The rise of N-UBIs (non-universal basic incomes) and a national-populist ‘commons’
by Angela Mitropoulos (@Mitropoulos_A) on May 19, 2019



The idea of a universal basic income has become a staple of contemporary political discourse. It calls out in circumstances of uncertainty—even as the history of basic incomes has been somewhat obscured in the process, and the patterning and different kinds of uncertainty (precarious work, poverty, ‘cultural anxiety,’ risk, climate change) have often been conflated and attached to widely divergent politics. Yet few, if any, proposals put forward under the heading of a UBI are in fact either universal or as unconditional as might be supposed (or suggested by the label)—as with Andrew Yang’s proposal for a “freedom dividend” in the US, or others advanced in the UK.

That is the case with the report written by Guy Standing, the founder of the Basic Income Network, for the UK Labour Party. Published by the Progressive Economic Forum, and titled Basic Income as Common Dividends: Piloting a Transformative Policy (2019), there are three main points that I think are worth addressing: by its own admission, it does not make an argument for a universal basic income but rather for what it describes as a “commons dividend”; it glosses over the likely impact of this basic income on a stratified, ‘precarious’ labour market; and it promotes a naturalist (that is, nationalist, implicitly raced and gendered) understanding of “the commons”.

This piece does not offer an exhaustive reading of the report, but some remarks on these three related and major points—important, by my view, for thinking more about the definition and re-distribution of uncertainty that it puts forward, the ways in which it seeks to both shift and limit the discussion around wages and the right (or entitlement) to social incomes, and so as to explain its distinctive (and contested) understanding of ‘the commons’ from which it derives its concept of goods and rights (and, by extension, implies ‘bads’ and ‘wrongs,’ and defines ‘non-entitled’ categories of persons). For while the report is focused on one policy, and may well simply be a pitch to the three electorates that are projected as the site of its pilot schemes, it is also situated within and informed by long-simmering debates over the meaning, definitions and implications of ‘the commons.’

Who is included?

First, the report does not—as was claimed in a Guardian article —propose to “trial [a] universal basic income.” On the contrary, the report puts forward 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. The report suggests that these classes of persons would be relegated to other schemes (2019: 9). What those other schemes or their conditions would be is unspecified; but it would be reasonable to assume that their payments would be lower and/or they would include conditions as yet undisclosed—otherwise, there is no plausible reason to have a separate scheme.

Either way, Standing does not explain why refugees or asylum seekers, who have already met a series of criteria, should be excluded; nor why permanent residents, who have similarly met certain stringent conditions so as to be granted residency, should have to wait. Is there a good reason for such exclusions, one that would advance the power of workers in relation to employers? I seriously doubt it. Describing such restrictions as “a pragmatic rule of entitlement” (2019: 9) is, I would suggest, a way to avoid making an explicit, reasoned argument for why they are deemed necessary. Perhaps capitulating to racism and xenophobia is considered electorally “pragmatic”—though this raises a further question about which conflicts are considered priorities for a presumably bold ‘transformational’ approach and which are, by contrast, rendered as a necessity akin to a natural law. The guiding philosophical assumption that makes these choices can, I think, be traced to a naturalist understanding of what it means to be or possess a property or attribute ‘in common’—but more on nationalist concepts of entitlement in a moment.

In the absence of any expressly stated argument for such exclusions however, the report silently endorses the most prominent of xenophobic claims, as with those made by Wolfgang Streeck (2016: 1, 5), that migrants and refugees are a “burden” on the welfare system—as if migrants and refugees living in the UK are not, for instance, subject to the payment of taxes along with everyone else. That this calculus of economic ‘burdens’ and ‘benefits’ is not so readily applied to the lives of citizens (or at least the figural ‘average’) is an index of its nationalist provenance and selectivity, though one that often creeps over into broader eugenic evaluations of ‘productive worth’ and charges of ‘parasitism’.

What, moreover, would it mean for the structuring of the labour market as a whole to ensure that a pool of workers in the UK could not access a basic income? On the one hand, the lowest social incomes (or ‘safety net’) constitutes the actual ‘floor’ of wage levels and conditions. Given the report’s proposal of a two- or three-tiered system of social incomes, the proposed “commons dividend” will not be that ‘floor’ in the UK—even leaving aside that the effect of a basic income on incomes will not be the same for those who can access it.

At the expense of what?

On the other hand—and to the second point under discussion—those in receipt of a “commons dividend” will be disinclined to demand higher wages from their employers. That is, the report suggests that “while a basic income might encourage some employers to offer lower wages,” it insists that it would nevertheless “strengthen the worker’s bargaining position” and not place a downward pressure on wages (2019: 43, emphasis added). There is evidence to suggest that tax credits have acted as a subsidy and put downward pressure on wages, yet there is no evidence to suppose that a basic income would not have similar effects. That is, if the level of income available on the basic income is not liveable, it will not boost the bargaining position of low-wage workers but instead alleviate the pressure on employers to, among other things, raise wages or shift the structure of wage contracts away from intermittence or zero-hour contracts.

As to the proposed level of the basic income, the report puts forward a series of models for its proposed pilot schemes—ranging from £100 (and $50 for each child) per week; £70 (and £20); £50; or an unspecified cash grant. It also suggests that some pilot schemes offering the upper range of benefits would be “aspirational” and “set [at] amounts that the government could aim to be able to afford within the lifetime of a five-year electoral term, but which might be deemed impractical for cost reasons in the first year of government” (2019: 48-50). While pilot schemes can be useful, the reluctance to state that a basic income would be set at a liveable (rather than “aspirational” or “practical”) rate is concerning.

Regarding the proposed level of a basic income and pinning one’s hopes on it rising in due course through growing support: there are good reasons to insist on the universality of so-called public goods. It gives everyone a stake in the maintenance and flourishing of those goods. But that point is undermined by the creation of classes of persons who are excluded from accessing the public good, and it is far more relevant to the organisation of services such as healthcare or education (where increased expenditure increases overall quality) than it is to direct payments—in this case the actual stake in a source of income decreases in accordance with an individual’s reliance on that income. Someone for whom a basic income does not represent a critical or consequential source will be disinclined to insist that governments raise it to a liveable amount. And so, the level at which a basic income is initially introduced (beyond any “aspirational” pilot scheme) is more likely than not to remain static in the foreseeable. This is not an inevitable outcome, of course.

Yet the difference between a liveable and below-subsistence social income is not only one of degree—it gives rise to distinct and divergent functions, one of which is preserving systems of intermittent, zero-hour and low wage contracts through, in effect, the provision of a government subsidy on low-waged work, the buffering of employer-employee conflicts, and the displacement of those conflicts from the workplace.

Additionally, whereas the report proposes the removal of behavioural conditions for receipt of the income, Labour’s John McDonnell suggested, per the Guardian article, that while “people can spend the money how they like… it is intended for study, to set up a business or leave work to care for a loved one.” How such ‘intentions’ would become manifest is unclear, other than through the introduction of conditions. There are ways and ways of encoding conditions in policy: through stated behavioural criteria, or purportedly ‘universal’ laws that treat those in receipt of income as if all other conditions are equal or ‘common’—which they are not.

Along those lines, McDonnell’s claim that the N-UBI is intended to encourage people to “leave work to care for a loved one” distinctly connects this proposal to the first iteration of a basic income in Conservative calls for a “New Social Contract” in the UK. First put forward in the mid-1940s during a period of high unemployment and a series of strikes (and revived in similar circumstances with the election of the Thatcher government in 1979), the core of the 1940s “New Social Contract” was the proposed introduction of a basic income (Mitropoulos 2012: 28, fn.22). Both the author of that report in the 1940s and, implicitly, McDonnell contend that the role of a basic income is to bring down the costs of social reproduction—in other words, care work and housework—while discouraging some people (in practice, mostly women) from participation in the formal labour market so as to facilitate an increase in (tacitly but by implication, mostly men’s) employment. Proponents of basic income in the 1940s were preoccupied with (white) men’s unemployment and erroneously viewed women in waged work as its cause (much as some blame migrants now for wage stagnation). Today, there is perhaps a longer discussion to be had here about the effects of Brexit and the end of freedom of movement on, say, the healthcare system in the UK—and what it means, in this context, that subsequent increases in the costs of that care might be offset by treating a basic income as a de facto incentive to care work or ‘housework’.

The inclination to treat a basic income as a means of lowering the costs of social reproduction by removing that labour from paid work—and thereby from a proximate class conflict that would define it as ‘class’ rather than ‘gendered’ conflict—is nevertheless reflected in this report. The report states that “we must overcome the arbitrary distinction between ‘work’ and ‘non-work’ and give as much if not more value to forms of work that are not labour.” However, the report does not, in fact, propose to “give as much if not more value” to “‘housework’”. What the report means by ‘giving value’ to ‘housework’ is making (unpaid) care work, community work and ‘housework’ visible in statistical measures (2019: 23), so as to strengthen the argument for a “commons dividend.”

That is, while Standing repeatedly gestures toward feminist accounts of work, he mysteriously fails to address the most consequential aspect of those analyses: namely, that presumably private decisions about who will leave waged work “to care for a loved one” or engage predominantly in “‘housework’” are neither arbitrary nor intrinsic to some abstract individual but, to the contrary, determined and shaped by gendered (and raced) pay discrepancies, laws, ingrained practices, and norms. Indeed, the report does not advance an argument for equal pay or measures to accomplish this. Remarkably, it instead posits a theological account in which wage differences are regarded as the result of purportedly God-given “unequal talents,” against which it suggests a basic income would offer “a compensatory adjustment” (2019: 6).

Indeed, distinctly gendered-raced approaches to the UBI are far more prevalent than might be supposed. Charles Murray and the conservative Enterprise Institute, for instance, have also proposed a purportedly “universal basic income” in the United States (but restricted to citizens), and for whom it explicitly represents a means of reversing ‘cultural decline’ and the end of welfare state ‘dependency’ by encouraging “traditional marriage,” child-bearing and care, and, in Murray’s view, would “make the traditional family more autonomous and responsible” in the neoliberal sense of ‘self-regulating’ private households (2016: 73).

The other side of these reckonings concerning care work and healthcare is the impact of a ‘commons dividend’ on those with disabilities. Prior to the appearance of this report, Disabled People Against Cuts published a comprehensive response to proposals for a UBI. A quasi-universal system that renders varied abilities and needs marginal or relegates them to separate schemes—outside definitions of ‘common’ or purportedly shared attributes—is, in their account, a way of unravelling rather than strengthening long-standing demands around healthcare, welfare and work (2019: 26).

The Commons, the Uncommon, and the Undercommons

Thirdly and by way of a summary: the report is predicated on a nationalist, raced and gendered view of ‘the commons’, one derived from a naturalist (or oikonomic) understanding of what it is that is held in common and by whom.

What is perhaps most striking about the report is the way that it shifts from a claim that “we should honour the principle of social inheritance”—according to which the basic income represents “a modest social ‘dividend’ on our common wealth, a form of public inheritance”—to re-defining that “common wealth” in restricted terms, as “an expression that we are all part of a national community sharing the benefits of the national public wealth created over our collective history” (2019: 5, 42, 8). It takes some effort to claim that the “common wealth” accrued over the history of the UK and Britain was not extracted from a vast empire, colonies and, for much of that history, unpaid and enslaved labour. The reluctance to address the meaning of entitlement that this narrowing yields has consequences, including the implicit treatment of migrants from Britain’s ex-colonies as ‘burdensome’ or not entitled to a basic income. Moreover, far from disrupting the logic of private property, this simply scales it up to the idea of a heritable “public” but still private (ie., exclusive and presumably unique) property that underpins national-populist (and racial) concepts of right, and tacitly advances concepts of ‘wrong’ (the ‘burdensome’ migrants and refugees). As to the source of this imputed right, the report states this plainly: land, or territory, held ‘in common.’

While the aim of removing conditions for the receipt of a social income is laudable, crucial even, the report seeks to replace overtly stated behavioural conditions with a codified national identity derived from treating landed property as a pivotal trope of rights—a ‘soft’ populist version of ‘blood and soil,’ or perhaps that amalgam of land, property inheritance, birth and birthplace that emerged from the eighteenth-century agricultural manor and English liberalism. This naturalist account of ‘the commons’ is not simply a metaphor, however, given suggestions to relegate ‘recent’ migrants and refugees to another system or encourage a return to ‘housework.’

The idea of ‘the commons’ has been revived in recent years by various writers as a way of putting forward a normative case for a range of economic policy reform, including a UBI (see for instance: Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen 2001; Hardt and Negri 2001, 2009). This has occurred both against and in the shadow of its infamous, tragic and neomalthusian rendition (Hardin 1968), but there is of course a much longer history to the concept of and debates around the commons (see Mitropoulos 2016). Others have highlighted concerns over the more or less implicit treatment of the “undercommons” and the “uncommon” involved in a nostalgic retrieval of English common law and the ‘commonwealth,’ particularly as these ideas inform notions of entitlement and impact on responses to contemporary relations of exploitation and the extraction of value in global supply chains and labour markets (Goldman 1998; Suzack 2006; Mitropoulos 2012: 158–59, passim; Harney and Moten 2013).

In this instance, Standing’s naturalist understanding of ‘the commons’ has recast the idea of a UBI into that of a “commons dividend,” and in such a way that underscores many of those concerns over the active creation of an undercommons and the derogation of the uncommon.

To be sure, policy and its effects are ultimately shaped by the power that is wielded in social conflicts—which is precisely why clear-eyed criticism and a preparedness to fight over distinct stakes is more transformative than placing one’s hopes in the renewal of a mythic and idealised ‘common wealth.’


Bibliography

Disabled People Against Cuts. 2019. “UBI: Solution or Illusion? The Implications of Universal Basic Income for Disabled People in Britain.”

Goldman, Michael. 1998. Privatizing Nature: Political Struggles for the Global Commons. London: Pluto Press.

Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science, no. 13: 1243–48.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2001. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

———. 2009. Commonwealth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions.

Mies, Maria, and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen. 2001. “Defending, Reclaiming and Reinventing the Commons.” Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue Canadienne d’études du développement 22 (4): 997–1023.

Mitropoulos, Angela. 2012. Contract & Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions.

———. 2016. “The Commons.” In Gender: Nature, edited by Iris van der Tuin, 165–81. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan.

Murray, Charles. 2016. In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State. Washington DC: Rowman & Littlefield.

Press Association. 2019. “Labour Would Trial Universal Basic Income If Elected, John McDonnell Says.” Guardian, May 12, 2019, sec. Society.

Standing, Guy. 2019. Basic Income as Common Dividends: Piloting a Transformative Policy. A Report for the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Progressive Economic Forum.

Streeck, Wolfgang. 2016. “Exploding Europe: Germany, the Refugees and the British Vote to Leave.” 31. Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, University of Sheffield.

Suzack, Cheryl. 2006. “Theorizing the Politics of Common Ground.” Postcolonial Text 2 (3): 1–6.


author

Angela Mitropoulos (@Mitropoulos_A)

Angela Mitropoulos is a Sydney-based academic, the author of Contract & Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia (2012), and has written on precariousness, borders and welfare policy over many years. Her current research project is ‘Infrastructure and Uncommon Forms’.

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