We are seeing a revival of the concept of basic guaranteed income (BI or GAI), both in Canada and internationally. The Ontario Liberal government is about to launch a pilot project. Prince Edward Island will do likewise, while other provincial administrations have expressed interest. Finland initiated a basic income experiment in 2016, and The Netherlands is soon to follow.
Basic income has its supporters and detractors on both left and right. Free-market and libertarian ideologues like Milton Friedman and Charles Murray see the possibility of eliminating publicly funded entitlements in favour of impoverished members of the working class having to purchase those services in the market. On the other hand, many conservatives fear a disincentive to work.
Positions on the left also vary. Basic income has been promoted as a solution to precarious work in the gig economy, as a way of liberating impoverished people from an oppressive welfare bureaucracy and as a panacea for the work-less world that some predict will result from robotization. But there are many who believe basic income in the current context is illusory.
Some on the left propose a ‘progressive’ version of basic income that would provide a net advance over existing benefits. No one wants to defend the current system of social assistance with its paternalistic bureaucracy and grossly inadequate level of support. A socialist society would guarantee decent social provision for all. The question of what form this should take remains hypothetical at this point.
Those advocating a ‘progressive’ version of basic income are acting from genuine concern for the impoverished, and frustration with the injustices of the current social welfare system. But in the harsh world of actually existing capitalism, basic income schemes offer the illusion of improvement in the lot of marginalized people while streamlining the existing social welfare system so as to diminish state responsibility and push individuals to purchase their needs privately.
Absent a socialist transformation, basic income schemes will reflect the priorities of capitalist governments. They will be grafted on to an austerity and privatization agenda. The aim is to move the impoverished into low wage precarious employment, provide a wage top-up to employers and give governments an exit route from services they currently provide. Ontario Liberal Premier, Kathleen Wynne sees basic income as a way of reducing government expenditures in housing, health care and other supports for the poor. Finland’s centre-right wing government will judge its basic income experiment on whether it moves the chronically unemployed into taking low wage jobs.
Labour has been on the defensive for almost 50 years. The relationship of class forces does not favour significant democratic or egalitarian policies orchestrated from above.
Labour’s traditional approach has been to fight for full employment at union rates, for a significant rise in the minimum wage, for adequate social assistance and unemployment benefits and for social entitlements that apply to the whole working class including impoverished and marginalized people. The labour movement has recognized the danger in means tested programs that break with the principle of universality.
It is naive to think that basic income can circumvent the capitalist labour market or transform the use of leisure time. The real transitional demand here is for a reduction in the work week with no loss of pay and a sharing of work. Within that framework, massive retraining and expansion of unionized employment in green and socially useful occupations is the route to go.
Some sort of income guarantee would be integral to a socialist society. But this would not be the principal mechanism for social provision. Cuba gives us a glimpse. Basic needs such as housing, transport, health care and education are provided out of central state revenues and are free for every Cuban at the point of use or in some cases as a subsidy. There is a big difference between social programs as universal entitlements provided out of a collective pooling of resources, and services obtained by individuals from private providers as a market transaction. Both may exist, but any aspiring socialist society would and must try to limit the commodification of basic services.
If introduced by capitalist governments, as looks increasingly likely, basic income schemes will require the labour movement and socialists to respond. Socialist Action will evaluate any specific basic income program according to:
- whether it lifts the beneficiaries out of poverty representing a net gain over existing social assistance benefits;
- whether it will have a positive effect on wages and job quality not acting as a wage subsidy to employers and accelerating the trend to bad jobs at low pay and
- whether it will protect existing services to which the impoverished are entitled, and provide the scope to expand access.
In formulating its position. Socialist Action should not lag behind the most advanced elements in the labour movement who are highly critical of basic income (see John Clarke’s and David Bush’s arguments and the positions adopted by CUPE Ontario and OPSEU).
To summarize, for the foreseeable, basic income will be initiated from above by capitalist governments requiring a response on our part. But we believe the main battles lie elsewhere. What the working class gains, it has to fight for. We look to advances in the class struggle to better conditions for the impoverished. Battles for unionization, higher wages and benefits, mobilizing to obtain decent social housing, to abolish barriers to higher education, to win free public transit and defend the most vulnerable and exploited workers – that is the way to strengthen the confidence, self-organization and unity of working people and change the balance of forces in society.