The idea that government should provide every citizen with a basic income sufficient to sustain a decent standard of living, and that this provision should be given without constraint to work, is spreading like wildfire around the world, and is being taken very seriously by some very serious people.1
It is arguably the best solution to hand for addressing the imminent pandemic of technological unemployment forecast by major financial institutions, universities, economic think tanks, and many leading scientific researchers.
The subject of a universal basic income is so popular and so widely reported on that there is very little for me to add except to present a few insights into the matter that a historical materialist perspective offers. Proponents of UBI may find these insights helpful in developing their case.
To start: What the hell is historical materialism and what does it have to do with a basic income?
Historical materialism is a proposition of Karl Marx which attempts to provide a methodological understanding of human societies and how they change over time. The principle agent of social change is seen as conflict that develops when old economic relations fall out of sync with new developing technologies.
The call for a basic income is made all the more urgent by the Rise of the Robots and the dire forecasts of rampant unemployment.
See the connection now?
New technologies (robots, artificial intelligence, molecular manufacturing, and so on) are about to obsolete our usual, customary and (up until now) reasonable way of doing things. This rising conflict is the agent of change Marx wrote about.
Historical materialism offers a deep framework for analyzing the impending socio-economic changes which make the call for a basic income so pressing. The universal basic income and these impending changes provide an instance for the otherwise abstract philosophical proposition. Each informs the other.
For example, proposals of universal income are often met with skepticism, cynical dismissals, or assumptions of principled objection. “How do we pay for all this?” “Like that will ever happen.” “We can’t pay people just to be lazy.” [Insert your favorite here.]
Why should this be the knee jerk reaction? There is more at play here than just a liberal/conservative divide.
Historical materialism offers an insight into this behavior, the understanding of which may prove helpful in crafting effective responses. At least we gain a better perspective on where this opposition is really coming from.
The underlying obstacle is a lack of imagination.
Consider these words from Marx’ Preface to a Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, written in 1859:
[I]n the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.
Most of society finds it very difficult to think outside the box, and the frames of that box are set by the mode of production one is sociologically conditioned by. Just as a member of feudal society would have a hard time envisioning the precepts of modern liberal democracies (a subject often lampooned by Steve Martin in the old SNL skits featuring Theodoric of York), so too modern minds find it difficult to conceive of life without wage-labor. These are the rules they’ve played by all of their lives. The world has always been this way (but, of course, it hasn’t).
So from this initial brush with historical materialism we can glean that overcoming this lack of imagination is one key to a successful presentation of the concept of a universal basic income. The public needs a new vision every bit as much as spreadsheets and tax proposals. Creative, artistic visions are as important as economic calculations. For some minds, maybe more so.
The need to overcome the public’s lack of vision may, in itself, seem a trite observation. Historical materialism, however, offers the deeper understanding of why the public lacks imagination. They are socially conditioned by the definite stage of development of their productive forces. A stage of development which is about be superseded by a new, higher stage.
This brings us to the second insight we can glean from historical materialism.
The Rise of the Robots will not be a further refinement of bourgeois capitalist relations. It will constitute an entirely new stage in the development of mankind’s productive forces — a new epoch in human history. A very rare event indeed.
The radical transformation of our material productive forces will effect a revolution in our relations of production. As Marx wrote, the sum total of these relations is the real foundation upon which our society is built. Once this foundation is revolutionized a new legal and political superstructure must form to represent the interests of the new relations. An entirely new social consciousness will be born.
This is not nibbling away at the margins. This is the integument bursting asunder. For Marx, this end of the capitalist mode of production and the emergence of the next, higher level of social formation has the potential to mark “the end of human prehistory” and the beginning of truly human history where men (and women) meet “as they truly are” and not as objectified means to one another’s ends. We meet, no longer as servant and master, as employee and superior, but as socio-political equals. Exploitation ends; class antagonisms cease; we finally achieve a society of dignity, decency and equality for all. Truly human history begins.
Or, of course, we could totally fuck it up.
If we naively believe that our goal should be to preserve the capitalist integument at all costs we will miss the mark. If, for lack of imagination and understanding, we insist that “capitalism has been the greatest engine for growth the world has ever seen and must be defended,” we will lose the future. This is the great hamartia. The tragic misstep.
Capitalism has been a great engine for growth and innovation but this does not mean it will continue to be the best legal, political and economic superstructure once our technological base has been revolutionized. New base; new superstructure. This is the key insight from Marx’s proposition as it relates to the terms of a universal basic income.
How bad could things get if we get these terms wrong?
Imagine a world in which a small percentage of the population, say 5%, essentially owns and controls the productive forces. They are the owners of capital. The rest of the population is no longer needed as wage laborers, but these elites agree to provide them with a basic income, to preserve capitalist markets. These elites naturally continue to act in their own rational self interests. They will temper social tensions as required, but it is reasonable to assume that they they never allow any more to trickle down than is absolutely necessary to prevent insurrection. They will be the dominant political power not only through their money but also through their ability to control the public mindset.
Crazy? Reread that paragraph and tell me how closely it describes the world today (minus the part about the basic income).
If we make the misstep of preserving capitalist property relations we will lock-in class antagonisms between the handful of “haves” and everyone else. Settling for what is essentially an allowance from our Galtian overlords is not “emancipatory,” no matter how generous. It actually serves to establish and perpetuate their power. This is one of the reasons the capitalist class will be eager to support the idea of a basic income. They will understand that as long as it is conducted on their terms it will preserve their interests. Don’t trade your birthright for a mess of pottage. Don’t sell-out so cheaply. And above all, don’t hand this mistake to your children.
Any proposal of a universal basic income must ultimately be a policy of distribution and not of redistribution.
What’s the difference? Ownership. The question of who will actually own, direct and control the new means of production must be central; we must never lose sight of it, for, ultimately, this is what it will all come down to.
Let me pause to make something clear:
We can begin with a system of redistribution as long as the system is crafted in such a way as to allow us to move towards a system of distribution as the process of expropriation unfolds.
In other words, it’s OK to take the Galtian overlords’ money while we are in the process of finally dethroning them, but this is a very straight gate and we must enter it with eyes wide open. We will be set about by snares and will prevail only with vigilance and clear vision.
The expropriation of the expropriators is the ultimate goal. It is the only thing that will move us to a truly post-capitalist society. The good news is that we do not require a proletarian revolution to achieve it. The conditions for expropriation are found in the capitalist development of the productive forces itself. As it turns out the gravediggers capitalism produces are robots! We feel the first tremors of expropriation reverberating in the rise of the creative commons, open-source programming (including AI), digital capital’s effect on traditional capital and near-zero marginal cost production, to name but a few instances.
We are on the cusp of a new epoch in human civilization; the potential of this moment is enormous, revolutionary, emancipatory. Have we the vision to see this? Have we the will to hold out for it?