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Universal Basic Income: a Laissez-Faire Future?

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There is growing excitement on the contemporary Left about the so-called Universal Basic Income (UBI) or, what is alternatively known as the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). Under this scheme, government is supposed to provide every person with a regular stipend and do so without requiring one to engage in any particular form of social work.

The idea, as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue in their forthcoming book, Inventing the Future: Post-capitalism and a World without Work (Verso, 2015), is to create a new “redistribution mechanism” that will “transform precarity,” “recognize social labor,” “make class power easier to organize,” and “extend the space in which to experiment with how we organize communities and families.” With these admirable and deliberately far-reaching aims, Srnicek and Williams position the UBI at the center of what they see as a bold, systemic and forward-looking critical project: one that would move from critique to praxis and replace a crumbling neoliberal infrastructure with a more just and sustainable order. The final aim of this new order? The end of paid work and the beginning of the post-capitalist era. In response to the scourge of jobless recoveries and the onslaught of new automation technologies, Srnicek and Williams conclude that all signs point to an oncoming “post-work society” and that “the classic social democratic demand for full employment should be replaced with the demand for full unemployment.”

In Srnicek and Williams’s hands, the Universal Basic Income ascends from its middling status in think tanks and social media to the heights of intellectual rigor and savvy associated with critical theory. Theorists such as Steven Shaviro have already begun to debate the  possibilities and limits of Srnicek and Williams’s UBI revolution, and will no doubt continue to do so for some time. Yet before diving headlong into this UBI future, I offer a few words of caution that are likely to throw a wrench in the works.

My claim, here, is that Srnicek and Williams’s Inventing the Future errs in the way it
poses the problem of unemployment under neoliberalism and that this confused inventingfutureformulation generates a desire for UBI that is not only politically wrongheaded, but also contradicts the book’s professed goal of systemic transformation. The UBI may provide relief from some contemporary ills. But I suggest that it cannot bear the weight of the total transformation Srnicek and Williams are after.

At the heart of Srnicek and Williams’s analytical misstep, I argue, lies an unreflected Liberal vision of money and unemployment. According to this Liberal imaginary, money appears as a finite thing-cum-process, which belongs to the volatile domain of private capital and finance. Upon the basis of this conventional image of money, Srnicek and Williams then presume Liberalism’s other great myth: that unemployment is a direct result of market vagaries and increased automation. To be fair, most critical theorists indebted to Marxist political-economy subordinate the money relation to a totality they term “capitalism” and, from here, envision unemployment as a necessary effect of this totality’s unruly transformations. The difference is that Srnicek and Williams seek a fresh and transformative solution to this seemingly intractable problem; to them, the Universal Basic Income is just what the doctor ordered. Leaving collapsing labor markets behind, while looking forward to a fully automated tomorrow, these authors surmise that UBI is the best solution on offer.

Yet when one turns to the heterodox school of economic thought known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), we discover that there is, in fact, nothing necessary about the Liberal vision of money and unemployment upon which Srnicek and Williams predicate their analysis, and that their call for a Universal Basic Income not only misapprehends money’s nature and purpose, but also betrays their wish for a thoroughgoing social transformation.

Contrary to economic orthodoxies on both the Left and Right, MMT economists show that the money relation is irreducible to capitalist production and private finance. Instead, they contend, money is a boundless public instrument that can be made to serve every person and environment it encompasses. More important, MMT insists that money is first and foremost a government technology for provisioning labor for the public sector. Or, as MMTer Warren Mosler puts it, “The currency, the money, is a tool to provision the state.”

To accomplish such provisioning, however, is no simple endeavor. Government must first socialize labor by creating unemployment as a generalized condition and thereby turn remunerated employment into a basic social need. It does so, Mosler explains, by simultaneously imposing and enforcing taxes in a currency that the state alone supplies. Such is the primary purpose of taxation, according to MMT. In place of the conventional view that imagines taxation as a source of revenue for the state, MMT shows that, as the currency-issuer, government requires no monetary revenue in order to spend. Instead, taxation is the essential tool whereby government establishes a currency, disemploys a population, and ensures workers are available to serve the public’s social and material aims.

Now, because at base it is the state that is responsible for engendering unemployment in a modern money economy, MMT submits that it is ultimately government’s responsibility to furnish everyone its currency disemploys with a meaningful and adequately-compensated opportunity to participate in the provisioning of public life. Unemployment is a consequence of neither markets nor automation, on MMT’s view. Rather, unemployment results from the regular operations of a currency-issuing government. For this reason, concludes the Modern Money Network’s Raúl Carillo in The Nation“Your government owes you a job.”

With this, Carillo reveals the alternative answer to neoliberal devastation that MMT’s unorthodox conception of money and employment brings into view. MMT’s solution: (1) implement a living-wage public Job Guarantee (JG), which sets just minimum standards for social labor and ensures everyone’s right to meaningfully participate in shaping the social and environmental totality; and (2) expand the public sector via the JG and other public programs in order to meet urgent social and environmental needs. “The answer to the unemployment problem is more jobs,” writes MMTer Randall L. Wray. And since a currency-issuing government can never go broke, says Wray, it can always afford to hire everyone who is willing and able to participate in building a better world.

Approached from this perspective, the problem of unemployment outlined by Srnicek and Williams shifts from a capitalist crisis signaling the end of work and requiring a Universal Basic Income to a crisis of governance and a potentially broad-scale socialist project. That project stands to put the means of production in communal hands, to actively transvalue the nature and meaning of paid work, and to ultimately transform the social and ecological totality. In fact, from this point of view, the contraction of the private sector may turn out to be a boon for the public purpose. The more markets and automation technologies dispense with human labor, the more government can directly employ persons to serve public and environmental ends.

MMT’s Job Guarantee, meanwhile, is more than a targeted remedy for today’s un – and underemployed. It stands to reconfigure all social relations by actively defining the minimum terms for compensation, health-care, working conditions, working hours, paid leave, etc. In empowering the disenfranchised, it will involve working people in shaping the values that drive economic production and distribution on the whole. But above all, MMT’s JG promises to become a foundational social institution from which others can be demanded and developed. Socialized child and elderly care; affordable education for all ages; low-cost postal banking; community land trusts; ecological cleanup, maintenance, and retrofitting; a public arts infrastructure: such institutions can be more readily fought for and won when launched from the place of empowerment, solidarity, and reciprocity the Job Guarantee promises to create.

For these reasons, I argue that is it Modern Monetary Theory’s Job Guarantee, rather than the Universal Basic Income, that is the key to all political goals.

In the end, I find that Srnicek and Williams’s call for a Universal Basic Income society looks a lot like the piecemeal and localist solutions their book expressly warns against. An UBI would no doubt be an improvement upon the neoliberal order. It may very well help to transform precarity, recognize social labor, make class power easier to organize, and extend the space in which to experiment with how we organize communities and families, as Srnicek and Williams suggest. However, given the fact that UBI is set up to be an unplanned, decentralized, and un-involving institution, I fear that it dovetails too readily with neoliberal fantasies of immanent self-organization and that it alone is structurally incapable of carrying out the type of broad and lasting transformations Srnicek and Williams desire.

Without an associated public Job Guarantee, the Universal Basic Income is merely welfare by another name: a laissez-faire solution to contemporary social and ecological crises. UBI says: opt out, care for your own, and let the gods of self-organization take care of the totality. Direct communitarianism is vital to any social order. But the old dream of Gemeinshaft will be inadequate for enacting, and then maintaining, the total transformation we so desperately need.

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  Scott Ferguson holds a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Film Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and is currently an assistant professor of Film & New Media Studies in the Department of Humanities & Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida.

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