Left DebateOpinion

Should the Left Support A Universal Basic Income?

Gavin Mendel-Gleason argues that we should oppose the introduction of Universal Basic Income that would economically and politically weaken the working class.

The global economy has not recovered since the crash of 2008. While there has been a recovery for the wealthy, unemployment has remained high and wages have stagnated while the cost of living rises. One suggestion for improving economic conditions which has been gaining popularity is Universal Basic Income (UBI), or Basic Minimum Income: a payment to every citizen of a fixed monthly amount.

The proposal has a surprising range of advocates, from the Marxist Erik Olin Wright to the notoriously elitist, billionaire-filled World Economic Forum in Davos. It is not unusual that those who care about human suffering might advocate a simple payment which could help the most vulnerable. However, elite support for the idea goes all the way back to the notorious Thatcher and Pinochet supporting economist, Milton Friedman.

That the far-right and ultra-rich advocate an idea does not, in itself, make it wrong. However, when the elite start pushing a particular economic reform, we should be very wary, and try to understand what problem it solves for them, from their perspective.

For the right, UBI solves several problems at once. It can be used to spearhead a radical reduction in the size and scope of the state and its economic activity. How do you privatise basic services like housing, transport, health, education and childcare if the public is used to obtaining these services either at very low cost or for free? The answer is to replace these public services with private providers.

UBI offers an opportunity to remove the state from these activities and create a host of new profit-making activities for investors to move into. Parents will shop around for schools instead of getting public education for their children. Individuals will shop around for housing rather than getting social housing. Healthcare need not be provided by the state if there is a citizen stipend which is intended to cover it. Advocates of UBI have trumpeted the efficiencies which such programmes could gain by unifying all social welfare payments under a single payment which is not means tested.

If we are lucky that will mean that UBI is at least as high as the lowest state pensions, any less and people will be taking an unacceptable cut to living standards from the very start. Given how expensive such a programme would be, it is unlikely that it would be much more, and it is virtually a guarantee that huge pressure would be brought to bear to eliminate all other public service provisions.

In addition to this, UBI can act as a subsidy to profitmaking companies engaged in low wage activities. The bare minimum of wage payments will be required to make a job liveable. UBI would make normal a capitalist system with high unemployment, precarious employment and underemployment on a permanent basis while reducing the prospects of destabilisation of the social order.

It would be a situation of dependence, not power, for the majority. Since the payment would come directly from the state, there would be no collective bargaining and little leverage to improve conditions. There is no labour to withdraw in strike. It would be a return to the condition of the rabble of ancient Rome whose leverage to obtain bread and circuses was reduced to the threat of riot.

If not UBI, then what? Capitalism is not working for the vast majority but we lack the strength to change the system. Reforms must strengthen our collective power rather than weaken it.

The kind of power that we need came historically from our labour, the ability to direct and withhold it. We must demand full employment, with the state as employer of last resort to strengthen trade union bargaining power. We must call for state industry to provide useful employment, and reduce the working day instead of increasing unemployment. We must fight for an increase in public healthcare, housing and childcare to reduce our cost of living.

With these reforms, we would set down a road to working class power, putting the possibility of socialism back on the agenda.

Gavin Mendel-Gleason is the Workers’ Party’s representative in Dublin North-West and a member of the Workers’ Party Central Executive Committee.

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