Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Setting the basic income at anything less than a million pounds is a slap in the face of the working class

I haven’t paid much attention to Left Unity, because TBH a group organised around the electoral road to social democracy seems more like an Old Labour re-enactment society than a viable political trajectory. Apparently, at their recent conference they decided not to adopt a basic income as a policy, which some have taken as a confirmation of Left Unity’s backward-looking position.

Certainly, there are plenty of reactionary old left arguments against the basic income, but it is worth reflecting on the fact that basic income was initially a right wing proposal (it was popularised by libertarians in the 70s, but, as I discovered from Angela Mitropoulos’s very persuasive criticism of basic income, it was earlier proposed by a Tory peer in the 40s). These capitalist advocates of the basic income do have a point; a basic income is a pro-market measure, at least in so far as people need to transform this cash income into the necessities of life by purchasing these necessities on the market.

There are two good things about the basic income as a demand, I think. The first is its universality. Demands for universal benefits are a way to contribute to campaigning against the stigmatization of benefit recipients and the austerity model of capitalism for which this stigmatization is a proxy. Still, the universality of the basic income runs into problems pretty quickly, particularly in how this universality crosses the borders of the nation state (leading to its much less revolutionary reformulation as a “citizens income”). Anyway, a cash benefits are not the only possible universal benefits: a demand for universal access to social housing might be at least as revolutionary as the basic income, for example.

The other good thing about the basic income as a demand is the way it might resist the regulatory function of welfare states. There is a long tradition of government provision of services to the poor being a site of intense control over the poor, and a genuinely unconditional grant of entirely fungible resources would sidestep this kind of control. But (aside from the likelihood of “basic incomes” not being so unconditional, as Mitropolous points out), this kind of direct control is not the only kind of control, and, in neoliberal welfare state, might not be the main problem. Post-70s welfare states have been increasingly reorganised around market logic, where market mechanisms, rather than state command, provide the apparatus of discipline; spending your basic income doesn’t escape this kind of control at all, and so it’s possible that a basic income might be entirely continuous with the already developing tendencies of welfare reform.

This is a genuinely dialectical point in the demand for basic income. The freedom of the free market is the freedom of commodities to be exchanged subject to market discipline, but as Marx points out, this is one of capitalism’s contradictions: the logic of the commodity is the logic of something that can be exchanged for an indefinite series of other things, but this expansive logic is immediately constrained by the market requirement that a commodity be exchanged for a numerically equivalent value. However, this commodity logic brings into view the possibility of an infinitely freely exchangeable commodity outside of the logic of equivalents, in which our use of goods is liberated both from natural necessity and from market necessity.

Kathi Weeks, who advocates basic income as a demand, suggests that demands can function not just as policy proposals but as ways of disclosing a radical or utopian possibility. If we wanted to use basic income as such a demand, then, we would have to propose it in such a way that the basic income would be outside of market discipline. At the very least, we would have to propose a sufficiently large basic income as to at least raise imaginatively the possibility that you wouldn’t feel the pain of market discipline: I’m going to pick a round number and suggest a million pounds.