Do They Owe Us a Living?

February 3rd, 2010  |  Published in Political Economy, Socialism  |  10 Comments

[Cross-posted from The Activist]

Serious debate about our visions for the future is always welcome, so it’s nice to see Jason Schulman and David Schweickart debating “market socialism” and related things on this site. I don’t have a lot more to add about formal models of the socialist economy, because frankly I’m not all that interested in them. Schemes for socialist economies–whether market or planned or whatever–tend to come off as a a bit of an exercise in what Marx derisively referred to as  “writing recipes for the kitchens of the future”. Trying to predict exactly what socialism will look like is foolhardy–and moreover anti-democratic, since it pre-empts the actions and decisions of the actual masses who will have to make a post-capitalist world happen. So while these thought experiments about alternative economic models can be useful in clarifying our principles, I don’t think we need to take the details all that seriously.

Rather than trying to draw up a detailed blueprint of a socialist economy, I prefer to think in terms of what Andre Gorz called “non-reformist reforms”: changes to the system that can be implemented under capitalism, but which set the stage for further radical transformations. And I want to highlight one particular such reform that’s associated with Gorz, and which commenter R. Burke brings up in the comments of Jason’s recent post: the guaranteed minimum income, or “Universal Basic Income” as it’s sometimes called.

This is just what it sounds like, an income that every citizen would be entitled to, independent of work. And I find it compelling because it directly addresses one of the most fundamental objectionable things about capitalism, namely the fact that it makes almost everyone dependent on performing wage labor in order to survive. This is despite the fact that we live in a society that is more physically productive than any other that has ever existed. Eighty years ago, John Maynard Keynes was predicting that the greatest problem his grandchildren would face was what to do with their abundant leisure time.  Instead, we are all working more than ever.

A guaranteed income could begin to reverse this state of affairs by giving people the option of opting out of the labor market, which today is only possible for a wealthy few. It would therefore address a goal that Pat Devine mentions in a passage Jason quoted: reducing the amount of unpleasant labor that people are forced to perform. As I already noted, I think this goal is of such paramount importance that I’m baffled by any theory of a socialist economy that doesn’t make it absolutely central.

Which brings me to one thing I found quite unappealing about the vision David Schweickart presents. His description of economic life seems to assume that the ideal way to live is to have some job that you go off to for 40 hours a week for the rest of your life. If labor is unpleasant, the solution is to give workers more control, rather than giving them the option of opting out of work–“voice” rather than “exit”, to use Albert Hirschman’s lovely phrase. Now maybe this makes sense to people who grew up in the mid-20th century, when the labor market was less volatile and careers were more stable. But it doesn’t make any sense to me. Even if full employment is possible, why would it be desirable? If there’s not enough work to go around, why would you go and create more? And maybe it’s true that if we make the workplace democratic, then work will be fulfilling and people won’t mind it. But in that case, why force them?

It’s at this point that you’re supposed to start talking about “material incentives”, to take Schweickart’s choice of jargon. It usually starts with some troll objecting that socialism is impossible because nobody will do any work without the fear of starvation. The socialist then comes back with some argument about how socialism is going to motivate everyone to go out there and work hard. For Schweickart’s system, the answer is that “one’s income is directly tied to the success of one’s firm”, and so you work hard for the material reward. Jason doesn’t explicitly address this issue, but I’m sure he could come up with a response.

But approaching the problem this way gets the whole issue backwards, by proposing solutions before we have understood what the actual problem is.  If you just talk in general terms about giving people “incentives to work”, you’re neglecting the reality that while some work would have to get done in any kind of desirable society, other kinds of work should actually be dis-incentivized. Broadly, I’d say that paid work in capitalism falls into at least the following categories:

  1. Things that people want done, but which nobody particularly wants to do.
  2. Things that people would do voluntarily provided they have enough time, even if they weren’t paid.
  3. Things that are useless or destructive, and happen only because they facilitate capital accumulation and people need jobs.
  4. Things that people may want done and/or may want to do, but which have destructive effects on other people or the environment.

The discussions about material incentives are relevant to things in category 1. But much of the labor in modern capitalist societies falls into the other categories–more of it than we think, I suspect. I’d argue that a lot of artistic and knowledge work falls into category 2. So does child care, although just who does it voluntarily is another matter, which is why feminism is a core part of socialist analysis. Financial engineering, telemarketing, and basically anything that happens at a private health insurance company fall into category 3. So does much of the estimated 25% of U.S. employment that’s taken up by what economists Sam Bowles and Arjun Jayadev call “guard labor”: supervising workers, running the prison-industrial complex, providing private security, and other stuff that is mostly about preserving current power relations and maintaining inequality, rather than making anything useful. Driving a car or burning coal for electricity may fall into category 4.

Even though I can sketch out examples like this, in general it’s pretty hard to differentiate these different kinds of labor in capitalism. That’s because capitalism creates a situation where all work is “good” because it provides jobs, which people need in order to survive. However, these different kinds of labor wouldn’t get differentiated in Schweickart’s version of market socialism either, since he still assumes that everyone is forced to work–moreover, the idea of government as “employer of last resort” implies that we’d be actively creating useless category 3 work for people.  Devine’s alternative, meanwhile, would attempt to use a convoluted planning process to differentiate between desirable and undesirable uses of labor. That may be necessary in some cases, but I don’t think it should be our first solution–attempting to comprehensively micromanage every aspect of production strikes me as undesirably bureaucratic.

More importantly, I don’t think it’s necessary to go down this road at all. Rather than starting with these complicated issues of economic planning, we should start with the thing that’s actually most desirable: making people less dependent on wage labor. Social Democracy has already gone part of the way in this direction, by removing things like health care and education from the market. But to really attack wage labor at its root, you need something like the guaranteed minimum income–perhaps in combination with reductions in the length of the work-week. 

At this point we get back to the incentives business again, with the critics screaming “but nobody would do any work!” At one level, I think this is just silly. For one thing, at least in the short run, most people would want to make more than the guaranteed minimum, and so would continue to work. For another thing, it’s clear that people do various jobs for lots of different reasons that don’t have to do with money, and some kinds of work would get more popular if people didn’t have to worry about having the money to meet their basic needs. Some jobs really are enjoyable, in other words, and people would do them for free if they could. Other kinds of work give their returns by conferring status–for example, for all but the most famous artists, making art is more about gaining recognition than making money.  One appealing aspect of a basic income is that it would start to sort out the distinctions between the different kinds of labor outlined above. If some jobs start being things people do as hobbies, then great! If some jobs disappear, and we don’t miss them, then great! If you have to pay people more to make them take crappy jobs, great!

Which isn’t to say that basic income is a one-shot magic solution to all the problems of capitalism (although for the argument that it could be, check out a weird and provocative article called “The Capitalist Road to Communism”). Indeed, he best thing about a guaranteed income is that it stands a pretty good chance of provoking major economic disruption and social crisis–that’s what makes it a “non-reformist reform.”  In a world with a guaranteed income, it could very well turn out that there are some things that just aren’t getting done. It’s not clear that you’d be able to find enough people to clean office bathrooms or work the night shift at 7-11 if they had access to a basic income, no matter what you paid them.

Some people invoke the above scenario as an argument against the basic income, but let me emphasize that this is a problem I would love to have. Once it becomes clear what kind of work is both desired and undersupplied, we can have a political struggle about how that work will get done. By offering special rewards (i.e. “material incentives”)? By creating some kind of national service requirement in exchange for the basic income (you have to go clean toilets or work the night shift once a month, say)? By finding clever new ways to automate these jobs? Or by deciding we can really do without some things we thought we “needed”?

I can’t predict in advance what the solution would be. And I don’t have to. That’s really the most important point I want to make here.  I think the lesson of history is that momentous social change never happens because someone came up with a detailed plan for the future, won people over to it, and then implemented it. The chaos of real people making their own history always overwhelms such neat plans.

And I want to suggest that socialists, armed with an analysis of capitalism and a set of basic principles for the future, shouldn’t be afraid of a politics that aims to provoke a crisis without knowing exactly where it will lead. The idea of a basic income that breaks our dependence on wage labor is a proposal for pushing toward that productive crisis, and for that reason I find it far more compelling than all the sterile blueprints for economic democracies and democratic plans and Parecons and what have you.

Leaving aside the economics, is a guaranteed income politically feasible? It’s certainly a long shot–but then, so is any kind of radical economic change. It at least has the virtue of being straightforward and easy to explain. As I noted above, in some ways it’s really just a an extension and completion of the historical project of Social Democracy: conferring a “social right” to the necessities of life and reducing the dependence of individuals on the labor market. And oddly enough, some on the right–like Milton Friedman and  the notorious Charles Murray–have endorsed versions of guaranteed income (although with some important differences from the leftist variants). Moreover, if it could be won it would be very difficult for the capitalist class to undo, because truly universal social programs are generally quite popular and nearly impossible to roll back.

Regardless, I think it’s something worth talking about and agitating for. And who knows–if the current predictions of a long, high-unemployment “recovery” are borne out, perhaps people will begin to look more favorably on the idea of separating income from employment.


  1. Luddite says:

    September 28th, 2011 at 2:29 am (#)

    It’s a strange feeling to come across something that says exactly what I’ve been thinking for the past year, but written much more eloquently than I could express it.

  2. The destructiveness of “hard work” — The League of Ordinary Gentlemen says:

    April 5th, 2012 at 2:24 am (#)

    [...] Peter Frase, the brilliant Jacobin writer who has profoundly affected my thinking on these issues. Here he is on the guaranteed minimum income and getting rid of crappy work: A guaranteed income could begin to [...]

  3. Q. Who will do the work? A. Who cares? – Full employment is a nightmare – Peter Frase | Lebenskünstler says:

    April 22nd, 2013 at 7:47 am (#)

    [...] Do They Owe Us a Living? – Peter Frase [...]

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  5. IMB Seventy says:

    January 7th, 2014 at 6:14 am (#)

    I think if we are to implement a basic income, it should be in the form of universal capital ownership, as in the government buying every citizen a diverse portfolio of equity, which is something Thomas Paine advocated 200 years ago, and many are nowadays also increasingly advocating for. It would seem the best solution to the automation “problem”, at least without the total re-hauling of the economy down a socialist planned system, and seems the most acceptable road to go down in the US.

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  10. Il Manifesto | says:

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