Universal Basic Income – no tool for liberation


We wrote the following as a contribution for discussion at a recent event on UBI in London…

Can’t buy me love – UBI ain’t working for workers’ liberation

Parts of the radical left see the Universal Basic Income (UBI) demand as a potential vehicle to a) ‘make people think’ about productive potentials and wealth distribution in capitalism; and b) unify a (fragmented and atomised) working class through a common demand. We think that the demand ain’t helpful for the following reasons:

  • The demand takes a problematic starting point. In capitalism individual income disguises the fact that in order to live we depend on each other. The wage in particular disguises exploitative relations as a ‘fair deal’. Capital and the state seem to be the productive social forces which hand out an individual income to us – although it is the social work of all of us which makes us survive. In capitalism the social cooperation of workers appears as the power of capital and the state – the UBI demand doesn’t help to question this. This also means that the UBI doesn’t help us discover the potential power that would be needed to enforce itself against state and capital. It remains a nice, but lame idea – even in a reformist sense.
  • UBI doesn’t help challenge the hierarchy within the working class. Division of labour is hierarchical, some people clean up mess all day, others can think creatively about Apps or PhDs. Some are isolated in the home, others socialise at work. It is also no wonder that the demand is often raised within a European framework, cementing global inequalities within the proletariat. The focus on a general income does not challenge the destructive nature of capitalist production to both humans and nature.
  • The UBI also fits nicely within the restructuring of the welfare state – it is no coincidence that the ruling class promotes Universal Credits. In Germany in the 1990s parts of the (not so) radical left raised the demand of 1,500 Deutsche Mark per month – roughly £1,200 in current terms. This sounds a lot if you are healthy, live in a squat and don’t have kids. If the state had levelled all incomes of proletarians who don’t work (pensioners, sick, unemployed) to 1,500 DM at the time, they would have saved a lot of money and cut a lot of benefit bureaucracy!
  • The UBI demand is based on a fucked up relationship between the (middle class) left and working class. The idea that ‘UBI would give people more time and security to be politically active’ sees ‘activists’ as the main social agent. This view is in a historical continuity with the paternalistic and abstract approach of ‘transitional demands’ as some kind of consciousness raising trick: workers are thick and divided, we have to unite them behind a demand which they understand – in the process we will explain the more radical stuff to them. Get lost!

There is no easy way out. We have to start from what workers are already doing and from the material divisions within the class. These cannot be overcome by some external policies, but only in and through struggle. It is not wrong to put forward demands, but the question of how to organise and expand our struggle under concrete conditions is the main one. We have to analyse the organic links between unemployment, reproductive work, casual jobs, collective power in the work place – as workers and co-militants! For that purpose we circulate our west London newspaper in front of job centres, warehouses, factories and housing estates and try to link solidarity networks with workplace groups.

A common revolutionary strategy can only be found in the ongoing struggles: what do prison hunger strikes, protests against benefit sanctions, riots against racist/anti-poor police violence, protests against migrant deportations or ‘women strikes’ against sexist/anti-poor state measures, strikes of Uber workers or in fast food chains for higher wages and discontent amongst industrial workers have in common? Where do different segments of the class meet each other – and what prevents them from doing so? Let’s look into the mirror…