How Universal Basic Income Became the Pessimist’s Utopia

In Welfare for Markets, Anton Jäger and Daniel Zamora show that cash transfers emerged as an alternative to the welfare state favored by a left that had abandoned hope in socialism and a right hostile to democratic management of the economy.

Members of social and trade-union organizations protest on July 20, 2022 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in demand of a universal basic income. (Photo by Luis Robayo / AFP via Getty Images)

“What exactly do David Graeber, Milton Friedman, Charles Murray, Yannis Varoufakis, and Mark Zuckerberg have in common?” It sounds like the setup to a bad joke. The punch line may not be funny exactly, but it is revealing. Although they share practically nothing when it comes to their political commitments, they have all supported the establishment of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) — cash transfers, or a state-provided wage regardless of employment status. In other words, free money.

In Welfare for Markets: A Global History of Basic Income, Anton Jäger and Daniel Zamora seek to explain how such an ideologically diverse crew could come to share this particular vision of the welfare state. Providing an intellectual history of the origins and ascendence of the idea of a universal basic income — which in recent years has become a major plank in progressive reform platforms — they show that its broad appeal is evidence of a tectonic shift in the ways thinkers both left and right have come to understand both the welfare state and the market.

It turns out that the history of the idea of a universal basic income is, in fact, about much more than welfare. Through a careful study of UBI’s strange career, Jäger and Zamora demonstrate how the basic premises of the market fundamentalism usually associated with the neoliberal turn of the last quarter of the twentieth century run far deeper, and extend much more broadly, than most historians usually credit. Instead of the standard “schools” explanation for the rise of neoliberalism — in which prophets of doom climb down from the peaks of Mont Pèlerin to spread a philosophy of market fundamentalism — by following the development of UBI as an idea, Jäger and Zamora reveal how that ideological victory was spurred by something of a grassroots reaction to the overlapping crises of mid-century liberalism.

In this story, intellectuals across the political spectrum reacted to the endemic tensions running through the postwar welfare state by turning away from the principle of “the collective determination of needs,” that is, provision of in-kind benefits, social infrastructure, and bureaucracy. While right-wing advocates of UBI rejected a vibrant social welfare state on the grounds that it was the first step on the road to serfdom, supporters on the Left were largely disenchanted with the “paternalism” of modern welfare and so found the move to cash payments attractive: give everyone money so that individuals might free themselves from the dictates of an employer. With this, however, came the major concession that money, and therefore markets, would remain the central method of distributing goods. The benefit of a history of basic income, Jäger and Zamora argue, is that it “decenters the neo-liberal heuristic in favor of a more general market turn.” This turn, they elaborate, “also was indigenously left wing and centrist, not just an emanation from the neoliberal right.”

Much of Welfare for Markets resonates with the arguments advanced by the historian Gary Gerstle in his recent book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order. There, Gerstle argues that neoliberalism’s rise represented the establishment of a new “political order,” or a set of ideological constraints within which even opponents to the standing regime are forced to operate. By tracking the career of UBI, Jäger and Zamora show how not only have those opponents needed to articulate their opposition in terms of the new order’s rhetoric, but that they have already adopted many of its key presumptions about social planning and the power of markets.

And here lies perhaps the most important lesson surrounding contemporary calls for a UBI. Unable to imagine a society in which the state could build a new commons — an infrastructure that would answer the needs of ordinary people — left proponents of basic income have used the market to fill in the gaps in their policy recommendations and, more seriously, their political imaginations. Unable to imagine a welfare state where needs were collectively determined, UBI has allowed its supporters on the Left to recast “sovereign citizens” as “sovereign consumers,” now empowered by the state to participate more thoroughly (and, so the argument goes, more equitably) in market relations.

Once this premise is accepted, the difference between Left and Right becomes a question of quantity, rather than vision. The Right could call for the replacement of the welfare state with a paltry UBI, while the Left might demand a more generous provision. Lost in the discussion over the sums of cash that the government ought to dole out was a crucial principle: that perhaps the state itself should serve as a tool for reordering society along more egalitarian grounds. UBI is ultimately, Jäger and Zamora show, a product of the low expectations normalized by the defeat of socialism and, with it, the belief that politics can have a say in decisions over the production of social goods and the organization of social relations. Or as Jäger and Zamora put it: “Basic income became the utopia for a world that had lost faith in utopias.”

No Strings Attached

Jäger and Zamora’s first major contribution to the history of UBI is to locate its origins firmly in the middle of the twentieth century. Unlike earlier calls for the redistribution of wealth (usually land) promoted by the likes of Thomas More, Charles Fourier, and Thomas Paine, the modern notion of UBI broke from earlier “producerist” values that presumed that recipients had done, or would perform, some kind of labor to justify the benefit. UBI was distinctive from such “work centric” proposals in that it was conceived as being an individual, universal, and unconditional grant of money. The shocks of the Great Depression, mass proletarianization, and expanding industrialization discredited older “agrarian” and “republican” conceptions of welfare in which the state in theory would aid citizen-producers.

With so many people divorced from the means of social production and reproduction, and with the broad diffusion of the wage as the primary means of subsistence, an older “politics of property” lost its relevance. In its place emerged a conception of citizens as, first and foremost, consumers whose subsistence required a technically sophisticated network of industrial production administered in the final instance by the state. Here, Jäger and Zamora’s periodization squares neatly with the historian Timothy Mitchell’s claim that the very notion of the economy emerged at the same time, and in theory for similar reasons: understanding a complex and fragmentary world dominated by market relations required seeing productive activity of society as a single, unified apparatus in need of technocratic governance. One could not expect a single, ordinary individual to weather the volatility of its booms and breakdowns. Nor, for that matter, did ordinary people produce the economy; they lived off it.

But the true genesis moment for UBI, Jäger and Zamora argue, came in the early 1940s, when a young Milton Friedman coined the deeply unromantic term, “negative income tax.” While Friedman was not the first to conceive of a universal wage, he was the first to divorce it entirely from any obligations on the part of the recipient — above all, any assumption that the recipient had performed work of some kind.

At the time, Friedman still considered himself a New Dealer, but in his defense of a negative income tax one could see the early signs of what would become fundamental tenets of his conception of neoclassical economics: first, that poverty was synonymous with nothing more and nothing less than a lack of money; second, that the state lacked the capacity, but crucially also the moral authority, to adequately or appropriately plan society. In Friedman’s words, New Deal programs had the tendency to “distort the market or impede its functioning.” The “end goal” of the negative income tax, on the other hand, was to allow beneficiaries “to be free in the market rather than from the market.” This commitment to the market would, Jäger and Zamora argue, become something akin to basic income’s original sin.

It would not be until the 1960s and the burgeoning crises of mid-century American liberalism, however, that basic income rose to a position of first national, and then international importance. Several factors combined to make UBI an attractive proposition at that time. Observers mistakenly attributed rising unemployment in the late 1950s to an “automation revolution,” opening up the possibility that the economy would soon shed a substantial portion of the workforce. This fear — combined with growing numbers of those signing up for welfare in the United States and the rediscovery of poverty by political commentators like Michael Harrington in his 1962 The Other America — made basic income an attractive proposition to reformers.

The New Left was suspicious of the welfare state for its paternalism — what Herbert Marcuse called the “administered society” — and the newly ascendent right despised the welfare state because it reduced inequality and posed an alternative to the market as a means for distributing social goods. But UBI was not yet a hegemonic discourse. While libertarians and New Left activists might have endorsed a basic income, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations did not see poverty as originating with structural qualities of the economy. Instead, they thought cultures of poverty and a lack of appropriate training for a raft of skilled jobs (which the technological society was supposedly about to produce en masse) were the causes of deprivation.

The Cash-Transfer State

Not until the Nixon administration did UBI find its champion in the White House. Here Jäger and Zamora’s historical approach shows its power. Considering Nixon’s paeans to the work ethic while in office, his support of a basic income, dubbed the Family Assistance Program (FAP), has stood out as something of a mystery among historians of the postwar United States. Having grounded UBI firmly in a bow to market fundamentalism, Jäger and Zamora demonstrate that his support in fact makes sense.

For a price — a basic income — Nixon could buy the American people out of their commitment to the idea of the collective’s ability to use government power to remake society along more democratic lines. Although the FAP ultimately failed, his administration nevertheless pushed through a cash-transfer model for welfare, in particular, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for those who were employed. These moves were harbingers of a tendency to privatize to replace the welfare state with a cash-transfer state that would persist throughout the 1980s and 1990s. While Reagan famously cut government welfare programs to the bone, like his reduction to the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, cash transfers actually increased during his presidency, just as they would during Clinton’s two terms.

As cash transfers became increasingly popular as a fix to the American welfare state, UBI’s status diminished in the United States, while in Western Europe it gained adherents. The cause for this, the authors argue, was a growing European “left-wing anti-statism and a new post-work sensibility.” Across the continent, large swathes of the Left had come to accept the postindustrial fate of the West, brought about by the increase in free-trade-facilitated international competition, as an unchangeable fact of life. Fordism was apparently bleeding steam, and intellectuals on the order of André Gorz were saying adieu to the working class. The proliferation of European post-work organizations in the late 1970s and early 1980s — the Dutch Council Against the Work Ethic, TUNIX in Germany, as well as French and Italian groups — testified to the Left’s move away from a vision of revolution centered on the industrial working class. In the philosopher George Caffentzis’s words, the excitement surrounding the possibility of a basic income revealed “a failed politics” whose platform presumed that “behind everyone’s back, capitalism [had] ended.”

Of course, UBI’s appeal was premised not on capitalism’s end, but the supremacy of markets. Nowhere was this clearer than in UBI’s surprising discursive turn to the Global South. Jäger and Zamora’s decision to focus on the developing world is both unconventional and welcome. Far from ushering in a postindustrial, post-work, postcapitalist society, in India, Mexico, and Brazil UBI proved itself a useful method for intensifying market relations without actually investing in development. While Julius Nyerere had argued that poor nations could not escape poverty “without industrialization,” the UN, the IMF, and the World Bank pushed poorer nations to adopt transfer payments in lieu of heavy capital investment. In place of an industrial policy to create national independence, transfer payments became the go-to policy in a development scheme that would, ultimately, maintain and reinforce preexisting structures of market exchange.

Once again, the minds behind this policy shift reframed poverty from a question of inequality to one of a mere lack of money. This presumed that institutional structures played no role in ensuring the uneven distribution of wealth. “Development as a state-led enterprise,” Jäger and Zamora write, “was soon dissolved in the vast impersonal ocean of aggregated consumer choices.”

Was Another UBI Possible?

The strengths of Jäger and Zamora’s historical approach are indisputable. They amply demonstrate what others have only hinted at — the depths of the political-economic and cultural shifts that led to the ascendence of market fundamentalism in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Their history is both broad and deep. Certainly it will become the authoritative account of the origins of UBI.

If the history they recount is wanting in any way, it is in the less explored ambiguities of basic income, the very ambiguities that have made it attractive particularly to thinkers on the Left. Take for example their discussion of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), whose call for cash transfers in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s would seem to trouble their tight definition of UBI as essentially divorced from work — as an unconditional payment. Unlike the vast majority of UBI intellectuals that Jäger and Zamora survey in their book, many of the members of the NWRO, in particular welfare mothers, demanded a state-provided income, not unconditionally, but on the basis that they were, in fact, already performing work.

One of the NWRO’s lead organizers, Johnnie Tillmon, called on Nixon to issue “a proclamation that women’s work is real work,” and that mothers should receive “a living wage for doing the work we are already doing — child raising and housekeeping.” Jäger and Zamora do not address this particular angle of the story, but according to their analysis, the welfare mothers of the NWRO were not calling for a real UBI. They were instead invoking an older, “producerist” model of redistribution. It is in just this exception that perhaps one might sense a tension running through the idea of basic income that the authors do not quite meet head-on — that a basic-income policy could, in theory, serve to effect a fuller valuation of work that all too often goes unrecognized and unpaid, and that perhaps the “producerist” ethic we have supposedly left behind in fact lays ready to hand in these models of UBI as compensation for unpaid domestic labor. The goal of the Wages for Housework movement of the early 1970s, which also demanded a wage from the state, was to compel society at large to appropriately value otherwise “invisible” domestic labor.

Jäger and Zamora state in a somewhat offhand way that today the “precariat” is “less taken with the industrial work ethic.” It’s a statement that is strangely reminiscent of claims made by Nixon himself when he condemned what he denigrated as the “welfare ethic” of the late 1960s. First, it’s not clear that in the 1950s so many workers were particularly enamored with their industrial jobs, nor today is it so obvious that people in principle do not believe in work.

This matters because, while Jäger and Zamora make a persuasive case that UBI reveals the depth of the mid-century market turn in political thought, they do not take into account the many movements that have sought to strengthen a position against the market by demanding money. For example, many right-wing opponents to the FAP in the late 1960s and early 1970s rejected it on the grounds that a separate government wage would give some of the most oppressed workers the ability to refuse degrading jobs. “There’s not going to by anybody left to roll these wheelbarrows and press these shirts,” said Georgia representative Phillip Landrum. “They’re all going to be on welfare.” In other words, as the welfare mothers of NWRO suggested, if a basic income were generous enough, it might itself be able to perform a kind of structural reform of the economy, possibly giving people the power to refuse to enter the market, in this case, the labor market.

Jäger and Zamora might well argue that even this, however, would only constitute a half measure, a way for the state to fiddle with the market individual by individual, rather than actually engage in the more radical work of planning the economy. For that matter, the state could provide all manner of social provisions to recognize that social reproductive work is indeed work, as in the ambitious vision of fin de siècle feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman and what historian Dolores Hayden has called the “material feminists” of the Progressive Era who called for the socialization of reproductive labor — collective living and the rationalization of cooking, cleaning, and the activities normally understood as the labor of family life. Although, even those radical feminists defended a version of wages for housework.

These caveats aside, Jäger and Zamora’s approach makes an immensely useful contribution in unscrambling the messy politics of UBI, helping us to see that when Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, whom they dub “technopopulists,” support the establishment of a basic income, the tech executives have not suddenly become champions of the working class. As liberal institutions hemorrhage credibility and the economy grows increasingly precarious, working people find themselves free floating, unmoored from stable jobs or unions. In the churn, technocrats articulate a seemingly apolitical policy that on its face might seem radically democratic, even if it is only a democracy of atoms bumping up against one another in the world market — a technical hack to the problem of late capitalism. And, sadly, this technopopulism remains a particularly vibrant strand of contemporary political discourse. It falls to the Left to imagine a world where people can live and thrive outside of market relations. Historically, that has been its portion; in the future, that is its responsibility.