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151

The Basic Income Illusion

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Gourevitch, A. and Stanczyk, L. (2018). The Basic Income Illusion. Jacobin, 4, pp. 151-178

153

In our view, the tendency persistently to overlook these facts owes to a certain familiar but problematic approach to normative inquiry. The problematic orientation is on display whenever theorists on the Left — rightly concerned by the many social ills we face — ask in response what sorts of policies “we” should put in place. This question makes practical sense only if author and audience together already have the social power to carry out the necessary steps. Alternatively, it assumes that every powerful actor in society is motivated to do whatever it is that we, all of us together, should. Either way, the animating presupposition of much left-wing theorizing is normally false, and certainly false when the question is whether “we” should implement a genuinely liberating basic income.

It is not the case that, by legislating a generous basic income, “we” could empower the most exploited workers among us better to resist their capitalist bosses. On the contrary, we shall argue in this essay that the familiar story about the emancipatory potential of a generous basic income has got things almost exactly backwards. A basic income high enough to be genuinely liberating for the low-wage worker would require enormous expropriation of businesses and wealthy people. Consequently, there is no chance of its passage until there is a working class with the social and organizational power already adequate to extract it. The means to the requisite political organization, moreover, must come through labor organizing and left-wing political leadership, and not through elite-driven “entitlement reform,” precisely because only an organized working class will be able to hold elites to account and control the fate of their social policy proposals in our plutocratic times. Accordingly, when a livable basic income finally arrives, its function will not be to empower the individual worker against her capitalist bosses, since a livable basic income already presupposes that an organized working class has effective control over the shape and direction of the economy. Instead, the role of a livable basic income, if and when it comes, will be to limit the labor discipline that may be democratically imposed on all, whether by individual employee-owned workplaces or by genuinely majoritarian legislation. In short, if the idea of a liberating basic income is to have a place in an attractive political vision, we should think through not how it will renovate capitalism, but its emancipatory purpose in an already functioning institutional socialism.

—p.153 by Alex Gourevitch, Lucas Stanczyk 2 years ago

In our view, the tendency persistently to overlook these facts owes to a certain familiar but problematic approach to normative inquiry. The problematic orientation is on display whenever theorists on the Left — rightly concerned by the many social ills we face — ask in response what sorts of policies “we” should put in place. This question makes practical sense only if author and audience together already have the social power to carry out the necessary steps. Alternatively, it assumes that every powerful actor in society is motivated to do whatever it is that we, all of us together, should. Either way, the animating presupposition of much left-wing theorizing is normally false, and certainly false when the question is whether “we” should implement a genuinely liberating basic income.

It is not the case that, by legislating a generous basic income, “we” could empower the most exploited workers among us better to resist their capitalist bosses. On the contrary, we shall argue in this essay that the familiar story about the emancipatory potential of a generous basic income has got things almost exactly backwards. A basic income high enough to be genuinely liberating for the low-wage worker would require enormous expropriation of businesses and wealthy people. Consequently, there is no chance of its passage until there is a working class with the social and organizational power already adequate to extract it. The means to the requisite political organization, moreover, must come through labor organizing and left-wing political leadership, and not through elite-driven “entitlement reform,” precisely because only an organized working class will be able to hold elites to account and control the fate of their social policy proposals in our plutocratic times. Accordingly, when a livable basic income finally arrives, its function will not be to empower the individual worker against her capitalist bosses, since a livable basic income already presupposes that an organized working class has effective control over the shape and direction of the economy. Instead, the role of a livable basic income, if and when it comes, will be to limit the labor discipline that may be democratically imposed on all, whether by individual employee-owned workplaces or by genuinely majoritarian legislation. In short, if the idea of a liberating basic income is to have a place in an attractive political vision, we should think through not how it will renovate capitalism, but its emancipatory purpose in an already functioning institutional socialism.

—p.153 by Alex Gourevitch, Lucas Stanczyk 2 years ago
153

Here, then, is the fundamental problem. Those who advocate for an emancipatory basic income policy while showing considerably less interest in the persistent dilemmas of class politics have forgotten, or failed to see, that what they are pushing for is already a form of communism. There is consequently no prospect of the hoped-for policy coming to pass until there is a working-class constituency that is organized and powerful enough to be able to extract it, in spite of the predictable resistance of superbly organized capital. The employers of labor are, after all, not about to expropriate themselves out of untold future profits out of the goodness of their hearts, much less because proponents of a generous basic income have fairness and human decency on their side.

—p.153 by Alex Gourevitch, Lucas Stanczyk 2 years ago

Here, then, is the fundamental problem. Those who advocate for an emancipatory basic income policy while showing considerably less interest in the persistent dilemmas of class politics have forgotten, or failed to see, that what they are pushing for is already a form of communism. There is consequently no prospect of the hoped-for policy coming to pass until there is a working-class constituency that is organized and powerful enough to be able to extract it, in spite of the predictable resistance of superbly organized capital. The employers of labor are, after all, not about to expropriate themselves out of untold future profits out of the goodness of their hearts, much less because proponents of a generous basic income have fairness and human decency on their side.

—p.153 by Alex Gourevitch, Lucas Stanczyk 2 years ago
175

[...] recently even billionaires have been paying lip service to the idea that some version of the policy could make existing social spending more efficient, labor markets more flexible, and so on. As we have stressed, however, implementing any version that could plausibly be called liberating for the average worker would require permanent and unprecedented expropriation of businesses and wealthy people. However meticulous the case for a policy that has this consequence, it should be clear that the business class will not willingly agree to expropriate itself.

—p.175 by Alex Gourevitch, Lucas Stanczyk 2 years ago

[...] recently even billionaires have been paying lip service to the idea that some version of the policy could make existing social spending more efficient, labor markets more flexible, and so on. As we have stressed, however, implementing any version that could plausibly be called liberating for the average worker would require permanent and unprecedented expropriation of businesses and wealthy people. However meticulous the case for a policy that has this consequence, it should be clear that the business class will not willingly agree to expropriate itself.

—p.175 by Alex Gourevitch, Lucas Stanczyk 2 years ago