Friday, August 21, 2020

3410. The Dangerous Delusion of Basic Income

By John Clarke, The Canada File, August 17, 2020

Leah Gazan, the NDP MP for Winnipeg Centre, has put forward a private members bill in the federal parliament calling for the introduction of a ‘guaranteed livable basic income’ to be provided to ‘all Canadians over the age of 18.’ It is presented as ‘a concerted effort to eradicate poverty and ensure the respect, dignity and security of all persons in respect of Canada’s domestic and international legal obligations.’ The MP has worked with Basic Income Manitoba and the Basic Income Canada Network to develop this initiative.
This bill is not the work of any voice of the establishment. Leah Gazan is a highly respected Indigenous activist with a long standing involvement in struggles for social justice. Even as she puts it forward, however, another push for basic income is underway.
A group calling itself ‘UBI Works’ is campaigning for the adoption of this social policy. A glance at their rather slick website makes it clear that they are of a very different political stripe. For them, basic income is something that can ‘realize the compassionate potential of capitalism to end poverty, reduce violence, and secure our personal freedoms.’ Their list of backers and believers is an impressive collection of corporate movers and shakers and, in 2018, they were able to publish a letter, calling for a UBI, that was signed ‘by over 120 Canadian CEOs representing over $2.3B in combined revenues.’
Not for the first time, it becomes clear that basic income has a curious mix of supporters, drawn from each side of the political spectrum and the class divide. It is necessary to ask why this concept of a reworked system of income support can create such an accord. I’m going to suggest that basic income would actually advance a neoliberal agenda if it was implemented. In my view, the CEOs who signed the above mentioned letter were taking a clear minded step that was in their interests as exploiters while, on the other hand, hopes on the left for a progressive basic income are based on several misunderstandings and miscalculations that I would like to consider.
Poor Laws to Pandemic
The most glaring deficiency I find in proposals for progressive versions of basic income is that they tend to focus on supposed benefits without realistically considering the factors that would have to be overcome in order for them to be realized.  The first and fundamental consideration that is missed is the basic role and function of an income support system in a capitalist society. Capitalism is based on the exploitation of workers and, for this to occur, a certain level of economic coercion has to be in play. The English peasantry had to be thrown off the land before waged work could become the norm because an alternative means of livelihood would have given potential workers a totally unacceptable level of bargaining power.  As the land was cleared and a reserve of unemployed workers was generated, the authorities had to respond to the destitution and social unrest that resulted with some level of social provision. However, they were sure to provide only as much as they had to and as little as they could get away with. The English Poor Law systems were based on this fundamental consideration, later given the title of ‘less eligibility’ and, to this day, the twin objections of controlling dislocation and disorder, while ensuring the maximum level of economic coercion, define, shape and limit systems of income support. Were basic income to be adopted, it would face those same constraints as long as it existed in the context of a capitalist job market.
The second factor that progressive UBI supporters have not considered, is the fact that we live in period when the coercive element has been greatly intensified.  The neoliberal years have seen the rate of exploitation of workers pushed to much higher levels and the degrading of income support systems has been central to this. The explosion of low wage precarious work has necessitated the gutting of programs like unemployment insurance and social assistance in order to generate a climate of desperation and vulnerability. At this particular moment, this drive is being taken even further. In the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic lockdown, the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) was thrown together, precisely because the degraded income support system could not have measured up during the crisis. The present drive to return people to work, before the pandemic is over and the risks to health and safety contained, has led to the elimination of CERB. In Canada, and internationally, the drive to reopen the economy and restore a robust profit making regime, will require a high level of economic coercion. The idea that a private members bill or a lobbying effort is going to prevail upon the Trudeau Liberals to introduce an adequate universal payment that elevates working class bargaining power, is simply not rooted in reality.

There is a third miscalculation on the part of progressive basic income advocates. In the form that it would actually be adopted, their policy would advance, rather than impede, the very agenda of enhanced exploitation and social abandonment they hope to tackle.  There are two aspects to the concept of basic income that would greatly assist the neoliberal agenda. First of all, it would be provided as a de facto wage top up to workers in the low wage sector.  That is its great appeal to those on the political right and features strongly in the arguments put forward by people like the reactionary UBI advocate, Charles Murray.  If the income of the worst paid workers comes, in large part, out of the general tax revenues, the pressure on employers to increase wages and governments to raise minimum wage levels, is reduced considerably. Employers receive what is in effect a subsidy and this is entirely in line with the developing agenda. The elimination of CERB is taking place as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) is being extended and enriched.
A basic income system would also represent a huge move towards the commodification of social provision. A meagre cash benefit, provided universally or very widely, would be regarded by austerity driven governments as a means of replacing other parts of the social infrastructure. Cuts to public services would be justified on the grounds that the new payment was now meeting the needs of the population. Advocates of a progressive UBI will, of course, respond that their vision is one in which the payment augments, rather than replaces, other social programs. This brings me to the fourth miscalculation I feel they are making.
False Hope
After decades of an advancing agenda that has reversed previous gains and driven down the adequacy of income support systems, a certain amount of demoralization has set in on the left. The attempt to stop the erosion of social benefits has not succeeded and, in my view, basic income has emerged as a kind of false hope. We have not held back the attack on existing systems so people imagine that basic income has some almost quality about it that will render it immune from the dictates of neoliberal austerity. However, the strategic imperative of maximizing economic coercion by ensuring as inadequate a form of income support as possible would still exist and the capacity of capitalists and their political representatives to press for this would still be there even if a UBI were in place. The illusion is that an unfavourable balance of societal forces can be overcome by  a social policy modification and it simply can’t happen. Indeed, the basic income model would actually further the advance of the very regressive agenda its progressive advocates seek a way around.
The final problem with the basic income illusion, at this particular time especially, is that it represents a dangerous diversion. We are coming out of the lockdown facing nothing less than class war. In conditions of mass unemployment, employers will hammer workers and their unions to try and win major concessions. A crisis of hunger has emerged during the lockdown. Hundreds of thousands of tenants are facing an immediate and dreadful risk of eviction. Governments are looking to compensate for the vast outlays made during recent months with a huge round of social cutbacks. We will have to move forward, in this situation, on the basis of militant mass social action. The inadequacies of the austerity damaged EI system will have to be challenged, as will the wretchedly eroded framework of provincial social assistance. A fight for adequate income, available to all in need without bureaucratic intrusion, is urgently needed. We have no time for that struggle to be put on hold while liberal academics and ‘enlightened’ corporate CEOs hold consultations and run pilot projects while governments keep the circus going as long as possible. We need to be on the streets fighting for concrete and vital demands.
The undermining of income support systems has not been the result of any misunderstanding or some design flaw in those systems. It has been a key element of a drive to increase the level of exploitation by rendering people as poor and desperate as possible and vast profits have been obtained out of this attack. There is no social policy route around this reality and basic income represents a false hope, a harmful direction and a dangerous diversion that we should reject.

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