Saturday 31 January 2015

More Notes on the Citizen's Income

1. The first rule of polemic is if you're going to argue against someone's position, at least do it in an intellectually honest fashion. Falling short of this is Sally Gimson's piece on Progress. Sally attacks the Citizen's Income on the grounds that because Charles Murray, author of the notorious and reviled The Bell Curve, and the Greens agree that a basic income could promote social cohesiveness that the latter buys into the libertarian nonsense of the former. Never mind that the Green policy document, which I suspect she didn't bother looking at, underlines a continued commitment to extra support for housing and the disabled. Rarely since the days of high Stalinism, when Trotskyists were lumped in with fascists because both had criticisms of the USSR, do such clumsy amalgams come along.

2. There are citizen incomes and there are citizen incomes. The previous post on this topic trailed a few of these. Chris Dillow has explored some issues further. There are libertarian schemes. Green schemes. Means-tested schemes. And socialist schemes. While the Greens' are bringing it more mainstream attention thanks to their rapid growth, it's not the be-all and end-all. There is no set way. Not one set of ideas have achieved the status of hegemonic thinking beyond the basic income being a right of citizenship.

3. Boffy's objection, that "it would encourage bad, inefficient employers to pay low wages, and to take account of the fact that the state - that is other workers from their taxes - would be making up a large part of what they should be paying as wages" can be met with a "not necessarily". To be sure, this is precisely why libertarian advocates love the idea: it's yet another state subsidy for inadequate wages. The policy, however, does not preclude the retention of existing provisions around the minimum wage or, indeed, its extension. It all depends on the strength of the labour movement. In fact, as per Boffy's model of a much more dynamic and confident movement there is no reason why its administration, along with whatever is left of the social security apparatus, be devolved to it.

4. Despite the best efforts of libertarian and Green advocates of the citizen's income, and its critics to wish it away, class struggle exists. It is to capitalism what dishonesty is to the Liberal Democrats: integral and indissociable. Policies pursued by governments can affect class struggle, and in turn the character of policy and their implementation is so conditioned. This is no less true of the citizen's income. Its socialist friends have to fashion it so a) it can win over wide swathes of the labour movement, b) ensure that its implementation and maintenance does not impact negatively on our people, and c) that it is weaponised to best pursue the interests of the overwhelming majority against the narrow, anti-social, and destructive imperatives of capital.


Boffy said...


If we had a situation where workers were actually in control over their own social insurance provision - which is the position Marx and Engels and the First International defended against the introduction of National Insurance schemes - the concept of a Basic National Income would be pretty pointless.

If this basic income was paid directly out of the workers own social insurance fund, it would at least be fairly obvious that workers were directly subsidising employers who paid low wages, but for that very reason, its unlikely workers would vote to do so for very long!

The obvious answer to the need for such a basic income for employed workers would then be seen to be that all employers have to pay a Minimum Wage, but that then comes down to a question of whether workers are strong enough as a class to impose such a requirement. Its why I've suggested that the Trades Unions should act as a monopoly supplier of labour as Owen suggested and as the IWW had as an idea in the form of One Big Union. But, again, that comes down to class strength, and at the very times when its required, as Marx and Engels pointed out - when wages are low because economic activity is depressed, and the demand for labour falls - is precisely the time when workers are more likely to compete against each other, and drive down wages.

If workers had control over their social insurance fund, it would make more sense to focus it - in the way unions focus their funds - to be used when required. That is to fund workers when they are sick or unemployed, or on strike, or retired.

But, it would also mean that the socialist principle "He who does not work, neither shall he eat." be applied, so that where workers paid out, to cover unemployment, for example, something be obtained in return, be it working for other workers in the community, or to help out with a strike or other labour movement activity - after all many of us do this for free already!

It would be better organised, if that activity was co-ordinated and channelled itself as a means of developing workers property and self-government, as Marx proposed, and as the early co-operatives did. This seems to have been happening spontaneously in Greece, and has happened in Latin America. That directly poses worker owned property and self-government as an alternative to capitalist property. It is revolutionary in the true sense of the term developed by Marx as part of his theory of Historical materialism. It means confronting the existing forms of property and social relations developed upon it with the future form of property and social relations.

The problem is that we do not have worker owned social insurance funds, or even any kind of democratic control over existing funds, which is one reason things like the state pension in Britain, is a fraction of the pension paid to workers out of their own co-operative pension fund, in the Mondragon Co-ops in Spain.

Under those conditions, calling for a Basic National Income can only be understood in the terms that it could possibly be implemented currently, and if other conditions existed, as set out above, it would be unneccessary. So, currently, its a bit like the calls of the AWL for a Workers Government. Its calling for something that cannot exist in the form that is being proposed, and which, therefore, only sows reformist illusions in the minds of workers to fight for a chimera.

David Timoney said...

1. Gimson's polemic is twofold: that basic income comes in a libertarian flavour as well as an egalitarian one (demonstrably true), and that the Greens are driven by conservative "nostalgia" (a legitimate crticism). Her aim is to knock the Greens, not rule out BI altogether.

2. As you note, the BI comes in many different flavours. This requires us to think about their common features as well as their differentiators, and also (like Gimson) consider the political motives of the advocates of various BI schemes.

3. As Boffy makes clear in his comment, one of the key issues around the BI is that it does not address the social relations of capital and labour. There are two aspects to this. First, in its vanilla form, BI provides no mechanism for the democratic control of capital (i.e. the property question). Second, it provides no mechanism to allocate the fruits of growth - dividing productivity gains between capital (profit), labour (wages) and society at large (the BI).

4. A socialist BI would have to address these two issues. In addition, it would have to factor in the possibility of a progressive decline in labour demand due to automation (the BI gives you the option of remitting productivity gains in time as well as cash - i.e. reduced working hours for all).

WillORNG said...

A more in depth comparison of Basic Income Guarantee and Job (Education and Training) Guarantee here:

BCFG said...

Boffy seems to be saying this, unless he can say otherwise:

We will take all in work benefits off those people who are receiving them and hope that by doing this their employers will fill the gap. If they do not fill the gap they will go the way of their workers!

This stroke of ‘humane socialist genius’ will not only plunge people into abject poverty, more power to the food banks, but will also take out an important re-distributive mechanism. I.e. from those well off workers to those who are poorer. As reformist measures go it is utterly reactionary and cruel.

A socialist position is to transform society and progress it, not plunge it into some Dickensian nightmare.

David Timoney said...

Worth noting that Bill Mitchell's preference (link above) for a job guarantee over a basic income is a common view among MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) proponents, reflecting a particular macroeconomic paradigm.

For a more sceptical view of the merits of the JG versus a BI, see: