Universal Basic Income Deluxe™
In the matter of weeks since I wrote the first version of this article which appeared in Issue 10, the world has irrevocably changed...
Naomi Klein summarized the urgency of our current moment in a recent piece for the The Intercept_ saying “In times of crisis, seemingly impossible ideas suddenly become possible...” She then paused for emphasis to ask, “But whose ideas?”
Klein's book The Shock Doctrine (2007) describes how corporations and governments actually use “shocks” like natural disasters or terrorist attacks to push policies onto the stricken, paralyzed and otherwise preoccupied public. Most notably how former president Bush and Vice Sadist Cheney pushed through their war in Iraq as America reeled in fear over the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The shock of 9/11 caused devastation on the global stage, and sent waves through the mass culture of the US which, I will argue, was way less cool to grow up in than the culture of the 1990s.
This is another such moment.
We know this on a personal level: It’s so difficult to change your life until you are no longer presented with a choice. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to face every decision we have made from the personal to political. It also harshly judges which of these choices or policies will lead to the survival of the many. This crisis differs from other shocks in its longevity and severity. The cracks in our systems have widened, and governments are forced to reinforce or weave the nets that will catch the vulnerable from falling. The US government passed an unprecedented $2 Trillion stimulus plan last week that ratified cash payments to citizens, a step in the direction of UBI Deluxe™ that I originally and idealistically, wrote this text to propose. To understand how much work is still to be done before we realize Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism (1), the stimulus plan additionally instated mandatory 2 weeks of paid sick leave for the first time in American history.
There is already mounting evidence that the powerful are once again using this crisis for their prejudices and for their profit.
Autocrats are rising, from Hungary to the corporate sphere (Jeff Bezos), but so are essential workers. Let us not be paralyzed by this shock. The world that we learned to survive has ended, and in its path of deceleration, the mechanisms for the new world are forming. The most important mechanisms to be developed will ensure that capital is distributed so that everyone may receive a portion of our communally generated wealth. There is no scarcity, only access to abundance. Let this crisis be the shock that opens these access points, finally, for all. - Hallie Frost, April 2020
Coming to a reasonable governmental structure near You!
“I think Chuck even worked on some Kombucha and home crafts, so there are many things that were very positive with the Freedom Dividend”,
Andrew Yang said to New Hampshire Public Radio (2) after stepping out of the race for the Democratic Nomination. Yang ran his campaign on introducing Americans to the idea of Universal Basic Income and funded a small case study of UBI, called the Freedom Dividend, where the Fassis family of New Hampshire received $1000 a month. Reportedly, Chuck and Jodie Fassis spent the extra income on their daughter’s college tuition, Kombucha and improv classes for Chuck Fassis’s mental health.
The right to income has been championed by social thinkers from both the left and right, but as automation looms large over swaths of blue collar jobs, this material antidote to the structural diseases of poverty and underemployment has gone mainstream. Conservative critics are dubious: cash hand-outs to everyone, “make people lazy” or “reduce a country’s cheap labour market”(3). Critics on the left argue for structural changes, and see UBI as potentially threatening already endangered welfare systems.
An effective UBI program, not the $1000 Freedom Dividend but UBI Deluxe™ would diverge from former limited designs to reduce unemployment or simply allow for a family in New Hampshire to buy healthy food. UBI Deluxe™ acknowledges allocating money based on labour has always led to exploitation and in the digital age of reproduction, government structures will have to expand to shelter a growing precarity.
“It is a position not to be controverted, that the earth, in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race”, wrote Thomas Paine in 1796 (4). What equal ownership of the natural abundance of the earth justified in Paine’s view was an unconditional endowment for all, in line with earlier advocates of social insurance. A number of political reformists, from Johannes Ludovicus Vives (1540) to Martin Luther King Jr. (1968) have championed different forms of guaranteed income schemes acknowledging that the problem was not that there wasn’t enough, but that it has been so poorly allocated. In La Fausse Industrie (1836) the visionary French writer Charles Fourier (whom Marx disdainfully labeled a “Utopian Socialist”) argued again for the fundamental right of each person to pick fruit, gather, hunt and let her cattle graze on the commons, and in the case of a violation of that right; society should pay remittance to anyone unable to meet her needs….in the form of a hotel room and three “modest” meals a day (5).
Presently, Humanity is being held in a sort of chokehold by our global economic system, but also by a limited imagination as demonstrated by this Fredric Jameson quote,“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism"(6). The humanitarian crisis provoked by neo-liberal Capitalism is no run-away train but rather a lovingly nursed parasite, unable to return to its former glory since its famous breakdown in 2008. In Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism (7), Mason points towards the digital economy as bringing about the decline of Capitalism, which he states is already occurring not because of rising water or political dissent but simply because the digital economy has broken the heart of the mechanism of this archaic system: scarcity.
Capitalism as we know it, was born in the era of industrialization and while we have adapted some old era regulations to the digital realm, they fit like hand-me-downs with large holes appearing around each new technological innovation. The original purpose of the internet remains its foundational function: to share, quickly, efficiently and abundantly. As Mason reiterates: “The rise of information goods challenges marginalism at its very foundations because its basic assumption was scarcity, and information is abundant.”
In the material world there are no products that can be multiplied without limit, not only because of our limited material resources but because scarcity and rarity produce material wealth. The fact that the limitations of the material world do not apply to online products also means that the same profit cannot be promised to creators of digital products. While automation may be threatening blue collar jobs, the internet itself created whole new fields of employment that more readily adapt to a freelance model of employment than a 9 to 5 with benefits.
At one point in our shared history, food production was the primary activity of our waking hours. Once we innovated ourselves into some leisure time we could then move en masse to cities to work on factory floors to produce goods. Now we’ve invented, among other things, supercomputers. This is not a trend but our gift; the prevailing market whether it be agriculture, manufacturing or finance has every incentive to cut its workforce in favor of machines. Where our model fails is that money is being allocated “fairly” based on labour not on preservation of human dignity. As more and more value can be derived from digital products, money will become ever more concentrated unless our governing bodies take it upon themselves to allocate the wealth that is our collective right.We have the mechanisms to do this. The oil-rich governments of Iran(8) and the state of Alaska in the US, both give a percentage of oil revenue to their citizens. In neither case have we seen that UBI deters people from continuing to pursue meaningful work. We have welfare systems already in place that could be expanded if they cease to be considered “charity” and instead are considered avenues for redistributing collectively generated wealth. In the case that the full blown Revolution doesn’t occur in the shell of the last major American mall, we need to radically alter our idea of what we are owed as citizens. The dividends that governments will be forced to issue in the face of COVID-19 are a start. When we finally leave our quarantines, labor markets and legs wobbling, we must vote for governments that will continue to facilitate redistribution of wealth with programs that aim higher than alleviating poverty, and instead facilitate actualizing every human’s liberty.