I follow Patricia Williams, Angela Harris & Aysha Pamukcu, in arguing universal rights, to basic income and other resources, are insufficient but necessary ingredients for justice. Indeed, I argue for permanent, non-discretionary funding of these rights. No one truly knows how much money the U.S. government spends encoding and encasing private property rights, much less private capital’s rights to coordinate or contract. In many ways, these costs are “baked into” society. So, ultimately, should it be for rights to income, healthcare, housing, education, employment for all.
The argument goes that cash benefits, such as UBI, afford recipients the dignity to choose what they need, versus in-kind benefits which paternalistically define that need for them. By removing government restrictions on spending, they allow recipients the freedom to consume on their terms. However, this so-called choice is in name only without a guarantee that basic needs will be met. The context of housing provides one example of this. The reality of cash benefits is that even where choice is not restricted by the state, it remains restricted by the failures of the market.
It would be ironic indeed if a UBI slipped quickly through the fingers of lower-income people of color and into the coffers of jurisdictions most aggressively criminalizing poverty. This would negate UBI’s ability to facilitate work refusal because UBI—devoured by debt—would no longer be available to meet basic needs without a wage (or connection to a wage-earner). Moreover, this negation’s radically unequal racial distribution would mock UBI’s pretensions to universalism. Substantive universality requires more than formal inclusion and nominally equal payments. It requires cash receipts that deliver equal capacity to refuse work.
UBI as part of the project of building collaborative security for all.
The question of whether basic income can resolve the problem of unpaid care work and the status of care work more generally requires addressing how a basic income is financed, because it is only as a redistributive program that basic income can have an emancipatory effect for those whose work is obscured by the structure of modern capitalist economies and undervalued by the market. It is only by broadening our perspective, for the moment, away from the details of basic income as a social policy, and to basic income as a revolutionary perspective on capitalism, that the emancipatory effect becomes clear.
Surely advocates of such programs do not envision Qatar as their model society. And yet it is too easy to imagine a version of a Gulf state arising from a basic income initiative that provides cash support to citizens, who no longer need to take work that is unsatisfying, while denying it to noncitizens, who are brought in do the difficult and dangerous jobs that remain.
This week we’re opening up a symposium on universal basic income (UBI). UBI is both an important topic in its own right and a useful lens for examining recurrent virtues and vices in projects of partial decommodification and universal provision. This post situates the discussion.