I am a socialist, or a communist, or an anti-capitalist, whichever fits your taste. I fight against the socio-economic system and the injustices caused by it. I have been following the Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) discussions for years now. I have four problems with the proposal and/or how it is presented, which to my knowledge are not answered yet.
1. Exchange value rather than use value
First is a theoretical problem. It is about the monetarized formulations in the campaign. We demand free healthcare and education for all. And UBI campaign tries to enlarge this demand to other basic needs. But instead of directly demanding housing, food and public transport, it demands the supposed costs in the form of money.
The problem with this approach is that it leaves the decision to the market. We should never forget that 62 people own more wealth than half of world population, and that the 1% is richer than the 99% combined. The ruling class and their choices influence the prices disproportionately more than us. Anyone who observed the gentrification process in Bairro Alto or Alfama1 knows how that projects onto the right to housing, for instance.
In fact, this monetary approach is perfectly compatible with the capital's commodification motives. We should be demanding food, housing and public transport for all, independent of their prices. Introducing the price tag serves per se to amplify the existing inequalities. Winning right to education is conquering a fortress, winning UBI is shifting the battle itself into another fight for what would be the fair basic income, to what products it would be indexed, and how it would be updated.
While UBI advocates like the simplicity of “one measure to solve it all” motto, unfortunately this is not how reality operates. The simplicity does help to spread the word and raise awareness, but it also hides the fact that, in application, all that simplicity will be lost to market obscurities and neoliberal technocracy.
A campaign defensible by anti-capitalists should reject the liberal discourse, instead of trying to frame its own agenda within it. We want the basic needs to be outside of the universe of commodities, and the UBI campaign is pushing to include them within that universe.
2. A conflict-free proposal
My second problem is an ideological one. It is another simplification that undermines the UBI campaign, which is the proposal to include “everyone, without discrimination” in the set of beneficiaries. This kind of “equality in policy” is what bourgeois philosophy of law has sold us since the beginning of modernity. These philosophers tell us that we are all equal in front of law, for instance; but anyone who ever challenged a company for its misconduct knows otherwise. The ruling class not only has access to a herd of sophisticated lawyers, they are also the ones who wrote the laws with convenient loopholes and wording ambiguities. One could at most say that the 99% is equal in front of law – well, unless you are a person of colour, or of an ethnic minority, or of a gender minority, or very poor, or homeless, or an immigrant, etc. etc. etc.
There are no win-win policies in history. And the reason is simple: History is the history of class struggles. Class struggle exists a priori, the policy proposal comes on top that fragmentation.
I understand that it is a populist approach to propose a simple policy measure that would benefit everyone. But for this marketing strategy to work, you should avoid telling what your actual proposal is. Indeed, the UBI campaign seems to intentionally avoid from putting content into what the campaign defends. This is also another reason why political parties with government programs do not adopt the campaign.2
A campaign defensible by anti-capitalists should, in one way or another, choose side in the existing class struggle(s).
3. Who will fight for it?
This brings me to, my third point, a political problem with the campaign. By avoiding social confrontation and promoting dialogue between antagonistic political agendas, the UBI campaign fails to define agency.
The campaign discourse is that everyone can be persuaded to the campaign, therefore everyone should be persuaded to the campaign, and so we would win. The bad news is that “everyone”, “all of us”, “we” have no social agency. A social movement can advance only if it defines a class of people who would naturally benefit from this struggle.
By avoiding such political confrontation, the UBI campaign misses the chance of mobilizing around this project. This is visible in its way of organizing as discussion groups rather than a social movement.
This attitude does allow for open debates where people with various opinions exchange ideas, and I find this quite useful in a world of social polarization. (Maybe the UBI advocates just wanted to bring about dialogue and critical thinking to our societies; if so, they have been doing a wonderful job.) However, as an anti-capitalist, my priority is to fight the injustices of the current socio-economic system, in campaigns that we should, can and might win.
4. The prey and the predator allied
Related to this, there is a fourth point, a strategical one. The UBI proposals have support from various ideological backgrounds, with a strong presence of liberal economists and intellectuals. The UBI advocates seem to welcome this diversity, but anti-capitalists should beware. We shouldn't pretend class struggle does not exist. And the UBI campaign runs the risk of putting the sheep and the wolf under the same roof.
I have respect to highly-educated bourgeois intellectuals and their talent and tradition to draw lessons from history. I believe that they see what I see in this campaign, and most probably more: an opportunity for accumulation and centralization of the capital. And I believe that this is why they are there. Of course, as any rational wolf would do, they do not raise their voice against us but rather use the pretext of win-win solutions as ground for persuasion. There is no persuasion or collaboration of wolves and sheep.
The UBI campaign proposes a form without specifying its content, thereby allowing diverse opinions to encounter in a common platform. For common people, this is quite useful exercise. But when ideologists of the ruling class come in, it turns into a different story, at least for anti-capitalist militants.
Building traps for one's self
In conclusion, the strategy of the Universal Basic Income advocates to present the campaign as conflict-free and widely inclusive brings about a serious of weaknesses for the campaign. These weaknesses may, in the worst case,open space to swaying towards neoliberal politics, or, in the best case, produce a non-winnable campaign. I see very little space for an anti-capitalist movement at any point in this spectrum.
Most UBI activists seem to share, implicitly, a set of values such as justice and equity, with which I agree. They also seem to share a common apologetic attitude towards the world they imagine, with that I disagree. I believe it is crucial to openly declare what we want rather than focusing on having faith on tricks in communication strategies, because victory doesn't come without conviction and honesty.
1Touristic neighbourhood in downtown Lisbon, subjected to urban transformation projects for years, resulting in raises in rents and living costs, and gradual abandonment of the locals.
2In Portugal, only PAN and Livre support the campaign openly. Not accidentally, both parties have more of a philosophical wishful thinking approach rather than strategies to seize the political power. I am not necessarily saying this is a bad thing, perhaps nowadays those approaches are more necessary than power-focused programs. However, one cannot win a fight without a political agenda.