7 Thoughts on Basic Income and Utopia

by David Bell

9 February 2015

The Green Party has made quite a media splash over the last few weeks, with its proposal for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) – or ‘Citizens’ Income’ – being a central factor. Two previous Novara Wire pieces have made strong cases for a basic income, but it’s important to frame it critically too. It might be a utopian demand, but utopias don’t always do what you want them to.

1. UBI is a utopian demand for our times…

At first glance UBI seems divorced from reality. A nice idea, but an impossible spectre. Utopian.

Yet like so many utopian projections, that spectre comes back to haunt. It asks us questions about the future: opening it up as a terrain on which key aspects of social organisation – work, leisure and childcare, for example – can be rethought. It allows us to consider how we might flourish as creative beings. And from that it returns us to our present with an ever-more critical eye. Why can’t things be like that? What forces prevent it?

The demand estranges us from austerity’s dystopia, and transports us forwards to a world in which our individual and collective power to act on the world will be greatly improved.

2. …and that is precisely why we must be on guard.

Capitalism has a long history of turning utopian demands inside out and throwing them back at us. You want more flexible working conditions? Have some precarity. You want creativity? Here’s some gentrification; now find somewhere else to live. And where met demands do dramatically improve lives – the welfare state, for example – they are administered by the state and frequently increase its powers of surveillance and discipline.

We’re clearly a long way from the implementation of any form of basic income, but it’s nonetheless important to ask how UBI might be turned against the most vulnerable in society. Just whose power to act in the world will be improved?

3. It won’t be universal.

In its European election manifesto the Green Party spoke of a Citizens’ Basic Income, and it’s almost certain that citizenship would be the means for testing any (not-so-universal) basic income.

This is hugely problematic. What happens to those living in Britain who aren’t citizens? Even if we accept the argument that basic income would not cause significant inflation, their living and working conditions would significantly worsen.

We also need to consider that the state would almost certainly use basic income as a disciplinary tool: it doesn’t take much to conceive of it being removed from those convicted of crimes, the ‘antisocial’, those with mental health problems and so on. In this sense, it could worsen inequality rather than redress it.

4. It would lead to calls for tighter immigration.

We’ve all seen how the NHS has led to calls for tighter immigration controls to stop the folk devil of ‘health tourism’. Similar calls would accompany basic income.

Indeed, Green leader Natalie Bennett felt compelled to state that the Greens don’t have an ‘open door’ policy on immigration in her recent Andrew Marr interview; and Zoe Stavri recently unearthed an article called ‘Love Immigrants, Hate Immigration’ by Green parliamentary candidate Rupert Read, in which he argues that we need to ‘rein in’ immigration.

5. It resonates with the ideology of ‘individual responsibility’.

Individual responsibility is a key tenet of neoliberal governance. It deflects our attention from the structural causes of social problems and demands that we internalise failure. Child doing badly at school? You should have consulted the league tables more closely and chosen a better school. In debt? Never mind that your hours at work were cut with no warning, it’s because you bought the Xbox your kids desperately wanted on credit.

Basic income will help reduce such ‘failures’, but it will not end them entirely. Some people will still ‘fail’, and those ‘failures’ will still be related to structures: poverty, misogyny, racism, ableism, etc. They will not disappear as if by magic with the introduction of a basic income. The scope for moralising is then dramatically expanded: we give you £75 a week and you still fucked up.

6. We must work within and against capitalism and the state…

Nonetheless, a basic income would be a significant step in improving the material conditions for millions of people. It is worth supporting, but without illusions.

Voting Green alone is an entirely insufficient way of supporting this. The welfare state was not the result of state benevolence, but of a state and capitalist class scared stiff by the threat of revolution. Significant reforms were seen as the best course of action: the welfare state suddenly became a material necessity. To move basic income to the centre of statist politics there must be revolutionary pressure placed on the state: we need to work against the state in order to work within it. Electoral supporters of basic income would do well to remember this too. Tacit, uneasy cat-and-mouse may be the order of the day.

Ultimately, however, we must remember that statism – however well-meaning – is not the answer. A state-administered basic income will never be universal. It will actively exclude. It will increase authoritarian forms of governance. We should cautiously welcome it, but we should not be bought off by it.

7. …and push beyond them, to a utopia for all time.

Let’s return to where the demand for basic income first took us. What could we do in that world? We don’t yet know the specifics, of course: utopian projections are not blueprints. But let us imagine the joy of a world of ever-complexifying social relations as people (all people) discover new talents, new desires and new ways to fulfil themselves.

It is that future we need to maintain focus on: a future beyond the need for ‘income’ and beyond the need for a state. The purpose of utopianism is not to collapse into reform, it is to realise utopia. Our organising within and against the state is severely limited if we do not maintain a focus on what might come beyond the state as well.

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