– Thomas Walkom writes that the federal Libs’ idea of “real change” for the economy reflects nothing more than the same old stale neoliberal playbook: At its core, the federal government’s “bold” new plan for economic growth is strikingly familiar.
– Jake Kivanc points out that what little job growth Canada can claim primarily involves precarious work. And Nora Loreto discusses the crucial link between labour and social change: (T)o confront climate change, we must imagine the role of workers in the transition to an oil-free economy: how . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Sunday Morning Links
The Trudeau government’s promise to repeal former prime minister Stephen Harper’s vicious anti-union laws is fulfilled as Parliament votes to adopt Bill C-4. The bill repeals Bill C-377 and Bill C-525, two of Harper’s most vicious laws.
The post VICTORY: Parliament Repeals Harper’s Anti-Union Bills C-377 And C-525 appeared first on The Canadian Progressive.
– Mainly Macro offers a useful definition of neoliberalism, while highlighting its relationship to austerity. And Ed Finn writes that we shouldn’t be too quick to presume neoliberalism is going to disappear just because it’s proven to be harmful in practice – and that it will take a massive . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Friday Morning Links
– Peter Fleming writes that the promise of entrepreneurial self-employment has given way to the nightmare of systematic precarious work: (T)he move to reclassify people as self-employed follows a very simple formula: it helps reduce labour costs and maximise profits for businesses that would rather use contractors than a . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Wednesday Morning Links
Canadian autoworkers have long been pace setters in the Canadian labour movement and as soon as its most recent agreement with General Motors was ratified, Unifor (the successor in 2013 after the merger of CAW and CEP) laid claim to that agreement’s ‘historic’ status. It has now also . . . → Read More: Canadian Dimension: Big Three Bargaining: Different Ways of Making History
– Vanessa Williamson writes that plenty of Americans want to see wealthy individuals and corporations pay their fair share of taxes – only to have that strong desire ignored by policymakers. And Joseph Stiglitz and Erika Siu discuss the glaring need for stronger tax enforcement around the globe.
– Alex Himelfarb discusses why a proportional electoral system can be expected to produce better and more representative public policy: The adversarial approach often means major policy lurches when the government changes. For example, the Harper government undid some important initiatives of the previous government, including the Kelowna Accord, . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Wednesday Morning Links
Italian-North Americans — especially those of us with roots in the Mezzogiorno (and I include the Ciociaria and Abbruzzo here) — don’t need a Genoese genocidal rapist as our hero. It’s time to eliminate Columbus Day. It’s time for #IndigenousPeoplesDay Some good reading and watching: ‘All Indians Are Dead?’ At Least That’s What Most . . . → Read More: Joe Fantauzzi: Columbus is no hero of mine
– Bruce Johnstone notes that rather than further attacking public services which have already been under siege throughout his stay in office, Brad Wall and his government should be looking to question Saskatchewan’s inexplicable giveaways to businesses: Well, if Doherty is looking for some “low-hanging fruit” to make our . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Monday Morning Links
– Jim Stanford writes about the obvious problems with globalization as it’s currently structured – and the need to meaningfully take into account the public interest before anybody other than the investor class can be expected to participate in the process: The reality is that hundreds of millions of . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Saturday Morning Links
– Mary O’Hara notes that even a relatively modest and incomplete set of progressive policies has created some important movement toward reducing poverty. And conversely, Caroline Mortimer writes that child poverty is exploding under the Conservative majority government in the UK.
– In The Public Interest studies how the privatization of services leads to increased inequality: In the Public Interest’s analysis of recent government contracting identifies five ways in which government privatization disproportionately hurts poor individuals and families… Creation of new user fees: The creation of new user fees to . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Saturday Morning Links
– Mariana Mazzucato makes the case for a progressive message of shared wealth creation: A progressive economic agenda must have at its heart an understanding of wealth creation as a collective process. Yes, businesses are wealth creators, but they do not create wealth alone. Workers, public institutions and civil . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Wednesday Morning Links
Miscellaneous material to start your week.- Owen Jones offers his take on how the UK’s Labour Party should proceed following Jeremy Corbyn’s most recent leadership victory – and while the exact circumstances may not apply to the NDP’s upcoming leadersh… . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Monday Morning Links
“Before the internet, renting a surfboard, a power tool or a parking space from someone else was feasible, but was usually more trouble than it was worth,” noted The Economist in a 2013 story about the rise of the socalled Sharing Economy. But not so any longer, the piece continues, noting that the sudden and widespread availability of online platforms that link “peers” to one another has made any such trouble disappear, unleashing undreamed of convenience and a new galaxy of consumer options. Today, it seems like this interpretation of the Sharing Economy is everywhere, as journalists, pundits and politicians have lined up to praise its “innovative” promise. Yet is there something more sinister lurking behind the communitarian facade that so often accompanies descriptions of the peer-to-peer online sector? To consider this question, we connected with Tom Slee, author of the new book What’s Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy.
David Hugill: Let me begin with a basic question. What is the Sharing Economy?
Tom Slee: It’s a new wave of Internet platforms that are designed to facilitate exchanges between individuals. Early on, it involved things things like tool-sharing programs. Why does everybody need to have a hand drill? You never really use it. It just sits there on the shelf. Why not share it with others? The Sharing Economy came about as a means of using Internet platforms to solve problems like this one, initially with a lot of egalitarian talk, a lot of community focused talk. The idea was that the Internet could facilitate person-to-person exchanges without having to go through the big corporations. Today, it is primarily a way of using Internet platforms to facilitate transactions in the service economy, for example by connecting people with car rides, through Uber or Lyft, with places to stay, through AirBnB, with personal loans, through Lending Club, with places to work, through WeWork, and all those kinds of things. As the money in the Sharing Economy has grown, so has the driving ideology behind it, and now it’s become basically a deregulation movement, with companies like Uber and Airbnb building business models that demand deregulation of their industries in cities around the world.
DH: So you are dubious about the claim that these enterprises are mostly about progressive forms of community building. In fact, you’ve written quite critically about the way in which proponents of the Sharing Economy have adopted — even co-opted — the communitarian language of social movements to describe their work. Can you elaborate?
TS: I think co-opt is the right word. In fact, the only hesitancy I have about using that word is that I think some proponents of the Sharing Economy literally believe the things they are saying. In many ways, this is a product of what has been called the California Ideology, which is a strange combination of beliefs that have traditionally been both left and right wing, a kind of anti-authoritarianism that has become a full fledged techno-libertarianism. There is this belief that there is no contradiction between having sustainable, small scale exchanges and globe-straddling corporations that will administer them. If there is one thing that motivated me to do this work, it is seeing progressive language used to promote something completely antithetical. Sharing Economy boosters use the language of non-commercial exchange, but what’s mostly happening is that they are promoting the extension of a harsh free-market economics into places that it previously couldn’t reach. So co-opt is absolutely the right word.
DH: *In your book, you hint at the way that Sharing Economy corporations — especially Uber and AirBnB — use the language of “livable” cities to describe the implications of the services they provide. Rhetorically at least, their ideas harken back to Jane Jacobs and other liberal urbanists that valued lively, populated, salubrious and co-operative urban spaces. I get the sense that you share my incredulity about their claims. Is that right?
TS: I think AirBnB has been the been the biggest in terms of this. They’ve talked about the “shareable city,” or, the “open city,” where you can find a home wherever you go and so on. They celebrate the small scale, individuals having people stay in their houses and maybe fixing bikes on the side or something. In this way, they promote a kind of Jacobsian vision of the city, if you like. I just don’t know if the AirBnB folks believe their own messages anymore. If they do, they must be isolated. In the last few weeks, I have been working with a journalist who writes for Fusion and is doing some research on AirBnB’s impact in Reykjavik. Here you have a city of a 120,000 people and a total of 22 apartments available for long term rent. Essentially none, in other words. At the same time, two-and-a-half thousand apartments have been turned over to AirBnB listings. So AirBnB might say “come and live like a local,” but actual locals can’t even live like locals anymore.
I think AirBnB has been the been the biggest in terms of this. They’ve talked about the “shareable city,” or, the “open city,” where you can find a home wherever you go and so on. They celebrate the small scale, individuals having people stay in their houses and maybe fixing bikes on the side or something. In this way, they promote a kind of Jacobsian vision of the city, if you like. I just don’t know if the AirBnB folks believe their own messages anymore. If they do, they must be isolated. In the last few weeks, I have been working with a journalist who writes for Fusion and is doing some research on AirBnB’s impact in Reykjavik. Here you have a city of a 120,000 people and a total of 22 apartments available for long term rent. Essentially none, in other words. At the same time, two-and-a-half thousand apartments have been turned over to AirBnB listings. So AirBnB might say “come and live like a local,” but actual locals can’t even live like locals anymore.
AirBnB is very effective at promoting their narrative. They regularly put out these studies on the benefits that their service provides to the cities where they operate. They say “we bring a lot of money to this city.” They compare the full number of AirBnB bookings to what it would be like if all those people had decided to stay at home and they say “look, here’s all the money we’ve brought in.” Then they take the power consumption of people staying in hotels and compare it to people staying in AirBnbs and say “see, we saved you all this energy.” But you could also do it the other way around. You could say, look, “we took all this money away because people weren’t staying in hotels.” Or “we added environmental problems” if you compare their impact to what it would have been if people had stayed at home. That’s why I say that if, they still believe their own rhetoric at this point, I have no idea how they square the circle.
DH: I don’t know if you’ve had the misfortune of reading Zipcar founder Robin Chase’s book, *Peers Inc., which is a Sharing Economy manifesto of sorts. In any case, it really pushes this idea that Sharing Economy enterprises are topplers of entrenched power, that they are the builders of horizontal networks that supersede and overwhelm centralized forms of power. There may be an element of truth in this, but what interests me is how hard it is to square this claim to decentralization with the new forms of stratification that these businesses have created. I mean how can a “movement” that has created so many new billionaires be about anti-hierarchical decentralization? Isn’t there a perverse irony at the core of these claims?*
TS: It is remarkable, isn’t it? You have the image of the network as very decentralized, but the end result has been that the internet in many of its manifestations is a winner-take-all environment. The Sharing Economy has become an environment where the biggest players are as big as ever and to some extent you have a long tail of people making a few bucks. What we have is what some political scientists have called the “missing middle.” I don’t think AirBnB is a threat to Marriott or other big hotel chains. It is a threat to bed-and-breakfasts and small independent hotels. What we’ve seen is that these new platforms don’t end up challenging the biggest companies but independent operators who get stuck in the middle and have a hard time making it.
DH: So is this claim that Internet platforms are providing new opportunities for people to connect in a decentralized way simply a ruse, or are there Internet innovations that are capable of providing genuinely progressive opportunities to move beyond concentrated forms of corporate power?
TS: You can go back to the ’90s and you’ll find that a lot of the early Internet culture movements — Indymedia, things like that — were very big on the potential of disintermediated communication forms to remove hierarchies, get rid of gatekeepers in publishing and so on. But my feeling is that they got completely outflanked by the big platforms. You don’t have to worry about publishers stopping you from getting your message out, but you do have to deal with Amazon. There are still groups of people who still very firmly believe that the Internet has some inherent counter-cultural value to it, but I see that as a moment in time that has come and gone.
DH: It does seem like the counter-cultural possibilities of the Internet are less abundant than they were even a few years ago. Are there particular technological shifts that have accelerated the corporatization of the online world?
TS: I think there are a couple of things. One is the rise of cloud computing and the platforms built upon it. We don’t have networked architectures any longer. Instead, everything is going through the same set of servers. Yes, you might have a network of friends on Facebook, but all that information is on Facebook’s servers. So we’ve seen that kind of evolution of different platforms. I also think that the rise of mobile technology — including apps — has created a much more segregated experience. It takes away what Jonathan Zittrain calls the “generative” nature of the technology. The phone is essentially, if not purely, a consumption device. It’s not a device you can do stuff with; it’s not a general purpose computer in the same way.
In addition to those two changes, I think that, by 2006 or 2007, a lot of people who could no longer get jobs on Wall Street were coming across to Silicon Valley instead. I think that changed the culture as well. There was a time when banks could offer the smartest computer science and math students a big bag of money to come and work on ever more complex financial instruments, but as the 2008 crash approached and then happened, that opportunity went away. Now it’s the Silicon Valley giants and the startups called “unicorns” (companies with over $1B in venture capital) that can offer the biggest bags of money. And money, as they say, changes everything.
DH: One of the things that’s really interesting in your book is the way you challenge the idea the Sharing Economy is mostly about giving people a little extra money on the side. a describes itself as a platform that allows people to make a supplementary income, maybe to pay for the cost of playing golf or some other activity. AirBnB describes itself as a platform that allows people to offset the cost of urban living by renting out part of their space. But your research suggests we should be wary about taking these clams at face value.
TS: For AirBnB, this kind of arrangement might represent half their business, but the other half is business people running multiple properties, doing it on a professional basis. I know somebody that went to one of these AirBnB events in Paris where they get all the hosts together. These events are all about training hosts to make more money. How do you do that? How do you professionalize? Maybe you get a cleaning service. Maybe you get a key handling service. They are going down that route of professionalization very quickly. Uber is an interesting case because they kind of came at it sideways. Two years ago, Uber was not talking about people working for four hours a week. They were saying you can make $90,000 driving for Uber. People were talking about the end of the poorly paid taxi driver. But that vision turned out to be a mirage. Now they are saying, “we don’t have to worry about things like decent pay because it is just a bit of extra money.” I think they’ve found that that is more effective public message. You know, don’t worry, it’s not a real job.
DH: There is a way in which champions of the Sharing Economy — whether they are actual Silicon Valley leaders or simply the provincial lieutenants tapped to do their bidding — describe the transformations that they promote as inevitable. They tell policy makers and others that the types of exchanges associated with their platforms are here for good and that policy makers better adapt to the new reality or risk being reduced to backwater status. Do you see this sense of personal destiny as part of the California Ideology that you described earlier?
TS: Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick was very involved in the design of their new logo, which represents the coming together of bits and atoms. The merging of physical and digital worlds. Could you paint yourself in bigger, more spectacular colours? No. For them, it’s very useful to conflate the march of technology with the march of their businesses. But while technology does advance, individual businesses can come and go very quickly. A few years ago Groupon was the future of shopping. And then, boom! What’s Groupon? I think governments run the risk of closing down future innovations by being too friendly to the first big kid on the block.
DH: So we have these platforms that describe themselves as revolutionary, transformative, etc., and there is certainly a lot of truth to that. But insofar as they are pursuing a relatively straightforward deregulatory agenda, are they not, in many ways, simply recapitulating a well-established form of right wing politics?
TS: Sure, I think they are. I think it comes from a peculiarly American worldview as well. I don’t think you would have seen the same kind of development if things had started elsewhere. There is a Sharing Economy conference in Paris called OUIshare which happens every year and it has been through a few crises of conscience over this because it wasn’t the original vision that they started with. To generalize, I think we can say that Americans are more likely to see the government as a thing to be got out of the way. They simply don’t see it as having a useful role. Whereas, I think most of the Left elsewhere has a much more complex relationship with government. I mean, of course there is the Snowden revelations, there is a lot of surveillance stuff, and there are a lot of coercive problems with the state. But at the same time the state can be a bulwark against the ravages of free market capitalism, so we have a more tortured relationship with it, I think. Most defenders of the Sharing Economy don’t seem to be at all troubled by internal conflict on these questions.
In recent years, much has been made about the experience of millennials in the contemporary economy. And this isn’t without reason: wages are low, education is expensive, housing is inaccessible and finding secure employment is increasingly difficult. There does need to be a discussion in our society about intergenerational inequality, including within labour unions and left movements.
But the “Generation Screwed” (GS) movement — which suggests that the main driver of youth inequality is based on tax-and-spend governments — is anathema to justice between and within generations.
Generation Screwed’s right-twist spin
In simple terms, the GS campaign is an outgrowth of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which acts in routine opposition to public sector workers and government programs. Further, the GS campaign’s research comes overwhelmingly from right and right-leaning sources like the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, the Vancouver Sun, and the National Post. None of these sources represent youth and student movements, none represent the positions of labour or professional organizations, and none cover a part the political spectrum left of the Liberal Party.
And while it’s perfectly valid for conservatives to speak about generational issues, the GS campaign has to be more expressly understood as one that represents a certain path, and not a general panacea, for young workers’ futures.
The demonization of public spending
The GS campaign — much like the CTF more broadly — focuses on how public debt loads are bad for taxpayers. To outline this, the GS campaign is visiting campuses across Ontario and Quebec with a giant ticking debt clock. The implication here is that young Canadians are being saddled with deep debts due to years of spendthrift governments headed up by the Boomers.
My concern isn’t the focus on debt as much as it is the strong implication that the issue is largely one of spending. As one of their videos puts it: “governments have been spending too much money for decades, and our generation is going to be left with the bill.” Ultimately, it is suggested that young people must work to stop “the spending problem, and stop the debt problem that it causes.”
There is no consideration that much of our programs are underfunded, due in part to a Boomer generation which has voted large tax cuts for itself, certainly more than it has created new and innovative social programs.
In this sense, the debt is an issue of importance, but the solution is to ensure proper levels of taxation — which might very well mean raising taxes on all but Canada’s poorest — to ensure program stability and adequate debt levels.
Simply, the GS movement misses a great opportunity to attack older Canadians who voted for irresponsible economic revenue slashers like Stephen Harper’s two-per cent GST cut, and to some degree the Tax Free Savings Account Program.
Turning Keynes in his head
Here, the argument from GS — as per its Executive Director Aaron Gunn — is that social spending can become unsustainable in periods of high indebtedness, and that money going to finance the debt could be spent on programs like education. But again, the focus is less on the reluctance to adequately tax the populace, and instead on governments “making expensive promises” and “living beyond their means.”
Again, the talk is about excessive pensions and social spending, which takes the form of “unfunded liabilities” that will be levied on the next generation of Canadian workers and retirees. And while there is cause to be concerned about the funding of certain pension schemes and social programs, the issues has been more a combination of tax cuts and a failure to invest in those programs. A big factor has been the downloading of responsibilities from federal to provincial governments, and from the provinces to the municipalities.
As I note above, the GS position is one that is tenable as a general conservative take for smaller government, increased precarity, and rising inequality. But it isn’t the path forward for the majority of young workers.
The alternative path
In my view, the path forward for young workers should be based on a three-pronged movement. First, I actually agree with the GS campaign that high debt levels can be a millstone on the public purse. Socialists like Tommy Douglas have thought no different, arguing that a government indebted to private financiers becomes subordinate to them. But again, the solution here isn’t that we spend too much, but that we tax too little. Savings — I’m sure — can be found, but there is still a great deal more the state can do to provide a decent life and equal opportunity for every young Canadian.
Additionally, my fear is that the GS campaign for intergenerational equality is masking a general attack on social equity within generations. We have to remember that as much as the Boomer generation has benefited from the post-war compromise, and as much as the “old economy Steven” meme speaks to the frustrations of young workers, many older Canadians have direct experiences with poverty, precarity, and a lack of opportunity. Their generation, on aggregate, is a privileged one, but we can’t universalize their experiences.
But I still agree that there needs to be greater onus placed on older Canadians for creating an environment of rising debt, lower taxes, and a declining quality of work. Much of this rests at the feet of employers and Liberal and Conservative governments, but even older leadership on the left has failed to adequately include young workers within decision-making systems, and has gradually conceded pension equality by accepting two-tier models.
Some of Canada’s biggest unions have to reckon with the fact that, under their leadership, we have increasingly accepted the validity of unequal pay for equal work, as long as those being treated unequally are young Canadians. But the story isn’t all gloom and doom, as some unions like CUPW took a stand for young workers to defend pension equality.
Nevertheless, we need to ensure that labour and left movements look out for young people and their interests, because if they don’t, the “generation screwed” narrative will be marshalled as a force against the very things the left has achieved over the past century and more. And they will win.
Christo Aivalis, a member of the CD web committee, is an adjunct professor of history at Queen’s University. His dissertation examined Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and has been accepted for publication with UBC Press. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, Our Times Magazine, Ricochet and Rankandfile.ca. He has also served as a contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV and CBC. His current project is a biography of Canadian labour leader A.R. Mosher.
With the two largest Canadian provinces vowing to take a hard look at some form of basic income program and the federal minister for Families saying the idea merits debate, Canada has been making headlines alongside Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands and Kenya as a possible pioneer in the realworld exploration of guaranteed income.
There’s little chance Canada will be first to the plate, however. Very little is known about Ontario’s plans beyond a short paragraph in the Liberal government budget speech promising to announce a pilot project this fall. And although the Québec minister responsible for developing his own province’s plans has literally written the book on the subject — François Blais’s 2002 Ending Poverty: A Basic Income for All Canadians — Blais has also made it clear that he favours a go-slow, étapiste approach that could take as much as 20 to 25 years to achieve a full BI program.
While media attention in the global North has focused on the (recently defeated) Swiss referendum, some of the most interesting BI projects and plans are in the global South, from Brazil to South Africa. And not all are government initiatives. The GiveDirectly.org charity is planning on distributing a BI to 6,000 Kenyan villagers over 10 years in a historic program expected to cost $30 million. (They estimate the same project in the global North would cost $1 billion.) By targeting a population that already has an extremely low income, GiveDirectly can affordably conduct what will likely be the world’s first true study of a long-term, universal guaranteed income program that provides for a basic standard of living, including the potential for investments, such as livestock, that can further increase recipients’ incomes.
Back at home, Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa announced the province’s vague intentions in his February budget speech. “The pilot project will test a growing view at home and abroad that a basic income could build on the success of minimum wage policies and increases in child benefits by providing more consistent and predictable support in the context of today’s dynamic labour market. The pilot would also test whether a basic income would provide a more efficient way of delivering income support, strengthen the attachment to the labour force, and achieve savings in other areas, such as health care and housing supports. The government will work with communities, researchers and other stakeholders in 2016 to determine how best to design and implement a Basic Income pilot.”
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne told CBC Radio in March that the proposal arose out of “a real concern around the way social assistance works in Ontario. What we want people to do is build up capacity in their lives so they can be successful.” Wynne said just coming up with the plan will take a year, however, with a program budget only in 2017.
The pilot project is expected to target a specific community or communities rather than across the province as a whole.
Mixed messages in Québec
Québec, on the other hand, could be looking at a gradual implementation of a universal but watereddown BI program, if Blais’s book and recent statements to media are any indication. The former dean of Université Laval’s Social Science faculty, Blais’s slim 101-page treatise is a mostly dry examination of the case for instituting a basic income. Although he expresses strong support for BI, the political scientist wrote that “the main challenge is substituting it as gently as possible” for the current mishmash of direct and indirect government support programs and tax credits.
Blais the politician, however, has been part of a government hell-bent on implementing a policy of austerity despite evidence from around the globe that such polices have actually harmed the neoliberal economies where they have been implemented. And as minister for Employment and Social Solidarity, he has been advocating a form of conditionality that Blais the academic condemned. (The Québec government has introduced legislation aimed at forcing young, first-time welfare recipients to enrol in training programs or face cuts of up to half of their monthly allocation — the type of situation Blais described 15 years earlier something that “will only result in further poverty and exclusion.”)
Blais has acknowledged that BI would be a hard sell. In his book he advocates a level of aid that is “as high as possible,” but mitigates that with concern that a transition that moves too fast or too far may frighten off public support. In recent interviews, he suggested that initial reforms should be revenue neutral, a far cry from the way he described BI a few months earlier as “the most radical idea of the last 50 years.”
As an academic, Blais was adamant that any program be universal, individualized and unconditional — with cheques going to each citizen, rich and poor alike — in order to simplify administration, increase transparency, and eliminate any means-testing associated with receiving government support. “Selective programs are generally stigmatizing and humiliating for the people that are eligible,” he wrote. “They are forced into the situation of petitioners who must show proof of their poverty and put up with constant investigations into their personal life.”
But as Stéphan Corriveau, director-general of a Québec federation of non-profit housing groups, told The Globe and Mail in February, a flawed BI model would hurt rather than help the poor. “The devil’s in the details. A guaranteed national income is both a very promising and threatening (possibility). It could be threatening because some of the proposals that are on the table are actually going to diminish the income of the lower-income part of the population and are being used as a way of dismantling the social security net.”
Ottawa “welcomes debate”
In Ottawa, the current Minister of Families, Children and Social Development is Blais’ friend and former Université Laval colleague, economist Jean-Yves Duclos. Duclos has also studied and written extensively about income equity issues, including a paper with Blais. In a research paper he co-wrote in 2013, however, Duclos concluded that wage subsidies would be a more effective way to help pull the unemployed out of poverty than an unconditional income transfer, which his models suggested might actually increase poverty. Interviewed by The Globe and Mail after his appointment to the Justin Trudeau cabinet, Duclos said that while BI wasn’t a government priority, he welcomed the debate. “There are many different types of guaranteed minimum income. There are many different versions. I’m personally pleased that people are interested in the idea.”
The Liberal Party itself has not endorsed a specific BI program, but a resolution adopted by party delegates in May calls on Liberal officials, “in consultation with the provinces, (to) develop a poverty reduction strategy aimed at providing a minimum guaranteed income.”
French Social Theorist André Gorz predicted that as technology rendered a growing portion of living labour increasingly superfluous to the production of commodities, the state would have to begin paying people to consume, independently of their participation in the labour market, in order to ensure the stability of the system. That is the logic behind the massive expansion of credit in our era, and it is also one of the driving forces behind the proliferation of what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” — everything from telemarketers and PR flacks to corporate lawyers and lobbyists. And it may ultimately prove a propellant for the inauguration of some form of unconditional Basic Income in hyperdeveloped capitalist countries. As Erik Olin Wright has observed, a Basic Income would solve a number of problems facing capitalism, one of which is to stabilize the consumer market.
The prospect of shoring up consumer capitalism by strengthening effective demand is not, however, what the radical Left generally finds appealing in the prospect of an unconditional Basic Income. On the contrary, a guaranteed income at a level that would afford people a frugal but dignified living is considered by many a potentially revolutionary reform that lays some of the groundwork for a movement beyond the market society by freeing people, at least to some extent, from the tyranny of the labour market through the decoupling of work and income.
As Gorz argued, industrial capitalism had sundered work and life. “No longer is work a way of working and acting together, no longer is the workplace a place of life, work time a reflection of seasonal and biological rhythms. Money in the form of profits and wages is the overriding goal of every activity, rather than pleasure or satisfaction. The triumph of market relations over relations of reciprocity, of exchange value over use value, has impoverished our lives and abilities” (Paths To Paradise, South End Press, 1985 p. 49).
But to what extent does unconditional Basic Income, as a simple transfer of money in the form of a monthly cheque, undercut the dominion of market relations? How far does it go toward restoring relations of reciprocity and the reign of use values? Not far enough, at least for the advocates of the Unconditional Autonomy Allowance (UAA).
The UAA is an approach to Basic Income developed by members of the French wing of the degrowth movement in the short book Manifeste pour une Dotation Inconditionnelle d’Autonomie (Les Éditions Utopia, 2013). The authors, including 36-year old engineer Vincent Liegey, the spokesperson for France’s degrowth political party, see Basic Income as a necessary tool to combat social inequality and reduce the centrality of wage work in our lives, but they fear that it may become “a palliative measure for a sick society, that will only address some marginal symptoms (inequalities, exclusions) without addressing the root of the problem: productivism, capitalism, consumerism, and in general the absurdity of a Growth society.”
Challenging the growth model
To avoid that trap, To avoid that trap, Liegey et al. outline their proposal for a UAA. Like unconditional Basic Income, the UAA is a taxable income granted to everyone equally regardless of labour force participation. The critical difference, however, is that the UAA would not be disbursed solely as a cash transfer in the national currency but also in the form of local money, alternative services and what the authors call “drawing rights” (droits de tirage), a concept which appears to have originated with a report to the European Commission spearheaded by French labour law specialist Alain Supiot. Published at the turn of the millennium, the study grappled with the effects of labour market flexibilization and the erosion of the standard employment relationship in Europe, exploring ways to adapt social insurance to the new realities and support involvement in non-remunerated activities by enabling people to move in and out of the labour market. It explored the possible establishment of a voucher system through which people could choose to reduce their working hours, for instance, and take various kinds of extended leave for the purposes of studying or caring for children or infirm relatives.
The UAA authors build on the idea of a voucher system with a view to enabling people to engage in a wide variety of freely chosen non-market activities by providing free access to certain resources (energy, water), public services (health, education) and goods (housing, food) as a share of social wealth to which everyone is entitled. (It is worth noting here that this idea of Basic Income as a dividend deriving from the social production of wealth and the social investment in technology clearly demarcates Left approaches to the policy: it is framed as a universal right, not a grudging concession to the disadvantaged.)
They discuss drawing rights as part of a larger project of urban ecology involving rural revitalization, densification of cities and decreasing dependence on fossil fuels. The UAA would serve to support citizen initiatives aimed at reappropriating land and urban space. As an example, the right to housing might be conceived as free access to a minimum square footage, with any amount exceeding that level to be purchased at the market rate (within the confines of a democratically regulated market). It would entail renovation and retrofitting of older housing stock and the appropriation of additional housing stock by reclaiming vacant buildings from the grip of speculators. It would also involve greening urban space through the development of collective gardens and food belts linking rural and urban areas. Short distribution channels and a lively local economy could be built up with the help of local currencies and alternative services, such as self-managed workshops dedicated to the repair and recycling of existing goods.
The drawing rights on energy and natural resources would be designed to reward sustainable consumption and discourage waste. For example, there could be free access to a certain number of kWh of electricity and cubic metres of water, but beyond that the prices would rise so as to penalize waste. It is preposterous, Liegey et al. remark, that there is no difference between the price of water used to meet basic household needs and water used for washing a car or filling a private swimming pool.
Democratizing resource allocation
They also stress that key decisions about allocation of resources — how much water, food, or energy should be considered a right and at what point it should be a taxable market good — must be the object of democratic deliberation. The point here is to begin asking questions about our individual and collective needs and wants, which have been deeply shaped, both deliberately and indirectly, by consumer capitalism with its hierarchical management system and vast marketing apparatus.
UAA supporters place a great deal of emphasis on restoring democracy by creating the material conditions for an active citizenry. When people’s minds are not monopolized by wage labour, they are freer to participate in meaningful ways in collective decision- making processes.
The UAA is thus intended to go beyond the sole aim of redistributing wealth and income in order to lay the foundations for a transition to a degrowth model where the goal is not to increase the quantity and value of goods and services to be exchanged on the market (regardless of how and under what conditions those goods are produced, what ends they serve or the perverse effects of that activity on the biosphere), but rather a downscaling of production and consumption — one that is freely chosen for the benefits it offers of liberation from the tyranny of the market and the innumerable social and environmental ills of capitalism. One of the main goals of the UAA from a degrowth vantage point is to allow people to “cease spending their lives producing useless things to be sold to other people who don’t need them. …”
As an integral counterpart to the UAA, the authors propose the implementation of a democratically determined maximum wage to combat the absurd pay gaps that exist today, whereby executives receive hundreds of times the compensation of average workers. At 206 to 1, Canada’s pay ratio is among the highest in the world. (The idea of limiting the pay gap is now widely discussed in the global North, and was even the object of a referendum in Switzerland in 2013, where voters were invited to consider implementing a 12 to 1 pay ratio; it garnered the support of just shy of 35 per cent of voters.)
The UAA proposal has resonated with the outlook of some radical Left thinkers in other French-speaking societies. For Québec degrowth philosopher Louis Marion, for instance, a basic income in the form of a cash transfer alone reinforces the monetarization of the world and the individualism it engenders. Marion invokes arguments similar to those of sociologists such as Georg Simmel, who maintained that by facilitating indirect exchange, money favours impersonal social relations and acts as a solvent on social ties. For Marion, a basic income in exclusively monetary form cannot foreshadow a genuinely Left alternative to capitalism because the exercise of individual freedom remains purely formal insofar as it is contingent on having money. “By contrast the UAA moves us beyond the market because it is based in part on ensuring free access to basic goods and services such as housing, food and transportation, thus promoting use value over exchange value. Moreover, by expanding the role of alternative currency, the UAA encourages informal production and the relocalization of the economy.”
Decommodifying basic needs
The UAA also answers the objection raised by Vida Panitch, among others, that far from having a decommodifying effect, basic income, when accompanied by downsizing public-sector service provision, actually reinforces the dependency of people on the market as they will be compelled to rely on it to meet more of their needs. In her view, what Basic Income may achieve in freeing people to some extent from dependency on the labour market, it negates by commodifying their basic needs. In the case of the UAA, however, the incorporation of social drawing rights ensuring free access to goods and services is aimed precisely at decommodifying basic needs.
Naturally, all the usual objections to Basic Income schemes can be applied to the UAA — Is it affordable? How can it be financed? Won’t it promote loafing? — undoubtedly with additional charges of utopianism and unworkability levelled against the proposals for social drawing rights, the use of alternative currencies and the maximum wage. Like Basic Income supporters, UAA proponents stress that the technical difficulties of financing the UAA are not an insuperable obstacle, provided the political will exists. Liegey et al. enumerate various methods of funding a UAA, all of which hinge on a very different balance of forces than that which prevails today: cancellation of the portion of the debt deemed illegitimate, a tax on speculative transactions, the abolition of tax havens and full or partial nationalization of the banks, among others.
Many of the proposals outlined in the Manifeste pour une Dotation Inconditionnelle d’Autonomie presuppose a prior shift away from the capitalist market economy, and the UAA authors, to their discredit, fail even to broach the problem of getting from here to there. But the general concept of a partially demonetized Basic Income disbursed in the form of vouchers for goods and services in addition to cash amounts in both national and local currencies is an interesting angle on Basic Income that warrants further consideration as a roadmap for how to “free our time and minds from subjection to capitalism” while moving in an ecologically sustainable direction.
One of Canada’s leading young Left economists, MICHAL ROZWORSKI is co-author of a forthcoming Verso book on economic planning. He is a union researcher and writer and blogs at Political Eh-conomy. NICK SRNICEK is the author of Platform Capitalism (Polity 2016) and co-author of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Verso, 2015). He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics. CD’s Andrea Levy talks to both about Basic Income; the transcript has been edited for length, style and clarity.
Q: The Left has long been divided on the issue of Basic Income. The argument recurs every generation or so. In the last few years it has resumed throughout much of the global North, especially in the wake of campaigns and initiatives in Switzerland and Finland, for example. And the debate is now ablaze in Canada, where apparently serious interest in some form of BI is being expressed by the neoliberal governments of Kathleen Wynne in Ontario, Philippe Couillard in Québec, and Justin Trudeau at the federal level. Broadly speaking, what is your position on Basic Income?
Nick Srnicek: I think there are many reasons why a BI is a useful policy option. For instance, some point to the salutary effects of BI experiments on mental and physical health. For other mainstream proponents, the argument for BI tends primarily to be an economic one: they see it as a way to redistribute income in an era of high inequality and to provide the basic means of consumption to sustain consumer capitalism. My chief argument for supporting BI is a political one, however. If people are less dependent on the labour market for an income, they suddenly have much more political power. They can turn down jobs that are demeaning or unhealthy or simply too stressful. And they can withdraw their labour at any point and for an indefinite amount of time, rather than relying on a dwindling strike fund from the local union. None of this is revolutionary in itself, nor is it an endpoint in the struggle, but it does offer a major step forward from neoliberalism’s onslaught against workers.
Michal Rozworski: For me, there is a big difference between the idea of a universal BI in the abstract and what is concretely on offer. Even within the bounds of today’s slightly fraying neoliberal consensus, it is curious that BI is being embraced by various forces on the right and centre-right. This alone shouldn’t make us discount the idea, but it does say something about how it is liable to be implemented in our present political situation. For the right, BI is a means of extending markets and ousting the state from the role of providing social services such as healthcare and education. Because BI programs are so expensive if truly universal, they would only be funded today with enormous cuts to existing services. BI is a backdoor to commodifying social services and subjecting people further to the vagaries of the market. The Ontario Liberals, by the way, are likely to implement a “minimum income” that is simply a rationalization and reorganization of welfare. Like their “free tuition” policy, it is a way of putting a progressive spin on small potatoes.
Contrary to Nick, I doubt that BI would truly challenge the power disparity between labour and capital, particularly when labour is so weak. It can just as well be thought of as a subsidy to employers, giving workers some breathing room but potentially have little effect in the long term, especially if the new money is accompanied by new markets for previously free public services.
If the rallying cry of the Left has been to democratize more spheres of life, I worry that BI would actually diminish democracy by relegating more of our lives to the market and foreclosing even the possibility of popular control. All this doesn’t mean that labour and the Left shouldn’t make utopian demands, only that our demands should be strategic: more public services that take more dimensions of our lives off the market; workplace democracy; higher wages, full employment — these are demands that directly challenge capital. In this sense, my main reason to oppose BI at present is also political.
Basic Income vs. full employment
Q: One of the key arguments made for Basic Income is precisely the improbability if not impossibility of anything approaching full employment (defined here as ensuring that everyone who wants a decent job can have one). The trend in recent decades, especially in Canada, is toward the growth of nonstandard employment, including a significant amount of involuntary part-time and temporary employment, on top of an unemployment rate that remains higher than what it was prior to the financial crisis. Moreover, the technological displacement of work looks more and more to be a tidal wave, with jobs disappearing through automation (and not just low-skill jobs either) at a rate faster than new jobs are emerging. A higher minimum wage doesn’t amount to a living wage for the barista working 20 hours a week and isn’t much use to the translator whose job just disappeared because the federal government is now using machine translation to cut costs. Isn’t BI a worthwhile option in this context?
MR: Worries about technological unemployment are as old as capitalism itself. I recently saw a compendium of headlines from the last 200 years, all warning that this time really is different, this time the robots really are coming for all of our jobs. So far capitalism hasn’t had a problem finding new ways to keep us busy. Work isn’t just a technological process but a social relation.
In fact, the rise of temporary employment, involuntary part-time and such, while much-heralded in the press, is not that visible in the data in Canada or the U.S. The so-called gig economy remains a small part of the labour market, and in fact may be accentuated in popular perception because journalism is one of the fields that has seen a marked shift to contract work.
This isn’t to say that working conditions haven’t deteriorated and wages haven’t stagnated over the past several decades — they have enormously and across the global North. But this is a reflection of labour’s weakness and capital’s strength. The major transformations we are witnessing are not primarily in how work contracts are organized but how work itself is organized — its speed, the way tasks are assigned, how production (whether of goods or services) is managed, and so on. Globalized and ever more finely-grained supply chains have been instrumental to this.
Without looking to the root cause in the weakness of labour, demands like BI will play out in a neoliberal guise. We have to think about how to overturn the ability of capital to capture an ever greater part of the social surplus. Full employment, shorter working time for all and a rising share of national income for labour are the major risk to capital, not an increase in income security. With capitalism lately returning to its more conflictual roots, we should return to the original vision of the labour movement: less work for all and a socialization of the products of work as the way to harness the fruits of technology.
NS: I think there are two issues worth separating out here. One is whether we can imagine/design a universal BI that would be worth fighting for, and the other is whether that particular BI could be implemented. Most of Michal’s points here tend to emphasize the latter issue, and of course there are very legitimate concerns about how it would be implemented in the current context, and what it would mean for the nature of work. I think we could come to an agreement, though, about what a desirable BI would look like: it would be set at a high level (typically indexed to a country’s poverty level), it would be universal and not means-tested, and it would supplement most of the welfare state rather than replacing it. If those conditions were met, I think BI would bring about an immense power shift in favour of labour.
But the real question is what is achievable — what would a universal BI look like if it were implemented tomorrow, or in the next five years? And here I think Michal is right that we are looking at a largely neoliberal approach which deploys BI as a pretext to replace the welfare state and commodify ever greater swaths of the public sector. It might well go hand in hand with eliminating the minimum wage, thus serving as a wage supplement to business. I think that is a very likely outcome if there is a push to introduce BI right now. The question for me, then, is how do we build up the political power to implement a more meaningful universal BI?
That brings us to another important question, namely whether full employment is possible and desirable. Presumably, if we had the political power to implement a meaningful universal BI, we’d also have the political power to implement other desirable policies (like full employment or the extension of the welfare state). As important as it is to continue defending and extending the welfare state, this is not going to lead to social transformation. We would still remain bound to a system of wage labour and market dependency, and the welfare state doesn’t give labour any new means to exert power. So that’s one point. But perhaps we could imagine pushing for full employment? Here there are two points to be made.
First, capitalism does appear less and less able to produce good (secure and well-paying) jobs. In the U.K., for instance, after the 2008 crisis, over twothirds of net job growth was from self-employment that on average involves lower pay and longer hours. In the U.S., all of the net job growth since the crisis has been in contingent and non-standard employment arrangements of which the gig economy is only a small part. We’ve seen high levels of unemployment across Europe, and we’ve seen sluggish job growth globally since the crisis — remaining far below pre-crisis trends. All of which suggests that capitalism is not capable of producing full employment today. Second, let’s say we could press government to introduce massive stimulus programs to produce jobs (green jobs, for example). Here we run into the problem that full employment makes all the new automation technologies very desirable for capitalists. If workers are pushing for higher wages and there is a shortage of labour, that new robot will look like a very attractive investment, with the result that capitalists will start increasing business investment levels and raising productivity levels as they automate in the face of full employment. In this way full employment negates itself.
MR: There is much truth in the argument that if we were powerful enough to extract a socially progressive universal BI, we would be powerful enough to have a full employment economy and much else. But there remains the strategic question of how to acquire this power: which demands could start to create conditions that end up breaking the back of capital’s reign, of its domination of both the distribution of goods and the nature of work?
That capitalism doesn’t seem to be able to produce full employment today only seems novel because of the anomalous post-war period. This anomaly was complex in its origins, although it was in part about the subordination of the labour movement into a short-lived grand bargain that, as Nick points out, marginalized radicalism. But while I generally take full employment to mean a job for everyone who wants one, that says nothing about the length of the working day or average annual hours worked, nothing about the nature of work and nothing about the distribution of employment between private and socialized branches of the economy. Full (or approaching-full) employment would, of course, provoke capital to introduce more mechanized forms of production, but it would also give labour a greater share of national income, which would raise effective demand. This expansionary pressure and the need to produce investment goods would at least offset technological unemployment. Full employment also fulfills one of Nick’s goals for a BI: the ability of workers to hold out for better jobs. It gives workers greater power to press for more favourable working conditions, from reduced working time to workplace democracy. It is precisely because of this potential for transforming work that full employment is most dangerous.
NS: There is a fundamental philosophical divide here: I take it that waged work is what we want to eliminate, not produce more of! But even if one thinks work is a fundamental good, job growth is dependent on economic growth which is dependent on growth in greenhouse gas emissions. I think any future society that is going to deal with climate change will necessarily have to move towards less work, rather than job guarantees.
Further, if we can agree that full employment is unachievable, the problem then becomes how people interpret that inability to attain it. I think the most likely answer under current conditions is that people do not blame capitalism, but rather blame foreigners, laziness, and welfare-scrounging. I don’t see the demand for full employment as leading to anything that strengthens the hand of workers.
Now there’s an alternative way to reach full employment, and that’s through reducing the working week. I’m entirely in favour of this, and for a number of reasons I think it’s a more immediately achievable goal for the Left than a universal BI. But here’s a key issue that never seems to be raised when claims are made for full employment giving power to workers: namely, that we have empirical examples of hyper-employment societies — Japan and Germany in the 1960s — where unemployment was below 1 per cent and there were more jobs available than workers.
Yet even in these conditions of full employment, we did not see wages rise any higher than productivity. If labour was significantly stronger under full employment we would expect the gains from productivity to be distributed more in favour of labour, but they weren’t.
MR: I brought up full employment as a demand not because it is the pinnacle of my dreams if achieved, but because it can be used instrumentally. It is precisely because full employment may be unachievable, as Nick maintains, that it is useful. It exposes the system’s need for the heavy hand of the boss, for unemployment and for precarious life.
Put differently, it is easier for capitalism to accommodate BI than it is for it to accommodate any type of full employment for an extended period of time and especially within its metropolitan centres. The examples from the 1960s are short-lived, from a period of labour’s waning power as we’ve already discussed and with women still unabsorbed into the labour force. Today, on the other hand, it is primarily governments of the right that are experimenting with BI (or, more likely, minimum income schemes that are not universal and are clawed back against earnings and other sources of revenue). BI doesn’t challenge the fundamental dynamics of private ownership of capital and workplace exploitation central to capitalism the way full employment does.
A unifying demand?
Q: Arguably one of the virtues of Basic Income is that it has the potential to appeal to constituencies beyond organized labour. A well-formulated demand for a reasonably robust universal BI that would not dispense with all other social programs could conceivably create a rallying point for a broad social movement. It could mobilize many women, for example, who may not wish to engage in full-time waged work, by recognizing and rewarding their unpaid reproductive labour (which remained unrecognized and uncompensated during the post-war period). Other significant groups who might welcome the prospect of a BI are the underemployed and precariously employed, and artists. Rather than rejecting BI for fear of a neoliberal contortion, mounting a dynamic Left campaign for a socially progressive BI could have real educational value, allowing us to talk, for instance, about who appropriates the returns on the social investment in technology and to undermine prevailing notions of labour market participation as the sole valuable activity.
MR: I completely agree that the post-war consensus continued the domination and discrimination of women, racialized minorities and others in significant ways. It was an anomaly and not something to which we can return. What it showed was the power that labour could have over capital. Rebuilding that power will require new strategies and new tools. I simply don’t see BI as a major fulcrum. Work has always been mostly precarious. This is the normal dynamic of capitalism. We should acknowledge this and not look for an easy out, especially in view of the risks associated with BI today. Talking in terms of cash transfers risks re-creating markets for those spheres of life we’ve managed to extricate from the market. A reduction in working time and more socialized investment and production also aim at the key goal of undermining the labour market.
NS: I agree with Michal about the overemphasis on precarity. Precarity is a long-standing feature of work under capitalism, not something particularly new. But I think the notion of precarity can usefully be applied to household finances, given that levels of household savings across many countries have been dropping for decades, and this has been accelerated by the crisis. Large numbers of people have no savings and would be unable to support themselves in the event of a financial emergency.
And I think Andrea’s point about the constituency that can get behind a universal BI is also important. Unlike full employment policies, we can see how students, stay-at-home parents, care givers, and other unwaged workers could immediately benefit from BI. And universality would make it harder to scuttle the program down the road. A significant body of research shows that universal programs are significantly more difficult to scrap once implemented, precisely because there exists a vast political constituency who benefits from it. A full-employment focus risks reinstating traditional divides between waged and unwaged workers.
MR: I think the constituency argument is important, but I would look in the other direction. BI has support among the charter school executives who would like to privatize education, the healthcare companies who would like to privatize hospitals and many right-wing ideologues who would like to extend the reach of the market to all spheres. This isn’t to imply guilt by association, but simply to point to a real danger. The Finnish BI pilot project, one of the more likely to get anywhere, explicitly makes the connection between BI and greater market provision.
I whole-heartedly agree with Nick that not only is universality a desideratum of social programs, but it also protects them from attrition. I worry though that BI can yet undermine the drive for deeper democracy by enlarging and extending the sphere of “one dollar, one vote” implicit in the market. New public programs that guarantee services as a right follow a different logic and offer greater openings for transformative change.
Finally, compare UBI to a campaign like the Fight for 15. The latter engages people not only as workers, but also as future workers (students) or as family members of workers or as dependents on the wage income of others. The challenge is to broaden the constituency and include the non-waged as community members, but with less concomitant risk of co-option from capital as this campaign challenges it directly. At best, campaigns like this can be infused with clear class content, open confrontation and real organizing (with the caveat that this is a reality not always lived up to).
The point, however, is not to pit demands and campaigns against one another. I think this debate is useful because it draws out the bigger picture of tensions within capitalism and the space for new movements to exploit them. A friend of mine recently remarked that while people make much of Marx’s musings on the tendency of rate of profit to fall, and on automation and technology, there is much less attention paid to his understanding of capitalism’s tendency to socialize production and ownership in the long run. The latter, though, may be more important to how we build a better world. It is also a reason why I focus so much on the work process and on the prospects for democratic control over direct distribution.
A cost-prohibitive reform?
Q: A final question on financing: We are right to worry when we hear about BI schemes that are “cost neutral,” which usually implies dismantling existing social programs. But there are certain programs that would be made redundant by a universal BI, such as means-tested welfare. Beyond that, various proposals have been put forward, such as a tax on financial transactions or the diversion of subsidies to ecologically- destructive activities. Is it impossible to imagine a viable approach to funding BI?
MR: If indeed BI is to be truly universal and provide for a liveable income without the sacrifice of public services, the cost would be enormous. My point here isn’t to sound like the right-wing economist spreading doom, but simply to raise awareness where it is often lacking. Much of what I’ve read about BI, and many of the private arguments I’ve had, have either neglected or dismissed this point out of hand. Even assuming less spending on health, police and other government services that are overused due to the ill effects of poverty, a decent BI would require a near doubling of government revenues in a province like Ontario. The social power necessary to extract these kinds of revenues from the wealthy (and the wealthier) is sorely lacking. The central question here again is that of power dynamics and of what strategy is most apt to change them in our favour.
I did a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation for Ontario. Even given the elimination of welfare, child benefits and low-income pension supplements (replaced by BI) plus a one-third reduction in healthcare and police budgets (due to less crime and improved health owing to poverty reduction), we would need nearly 20 per cent more of GDP to fund a universal BI guaranteeing every person $15,000 per year. These figures are just an example and we could quibble about details but they indicate the scale of the necessary expenditure. For comparison purposes, PERI at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst (a Left economic research institute) calculates that a viable financial transactions tax could raise 1.7 per cent of GDP in the U.S.; the figure is probably lower in Canada due to the smaller role of finance and the openness of our economy.
I’m all for increasing government expenditure, albeit while democratizing the state, but we have to understand the class battle that would be required to win a decent universal BI. I fear that few proponents are truly aware of the economics.
NS: Yes, it would cost lot of money to fund a universal BI, although for most countries, even with targeted benefit supplements, it would reach roughly the same percentage of GDP as the Scandinavian welfare states, which is not out of the realm of possibility. Of course, we all agree that it won’t happen anytime soon. But I think that as part of a broader push to reduce the amount of work we need to do, BI is an important goal, even if it is never fulfilled. Which brings me to a final point I want to make: universal BI tends to get pitched as a single cure-all policy. I think this is entirely wrong. It needs to be situated within a broader narrative that gives meaning to what its advocates hope it can help accomplish. If the aim is to help the worst off in society, that means that BI can’t eliminate targeted benefits and the provision of public goods. If, on the other hand, the intention is to diminish government intervention, then that may well mean demolishing the welfare state. If, by contrast, we hope that BI will contribute to reducing our reliance on the wage, then we start to get a properly Left vision of what it must mean. Universal BI is useful as a goal, and a potential policy, but only in the context of a much wider conversation about the role of wage labour in society. And that conversation has to address concerns about minimum wage and public ownership and workplace democracy.
Miscellaneous material to start your week.- Michael Harris argues that it’s long past time for the Trudeau Libs to start living up to their oft-repeated promise of real change – rather than merely slapping a friendlier face on the same old regressive C… . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Monday Morning Links
It is a central irony of the history of the Left that it so frequently comes to defend the very exploitive and unjust institutions that were its sworn enemies from the outset. One of these is certainly the sovereign nation state, the strengthening of which became the fulcrum of first Stalinist and then social democratic politics. The state and its bureaucracy — the critique of which was very much part of the early Left’s inspiration (anarchist and Marxist) — is now seen as an essential bulwark against capitalist globalization. The consequences of this statist orientation are that the Left has not infrequently had to surrender the critique of a complacent and self-serving political class and its national security and other bureaucracies to a rhetorical if hypocritical libertarianism of the Right. With a few exceptions, plans to decentralize and democratize power are pushed off into some distant future.
A parallel case is that of the system of wage labour. The fight against wage “slavery” (the word says it all) has been a core inspiration of critiques of capitalism from the earliest days of that system. For Marx the critique of wage labour was essential to his labour theory of value and the notion of surplus value derived from the labour of workers above and beyond the wages they were paid. For the pioneers of early socialism, getting rid of the wage system was a first principle. Another less discussed part of their critique of wage labour was that its authoritarian core — the boss/worker relationship — undermined the basic tenets of a democratic society. If a vast majority of people spend most of their waking lives under the direction of external management — autocratic habits and discontents will deform all social life. There is much evidence from contemporary psychology and the study of alienation that a significant truth resides here. Whether under capitalism or state socialism, the wage relationship saps the autonomy and self-determination of workers needed to underpin a truly democratic society. This view, too, was pretty much a pillar of the critiques of the pioneers who envisioned a world beyond capitalism. But gradually the economism of a more vulgar Marxism displaced the belief that it was core social relationships of hierarchy and the wage relationship which needed to be transformed in order to move beyond capitalism.
As socialism became a serious political contender — either in its parliamentary or Bolshevik form — wage labour came to be accepted as the only way the wealth of society could be effectively distributed. When pressed, some still expressed a belief that this was a transitional phase to a remote and rarely invoked future in which the wage relationship would be transcended. The focus of the Left shifted to the quantity of wages paid (did these amount to a fair living wage?) and other conditions under which wage labour was carried out — work safety, holidays, pensions and other fringe benefits. The idea that the labour market (or its centralized planning equivalent) was a questionable way of deciding thorny questions of income distribution ceased to be considered a point for serious discussion.
Socialists and the labour movement instead advocated a macroeconomic position in favour of full employment, reasoning that this would leave the working class (their prime constituency) in the best position to occupy decent jobs at good wages in a situation of high labour demand. Full employment was only imaginable in the context of robust economic growth, where labour and everything else was in high demand in a rapid “flow through” economy. The golden age of this model dates from the 1950s up into the 1970s, a span of time that witnessed a relative fairness in the division of economic surplus between capital and labour. This all came to a crashing end in the 1980s with the neoliberal counter-revolution spearheaded by Thatcher and Reagan, aided by capital’s increasing globalized flexibility. The two together succeeded in making good wage settlements a piece of nostalgia. Instead we entered an era of labour “flexibility” (read discipline) marked by precarious employment, austerity and shocking levels of inequality.
Fast forward to the year 2016. To socialists who take humanity’s ecological crisis seriously — and it is hard to take seriously those who don’t — the growth that underpinned the full employment dream is fast becoming a grave threat to the very existence of our species, in addition to making the planet entirely inhospitable to a good many other species. One can see the flickering ironies in the flames that are consuming the tar sands capital of Fort McMurray — that ultimate job magnet drawing workers from Eastern Canada to Somalia and Sudan — destroyed by the very climate degradation its dirty oil helped produce. Only the rankest cowardice prevents our political class (Elizabeth May excepted) from drawing the obvious connections.
Fact is we already have too many jobs and use too much wage labour performing tasks in our speed-up economy whose only real purpose is to generate profit and as a side effect perhaps create more jobs. But this kind of growth is something we can no longer afford. There is a credible case being made by ecological economists that what we actually need is a kind of degrowth to regain a sense of ecological balance as we face a series of cascading environmental crises — climate degradation, resource depletion, deterioration of the quality of soil, air and water, a garbage explosion and widespread chemical poisoning.
Capital “off the leash”
A few on the Left still yearn to return to “the golden age” of the 1950s and 1960s and the era of decent jobs where our exploitation is regulated by consensus agreement of capital and labour. But there will be no going back. Capital is “off the leash” and will not likely be reined in by calls for fairness and ecological sanity based on contradictory notions of full employment and “green growth.” The Centre-Left politics that underpinned the old consensus has now largely capitulated to one form or another of neoliberalism. Precarious labour has long been at the centre of the political economy of the Global South. With the aid of globalization and the hollowing out of manufacturing work, precarity has migrated north for good. Most of the new job growth is part-time and/or low wage.
The main ideological tool in capital’s arsenal remains the promise of more wage labour that never seems to arrive, at least in the quantity and quality promised. Whether it’s large transnational corporations or the business-oriented think tanks that dominate the policy superstructure, there is an almost constant drumbeat of job blackmail. It is holy writ that the business class must get its way in enacting this particular tax policy or that particular free trade deal or pushing through the latest pipeline or mining project. Otherwise we will all suffer. They just won’t invest, and the jobless and under-employed can blame the politicians who failed to provide that holiest of all grails: the “sound investment climate.”
This endless braying for jobs by everyone from chambers of commerce to trade unionists traps us in the logic of capital forever. It is frequently accompanied by the glorification of any work at all as a morally upright end in itself no matter its ecological and social impact. Jobs are synonymous with wage labour in most conventional understandings and it is assumed that without the direction of some external management we would all lay about doing nothing— or worse, after all “idle hands do the devil’s work,” as the expression goes. Wage labour is taken as the natural condition through we distribute the wealth of society based on the status and bargaining power attached to the job in question. Those without jobs end up both poor and unworthy.
Of course the corporate and related oligarchies, who are quick to champion a life of compulsory labour for the rest of us, now tend to draw their income from securitized wealth such as stock portfolios, derivatives, bonds and trust funds. These have little to do with how the owners of significant capital pass their waking hours. While they are deserving of our animus for their self-satisfied hypocrisy, we could also view them as pioneers in destroying the centrality of the wage system as the main means for distributing wealth. The massive personal wealth that the one per cent has managed to accumulate (up to one-third of global wealth is currently nestled beyond the reach of tax authorities) proves there is certainly enough pie to go around without us expanding it even further.
An adequate basic income for all is, in this sense, a good starting point for the Left to renew its assault on compulsory wage labour. The organization of work could be freed up to take on more cooperative, decentralized and democratic forms in which workers could decide for themselves what work is desired and useful. Many seeds of this kind of work organization already exist. Such reforms should be welcomed insofar as they would significantly weaken the power corporate job blackmailers currently wield over society.
– Henning Meyer interviews Tony Atkinson about the readily-available options to combat inequality – with the first step being to make sure people actually have a voice in the decisions which define how wealth and power are allocated:
So, if you dive into the potential solutions you seem to suggest institutional changes. You mentioned that public policy should aim at a proper balance of power amongst stakeholders; what exactly do you mean by this?
Well I think I should say first of all that my aim in writing the book was to try and dispel the sort of sense of inevitability about high inequality and therefore I was putting forward various ways of seeking to understand why it comes about and therefore how we can moderate it. And I think one of the things that has certainly happened is that institutions, like for example corporate institutions, companies, which used to have a broader view of their responsibilities, that they recognised that they had a responsibility in addition to that to their shareholders – also to their workers and to their consumers and their customers.
And I think it’s this broader notion of the social obligations of institutions and of course of individuals as well that we have responsibilities beyond both our own personal economic gains and losses. So I think that it’s part of a reaction that I have had to what seems to be a narrowing to a very much individual based self-interest which has come to emerge in the last two or three decades.
Okay, and then new ideas like Michael Porter’s shared value capitalism, they try to sort of, not revive the old dichotomy between shareholder and stakeholder models but try to align public and private interest in addressing some of the most pressing social and economic needs. Could that be one way of addressing these considerations?
Yes, I think in a sense part of the issues arise because we had in the post-war period some kind of balance of power between on the one side employers and the other side often trade unions or workers’ representatives. And that of course has shifted in quite a number of countries as a result of a number of things including, for example, the effect of privatisation resulting in reducing the power of trade unions to influence the behaviour of those institutions. So, I think we’ve seen a shift of power definitely away from workers towards capital, those who run firms.
So I think a number of proposals were designed to try and at least make sure that those interests of workers and indeed consumers should be represented. And a good example is provided by the negotiations with regard to trade agreements which seem to involve only one side as it were of that equation.
– And Van Jones writes that the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals are set up to block action against climate change.
– CUPE points out the leakage of massive amounts of revenue to tax havens and avoidance as a crucial factor in austerity politics. And Craig Wong reports on the latest increase in Canadian consumer debt as people borrow to try to make up for the lack of advancement in wages.
– Susan Ochs discusses Wells Fargo’s widespread fraud as yet another example of workers and consumers being punished for the misdeeds of high-ranking executives.
– Alia Dharssi continues her reporting on migrant workers in Canada by highlighting how recruitment agencies exploit workers who can’t stand up for themselves. And Chris Buckley argues that labour and employment laws in general need to be updated, particularly to protect people stuck with precarious work.
– Finally, APTN reports on the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s latest order requiring the federal government to stop discriminating against First Nations children – though the fact that two previous orders haven’t led to the government complying signals that the Libs’ in following through may be rather less than advertised. . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Friday Morning Links
This and that for your Thursday reading.- Graham Lowe and Frank Graves examine the state of Canada’s labour market, and find a strong desire among workers for an activist government to ensure improved pay equality and social supports. Oxfam reaches sim… . . . → Read More: Accidental Deliberations: Thursday Morning Links