The Marxist Case for Basic Income

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Post by ~ Simon Duffy

In response to the trivial, but quite frequent, criticism of basic income that “some neoliberals like UBI” we can now respond “but so do some Marxists.” But Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism offers far more than a Marxist argument for basic income. Postcapitalism examines the current global economic, environmental and political crisis through the lens of the Marxist theories of the past and it sees the development of basic income as just one element in a series of wider economic reforms that could bring about the end of the capitalist era - if only we give capitalism one last push.

Mason begins by going back to the theoretical battles that divided the Left in the 20th century. This may seem peculiar, but it is on the Left that the battle for basic income is likely to be won or lost, and these old battle lines are being redrawn today. So Mason’s book - which is also a critique of what the Left won and lost over the last 150 years - provides a powerful way of understanding some of the different positions that are being adopted towards basic income by the Left today.

I think we can identify at least three anti-basic income positions on the Left, all of which are pre-figured by conflicting positions adopted in and around the Russian Revolution.

First we have those, like the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP), who see basic income as too individualistic. They want to meet people’s needs, but needs as they define them and as they provide for them; this is why they prefer the idea of Universal Basic Services (UBS), for it maintains existing power structures and it enables a centralised definition of public good. Historically this was the position adopted by the Fabians, the Left eugenicists and ultimately by Lenin himself, and we might think of it as aristocratic Marxism. Despite their many differences, they all shared the view that the working class is unable to lead itself to victory and that it will take a vanguard group to bring about the necessary changes. It is perhaps no accident that we see this position adopted by London-based think tanks, for it is the logical position of those who see victory in terms of their own occupation of the existing structures of power.

Second we have the position of those who want to compete with capitalism and who seek a socialist or bureaucratic reorganisation of society in order to achieve more effectively what capitalism is unable to achieve. This is the position of those who want a job-guarantee, full employment and socialism in one country, and we might think of this as rational Marxism. This was the position adopted by Stalin, and those who wanted to defeat capitalism by showing how much more effective a state-run system can be. This may seem ludicrous today, but for decades the USSR made enormous strides in economic terms, even if the price in human life was horrific. For this group basic income threatens their model of progress by reducing the control that the state has over the citizen. Their goal is to replace the market with the state and to use the state to control production and distribution. They do not want to create increased opportunities for free action by citizens; instead they need people to depend on the state and on exchanging their labour for access to resources.

Third there are those who see social justice as being achieved through a constant state of conflict between the oppressed and the oppressors. They fear that basic income will be like the NHS, a universal and popular system, and so one which will forestall the possibility of further revolutionary change. They interpret economic support for citizens as a subsidy to employers, rather than seeing it as the means by which people can strengthen their negotiating position with employers. For instance, Ellen Clifford of DPAC seems to adopt this position in her paper UBI: Solution or Illusion? This position depends on a commitment to ongoing conflict rather than imagining capitalism can be undermined or replaced, and we might characterise it as revolutionary Marxism.

What makes Mason’s Marxism different to these competing aristocratic, rational and revolutionary forms is his commitment to cooperation (which he calls peer to peer exchange) and his view that emerging technological change has put us on the cusp of a deeper social and economic changes that can move us beyond capitalism. Mason stresses the emergence of networks, cooperative systems, free public goods and the possibility of abundance as the real basis for replacing capitalism. His challenge is that the current economic system is stuck in a form of late capitalism, which is failing, and that future reform requires a complex transition away from neoliberalism and towards a postcapitalist world of high productivity and networked cooperation. Hence basic income is only one element of a reformed system; Mason proposes a series of economic reforms, and in particular taking complete control over energy production, in order to rapidly move the planet onto a sustainable path to a world where we are able to enjoy increasing amounts of free time.

In a sense Mason is trying to combine two different traditions on the Left. On the one hand, mutualism, which is not really a Marxist tradition, but which values equality, cooperation and community as the natural forms of social justice. On the other hand there is the historical-materialist Marxist tradition which is strongly committed to the idea that social developments are underpinned by the form of productive life that sustain itself, but which will then evolve around the emergence of new technologies. Mason is arguing that mutualism is the essence of postcapitalism, but that it can only really emerge and thrive if we manage the complex transition away from the current system towards a new model which will require radically different systems of democratic control, financing and management.

There is so much going on in Mason’s book that it is impossible to make any simple judgements about it. It is an exciting vision of the future, and also an education in the fractured world of Marxist theory. Even if you are not a convinced Marxist it is hard to resist his analysis of the global economic, political and environment crisis we face today. It is exciting and encouraging to see that basic income, while no panacea, may not only help us move our world away from ecological disaster, but could also help create the productivity gains that will be essential to move the whole human population out of poverty and into a world of equal citizenship.

Certainly, as UBI Lab Sheffield itself demonstrates, there are very many of us who are willing to use our free time, despite the costs of our precarity, to advance social justice and to seek a shift in power towards citizens and to our local communities. So we are ourselves living proof of the existence of networked individuals who are willing to come together to think and act, not because we are being paid, but because we think the work is important.


More about the author

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Simon Duffy - Founder and Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform

Simon is the Founder and Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform. He speaks regularly on television and radio about the welfare state and social policy. He is best known for inventing personal budgets and for designing systems of self-directed support.