A Poor Perspective on the UBI

Of late there has been a lot of ink spilled over the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI).  Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang has made it the center of his campaign.  Before going too far, it should be noted that there are legitimate questions to be answered with such a revolutionary proposal and many details to be worked out.  Some plans are generous and others much less so.  And there is the very real fear that a UBI could be used as a tool of the State to track and control the population.  But as important as these issues are they are not my primary focus.  The money is irrelevant for the time being since whenever the government really wants to do something they always find the money.  As for whether it is possible, we need remember that history is full of things that were impossible up until the moment they became inevitable.

What is missing is the perspective of the Poor.  The people for whom a job is simply something they do to pay the rent, not a central part of their identity.  It has not escaped notice that most of the people writing these articles, especially those against a UBI, are Professional Class (or to use a Marxist term Bourgeoisie). They are professionals who are valued for their skills and paid accordingly.  The Rich and the Professional Classes both fear that a UBI will be a disincentive to work.  But I can say clearly that work is a disincentive to work.  People who talk about the “Nobility and Dignity” of a job have never been the “monkeys who work the cash register.”

Andrew Yang’s UBI proposal is $1,000 a month, adding up to $12,000 a year.  I have survived off this this amount (this is not an endorsement of Yang’s plan nor his candidacy). It isn’t easy and many sacrifices must be made, but if I’m going to do it, I would rather take a UBI check than rent my life away to some petty tyrant for $10 an hour. This also dovetails into the idea that even many proponents of a UBI have stated: It should not be so high that someone can live comfortably off of it.  With these simple words those comfortable Professional Class writers have stated that the Poor do not deserve the comforts of life without selling off so many of their waking hours. This is nothing more than a restatement of Arthur Young’s words from 1771: “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept as poor as possible, or they will never be industrious.”

It has taken about three centuries of browbeating, brainwashing, shaming, abuse, and outright theft to get us to accept wage labor. And it has not really taken hold too deeply. When the money was good we were more willing to accept it. However since neoliberalism has become dominant, the “job creators” have kept more money to themselves. The people, especially the Poor and Working Classes, who hold full time jobs and still cannot get by are beginning to say out loud what we subconsciously have always known: No one gets ahead by working. That’s why the Rich make most of their money off of their investments. In those three centuries, we have allowed the Rich to build a Work Society where all our social relations are based around jobs and employment. This serves the Rich and their needs before anyone else, rather than society as a whole. We see it everyday when professions like corporate lawyers and hedge fund managers earn so much more money than farmers or teachers.

But for their insatiable greed for profits, the Rich are destroying the very Work Society they created. Labor is one of the bigger expenses in any business, and where owners try to cut costs whenever possible. While the Professional Classes like to downplay the impact of automation, “unskilled” workers can see its impact with every self-checkout station. But there is a bigger factor in the decay of the Work Society.  Long-term careers (and the pensions that come with them) are falling by the wayside, being replaced by the “gig economy” and temp work which does not allow for the formation of social bonds like those careers once did. As the Work Society breaks down, some of the Rich realize they must do something to prevent a lot of desperate people with a lot of time on their hands from thinking about how society could be run better.  So they came up with their stopgap: the UBI, to keep the people pacified. It is a gamble on their part to keep their privilege, and like all gambling it is not guaranteed to go their way.

We can turn this to our advantage. Once jobs and income are divorced, if we no longer need to depend on their paltry wages to survive, if they want their jobs filled, we can demand several things, including: they pay well enough to make people actually want to work for them, and treat their employees like human beings. I have known poor people who stated when a UBI is passed so many businesses will close overnight because none of the employees would show up the next day. While I doubt things will be that drastic, it illustrates why they don’t want the UBI to be too high or too comfortable so that we will continue to be industrious, as everyone but an idiot knows.

Looking beyond those short term goals, however, we all know there is so much more to life than work. Not wasting the best parts of our lives at a job will also free us to ask questions, the serious deep questions we need to be asking ourselves now. As late capitalism is destroying the planet in our constant need for production and consumption, we can ask: Can we live without consumerism and planned obsolescence? How do we live without the tyranny of the boss? We can begin to think about what exactly we were put on Earth to do with our lives. Lives that are not relegated to evenings and weekends.

Think of all the people we met over the years. There’s that guy who plays guitar in the bars a few evenings a week and on Saturdays. The woman who is a gifted painter. The armchair historian who can answer any question one may have about the Napoleonic Wars.  The little old lady (who still works to cover the gap in her Social Security) who is always crocheting cool little things on her break. We’ve all met these people, they’ve been working alongside us for years for the same crap wages we got.

Many years ago I met an artist who managed to eke out a living selling his stone sculptures. It was not luxurious, but he was happy. When the topic of jobs came up he gave me the best wisdom I ever received: “You don’t want to spend your life doing someone else’s work, do you?” A UBI is not a perfect solution, and there is still much to be worked out. But it is the first stepping stone. So when the UBI comes, I will gladly take advantage of it. And I won’t be the only one.

Andrew M. Johnson is an artist and writer living in Arizona. Read other articles by Andrew M..