Andrew Yang and the Failson Mystique

America has already witnessed the largest UBI experiment known to history — the postwar middle-class housewife. And she was utterly miserable.

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang eats a roasted turkey leg while visiting the Iowa State Fair August 09, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

And there were oh so many ways

For her to spend her days

She could clean the house for hours

Or rearrange the flowers

Or run naked through the shady street

Screaming all the way

— “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” Marianne Faithfull, 1979

A few days ago, an extremely hot, cool, funny, and recently single friend of mine was scrolling Tinder, just looking to pull. The indignity of online dating reached its nadir when she was contacted by an Andrew Yang enthusiast, who proceeded to scoff at her support of full employment, rather than universal basic income.

He was unemployed, admitted to being mostly preoccupied with binge drinking, and he blithely admitted, “My life is pretty fucking empty.” Beyond the more obvious and unkind jokes about the sexual ineptitude of Extremely Online Millennial NEETS, the tragic cliché of the downwardly mobile lumpen failson has become a mascot of the Yang Gang. But what struck her most of all was his insistence that the demand for a worker-controlled economy was both naive and selfish — “unions aren’t coming back,” and “why talk about utopian visions and deny people an immediate material gain?”

Not wanting to continue such a fatalistic and decidedly unsexy conversation, my friend exited the exchange with a few terminal words, more out of pity than offense.

It is notoriously difficult to evangelize class consciousness among the hopeless and disaffected. What’s more, it’s generally an unpleasant conversation, whether over Tinder or in person. Nevertheless, no one taking a socialist project seriously can ignore the demographic of young men that make up Andrew Yang’s base. For one, an impersonal policy of unqualified compassion for even the most obnoxious of God’s creatures is pretty essential for a consistent socialist project. But perhaps more to the point, downwardly mobile, formerly middle-class young men are historically a bit of a political powder keg, and the Yang Yugend aren’t going anywhere (which I mean in every and any sense of the phrase).

There are plenty of excellent pragmatic arguments against UBI — that we don’t have the political power to institute it in any substantial way (and if we did, we would already have the power to institute socialism first, so why put the cart before the horse). Also that the Yang stipend would be a pittance and extremely vulnerable to austerity, that it would coincide with the slashing of social programs, and that the market would immediately adjust and inflate to render the payments far less ameliorative than its recipients would hope. Additionally, there are certainly convincing political arguments against UBI — that trading control of the economy for a few measly dollars would actually disempower us politically; that it’s a trick and a payoff, and we won’t be bribed to abandon the fight for worker power; that we don’t want an allowance, we want to rule the world.

I will not recount all of these arguments here, but you should certainly familiarize yourself with them, though not because UBI boosters are politically significant enough to spend too much time on. Even with Yang on the debate stage, UBI mostly remains the political equivalent of raw water, essentially an esoteric fad of pseudo-intellectual technocrats, libertarians, and the robber barons of Silicon Valley.

Nonetheless, my interest here is not to argue that UBI is unworkable (it is), and that it lies to us with a bait-and-switch false promise of security (it does); I am arguing that even if it was feasible and offered security exactly the way Silicon Valley says it will, UBI is not desirable. We know this, because we already tried it.

Betty Friedan and the UBI

Hailed as a groundbreaking feminist nonpareil, Betty Friedan’s 1963 bestselling investigation into the secret misery of suburban housewives, The Feminine Mystique, remains one of the most salient sociological exposés of the American middle-class woman. The now famous opening passage gave voice to a previously silent sea of women living comfortable lives of quiet desperation.

The problem lay buried, unspoken for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban housewife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”

The book is, of course, notoriously blinkered, and certainly suffers from the blinders of middle-class ideology. Friedan’s liberalism leans heavily on psychoanalytic readings of problems of political economy, and her solution to the unfulfilled desires of middle-class women still required the domestic labor of those “other” women.

But even with Friedan’s elitist politics, the candid honesty of the subjects of The Feminine Mystique exposed something very real, something uncomfortable, inexplicable, and seemingly counterintuitive that had never been talked about before — the so-called happy homemakers living the suburban dream were truly and utterly miserable.

Friedan’s interviews with these women revealed the same patterns of seemingly idiopathic suffering over and over; depersonalization, intense anxiety, brain fog and disorientation, debilitating depression, erratic rage, hypochondriasis, racing thoughts, compulsive behaviors, and exhaustion. Some women exploded with anger, some cried all day, some slept all day, some doped themselves to the gills with tranquilizers, and some — as if overcome with a sort of domestic claustrophobia — just ran out of the house to wander the empty suburban streets, à la Lucy Jordan.

One of the great missteps of the feminist movement is that it refuses to acknowledge its own successes, and subsequently the limitations of those successes. In their ambitious optimism, the Second-Wavers of Friedan’s generation believed that all it would take for women to be liberated was women in the boardrooms, universities, advertising agencies, and all manner of professional-managerial-class careers. By and large, they succeeded in breaking through the glass ceiling, and in the process took a massive bite out of the amorphous social structure we tend to shorthand as “patriarchy.”

However, they also forgot to replace that social structure with a stable, rewarding, and egalitarian alternative. Now, those professional-managerial-class careers are rapidly proletarianizing, and we are left with a massive, gaping void where an admittedly oppressive (but seemingly more secure) system used to be.

Women are now “free” to enter the rat race, to be alienated from their labor, to work themselves to death at thankless careers where they wield little to no power over their lives — just like men. In fact, we now even outpace men professionally in all those previously enviable PMC careers that are currently grinding us into dust. And all thanks to Betty Friedan and those miserable housewives.

Friedan’s women, in their comfortable homes with their comfortable allowances, with all of that marvelous free time, were the biggest experiment in UBI the world has ever seen, and they were desperately, wretchedly unhappy, to the point of mental illness. Because that is what being paid off and discarded does to a person.

There are three objections I have encountered when making this point, none of which hold up.

The first is that the condition of the postwar middle-class housewives cannot represent a UBI sample size merely by dint of them all being women. For this to be true, you would have to construct a model of gender that supposes women are (somehow) completely different from men in their desires and sense of fulfillment. So unless one is willing to make the argument that what is bad for the goose is somehow good for the gander, or that a swath of miserable men and women is somehow preferable to or more politically defensible than a swath of miserable women, you have to arrive at the conclusion that Friedan’s subjects were the shock troops of UBI. As there is no good argument as to how UBI for women would be different from UBI for all, it’s clear that gender is a feature, but not a factor in the psychologically corrosive results of Housewife UBI.

The second is that there is something fundamentally different about being “kept” by a husband than being “kept” by the state. Even at first glance, this objection is merely a distinction without a difference. But as someone who has been both a housewife and on the dole, I assure you that housewives have far more political and economic leverage than welfare recipients.

A capitalist state that holds the purse strings is far less accountable to its dependents than a husband. If he annoyed me or didn’t give me enough money, I had immediate recourse due to both the value of my labor and my proximity to him. Such is not the case with the distant and opaque bureaucracy of the welfare office — you cannot berate them when you are unhappy, you cannot go on strike by refusing to do their laundry or clean, and you certainly can’t poison their dinner. These are not tactics I am willing to forswear (a girl has to have options).

The third argument I hear is that the misery of Friedan’s housewives is somehow anachronistic due to the patriarchal culture of the time, the relic of an era that had not yet undergone women’s liberation, and that a postfeminist UBI would be a different beast altogether. This charmingly Hegelian naivete makes the same mistake Friedan herself did — responding to the anguish and genuine misery of powerless women bored to tears with a prescription of consciousness-raising.

We currently live in the most feminist moment in cultural history, and for all the perks I admittedly enjoy from it (divorce, abortion, miniskirts), it doesn’t appear that the anguish and misery of women has been much alleviated by their “awareness” that women are in fact people worthy of dignity and respect.

The very idea that women (or men) would suddenly flourish under a political shift back to helpless reliance on a (hopefully) benevolent patron — so long as we could still tweet bell hooks quotes and wear our “Feminist as Fuck” t-shirts — is the height of delusional ideology, not to mention deeply patronizing (which, again, I mean in every and sense of the phrase).

Moreover, if we are to consider what has changed materially since Suburban Housewife UBI, we have to consider a whole new, arguably even more socially corrosive social and cultural landscape. Gone are the traditional middle-class suburban panopticons of churches, country clubs, and ladies’ societies, and good riddance. These insular little societies turned Mean Girls into Stepford Wives, and transplanted the ruthlessly enforced social conformity of high school into the suburbs. But the elimination of hypercompetitive passive-aggressive bake sales are hardly a recipe for social cohesion.

Without those institutions (as infamously oppressive and tyrannical as they were), there is nowhere to go, literally. Physically. In the world. So, they go online. If those measly, petty, nasty little suburban cliques were a poor alternative to the public square, the internet, a festering sore of antisocial misery, is an even more alienating downgrade.

The introduction of the internet as the main substitute for “community” for the young un/underemployed is not merely a matter of trading rug hooking for video games; this is a technology so powerful that its architects do not allow their children to use it. Online has become an opiate of the lumpen. Similar to weed or alcohol, it is a harmless social pastime for the thriving and robust. For the miserable and economically insecure, however, the internet becomes a pathological social blight, a symptom of initial misery than swells to compound and exacerbate the cycle of antisocial disaffection. (If you don’t believe me, watch them doing literally everything they possibly can to self-sabotage getting laid over Tinder.) We are more connected than we have ever been, and we are more isolated than we have ever been.

And so, the listless, lumpen boys of Yang Gang scroll and swipe their lives away, daydreaming about becoming the listless, lumpen housewives of yesteryear. And with Friedan’s subjects so far back in the rearview mirror, even young women aren’t immune to reactionary fantasies of being “kept, however miserable it actually was.

These aspirations may appear arrested or retrograde, but they’re an understandable response to an already disgraceful and tragic waste of human potential. In this period of neoliberal atomization and insecurity, it’s easy to become fatalistic; “if I’m going to do nothing, I might as well do it comfortably.” And the UBI NEETS already suffer from the self-destructiveness, boredom, and antisocial alienation of Friedan’s famous housewives. They are exhausted and miserable and sick, and the crushingly unfulfilling dependency of trad life under capitalism always looks more seductive from the outside. Of course it does; it all takes place behind closed doors, whether in picket-fence suburbs of the past or in an illegal sublet in Bushwick with five roommates in 2019.

I must restate that I do not anticipate UBI ever gaining much political momentum, but it will take some work to reinstate the bedrocks of socialist reforms into the discourse of the Yang Gang base: full employment and meaningful work with living wages, parental leave, retirement, disability, housing, health care, childcare, and a worker-controlled supply of labor. These are the inspiring ideals that invigorate people and shape our discontent into something that can build power. These are the politics that fight for dignity. This is the program that inspires hope. This is the class war that promises socialism.

And besides, ladies love a workin’ man.