Misconstruing Post-Work

A few comments from Autonomy co-founder Will Stronge on recent UBI and post-work interventions

It’s nice to see that the topic of ‘post-work’ is popping up throughout the mainstream and independent news media landscapes. While it is crucial that we remain informed as to the full extent of the crisis of work, it is equally important to consider alternative arrangements to existing conditions. Post-work proposals are therefore necessary to the thinking and rethinking of what we call ‘work’ today and, fortunately for us, various interesting ideas in this regard have been (re-)emerging in one form or another for the past five years or so.

The idea of a basic income – or universal basic income – is being particularly highlighted within these discussions. As with any popular, fairly radical idea however – basic income has recently been receiving somewhat of a backlash. For every journalist such as Owen Jones or Aditya Chakraborrty, who recognise the potential benefits of such a policy in light of the current crisis of work, there are many, from across the political spectrum, who appear to want to shut the idea down.

None of these interventions have convinced me that basic income cannot be a progressive policy. Many interesting presuppositions are revealed by these polemics – presuppositions that, I think, tell us something about the ways in which the topics of work and ‘post-work’ are constantly at risk of being misconceived. With these dangers in mind, I’d like to make a few comments that speak to recent public interventions on these topics.

I would like to also briefly discuss a recent research paper by Harry Pitts and Ana Dinerstein that aims to dismantle what they call the ‘Post-work Prospectus’ (PWP), as I feel that this much more sophisticated attack on the broader post-work project deserves some attention.

 

The mini-backlash against basic income

 

Here are a sample of more or less recent articles that slam UBI. Hopefully the following reservations I have about their arguments also apply to other, similar articles you might have come across (and will continue to come across I’m sure!)

Chuka Umunna’s article in The Guardian

Jon Cruddas’ and Tom Kibasi’s piece for Prospect

Nick Dowson’s second piece on the topic for New Internationalist

Dmytri Kleiner’s article for Open Democracy

In these pieces basic income has been called: a ‘counsel of despair’, a ‘victory of selfish individualism’, a ‘neoliberal plot’, and so on. The grandeur of these labels is quite something!

One general note before I unpack some of the common misunderstandings and confusions: it’s important to note that very few critical commentaries that I have come across online directly confront or consult the relevant literature or empirical research regarding basic income. If you want to destroy an idea cogently and coherently, you should at least tackle its core adherents, core arguments and available evidence. Where is Philippe Van Parijs’ recent Basic Income book in these polemics for example? Where is the evaluation of similar schemes that took place in Manitoba, in Kenya, in India or of the Permanent Fund in Alaska? In order to evaluate a policy such as UBI, people require a fuller picture and a good place to start is an overview of the decades of research and theoretical argumentation on the topic!

 

False presuppositions and dodgy claims in the media

 

A universal basic income will mean that people will be reduced to idleness.

 

This is a dodgy claim that also reveals a couple of false presuppositions. It’s a dodgy claim because going by the evidence of various ‘unconditional cash transfer’ experiments – I’m thinking here of the GiveDirectly scheme in Kenya and the Mincome experiment in Canada in 1974 – receiving unconditional money does not necessarily make people stop working (paid or unpaid). Prof. Forget’s research into the Manitoba experiment, for example, showed that on the whole, there simply wasn’t a drastic reduction in the amount of employed work being done. Equally, in the more limited  Kenyan experiment of an unconditional income initiated by GiveDirectly, researchers found that people had been industrious with their new cash – starting small businesses and so on.

Claims that without a job people and/or society  fall apart, or that ‘when you lose work, the meaning and purpose of life are taken away from you’, reveal a pretty nasty and distrustful view of the people in this country. Is it really the case that the meaning and purpose of life is to be found in our jobs? Is there no other way of flourishing, of realising our full capacities than in our nine to five (or zero hours) work? In 2015, thirty seven percent of us said that it is the jobs that are meaningless. More recently, eighty eight percent of people said that they would retire if they were given sufficient funds (the exact amount varied). The idea that work is so integral to individual and collective purpose runs up against people’s actual experience of their working lives it seems. Here we should underline a distinction that too often gets forgotten – that between work as the basic, practical, purposeful activity of mankind and work as a job within a capitalist system of social relations. By glorifying the natural and foundational character of the former (which is actually a fairly vague notion), commentators often try and defend the latter.

Jon Cruddas and Tom Kibasi refer to Beveridge’s claim that idleness is one of the “five giants” standing in the way of social progress. Let’s be honest and clear about how the welfare state, which Beveridge’s ideas helped shape, functions today with respect to work (here I recommend Desmond King’s Actively Seeking Work? for a full account of the politics of unemployment in the UK. See also this from Gabriel Bristow). The practical component hidden behind the attitude that ‘people need a job to be healthy and have meaning’ has been, and still is, a coercive, state-run system where one must prove that they are actively seeking work in order to receive a survival income, where sometimes one must carry out unpaid labour (workfare) in order to receive this income and where those with disabilities are under increasing pressure to be declared ‘fit-to-work’ – leading in some cases to suicide and destructive mental health problems. We need to radically reconsider this system – starting with this anachronistic idea that the basic requirements of modern life (rent, food, a disposable income, and so on) should come with certain conditions. UBI and UBS speak to these concerns.

 

Universal basic income is a ‘neoliberal plot’.

 

There is a recurring tactic amongst some of those not in favour of a basic income that involves pointing out that figures such as Milton Friedman, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have all been in favour of some form of basic income (or negative income tax). At best, these examples are useful for reminding us that we must be careful when detailing the precise terms for policies such as a basic income (i.e. let’s pose questions such as: does it benefit society as a whole?) At worst these example are used to apparently demonstrate the wickedness of the idea in itself. The idea of a basic income has been around for centuries (again, see Van Parijs’ latest account of this history in Basic Income: A Radical Proposal) and, on top of those arch-capitalist figures that are regularly rolled out, it has found advocates in Martin Luther King Jr., Noam Chomsky and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We can all name names. It’s just not true that basic income is, and always has been, in itself a neoliberal, or even conservative, policy idea.

What kind of basic income is the really important question: will it supplement or simply replace aspects of the welfare state? Who will be eligible? What other policies are needed to work in conjunction with it? Etc. Calling it a neoliberal idea is incredibly misleading.

 

Basic income is seen as a panacea by its advocates.

 

Although this assumption is not explicit in the articles I referred to above, I thought I’d include it here as it is a criticism commonly aimed at advocates of the policy (see here for an example). I think this accusation is equally disingenuous: none of the academic or popular literature on basic income that is worth reading considers basic income to be a panacea or a silver bullet – and most are keen to emphasise this.

In Inventing the Future (a book regularly referred to but apparently less-regularly consulted carefully), Srnicek and Williams claim that a basic income, whilst having emancipatory and socially positive potentials in itself, would need to be integrated with a shorter working week, the diminishment of the work ethic and the automation of much work (i.e. it should be combined with the other three demands that they put forward). Rutger Bregman, to take another advocate, argues in Utopia for Realists that it is a shorter working week, and not a basic income, that is the better candidate for a ‘solve all’ policy (although he too argues for a number of other forward-thinking proposals as well).

When Autonomy launched back in August we asked four researchers working on different aspects of the work ‘question’ about basic income. All four respondents were careful to detail what kind of basic income would be desirable and under which conditions it could fulfil its promise – recognising that some versions of the policy could be dystopian rather than utopian. None were dogmatic enough to consider basic income as a panacea.

 

A universal basic income is a ‘victory for selfish individualism’.

 

It’s hard to see how this accusation makes any sense – even if we just examine the concept of a universal basic income. As Helen Hester wrote in our interview with her back in August, perhaps the most crucial thing about UBI is the U! Let’s take an example. Alaska’s Permanent Dividend Fund gives every person who has lived in Alaska for at least one year a portion of the profits of its native oil industry – with no strings attached. It is effectively a modest basic income.  When it was introduced in 1976, the initiative was built on the principle that everyone (including future generations) should benefit from the spoils of the state’s natural wealth. Looking at Alaska’s example, basic income does not seem like an individualist policy, but rather an evenly distributed social good. The fact that a UBI would be paid out to individuals is actually not necessarily something to be afraid of: an individual-based pay-out system would allow space for financial independence within families, for example, potentially offering material assistance to those who are in abusive and dependent relationships.

Umunna is also worried that UBI would allow society to ‘wash its hands of the responsibility for the poor’ – when in fact any UBI that fulfils its remit (of being a basic income) would be an unconditional safety net that supports those in poverty and supplements whatever other income they get from a job. This kind of no-strings attached support would be a tangible improvement upon the experience of the job centre meetings and assessments that are currently required for state ‘support’. It could be a policy that provides better support for the poor.

Equally, it is hard to see how an active UBI policy by itself would allow the jobless to be ‘abandoned’ as Umunna claims. A large part of the misery of being jobless today is due to the fact you don’t have an income – your freedom is curtailed because you have very little or no material means; you have lots of time, but you don’t have the capacity to do much with it (apart from look for jobs of course!). A sufficient basic income provided to all, without conditions, wouldn’t abandon the jobless but instead provide them with a platform from which they can look for work without the experience of signing on, and/or without the pressure of taking any job whatsoever.

 

UBI is a political question and it deserves much more nuanced approaches

The truth is that a universal basic income policy needs to be shaped politically and with the right intentions, e.g. it needs to cover basic needs, it needs to have no conditions, the universality needs to be set at a certain limit, it should not replace most of the welfare state but instead supplement it (or perhaps a UBS scheme), and so on. These are the issues that, I think, should be being discussed and developed by those sincerely interested in a progressive future of work, where real freedom (the freedom to take a job or not for example) is possible.

 

For the post-work project: a reply to Harry Pitts and Ana Dinerstein

 

Finally, I’d like to add a few brief comments in reply to a recent research paper that has come out of Bath University and written by Harry Pitts and Ana Dinerstein. The paper is informed by a much deeper level of analysis of capitalism than the articles discussed above – and indeed it brings to light a number of important issues that need to be resolved, e.g. what are limits to the universality of UBI? I am not going to answer all of the criticisms and challenges that they raise – and I particularly recommend reading their account of UWOs in Argentina, from which we can learn a lot.  Instead I’d like to respond to the piece in the following five ways:

 

1. The authors take for granted that those arguing for a post-work positon (what they call the ‘Post-Work Prospectus’ (PWP)) believe that post-work = post-capitalism. This is fundamental to their critique (it recurs throughout the paper) but it is just not true as a general claim. A closer inspection of the relevant sections of Inventing the Future, for example, reveals this to be explicitly not the case:

‘The proposals [i.e. the four demands] in this chapter will not break us out of capitalism, but they do promise to break us out of neoliberalism, and to establish a new equilibrium of political, economic and social forces’ (108)

For Williams and Srnicek, achieving (their version of a) post-work society would allow for ‘even more potential to launch to greater goals’. They are intended to just ‘shift the current political equilibrium and construct a platform for further development’ (108). Srnicek’s and Williams’ post-work position, at least, should be critiqued according to these goals and not the horizon of post-capitalism. Equally untrue, it should be said, is the claim that for these thinkers, ‘a postcapitalist society rises from the ruins of work aided by automation and the basic income’ (4). This kind of fetishistic, technological determinism is averted in Inventing the Future by a whole chapter (‘Building Power’) that tries to outline how their vision could be brought about (e.g. through a populist left,  via organisational ecology and by attacking ‘points of leverage’). I’m just picking out one prominent text – I can’t claim to be defending all of those who discuss the relationship between post-work and post-capitalism; indeed, perhaps part of the problem is that such a general term as ‘PWP’ allows for all kinds of imprecise generalisations (and also, therefore, for notable exceptions).

[Note: The titles of some of these popular academic texts certainly doesn’t help this confusion of post-work with post-capitalism! Postcapitalism, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Fully Automated Luxury Communism.]

 

2. Another regular characterisation of post-work utilised here is: post-work = UBI + automation. This is really only part of the picture. Apart from a single reference early on, the demand for a reduction of the working week is missing from Pitts’ and Dinerstein’s account – a demand that has a significant history in workers movements and trade unions going back well over a century. The demand for a shorter working week is core to today’s post-work position: it is present in Inventing the Future, it was a regular feature of Andre Gorz’s output, it is part of Rutger Bregman’s bestselling Utopia for Realists and is also advocated by Kathi Weeks in The Problem With Work. This demand fits with the aforementioned ‘non-reformist reform’ character of the post-work position – a shorter working week isn’t post-capitalist, but it is a tangible and achievable shift in the equilibrium of power and an improvement on the everyday lives of the population for a plethora of reasons.

 

3. By letting the shorter working week drop out from the characterisation of the PWP, it is easy to characterise post-work as antithetical to, or at least unattached from class struggle: UBI and ‘full automation’ are not nearly as historically-aligned with workers’ struggles and can potentially sound more like technocratic fixes. Pitts and Dinerstein can therefore assert:

‘[N]owhere in the popular imaginary of post-work or post-capitalist society does class struggle feature, when it is only by means of this that a post-capitalist society can be accessed at all.’ (Pitts and Dinerstein, 4)

Putting the recurrent, uneasy assumption that post-work and post-capitalism are more or less the same to one side, most of those whom the authors would characterise as part of the PWP would probably agree with Pitts and Dinerstein on this point: post-work demands are only worthwhile if they put the working class (or excluded groups in general) in a better position. Hence this is precisely what they argue – I’ll draw on Inventing the Future again. UBI, for example, has the benefit of doing away with means-testing (and the disciplinary power that comes with it) that the jobless have to go to for an income and will help dissolve the stigmatism of welfare, since everyone will receive it (Srnicek and Williams, 119). More explicitly, Srnicek and Williams write:

‘[T]he real significance of UBI lies in the way it overturns the asymmetry of power that currently exists between labour and capital….the proletariat is defined by its separation from the means of production and subsistence. The proletariat is thereby forced to sell itself in the job market in order to gain the income necessary to survive…A basic income changes this condition, by giving the proletariat a means of subsistence without dependency on a job.’ (120)

Far from ignoring the class effects of UBI, Srnicek and Williams, as well as other advocates such as Phillipe Van Parijs and Guy Standing, see the potential of UBI to loosen the practical grip of the wage relation as one of its key benefits. The above passage also answers Pitts’ and Dinerstein’s claim that ‘basic income rests on a continuation of the money wage in all but name’ (4). There is a crucial (lived) difference between having to labour for an income (the wage relation) and having the freedom not to. This difference would be expressed concretely by the increased material ability to feasibly choose how many hours you want to work as part of your job, the fact that workers would have a guaranteed strike fund available and also by the anxiety and stress that would be assuaged by a guaranteed, sufficient economic safety net. Those are not insignificant gains for the proletariat, precariat and/or those pushed to the margins of society.

 

4. Although this is a detail, it is important to also note that it is not necessarily the case that a UBI would entail a strong state, as the authors claim. The idea of a ‘Social Wealth Fund’ – whereby profits from national assets could be consolidated into a reserve of funds that could be managed by a separate, publicly elected governance body and then distributed as a UBI or ‘social dividend’ is being widely discussed today.

 

5. Finally, the authors pose an approach that focuses on social reproduction as an alternative to the post-work position, claiming that,

‘Work, [in the post-work position], is reified as something apart from the social relations of subsistence and social reproduction in which it is imbricated (4)’

This depends on what and who the PWP refers to – again, there so many authors writing about these issues it is hard to see how one label could possibly cover all the bases! Certainly the likes of David Frayne in The Refusal of Work (2015) and Helen Hester, both in interviews and in After Work (2018, co-authored with Srnicek), to take just two thinkers, are – to say the least – keen to integrate the insights of a social reproduction approach into any post-work project.

Particularly peculiar here is Pitts and Dinerstein’s use of Kathi Weeks (an influential thinker in the recent post-work theoretical subfield and key inspiration for us at Autonomy). In the same interview that Pitts and Dinerstein refer to, Kathi Weeks advocates a basic income as well as a shorter working week. She sees basic income as a replacement for the demand for wages for housework that was prominent in many of the important social reproduction debates of the past (see her brilliant The Problem of Work (2011)). For Weeks, a basic income and a shorter (waged) working week are concrete steps towards the reengineering of our social relations (including gendered practices such as housework). In fact, in her book Weeks argues that social reproduction approaches and post-work arguments necessitate each other (I absolutely agree).  She dedicates many pages to building the case for the construction of a ‘post-work imaginary’ based on the core presupposition that ‘to intervene in the politics of work, one must first intervene in the politics of the social relations that support it’ – as Pitts and Dinerstein put it (19), and vice versa. Therefore, the use of Weeks to support an argument that a) says that social reproduction is simply missing from, and an alternative to, the post-work position and that b) uses the perspective of social reproduction to disavow UBI as a progressive policy is a little strange.