Universal Basic Income: Ruling class scam or step toward socialism?
Basic Income Earth Network. | basicincome.org

The concept—and in some cases actual and already-existing policy—of a universal basic income has generated a provocative debate, fascinating in the fact it has garnered enthusiastic support from both the left and the right while also becoming the target of harsh and anxious critique from both the left and the right.

The more mega-capitalists like Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes, Elon Musk, and the like support it, the more some on the left grow suspicious. Left-leaning intellectual Chris Hedges, for example, characterizes the universal basic income as an oligarchical plot designed to defuse any call or movement for actual and substantial structural change to the capitalist system, the dynamics of which create the inequity and misery people suffer to begin with.

And, of course, we do need to recognize the truth that universal basic income policy is not designed to alter the structure of capitalism but rather provide some basic relief to the misery and poverty capitalism creates. Obviously, we need to keep our eyes on the prize of achieving the end of class society and exploitation and creating a world in which the fruits of our collective labors are shared.

Nonetheless, as Daniel Raventós and Julie Wark have pointed out, so far the universal basic income “is the only policy being mooted as a way of universally guaranteeing the most basic right of all: the right to material existence.” And, in response to Hedges’ concerns, they point out that a universal basic income can nonetheless abet revolutionary class struggle, arguing that “while not a universal panacea, is one way of strengthening vulnerable members of society in their struggle against the oligarchs.”

And, hey, why not go along with the scam, as long as we don’t fall for it? Take the money and run right down the revolutionary road. Destination: socialism.

What is important is that we cultivate and sustain a political and class consciousness rooted in awareness of the fact that our current economic arrangement—capitalism—is precisely what generates the grotesque inequality we need to eliminate. And by extension that same system is responsible for the grotesquely inequitable distributions of political power that deprives the mass of our population the right of self-determination—denies them freedom.

The universal basic income, I would argue, is already beginning to shift our national consciousness in directions that can direct us on the road to socialism. It is bringing issues of class and inequality more into focus and making them part of the national conversation, though in theoretically insufficient ways.

Chris Hughes, for example, the co-founder of Facebook, has argued strenuously for a universal basic income as not necessarily a comprehensive solution but as at least a moderating analgesic for the severity of income inequality and poverty in America, asserting, “We talk about inequality—and the economy in general—in terms that make it seem like these are structural problems that we can’t do anything about. When in reality, we’ve created the rules of the road: the way the economy works now.”

While he might not fully articulate what a different economic structure or system would look like (he doesn’t say the “S” word), he does unsettle the notion that capitalism is a fixed and unchangeable thing. He raises the specter that another economy is possible and makes the important point that people control and build the economy, which means we can, in fact, change it and create it anew.

As a culture and in our political discourse, we tend to talk about “the economy” in ways that de-historicize it and make it seem permanent, as if capitalism is the only game in town. We don’t hear many people in talking about our economy say “the capitalist economy” to distinguish it, say, from feudal or socialist economies. As a culture, this makes it a lot harder for us to entertain different kinds of economic arrangements.

While Hughes, I’m guessing, does not identify as a Marxist, his intervention in this debate does begin to offer a different language for talking about our economy and the fact that poverty is not simply the fault or just desert of lazy or feckless people, but rather a product of capitalist economy. This language opens and orients the national consciousness to a potentially imaginative conversation about what a socially just and humane economy might look like. It’s an opener, anyway.

Billionaire Mark Zuckerburg, similarly provokes thinking about both the effectiveness and fairness of class society—and by extension capitalism—in his advocacy for a universal basic income. In a commencement address he delivered at Harvard, he indicated how growing up with financial security allowed him the freedom to pursue his inventions, explaining, “If I had to support my family instead of having time to code, if I didn’t know I’d be fine if Facebook didn’t work out, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”

These capitalists point not just to the unfairness, even inhumanity, of capitalism, but they even hint at what Marx stressed in his analysis of the history of class society: Capitalism, while it unleashed the creativity feudalism had constrained, it also fetters human creativity and the forces of production overall, leading to an economy at once inhumane and inefficient.

Secondly, and more importantly, the universal basic income, in asserting everyone’s right to a material existence, accomplishes some important work in our cultural consciousness, in Marxist directions, in terms of dissociating or de-coupling the work people do from their ability to have their material needs met and, more to the point, to share in the fruits of our collective labor.

In other words, the implementation of a universal basic income can begin to erode the powerful meritocratic ideology that, as I have argued elsewhere in the pages of People’s World, is a centrally insidious ideology sustaining capitalism. As a culture, we are for the most part perfectly happy valuing people’s work unequally, regardless of how essential it is to our lives. Our capitalist culture makes it seem normal and just that the doctor doing the important work of keeping us healthy deserves a lot more money—and hence access to more resources—than the farmworker who does the important and essential work of feeding us. As a culture, we lack a recognition that this very way of valuing work is a product of a capitalist economy, that the way we determine the “merit” of work grows out a capitalist mentality.

Definitive of Marxism for me is the principle made famous in The Communist Manifesto which Marx reiterates in his Critique of the Gotha Program, namely the idea: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!” This notion challenges, indeed explodes, the idea that the work people do should bear any relation to their ability to meet their needs or have access to the fruits of our collective labor.

The American dominant culture, however, forcefully insists upon not only differentially valuing work but also linking the work one does to one’s ability to consume or access resources (purchasing power) to live. A vital piece of Marxist thought is precisely this powerful gesture of de-linking the work people do (or not) from their right to a material existence.

The universal basic income, as a policy, does this important cultural work of de-linking people’s merit—people deserving nourishment, housing, healthcare, education, safety, and other basic human rights—from the type of work they do, how much they work, and even from whether they work or not.

Moving to a socialist culture and imagination means we must recognize and eradicate the capitalist values infecting us. Meritocracy is a deeply rooted capitalist value many in America do not even recognize as capitalist.

Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, California, however, has been able to implement a universal basic income in his city, with a plan to be piloted on a small scale beginning in 2019. What motivated him was precisely the socialist imagination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which he has invoked explicitly, recalling reading King’s Where Do We Go From here: Chaos or Community, in which King calls for a guaranteed annual income.

While certainly no remedy for or alternative to capitalism, the universal basic income can address poverty and improve lives while at the same time altering our entrenched thought patterns and inspiring an imagination to ease us on down the road to socialism.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.