The conflict arc of Basic Income
Let’s face it. Basic Income seems unthinkable in most capitalist western democracies.
Most voters wouldn’t want it, corporations sure as hell don’t want it and by and large government parties can’t be bothered with the idea. The implementation pathway for such a social project as Basic Income seems wrought with challenges. Try engage some US Libertarians on the very basis of the idea of Basic Income and in a few days casual debate you’ll end up with an exhaustive series of arguments why the concept is “morally” unacceptable. Most these arguments are a mix of personal ideological preferences (taxation stifles innovation, freedom, small state) versus moral arguments (nonviolence principle, property arguments, taxation is evil, free money destroys people’s souls).
In stark opposition with these points of view (that basic income would be immoral) is the inescapable realization that as unemployment will go up, large numbers of people will become increasingly desperate. And as more people would slide in to inability to generate money to pay the necessary bills, the very model of the state as ‘protector of the vulnerable’ comes under siege, and general demand for more permanent solutions aside from the prevalent (and arguably broken) welfare model should be definition sharply increase. In other words – the more people become desperate, the more they’ll turn to politics to demand some form of change.
The optimist side in my thinking has regarded this as a ‘sequitur’; mass unemployment will instill demand for basic income. Whatever democratic entitlements, paired with the ability to effectively agitate against excessive privilege (unionization, protest, sabotage, revolt – or any of many less savory feedback mechanisms) will offer elements in the state to work to implement a basic income.
I should dismantle this certainty with several arguments why the described feedback mechanism for “the emergence of a stark trek kind of Utopia” might not be so causally certain after all.
1. Anticipating forces
If I could have foreseen technological unemployment in (say) the 1980s as a near certainty of current progress, others could have foreseen this as well. For me I can only say I felt deep intuitive certainty as far back as the mid 1980s this was bound to happen “within a few decades”. This could lead me to conclude that if I was able to deliberate on this, many others would have experienced the same compelling sense of urgency. If that’s actually the case, there might have been a concerted effort, or potentially even some measure of political alarm in some privileged circles (an effort going considerably further back than the 1980s) to proactively plan against any such “neo-socialist” contingency. I might even argue with some measurure of unease that many political movements of the 1980s and 1990s (thatcherism, reagonomics, neoconservatism) have been precisely such – prepare the world in all kinds of ways to actively resist anything redistributionist. There has been for 30 years a rather concerted political mobilization of money and ideological vectoring (one might say, vicious anger) for anything that might conceivably lead to Basic Income. I might argue “They” saw this coming a long time ago and they started planning a counter-offensive a long time ago. I realize that is a speculative conspiracy-laden statement, but I would emphasize this in only the most general terms. While in the 1980s socialism and communism was looking pretty much dying as an ideology it should have been clear that some people would try to come up with something new. That new thing is turning out to potentially be Basic Income, and now we find a considerable mobilization of media, academia, politics, ideology and electoral consensus building polarized against anything like that. This might conceivably not be coincidence.
2. Other deleterious developments.
If I do not succumb to conspiracy thinking with regards to conservative elements in society having been always on their guard “against new forms of socialism that might” emerge along the way there are certainly other pervasive arguments against redistribution building.
I can easily invoke the triple specter of climate change, resource depletion paired with technological unemployment. All three together have the potential to severely affect the nett worth and the relative spending power (before or after any major economic upheaval) of the most rich fraction percent on the planet. Yes I conclude that in all countries that democracy plays second fiddle to the interests of the “absurdly” rich at the top, and if we look at the probable consequences of the above three we instantly see threats to established privilege. So it isn’t just one, it is several existential threats to the hegemony of entrenched political, economic, military, media and other (religious?) elites.
These people own a lot of money (power, resources, investments, capital, intellectual property, land) and in the shocks delivered by respectively climate change, depletion of natural resources (in particular oil) as well as devaluation of labor significance (mass-unemployment resulting from these two we see great potential of deflation of assets. There are many reasons for deflation to occur – Markets are pathologically oversaturated with products, and nobody can afford buying anymore. Once the middle classes are forced to divest from consumerism, the elites lose control pretty much overnight.
Which brings me to the idea of collapse proofing (arguably inspired by William Gibson, who introduced me to the charming concept of “recession proofing industries”) as a stopgap measure taken by elites to make sure they are left with as much cake after any upheaval passes.
Many of the absurd economic developments in the last few years can easily be parsed in the light of rich people “recessionproofing”. Germany is now offering rich market parties to park money in Germany at negative interest. Think about that for a second. Rich people are now so terrified of losing substantial part of their assets they pay Germany to keep an eye over their money. This no longer speculative. (1, 2, 3).
The world is becoming unsustainably complex and these aren’t strange, novel ideas. For anyone with some emotional detachment any dispassionate assessment of current trends is no longer esoteria. In other words – anyone who has seen Mad Max in 1979 might have had a clue a long time ago this type of turbulence was down the road. That more or less implies that these people might have been preparing with increasing urgency.
This is the moment when some people bring up 911, and I will not add fuel to that particular fire, other than mention it was bloody convenient it happened. And I am perplexed that not many more people see how suspiciously, childishly convenient the event was.
3 – Any system that threatens entrenched privilege is coming under attack
Since the fall of the Soviet Union the western world has been subjected to a thorough, often ridiculous barrage of images and diatribes extolling just how bad communism and socialism failed, and just how successful in comparison capitalism is. Any superficial analysis of this media construct reveals the established discourse on the collapse of the Soviet Union is utterly untrue.
The problem is that just saying it, a large number of people for whom this contrivance isn’t so immediately obvious – I just cursed in church. “One cannot in all seriously consider the idea that there is any merit left in things such as socialism or communism”. Likewise – “One can not in this day and age doubt that there is any reasonable alternative to capitalism, globalism and free markets”. This ideological straight-jacket has descended on all debate in the western world and this consensus is about as manufactured a commodity as pink slime.
It is said, but the failure of “interesting” ideologies such as ANON, the Pirate Party, Occupy Wall Street, The Zeitgeist Movement, The Venus Project – they are all associated with counterculture, leftists, progressives, revolutionaries and potentially interpreted as troublemakers that might conceivably rock the boat on this, the biggest and most obscene consumerist party the world has ever had. In other words we face the results of a blanket media war impressing upon us half a century that witches do wicked things and as such must be shunned.
This is pervasive and transcend politics. To frighten you a little – Internet might be regarded as one of these disruptive phenomenon. Internet blindsided established interests and now we see unambiguous attempts to roll back anything that threatens established privilege. Internet is one of many revolutionary technologies, and anything revolutionary is now becoming a thing for governments and corporations to actively try to resist.
4. Humans go against their own interests.
The biggest obstacle I have come to see for the implementation of a Basic Income is the family of human irrationalities, in particular racism, right wing extremism and (stretching it a little) reactionary conservatism. In times of sharp economic downturn people arguably do not automatically become more solidarity, people do not automatically acknowledge self-evident solutions, and people do not trust that the state can help them in any way.
The contrary may be more true. A sharply increased unemployment creates for a grim, dystopian society with right wing extremists, and apathetic, shell-shocked consumers. Voters become passive and listless. Educational standards degenerate. The more distressed people become the more they start thinking in black & whites. In effect when crisis hits most people go a little nuts and we don’t even have to rely on conspiracies of media-infused hatred for immigrants or leftists (which is clearly happening all around the world) to conclude that Basic Income would not be instinctively perceive as a shake & bake solution. In fact, the worse it gets, the worse an idea like Basic Income might terrify the typical voter.
So what we are left with is to realize that we face an ever tightening funnel into the future (especially for the next 2-5 decades) where from a detached rational perspective Basic Income might become ever more arguable, plausible and defensible, but at the grassroots level, Basic Income might become increasingly unlikely to be implemented.
It is quite like the discovery of America. In and around 1450 the moment that someone might conceivably sail to the americas was large but steadily decreasing. When Columbus sailed the odds were already turning unlikely and the window of opportunity for any large westward voyages was shrinking. Half century later in the 1500s nobody might have had the political will, money or vision to pull it off, and we might have delayed the discovery of the Americas literally centuries later.
I can’t convince anyone with sheer monumental force of arguments that Basic Income (if implemented wisely) would be an extremely good thing. The arguments have been discussed and it is obvious. What however we must conclude is that in order top get this Newer Deal done in the developed world we may have to face quite painful odds. In other words, the more we’ll need it, the uglier the fight is gonna get.
This isn’t something ‘simple’ like the abolition of slavery, or suffrage, or the independence of the US colonies from the British Crown. Each of those may have had significance consequences for the coffers of many very rich people world wide, the drawbacks of each of those political shifts may have had some tangible benefits as well, primarily for the very rich and most creative lateral thinkers.
The implementation of Basic Income (especially if done in a way the “precariat” might conceive of as desirable) would be different. Europe falls, and a Basic Income would somehow get implemented, that would probably half the monetary privilege of the aforementioned world elites. If the US would also go down and implement something like it, that would mean another half of the prestige of these people would be ripped from the elites in mere years.
Face it – we live in a serf economy. We are all born un-free and scared, and that allows those in charge of the system to reap absurd benefits and profits from society at the expense of the lower-class part of society. The implementation of a Basic Income (in particularly if its implementation would prove to be very popular) would more or less castrate the money, wealth and barter value of the extremely rich to a fraction of the current bloat.
And as I conjecture openly, they have reason to know this, and to sneak Basic Income part the world’s politicians is increasingly becoming something as challenging a proposal as sneaking the Ring in to Mordor.
In a follow-up article I will try and explore how vicious the conflict between these two energies in society might become, and I will try to explore how basic income may still be implemented.