Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Libertechbrotarianization of Basic Income Discourse

It has always been true that basic income advocates across the political right -- Milton Friedman, famously -- have coupled the payment of basic incomes with the "simplification" and "streamlining" and "targeted elimination" of welfare programs. It can't be that surprising to find those who pine for the dismantlement of social support to unleash the austere, obliterative liberties of spontaneous orders (in which plutocratic orders are obeyed spontaneously) would propose basic income in the service of that same aim as they do everything else.

But I must say I am intrigued to find how often recent pieces on basic income are framing it first and most of all as the solution to the problem of "structural unemployment" caused by automation. Such discussions seem to regard unemployment as a logical effect of technological development rather than resulting from plutocratic attacks on and circumventions of organized labor which would ensure a more equitable distribution of productivity gains from automation. And so we have basic income proposed as a pretext for welfare dismantlement and as a panacea for unemployment as unions are busted? I am starting to think that there is a neoliberalization of basic income advocacy taking place that qualifies my initial thrill discovering this pet topic's recent and unexpected new prominence.

From Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Erik Olin Wright, basic income has been proposed as a direct solution to the scourge of poverty. There is no question that a basic income guarantee together with single payer healthcare, nutritional assistance, free public education, public housing programs, equal recourse to law and franchise and office-holding, freedom of expression and public assembly, and accountable administration of commons for the public good would provide the abiding substance and occasion for radical democratization.

But it would seem that basic income can be proposed either in the service of emancipatory equity-in-diversity or as a plutocratic ploy. If so, it is obviously important to pay attention to the assumptions and aspirations driving its various advocates. To hear that someone supports basic income is not yet enough to know they support what you mean by basic income or to accept them as an ally.

It is too easy for glib celebrations of basic income in the abstract to function as distractions from urgent, ongoing, and ever-more-successful struggles organizing workers in fast food, health care, education, and service sectors and in raising the minimum wage to approach a living wage. Just as some mouthpieces for Republican politics would evade association with the ugly racism of the contemporary GOP by declaring themselves civil libertarians (a masquerade enabled by those who know better and yet do not call states rights "minarchists" on the history of racist dog whistling in such positions) I wonder if basic income advocacy on the right will likewise work to conceal a host of plutocratic commitments.

Ask right-wing advocates of basic income whether a person who has already spent their basic income but who suddenly confronts the prohibitive costs of a medical emergency or the need for legal representation has a right to that healthcare or that lawyer even if they cannot afford the expense? If the answer is yes, then we're back to the mainstream legible social democratic discourse in which basic income supplements rather than replaces general welfare; and if the answer is no, we're inevitably back to the war of all against all in which the unworthy poor pay for their misfortunes with their lives or their freedom. Free To Lose, er, Choose, amirite?

Right-wing forms of "basic" income advocacy reduce all too readily to visions of bare life without the rights, standards, and supports to ensure an actually legible scene of consent to the terms of everyday relations for the majority of the people. Game the minimum "sufficient" basic income into a state of near-precarity without recourse to any other pillars of equity-in-diversity and you've peddled feudalism as a universally emancipatory scheme -- in the drearily predictable right-wing manner.

It is necessary to emphasize how obvious are the fingerprints of the right in such basic income state-dismantlement assumptions, aspirations, rhetorics, schemes. Because it is also becoming more and more conspicuous how many recent converts to basic income advocacy seem to want to advocate it as a technocratic technofix "beyond the politics of left and right." It is important to grasp first of all that no technique is politically neutral, that every artifact mediates social relations, that the funding, testing, publication, regulation, application of technique is ineradicably political and that the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change are as diverse as the diversity of their stakeholders. This means that it is always only in the political distribution of these costs, risks, and benefits that we determine the progressive or emancipatory force of technoscientific change, not by reading technical specifications or, worse, advertorial corporate-military press releases and pop-tech gossip column journalism. The denial or pretended overcoming of these political realities does not eliminate them but merely renders them opaque to scrutiny and criticism. This is a gesture that inevitably conduces to the benefit of elite incumbents already empowered by and in the status quo. That is to say, the stance of a-politicism or anti-politicism is profoundly political in fact, and the politics it supports are right-wing politics most of all.

It is no wonder, then, that right-wing politics from mid-century fascism to late-century market fundamentalism often actively promoted itself with slogans promising to be "beyond left and right" or "a new beginning overcoming left/right categories" or "a third way." Every single person who declares themselves to be "beyond left and right" is either a secret shill for the right or a perfect dupe for the right. It is no surprise that the tech-talkers of predatory venture capitalism and tech-hype marketeers of stale crap as worldshattering novelties accept so many of the assumptions and aspirations of market fundamentalist corporate-militarism including the slogan of offering "design solutions" and "technofixes" beyond politics -- and that these reactionaries throng the chat rooms and conferences of recent basic income advocacy.

This post originally referred to a "neoliberalization" of basic income discourse, but that term is at best verging on vacuity from over use and at worst coming to be associated with fauxvolutionary preening about the choice of purity cabaret over pragmatic progressivism, which is worse than vacuous but manages to be actually reactionary in consequence.

See also p2p Is EITHER Pay-to-Peer or Peers-to-Precarity.


Lorraine said...

I myself am not in the habit of putting the term structural employment in scare quotes. I think structural employment is a real thing. The thing I have noticed during my adult lifetime is that every recession at least since the early 1980's recession (the Reagan recession) has been a structural (i.e. permanent) racheting-down of worker expectations. In the aftermath of the early 80's the expectation of job security or fringe benefits was crushed. In the aftermath of the late 90's "dot com bubble" recession the expectation that a thrifty working stiff can generally be in the black (at least late in their life span) was crushed. The current recession seems to have made unpaid internships a pre-requisite for professional esteem, and the so-called sharing economy is taking labor law out of the equation entirely, even the band-aid level of protection it offers to the contingent (but at least "W2") workforce. And of course don't get me started on that neoliberal exercise in goalpost-moving known as "NAIRU."

Perhaps the problem isn't structural unemployment so much as structural underemployment.

I'll admit that I've been lurking and occasionally posting at Reddit's /r/basicincome subreddit. Their willingness to think of libertarians and even conservatives as potential allies utterly shocks me. Almost as much as peace movement types who are willing to join hands with types or even Ron Paul. There is a huge difference between an anti-interventionist and a foreign policy dove. Being on the same side of one issue at most makes someone a strange bedfellow (with the emphasis on strange). An ally is recognized a lot less by what they believe than by why they believe what they believe.

In my defense I will say that my involvement in /r/basicincome has been mainly for the purpose of planting seeds of doubt by sprinkling the discussion with phrases like "poison pill" and "Faustian bargain" (a phrase I first used in comments on the "Bleeding Heart" "Libertarians" website).

The problem with the current incarnation of the basic income movement, I think, is the same as the problem with DLC Democrats. Either they sincerely believe that public opinion isn't ready for what they're proposing and therefore they have to water it down, or they know what they're doing and they're playing BI proponents as a voting bloc. Since stated support of BI by non-minor-party politicians is still not a thing, I think it's the former, not the latter. What they need more than anything else is confidence in the rightness of their cause. The other thing they need is something they can perhaps get from you, if only they'd pay attention; a realistic perspective on retro-futurism. I mean, the flying cars probably had as much technoscientific plausibility (i.e. favorable press coverage) in the Jetsons era as the self-driving cars do now. And nuclear fusion has been 20 years away for at least 60 years.

I'm interested in basic income mainly as a labor market bargaining chip, and also as a "luxury" in the sense of having the luxury to hold out for a job I believe in, or at least one that will allow me to sleep at night. I don't expect it to happen in my lifetime, so I sling the resumes as hard as I can stand to, etc.

Dale Carrico said...

I am thinking it may become useful to make a distinction in discussions of this topic between "basic income" as one-size-fits-all technofix oblivious to class/race/gender analyses of poverty and violence and "public income" as the provision of living income as part of a bundle of affordances (along with healthcare, education, civil rights, and commons accountably administered for the public good) to ensure a legible and sustainable scene of informed nonduressed consent to the terms of everyday life in its diversity.