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.

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