been hanging about since The Force Awakens, was that if Finn could break his conditioning and rebel, why couldn't the other stormtroopers? And, additionally, if they were all kidnapped and conditioned as children then wouldn't this raise moral questions about just slaughtering them? Here we get an attempt to address that and one that ties in with Finn's own growth.

The Knights of Ren are also in this script but here they feel like an actual threat and a group of people who you would actually be running from, rather than a bunch of cosplayers who stumbled onto the stage. They also help push forward Rey's own characterisation.

Rey, Poe romance aside, is also handled much better here. She is still a nobody and is not wedged into being Palpatine's granddaughter, which consequently allows her to grow into her own terms, as well as with the realisation that not coming from a lineage does not mean she's a 'nobody' (as Poe puts it 'no one is a nobody'). This feels true to the arc. Granted, this is botched slightly by the revelation that Snoke had Kylo kill Rey's parents. Why is never revealed (I think the implication is supposed to be that Rey was a student at Luke's academy, but then that really screws up the timelines), but I imagine this would have been cut.

That aside, it also means that her conflict is more internal and true to her. Rey struggles with her emotions because she is an emotional person with trauma, which makes sense given her abandonment in one the most inhospitable planets in the galaxy, not because she has some bad genes from Palpatine. This makes sense of her struggles to follow the Jedi way, which is phobic towards any kind of emotion. The completion of her arc, then, with the realisation that emotions are not bad, but can be used productively, feels real and also serves as a good way of resolving the central conflict of the Star Wars series between the dark and the light sides, with the integration of both of them.

It's not all perfectly handled, and I think more could be done in engaging with the mythology of the world. With that said, it is a Hollywood blockbuster movie and so exists to sell tickets, not do deep ruminations. That sort of stuff gets left to the additional material, such as Knights of the Old Republic II, which does an exceedingly good job of flipping the conventional mythos of Star Wars on its head.

From a Certain Point of View

So, would Duel of the Fates have been better? On the basis of the screenplay I'd marginally give it the nod. It's not perfect by any means, there's issues here even in the stuff I liked and think it did better. For instance, I like the opening sequence where a botched bombing mission turns into a dramatic stealing of a Star Destroyer. It's silly, and far too easy really, to but it feels epic and fun and also neatly establishes the characters and how far they've come and developed in the meantime, as well as the respective positions of the factions.

Overall, I think Duel of the Fates works better as a conclusion to the saga. It builds on the themes evident through the series, and, more importantly, it does try and engage with character beats and themes that were developed in The Last Jedi, so it feels like it follows more fluidly.

Now of course we can never know how this would have turned out. Even if Carrie Fisher had not passed, and The Last Jedi hadn't had such a vocal backlash from a minority, the script likely would have changed. Add in these two developments and who knows. Similarly whilst a bad screenplay will rarely make a good movie, good screenplays don't always make good movies. What works on the page doesn't always translate well to the big screen.

But, from a certain point of view, I think it would have done.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Science Scepticism, from Left to Right


A few days ago, Chris Dillow asked a question: 'There was a time when scepticism about science was mainly a lefty thing (in the 60s, inspired by Feyerabend?) The psychohistory of how it became a rightist theme needs telling.' It's an interesting question, one which I'm sure more learned people could probably offer a good response to. But sheer ignorance has never stopped me from propounding on a subject, and it isn't going to do so now!

I think the intriguing difference between these two forms of scepticism is that the Left scepticism centred around the method and authority of science, whereas the Right scepticism centres around the results.

What Kuhn was doing, in responding to Popper's notion of falsificationism, was to point to how the methodology of science doesn't stack up with the reality. We are all, after all, taught about the scientific method: make a hypothesis, perform an experiment, see what the result is. The Left scepticism centred around questioning this.

That is, whilst the claim may be that scientists follow a methodology that provides objective results, the actual criteria for what counts as 'truth' 'a result' is often based on other criteria. Hence the paradigms: systems of knowledge that the studies exist in and are used to explain them. Contrary to the image portrayed 'proving' something as true, or falsifying something, doesn't automatically negate the previous knowledge, it's just adapted until a new paradigm is ready. Feyerabend is slightly more extreme in arguing that this is no real method; what decides a result as true is based on other criteria beyond 'the scientific method'.

This is what was being challenged, in essence. We have, even now, a cultural idea that science is an absolute authority: what it says is true is true, because of the power of the method. But this can be dangerous for all sorts of reasons. There may well be lots of biases that are going on in the reasonings but the result is still treated as 'the truth'. I don't think it's entirely a coincidence that this emerges in the 1960s and 70s, where post-colonialism, civil rights movements and second-wave feminism were questioning a lot of the hierarchies and assumptions of the world, and particularly sciences' role in granting these hierarchies and assumptions authority. The target is often physics, I imagine, because if you can prove that even the greatest and most successful of the sciences suffers from cultural and social biases then more malleable ones like biology and the social sciences certainly do.

This is still present in the Left, in challenging uses of statistics and how they're used on, for example, questions of poverty reduction and what the marker should be for that and, perennially, questions around IQ and measurements of intelligence and 'races'. I think it has, fallen away a bit, however, largely as a fear of how questioning science might be used to undermine responses to climate change.

For the Right sceptics, however, centres on the results - that is what they question is not the method, which is perfect, but rather the people who are using the method and the purpose. You see this quite a lot: the authority of science is appealed to to prove that there are only two genders/sexes, that climate change is just a naturally occurring phenomenon etc. That scientists are saying something different is because they are not using the method properly; they've been corrupted because they're closet communists, or social justice warriors or homosexuals (and God knows what else). The argument here is that if the method was just used properly and wasn't infected by personal beliefs then it would produce the 'correct' results.

In the end then, the shift to Right scepticism is probably part and parcel of the same phenomenon’s that characterise, e.g. incel movements. Science is now challenging a lot of pre-existing hierarchies that favoured dominant groups: men are more logical/rational than women; white people are naturally more intelligent; there are set gender roles that stem from biology; Western civilisation is the superior civilisation because of the people's genius; climate change is just a natural happening and it's just bad luck it's going to impact on the Global South hardest. All of these are things that science, precisely down to a greater understanding of how the method can be affected by social and cultural assumptions, is now challenging. This, consequently, sees a lot of people move to the Right, which politically is largely about preserving status quos and maintaining social hierarchies.

What the Right sceptics of science are after, then, is much the same as Rightists who hate video games because they don't chain mail bikinis, or Star Wars because it has woman Jedi and so on: to go back to a world where everything was fit around them. Because if the 'method' of science was followed properly, that's what it would show.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Herd Immunity and Social Darwinism


One of the interesting things that has come out of Boris Johnson having to go into intensive care is the number of ConservativesJohnson included, who seem to think that this is a display of terrible weakness.

A choice of quotations:

"He [Johnson] has obviously worked like mad to try and get through this but it's not good enough so far." (Ian Duncan Smith)

"His [Johnson] outlook on the world is that illness is for weak people." (Sonia Purnell, Johnson's biographer)

In both of these quotations the indication is pretty clear - being ill is for the weak; the strong do not get ill. Being ill, then, is a lack of will, effort or moral character.

And this, it seems to me, goes along with the logic of that bizarre current of thought known as social Darwinism.

Social Darwinism (1) is not entirely aptly named: the main currents of the idea predate Darwin and actually originate with Herbert Spencer. The famous phrase that guides the belief 'survival of the fittest' was actually coined by Spencer some ten years before On the Origin of Species was published. Indeed, the constant conflation between Spencer's ideas and Darwin's was something that annoyed Spencer immensely in his own lifetime.

The phrase is, however, a good summary of what social Darwinism is: the essential notion is that life is a competition, the survivors of which are the 'strongest' or 'fittest' as they come through the challenges of life. This is why, of course, those who held this view opposed any programmes of poor relief - to provide aide to the 'weakest' would distort the workings of nature.

Fitness, let it be said, is a technical term in biology and basically means nothing more than the ability of an entity to leave progeny. The more it can produce the 'fitter' it is. Noticeably this doesn't tell us anything about the characteristics of the entity, or which ones are making it more fitter than others. And it is also not divorceable from the environment: obviously an entity that is the fittest in, for example, an ocean environment might not be so good in a forested environment. Fins on a fish, for example, are probably a contributing factor to its ability to leave progeny, as it helps the fish to navigate the water environment. You cannot, however, say that fins are unambiguously 'good', 'adaptive' 'fitness enhancing' as if you stuck them on a monkey it would add precisely nothing to the monkey's ability to leave progeny and could even actively harm it.

This obviously is not what the social Darwinist conception means by 'fittest'; though what exactly is meant is hard to determine. The definition is tautological: the fittest are those who survive; how do we know this? Because they have survived! But in that case fitness has little to do with any quality in the individual, but more to do with background and wealth. There are, after all, hordes of wealthy people (many of them in government) who have no conceivable talents or abilities but will 'survive'; just as their are loads of people who are very gifted, but who will struggle to develop this due to poor nutrition, lack of support in education and the various other ills associated with the misfortune of being born poor.

What is interesting here though is the way in which this believe in 'the strong survive' may well have coloured the government's Coronavirus response, particularly in the herd immunity strategy. This was, for a long time, the government's purported aim: infect a large chunk of the population as a way of building up the immunity. It seems to be premised on the very logic that social Darwinism runs with: everyone gets infected and then those that die are simply too 'weak'. This is seemingly what is to be drawn from Dominic Cummings (alleged) comment of 'herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad'.

The herd immunity strategy seems to then derive from the social Darwinist assumptions: the only ones who will be effected are those to weak, so it will thin out the population of the undesirables and so ultimately improve the country and economy. Those that die have simply not tried hard enough. Which has a certain resemblance with the Conservatives approach to welfare benefits and the economy. This seems to be what lies behind Johnson's turning up at hospitals and shaking hand with everyone, as well as the press's initial disdain for anyone challening the herd immunity strategy: A belief that their strength means they will not catch it.

Noticeably we have now changed track after Johnson, Hancock and Cummings all came down with it, with there even being denials that was ever a herd immunity strategy. Somehow it seems the 'survival of the fittest' becomes a less attractive strategy when you have the realization that you are not, actually, excluded from the general struggle to survive. And with that comes the realization that the 'strength' so coveted by the Conservatives is based less on anything real, than simply being able to be outside of difficulty. 

It is, after all, easy to survive when you have vast arrays of wealth and support to fall back on.

(1) There is a question as to whether social Darwinism as a definable programme ever existed: Robert Bannister's Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought presents this argument. Whether it did or didn't though, I think currents of its thought certainly influence contemporary thinking.


Friday, 3 April 2020

The Political Philosophy of Centrism


Centrism, for good or ill, has been one of the defining political movements of the last decades five years. And yet, for all of that, it remains something that's curiously hard to define. It's often very easy to get a sense of what they are not, as it's in opposition to (generally speaking) the 'extremes' and there's much about opposition to 'populism' (whatever that means), but there isn't a lot about what they are for. Indeed the only definitive position is that calling them by their self-chosen name is a form of abuse.

So Glen O'Hara is brave in taking a crack at it. The picture that emerges, however, is murky. The suggestion seems to be that centrism is about working collaboratively, bringing people together in order to achieve effective change in legislation. There is a style element to it: it's about appealing to people in a manner they are comfortable with, a softly approach. In this way, by being involved in the mechanics and minute, more can be achieved than by the fiery and 'empty' rhetoric of 'outriders'. Centrism then is about competent, sympathetic people doing the hard work.

There's probably a lot in there that's true. Style does matter there's no doubt and being able to convince people you're trustworthy and believable is a big part of the job. As ever the role of media, in communicating an image, goes without mention because it would be rather hard to reconcile with the idea of this all being a politicians control. And being aware of technical detail and being able to collaborate with others to pass legislation is also important.

And yet there's an awful lot in there that doesn't ring true.

Take for instance, an example Glen proffers on gay marriage. The way he depicts this it's down to David Cameron being able to face down his own party and ally with Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP in order to pass the legislation. It's not the result of 'one wing...driving it hard'. But that's backwards. Gay marriage, or the minimum wage his other example, was not a bountiful gift given by the wise politician to grateful nation. It had to be fought for many years of activists and groups making these arguments repeatedly, often at their own risk, in the face of opposition from politicians among others. Precisely the actions of people that Glen dismisses as 'outriders'.

As for being against empty rhetoric, well the effective Centrist parties in the UK, the Liberal Democrats and Change UK the Independent group, were precisely characterised by having little more than empty rhetoric. 'Bollocks to Brexit' for instance, without ever really spelling out how exactly this will be achieved. And as for collaborating with others you disagree with; well they refused to support Corbyn to become Prime Minister and potentially get a EU Referendum, and they're also the reason the Customs Union Amendment didn't pass and so condemning us to a hard Brexit.

Mastery of technical detail indeed.

What emerges from this, then, seems to be that it is ultimately the style that matters more. Centrism is about a particular way of doing politics and about a particular type of person who gets to do it. Stray from that and you're into the extremes. It is the belief that arguments should be about where to draw the line on which children qualify for free school means; not on whether there should be a line at all.

It is, ultimately, the philosophy that politics should be kept out of politics.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

UBI: The Capitalist Road to Communism?


For obvious reasons, talk of a universal basic income (UBI) has increased. With the outbreak of Covid-19 sending almost everyone in doors, and in particular menacing those on precarious work, self-employed and the unemployed, the UBI seems tailor made to the solution: simply pay everyone in the country a flat fee per month (circa £2000). This would be an elegant and simple solution to the problem, that would also solve lots of other problems around poverty and precarious work even outside of Covid-19.

But there’s another reason why it’s interesting, which is the political/philosophical dimension and the area where I first came into contact with the idea: namely a paper by Robert van den Veen and Philipe van Parijs entitled ‘A Capitalist Road to Communism’.

To sketch the argument: van den Veen and van Parijs pose a question - given that actually existing socialism (the soviet states, China etc.) all appear to be failing (they were writing in 1986) and are authoritarian nightmares in any case, might we not skip that stage? Would it not be possible to go straight from capitalism to communism and skip the socialism stage?

Their argument for this is that communism, the ideal, rests on the end of alienation - that is the freedom of people to do what they wish with the individual’s share of the benefits of production being independent of their contribution. Developing a sense of altruism, the preserve of the socialism stage, is a secondary concern. If this was the case, then it would be possible, so they claim, to skip socialism and instead use the productive powers of capitalism to achieve the communist end.
A key feature of this plan is what they then called ‘the universal grant’ but which became ‘the universal basic income’. The premise behind it is simple: having a UBI would be cheaper than having a ‘top-up’ grant, where the state pays the difference between people’s wages and a certain minimum, and would also be less stigmatising. It would make work more fun as people are able to select jobs that they want to do, rather than being forced into doing something that they hate or is horrible. It would reduce relative income disparities as more high status work would see its wages lowered (as everyone would want those sorts of jobs), whereas more low-status (‘low-skilled’ to use the government parlance), would see wages increase, to compensate for the less pleasant nature of the work. Where people don’t have to do a job in order to survive, they get more freedom to choose what sort of work they want to do and what conditions they will accept to do it.

It will also mean that those who can’t work for one reason or another are not stigmatised against or disadvantaged in the system. The criteria of communism as Marx set out, ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’ is thus fulfilled and alienation has been ended.
Voila: communism via capitalism.

It’s an argument I’m not unsympathetic towards: I’ve always thought that Bakunin had the better of his debate with Marx on the perils on concentrating power in small groups. This would seem to be a rather neat way around that problem.

It’s not, however without difficulties. Their reliance on the Laffer Curve to make the argument is a bit whiffy. And, as van den Veen and van Parijs note, there is always political context: ‘It [tax rates for UBI] will be determined by power relationships in the context of current material conditions’ (1986: 652). This is something that is curiously under discussed in their piece. They state that they are not going to get into political considerations, but it is a crucial component. Capitalism has its own power blocs and concentrations, just as much as the socialist states did, and its unlikely these would simply ‘wither away’ because of a UBI anymore than the state was set to do after the socialist revolution.
So there are problems: the rate at which the UBI is set can be manipulated quite easily and it’s not hard to imagine a Conservative administration setting it at below a sustainable amount to force people into work (just look at the benefit payments for example). This would then hand over more power towards capitalism. Likewise, it doesn’t necessarily take into account the fact that people with disabilities’ costs are often far higher than those without, so adjustments would need to be made on that basis.

Lastly, it could be used as an excuse to rip apart the welfare state. Why would anyone need the NHS if they can all now afford private insurance? Essentially, the UBI runs the risk of individualising problems even more than they are now. After all, if you can’t make it with a UBI then why should anyone else help you? But the welfare state is an important source of solidarity and necessary even with a UBI.

Nevertheless, with the Covid-19 situation it may well be that this is a fait accompli and some form of UBI will be introduced. In that case, it’s important to make progressive arguments for it and van den Veen and van Parijs (and van Parijs in his other works such as Real Freedom for All) provides a good starting place for making them.

The road straight from capitalism to communism would be a bumpy one. But its one we may have to travel down.