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Universal Basic Income: liberation or servitude?

Welcomed by some on the left as a re-distribution of wealth, is it rather a lifelong pension for the unemployed majority? Those who are not taxed have no incentive to vote, while the state needs them less and educates them less. Volunteering, robots, and happy self-surrender.


Graham Douglas


Seeing a progressively more workless society on the horizon, some countries are beginning to experiment with  . They have been welcomed by some people on the left as progressive reforms that will enhance democracy and remove the current punitive attitude of governments to dispensing benefits to their citizens – money which of course comes from other citizens’ taxes.

Like most apparently progressive changes however it bears more consideration.

In Rousseau’s theory of the social contract, the population surrenders certain rights to the state in order to receive from the state protection of other rights. So, when we consider what seems like an expansion of the state’s protective function we should be suspicious that some other rights are being withdrawn.

This was epitomized before the American Revolution, with the famous slogan “No taxation without representation”, and soon led to the Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776. But there is an important corollary to this which was pointed out by Tom Burgess in his book “The looting machine”.

In this book he is studying the lack of democracy under dictatorships in Africa. He makes his point by reversing the slogan to say: “No representation without taxation”, which underlines the need for a social contract relationship between the people and their government.

If the government collects all or most of its revenue TAXby theft from the rich and tax or bribes from companies, then it can ignore the rest of the population whose taxes are materially irrelevant. There is no need to invest in social benefits to keep poorer people happy, because the government doesn’t depend on their taxes, and elections become a farce. This is kleptocracy in Africa.

Now, come back to the social democracies in  pe who are looking at UBI – and add to this the growing automation and de-skilling of work, with robots set to move into workplaces like an occupying army.

This is no bloodthirsty dictatorship. But what is happening to the social contract? Even without robots, this is saying that from now on the government will decide -and generously dispense – what it considers to be a decent level of income leaving people free to earn more if they want to – and, importantly, if work is available – or not as they prefer.

But their taxes will not be funding the government, because those on UBI only won’t be paying any. The majority of state revenue will come from companies and their owners, the less than 1%, who can be relied on to be grateful for their comfortable life style and their access to decision-making, because they will join the de facto political class.

Of course, no-one is yet suggesting abolition of parliaments, so the people will still be able vote out governments that don’t provide decent health and social services free for all – an important complement to UBI – but what if there is no difference between the government and its opposition parties? What will be the point of voting then?

The political class, whatever names they give themselves and whatever the colour of their banners, will effectively be entrenched for perpetuity.

In the Gulf states, very generous social welfare is provided from contributions of only 5-7% by earners, the rest coming from companies and directly from government, but democracy and votes? Forget it!

Welfare does not necessarily lead to serfdom – the influential post-war economist Hayek qualified his support of liberal economics (not so different from neo-liberalism), saying there was no reason to oppose a safety net and social welfare schemes, and of course countries like Sweden prove that point.

Hayek was attacking centralised planning under totalitarian systems of both right and left. And here we come to an important issue: by moving towards a fully automated society we are empowering not a totalitarian government, but what is in practice not so different – an oligarchic elite, which is global in its reach. And UBI is the perfect complement of an automated society.

 Enter the robots

Now, let’s add robots into the mix, and it is immediately obvious how the capitalist system will arrive in its Nirvana – robots can’t vote, and they are wholly owned by the employer, they don’t ask for more money or go on strike, or demand collective bargaining.

Meanwhile they consume more and more jobs that were once done by humans.

It was not so long ago that the workless society was imagined as a utopia which Progress would deliver to us, but like the internet which seemed to promise unlimited democracy, we are coming to realize that in human affairs there is always power and that it will be a field of contest.

Work is not only a question of income, it has traditionally also been a source of personal meaning and identity. George Monbiot recognises this and suggests that we should be welcoming the future ‘volunteer society’, where each of us can choose the most meaningful ways of contributing our labour to social ends.

This sounds all very well, but it seems to completely skip over the whole process of wealth-production, as if we can leave that to the robots – and the 1% of course – and concentrate on turning society into one big happy community of caring people. Who decides what our national income is being spent on, and the morality of how it is being produced for example?

Monbiot himself acknowledges that there are bigger issues in play, by quoting the philosopher Byung Chul Han:

“The ideology of community leads to the total capitalization of existence.” And “the sharing economy ultimately leads to the total commercialization of life”. Airbnb being a contemporary example.

Han’s key point is that the nature of capitalist exploitation has changed from being backed up by repression and violence, to being insinuated throughout society by media seduction. And, contrary to Monbiot’s optimism, a dystopian view of UBI would see it as exactly part of that process. This is a process which even extends to the almost invisible digital hardware which is being introduced to make our planet more ‘intelligent’ – while actually extending what should nowadays be called the industrial – military – digital complex, but that will be the subject of a future article.

(Photos: Pixabay)


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