Lebenskünstler

Q. Who will do the work? A. Who cares? – Full employment is a nightmare – Peter Frase

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/22/2013

Do They Owe Us a Living? – Peter Frase

Which brings me to one thing I found quite unappealing about the vision David Schweickart presents. His description of economic life seems to assume that the ideal way to live is to have some job that you go off to for 40 hours a week for the rest of your life. If labor is unpleasant, the solution is to give workers more control, rather than giving them the option of opting out of work–”voice” rather than “exit”, to use Albert Hirschman’s lovely phrase. Now maybe this makes sense to people who grew up in the mid-20th century, when the labor market was less volatile and careers were more stable. But it doesn’t make any sense to me. Even if full employment is possible, why would it be desirable? If there’s not enough work to go around, why would you go and create more? And maybe it’s true that if we make the workplace democratic, then work will be fulfilling and people won’t mind it. But in that case, why force them?

More importantly, I don’t think it’s necessary to go down this road at all. Rather than starting with these complicated issues of economic planning, we should start with the thing that’s actually most desirable: making people less dependent on wage labor. Social Democracy has already gone part of the way in this direction, by removing things like health care and education from the market. But to really attack wage labor at its root, you need something like the guaranteed minimum income–perhaps in combination with reductions in the length of the work-week.

Which isn’t to say that basic income is a one-shot magic solution to all the problems of capitalism (although for the argument that it could be, check out a weird and provocative article called “The Capitalist Road to Communism”). Indeed, he best thing about a guaranteed income is that it stands a pretty good chance of provoking major economic disruption and social crisis–that’s what makes it a “non-reformist reform.” In a world with a guaranteed income, it could very well turn out that there are some things that just aren’t getting done. It’s not clear that you’d be able to find enough people to clean office bathrooms or work the night shift at 7-11 if they had access to a basic income, no matter what you paid them.

Some people invoke the above scenario as an argument against the basic income, but let me emphasize that this is a problem I would love to have. Once it becomes clear what kind of work is both desired and undersupplied, we can have a political struggle about how that work will get done. By offering special rewards (i.e. “material incentives”)? By creating some kind of national service requirement in exchange for the basic income (you have to go clean toilets or work the night shift once a month, say)? By finding clever new ways to automate these jobs? Or by deciding we can really do without some things we thought we “needed”?

I can’t predict in advance what the solution would be. And I don’t have to. That’s really the most important point I want to make here. I think the lesson of history is that momentous social change never happens because someone came up with a detailed plan for the future, won people over to it, and then implemented it. The chaos of real people making their own history always overwhelms such neat plans.

And I want to suggest that socialists, armed with an analysis of capitalism and a set of basic principles for the future, shouldn’t be afraid of a politics that aims to provoke a crisis without knowing exactly where it will lead. The idea of a basic income that breaks our dependence on wage labor is a proposal for pushing toward that productive crisis, and for that reason I find it far more compelling than all the sterile blueprints for economic democracies and democratic plans and Parecons and what have you.

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