Debates About Basic Income, and an Old Essay of Mine.

I continue my garage sale of old writings. Reproduced below is an essay I did for my university course in “Post Modernism.” I am putting it out right now because it contains some ideas about a philosophical approach to advocating for a Basic Income.

The cause is that someone I follow has recently invited people to give critiques of a book he is writing. He has also recently put online a course he taught about it. The subject of both is Basic Income; specifically the justification for it under liberal academic philosophy.

I do not think Basic Income, also called Universal Basic Income or a Guaranteed Income or various combinations thereof, is a subject which needs much introduction anymore. It is now being widely talked about on the net. Everyone is linking it into their particular ideological systems.

Of course, ideological systems are just that, ideological systems. There are also certain ideologies, mainly socialism, which reject BI simply because it does not fit into their theorizing. Here is my “theory” about it; that a BI will not work under capitalism.

That really is the point of this old essay. Of course I was writing this to get a mark on it. I did not want to offend the old prof too much. The course was called ‘Introduction to Post Modernism.’

My real view about it then was that Post Modernism was a kind of catch all phrase which liberal philosophers use for musings about how the world will look after the present era is past. Many of these writers are French. The idea of Anamnesis, remembrance of things forgotten, is prominent in this thinking.

This is an idea which seems prominent in liberal thinking among English speakers, too. After the present, we are going back to some golden age. I do not know how else to understand the infatuation these academic philosophers had with the eighteenth century and all that wig head talk. Maybe it was just the institution I was at; University of Toronto.

These people seemed to wish the past two centuries had not happened. I never found out much about J.S. Mill or even this peculiar person Rawls. I just arrived at post modernism, and that was the end of my adventures with university philosophy.
What I was really talking about in this essay was ‘post capitalism.’ This was the basis of my approach toward the way BI was defended by Van Parijs and the political philosophers who founded the BIEN group, Basic Income Earth Network. They are talking about it with ideas from the eighteenth century and it was not convincing many people in the twenty first.

I wrote this in 2014. This was just before a new wave of interest in Basic Income developed which has partly sidelined this strictly philosophic approach. The concept is still largely the plaything of people with a libertarian mentality. However, now it is the really crude and creepy version promoted by such as the “Austrian School” economists, the Ayn Randers, and the tech billionaires.

BIEN is still around. My academic twitter friend, who I mentioned at the start, is still closely associated with it. He is still hung up on the ‘reciprocity’ idea of the BIEN founders. He seems to be trying to square this with more ‘left libertarian’ ideas about BI; as in “nobody has the right to come between people and the resources they need to survive.”

The basic problem with this is that the resources people need to survive do not exist in nature. People cannot just go and pick them up. They must be created and distributed.

I am not here going to get into how that would work. One of my points in my essay is that this ‘reciprocity ‘ argument against a BI is never actually made by anyone. That is, that people have an obligation to give back as much as they put it so no one else is worse off. Like it is possible to measure what everyone really takes out or puts in, or that everybody does not get out vastly more than they put in.

BI is most often argued against on the lines of; “If people do not work we will all starve to death.” That is much easier to refute; also of course futile, given the kind of people who make it. But this is a different argument from the reciprocity idea, which as I said is almost never raised as an argument again BI.

But here is my old essay. It contains at least one major error that I am aware of. When I can, I will use some of its points as part of a critique I want to do of my friend’s book. It may induce him to rethink some things.

A Post Modern Anamnesis vs. a Reciprocity Principle in Defending Basic Income

A Basic Income (BI) is an income, adequate for all necessities of life, paid to everyone without condition. The idea has been around for a very long time but has been developed during the past fifty years. This is the ultimate post modern social issue. It is getting more interest recently as the breakdown of the modern order is accelerating. Publics are starting to think more seriously about the problems of post industrial society and the possible solutions presented by post modern thinking. However, the academics with a philosophic bent who have been promoting the Basic Income idea are only slowly giving way to social activist types who can actually produce the movement to bring it about. Post Modernism and the idea of a Basic Income extinguish orthodox Marxism as thoroughly as it does Liberalism. However, most debates about Basic Income are still in Liberalist/Modernist/Industrial age terms, and include an obsession with this concept of “reciprocity”. The Marxists simply do not engage with it. That all the debates about BI have been in Liberalist terms is why its academic advocates keep losing. Few people are advocating it in post modernist terms, which you must do. Just as you cannot solve a problem with the thinking which created it, you cannot refute modernist ideas with modernist thinking. You must go to a higher level. BI is really a post modernist idea which goes against liberalism. It addresses post industrial problems. Those who defend the BI concept in modernist and Liberalist terms do not really understand it. So, they have decided that there is a “reciprocal” argument against BI. That is, that giving people enough money to live on without any reciprocal obligation is somehow taking something away from other people.

Thus, the thesis is that the concept of a BI can only be effectively argued for in postmodern terms. To show this I will focus mainly on this “reciprocity problem”; to take on the various other issues about BI, post modernism and post industrialism is too much for an essay like this. I need to explain the reciprocity problem as well as define post modernism and isolate aspects of it that speak to a BI. These are somewhat difficult tasks. In the case of reciprocity, I have never found where this “reciprocity” argument is raised against BI in the first instance. For a “reciprocity” argument against BI I have had to rely on the essay by Stuart White, attempting to refute Phillippe Van Parijs and his book “Real Freedom for All; What ( If anything) can justify Capitalism?” This title says it all about Van Parijs’ ability as an advocate. Yet he seems to be the most prominent philosophical defender of a Basic Income. Everywhere I look into discussions of BI I keep running into Van Parijs and his arguments in this book. Yet Van Parij has a calamitous way of arguing for BI. First of all, you do not try to refute an argument that is never made. Second, you do not argue for something in the terms of its critics; you do so in your own terms. Third, and worst of all, you do not make the opponents arguments for them. You do not need to construct a defence of capitalism in order to make the case for BI. If you are trying to convince people to support BI, you do not activate tropes in people’s minds which work against that idea. For example, talking about “Malibu Surfers” and whether they should receive an income. Van Parij seven puts a picture of a surfer on the cover. To convince people to support something, you do not use the tropes of its opponents, you find tropes that support it. You convince people to accept these in favor of the old tropes. Reciprocity being a Liberal and therefore modernist idea, you look beyond that for answers. This brings me back to post modernism, the extinguisher of things modern. Several of the philosophers identified as post modern provide strong refutations of these ideas of reciprocity, or moral obligation. Exchange has always been about symbolic representations. Who gets more has always been about status. We are in a “post production” or “post industrial” age where we have the capacity to produce everything everyone needs easily, with ever less real labor and resources, and most of the economy is about exchanging “services”. Seen in such terms, “reciprocity” is asinine.

But I still have the problem of defining “post modern”. Turning to Lyotard’s “The PostModern Explained”, I find that in putting the “post” in postmodern he often employs the term “anamnesis”. This is defined in one of the online dictionaries on that thing so despised by modern university teachers, and so useful in the post modern world, thus; “the recollection or remembrance of the past…” In “Platonism”, it refers to; “the recollection of the Ideas, which the soul had known in a previous existence, especially by means of reasoning.”1 Lyotard also applies it in the sense of psychoanalysis, of trying to recall past events, traumas, or wrong turns which have led to present difficulties. “Postmodern” is not a progression from “Modern” in the sense of an “Avant-garde”, the generally disliked term. It means “initially forgetting” about all that has occurred in the modern age, since early capitalism, and rediscovering what has been forgotten. It is not a kind of “PreRaphaelite” trendy fetishizing of things premodern. In the end, this anamnesis should allow us to move forward on a healthier basis.2 Seen this way, Postmodernism can be understood. The talk about “cyborgs” and of disembodied minds relates to the ancient talk of Gods, demigods, spirits, and immortal souls, of the desire to transcend time and death and human limitations. But what about this that is relevant to “reciprocity” is the desire for a different kind of morality, comporting with a different way of organizing society and distributing the benefits of civilization. Several post modernist writers have something to say about this, mostly in terms of “symbolic exchange”. These provide a framework for resolving Van Parij’s “reciprocity problem.”

In fact Van Parij was not the first to raise this “reciprocity problem” in relation to various forms of social programs. It is really a very old trope. Yet it does not seem that an argument against BI has been framed in exactly this way before and by someone attempting to advocate for it. And in fact, Van Parij did not use the term “reciprocity problem” but the term “exploitation objection”, which is if anything even more objectionable. It is not the usual welfare basher bellyaching about having to pay taxes tosupport “lazy” people; the recipients of a BI are actually out to “exploit” other people. This is something like the argument of the copyright bully, that someone is taking advantage of her work although she spent very little effort creating the work and usually took full advantage of others work in creating it. Van Parij notices that in order to be an exploiter one has to derive some advantage from someone else, but he misses the corollary that to be exploited, one must be put at some disadvantage. He equates freedom with opportunity, without specifying what opportunity. Presumably, it is the opportunity to “better oneself” by acquiring more wealth. Most people really want only the opportunity to live their lives. A BI is supposed to create “equality of opportunity”. Van Parij sees achieving this as a matter of more fairly redistributing the resources of society. He has developed his very own system for deciding how this distribution should happen, and calls it “Leximin” or Lexicographic Maximum. This is when “…the person with least opportunities has opportunities which are no smaller than those enjoyed by the person with the least opportunities under any other feasible arrangement;…” But not satisfied with that, this social engineer further ordains that; “In case there exists another feasible arrangement that is just as good for the person with least opportunities, then the next person up the scale in a free society must have opportunities no smaller than the second person up the scale of opportunities under this arrangement, and so on.” He also declares himself to be a “Real Libertarian”, which seems to mean a “Left Liberal”, because he is concerned with “Liberty, Equality, and Efficiency”. All three are vague terms, but efficiency has potentially the most sinister meanings; it is unclear what “efficiency” is in Van Parij’s world. Another loaded term he uses is “self ownership”; which the Neoliberals would like to educate the next generation to practice. He wants the “highest sustainable unconditional income”, which shows a misunderstanding of the aim of BI as well as economic reality. This idea is also well refuted by Bataille and his ideas of energy flow and surplus. Lastly, Van Parij by a long and totally unnecessary argument convinces himself that only a BI could redeem Capitalism.3

Van Parij is responded to by Stuart White, who says; “The UBI proposal is apparently vulnerable…to at least one serious ethical objection. (It) will lead to the exploitation of productive, tax paying citizens by those who, while capable of working, choose to live off their Unconditional Basic Income (UBI).” He also takes issue with what he sees as Van Parij’s main argument in favour of UBI; the “external assets argument”. He introduces the “reciprocity principle” into the debate. This external assets argument principally means Van Parij’s idea of a “job rent”. This is, that people who are fortunate to have a job during a time of high unemployment have an asset which should be taxed to fund a BI for those who are unemployed. This again misses the point of having a BI, but White’s argument against it is this; by the reciprocity principle, those who enjoy the benefits of society have an obligation to contribute back according to their abilities, to the total pool of “wealth”. Otherwise, they are treating other people as “instruments” of their own well being. Reciprocity to White is not about “putting in as much as one takes out” but of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Everyone must “do their bit”. Yet White says he does not object to the idea of a small UBI based on external wealth such as natural resources or these “job rents”.4

Van Parij responds to White’s “products of social cooperation” argument and restricting a UBI to purely “external wealth”; natural resources and “job rents”. He is reduced to criticizing White’s definition of external wealth, even when he partly undermines his own arguments. Specifically, Van Parij now notices that even natural resources would be worth nothing if someone did not expend labor to make them available. A job is also 4 pages 317-20, 325-26 White, Stuart; Liberal Equality, dependent on the results of social cooperation; there is no job which does not require
processing the results of someone else’s efforts, then handing on those results. Van Parij again insists that “distributive justice” and “real freedom” require the distribution of “Basic Entitlements” to people, although the “commutative justice” of reciprocity must only rule over “allocation of privileges”.5

Finally we get to Van Der Veen, who seeks some compromise between White and Van Parij. Of course the latter two do not seem to be really disagreeing about much; they seem to have a “narcissism of small differences” going on. They want to get people’s basic entitlements right, and let reciprocity rule over the privileges. They disagree on how much the basic entitlements are. White wants to impose a legal obligation to work, thus interfering with personal freedom. Van Parij wants to maximize the “resources” available for a BI without any limitation based on actual need, and with no recognition of a “common wealth” or of the need for ample resources for government to carry out its functions, or even the need for surplus and redundancy in any system.6 None of this will convince either a Conservative or a Marxist of the need for a BI. Both will argue against anyone being allowed to be unproductive, or even being allowed to survive if they do not work. White, Van Parij, and Van Der Veer can only argue within the limits and terminology of Liberalism. This puts them into contradictions between freedom and obligation, justice and exploitation, which they cannot get out of. They cannot get out of the idea of scarcity, of a world of finite resources to be “shared out” in some way, which is at the heart of Liberal political/economic philosophy. Thus their arguments are incoherent. This means that Liberal modernity is not useful for describing post industrial reality and understanding requires going to a higher level of thinking.

Now, the post modern idea of looking into the deep past for answers to the issues of post industrialism has an atheist using The Bible to illustrate a point about BI. In the “parable of the vineyard”, a landowner hires men to pick his grapes. The men are found at different times of the day so when the work is done some have worked all day, some half a day, and some for only an hour, because they had not been hired anywhere else. Yet this landlord decides to pay them all the same. The ones who had been there all day revolted at this. The landlord tells them, in effect, that he has done them no harm. They are going home with a day’s pay. The people who were there for only an hour have also done them no harm. It is his money and he wants to pay everybody what he considers ‘right’. Of course his reasoning was that people have needs, whether they can find work or not. He did not want anyone to go home to their families with only an hours pay.7 Now update this to the (post)modern day. We have a BI. Everyone is getting enough to cover their needs regardless of how much or little they “produce”. Some grudger complains that she is doing a job while someone else is sitting around collecting BI. She needs to be told that nobody is doing her any harm, including the person who just collects BI. She has her BI as well, and she is getting a paycheck from work. Her response is likely to be that she is having to work harder because so and so is sitting back taking BI. She should be invited to quit and subsist on BI. Her next line of attack would be to complain that she is having to pay taxes so that someone else can sit around. She should be told that the taxes are not her money to decide what it is spent on. A BI is paid out of the common wealth of society, of which labor is a small and decreasing input. There are many more people available to work than there are jobs available producing the things and running the things which keep civilization running and everyone supplied with the basics. Grudger works because she wants more than her basic needs. This gives her no right to demean those who are happy with that. Amen.

Now, to look at what some post modern philosophers have to say. Baudrillard talked about three orders of “simulacra” in the modern age. In the classical renaissance, symbols were “counterfeit” and obeyed the natural law of value. In other words, natural resources, especially land, had value, and what was exchanged were representations, counterfeits, of that. In the industrial age, “referential value” meant the “market law of value”; what price something could fetch on a market. In the age which is now coming on, value obeys a structural law. Payment is by simulation of activities, with little really getting done or exchanged. It is like the saying; ” they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work”. Or as in the modern financial economy, which is based on trading in “derivatives” which have no connection to tangible assets. Post industrial/post production times mean the end of production, meaning the end of any problem of producing cheaply enough to meet the needs of everyone. Thus, “referential value is annihilated, giving the structural play of value the upper hand.” Structural value means; whatever value the social, and political structure give to something. What Baudrillard really means here is status. This makes it “the purest, most illegible form of social domination”. Further, “No other culture has this distinct opposition of Life and Death…life is accumulation, death is due payment.” Further, “labor is instituted on death.” What all this means is that people are threatened with death in order to become labor. Of course this is true even if they enjoy their work. Slaves often did not want to be set free. Basically, your work is someone else’s leisure. In the productive age we are leaving, labor was living death; you gave up other possibilities in life in order to postpone death. Later, you could refuse to work, but faced a living death of poverty on welfare or the street. The only other option was revolt; immediate death. In modern times this has usually become a living death in prison. In the age we are entering, most work is symbolic, it really produces nothing, because little labor is required to produce. Yet we still buy back some death by consuming goods. This is of course really about control; people are supposed to think they are being given something; permission to live, gifts of goods bestowed upon them. It is a “simulation of redemption.”8 Baudrillard’s view of the post modern and post productive can be grim.

Bataille’s worldview is more appealing. He denounces humanity’s misunderstanding of
the material basis for our life and the correct ends of the forces which we employ. Anyliving system, an ecosystem, an organism, or an economy, must use more energy than it needs to sustain itself. If it cannot be expended on growth, as when further growth is blocked, then it must be “lost without profit”. The ways this happens by either constructive or destructive means is: war, building pyramids, holding lavish festivals, conspicuous luxuries, or creating “services.” Further, a modern industrial economy like ours “expresses a circuit of cosmic energy on which it depends, ( and ) which it cannot limit,…” These are very hard concepts for Liberal thinkers to swallow. Then Bataille says that the demand for increase in living standards is not a demand for luxury but for justice, an easy concept for BI advocates. Further, he states that problems are posed as a scarcity of resources in first instance, from what he calls the particular point of view, which is where Liberalism comes from. Problems are posed as an excess of resources in first instance from the general point of view, which is where BI comes from. In other words, scarcity is an individualist idea, because everybody thinks they do not have enough. Abundance is a communal idea, defining the problem as a just allocation of abundance. Bataille makes the very important point from a BI perspective, that idleness is the simplest means of eliminating surplus. This is another difficult concept for Liberalism and industrialism.”9

It would seem, and it is starting to be argued, that the real need for a BI is to mitigate these negative aspects of a post industrial political economy. Yet to argue for reform of
public policy is to seek to convince a critical mass of the public to see things in a different way. This requires extinguishing old tropes and establishing new ones in people’s minds. You do not do this by arguing in terms of the old tropes, endlessly trying to square the circle while driving in the old tropes. There is a scarcity of goods in the world; everybody must do their bit to produce enough, otherwise somebody else has to work harder. Yet this is making me feel less free, being on the treadmill all my life, producing but seeing little of the results of my efforts. I want to be master of my own life, meaning to have enough to be secure against being forced into subjugation, serfdom, slavery. But this means I must be exploiting someone else; and around it goes, with White and Van Parij never getting anywhere. But enough is produced in the world to provide all that everybody needs and it has been so in most places in most times. Labor has always been only one input into production and is often needed only occasionally. There has rarely been a need for everybody to be working and never on a permanent basis. The real economic problem has always been about what to do with surpluses. Sometimes an aggressive elite has demanded surplus for growth or to engage in conquest and aggrandizement, but these are no longer practicable outlets. Increased leisure becomes the consumer of surpluses, making “work ethics” and “reciprocity principles” absurd. As well, technology is making labor an ever smaller part of production. People who work are being forced to work, or made to desire to work, beyond necessity and nobody is exploiting anyone by doing nothing. In fact, someone who does nothing is less of a draw on finite resources, and is therefore a benefit to someone who wants to work and get more. ( I do not need this “job asset”, you can have it.) Further, this makes the idea of trying to maximize the size of the BI absurd. It assumes a need to maximize growth instead of making minimum use of resources. Discussion should be about what people really need in order to live a good life and to provide this to all with the least effort and draw on resources. Much of this will not go directly to individuals but to the governance apparatii which organize services and insure sufficient reinvestment in productivity and maintenance of physical assets. Thus, talking about BI in post modern terms is to talk about it in real world terms. Talking in Liberalist/Modernist terms is talking within the frame of an idealized world which never really existed. The latter lead to endless unresolvable debates which can only reinforce existing prejudices. The former open up the topic of BI and create a framework for productive deliberations on a vast number of topics related to it, especially to the organization of society in a post modern world. White and Van Parij cannot resolve this “reciprocity problem” despite going into great detail and constructing very elaborate arguments, because they have never understood the problem in the first place. When looked at through the lens of post modernism, the problem just disappears. This gives assurance that most other problems with a BI, now being intensely debated by BI advocates schooled in Liberal economic and ethical concepts, will also vanish or become clarified when more people with a post modern view are able to be heard. This is actually starting to happen, and by this point my thesis is sufficiently demonstrated.

1 downloaded March 26, 2014.

2 Page 79-80 Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Post Modern Explained. 1993, University of Minnesota

3 Pages 1, 25, 28-29, 138, 169-70, 233. Van Parij, Philippe; Real Freedom or All; what (if anything) can
justify capitalism? 1995, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

4Exploitation, and the Case for an Unconditional
Basic Income Political Studies, Volume 45 issue 2, June 1997.

5 Page 330, Van Parij, Phillippe “Reciprocity and the Justification of an Unconditional Basic Income. Reply to Stuart White.” Political Studies, Volume 45, Issue 2, June 1997. Downloaded March 29, 2014.

6 Pages 161&163, Van Der Veen, Robert, “Real Freedom versus Reciprocity: Competing Views on the
Justice of Unconditional Basic Income” Political Studies Volume 46 issue 1, 1998.

7 Downloaded March 26, 2014.

8 Pages 6-10, 38-40, 50, 147. Baudrillard, Jean, “Symbolic Exchange and Death” 1994 Sage
Publications, London, UK.

9 Page 21, 24, 26, 38, 39, 119, Bataille, Georges, The Accursed Share, volume 1 Zone books, New
York, 1988

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