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Considering and Critiquing Universal Basic Income: Introduction

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This article was written by Noah Zatz and published originally on LPE blog on 2/8/2021.

This post is part of our symposium on universal basic income. 

This week we’re opening up a symposium on universal basic income (UBI). UBI is both an important topic in its own right and a useful lens for examining recurrent virtues and vices in projects of partial decommodification and universal provision.

UBI typically is defined as an ongoing periodic cash payment (income) to pretty much everyone (universal) at a high enough level to meet (or at least make a substantial dent in) minimum subsistence needs (basic). UBI’s universality also entails unconditionality: no formal eligibility conditions, such as past or present work requirements. The strong form of universality associated with UBI also typically involves formal equality in grant size: everyone gets it and in the same amount. This entails rejecting means-testing (itself deeply connected to conditionality), the targeting of benefits only to those who lack other sources of income.

UBI’s intrigue lies in part in the improbably wide cast of characters who have promoted it in some form. In left-learning academic and policy circles, the current UBI revival often is traced to work by the “analytical Marxism” school, beginning with Robert Van Der Veen & Philippe Van Parijs’ 1986 “A Capitalist Road to Communism” and reflected recently in Erik Olin Wright’s How To Be An Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century. The Movement for Black Lives also embraced UBI in its visionary 2016 policy platform. Yet UBI also has been embraced by elements on the right, including Charles Murray of Bell Curve and Losing Ground infamy. And recently UBI vaulted to public prominence through Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign, which represented a particular liberal articulation of UBI offered by Silicon Valley types as a salve for technological unemployment. For some, this eclecticism is disqualifying, like nominally alternative music that gets suspiciously popular; for others, it stokes hopes for transformative political breakthroughs.

This contemporary range roughly reprises an earlier iteration in the 1960s and early 70s focused on a guaranteed minimum income (GI or GMI) such as a negative income tax. Like UBI, a GI maintains a universal, unconditional income floor but softens universality by incorporating means-testing. GI was promoted by Milton Friedman from the right, by a host of anti-poverty liberals in the Office of Economic Opportunity, and from the left by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. GI also formed a core demand of the National Welfare Rights Organization, which centered the socially reproductive labor, both paid and unpaid, of Black women. That demand continues to resonate—and to provoke controversy—from a variety of feminist perspectives.

For the LPE community, perhaps the most salient feature of UBI is its capacity to both decommodify and decenter labor. Decommodify by making space for work outside of labor markets, but also decenter by providing income unconditionally without requiring activity articulated as productive, whether inside or outside the market. But this decommodification only goes so far, as evidenced by UBI’s organization around money. Liberation from labor markets is institutionalized as access to the cash necessary for market consumption. It is on this point that Lydia Nicholson’s symposium contribution will enter the fray, in praise of in-kind provision over cash. Delving into the money nexus more structurally, Raúl Carrillo analyzes the risks of embedding programs that pump cash into people’s hands within regressive frameworks of fiscal and monetary policy that naturalize markets and mask the state by treating policies like UBI as redistributive transfers. Notably, these points about monetization apply substantially to variants such as GI but also a job guarantee (JG). Unfortunately, the symposium won’t delve much into the longstanding intra-left debate about UBI vs. JG vs. both. JG arguably pulls back from UBI’s unconditionality but in the name of a richer form of solidarity through partially decommodified work.

UBI’s focus on decentering income distribution through labor markets also raises recurring questions about LPE’s frequent focus on markets (and neoliberalism) as the driver of inequality that must be subjected to democratic control. Rejecting market rationing often yields calls for universal provision characteristic not only of UBI in its money form but also calls to provide directly “for all”–whether in health care, education, or housing. These may neglect other (or intersecting) structures of inequality, including those of race and gender. One way LPE can respond is through a more capacious account of the economic institutions of contemporary capitalism. For instance, families structure both inter-generational (and often intra-racial) transmission of economic inequality and vast amounts of deeply gendered nonmarket socially reproductive labor. In her contribution, Almaz Zelleke will draw from Marxist feminist traditions to highlight how family labor remains in relationship to capital and to defend UBI precisely for crossing the market/nonmarket boundary among workers.

The burgeoning interest in racial capitalism likewise calls for a more expansive account both of how markets are constituted and function but also of how capital accumulation operates through racialized processes of coercive extraction and dispossession. Disconnecting income from labor markets does little to rectify those inequalities and indeed risks legitimating them through the formalism of equal payments. Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò will explore how UBI might mesh with, rather than displace, a wider landscape of efforts toward justice, including through integration with reparations. International borders and national migration controls are crucial enforcers of global racial stratification driven by colonialism and reproduced domestically through hierarchies of immigration status. Jennifer Gordon will press on where noncitizens fit into UBI’s notion of universality by delving into both immigrant exclusion from COVID-19 federal CARES Act $1,200 direct payments and countervailing state and local efforts to provide relief to undocumented people.

Considering racialized labor coercion also highlights some limits to UBI’s core appeal to leftists through provision of a labor market exit option. As my post will discuss, attending to the criminal legal system as an economic institution—one that extracts both cash and labor through racialized state violence—underlines how limited UBI and its cognates may seem in their aspirations to universality and unconditionality. Indeed, all the contributions to the symposium, whether critical or supportive of UBI, might most fruitfully orient us not to the narrow band between UBI and the status quo but to the wide horizon along which UBI might operate as part of broader transformations.

See original publication on LPE blog.

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