Universal Basic Income Vs. the Left, Part One

Something strange has occurred lately, where the embrace of the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been adopted by libertarians, and particularly by Silicon Valley luminaries, and in response the backlash to the idea has grown more furtive on the left. This is not to say that there hasn’t always been some leftists cynical of the idea of UBI. It’s been a perennial punching bag at Chapo Trap House, for example. But it strikes me that now more than ever the question has to be “what kind of UBI do we want?” rather than simply if its a good or a bad idea.

So here I thought I might put down some words in defense of a particular kind of vision of UBI, or at least in defense of the intellectual project of imagining UBI. But before I get into my particular my points, I want to lay out a single axiom for the discussion.

Axiom: Anti-capitalism doesn’t necessarily mean anti-market. Being anti-capitalist does require a critique of private, concentrated capital.

Markets have existed before capitalism. If I grow a bunch of rice and you grow a bunch of beans, and we trade some beans and rice, that’s a market exchange. Capitalism only happens when either you or I come out of our transactions with a surplus, and we reinvest that surplus. If my rice is for whatever reason more profitable than your beans, with enough capital I can do all sorts of things, like make flyers pronouncing your beans to be poisonous in order to lower its demand, or buy up land upstream from your bean fields to divert water to my rice paddies.

My concentration of capital is bad because you, the bean grower, are no longer entering into market relations on an even playing field. Simply put, I’ve got all sorts of power that you don’t. That power allows me to extract ever greater surpluses, which in turn gives me ever greater power.

Being anti-capitalist also necessitates being opposed to the valuing of market values above human ones. According to Marx, this occurs when the origins of commodities in labor become masked by a focus on their commodity value alone, and this is the basis of what he terms commodity fetishism. Such fetishism leads to hierarchy as the basis for social relations, in which we judge one another in terms of our capital worth and our use to the capitalist economy. But if the accumulation of private capital is occluded, this isn’t a problem. In the simple market that existed before either you or I achieved a surplus, we may see a bean grower as more important than a rice grower with respect to our individual needs, but by limiting capital accumulation these variances don’t compound. Power, that is, the thing that is leveraged in unequal social relations, derives from the tendency of capital to grow bigger. Stop it from growing bigger, and you limit the accumulation of power.

I say that private, concentrated capital is bad because public, collectively owned concentrated capital is good. Primitive anarcho-communism doesn’t get us the Brooklyn Bridge. We need concentrated capital in public hands, and this is what it means for a shared ownership of the means of production. With collective proprietorship of capital, markets still make sense in certain circumstances. For example, in Four Futures, sociologist Peter Frase offers an example in which a town governed by socialism may use a nakedly market-based logic to govern the supply and demand of parking spaces, with fluctuating hourly rates based on demand in order to encourage drivers to use the public spaces in hours when they are least used (113-117).

Without the private accumulation of capital, and with public services such as universal health care and education, citizens enter socialist markets on level playing fields, and with their basic needs met. To borrow a thought from James Livingston, socialist markets then permit us the greatest benefits of market consumption—a means to express and indulge in our interests and passions—without the exploitation that accompanies them in capitalist economies. They neither deny the embodiment of selves—what we experience as individuality—nor do they deny the subjectivities, contingencies, and interdependencies that lay behind that experience.

To be continued in Part Two.