“Bourgeois society is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.’ - Karl Marx
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is poised to become the lynchpin issue of the 2020 American federal election. An out-of-left-field candidate named Andrew Yang, and his ‘Freedom Divdend’ payment of $1,000 a month, is grabbing headlines and catapulting him into the Democrat Party’s primary camapign debates. While he is not yet polling anywhere near the top-tier frontrunners (Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders), his surging online popularity is a clear sign that this issue will crop up in the debates and be given national prominence. Andrew Yang is not a socialist, he is very much a capitalist and as such wants to keep the current economic system afloat.
The recent surge in popularity for UBI is derived mainly from a fear that increasing automation, ongoing offshoring, and emerging AI developments will displace millions of jobs in the near-future and put a permanent end to creative destruction. And, so the argument goes, “the people” should receive a slice of the wealth generated from automation to allieviate hardships and promote social cohesion. Proponents of UBI tend to focus on the positive morality of giving people money because they deserve it, but they tend to gloss over the negative underpinnings of their argument. They are quite right in their assumption that without UBI society could very well fall into chaos. Maybe it should.
UBI is nothing more than an elaborate scheme to keep the current economic system afloat and prevent mass social unrest. In the wake of eventual economice collapse, droves of unemployed proletariat would finally realize how badly they’ve been screwed over by an economic system that never cared about them to begin with. It is at its core a form of overt bribery: “Here buddy, take this $1000 a month and promise not to riot and overthrow the system!”
Since the exponential expansion of automation over the past 30 years, the economy has been serving an increasingly narrower and narrower slice of society...and our political system has utterly failed to cope with counterproductive income inequality. UBI does not address the core of the issue, that in a capitalist economy you will have people left behind and, unless you pay those people off, they will create massive problems for society.
The undeniable component of Marxism, that has held true for the past 150 years, is that workers continue to create more and more wealth for the bourgeoisie. However, it seems as though the bougeousie (in conjunction with working class) have unwittingly created the means for their own demise: widescale automation. Capitalism will no longer require an underclass to be exploited, they can simply be discarded entirely.
When Marx said that “the wealth of the bourgeoise depends on the work of the proletariat” there is no possible way he could have foreseen a society wherein the work of the proletariate was no longer needed.
The approaching automation revolution cannot be explained by our typical economic theories. Adam Smith’s core ideas about capitalism being a system which channels our base instincts into productive social activity begin to break down when the system no longer needs us. A UBI program will do little to alleviate the feelings of hopelessness, and a loss of purpose, that lies at the heart of many of our modern day socio-economic challenges (the opioid epidemic being the primary example of this reality in the hollowed out industrial areas of America, a tell tale sign of things to come regardless of UBI).
It is impossible to determine exactly how many jobs will be lost to automation in the coming years, but the indications are not looking good. Amazon is set to open 3000 automated stores across the US within the next 3 years and it has been estimated that approximatley 4 million jobs would be lost to self driving cars.
Unless a radical program is implemented (such as UBI) such a level of joblessness will almost certainly lead to wide-spread social unrest. Even in the best case scenario for automation in the next decade, the numbers are still well over the tipping point for people to begin causing massive problems for society. A basic tenet of Marxism is “from each according to their ability”, but what happens when a person is unable to work even if they are willing and able to?
One could argue that we’re already beginning to see the start of what a capitalist economy without UBI would look like (and this has taken the form of the Yellow Vest movement originating in France). Just like people supporting UBI, the Yellow Vest protestors are made up of people from all sides of the political spectrum, including those who did not vote in previous elections. What we have seen in France is people who did not vote in one election going to protesting in the streets within a matter of months, and the effects of automation is sure to make matters worse.
Out of all the defects of capitalism, the most glaring (even to its most ardent supporters) is its inability to provide the means of making a living for billions of people in the international community. Additionally the gap between rich and poor is growing at neck-breaking speed, and this will surely grow wider as automation becomes omnipresent. Great thinkers ranging from Marx to Ben Franklin to John Stuart Mill to Oscar Wilde and to John Maynard Keynes all thought that soaring productivity would lead to people working less and less (and getting more and more freedom in the private sphere). However, as we have seen, that has not been the case. In fact the opposite has happened.
The only jobs left (or not shipped overseas to our developing country brothers) are those that cannot be replaced by robots in the mid-term (tradesman and semi-skilled occupations). Maybe Jordan Peterson’s joke about "roving bands of tyrannical plumbers” may not be so far fetched after all.
The political reality of passing UBI is also not likely in the United States. When a European party ran on a platform of 2,300 Euro UBI payment, they were resuondly defeated with 77% of voters rejecting the plan. Andrew Yang is a darling of the internet, but he’s still not even close to polling near the establishment candidates, or, the social-democrats aligning with Bernie Sanders. The Conservative Party of Ontario scrapped an ongoing UBI experiment without even waiting for the results. And a large contingent of the population is vehemently opposed to giving people money for nothing.
Also, everyone seems to have a different idea of what UBI would be. Some advocate for low monthly payments to all, some are pushing for higher monthly payments, but deducting any existing government programs the person is on, and further still, some advocate for a negative income tax. And what happens when the political winds shift in liberal democracies?
UBI can be viewed as a sort of life saving response to neoliberal economics. The people supporting UBI have either been adversely affected by economic reforms, or, are attempting to stifle radical political movements from fomenting and threatenening their economic prosperity. It really is capitalism’s “last hurrah”, a final gasp of air to keep a system afloat that would otherwise fall apart within a matter of years.
Why is it, if the ardent capitalists are to be believed, that the most perfect economic system is not able to cope with the rise of automation without massive government intervention? The libertarians, classical liberals, neocons, and neoliberals have been selling us a bill of goods that capitalism has the unique and instantaneous ability to sort itself out without government involvement for decades now.
We are in the death throes of a collapsing economic order and all the inflation, social programs, and back room conspiring will not prevent its demise. UBI or not, we are on course for a revolutionary period of political and economic turmoil that the captialist class has unwittingly created and unleashed upon itself.
Enjoy your $1000 a month (while it lasts) and buy yourself something fun.
Mae Fengari (Anarchism)
Matthew Zink (Socialism)
One of the biggest misconceptions regarding the surge in automation is that there will no longer be a need for a human workforce. It is an understandable worry, as the technological advancements that have been made in the past fifty years alone are some of the most incredible mankind has ever made. However, as animals evolve to survive, humans similarly adapt to handle new challenges.
As humans evolve, the job market changes. Automation creates new jobs, which expands and enriches the market. Who builds the machines? Who creates the code for new software? Who services machines when they break down?
Humans have always found new ways to make living easier. For example, we no longer use the printing press to mass produce newspapers, they can be found online. Typewriters gave way to computers. Our main mode of transportation is no longer the horse, we now have cars, planes, trains, and boats. The telegraph was replaced with telephones and eventually cellular phones. We now walk around with a source of incredible knowledge in our pockets. Libraries cannot even compare to the amount of information that is accessible within our smartphones. Even our cars, TVs, refrigerators, and homes tap into it now.
Each of the advancements I outlined above require human upkeep - without updates, they would fall apart and become useless. There are many things that a human can do that a machine cannot. We have empathy - the incredible ability to feel and understand emotions. We can think creatively, make connections that a machine cannot be coded to make. Without human ingenuity, machines would not exist. The great works of art, literature, or music would not exist. It is humans that have made these things happen and continue to happen.
Calling UBI an attempt to save capitalism could not be more off point. Forced redistribution of wealth is not a capitalist idea. It is a socialist one. If anything, the implementation of a UBI just pushes the United States further down the socialist rabbit hole (doing more irreparable damage to the already fragile economic order). While I do agree we are on the verge of a collapse, and that a collapse may be our best option, I don’t think the full blame can be placed in the lap of capitalism. By no means is capitalism perfect, but it has been tested and has been proven to be a decently functional economic system. At the very least it functions far more efficiently than any socialist system ever implemented.
I think we can agree that the bulk of the blame belongs to the politicians who dragged the economy through the mud. Free markets do not require outside regulation; they regulate themselves.
People often point out corporations as a reason to why free markets are a bad idea or something to be feared. However, without government subsidies, the corporations we see today would not exist. It is through the interference of the government that these businesses have cornered markets, stomped out smaller businesses, and eliminated competition. All of the regulations that supposedly limit corporations only have harmful effects on the small businesses trying to enter the market.
If the government would stop babying the people, we would not be in a situation where UBI was a tangible solution to our economic uncertainty.