Utopian thinking in the ether: an interview with Boris Frankel

Is utopian thinking akin to casting a net into the ether – collecting the unimaginable and dragging it into the realm of the possible? Or, by neglecting to consider any parameters of the possible, is it a fanciful distraction from meaningful politics? Well, perhaps it depends on the type of utopian thinking. In Fictions of Sustainability: The Politics of Growth and Post-Capitalist Futures, social theorist Boris Frankel takes aim at certain types of utopian thinking: proposals that he argues are unrealisable or unsustainable regardless of whether political obstacles have been removed or transformed.  Throughout the book, which was released earlier this year, Professor Frankel seeks to ask the difficult questions surrounding concepts such as green growth, degrowth and post-scarcity, not with the aim of opposing radical solutions, but to facilitate the development of more plausible and effective policies. Political-economic dilettante Zacharias Szumer met with Frankel recently to try to get his head around this somewhat heavy going but important book.  

ZS: In the conclusion of Fictions of Sustainability, you write that one of your aims in writing the book was to “bridge the political and theoretical chasm or ‘analytical apartheid’ that characterizes so much socio-economic policy on the one side and environmental analyses on the other.” What do you mean by analytical apartheid? And how did you attempt to bridge this chasm?

BF: In the past, conservatives, liberal Keynesians, Marxists and anarchists were divided over how to analyse capitalism and debated its virtues and failings. Today, it is not enough to have a knowledge of political economy, whatever the political perspective, if it excludes crucial environmental issues. On the other hand, you’ve got many people who are active and concerned about environmental issues, but who neglect political economy. The ‘analytical apartheid’ I refer to is that environmental issues cannot be separated from political economy yet, political economists and environmentalists talk past one another and rarely consider one another’s issues and positions. Despite environmental crises being highlighted for over fifty years, traditional political economists and many on the left still treat environmental issues as marginal to the main issue of capital versus labour. This is now changing. But you’ll still find many leading political economists are completely silent on environmental issues. It’s important to bridge these two worlds. Similarly, many committed environmentalists have a detailed understanding of the damage being done to so many ecological habitats and the need to transform existing consumption and production. But apart from generalised ‘wish lists’ have a very limited understanding of how existing political institutions and the economy of capitalism works. So, in order to achieve their environmental goals, it’s critical that they become more familiar with the political economic debates that have been developed by non-environmentalists.

ZS: You refer to popular leftist thinkers such as Paul Mason and Inventing the Future authors Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams as “technological Prometheans” in your book. Could you explain your critique of those theorists?

BF: I call these people technological Prometheans because they believe that all that you need is to take the most advanced technologies that capitalism has developed, change the ownership of capitalism and utilise them in a different way in a socialist society.

There are some fantastic schemes put forward by a whole range of left theorists about how we’re going to have fully automated luxury communism. However, in most of those scenarios what people focus on is mainly ‘software’ rather than on ‘hardware’. Certainly, you can bring about a whole range of new innovative software-driven technologies, but mobile phones, iPads and 3D printers are all hardware. And who makes the hardware? Low-paid workers in low- and middle-income countries getting infinitely less per day and per week, than what workers in Australia or other equivalent countries are getting. So, if you don’t consider how the hardware is made plus the environmental resources used in production or the enormous problem of mountains of E-waste, then your software is not going to get you too far. Most of the examples that people like Paul Mason and others use are in communications, for example, CDs, publications, etc which can be made at almost zero marginal cost and reprinted or distributed free via the internet. But freeing intellectual property from the Googles and Apples of this world is quite different to ‘free’ hardware of everyday life. In order for people to live, they need access to tangible items, not just software. People forget that 3D printers use toxic chemicals to reproduce material things. And what about food? In places such as Australia, America, Europe and Japan, transforming the food production, distribution and food consumption system is a massive political task. People can point to alternative eco-agriculture or organic food or reduced meat consumption; all of these things are fine in theory or limited practice. But implementing these necessary alternatives requires major changes that will be bitterly resisted in capitalist countries. Currently, the production of food on the land in advanced capitalist countries is capital intensive. Only about 2 percent of the workforce now work and produce food in our countries. Agro-ecology and organic food is much more labour intensive. You would have to shift the population from the cities to the food areas (which have poor basic services) or transform cities into food baskets which affects property prices. Transforming monopolies such as Coles, Safeway, ALDI, or the corporations running the transport system is a major political struggle. How do you change the cost of food and still keep workers and low-income people onside if their wages and pensions aren’t increased and would result in riots as we’ve seen in a number of countries? All of these issues are neglected by the ‘technological Prometheans’. Utopian dreaming that ignores environmental and political limits is self-defeating as creating post-capitalist societies requires a combination of imagination and practical on-the-ground answers.

Regarding the proposal for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), which has been flavour of the month across the world, I used to support a guaranteed adequate income about 30 years ago, but I changed my mind in recent years because I regard a UBI as politically and economically unattainable and divisive. You could certainly implement a UBI that paid a pittance, but this wouldn’t be enough to live on. Srnicek and Williams and other advocates are proposing a UBI that would free workers from wage labour and accelerate the process of capitalist disintegration. In other words, they are not looking at what is feasible at the moment, but how to use the UBI as a political strategy to bring about the end of capitalism. My argument is that this is putting the political cart before the horse. They are not considering how you would actually implement a UBI, which segments of the working class would actually be supportive of a UBI given, and this is what they ignore, that the bulk of direct and indirect taxation in capitalist countries is paid for by the working class.

Normally the calculations made about a basic income are based on adding up all the type of taxes avoided or increasing them so that you can cover the cost of a UBI. But once you start to add all of these up and close all the tax havens or levy taxes on robots that replace workers, the total does not add up to an adequate UBI and is either a one-off that dries up in subsequent years or creates a Depression if companies flee rather than pay higher taxes. Supporters of UBI say, ‘well, that’s a beginning.’ This is what we were told a century ago when they introduced old age pensions and said welfare will expand into a larger system. Well, it did expand a bit, but it never reached a full welfare state anywhere in the world. Even the so-called comprehensive welfare states in France, Sweden and Denmark have people begging on the streets.

If a UBI does not cut all the other aspects of welfare support such as pensions, housing, rent subsidies, health, childcare or whatever, as the right-wing versions of a UBI propose, then this would double or triple the welfare bill. Any UBI that equalled aged pensions would be much higher than most UBI proposals and if you’re not going to cut other welfare subsidies then you’re talking about a massive shift in the political economy of capitalism. Now, that’s fine by me if you can achieve it, but if you’re not counting on revolution, you’ve got to be able to deliver this through the electoral system. No party is going to go to the election on a platform of a UBI (apart from the Greens), which involves large tax increases for wage workers or a massive tax increase on businesses which already oppose and want to cut the inadequate welfare system.

My objection to the UBI is not an objection to what it could hopefully achieve such as freeing up time for people to have more fulfilling lives, for sole parents, women especially, to be able to look after their children or for people on welfare entitlements to avoid the type of absolute hounding by bureaucratic Centrelink and other social security departments around the world. These are all incredibly important objectives, but they cannot be achieved under proposed UBI frameworks. So, I’d like to see, a) how the UBI is funded, b) whether they’ve considered the political divisions it will certainly cause and c) at what level, if it were implemented, would it not result in major economic dislocation. Remember, once there is major economic dislocation, you don’t have the funds to pay a UBI, because it must come out of general tax revenue. If the economy has gone into a depression, how are you going to fund it?

ZS: Do you think you could outline your proposal for Universal Basic Services and the specific reasons you think it answers some of those questions the UBI leaves open?

BF: Firstly, you would be able to achieve far greater improvement in the quality of life, especially for low- and medium-income people, or the lowest 40% of our populace, including far more in terms of housing, health, education, support networks for childcare and many other things through Universal Basic Services (UBS), and they would cost far less than a UBI. At the moment, there are a number of people who are working on various proposals for a UBS scheme. There’s still much work that has to be done. Essentially, a UBS is based on the assumption that all people are entitled to good essential services – housing, health and other care, food, transport, communications facilities, etc – that as individuals they cannot buy, afford or provide for themselves. Even a millionaire can’t provide a good health system. One needs to tailor a UBS to what existing types of essential services in a particular country are missing or underfunded. For example, in Australia, part of a UBS must include a major financing of housing for low income people. The Henderson Poverty Commission from the early 1970s found that lack of housing was at the basis of poverty. That must be rectified. State and federal governments have basically done bugger all in this critical area. It’s all window dressing with a few little things here and there, but there has been major neglect of social housing for over 40 years. Secondly, basic services depend on what kind of facilities and infrastructure are available. A UBS cannot be delivered properly if the infrastructure is not there, for example, adequate hospitals, schools and a range of public facilities, whether communications or utilities. Many people cannot afford energy bills or food, essential basics that are not luxuries. And that’s why they have to be carefully considered because some countries deliver these essential services better than others. Australia would have to catch up with the level of delivery and access to basic services available in some parts of northern Europe. The other part of the universal basic services is a job guarantee by governments.  The private sector has been unable to deliver enough jobs for the past 100 years, even in the so-called period of full employment between 1945 and 1975, which was only full employment for white men. Most women did not work in paid work or were excluded from employment. Importantly, you have to make the jobs guarantee voluntary. We also don’t want to repeat the Depression-style jobs, many of which were ‘fill-in’ useless types of jobs. Similarly, a lot of current job schemes have put people through endless training, and they end up with nothing, or in dead-end types of temporary jobs. The jobs guarantee proposed in America is based on paying the minimum wage rather than award wages or doing shit work that people don’t want to touch. I believe in a strategy for the future that minimises jobs that are dirty or awful jobs. You can’t completely get rid of these dirty jobs, but they should be automated wherever possible. People must be offered the choice of working either full time or a fractional amount of time on award wages according to their occupation rather than just the minimum wage.

There should be more care sector work of the kind that is cooperative community-building jobs. These jobs could deliver universal basic services which are funded in Canberra or other capitals in various countries, but the actual decisions as to what kind of jobs and what are the needs of suburbs or small towns or communities is another matter. It is the decentralised determination by people in their own towns and suburbs who should have a vital say in what are their priorities and what they need rectified or improved. This process would help create solidarity more readily between people rather than dividing them as would an individualised UBI. It would not only deliver a much better quality of life for millions of people who are disadvantaged and neglected, but its universal entitlements would also gain support from affluent sections because all would benefit from better community services, infrastructure and a new shared community ethic.

The costings for a UBS have not yet been delivered, but we know Australia is a low-taxing country. If we reached the OECD average of tax at 34.4 percent of GDP, we could raise approximately 125 to 140 billion a year. Even a lower figure of an extra $120 billion per year would pay for a lot of jobs, a lot of basic essential services, a lot of new housing for the homeless and still have billions left to engage in urgent environmental programs.

ZS: And what about the relationship between a UBS and issues of sustainability? How do you see a UBS scheme as playing a part in decarbonisation, for example?

BF: A UBI will not change the structure of power in a society or whether people change their consumption patterns. It wouldn’t necessarily change people’s priorities because how you spend your income is your individual choice. By contrast, a UBS scheme is not based on individual choice. It is framed around how to improve an individual’s or a family’s essential needs by linking these to collective community needs, because it would be delivered as services for all. Environmental sustainability would be a goal that governments could very clearly define as a high priority framework for new forms of social expenditure.  Delivering renewable energy as part of a UBS, employing people on job guarantees for a whole range of programs to improve local and national environments could ensure that local communities determine projects and care services that are not carbon-intensive, not damaging to biodiversity and minimise the incessant use of finite resources. There are many imaginative sustainable basic services that could improve the life of others. I believe UBS would be much more environmentally friendly than basic income schemes.

ZS: So, you talk about degrowth in your book and you mention that you generally support the principles of degrowth, while suggesting that it’s an ‘overgeneralized concept’. What do you think, are some of the main obstacles that need to be addressed for degrowth to become a more feasible and strong vision?

BF: Most degrowthers at the moment tend to think in terms of their local communities. We’ve had different degrowth models at a local level. There have been people like Tim Jackson and Peter Victor who’ve analysed and tried to model how to develop a range of services and jobs in local communities. But this is not equivalent to how you transition a national economy – even though they have tried to model this as well – because contemporary capitalist societies are not national economies but interlocked into production value chains across the world. Unfortunately, most people in Australia and the world do not live in the same adequately blessed areas with abundant natural resources or have the same levels of community skills and infrastructure. Eighty per cent of the world’s population can’t be self-sufficient. Hence, what are the structures that connect one local community to other less well-off communities? How do you prevent a new parochialism developing where the people are more concerned with their own local needs? They may start off being altruistic and generous to others, yet they might also object to aiding other regions and towns that constantly make demands and want resources from their area. These redistribution issues have plagued societies for generations.

Australia at the moment is a very uneven society in terms of its economy and resources. A degrowth society would have to consider that most people work in services in the economy, but most of our exports are mining, resources and agriculture. And if we scale down just coal and gas that are so important in terms of our exports, then we would have to be able to substitute this massive hole in our export income by creating new industries and employment to replace carbon-intensive industries and consumer-growth industries. Universal basic services would be compatible with degrowth. But you’d have to be able to show how you could provide the basic essentials for everyday living, even though it was a de-scaled form of sustenance. So, it’s not difficult to show how you can provide non-material resources through care, teaching, health, aged care and so forth. But degrowthers have not developed any fiscal and monetary policies to show how the transition to degrowth could be achieved. These are some of the crucial missing links in the degrowth chain at the moment.

And politically, just to make a final comment, most of the degrowth movements are rather weak in their analyses of how political transitions can be made. There is still a massive way to go in order to be able to illustrate how they can achieve their objectives politically through parties or movements or via the electoral system or just by living an alternative life. So,while I’m supportive of a lot of their objectives, I am critical of the faith-like simplistic character of their arguments and their unpreparedness for major political economic and environmental crises or how to counter strong political opposition.

ZS: In the context of the political economy of Australia today, what advice would you have, both in terms of policy proposal and political strategy, for progressive movements that are advocating for things like a Green New Deal?

BF: I don’t believe green growth is sustainable and a Green New Deal would have to differentiate the elements within it that are not just another form of ecological modernisation of capitalism. I am personally not in favour of a Green New Deal which maintains the way of life that we know today, but simply makes it possible to do it with renewable energy, because that is unsustainable. But a Green New Deal that changes the basic standard of living for the poorest people in our society, that provides them with a whole range of jobs and services, a Green New Deal that aids in developing alternative forms of transport, alternative forms of energy, alternative forms of food production and especially aids or creates less exploitative relations with low-income countries, these are all the bases for any further change down the road. Without these changes, you won’t get the next lot of major restructuring needed. So, we need to think carefully about the actual ingredients of a Green New Deal.

A Green New Deal is becoming politically popular in many countries around the world. It is not a proposal for an environmentally sustainable economy, but depending on how its framed, could be an important step towards a substantial challenge to the way things are done in this country and many other countries. Hence, I am critical of aspects of various Green New Deal proposals, but I’m also very supportive of the need to develop such platforms and to campaign for them as alternatives to disastrous neoliberalism.

Zacharias Szumer

Zacharias Szumer is a writer and musician who lives in Naarm/Melbourne. Some of his other writings can be seen on his website.

Boris Frankel

Professor Boris Frankel is a social theorist, political economist and cultural critic.

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

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. My weblog http://www.clivelord.wordpress.com provides a fairly comprehensive, if jumbled, answer to objections here to a UBI.
    I agree with Prof Frankel’s criticisms of the dearth of dialogue between disciplines.
    I see the UBI as essential as a catalyst for the more obvious measures to reduce the world economy to sustainable levels. But it is dangerous. It must be tied firmly to taxes reflecting ecological impacts, or it will lead to growth – the worst possible outcome. But the UBI will fail unless there is also a new culture consensus recognizing ecological limits. This is a ‘chicken and egg’ problem. The notion of a UBI will help this to emerge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *