Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Campagning with the Greens : the basic income delusion

As you may know, there have been legislative elections in France. In my constituency, I supported the Greens because... well, because there was a national agreement which could (and actually did) get us a MP and officially endorsing this girl was a part of the deal. As for my opinion about the whole thing... well, let's just say that sometimes you just have to do your job.

The main positive point, was that I could observe the inner working of the local Green group (at least the faction which had won the rather brutal fight for the nomination) and was forced to attend a few rallies I would not have bothered to go to otherwise. During one of them – a so called "political coffee session", somebody raised the infamous basic income question.

For those who are not into radicals politics, basic income is an income granted unconditionally to all citizens (or inhabitants) of a given polity. France has already something of the kind. It is called the RSA (for Revenu de Solidarité Active). Any French resident above 25 without any regular income is entitled to a monthly grant of 474,93 €.

As incomes go, it is a very basic one. The median salary in France is around 1600 € and I rent my three rooms flat for 517 €. Saint-Nazaire is by the way a working class city and housing tend to be cheap down here. I probably couldn't find an equivalent apartment in Paris for thrice this price. Even though it can be supplemented by other aids, RSA is not something you can feast on. You can survive with it, but hardly more. It also has a negative income tax

Of course, it was not about this kind of basic income our green activist talked. What she meant was an income close or equal to the French minimum wage – around 1100 € a month. It is a popular idea among degrowth people and some sections of the Green movement and of the far left. My last girlfriend was very much into it, and it definitely is a bad idea – the girlfriend in question was a bad idea too, by the way, but it is a bit beside the point.

The main reason for it should be obvious to anybody vaguely aware of the coming energy descent. Even its proponents acknowledge that the feasibility of a basic income system is highly dependent upon the continued existence of the industrial civilization.

As the French philosopher André Gorz wrote in 1989 :

...The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet-unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact...

From the point where it takes only 1,000 hours per year or 20,000 to 30,000 hours per lifetime to create an amount of wealth equal to or greater than the amount we create at the present time in 1,600 hours per year or 40,000 to 50,000 hours in a working life, we must all be able to obtain a real income equal to or higher than our current salaries in exchange for a greatly reduced quantity of work...

Neither is it true any longer that the more each individual works, the better off everyone will be. The present crisis has stimulated technological change of an unprecedented scale and speed: 'the micro-chip revolution'. The object and indeed the effect of this revolution has been to make rapidly increasing savings in labor, in the industrial, administrative and service sectors. Increasing production is secured in these sectors by decreasing amounts of labor. As a result, the social process of production no longer needs everyone to work in it on a full-time basis. The work ethic ceases to be viable in such a situation and work-based society is thrown into crisis...
André Gorz, Critique of economic Reason, Gallile, 1989

The idea according to which the rule of the machine will break the historical connection between work and income is as old as the Industrial Revolution. It is implicit in early marxist thought. Thus in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Karl Marx himself wrote :

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly -- only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

Which means that under Communism, people would have a perpetual free lunch, what basic income fundamentally amounts to. We know, of course how it turned out and actual Marxist regimes and parties quickly developed a strong work ethic, sometimes to the point of ridicule – does somebody remember Stakhanov ?

Of course this did not mean that the idea of a generalized free lunch died. It merely migrated to the techno-optimists, who replaced the "higher stage of Communism" by technological progress, which would cause workers to be progressively replaced by robots and automated factories. This would greatly increase the richness of the society, but also have a devastating impact upon blue collar retail and wholesale employees and drastically shrink the middle class, making a generous basic income both feasible and socially and politically necessary. The only other option would be the development of a permanent underclass of former workers and employees, with all the politically unpleasant consequences this may entail.

This is, for instance, the thesis of Jeremy Rifkin in this monument of the techno-green thought, that is The End of Work, but the theme is pervasive in science-fiction, for instance in Kurt Vonnegut's first novel Player Piano, which, incidentally showed that a basic income guarantee was perfectly compatible with alienation and oppression.

The problem, of course, is that this future of robots automated factories shall never come to pass. It is not automation per se that fueled the industrial revolution and gave our society, but access to fossil energy. Without coal, oil or gas to fuel them and the highly complex social apparatus they need for their manufacture and maintenance, our machines are useless.

Moreover, the ability of our economy to create surplus, which can be used, among other things, to fund a basic income system, is steadily decreasing. As we replace easy oil and coal by less than adequate substitutes such as lignite or tar sand or, gods forbid, ethanol, and are forced to devote more and more resources to energy extraction, the net surplus, on which our civilization lives, shrinks. Add to this the need of maintaining a gargantuan infrastructure, both material and immaterial, with a stagnating or declining resource base, and it is easy to understand that even if our nominal GDP still grows, it becomes more and more difficult to mobilize it to get something actually done.

That is exactly what is happening today in still rich Europe, and it is obvious that even though our GDP is theoretically large enough for us to grant all our citizens a basic income, so much of it is tied up by debt and infrastructure maintenance that even keeping our welfare system in its present state is probably impossible.

There is, however, another, better and deeper reason to reject basic income : it has been tried.

It was the bread part of the infamous "bread and circus". Originally a nation of small farmers, the late Roman Republic developed a serious case of latifundism as debt-crushed peasants sold their land to great proprietors and fled to Rome, searching a job most of them did not find. In 123 BC, Tiberius Gracchus had the Senate vote a grain law under which a portion of the grain collected as revenue for the state was sold at a subsidized rate to citizens. Tiberius Gracchus also pushed for a rather drastic land reform, which caused him to have a lethal encounter with a chair during a very manly senatorial debate.

The habit of distributing free or very cheap grain to the Roman pleb caught on, however, and in 58 BC the popularis politician Clodius Pulcher set up a regular dole of free grain after having been elected as a tribune – at that time politicians did make good on their promises. Cesar and Augustus appear to have been embarrassed with the whole thing but did not dare to abolish it altogether.

Later emperors continued the practice and even supplemented the dole with olive oil, wine or pork. The rationale was that as long as the mob was kept well fed and entertained, it would leave politics to the emperor and his court. It did not work very well with the army and the praetorian guard, but it was very effective with the Roman crowd. As the poet Juvenal stated in his Satires :

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses

Of course, at the end, bearded foreigners with a strange accent and a funny religion took over the breadbasket of the Empire and their leader, a gentleman by the name of Geiseric decided that grain ought to stay with those who produced it.

Rome could implement the free grain dole only because it ruthlessly looted its own provinces, destroying its own resource base and paving the way for its own demise. We would have to divert already scarce resources from the maintenance of our own civilization, speeding up its disintegration. The principles behind the basic income and the Roman grain dole are the same, however : entitlement, dependency and alienation.

The proponents of basic income claim that we deserve it because our societies are so rich. The problem is that this richness does not come from nowhere. A part of it is the product of a a failing but still vigorous imperial system which transfers wealth and resources from the south to the north under threat of military force. Another part come from the frenetic overexploitation of non-renewable natural resources, which basically means we have stolen it from our descendants. For what is probably the most favored class in the whole human history, past and future, to claim it deserves to divert still more resources so as to be able to live well without contributing anything is pure unadulterated entitlement.

It is no accident that most supporters of the basic income come, in France at least, from the higher middle-class (the bobos) or from their poorer siblings : the RSA revolutionists. The RSA revolutionists are radicals who claim to despise "the system" and to seek to overthrow it, while being totally dependent on its continued existence for their very survival. They are especially common in the autonomist branch of marxism, which advocates struggling against "capitalism" outside organized structures through direct action, which in practice amounts to piling up symbolic acts while living in the margins of the society from state subsidies.

Basic income is, in fact, the logical consequence of the idea according to which the Universe must give us everything we want, provided we clamor loudly enough for it.

Of course, that does not mean we must abolish welfare before it becomes unsustainable. Welfare has nothing to do with basic income, because its goal is to help people in need, as long as they are in need but not an hour longer. It is basic human solidarity and it is telling that the same monotheist religions who say "Whoever doesn't want to work shouldn't be allowed to eat" make the giving of alms nearly mandatory. Islam even makes zaqât (obligatory alms) one of its pillars, along daily prayers, fasting and pilgrimage.

Those are two distinct concepts.

According to its proponents, it will liberate us, and enable us to devote our time to art, culture, or what Jeremy Rifkin calls the Third Sector - voluntary and community-based service organizations. This, however, is a bobo’s utopia. In real communities, nothing is really free. If help is freely given, it is under the assumption that it will be freely returned at some later moment. If cooperation is so widespread, it is because it is necessary to the well-being, and sometimes to the very survival, of each individual.

By distributing resources freely, the state, or whatever will have taken its place, replaces in fact an horizontal relationship between members of a same community by a vertical relationship between an individual and the political power that feeds him – and might stop doing so at any moment. The likely result will not be community building, but social fragmentation and increased control from above.

This won’t even increase the control any individual has on his own life, quite the contrary. From this point of view, basic income is the continuation, some will say the fulfillment, of the process which, starting from the Industrial Revolution, turned craftsmen and craftswomen into unskilled workers and supermarket cashiers. While the craftsman could be poor, he was still the master of his craft and of his own life, dependent upon no one but himself. The dispossessed factory worker, who replaced him, accomplishing meaningless, repetitive tasks, was but a cog in the machine, totally disconnected from the product of his work. The workers of a specific factory, taken as group, could however, take a collective pride in the fruit of their labors. The average recipient of a basic income would be nothing but a passive individual, without any professional or social identity, and while a minority could find themselves in voluntary activities, the majority will become like characters of The Machine Stops of Player Piano, idle and thoroughly alienated, deprived of the possibility of controlling their own life and, most important, of doing something.

In Player Piano, the main character, a member of the elite, thinks of retreating to a farm without water or electricity then take part in a doomed revolt against the technocratic order to give back to men the freedom to do something with their life and of making things worth taking pride in.

I think I would have followed him, if I did not know that this absurd basic income idea was fated to die with the industrial civilization.


  1. Can ‘work’ have a negative value? If the answer is yes then the basic income idea has a future.
    In western countries 80% of the economy is made up of ‘services’. Is there a point in having the entire population use a car to go to an air conditioned office, filled with PC’s and stay there for a few hours while pretending to ‘work’? So many resources wasted for nothing. Instead give the people money (or coupons or whatever) to stay off the streets and stop wasting oil (and coal and natural gas etc etc).

  2. I'm afraid I agree with Damien. Here in the UK some (many?) people have been paid good amounts of money by the state for various reasons. This includes people who do not work at all, have never worked, and who have no need or intention of working. What lives they lead, very sad. They don't "stay off the streets" and they do use oil. They are in an industrial country, we all use oil. Chris, I'm one of your benighted 'services' workers. Yes, there are PCs though no air conditioning, and I walk to work. And, dare I say, I have pride in my work. I am self-employed with 3 staff working for me. We work for our money and even though, like the rest of our profession (recruiting), we wouldn't be missed if we vanished, we have self worth.

  3. Chris, services don't produce anything, that's true, but that does not mean they are useless. Without them, society would just collapse. That's the tragedy of our society : to keep it going, we need a lot of service jobs we can no longer afford.

    Lizzy, you are right of course, giving free money to people won't change their consumption habits. There good reasons for (moderate) welfare (for instance keeping people from starving in the street... or storming shops out of desperation) but pretending that will make their lifestyle more sustainable is pure delusion, and pure entitlement.

  4. Without services the economy will collapse? Let's say that's true for a fraction of the workers. What about the rest?
    The question of basic income has nothing to do with pride. It's simply a question of comparing the system we have now ( huge subsidies and incentives to corporations on the belief they will ‘create’ growth and hire people) vs a system were money is given directly to people. The system we have is wasteful as the money goes from the state to the CEO and the other players at the top etc . This is collapsing. Is a basic income model better than that? I definitely think so but on the other hand most people like the security of waking up in the morning and knowing they need to go to an office.

  5. Interesting article, but so many of your ideas are shaped by the concept of a looming energy shortage. Just suppose that nuclear power picks up the slack of diminishing fossil fuels, would that not change the dynamic of your arguments.

    There are some interesting projects for new types of nuclear power stations, especially in India and China using thoriam (see

    Even if they take a few decades to implement there is shale gas to bridge the gap.