Universal Basic Income Isn’t About Now–It’s About Later

by Benjamin Studebaker

In reading the recent piece by Daniel Zamora at Jacobin and some of the reactions to it, I’ve been struck by how limited the conversation about universal basic income (UBI) is. For the uninitiated, UBI is fairly straightforward–instead of having social programs like welfare or food stamps which people qualify for on the the grounds that they fall below some income threshold, UBI gives everyone a set minimum income. UBI has fans and detractors across the political spectrum because depending on how it’s constructed it could be made to do very different things. Some on the right want to use it to reform welfare and some of the left want to use it to make work optional. Some in both camps want to use it to help workers displaced by automation or outsourcing. The key problem with the conversation is that it tends to be based around whether we could or should implement UBI now, or very soon. This misunderstands what makes UBI interesting. Properly understood, UBI is not about today. It’s about capitalism’s endgame–what the world looks like when capitalism truly exhausts itself.

The usual left critique of UBI goes something like this:

“If we have a UBI that is too low, it won’t free people from having to work and it will result in cut in the benefits low income families receive. If we have a UBI that is high enough to avoid these failings, it will cost way too much to implement today. Therefore, UBI is some kind of neoliberal scheme to perpetuate capitalism, and the left should reject it in favour of some socialist approach (ranging, depending on the speaker, from Sanders to Corbyn to revolutionary politics).”

There’s truth in this. UBI proposals which only give people a few hundred bucks a month are not serious proposals. If we think that a living wage is $15/hr and we think that a reasonable workweek is 40 hours long and a reasonable work-year is 48 weeks (with a month’s worth of paid vacation and paid holidays), a reasonable basic income is $28,880 per person. If we gave every American adult a basic income of that value (ignoring child benefit and child care completely) it would cost over $7 trillion, which is almost 40% of GDP. That’s larger than the percent of GDP the US government spends in total, including all levels (state, local, and federal):

When you consider that we also want to do other things, like pay for single payer (which would cost at least 8% of GDP, and probably more), good schools, and new infrastructure, it’s clear that we don’t currently have the funds to do UBI the right way.

This doesn’t bother the right, because the right doesn’t want to use UBI to liberate people from the need to work–the right just wants a welfare system which doesn’t include the infamous “welfare cliff” in which a person whose income from work increases above some of the thresholds for qualifying for welfare ends up losing more in benefits than they gain in new income:

In and of itself, eliminating the welfare cliff would be a good thing, but right wing UBI proposals drop government benefits so low that they would often make working families even worse off than they presently are.

But this argument, while interesting, doesn’t really get at what UBI is about. The old historical materialist understanding of capitalism–as expounded by Marx and refined by G.A. Cohen–tells a story about capitalism, and about economic systems more generally. For historical materialists, economic systems like capitalism come into being because they develop our productive powers. The economic systems that most efficiently develop productive powers tend to be adopted by societies. Societies that adopt less efficient economic models won’t have the necessary productive power to compete internationally and will be colonized and dominated. Economic systems run their course when they produce conditions which undermine the relations of production which are their foundation. Marxists believe that before capitalism, we had other economic models (like feudalism and slavery). But these models ran their course and gave rise to capitalism. Marxists think that capitalism will, in turn, run its course, and they think socialism will follow it. But they have long argued about how and why capitalism will collapse.

Some Marxists take the view that capitalism will collapse in the face of a proletarian revolution, in which workers overthrow the state. Other Marxists take the view that capitalism will collapse because workers will organize to elect socialist governments. Both these revolutionaries and reformers take as given that capitalism is or soon will be made obsolete. But they have often been wrong about this in the past–countries in the 20th century that tried to adopt socialism were unsuccessful in doing so. Now, many Marxists will point out that these 20th century economic models did not really amount to full socialism, and they’re right about this. But they then fail to ask why the 20th century socialists failed to implement socialism, and insofar as they do ask this question they answer it inadequately, shuffling off blame on specific historical socialists and socialist parties for betraying the revolution or betraying democratic socialism or what have you. They start talking about how we all have to learn to be better people. They stop thinking about material structures and playing the blame and shame game or dabbling in Hegelianism.

But there is a much simpler answer to the question of why socialism didn’t succeed in the 20th century–capitalism had not finished developing yet. The trouble is that this answer is very depressing. Marxists want to believe that capitalism is about to die because they rightly recognize that capitalism is extremely miserable, and they struggle to imagine how this misery can go on, how people can continue to tolerate it. But this misunderstands historical materialism. If capitalism isn’t ready to collapse, it’s not because people aren’t ready for it to collapse–it’s because capitalism isn’t done yet. We’re jumping the gun.

The turn in left wing politics to consciousness raising and to culture and ideology is all in part an attempt to run away from the terrifying possibility that capitalism isn’t over yet. The original argument Marx gave for capitalism’s collapse–that it would produce nightmarish working conditions and monster depressions by concentrating capital in the hands of monopolists–was largely invalidated by the Keynesian experience. We saw, in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, that capitalism doesn’t have to be quite as bleak as Marx thought. It’s possible to manage economic cycles, to provide safety nets, to protect workers from the savageries of the market. If capitalism can be made more tolerable, it won’t simply be brought down by the misery of the workers.

But you know what would kill capitalism? If there weren’t really any workers anymore because robots and computers did all the work. If we could make everything everyone needs while employing only a tiny percentage of the population, we wouldn’t need employer/employee relationships to begin with. The workplace wouldn’t be democratized, it would simply cease to be. In that kind of society, large piles of unemployed people wouldn’t be able to buy what they need with money they earn, but why should they have to? If the robots can make everything, they really can have it all for free. Who needs incentive? The traditional right wing arguments fall away.

We would then need to figure out how to restructure a capitalist system into one in which people can have things for free. There are a couple ways to do it:

  1. Give the people direct ownership of the robots that have replaced them and distribute to them their share of the robots’ output.
  2. Tax the owners of the robots massively and distribute that output to the people.

Both of these result in something that looks like a UBI, but the former abolishes the robot owning class while the latter compromises with it. Compromising with the robot owning class might be necessary if we fear the robot owning class might acquire some kind of robot army which doesn’t require large numbers of people to serve in it.

This is a kind of big picture, materialist, 21st century socialism. It looks very different from the kinds of socialism people were talking about a century ago. Like that socialism, this socialism eliminates the exploitation which is inherent to the employer-employee relationship, but it does so by abolishing it rather than democratizing it. Yet because it requires that capitalism be given a lot of time to further develop our productive power, it’s deeply disturbing. It turns many of us, especially those of us who are older, into pawns in a long game, our labor and our lives mere tools in the constructing of a society we won’t live to see. Many of us on the left want a much better world today, and the thought that the best we can do are more of the old Keynesian reforms–which were about keeping capitalism going until it could fulfil its purpose, not about truly abolishing it–will inevitably dissatisfy.

But that doesn’t mean the thought might not be right. Sure, we might get Corbyn and Sanders elected. But we always knew there would be more trouble after that. Corbyn can’t compel other countries to follow his lead on taxes, regulations, and welfare states. They might try to siphon off British investment and poach British industry. Sanders can’t purge congress, and even if he won dominating victories in the style of Franklin Roosevelt, he’d still face resistance from conservative courts. Even in the New Deal era, most of the reduction of economic inequality in the US had to wait for the war, and even the war didn’t cause capital to be weakened thoroughly enough to enable America to abolish capitalism or even to do single-payer. We don’t want another one of those wars today anyway. Socialists were elected in the 80s–France’s François Mitterrand and Canada’s Pierre Trudeau tried to defy the Thatcher/Reagan turn. They failed, and Corbyn and Sanders could meet their fates. Armed revolutions are idle fantasies at best, deeply irresponsible at worst.

No one enjoys having to say this, but it’s possible that we might be stuck waiting for the robots. UBI is important, not because it solves our problems today, but because it gives us hope for future generations if we fail. As the old Greek proverb goes, society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. Even as we try to make the world a better place today, the basic income movement plants trees for our grandchildren. That has some value.