To Each According to their Needs! On Labour's Universal Basic Services report.

John McDonnell's UBS report offers a potential framework for a revolution in the ways we conceive of and meet our needs.

In his Labour Party conference speech today, John McDonnell launched the report Universal Basic Services: The Right to a Good Life. As well as beginning to address an imbalance whereby Labour’s most transformative positions, such as the Alternative Models of Ownership report, have been focused almost entirely on work and production, this report could, with significant pressure from below, become the basis for a thoroughgoing transformation of the system of needs that structures British capitalism. As Agnes Heller argues, any revolutionary struggle necessarily centres “the complete restructuring of the system of needs”.1

As the report makes plain, the concept of Universal Basic Services (UBS) amounts to a potentially crucial decommodification, not just of the means of survival, but of the services, experiences, and provisions necessary for a rich ‘good life’ to become possible outside of market mechanisms:

We argue that not everything in our lives should be treated as a commodity. For example, we believe that education is a gift from one generation to another, not a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Here we develop the argument for decommodification further, laying out the case for reducing or eliminating the role of the market in allocating what we use and consume as well as how it is produced. (p.2)

Socialists have always understood that decommodification of the satisfaction of need is as important as control over production and struggles for higher wages; an understanding neatly encapsulated in Marx’s formulation “from each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] need”. Marx also understood that perhaps the crucial reformist struggle, where culture, economic interest, and politics meet, is around what is socially recognised as a minimum bundle of needs. Today’s report explicitly recognises (on pages 5 and 10) that the content of this minimum bundle of needs is necessarily dynamic, possessing in Marx’s terms “a historical and moral element”2: our needs are determined by our social context, by technological development, and by struggle from below. The report extends this question of the provision of this ‘minimum’ beyond wage labour, using RH Tawney’s concept of a “social wage” (p.9) in which free public services were articulated as a means of decreasing the necessity for wage labour in the satisfaction of needs. The rich conception of need in which the report is grounded is not limited to need satisfied through consumption but includes the actively joyful exercise of capacities to understand and shape the world. This need, crucially, is not only met in an imagined disalienated production, but in relation with community and the wider world.

Readers of today’s report may be struck by the disjuncture between this rich conception of need, going far beyond “liberating people from the daily struggle for survival” (p.2), and the patchwork of crucial but limited UBS provision presented within actually-existing Labour policy, outlined on pages 10-11. We would argue, however, that it is precisely in this contradiction that UBS becomes a generative concept. By bringing together disparate elements of policy—health and social care, education, buses, free school meals, libraries, parks, and so on—within one ‘umbrella’ concept, the report demonstrates that UBS provision already exists to some extent; and what does exist has broad popular support. The scattered nature of these disconnected instances of UBS provision provokes thoughts and questions around what else might be included in this concept. If buses, why not trains? If parks, why not allotments? If social care, why not housing? We can see, then, that this disjuncture represents a significant opening for all kinds of political possibilities. This suggests to those of us involved in grassroots struggle around the meeting of needs that the next Labour government will be receptive to pressure from below around what constitutes part of the social minimum.

It also suggests that serious thought has been given to the question of how a Labour government might avoid the problem of the Attlee government post-48, which, having accomplished the necessary programme of relief, ran out of steam. An open-ended policy that remains responsive to social needs as they shift and change requires that its administrators listen attentively to the ways in which those needs are stated and re-stated by popular movements. The relief of present suffering and the undoing of austerity are clear and urgent goals, and should not be understated. The restoration of what has been destroyed over the past decade is of critical importance, and should be central to any left politic within the UK. The ideas in this report move us towards that goal, but also suggest an opportunity to create a form of government that has the potential to be not just restorative, but transformative.

The criteria for analysing the usefulness of socialist politics, as the authors of State Intervention in Industry: A Workers’ Inquiry have argued, is less “in terms of their consistency as a programme for government” but “in terms of whether they provide a focus for and a means of building the political power of workers’ industrial and community based organisations, and of preparing those organisations to take control.”3 The concept of UBS—its centring of the dynamism of the social minimum as determined by struggle from below, as well as its long revolutionary horizon of decommodification—could have precisely this capacity to encourage, organise, and empower transformation from below. Moreover, the report emphasises a conception of socialism as not just the satisfaction of needs, but as a form of collective provision which nurtures positive forms of subjectivity and relationship:

Bus travel is not just a way to get from one place to another. On buses we rub shoulders, often literally, with others. It is a space for small acts of generosity: seats being given up for people more in need. It is a space where we all learn, and practice, what it means to live in a community. (p.11)

The bus, then, is both a social space and a socialist space. Socialism is precisely this transformation in how we relate to one another, and how we conceive of and experience those relationships. These relational transformations are also, as the above excerpt makes clear, deeply intertwined with forms of collective provision, public ownership, and being-together in shared spaces that are held in common.

If this transformative potential is to be realised, however, services need to be at the very least responsive to local needs; and in many cases radically democratised and locally-run. As Silvia Federici observed in 1975:

It is one thing to organise communally the way we want to eat (by ourselves, in groups) and then ask the State to pay for it, and it is the opposite thing to ask the State to organise our meals. In one case we regain some control over our lives, in the other we extend the State’s control over us.4

The provision of basic services by a top-down, centralised state not only risks being re-implicated into capital and its system of needs, but also keeps people from regaining that sense of control over their lives. During the TWT2019 panel ‘A Working Class Party is Something to Be’, Rhian E Jones described the forms of mutual aid, collectivity and support that occurred within Welsh mining communities in the 19th century, all of which were autonomous from the market and the state. Connecting this explicitly to the working class tradition of the autodidact, Jones made a strong case for the ways in which this sort of direct involvement in the reproduction of our own lives can build our confidence and expand our horizon of possibility, including the possibilities for forms of collective joy, generosity, self-education, and communal luxury. A UBS policy that can meet these needs alongside the needs usually articulated within narrow definitions of social necessity, would be truly radical and life-affirming.

In the spirit of the open potentiality of the report, we want to pose a few questions, both for John McDonnell and for the wider movement. We hope these questions will stimulate the kind of debate that is necessary in order to catalyse these revolutionary potentials.

  1. The report states that “UBS has often been counterposed to a Universal Basic Income [UBI]” as rival means of meeting needs in the context of contemporary capitalism (p.6), but suggests that the two need not be in competition. Most articulations of UBI, including Guy Standing’s recent report for John McDonnell, put forward, as Angela Mitropoulos notes, “a case for a ‘Quasi-Universal’ system of payments from which refugees and asylum seekers would be excluded, and for which those who have attained permanent residency would have to wait for two years before becoming eligible.” UBS necessarily dodges some of these questions because access to certain services, such as parks, cannot easily be limited or restricted. This gives UBS some significant advantages over UBI, from a socialist (that is, antiracist and pro-migrant) perspective. However, many of the existing services that comprise UBS—the NHS, for example—are increasingly enclosed and difficult for non-citizens or migrants to access, as demonstrated and struggled against by Docs Not Cops. How do we articulate the demand for extended universal basic services alongside and within the struggle to ensure that all who need these services are permitted to access them regardless of immigration status, citizenship, or any other factor?

  2. The potential revolutionary opening in the concept of UBS lies in the way that the concept centres pressure from below to expand the bundle of socially-recognised needs. How do we ensure that the content of this bundle does not become defined by the interests of those currently most able not only to make demands on the state, but to have those demands heard?

  3. How to make good on the ecological potential of UBS? This potential does not only lie in the shift in transport from cars to buses (p.11), but also in the ways in which needs are satisfied. UBS carries within it a conception of communal luxury whereby there is a massive expansion of wealth in the sense of access to use-values which works to limit individualised consumption. As the report argues, “libraries allow one book to circulate throughout a community, expanding imaginations along the way”. This using-up of resources is very different from privatised consumption of books, wherein multiple copies of the same book are purchased and read once. In a library system, the use-value of one book is equivalent to that of multiple privately-consumed books. What would it take to extend this approach to other areas of UBS, and to other resources?

  4. The report explicitly draws inspiration from the mining community of Tredegar (p.8), as well as socialist feminist struggles (p.9), and the Black Panther Party (p.7). The popular experimentation of Tredegar, for example, provided Aneurin Bevan with the blueprint for the universal state provision of healthcare. Given the systematic disempowerment and destruction of working class communities, and therefore our industrial and community organisations, how can a capacity for popular experimentation be reignited to the extent that it’s able to exert these influences once again? If a policy requires input from confident and inclusive popular movements in order to fulfil its transformative potential, what happens when those movements need rebuilding? How do we ensure that the party doesn’t lurch back to the merely paternalistic, top-down state provision of services?

  5. Food is clearly a basic need, but outside of free school meals, the wartime food services maintained by the 1945 Labour government, and the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program, the report does not consider food as part of the UBS ‘package’. Indeed, the report states that “public provision is most appropriate for goods and services whose quality is objective and not a matter of personal taste. When it comes to health, most people want the same thing: access to the best available medicine, delivered in a compassionate and professional manner. For goods like food or clothing, however, as soon as provision reaches above a basic level, different people will start to have wildly different tastes, preferences, and desires and the public sector is less equipped to cater for these needs.” (p.6) This is arguably true, and the report does imply that cash transfers are necessary in order to ensure that these needs are met whilst allowing for personal preference. We wonder, however, if there are means of satisfying the need for food (which, as well as being a biological need, includes the need for food we actually like and want to eat) outside of the consumer relation. Could vegetable boxes from local agricultural co-operatives be provided to every home? Could the party led by Britain’s most famous allotmenteer promise a massive extension of allotment provision, including a commitment to a genuine universality whereby those for whom allotments were initially intended are not excluded (to each according to their need!)? What other means of increasing access to the means of survival (thereby significantly countering proletarianisation) can we imagine?

  6. How does the revolution in needs and consumption within Labour’s programme relate to, support, and rely upon the revolution in production set out in the Alternative Models of Ownership agenda? How can the ways in which needs are met support the democratisation of the economy? For example, how could the provision of food boxes stimulate agricultural co-operatives?

New Socialist is seeking contributions that might respond to some of these questions, pose their own, entirely different, questions, or generally unfold the potential of UBS. Please email [email protected] with your ideas.

  1. Agnes Heller. (1974) 2018. The Theory of Need in Marx. London: Verso. p.97 

  2. Karl Marx. 1887. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Moscow: Progress Publishers. p.121 

  3. Coventry, Liverpool, Newcastle and North Tyneside Trades Councils. 1982. State Intervention in Industry: A Workers’ Inquiry. London: Spokesman. p.7 

  4. Silvia Federici. 1975. Wages Against Housework! Bristol and London: Power of Women Collective/Falling Wall Press. p.7