By Clive Healiss
There’s a lot of talk currently about Universal Basic Income (UBI). Some see it as a logical conclusion of the Welfare State. Others dub it “Post-Capitalist Luxury Communism”. Others again see it as a utopian solution to want in a world of plenty, while others regard it as pre-figured in Science Fiction dystopias.
The concept emerged as one of the ideas of neoliberal thinking. Naturally enough, the libertarians both Right and Left, have seen it as a panacea for a society based on inequality.
Many Marxists are attracted by the idea; some kind of realisation of Marx’s ideas of a communist, unalienated society talked of briefly in The German Ideology. Or, then, in William Morris’ News from Nowhere and his musings on The Earthly Paradise. Such a vision has appeal: what socialist of whatever hue, pink, red, or red and black, even a Christian Socialist, would not want to embrace an earthly paradise?
The Vision, or the Mirage?
The idea arose on the neoliberal Right. That does not make it questionable in itself; all ideologies can offer prizes. Libertarianism has many followers, and can have positive and negative characteristics; the everyday capitalist fundamentalist thinks that turning the clock back to the ‘Golden Age’ of small-time capitalism would too be worth achieving. The series of Marxist-inspired episodes in the twentieth century cannot be regarded as unmitigated successes. So who are we to question such a vision?
Well, the thing is that, neoliberalism never addresses the root of all human wealth, labour, and its historical context, class struggle. We hear a lot about fundamentalist this and fundamentalist that. What do Marxists believe to be fundamental?
Labour is the source of all wealth. In a UBI world, labour would remain the source of all wealth, whether seen as greater degrees of production efficiency through capital- crystalised labour’ or application of new ideas so as to use labour more effectively. From labour’s fundamental position at all stages of production and exchange comes the economic, and therefore the political, power of labour.
With power comes responsibility; duty. Workers have a duty to struggle against capital for their economic emancipation, and full control of that which they have created by all, for all, rather than for the minority of capitalists. To not struggle is an abnegation of responsibility. To enter willingly into selling one’s birthright for “Jam tomorrow” is a Faustian pact of Esau and his twin brother Jacob.
What is being offered is a deal whereby we give up claim to humanity’s heritage in exchange for dole; doled out to us on the terms offered by capitalism. We would hand over all for Lear’s pension status. It would be a contract benefiting the bourgeoisie with no right of appeal, no effective petition, no democratic consideration; our very own, inherited, legitimated, solemnly binding, personal TTIP (or CETA, TPP). Its character would have similarly bourgeois-legalistic characteristics as the anti-democratic EU. All would seem to be open, up-front and clear. The reality would be very different. We would be surplus to requirements as capitalism and capitalist technological development continued. Our status would move to be that of drones, mere consumers of the allotments made to us, under a capitalism widely known for recurrent and deeper crises.
What would our value be in such a society? Are consumers necessary to mop up the production of capitalism?
Living in this futurological land of the lotus eaters, how much value would be assigned to us? Would we not, like Lear, also find ourselves and our entitlements open to review, that review downwards?
Figures associated with the Left have for a long time speculated about eugenics, “improving the breed”, “reducing the burden of surplus population”. They have not always been viewed from a standpoint of moral grotesqueness; such is the discreet charm of the Fabians. Might we find ourselves only encouraged to stick around to provide fashionable genetic characteristics or hybrid vigour?
Speculations aside, the machinations of the neoliberals have always had a shill attraction; offering “something for nothing”; “new lamps for old”. And always their offerings have separated us from our heritage. This could be the privatisation of public housing; the bribery and corruption involved in privatising public corporations like building and other friendly societies such as insurance; local authority water boards; public enterprises like energy and communications; infrastructural industries like coal, steel and transportation; now the privatisation and profitisation of our Welfare State’s Education and Health; this last informed and advocated by libertarian luminaries like Ivan Illich, a man of the Left.
Vision or Mirage? The Mirage Cracked
Currently, in the UK, we have the spectacle of a Labour Leader being challenged for leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds finally, that, his politics and policies are fine but his image is too poor to win, so the Party needs a Leader who endorses the same but is an undoubted winner. The incumbent has never lost a personal election, his party has succeeded in very much every election and every campaign since he became Leader; every one of his campaigns has been in tune with parliamentary socialist or social democratic values.
His opponent has often voted against his values and policies, but we are told he is identical to him. He is the latest in a series of ‘stalking horses’ proposed who have opposed his values and policies, presumably not because of opposition to these same, but for some other reason. His followers assure us that this is so. They too have opposed the Leader’s aims. They have also, too, proposed and advanced policies and values more in line with neoliberalism, antithetical to the vales of socialism and social democracy. And yet Corbyn’s opponent is as good as Corbyn, only better; the same as Corbyn, but shinier/ faster, further, higher, greater. What are we to make of this?
Shiny, Happy People Holding False Promises
My conclusion is that, microcosm and macrocosm, the Labour Party and UBI, neoliberals will offer shill attractions, “Get rich quick” schemes and scams; anything to separate us from our power. Fools’ Paradise for “The Earthly Paradise”. Neoliberals, to take licence, are the “Lords of the Lies”; they are the ultimate betrayal. What they offer glisters, but is never gold, always dross.
To settle for the role of the original ‘proletariat’ of Ancient Rome is their offer. All the Plebeians were considered worthy of was to procreate, produce offspring to man the army. It is where the term ‘proletariat’ springs from. In return they were given a dole of food, accommodation, and distractions, no matter how brutish and bestial. And this seems to be what is on the table in our dealings with UBI and the benevolence of the neoliberal bourgeoisie. We are being offered a ‘mess of pottage’ in exchange for our birthright. A confection of crumbs and lies.
Here endeth the First Lesson, with a quotation from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress:
“Then it came burning into my mind, that, whatever he said and however he flattered, when he got me home to his house he would sell me for a slave.”
Go forth in class struggle.