Universal Basic Income Vs. the Left, Part Three

(Read Part One and Part Two first.)

Against “the Worker”

For a number of voices on the left, one of the chief concerns about the basic income movement is that appears to obviate a historical locus of class struggle: the workplace. Such a concern is understandable, particular in the context of the recent calls for basic income that deny the agonism necessary for political change and power dynamics involved in the occlusion of such change. As Peter Frase writes, we need to make sure that “politics” and “class struggle” are included in discussions of utopian societies.

It is not my intent to deny or elide the historical and still-relevant place of workplace struggles in the cause of social justice, and am delighted by the most recent organization being done by groups such as Fight for Fifteen and National Nurses United. We can take on a more expansive version of class than that which is presumed by discussions of industrial work, however. And in doing so, we can understand struggles in the workplace to be means to an end, rather than ends in themselves.

After all, fights in the workplace have always been premised around the desire to do less work, and to have more control. In other words, workplace struggles have been oriented towards an understanding that reforms should counteract the commodity fetishism that accompanies the accumulation of private capital. That is to say that people are people, not social manifestations of commodity value. And the fights to work less, to be safer and more economically secure, have always been premised on the idea that joy is to be found in the world beyond remunerated work, and beyond the social relations that are constituted by the nature of one’s remunerative work.

Popular culture often tells a different story though, one rooted in what might be defined as “Protestant work ethic,” or more simply, producerism. Producerism, according to Michael Kazin, is a “conviction” in the superiority of “those who [create] wealth in tangible, material ways.” Producerism at its most orthodox distinguishes farmers, mechanics, and construction workers from the idle poor, the idle rich, welfare and disability recipients, finance bankers, and tenured professors. It’s the unpredictable cousin of class consciousness, for while it privileges the “worker” as such and quite literally, it can be both charitable and cruel to various kinds of precarious or oppressed peoples. Yet when workers appear in popular culture, it’s nearly always in the context of producerist discourse.

For an example of the ubiquity of producerism, consider lyrics from a Bruce Springsteen song, “Shackled and Drawn,” which was written during the Great Recession:

….I always loved the feel of sweat on my shirt
Stand back son and let a man work
Let a man work, is that so wrong
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn….

Freedom son’s a dirty shirt
The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt
A shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Without a hard, paying job, one risks temptation by the devil; this is the kind of producerism I might expect in Ben Sasse’s recent book.

Here’s the New York Times review of a 2017 French film, a “Marxist musical comedy” according to the reviewer:

A cri de coeur against outsourcing and downsizing, “Footnotes” bossa novas its way through myriad themes without leaving a dent in any of them….The result is no “Norma Rae,” but its view of labor as inherently ennobling never falters.

That industrial remunerated labor, can be at once alienating (as Marxism posits) and ennobling is an odd juxtaposition, and one that Peter Frase and James Livingston argue misses the point of class conflict. The idea that membership in the working class, and hard work itself, makes one morally superior is a diversion from the goal of equality itself. And if workers really believed such a thing, why would they have battled for shorter working days and less onerous conditions at times throughout history?

The world already produces enough food to feed every human being, and enough consumer goods to provide comfort and entertainment. And yet we cling to the idea that productivity per capita must increase, year in and year out, for our economies to sustain themselves. The worst thing in the world, in both Marxist and Keynesian frames, is idle surplus capital. But the idea that the solution to these problems is to employ all who are employable is not only to fetishize production (with an end to creating commodity value rather than use value) and those who are deemed to be productive by the norms dictated by political economy, but also to ignore the warning signs that our planet has sent us, the messages that tell us to stop lest we alter the climate so much as to make ourselves extinct. Such an approach from the left might be understood as de facto producerism, the kind of producerism that doesn’t know any better, the kind that in failing to see an alternative to full employment falls back on a Tom Joad vision of social justice, a portrait of Henry Fonda in black and white roaming the California valley with his family in search of work and a fair wage for if he doesn’t find one, he and his family will die.

At the risk of getting a bit abstract, I want to suggest one more way of looking at this, which is to pose the following question: what if we are understanding the gains of workplace struggles—relative to the struggles of consumer-based or non-workplace forms of direction action—teleologically? What if our conclusions that workplace struggles have done more for achieving social justice relative to other forms of struggle is a kind of conclusion that is subject to our own historical circumstances and our place in time, existing as we do, in a society made by the advances of the labor movement? This isn’t to discount or ignore history, but rather to suggest that we keep our imaginations broad enough to see that after the rise and fall of the American labor movement, the problem of concentrated private capital still exists, and so the risk of thinking beyond the workplace might work out to our benefit. Again, this is not to suggest that workplace struggles have not led us to non-reformist reforms, or that they have no ability to do so still. (I think the work of National Nurses United in fighting for universal health care is still likely to pay off, for example.) But rather that we need not see workers’ movements (as defined as such) as the only vehicle by which power might be confronted, taken, or redistributed.

Further, we can see this as an opportunity by which those who don’t have reliable remunerated work might be counted, their power leveraged, and their concerns given voice. And we can see this an opportunity for understanding how needs are multifaceted while still hanging on to a materialist framework.

In “The Meaning of New Times,” Stuart Hall wrote of worlds beyond the “logic of the market” that

Allow…individuals who have some access to them some space in which to reassert a measure of choice and control over everyday life, and to ‘play’ with its more expressive dimensions. This ‘pluralisation’ of social life expands the positionalities and identities available to ordinary people…in their everyday…lives. Such opportunities need to be more, not less, widely available across the globe, and in ways not limited by private appropriation.

Hall was acknowledging that “our models of ‘the subject’ have altered.” And he was pointing out the deficiencies in the orthodox leftism of 1988 in reckoning with the existence of “fragmented and incomplete” selves, and markets in which new forms of expression and pleasure seemed to exist paradoxically alongside commodification and surplus extraction. “Are we thinking dialectically enough?” he asked, suggesting that the way forward through the post-Fordist era was in conceiving of new forms of the self and pluralities of social relations that extended beyond those directly related to capital.

Hall’s essay appears too prescient. There’s a stirring contingent of the left today that insists on an orthodox Marxism, one that refuses to acknowledge the utility of post-Enlightenment, post-structural, or posthumanist points of view. These folks insist on a base-superstructure model of political economy and social relations. But if our goal is the end of commodity fetishism, how do we begin to re-imagine social relations if we can’t get beyond the primacy of “the worker” as the social subject?

Finally, recognizing that in this new era in which cultural studies are too avant-garde for some, and that citing Antonio Gramsci is apparently equivalent to giving aid and comfort to the anti-intellectual extreme right,  I will note that we can look to David Harvey instead, who writes in Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism of a “left, obsessed with the figure of the factory worker as the bearer of class consciousness and as the avatar of socialist ambition,” and argues that the “overemphasis” on capital-labor relations is “damaging to a full-blooded revolutionary search for an alternative to capital.”

Conclusion: OK, Universal Basic Income Sounds Great. But Is It Socialism?

By now I hope it’s clear that under certain circumstances, with a certain kind of imagination, universal basic income is a practical means towards establishing socialism, a kind that doesn’t fetishize economic growth or productivity, rely on models of post-apocalyptic anarcho-communist communities, or mistake equality of income with equality of needs. To throw out the idea of a universal basic income just because some libertarians have seized upon it is to commit a kind of ideological purification ritual. Far from “enhancing capitalism,” as its most vocal advocates would have it, universal basic income offers a straightforward means towards capitalism’s destruction. If an anti-capitalist democratic socialism is understood to be a society freed from commodity fetishism and the private concentration of capital, a society in which all citizens have not only abstract but real means to political participation, whose basic needs are met and whose contributions to society are shared equally, well that sounds like socialism to me.