Why a Universal Basic Income might shore up Neoliberalism

I occasionally read what the ex New York Times journalist, Chris Hedges, writes as it is always well written and usually hard hitting. This piece is no exception and I was drawn to it because he is railing against the idea of a Universal Basic Income – something which, although I’d prefer it were called Universal Basic Capital, I’m rather in favour of.

This gives a flavour:

[Oligarch Billionaires] The architects of our neofeudalism call on the government to pay a guaranteed basic income so they can continue to feed upon us like swarms of longnose lancetfish, which devour others in their own species. The call for a guaranteed basic income is a classic example of Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci’s understanding that when capitalists have surplus capital and labor they use mass culture and ideology, in this case neoliberalism, to reconfigure the habits of a society to absorb the surpluses.

I can understand the sentiment and we have to take into account the fact that European countries have, thank goodness, more employment protection and a much better social safety net than does America, even though many of them are not as good as they once were.

He continues with a well chosen commentary on Neoliberalism:

Suddenly—as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, two of the principal political proponents of neoliberalism, insisted—government was the problem. The neoliberal propaganda campaign successfully indoctrinated large segments of the population to call for their own enslavement.
The ideology of neoliberalism never made sense. It was a con. No society can effectively govern itself by basing its decisions and policies on the dictates of the marketplace. The marketplace became God. Everything and everyone was sacrificed on its altar in the name of progress.
The oligarchs mask their cruelty and greed with an empty moralism. They claim to champion women’s rights, diversity and inclusivity, as long as women and people of color serve the corporate neoliberal project. Human beings, to oligarchs, are commodities. They are used to increase wealth and then discarded. Oligarchs don’t propose programs such as a guaranteed basic income unless they intend to profit from it. This is how they are wired. Don’t be fooled by the grins and oily promises of these human versions of the Cheshire Cat. The object is to spread confusion while they increase levels of exploitation.

“Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, ‘What road do I take?’ ” Lewis Carroll wrote. “The cat asked, ‘Where do you want to go?’ ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it really doesn’t matter, does it?’ ”

I have before mentioned that restricting the market is one of the pluses of any form of Universal Basic Services. He seems to fear that a Basic Income might increase the market and would somehow be engendering confusion by paying us for our silence. What Chris Hedges misses, I feel, is that a regular unearned income would give us all more time, time for ourselves and our families, time to think about the world – even time to think about neoliberalism, We could all slow down. And although the fear that we would all be turned into supine consumers is prevalent, I think the mere fact that we would probably have more time to do things for ourselves means that we might well consume less.

Although I find the sometimes vitreolic prose completely alluring, I fear that the piece, whilst commenting incisively on Neoliberalism has tended to go for the man rather than the ball on Basic Income. Because the Oligarch Billionaires suggested it, it must be suspect – particularly as they are not suggesting any other societal changes at all. They are of course happy as they are.

But he misses the fact that, once nobody has a daily struggle to put food on the table, society is highly likely to gradually change its character. Indeed, the relatively new and very limited experimental Basic Income in Ontario seems to be improving health. So, whilst the Billionaires might be suggesting Basic Income for their own ends, in doing so they are likely, however unintentionally, to be improving the situation for others.

And for that reason, regardless of who suggests it, I think that it’s a good idea.




  1. Charles Adams -

    “once nobody has a daily struggle to put food on the table”

    This is the key point, it is about resources as well as money, money alone cannot solve the resource allocation problem. If private landlords raise their rent to mop up most of the UBI you have not solved the problem. If however you provide subsidised housing to rebalance market power then you might.

  2. Peter May -

    Fair point. I never thought of UBI as a completely magic bullet – and we clearly need rent controls as per much of the European Continent. But it still would be an attitude changer that once instituted, would be at least, very unlikely to go all the Billionaires’ way – and, importantly, less so than now.

  3. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

    Whether or not the billionaires get anything from UBI is not particularly relevant. Billionaires got to be billionaires by gaming the system and such people , Highly competitive, often highly energetic and sometimes highly (if perhaps narrowly) intelligent will thrive in any economic environment.

    To suggest that UBI is a scam that billionaires have invented and intend to foist on an unsuspecting public is frankly silly. Those who rely on the ‘lower economic orders’ to buy their product will undoubtedly benefit from increased custom, but I suspect most billionaires are making their money from other less productive areas of endeavour.

    There may be good reasons for treading very carefully towards UBI (or call it what you will), but that a tiny minority might gain is not a reason to ignore discussion of the positive benefits.

    I’m not convinced UBI alone can make the necessary transformation we need without something along the lines of the Job Guarantee running in tandem – certainly not in the short term.

    “Human beings, to oligarchs, are commodities.”, observes Hedges. Sure, Labour is a commodity to capitalists. The clever capitalist knows that a better system than slavery is to pay the workforce, but own the monopolistic company store.

    Traditional (African) hunting tribes ‘put food on the table’ in about seven hours a week I read somewhere. But they don’t have houses full of white goods and Knick Knacks and they don’t have to support billionaires in their midst. We’ve lost a lot of freedom in gaining a great deal of clutter. And It would take something as radical as UBI perhaps to make us consider what a good work-life balance might look like.

    Has humanity, like Esau sold its birthright for a mess of pottage

  4. Graham -

    At first I thought UBI sounded a good idea; now I’m not so sure. Are there not better, more effective ways of achieving the same thing? Such as more progressive taxation, getting rid of flat taxes like VAT which affect the poorest disproportionately, a wealth tax, limiting top pay to low multiples of lowest paid worker, rent controls (as mentioned) building state of the art social (passiv) housing etc. All highly unlikely under any existing or possible UK government.

    UBI, like the clamour for hypothecated taxes to bail out the NHS are a distraction and con, because it will allow the politicians to claim the problem is fixed.

  5. Peter May -

    Andy and Graham: First there was a programme on Radio 4 https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09y6z55 where UBI gets a mention and where a Facebook co -founder mentions the only two interesting ideas in it (for me!) We could start small and give Universal Allowance a go for 2 years to see what happens because capital currently earns more than labour; and, as Alaska has a sovereign wealth oil fund (which I also think has importance as an example – see http://www.progressivepulse.org/economics/universal-basic-income-and-sarah-palins-starring-role) so we could have a Sovereign Wealth Personal Data Fund where Facebook and Google would have to contribute in recognition of the data they obtain, to be redistributed to everyone.
    Both of those things would be a start.
    It might lead the politicians to claim the problem is fixed but I think it will change the money outlook – rather as austerity has – so that politicians will not be easily able to so claim.
    I also think that an expansion of services as Universal is important as a method of reducing ‘the market’. A job offer (or guarantee) would be third on my list because I think that is actually the most complex of the lot.
    I agree absolutely with the great line ” We’ve lost a lot of freedom in gaining a great deal of clutter.”
    And you’re right we never used to work so hard – I’d love to see a link if you have one to the seven hour working week but there is certainly a link here to the slightly less lazy – but more lazy than now – working days of the middle ages.

    1. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

      Hi Peter,

      I can’t offer a link to the seven hour working week, I’m afraid to say. It’s one of those ancient titbits of information which predates the internet. It may not have been true, and may have since been discredited, but it sounded then, and still does, highly plausible.

      I was reminded of it again recently by a discussion about some ancient (stone age?) artefact that was assumed to have a religious significance. The suggestion was that this indicated that the accomplished craftsman was part of a more sophisticated society than previously assumed, that was prepared to pay him to not work for the many hours they estimated the artefact had taken to create.

      I wasn’t convinced because I reckoned that if the society hunted and gathered they wouldn’t be working a forty hour week based on this aforementioned seven hour week. I thought their conclusion …unimaginative and unduly influenced by contemporary experience.

      1. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

        PS the linked item on working hours in the pre-industrial age is very interesting.

  6. Mo Stewart -

    UBI doesn’t work for those too ill to work as the begrudged minimal income now being paid to chronically ill people will be reduced, despite their much greater costs.

    1. Peter May -

      Agree with that – but the idea of a UBI is the basic bit, I’d suggest. So additional payments would be required for people with additional – ie more than basic – needs.

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