Translation of an October 26, 2017 lecture held in Bremen, Germany by GegenStandpunkt
Unconditional basic income –
is poverty “simply outmoded”?
1. The idea of a UBI is based on mistakes about wealth production in capitalism.
We want to show that the idea for improvement behind unconditional basic income (UBI) testifies to and originates from the contradictions and conflicts of capitalism, but is quite deceived about them. This will be a critique of the way UBI is thought about. The theoretical claims on which the UBI proposal is based are high. After all, advocates for this idea have come to a systematic finding about this society in terms of the relation between productivity, progress, and unemployment. The claim connected with this idea is by no means modest. It says that this idea makes it possible to curb poverty and eliminate the threat of poverty. We maintain that it is based on a false theory about this society.
Quote 1 (an example to show what seems remarkable about UBI):
“Productivity has increased steadily since the beginning of the industrial revolution and then in the 20th and early 21st century. On the one hand, this has led to more efficient economies and a higher standard of living for the population. On the other hand, the progress in productivity in economies with saturated markets leads to the elimination of labour in more and more sectors. This means on the one hand social wealth and the possibility of creating prosperity for all, and on the other hand structural unemployment. Societies with highly productive economies have not yet learned to deal with this contradiction. They therefore deplore the fact that jobs are being rationalized away instead of recognizing the opportunity: the prospect of highly productive societies to provide all people with a basic income.... Technical progress has put us in a position today to produce all the goods and services they need. The threat of poverty, an anachronism in the face of today's unprecedented wealth, will be abolished by a basic income for all.” (Questions and answers on unconditional basic income, Basic Income Network)
I want to challenge the self-assurance with which this story is presented. Apparently, we should think as if we are dealing with the contradictory result of a current event. “Current events” is a category that is characterized by the fact that it makes evident neither purposes nor subjects. It says: “Productivity has risen steadily, leading to increased wealth on the one hand and at the same time to the threat of mass unemployment, which is accompanied by loss of income.” Why, and for what purpose, is this imagined to simply happen?
UBI idea: increased poverty must not be due to productivity
Productivity refers to the material fecundity of human labor, so it is a conscious matter, the purposeful application of science and technology, which is systematically developed and promoted for this purpose. It is not a natural process. This leads to a result that depends on the purpose for which the productive power is developed. However, the quote does not talk about this. It names neither subjects, reasons, or purposes, even though the consequences it presents are so contradictory.
The consequences are wealth and unemployment. Although the consequences are not self-explanatory or self-evident, one should think about them in terms of modern history and more generally. But what is self-explanatory about these consequences? If social wealth does not provide the opportunity to create prosperity for all, then obviously the two things that have been mentioned – i.e., the existing wealth and everyone benefiting from it – do not go together at all.
The social wealth that is produced in these times of enormous productive power has a different meaning and purpose. However, the quote, this kind of thinking, does not continue with this point, but says that this has to do with a social problem and at the same time the prospect of possibly overcoming it. “Possibility” is the decisive argument of the UBI. The social problem is said to be that wealth is abundant, but humanity suffers from unemployment because when someone is unemployed, they don’t have the money to access wealth.
This is a contradiction that would be worth pursuing because it is a peculiar co-existence: advancing productive power and poverty in the form of money problems. How does this double-existence of useful wealth, on the one hand, and money worries, on the other, come about? At any rate, it is not a self-explanatory, sensible consequence – the key word is increased productivity.
It needs to be explained that people in this society work productively, are involved in the production of wealth, but do so not because they intend to produce the social wealth that this generates, but because they do it to earn money, because otherwise wealth is not even available to them. So everyone in society wants to earn money to access a wealth that nobody wants to make. That’s why everyone in this society needs work as a source of money, no matter how productive work has become. This is a relation that requires explanation.
Quote 1 offers a solution instead of taking a minute to ask what has been established here. This solution carves itself into the situation it wants to be the answer to. What the quote says is a “contradiction” is explained as something that is avoidable, an opportunity that society should recognize. If society were to recognize this opportunity, then poverty would be overcome – that’s the idea.
The findings about a contradictory consequence of progress and the development of productive power are neither denied nor explained, but doubled into a reality, the way things exist today, and a possibility that could lead to something better. And so a clear finding is turned into an open question.
What has been so casually carried out here is a whole worldview. It is based on judgments about work and wealth in capitalism. If you think about the wealth of the quote – one with efficient economies and living standards, etc. – then the solution should immediately be given with the problem, which is the productive powers that society has not yet found an answer to. It says that poverty is an anachronism in view of the wealth that exists, so it is actually superfluous.
More precisely: what exactly should be outdated? This idea of introducing an unconditional basic income holds that, given the wealth that exists, the necessary connection between income and work is outdated. Gainful employment, as it exists in this society, is treated as if it is an outdated admission ticket to the wealth that society has to offer, a mechanism for distributing a total social wealth, and conceived as a steering instrument, a controllable condition that could therefore be tackled. Can that be done? Should it? Who should do this and why?
I ask so stupidly because the quote offers a first person plural: “we.” So it assumes and simply talks as if society has a common concern and as if something has happened to it that no one wanted. One sets oneself up as an advisor, as if the society was just waiting for the proposal of this alternative solution.
That is comical because one is simply certain that this type of contradiction between work and poverty can’t possibly be wanted, but must rather be a kind of industrial accident in this society. Where does this certainty come from? Why then is this contradiction so persistent? Why do we actually need the energetic activism of the representatives of the basic income?
A contradiction, however, is not the same as a social problem, because there is no such problem in society. And not because nobody has this problem. There are people who have wonderful lives because things are exactly the way they are. And there are others who are strapped for cash because they lose their jobs. What, one might ask, is the common problem?
“Thanks to technical progress, today we are in the position to produce all goods and services.”
This is a strange “we,” because there is no one in this society who pursues this goal. Think about yourselves. Why do you do your job? Nobody in the market economy intends to produce wealth in order to distribute it. Neither the bosses nor their employees. It’s about making money with work. So my first charge is: the perspective proposed by the UBI is fictitious.
What is funny is that the imaginary solution reverse-engineers and bends the wealth of this society so that it fits the idea of simply redistributing a little money. And the interesting thing is that this proposal talks about it on the one hand and on the other hand thoughtlessly brushes it aside.
That’s why we want to talk in more detail about social wealth, work in this society, and the productive power in this society.
“Poverty does not need to exist.” – This idea makes things pretty simple. On the one hand, there is material wealth in society. When you talk about productive power, you think of something material: mountains of goods, output, refined products that can do a lot, etc. and now there is a means of accessing this material wealth, which is money. Well, how nice. Both exist. In view of the wealth of goods, there is no shortage of goods. The admission ticket to this wealth of goods is still available, so – this is the idea – people only have to be allocated money. They need some money, so you need a mechanism to give it to them.
If you think this, the proposal for improvement is a judgement about the social wealth: it is predestined for distribution. The doubling, that there is material wealth and next to it money, should guarantee its distribution. But this double existence – material wealth and money – which may be taken for granted, should be surprising. The fact that there is wealth and that things are made does not mean that wealth exists purely for consumption. To the extent work is done, wealth comes into the world, but before beneficial use is made of it, not everything has been said. In between is the question of money.
Money is a barrier to getting wealth created by the legal relation of property
If one thinks that wealth “would be” (!) freely available in principle – a connector in the mode of possibility – then the opposite is maintained: if there is a separation between wealth and having it at your disposal, then the separation is also no secret: as soon as one thinks about the wealth of this society, one has to remember that it also has its owners and always belongs to someone, is private property and as such it is fundamentally withdrawn from access. Property is legally protected, which becomes something like the second nature of wealth: it is subject to the private will of an owner and the owner makes calculations with his wealth. He possesses wealth that others certainly would have a good use for and might need need, so it is intended for sale as a commodity. In this respect, access to the useful wealth of this society is prescribed: things are for sale. The way is with money. And that is anything but banal. If money has to overcome this universal barrier to access, then this tells us something more interesting about money than what the UBI proposal deals with rather indirectly.
The barrier is not one that inheres in things by nature, but rather the barrier is set by the legal relation of ownership. This barrier can be overcome by money. Why and how can money actually do this? Because money itself is property, that is, property in its purest form. In this respect, money itself is the material barrier, the property that one holds reified in one’s hands or carries around. Therefore, you can overcome the barrier of access if you have money and therefore property.
So one should not think this way: one takes for granted that the material wealth in this society is private property, on the one hand, and is then pleased that all the problems that this causes would be overcome with money as a solution to the problems. The other side of the same matter is that you can get anything with money, because money itself is so uncompromisingly made the condition that comes between wealth and the use of wealth. If one appreciates money because everything can be bought with it, that means, the other way around, that everything must be bought, because money itself is the condition for any satisfaction of needs. Thus, money itself has the status of a general necessity which one has to serve whenever one wants to consume whatever it might be. In this respect, money alone is what this society must be about.
In summary: “distributing wealth differently” is an idea without a concept – because wealth has to prove itself as property and money is the private power of access!
The satisfaction of needs is not the purpose of wealth in this society, but the satisfaction of needs is subject to a requirement. If everyone in this society has to earn money because the dual character of wealth mandates it, then society and its mode of production already has a general purpose: everyone wants to use money as their means of access, and this shows that money is not just the means of access that one wants to use it as, but that money itself is the purpose of the matter.
In this respect, the idea that wealth could be distributed differently is a misjudgment about wealth in a society organized as a market economy. It is a judgment that only wants to grasp that wealth could be used in beautiful, imaginary ways. This is then defined as its identity. Only because of this, one decides that one has to redistribute money. If money is this universal condition, then the material wealth of society is not freely available, but rather a means for making money. Then money does not exist for distribution, but on the contrary, it is a piece of the private power of access. And useful wealth, all the beautiful things, the useful products that are produced in abundance in this society, have to prove themselves as property when they turn into money for their owners.
Something similar can be said about social labor. In Quote 1, a double aspect of work is mentioned: in terms of its productivity, work creates lots of stuff, useful products, but apart from that, apart from the achievement of work, it also has to provide for those who do this work. Whether it does this and how well it does this is not at all said or decided with productivity. With this work, the people who do it, apart from the question of how productive the work is, do not acquire the products of this work, but a property. This is a remarkable double determination of work.
What does the work achieve in a material sense and what does one actually get from it? These are two very different questions and not at all self-evident. The UBI proposal knows that there is this difference and this separation, but doesn’t care. On the one hand, it notices that the second achievement of work – being a source of income for the workers – is becoming increasingly precarious. It thinks of increasingly worse incomes and prefers to invent a new source of income – the UBI – and rather than wondering about the contradictory purpose of work that underlies the finding, lets it imagination run free.
In the UBI idea, it does not have to be that the productive capacity of work means that people are so bad off. But that’s a wrong conclusion: one starts with the separation and says, considering the first side, the second side could turn out a little better, or at least it wouldn’t have to turn out against people. But it’s a strange way to think about this double relation. It takes for granted that work produces massive amounts of wealth, yet obviously this has nothing to do with its producers. However, people do not work just to produce wealth, because then the matter would be finished, but they have to make sure that they can earn money. At the same time, however, it is supposed to be a total absurdity when workers get less and less of the social wealth. Why really is that a mismatch, anyway?
Conversely, the same contradiction is expressed again in terms of the UBI solution: when people produce wealth, they do not produce it for themselves. That is accepted. But now a redistributive mechanism should be put in place in order to give them access to the wealth they have just created, which is none of their business. So what’s the point? Why does work have this separation that gives it these two sides? Is it really that far fetched? Can it be so impossible that work in this society deliberately separates effort and benefit so cleanly and totally? Is this really an industrial accident that has been swelling unnoticed for centuries and is now culminating in the 21st century?
This type of constructive thinking is not at all clear about what it is actually dealing with: If people don't work for their own benefit, then they probably work for somebody else’s, and then there is a intention that exploits their work and benefit from it, and this work serves it. Of course, this is not a mystery: the people who work in this society serve to increase property in the hands of others, those who are called the “employers” and who employ them as employees. The workers perform a service for the owners of the companies. And the companies have products manufactured for themselves and use them for their business. They don't have them produced so that they can then afterwards distribute the stuff back again to the people who they let work for them.
Objection: I am not sure what you mean by work. There is also voluntary work, e. g. raising children. These are also worthy of an unconditional basic income.
By referring to voluntary work, you can hardly deny the conclusion that this society depends on work being done and in the form that people go to work for money and buy the stuff they need to live with the money that they earn. In any case, this society does not live on voluntary work alone.
There was something else that struck me, a small but not unimportant point: for UBI, there was the argument that it would be an appropriate way of recognizing volunteer activities. I would like to point out that the idea of recognition is a different kind of connection. At the moment, I am still concerned with a more fundamental connection than one established through esteem and appreciation. When I talk about work, I'm talking about wage labor, and the connection is different. First of all, work is the source of income for those who do the work. The UBI is not supposed to be paid because one performs volunteer activities. Then it would be a different demand, that some activities are remunerated with a sum. Recognition is a much looser, more superficial connection than the one I am talking about. Wage labor or working for a salary is already a special type of work. It is work that has a dependent character because the conditions under which wage work takes place are divorced from the sovereign disposal of the workers over their own conditions, i.e. the means of work, the material conditions of production, the equipment, the raw materials, the buildings, etc. are in the wage relation a foreign property which stand opposite the work as foreign determinations. It is essentially different from, say, working in your own garden: you do something there which doesn't get you any money, but if it goes okay, you get a nice bed of flowers. It is therefore crucial for the determination of wage labor that the means of production in the society and all the wealth in the society that is produced with the means of production are private property and belong to someone else. That someone works for pay is not a way of sharing in the productivity of work, of dividing the product that results from the surplus labor among themselves. If you work for remuneration, then the pay is the price for having conceded disposal over your own working capacity. With the payment of the sum of money, everything is settled and finished. As soon as you start working for wages, nothing else about the work concerns you, only in the “nice” sense that you have to do it.
– If I work, I get something. That's the way it should be, but it's more precarious today.
What is this deal, really? What does it stand in relation to? Because a sum of money is paid so that one subsequently works under someone else’s command. You can’t say afterwards: because I have done this much work, this is for me and that is too. You can't even freely decide what you have to do. This is all clarified in the moment the agreement is reached by the wage amount you get for the agreed number of hours. Once it is agreed on, it is valid and the matter is settled.
Money is the decisive economic product of wage labor. It is advanced so that it produces wealth and flow back to the company increased. This determines the distribution of wealth.
There is still something missing about work that is very important: I have talked about work in this society in its capacity as the source of income for workers. But that is not the whole relation between work and wealth in this society. People find themselves taking work because they have to make a living by being at the service of the economic interests of employers – corporations and smaller businesses. So what does this work actually produce? Work takes place only if and because it produces products that can be sold, which companies and corporations get rid of with surpluses and make profits from. If that is the condition under which the work that produces social wealth takes place, then it is itself the source of money in this society. So not just in the sense that work establishes a right to income on the part of the worker, money is the economic product of work itself.
Money is the result of the fact that work produces salable stuff in the form of private property that is supposed to turn into money. In this society, work proves to be a source of wealth only when money comes from it in the end. Because this is the case, entrepreneurs have a sum in their accounts called pay or wages. Where do they get this money anyway? They can make work a source of income because work itself is the source of monetary wealth. And that is why it is nonsense to simply imagine that the question of money could be separated from the question of work. We think about the income side, but not to what work in this society actually does in terms of money.
This is how every company in this country calculates. If it is the case that money buys work and on the other hand is itself a product of work, then this is also a truth about money itself. The proposal for a basic income does not account for this.
In any case, money does not exist for distribution, as has already been said. But even if you want to use it as a means of accessing the beautiful things, money inherently has the quality that it disappears between your fingers, because it has then been spent. If you buy something with it, the money is gone. This always puts you back in the situation where you have to worry about going back to work so that you earn money again.
On the other hand, the same relation has a completely different content. Money doesn’t have the character that it is the disappearing moment that always throws you back to the starting point and you have to get it again and again. For companies and entrepreneurs, money is advanced, a calculation is made to spend it appropriately, so that it is a means of command over people and the material factors of production and then produces a wealth in which the money, if all goes well, has increased in the end. This is a piece of wealth that does not disappear, but is advanced for the elements of production and flows back to the entrepreneurs increased. If you put that together, you are closer to the truth about money. That is why we should not be so free thinking about this when considering possibilities for this society.
For dependent employees, money has the character that it is always something they have to take care of and why they make themselves useful to others. For the other side, it is exactly the means of command and thus a thing that performs the miracle of multiplying if they have enough of it and use it productively in a company. If that is the case and if work in capitalism takes place for this purpose, then the following is also certain: with the production of this wealth, its distribution is fixed. Production is not an innocent thing, it is not something that in itself is still indefinite, as if wealth is created and then a contest of ideas begins over everything you could do with it. Production does not leave behind this apprenticeship, which one could plug good distribution ideas into. Social participation does not depend on how good the concepts for distribution are.
I am not quite finished yet with the relation of wage employment: there is a conflict of interest in the work itself. What matters in work is the surplus of wealth it produces for the users of the work. That is why, in this society, work – and this is not a self-evident thing, it always gets taken for granted – is an economic cost factor which should be profitable. This means that the work must be as cheap as possible. And at the same time that it is as cheap as possible, it should produce as much as possible. That’s the relation. Then and only then, if it meets the employer’s requirement by this standard, does it take place; otherwise it does not take place. When entrepreneurs get rich from the relation between costs and surpluses, work takes place and that is an irreconcilable, direct conflict with the purposes and claims that the people who do the work associate with their work. Because for those who do the work, the achievement, the effort, is designed and developed in such a way that it is fully at the expense of them. The workers take this on because of the material benefit, the wage. But their benefit is a cost factor that must be kept to a minimum. This is the economic rationale that their interest grinds up against. What the vast majority of people in this society live on, their wages, is a deduction from what the entrepreneurs are interested in.
Why am I saying this? If someone finds what I am saying about wage labour boring or abstract, have a look at Quote 2. It is about gainful employment.
“Employment in a society with basic income will be negotiated more carefully by both sides (labor providers and investors) in terms of the meaning of the activity and working conditions than has been the case so far under the dictates of necessity. People will do more of what they want to do. This can increase the efficiency of gainful employment, so that in the future more and better things can be achieved with less work.” (ibid)
That’s just great. Apparently, one can contemplate a dictate of necessity without a dictator. Unfree subjects dictated to all around, and one prefers not think about the person who dictates, why and for what. There is a contradiction here because it says that people are being forced to do something they don't want to do, probably because it isn’t good for them. The conflict is brought up, but immediately buried again, because without pressure it need not be. This is a way of talking about something that is aware of the bad conditions under which it thrives, under which people have to let themselves be exploited, but without a reason or purpose for which they are exploited. If extortion is a bad condition, then it takes an interest that wants to extort and is being extorted for it.
The “meaning of the activity” in gainful employment is another cue. What is the meaning? In the case of gainful employment, the meaning of the activity for the entrepreneurs who have the work done on their behalf has a diametrically different content than for those who then do the work (see above). This is a conflict in which there is no middle way that would have been missed because one side was not quite focused. There is no means that the two sides could adopt if they did it more carefully. (That “more carefully” takes a lot of gall and is an utterly stupid abstraction from what they argue about and which interests are at odds with each other.)
The exemplary Quote 2 is interesting because it simply babbles away a contradiction that it knows: it should benefit everyone if they come together freely. “Achieving better with less work” is a warm hug of a phrase, a slogan for the bathroom wall. One should think: after all, nobody wants to do only bad, so all one has to do is turn the thought around: everyone wants the best and meets in agreement. Who wants to argue with that? So this should be good for entrepreneurs and workers alike. Quote 3 follows seamlessly:
“The companies also win: their employees are better motivated to perform in the interest of their company because they can decide much more freely whether they want to do this work or not.”
Development of productive power and increasing poverty is not an anachronism, because the development of capitalism is supposed to lead to people becoming poorer.
What can one say about the productive forces of this society? Do we live in a society where we have the productive power of work at our disposal? Where it matters that the best proposal about how to supply people with a machine takes precedence and then this is done so that the people get enough? No!? Because the productive forces in this society are private property. The potential of work itself is the private property of companies, entrepreneurs, corporations. They use it for their own purposes and not for other beautiful purposes that you could imagine, if you have the imagination.
“We are in position to do something good with the productive forces” is a false statement about the society. Conversely, one can ask oneself: what are the productive forces actually developed for in this society? What is juxtaposed in the quote as an anachronism, the development of productive power and the threat of poverty which is supposed to be outdated in the view of the productive power, is itself an expression of what capitalism is all about, if you think about the progress of the productive forces. That is the purpose of the matter, of those who develop the productive forces: to make people poorer.
The development of productive power is the means of the entrepreneurs in their competition among themselves for market shares: constant cost reduction of all the factors of work in their companies means that more and more performance is being extracted from the work: the aim is to minimize the costs of paid work on the product as much as possible.
The subjects are the entrepreneurs who have the productive potential of work at their disposal. I have already characterized the purposes they pursue. Increasing productivity is strictly a means for their profit. How does that work? Companies compete with each other for their customers’ money, product sales, market shares, etc. They are in competition with each other for the limited ability to buy of consumers and the society, and they want to attract them in order to sell their products and make a profit. The means in the competition is to set the price of the products in such a way that it pushes the others out of the market as much as possible, i. e. they offer things at lower prices. This is a crucial tool in the competition of entrepreneurs.
There is something contradictory about that. If this is not simply to happen at the expense of the profit they are concerned about – which they can sometimes do – then this means that their own costs have to be reduced so that they can undercut their competitors in price. Accordingly, the costs of production is a constant subject of reform in every company. How can you cut prices from suppliers, how can you blackmail your employees, how badly can you pay them and how much performance can you get out of them? This is all being done. And what’s more: the systematic means of this price/cost reduction is in production. It consists of redesigning production itself and making it more effective. Companies have this means in their hands because they are the masters of work; in the workplace, they are completely alone with themselves, when they tackle it.
When entrepreneurs come up against general barriers, such as working hours or the minimum wage, this is a sting, a motivator for cheapening production costs. There are always shackles and barriers to how shabbily you can treat your employees standing in the way of the entrepreneurs. Then they come up with what is called the development of the productive forces: one makes the work itself more efficient by using the beautiful means and inventions of science and technology, because then one systematically saves on work, i. e. on the payment for work in production. Now it is possible to produce the same value of commodities with half as many people as before. Then you haven’t treated people worse, but kicked half of them out, which isn't against any law. In this respect, the aim is to minimize the costs of paid work on a product as far as possible. This is what technical progress is used for in capitalism, and it is applied only then.
Conversely, moving to a low-wage country is an alternative to using money to increase productivity. The increase in productivity has a standard that must be met: it must be cheaper overall than what it promises to save in labor costs afterwards. Otherwise, it will not be done. That’s how it fits together.
If the entrepreneurs are the ones in the society who develop the material potential of work – and this is denied here – they develop it further as the source of their profit-making. Then they can produce more, better, and cheaper stuff that they want to sell profitably. The other side of this is that wage earners are made as unproductive as possible in their work, i. e. unproductive in the sense that they have nothing to gain from making the work more productive.
The first thing is that the work should cost as little as possible. This is a question of wage struggles, where it is carefully fought. The second thing is: in their cheapness, they should do as much as possible, also in the material sense: a lot of effort is demanded and a lot of material product results at the end of the production process.
Putting the two in relation, my judgement about productive power in capitalism is: the workers are supposed to get less and less of the wealth they produce, as little as possible. When productive power is developed in capitalism, it is for separating the work from those who do it. At work, they have control over neither the product they produce nor their specific circumstances. This confronts them as the claims of property. They merely have the role that they have to answer to them. This also has strange consequences.
What goes hand in hand with increased productivity? You could go crazy here: work is reduced, but work is not made more efficient for the mysterious subject “society,” but for the entrepreneurs and their purposes.On the one hand, the form this takes is: there can’t be enough profitable work when it ensures what the
entrepreneurs are using money for, then the claim is made of work that it has to recoup the costs that have been spent on it. That means that the acquisition of a new generation of machines does not reduce the workload for those who do it – as if, when a machine becomes more productive, the worker doesn’t have to work so much! If work is to be profitable, it is now spurred to be as extensive and as long as possible. Then the requirements that the worker has to meet change in such a way that he now handles a production process where the work is subdivided to such an extent that he notices the same effort is being demanded from him. This is an absurd consequence of the development of productivity in capitalism: it does not make everyday life easier for the workers.
Secondly, there is the consequence that people are laid off for the same reason – increasing productivity in the company. It is said: measured against the demands of profitability now in the world, a great deal of work that was done yesterday is proving unprofitable; it is no longer yielding what the entrepreneurs demand of it. And in this respect, the development of productivity yields a peculiar juxtaposition of consequences: on the one hand, if the workers are lucky enough to keep their jobs, an extensive amount of work; on the other hand, people are unemployed, i. e. without any income.
I now want to draw a conclusion from this, referring to “work” in the quote: what I have just said is exactly what one thinks about when “poverty” is mentioned, the doubly precarious situation of bad jobs that are stressful and don’t support people together with the constant fear of being unemployed. This is the threat of poverty that it is being talked about. The threat of poverty is the purpose of the development of productivity in capitalism, just expressed in terms of its consequences for the less well-off part of humanity. This point of view and the UBI proposal are a grandiose mistake because this coexistence of wealth and poverty in capitalism, which it finds so astonishing, is not anachronism. In capitalism, this coexistence belongs together in all seriousness.
Objection: Who has the goal of a large layer of anxious people?
You can say: only the most evil dude will get up tomorrow and say: hopefully everyone will be afraid tomorrow. But I wanted to say that this is not a coincidence, nor is it a judgement error; it is a consequence. Entrepreneurs count on it, even if they say, “we don't really want this.” They calculate with putting people out of work. This is a product of their profit calculation, just as is the fact that they pay people badly.
– But they don't simply want it that way.
I will go so far as to agree with you that they don't simply want this. They do not say: “it makes us happy when humanity is afraid, hungry, and unemployed.” They have a purpose and this purpose has these consequences; firstly, they are not unaware of this, and secondly, they have no problem pursuing this purpose. Obviously this is not a question of morality, nor of decency, but a business calculation. That’s the bad thing. If it were a question of morality, you could spank them.
– They want to prove themselves in the competition. In this respect, it is a matter of setting the purpose and, at the same time, it is a matter of necessity in competition. That's how it goes together. If the people do not exist who want to set themselves this purpose, then the necessity also does not exist.
There is an entrepreneurial initiative to promotes basic income. But this is a slightly different transition.
– To consider the minimum income: entrepreneurs say: “A basic income, that's something.” It is certainly clear to them that their way of effectively advancing a company is causing many workers to run out of money. “We will be out of labor income in the future, why not a basic income?” The entrepreneurs go on record to say why they are supporting the UBI. That's what they say: they know how to make a company a successful source of income.
– It is good that they do that.
What’s good about it? They say: we calculate that in the future no one will be able to live on their money and the society should organize a solution for this and then they offer a proposal. And why doesn't it occur to the UBI people that entrepreneurs should stop paying such lousy wages? What makes this so absurd and the UBI so plausible?
On the implementation of the UBI: the petitioning of state power is mistaken about its counterpart and its purposes and standards
The UBI proposal has been successful at becoming popular and catching on outside a leftist camp. The news is reporting on it. The entrepreneurs have an initiative, and the most important thing is that the state itself has now gone on record that it is at least thinking of something like this.
I tried to show that the idea of the UBI is wrong, but it is not unrealistic. In this society, an idea is only unrealistic until it is taken up by those with power. In itself, however, this is an objection to the norms that slap you in the face when you are promoting ideas for a better world: especially if you want to change something in reality, the accusation that something is unrealistic is ludicrous.
My first claim is now: the UBI idea has landed where it belongs, with the authentic addressees of this idea. Actually, every activist knows this. After all, who are they asking it from? Everything that is expressed in the quotes as “we” and “society” is actually a petition to the state to take the UBI into its hands. This request for redistribution is addressed to the only real authority that really has something to distribute in capitalism: the state can expropriate, tax, obligate solidarity, etc. This type of distribution idea, which assumes a social common ground in terms of wealth, has its truth in a subject that stands as a force, as rule over the social subjects.
The real “we” in this community is part of a state administration of conflicting interests. The fact that it seems so logical that one petitions no less than the state is based on a clarification as to what position one actually has in this society.
In this society – and I say this in opposition to all the “we”s we have heard tonight – there is a competition between private property owners. About the results of this competition which are so predictable, namely poverty and wealth, you can’t do anything. You might be bothered by these results, you or others might not be able to bear them, you might find how it happens rotten, but all this is obviously counts for nothing. This is not a valid point of view nor an objection in this society. And that is, honestly, depressing, but it honestly tells you something about your own situation.
You can’t do anything about it, but you go to the authority that you experience day in and day out as your opposite: the state. You turn to the guardian of property under whose conditions you experience your powerlessness. This is a fatal step. This proposal for a basic income is a social initiative where the impetus to intervene and improve goes directly with one’s own weakening – an action taking of the ineffectual.
The assumption at the starting point of the lecture, that the question of social wealth, what production is actually for, is of no concern to you, is not even theoretically questioned or acknowledged with a critical thought. It is all chalked up to “that's just the way it goes.” No matter how good or bad. “But the state could fix this.”
That is such an absurd thought: because the state has the power, it could also do something else, it could use its power for something other than what it uses it for. This action-taking of the ineffectual is not only submissive, it is also mistaken about its counterpart. This is a false theory about the state, about what you are dealing with, and who is actually putting who in front of the cart when this idea is successful.
What is so obvious about the state addressee, that it has power, is not an innocent thing. The UBI quotes say: “The UBI is about redistributing power.” But power and distribution do not fit together! Power is not for distribution. There is no balance and imbalance, but power is a relation where one determines and the other is determined. So one should stick how one knows this power, which plan on its own, what one experiences it as and gets the idea that “it is the one that has the power” at all. The state, when it uses its power, already has its own purposes and standards for which it uses its power. And these purposes and standards are also decisive when it comes to the question of what will become of the UBI proposal. The irony is that the state has discovered this proposal on its own. Not that it’s implementing the UBI, but thinking about it. Because the state really is a redistributive authority, but according to its own standards. I want to talk about these a little more.
The state’s perspective: poverty should be cared for, not abolished
Something that I consider offensive has to be intellectually accepted in order to come up with the idea of the UBI: when you think about poverty, you have to think, not that you have a problem with poverty, but that you are the problem with poverty.
The state has a point of view about poverty. It is not of no concern to it. According to the state, poverty should not be explained, combated, eliminated, or even alleviated, but poverty should be looked after. By the state. That is how the state refers to it. So you first have to transform the hardship that you experience or that afflicts others into the object of a supervisor who insists on everything that causes so much trouble in this society, because the state power sets up capitalism and keeps it going.
I do not think it is a secret, just an ugly way of saying it: the government and its offices are all in favor of the freedom of business. Think of election campaigns and what they say: the state wants growth and the way it is generated. The state declares this growth to be the common good of its society, and it commits everyone to it. It gears the whole society to it, from private property to stock market regulations to exhaust emission standards. The state uses its power to guarantee money and property and thus precisely the rules of the game for a materialism that causes problems for the majority of people in this society who spend their whole lives working. The state is also aware of the social consequences of capitalism and takes responsibility for them: social welfare is a huge part of the state. A welfare state has been established to take note of all the consequences of wage work – unemployment, disability in old age, illness, incapability of working, etc., everything that people can’t afford on their own – as living conditions that always threaten them, that they have to struggle with, and secondly it cares for all this in such a way that they “happen” anyway. Although wage work does not protect you from any of this, the state insists that nothing has to change in the unpleasant standards of wage work and capitalism. In other words, the state does not get rid a single cause of poverty. It looks after it, anticipates it, calculates it, and the principle of redistribution proves that it is worth something like this. This type of redistribution exists, and the state sets it up in the form of its social security system. It takes the wages of an entire class and manages them under a compulsory regime, so that wages guarantee something they do not guarantee on their own: the so-called vicissitudes of life. Redistribution from the top to those at the bottom would be contrary to the system and a violation of property, but redistribution by the state is possible when it forces solidarity among those of limited means at the bottom. The welfare state is living proof of my conclusion in part 1, namely that growth and poverty go together in this society. The welfare state is my witness for that.
The state is now critical and even has a critical perspective on this concoction. That is why it is ready for something between a thought experiment and a test balloon with X many thousands of subjects: taking care of poverty has become a gigantic problem for the state in its financial position.
Do you really have to go along with the idea of “empathy”? Because something is completely transformed when you see yourself with your limited source of income solely as a problem for the welfare state. One should ask what’s really going on when the state suddenly starts thinking about the UBI as a counter-proposal to its previous mode of care. If it takes an interest in the UBI, one should not immediately be happy about the state’s assistance, because the state will send a bill for it in a way that the people who earn too little money ensure that the welfare state still functions properly. This is a glaring bit of information about the nation.
The state recognizes the UBI idea as an alternative to its system of care
When the idea from below is not “higher wages,” but “tax-financed alternative model,” the state can live just fine with it. It can either ignore it, dismiss it as madness, or declare its responsibility. It doesn't matter what its activists mean, the state sees the UBI as an alternative proposal for its care of the social question. It considers it a modern approach which assumes that people can’t live on the wages that the employers are willing to pay. And this is factored into this type of proposal. It affirms this as a new reality of the work world and accepts it with an alternative financing of poverty.
If that’s what it’s supposed to be and nothing else, then the state turns utopia into something realistic. Whether you like it or not, this is the only way to give the idea a chance. This does not fit very well with the claim mentioned in the beginning, that poverty should be abolished. But it seems to fit quite well with the constructive will and good spirit of idealism in this society. The state does not need to deny, and certainly not forbid, the good intentions of the people from whom it is now stealing the idea. Rather, they are invited to share their good ideas for the UBI. This may sound absurd, but that is exactly what is happening and the invitation seems to be accepted.
The inventors of the idea are now positioning themselves as guardians of the UBI. The guardian idea actually testifies to what they want to deny: a dazzling contradiction between trust and mistrust in the same authority, the state, because now they say: we have to be very careful right now that the idea is not the opposite of emancipation. The same state it is addressed to can be trusted to do exactly the opposite of what they want.
Quote 5 asks: what is the relation between the basic income and the welfare state? They obviously feel the need to put this in perspective.
“Basic income goes far beyond the character of a social benefit. It is a fundamental right of every citizen – a human right … A basic income would combine many tax-financed social transfers, for example, basic social security, child benefits ... Entitlements to social benefits acquired through contributions are individual legal claims with the social security system and thus to the community of insured persons. Such entitlements can be partly compensated with basic income as a base (for example, unemployment insurance or pension insurance), but they may not be cancelled without replacement. In addition to a tax-financed basic income, the form in which contribution-financed social security systems will be structured in the future is reserved for further discussion. Basic income is intended to free people from fears about their livelihood and social exclusion. Basic income must not lead to a dismantling of social security – on the contrary, it should protect from.”
What’s with all this back and forth? Somehow the UBI is going to replace everything, but on the other hand something much better is going to be achieved than just a replacement. The question where this leads “is reserved for further discussion.” This is bullshit for two reasons:
1. The politicians can’t be persuaded by good people on how to shape the welfare system in the future. That’s what aspirations to political office are about. They run for office and are elected so that they can use their power freely. They like to have idealists reflect on the problems they have with poverty as humanity’s problems and higher matters that they have to deal with. However, there is something megalomaniacal about a representative of the UBI lodging their cause with the state. If they want to negotiate with politicians about how the welfare system is going to be designed to supplement a basic income, then I don’t know where this comes from, at least not from reality. Politicians don’t talk to you about these sorts of things.
2. Nor do politicians talk in private about whether they will abolish poverty in society. They do not think about whether they will make millions of workfare recipients into middle class citizens with one stroke of the pen. This discussion is not taking place. In this respect, the statement (“reserved for further discussion”) is the expression of a struggle to give a good interpretation to the UBI because the proposal is gaining so much momentum in politics.
A quote from an Attac leaflet. In view of the fact that the proposal has become so popular and so successful with companies, Attac will continue to take action in the future.
“An expansion of the welfare state, as envisaged by the concept of 'enough for all', which puts the focus on participation in social, political, and cultural processes, is at the very least in evidence. It is therefore necessary for those who want to hold fast to an emancipatory idea of unconditional basic income to look closely at this process.”
Nowadays, emancipation seems to mean watching exactly what happens around you. In order to be able to adhere to a beautiful idea, you have to closely observe reality, which in practice is none of your business. What is exaggerated in the pamphlet is window-dressing for the good spirit of the cause, while the politicians makes it clear in practice that redistribution is only good for making capitalist poverty bearable with a great deal of force.