On March 12, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez included the Universal Basic Income (UBI) as part of a list of urgently needed measures, and she isn’t the only national figure — right-wing or left — who has floated that term. But what is UBI, beyond some vague idea of “the government should just mail checks to people”?
It continues to be a strange trip for the Universal Basic Income: from the hobbyhorse of fringe academics and activists, to the quirky policy proposal of presidential candidate Andrew Yang, to, now, a recurring item on the list of demands to address an epidemiological and economic crisis that has engulfed the world.
This partly reflects the ongoing semantic dilution of the term “universal basic income,” which has come to be a shorthand for policies quite different from those intended by its early advocates. But that’s no reason not to hold on to demands for unconditional cash payment as part of the response to the COVID-19 crisis. Such appeals uphold principles of universalism and solidarity, in contrast to neoliberal and fascist responses to the crisis. And they can play a crucial role in maintaining the conditions of material survival, within which we must rapidly develop alternatives to a zombie neoliberal order that appears, finally, to be crashing down for good.
UBI is a simple idea, but that doesn’t stop people from applying it to all sorts of things it was never meant to describe. Let’s begin with the U, for universal or, in some versions, unconditional. For the originators of the UBI idea, it was crucial that cash payments be conceived as universal rights not tied to work or any other condition. Yet a recent Time magazine article, on the surge in interest in UBI, slips immediately from discussing Yang’s proposal to one by Congressmen Tim Ryan and Ro Khanna which “would give Americans who earned less than $65,000 in 2019 a check between $1,000 and $6,000.”
Whatever the merits of this proposal, it’s not a universal basic income. Getting rid of income requirements — such as those imposed on recipients of traditional welfare programs — is one of UBI’s greatest virtues. Universality is meant to challenge the stigma that often prevents people from seeking or receiving targeted welfare checks. Moreover, the theory is that universal programs are politically easier to defend and expand than those which help only a minority, which can then be portrayed as undeserving and parasitic on the hard-working majority.
That aspect of UBI couldn’t be more important in the present moment, as it provides a wedge against two different, nonuniversal visions of pandemic response. The first, of course, is that of Trump and the Right, which is focused on nationalism and on helping those deemed to “deserve” help, who of course are those who match the class and race characteristics of the right-wing base. It couldn’t be more urgent to demand that the response to the crisis take the form of universal social rights, rather than moves that intensify the authoritarian and paternalist tendencies that are already accelerating in response to fear of the pandemic.
But aside from right-populist authoritarianism, there is another ideology standing in the way of real solutions: the complacent upper middle class pity-charity liberalism that still dominates the leadership of the Democratic Party, typified by Hawaii senator Brian Schatz wringing his hands about “people who need much more than a thousand bucks and people who or just don’t need a thousand bucks.” Amid an urgent crisis, and with government borrowing costs at zero, Schatz can’t imagine anything more important than creating bureaucratic impediments to make sure only the “right” people get help.
Of course, the deserving recipients for a liberal like Schatz are different than those of a right-winger — rather than the suffering small business owner and Fox-watching white retiree, liberals insist they just want to help the truly needy, and avoid giving money to those too affluent to need it.
But the logic of their position is reactionary in its own way. It’s the liberalism of people who are — or think they are — above needing help, such that their politics is motivated by noblesse oblige rather than solidarity. Yet while the most prominent liberals in elected office and the media today may be rich enough to be doing fine, that isn’t necessarily the case for all of the loyal MSNBC-watchers who take cues from them.
In terms of both material needs and fostering the principle that we’re all in the same boat together, truly universal payments serve an important purpose. And anyhow, anybody who really doesn’t need the money is still free to give the check to their favorite charity or out-of-work bartender.
Then let’s center the Basic part of the UBI. Mitt Romney, of all people, has supported sending out $1,000 checks to every American, which Bernie Sanders sensibly saw and raised to $2,000. But one of the principles of UBI, at least in its more radical incarnations, was that it was to be sufficient to cover a person’s basic needs, at a livable if not luxurious level, without any other source of income. It’s once we reach that threshold that we might see some of the more radical effects of allowing people to build political and economic spaces beyond the reach of capital, free of the immediate lash of the labor market.
A thousand dollars a month is, for almost anyone in the United States, probably not going to be that kind of radical UBI, although we shouldn’t underestimate how fundamentally life altering it would still be for a lot of people. In that sense, liberals are right to say that that $1,000 or $2,000 a month isn’t enough, even if they’re wrong to say it’s a bad idea in itself. Dealing with this crisis in a serious way means dealing with the need for guaranteed paid sick leave, free health care, suspending rent payments, debt forgiveness, and much else.
Finally, we should recognize that if the checks go out, as it looks likely they will, they won’t constitute an Income, in the sense of an ongoing flow of money we can indefinitely count on into the future. They will be a one-off, or at best something that ends after six months or a year. Still, it’s a start, and it’s a check that can help keep people alive as we desperately scramble to build a politics adequate the crisis we face.
The fact that cutting checks is suddenly such a popular idea across the political spectrum demonstrates how much the Left has shifted what’s considered possible over the past decade. But it also shows us a ruling class and a political order that is desperately trying to find a stopgap measure to prevent social collapse, in the vain hope of returning to “normal” in short order. It’s up to those of us who rejected that normality, and who know that it’s unrecoverable anyway, to take whatever immediate forms of economic life support we can, as we look for new ways to organize.
So in the end, the “UBI” ideas being thrown around are, in many cases, neither Universal, Basic, nor an Income. Temporary income supports aren’t socialism, and aren’t a solution to capitalist crisis. Even a true Universal Basic Income, for its socialist advocates, was never meant to be that. But at this moment, the working class has to grasp on to the immediate means of survival as we try to get control of this moment of crisis, which is going to radically transform global capitalism one way or the other.