Curious Utopias

A Universal Basic Income may not be much of a utopia in itself, but it points in surprisingly radical directions.

The Universal Basic Income hit the Washington Post again this weekend, courtesy of Mike Konczal. He focuses on left objections to the UBI proposal, ranging from its effect on gender equality to its relationship with the existing welfare state to its interaction with the struggle for workplace democracy. In the end, he emphasizes the benefits of the UBI, and insists that while we’re unlikely to see basic income in the United States anytime soon, it’s still worth “taking a moment to think Utopian.”

Matt Bruenig objects to Konczal’s characterization of the basic income as “utopian,” on the grounds that it is not something that “proposes to dramatically overhaul society into an entirely unprecedented structure that will usher in a nearly perfect world.” It is only utopian in the very weak sense that it is not currently on the political agenda as something that is likely to be enacted.

It’s certainly true that basic income is hardly utopian in its etymological sense of meaning “nowhere.” A recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique describes an experiment with UBI in an Indian village. The experiment is run by a trade union called the Self Employed Women’s Association, and it found that with just an extra $3.65 per month, “people spent more on eggs, meat and fish, and on healthcare. Children’s school marks improved in 68 percent of families, and the time they spent at school nearly tripled. Saving also tripled, and twice as many people were able to start a new business.” This is consistent with the results found in basic income experiments in Namibia and in 1970s Canada.

Meanwhile, there have long been critics on the Left who criticize basic income proposals precisely for their perceived lack of utopianism. As Konczal notes, Barbara Bergmann argues that it is more important to secure broader access to specific goods like child care, health care, and education: “The fully developed welfare state deserves priority over Basic Income because it accomplishes what Basic Income does not: it guarantees that certain specific human needs will be met.” In a , Göran Therborn strikes a similar tone, referring to the basic income as a “curious utopia of resignation” arising in response to welfare state retrenchment and diminished prospects for working class control over the workplace or the means of production.

From the perspective of the basic income’s leftist advocates, however, there is another way in which it can be considered a deeply utopian project. Fredric Jameson discusses two different meanings of utopia in his study of utopian politics and science fiction, . The first is utopia as a fully-elaborated program for the future society, which is close to Bruenig’s sense of the proposal to dramatically overhaul society. But the second is the utopian impulse, which appears across much broader domains of everyday life and politics, including even “piecemeal social democratic and ‘liberal’ reforms.” Such impulses may not themselves be the program for a utopian society, but they can point in the direction of future programmatic realizations.

The French writer André Gorz was a longtime proponent of the basic income, and is also responsible for a well-known theorization of its utopian transformative potential. In one of his early works, Strategy for Labor, he attempted to do away with the tired Left debate over “reform or revolution” and replace it with a new distinction:

Is it possible from within—that is to say, without having previously destroyed capitalism—to impose anti-capitalist solutions which will not immediately be incorporated into and subordinated to the system? This is the old question of “reform or revolution.” This was (or is) a paramount question when the movement had (or has) the choice between a struggle for reforms and armed insurrection. Such is no longer the case in Western Europe; here there is no longer an alternative. The question here revolves around the possibility of “revolutionary reforms,” that is to say, of reforms which advance toward a radical transformation of society. Is this possible?

Gorz goes on to distinguish “reformist reforms,” which subordinate themselves to the need to preserve the functioning of the existing system, from the radical alternative:

A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be. And finally, it bases the possibility of attaining its objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic changes. These changes can be sudden, just as they can be gradual. But in any case they assume a modification of the relations of power; they assume that the workers will take over powers or assert a force (that is to say, a non-institutionalized force) strong enough to establish, maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serve to weaken capitalism and to shake its joints. They assume structural reforms.

One criticism of the basic income is that it will not be systemically viable over the long run, as people increasingly drop out of paid labor and undermine the tax base that funds the basic income in the first place. But from another point of view, this prospect is precisely what makes basic income a non-reformist reform. Thus one can sketch out a more programmatic kind of utopianism that uses the basic income as its point of departure. One of my favorite gestures in this direction is Robert van der Veen and Philippe van Parijs’ 1986 essay, “A Capitalist Road to Communism.”

The essay begins from the proposition that Marxism’s ultimate end is not socialism, but rather a communist society that abolishes not merely exploitation (the unjust distribution of the social product relative to work performed) but also alienation: “productive activities need no longer be prompted by external rewards.”

They then go on to sketch out a scenario in which a reform instituted under capitalism leads to communism without the intermediary stage of socialist construction. This thought experiment revolves around the achievement of an unconditional, universal basic income. Suppose, they say, “that it is possible to provide everyone with a universal grant sufficient to cover his or her ‘fundamental needs’ without this involving the economy in a downward spiral. How does the economy evolve once such a universal grant is introduced?”

Their answer is that the basic income would “twist” the capitalist drive to increase productivity, such that:

Entitlement to a substantial universal grant will simultaneously push up the wage rate for unattractive, unrewarding work (which no one is now forced to accept in order to survive) and bring down the average wage rate for attractive, intrinsically rewarding work (because fundamental needs are covered anyway, people can now accept a high-quality job paid far below the guaranteed income level). Consequently, the capitalist logic of profit will, much more than previously, foster technical innovation and organizational change that improve the quality of work and thereby reduce the drudgery required per unit of product.

If you extrapolate this trend forward, you reach a situation where all wage labor is gradually eliminated. Undesirable work is fully automated, as employers feel increasing pressure to automate because labor is no longer too cheap. Meanwhile, the wage for desirable work eventually falls to zero, because people are both willing to do it for free, and able to do so due to the existence of a basic income to supply their essential needs. As Gorz puts it in a later work, the , certain activities “may be partially repatriated into the sphere of autonomous activities and reduce the demand for these things to be provided by external services, whether public or commercial.”

The long-run trajectory, therefore, is one in which people come to depend less and less on the basic income, because the things they want and need do not have to be purchased for money. Some things can be produced costlessly and automatically, as 3-D printing and digital copying technologies evolve into something like Star Trek’s replicator. Other things have become the product of voluntary cooperative activity, rather than waged work. It therefore comes to pass that the tax base for the basic income is undermined—but rather than a crisis, as in the hands of basic income critics, this becomes the path to utopia.

Consider, for example, a basic income that was linked to the size of Gross Domestic Product. We are used to a capitalist world in which the increase in material prosperity corresponds to a rise in GDP, the measured value of economic activity in money. But as wage labor comes to be replaced either by automation or voluntary activity, GDP would begin to fall, and the basic income with it. This would not lead to lowered standards of living, because the falling GDP here also denotes a decline in the cost of living. Just like the socialist state in certain versions of traditional Marxism, the basic income withers away. As van der Veen and van Parijs put it, “capitalist societies will smoothly move toward full communism.”

The capitalist road to communism is truly a utopia. Not only in the colloquial sense of a total transformation of a society, but also in its overly simplified and rationalistic picture of social evolution. As Jameson notes, utopias are defined as much by their closures and exclusions as their positive programs, as much by what they cannot say as what they can. A utopia often says more about the present in which it was written than it does about the future it depicts.

In the case of the capitalist road to communism, the things left out include the political struggles that would ensue if social development threatened to evolve the capitalist class out of existence, gradually sapping their profits and their social power. This began to manifest itself even under the meager basic income in the Namibian experiment: white landlords were deeply hostile to the basic income and denied the evidence of its benefits, perhaps because they are “afraid that the poor will gain some influence and deprive the rich, white 20 percent of the population of some of their power.” Also brushed aside are the ecological limits that might make true abundance elusive. Both of these are themes I attempted to flesh out in “Four Futures.” A third issue, which I’ve discussed a bit elsewhere, is the ingrained gender norms that may be reinforced by expanding the domain of “voluntary” labor, which often amounts the imposition of unpaid work on women. But the conceptual clarity of van der Veen and van Parijs’ rendition is enlightening in its very implausibility and incompleteness, a demonstration of the utopian impulse contained in an apparently timid policy proposal.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.