Pandemic, Precarity and the Demands of the Left
The current Corona pandemic and the state’s response to it are highlighting in striking ways the wider tendencies of the neoliberal order, from ‘disaster capitalism’ (Klein 2015) – an attempt to intensify strategies of accumulation by exploiting natural disasters, to ‘climate Leviathan’ (Mann & Wainwright 2018) – an authoritarian power-grab by the state under the guise of protecting the population from environmental threats.
Yet the crisis generated by the Corona pandemic is not one in which capital and the state can simply force through their will. New accumulation strategies and new emergency measures are always fraught processes – and often meet with resistance. A pandemic is a crisis not just for a population but for the state and for capital. In particular, the current pandemic leaves the voice of the capitalist 1% and the politicians who represent them sounding ever more hollow. More and more citizens are realising that once the pandemic subsides things cannot return to normal. Capitalist ‘normality’ has been placed radically in question. Graffiti painted on a wall in Hong Kong and shared this week on social media put it succinctly: “We can’t return to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem.”
Vast government injections of money into financial markets to prop up collapsing stocks reveal austerity measures to be a sham. State diktat that the population must ‘self-isolate’ at home reveals the population’s dependence upon wage labour. Particularly the large and growing ‘precarious’ workforce, whether self-employed or working on-demand in the so-called ‘gig economy’, suddenly lose their income while their everyday costs become frightening burdens. A precarious labour that now covers an estimated fifth of workers in the UK spreads suddenly and alarmingly, becoming an existential threat to vast swathes of the population. Even those who have been sheltered from precarity’s worst effects now threaten to fall into the abyss. A recent graph suggests unemployment in the US will rise to over 30% in the coming months – this would exceed the figure reached in the Great Depression. Many of those stricken will receive no unemployment benefit and have no medical insurance. Similar, if less extreme, scenarios may face European economies.
The way in which the Left responds to this crisis is crucial not just in the short term – the support we give to those affected by the virus and the solidarity we give to each other – but also in shaping the post-crisis political landscape. Paramount is that the shaping of the post-pandemic scene not be left to those who are currently in power. A route away from the Scylla and Charybdis of ’disaster capitalism’ and ‘climate Leviathan’ must be found. Whatever the world looks like after the pandemic it is essential that we do not return to a neoliberal normality, a normality which – it is now plain to see – cannot meet essential human and environmental needs.
One suggestion about how to shape the new political landscape is coming increasingly to the fore and shall concern us here. Since the onset of the current economic crisis, longstanding calls for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) have gained renewed strength. The proposal has been mooted by the Scottish Government, as it has by various parties, including both Labour and the Greens. UBI is no longer merely the theme of pressure groups and small-scale experiments. Is UBI something that the left should endorse? Is it a policy that could lead us beyond the neoliberal landscape? Or is it itself shaped by neoliberal thinking?
Before addressing this question we pause to recall an important concept from the history of the revolutionary Left – that of ‘transitional demands’. In the orthodox Marxism of the Comintern a ‘transitional demand’ was a demand that it was impossible for the capitalist state to concede – typical examples would be “housing for all” or “employment for all” – without undermining capitalism itself. Such a demand, it was hoped, would thereby aid a “transition” to a post-capitalist society. Classic texts which formulated ‘transitional demands’ are Lenin’s ‘The Impending Catastrophe and How to Avoid It’ and Trotsky’s ‘The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’. We do not address these texts here – and a reader of Gunn & Wilding will know that we do not share the thinking behind them. Yet we may ask: is UBI a ‘transitional demand’ in this sense? Might UBI help a “transition” to a post-capitalist world? Or could it be that UBI remains within a capitalist horizon? Is the demand for a basic income for all of the same sort as the call for “jobs for all” or “housing for all” or – more radically, as John Holloway (2019) has suggested – the idea of “dignity” for all?
Our answer to this question is not equivocal. It takes the form of an “on the one hand, on the other hand” response. UBI is, we suggest, a double-edged sword. Let us begin by saying what we consider to be problematic about UBI. Firstly, the idea of a basic income for all accepts certain essential parameters of the capitalist market. It is an income that for most people would supplement rather than replace wage labour (indeed the state typically calibrates its level to do just that). As such it takes wage labour – which Marx famously termed ‘veiled slavery’ (1976: 925) – for granted and attempts merely to mitigate its worst “side-effects”. Moreover, since a basic income is paid in money, and money in capitalism is ‘the universal equivalent’ (Marx 1976: 159, 161, 180), the reality of capitalist exploitation is concealed to a further degree. An individual with money may have more freedom than an individual without it, but they still confront a world in which money dictates every individual’s field of action. Whoever goes out into the capitalist marketplace to spend their income becomes acutely aware of this. They are confronted by an ‘immense collection of commodities’ (ibid: 126) some of which they can afford, some of which they cannot, but which have all been produced by wage labour. A universal income does not free one from the nexus of capitalist exploitation, since freedom for the consumer means unfreedom for the producer. Both consumer and producer are, Marx tells us, ‘enslaved’ to the ‘hostile power’ (1975: 212) which money represents. A basic income is thus part of the bewitched “problem” of capitalism rather than the “solution” to it.
Secondly, a criticism often voiced of UBI is that it would allow the neoliberal state to slash welfare spending and indeed to commodify welfare. It would make of welfare a product which one “purchases” with the “voucher” which UBI represents. UBI would then deepen, rather than remedy, the commodification of contemporary life. There is, we contend, substance to this criticism. It should be a cautionary tale that Friedrich Hayek, the ideological father of neoliberalism, recommended ‘a certain minimum income for everyone … a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself’ (Hayek 1979: 55). UBI, it is undeniable, is a cause that has been taken up by the libertarian right, not just by the left.
Thirdly, though there is a sense in which UBI might reduce the size of the state (this is its appeal to right-wing libertarians) it is nevertheless a policy which leaves individuals dependent on the state. Though not means-tested, it is still a ‘benefit’ that places the individual in an essentially dependent relation to the authorities who grant it. In providing a social safety-net, welfare or benefits respond to anomalies in the labour market not to the capitalist normality we have seen to be the problem. It is often pointed out that, after the Second World War, capitalist governments sought to fend off revolutionary demands by establishing welfare states. UBI would take its place within a long tradition of welfare as the attempt to regulate class conflict from above. In this sense even a social-democratic state is still a capitalist state; it is compelled to oil the cogs of capitalist accumulation because its very tax revenues for welfare spending depend on it. It is thus hard to characterise UBI in political terms as emancipatory. In sum, UBI seems not to be a ‘transitional demand’ in the sense cited above, since its implementation is quite compatible with the continued existence of capitalism.
At this point, we would like to acknowledge Annie Miller, whose A Basic Income Handbook and Essentials of Basic Income have coloured our understanding of how UBI is seen. Our disagreement with Miller follows from the points made above. If the state is ‘a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’ (as The Communist Manifesto puts it) or, in less dramatic terms, is non-neutral in the relation between capital and labour, it is not likely that a basic income will be set at a level that makes wage labour scarce. To this point, Miller responds that ‘evidence’ makes it clear that ‘people want to work-for pay, not just for the earnings’ (2019: 15-16). It is the case that Marx, in the closing pages of Capital Volume One, points to a situation where workers who may choose between free time and being exploited simply do not turn up. Must a reader choose, then, between Marx’s contention and the ‘evidence’ to which Miller points? This is not the case. The ‘evidence’ referred to by Miller has been gathered, presumably, in a capitalist society where wage labour carries prestige and is a well-established norm – whereas the situation referred to by Marx is colonial and where wage labour is not yet the established order of things. In the present world, it is up to a left-wing movement to make sure that wage labour is not a taken-for-granted norm.
These criticisms having been considered, let us look – “on the other hand” – at elements of UBI which point in a more radical direction. Firstly, while UBI presupposes wage labour, it can also free people to a degree from labour-time (on the ceteris paribus assumption that a rise in income is not cancelled out by a rise in inflation). The reduction of labour time can in turn place in question the necessity of wage labour and a life spent wholly devoted to it. In generating free time it can help cultivate a more than merely ‘one-dimensional man’ (to use Marcuse’s still-relevant phrase). UBI experiments already show demonstrable effects on human well-being. They also indicate that everyday life does not become unstructured or aimless without a ‘work ethic’ motivating it. Might UBI therefore allow us to accumulate free time and, with it, creativity and sociality instead of commodities and money?
Secondly, empirical studies suggest that UBI encourages a more equitable sharing of household and care work between men and women, and this has positive implications for wider freedoms and equalities. We note in passing that household and care work is not something that is taken into account in neoliberal economics; indeed for the discipline of economics at large these count as mere ‘externalities’. It was in this sense that the 1970s ‘Wages for Housework’ movement was so radical and may itself be considered a ‘transitional demand’ – for further discussion see Selma James (2012). In capitalism it is only labour that creates value, while housework, care work and other activities are devalued; could UBI be a spur to giving a new value to things which carry no monetary value?
Thirdly it seems that, once implemented, UBI becomes what political scientists call a ‘valence issue’, that is, an issue that most voters agree on despite differing party allegiances. It then becomes very difficult for politicians to push back and abolish it. It represents, in other words, a “ratchet effect” of growing rights for the population. Could that in turn be something that the left could build upon, making further demands, which in turn become ‘transitional demands’ in a revolutionary sense?
We mentioned above that one downside of UBI is the relation of dependence it perpetuates between the individual and the state. This brings us to our final point. Recent debates on the left have explored the idea of ‘commoning’ as an alternative to both capitalism and traditional state socialism. Commoning as understood today involves neither a marketplace nor the state distribution of resources. The dependence of the individual typical of each of these economic formations is done away with. We ourselves have sympathies with left-wing theories of commoning (see for example the work of Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis and Massimo de Angelis). We note the potential for practices of commoning to ensure the same universal safety-net that is currently hoped for in UBI. At the same time, commoning would involve not a monetary income but the communal production and sharing of goods such as food, housing, etc. Because in commoning these goods are not exchanged in a marketplace or paid for by money they take a non-commodity form. We note that current theories of the commons often draw on both Marxist and anarchist thinking. Commoning updates Marx’s idea of a ‘communal production’ (1973: 172) in which ‘the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle’ (1976: 739). In commoning, we add (though space forbids exploring the issue here), each individual exists co-operatively through others, not – as in a world where money rules the day – in competition with others.
To sum up, we have presented UBI as a double-edged practice. It carries hopes but also dangers and so cannot unequivocally be recommended by the left without further discussion of its implications. We have highlighted the less-than-revolutionary elements of UBI but also the potentially radical alternative it represents to the subjection of life to labour. The “ratchet effect” of UBI has the potential to spark new radical ideas about how to meet human needs on a global scale without the bane of capital. UBI is thus not something that the left can or should ignore.
We stand back and survey the landscape in which “demands” such as UBI are made. The landscape is one of crisis and the crisis is twofold. Firstly, there is the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic itself. In addition, there is the circumstance that the right is currently exploiting the pandemic in the sense of a “shock-doctrine” and the authoritarianism of a “climate Leviathan”. At the same time, the left’s hand has been strengthened (as was the case after the 2008 financial crash). In such a situation, we see more and more political “demands” being put on the table. But, as the Occupy movement showed in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, this issue of demands is not a straightforward one. A standard picture of politics has voters “making” demands while government “listens” and either “implements” or “rejects” what is demanded. As a picture it presupposes (in political terms) the terrain of parliamentary politics. In economic terms, it presupposes that the 1% are democratically accountable. In turn, it presupposes that politicians (and the 1% whose interests they represent) have sovereignty. But what if this is a fundamentally misleading view of how politics operates? What if we the people have sovereignty and parliamentary politics is inherently undemocratic – an alienation of our sovereignty? This was a core theme of Occupy and its horizontal and assembly-based politics, one that lives on despite the eviction of occupations.
If those on the left – understandably – favour Universal Basic Income as a short term measure to alleviate the worst effects of the current crisis, it should – we suggest – be treated more cautiously as a long-term proposal. UBI is, we have argued, equivocal; it is, so to say, against capitalism but also for and of capitalism. A wider and deeper debate, we suggest, is needed: not only about a universal monetary income but about a universal commons of shared goods and resources. The pandemic has not done away with this underlying issue. If anything, it has made the need to address it all the more urgent.
Barbagallo, C., Beuret, N., & Harvie, D. eds., (2019), Commoning With George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici, London: Pluto Press.
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James, S. (2012), Sex, Race, and Class: A Selection of Writings, 1952–2011, PM Press.
Klein, N. 2008, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Metropolitan Books.
Mann, G. & Wainwright, J. (2018), Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future, Verso Books.
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