This is an open question to any and all advocates of a basic income:
By advancing the idea of a basic income are we seeking to enhance capitalism or supersede it? And, if we are content to preserve capitalism, how do we avoid inadvertently empowering a potentially dystopic plutocracy?
I’m sure some readers will understand this concern but, for those who are unsure, what follows is a break-down of what I mean by this question, and how I came to be dogged by this concern.
My question arises from a historical materialist consideration of — call it what you like — the second machine age, the fourth industrial revolution, the rise of the robots, whatever. It is now obvious that rapidly accelerating disruptive technologies will trigger widespread technological unemployment over the next few decades. If you are an advocate of a basic income you do not need me to elaborate this point. You are likely very aware of all this, and probably invoke this specter often in defense of a basic income.
I agree that some form of basic income will soon become a necessity. But I worry that we, as a society, may miss the mark if we fail to grasp the depth and significance of the fundamental dynamics driving this necessity. There is more in play here than meets the eye.
I fear that, improperly conceived, the adoption of a basic income could be one of the worst missteps any society could take. If we approach this superficially, it could represent a horrendous opportunity cost. We may end up like Esau, trading our birthright for a mess of pottage.
If we approach basic income as a way of preserving or enhancing our present economic system we miss the transformative and emancipatory potential this rare opportunity presents us.
You may approve of our current economic system and wish to preserve it. Maybe you’re not interested in emancipatory transformations at this time. I understand. I am not anti-capitalist, per se, but this question arises from the fact that the foundation of the capitalist system is obviously transforming itself before our eyes. When a society’s very foundation is revolutionized the reverberations are felt throughout the whole social structure. This is where a historical materialist understanding comes in.
If you are not familiar with historical materialism, I’ve found a pretty good one paragraph explanation in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s book, Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism;
The original intention of historical materialism was to provide a theoretical foundation for interpreting the world in order to change it. This was not an empty slogan. It had a very precise meaning. It meant that Marxism sought a particular kind of knowledge, uniquely capable of illuminating the principles of historical movement and, at least implicitly, the points at which political action could most effectively intervene.
Yes, she said Marxism, but please don’t roll your eyes. Remember, I’m not asking you to agree with me. I am merely asking you to understand my question enough to provide a substantive answer. ( I am not actually a “marxist,” by the way, but that’s a long story, and there’s no need to get sidetracked by it now.)
Let’s go back to that part about “a particular kind of knowledge, uniquely capable of illuminating the principles of historical movement” because that’s exactly what we’re seeing here, a “historical movement,” and maybe this “particular kind of knowledge” is serviceable.
In a nutshell, historical materialism proposes that a time of social change becomes necessary when the material productive forces of society develop to such a point that they come into conflict with the customary relations of production. The terminology may be dated, but you are familiar with the reality. Newly developing technologies, like robots, artificial intelligence, molecular manufacturing, and so on, are about to conflict with our familiar way of making a living — wage labor. Again, if you are an advocate of basic income you do not need me to elaborate this point.
What does need emphasis is the structural nature of the conflict engendered by these changes, the very conflict a basic income is meant to ameliorate.
When the masses are afflicted with technological unemployment, while the ownership class, the capitalists, retain their hegemonic control over the productive forces of society, the issues of class structure and class antagonism come into sharp relief.
I am using the term class here in a very precise sense. I mean by it, not social stratification based on income and wealth differences, but simply one’s standing vis-à-vis the means of production. On the one hand there are those who own the means of production. This class enriches itself by appropriating and accumulating the profits generated by their holdings. On the other hand are those who own no productive property (or at least an insufficient amount). This class must sell its labor-power to the ownership class to secure an income. That is all that is meant by the term “class” in the context of this question.
But, of course, this relationship is changing. This change is one of the things giving urgency to calls for a basic income. The new class distinction will center around the question of who will own the robots. If a relatively small section of society, the capitalist class, retains the dominant control and ownership of the new productive technologies, the rest of us will be left to subsist on their largesse. Well, it won’t be largesse exactly, we will have to wrest it from them through redistributive instruments. (As an advocate of basic income you probably have one or more favorite methods for achieving this in your repertoire.)
Do you see the problem with this approach? We reproduce the old class antagonisms in the new social contract. We don’t even pause to consider if this is appropriate or if we should aim for something better.
Historical materialism proposes that when the means of production are revolutionized the relations of production are affected. In modern parlance, “robots [the new means] steal our jobs [the new relations].” But the shock waves do not stop here. When the social relations of production are revolutionized, the hierarchy of legal and political structures are affected. Old rules that protected the rights of the old relations may no longer be agreeable. It is dangerous to assume uncritically that we should preserve the old rights of property in the context of the new social relations. Therein lies dystopia.
If you are an advocate of a basic income you’ve no doubt been asked questions that have broached this subject tangentially. “What right do we have”, you’ve probably been asked, “to take from the hardworking rich and give to the unproductive poor?” You may have felt the need to defend “life” as a thing of value in itself against arguments of productivity or usefulness. (I mean, oh my god, what if people end up not working? The horror!) These types of questions are indicative of a lag in social consciousness. New wine in old wineskins; old thinking clashing with new realities.
We must be open to the possibility that positing basic income as a way to preserve or enhance the capitalist economy is indeed another instance of new wine in old wineskins. We must ask ourselves at what point do the laws concerning capitalist property rights no longer serve our social needs effectively? At what point should they be replaced by new, higher relations, more suited to the new technological realities? Marx had a thought:
And here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.
Again, some outdated terminology, but we see this happening right now. Not only is the capitalist system proving itself unfit to provide a secure existence for an ever-expanding precariat, it is threatening to transform the working class — even highly-educated members — into lumpenproletariat. And what is a basic income if not proof of the capitalist class needing to “feed” us instead of being fed by us?
We value capitalist property relations because we are committed to the proper functioning of the capitalist relations of production. We agree to these terms because they serve our interests. But, when the old relations of production are obsoleted why would we want to preserve the old system of class division and dominance?
Should a small class of “owners” continue to control the productive apparatus of society and be allowed to direct production according to their own enlightened self-interests? Or should we all own the productive forces and all have legal right to the output. (This, by the way, is also the ultimate solution for how to pay for a basic income.)
So here is a slightly reworded reiteration of my question:
Should a basic income agenda seek to preserve capitalism or surpass it? If the former, that is, if we approach basic income as a way of “enhancing” capitalism or of otherwise preserving the capitalist integument how do we avoid inadvertently empowering a plutocracy, with all the social ills and class conflicts this perpetuates?
If your response runs something like,”if we give everyone an income it levels the playing field and makes for a more fair society” you have missed the point of my question. This is about class structure and the danger of creating a social divide between a class of elite rentiers and the rest of us who struggle to live off their crumbs. How do you propose we prevent this?
I hope I’ve done an adequate job of explaining my concern. If not, I’ll be happy to respond to any specific requests for clarification. Depending on the response, I may gather some of the best replies into a follow-up posting. If you’d like to reply but do not wish to be quoted please let me know in your response.