Against a universal basic income

For some sections of the radical and not-so-radical left, the idea of universal basic income (UBI) is the new utopian program. A UBI is a periodic minimum income guaranteed to all citizens, regardless of their employment, wealth, or domestic status. In other words, it’s a no-strings-attached state wealth transfer, a price-tagged right for precariat and tech billionaire alike.

But there’s a reason why UBI has proponents among the libertarian right, why Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg support it. We should see UBI as the warmed-up death of Keynesian welfarism, and see the historical pattern: the original welfare state was, like the UBI, a gesture of class compromise. In the 1880s, Chancellor Bismarck introduced healthcare to Germany, only after he outlawed socialism. In other words, we should see UBI as a boomerang, a new attempt by propertied forces to control resistance – from proletariat and ‘precariat’ alike – newly released from the neoliberal nadir of the class struggle.

UBI is paradoxically both too emptily utopian and not utopian enough. It’s indicative of UBI being critically under-thought that its exponents expect it to both strengthen and weaken the state, desirable or undesirable, depending on a given commentator’s theoretical underpinnings. That the state’s various administrative functions would be rendered unnecessary by a UBI is what attracts right-wing libertarians to the idea. No need for Medicare, Centrelink, etc. with a UBI.

But radical leftist Slavoj Zizek believes it could strengthen the state. All citizens of a given polity where the UBI is in effect would become renewed ‘children of the state’, reliant on its wealth transfer. Which arms of the state would likely ‘wither’, and which would remain? While the nasty behavioural-economics-in-practice of Centrelink might finally be destroyed, border force would become more necessary, not less. With the wealthy bourgeois nation-state now ‘burdened’ with guaranteeing free money to its citizens, the need to secure borders and tighten up visa and citizenship programs would become even more incentivised for the right guarders of capital. Ours is a world with ever more borders, not less – including biometric ones. There’s not enough of an international movement, an international state-like apparatus, that would guarantee a basic income to all the world’s citizens – a measure of its true utopianism.

This hints at a broader point: UBI is not a leftist policy, because it runs counter to the left’s supposed commitment to radical equality, or what philosopher Étienne Balibar calls ‘Equaliberty’. After all, is UBI not a kind of rent, ultimately, on the value creation in the production of the Global South, where the proletariat is growing? It should not be overlooked that the UBI will flower in ‘advanced’ capitalist liberal democracies, those with a relatively large welfare burden – hence why it is being trialled in countries like Canada and Finland, and why the wealthy Swiss rejected it at a referendum. If the left in these countries adopt a UBI, while leaving the plight of the world proletariat in the Global South to the vagaries of capital, then they will be further alienated from the original promise of radical leftism.

UBI pacifies a propertyless mass, encouraging agnosticism toward a state that underwrites property relations as they currently stand. Where Daniel Ravetos argues that UBI could act as a wealth reserve for strike action, it could just as easily signal the death knell of a weak union movement in Australia. Here, a UBI would come at a historical juncture when the Hawke-Keating centralisation of the union movement, in ‘consensus’ with the state’s apparatuses, has severely weakened it. Where strike action must be legal, where union density is dipping below fifteen per cent, where what is ‘legal’ strike action has become more and more narrowly defined by the state apparatus, where the ‘uberisation’ of the workforce is becoming the norm, it’s difficult to see how UBI wouldn’t just render workers further disempowered and apathetic. (Witness the choice of the Fair Work Commission to suspend the proposed twenty-four-hour strike scheduled for a Monday by Sydney and NSW train drivers).

Anyway, UBI encourages further casualisation of the workforce, according to its proponents. Hence Musk’s dire predictions of mass unemployment from automation. This contradiction Ravetos also admits:

By partially separating income from work, the incentive of workers to fight against wage reductions is considerably reduced, thus making labour markets more flexible. This allows wages, and hence labor costs, to adjust more readily to changing economic conditions.

One also must wonder, what will happen during times of periodic crises under capitalism? How will crises affect the meaty tax receipts needed to fund a UBI? Even if a renewed social democratic left manages to introduce UBI in one of the nation-states most ripe for it, wither UBI when the forces of reaction set in? The UBI’s promise of political stability relies on the stability of the economic system from which it extracts its tax receipts. But this is hardly dependable. What have the last thirty years of neoliberalism taught us but that the forces of capital will seek new ways to claw back wealth accumulation, when profits suffer, by diminishing the state’s welfarism? A right-wing government in charge of a state with a legislated basic income will be asking: exactly just how ‘basic’ can a basic income be?

Indeed, UBI is the perfect symbolic accompaniment to the false idea of the universality of parliamentary democracy, so unquestioned today by even the most radical leftist. Despite the gross inequities in wealth distribution, which continues to worsen, universal suffrage is guaranteed. Similarly, a basic income from the state is universal. (Hence Ravestos’ subtitle, ‘The Material Conditions of Freedom’).

However, one reason the UBI is attractive to the right is that it’s an implicit admission that their complaints as to the ‘unfairness’ of a progressive tax system, taxing the rich at higher rates than the poor, are correct. UBI coupled with parliamentary democracy is the perfect way to maintain the inequities of that system of liberal democracy, which leaves all the autocracies of private property and capitalist industry intact. If Elon Musk and co. are truly worried about ‘technological unemployment’, about the fate of the world proletariat after automation, they should hand over to us the means of production.


Image: ‘The Prologue and the Promise’ – Robert McCall / Norwich Public Library

Ben Kunkler

Ben Kunkler is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. His poetry, criticism and non-fiction has been published in TEXT, Rabbit and Overland, among other publications. He was the winner of the 2016 Affirm Press Prize for his unpublished manuscript, "Frankness."

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Couldn’t agree more with Kunkler; UBI is more weird than wonderful. Like visions of robots doing all the work, the Global South will service Global North dreams of material security.

  2. Bring on the UBI, or, better still, a negative income tax. The latter has the added advantage of not being disbursed to bourgeois shit-heads on high incomes. As long as the amount is enough to pay for one’s ongoing daily costs, and there’s provision for supplements for special needs, then there’s no problem. It’ll also provide the radical bourgeois intelligentsia, which aspires to lead the working class in its historic mission of self-emancipation, with something to whine about. While the professional radicals pontificate, ordinary folk will at least have secure incomes. It’s a win-win. (By the way, it’s not just a First World thing. It’s been trialled to various extents in Liberia, Kenya, Namibia, India and elsewhere in the underdeveloped world.)

  3. Everyone’s UBI will probably just filter through to landlords anyway. We see when governments introduce ‘first home buyers grants’ – it just pushes up the demand for housing and thereby make housing more expensive. The same could be seen for when a UBI is introduced.

  4. This article is pretty weak and it liberally indulges on equivocations.To jump from the fact that Bismark introduced welfare measures to undercut social democracy and unions to the erroneous conclusion that even universal health care is some evil ploy to be avoided is ridiculous. The fact that there is a struggle over what the shape and definition of UBI will look like means it is a variable not historic constant that is guaranteed to further dis-empower us. The author, not only resorts to constant appeals to authority to bolster himself (“Don’t believe me listen Zizek and Balibar?”) actually demonstrates his own fancifulness by still clinging to a workist vision of the world. The proletariat isn’t growing globally or anywhere near the majority. Even in industrializing parts of the global south they are fragmented and heterogeneous. Why should anti-Capitalist politics be held hostage to a self-defeating Marxist dogma? isn’t entirely clear.

    1. Mmm, I have to admit I had a similar reaction upon reading. I struggled to find the clear ideological assumptions in the article, and so could not be persuaded to the conclusions. (What does ‘they should hand over to us the means of production’ even mean?)

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