Socialist takes on universal basic income and profit-sharing

There’s been a lot of murmuring on both sides of the aisle about a universal basic income (UBI), a guaranteed annual payment of money to be given to every citizen. It’s an idea with a long pedigree, one that stretches back to Tom Paine’s call for a lump-sum annuity and forward to MLK. The idea behind UBI – to satisfy everyone’s basic needs and establish income as a fundamental social right – is a good one. But in practice, the idea of UBI is also open to cooptation and perversion by the Right, and this is part of the reason why it’s been supported by numerous conservatives over the course of its career as a proposal, and why some support it nowadays. UBI reinforces a system that uses money as a way of valuing the world, reinforces the idea of private ownership, and can be used as a pretext to destroy what remains of the welfare state. The level it’s set at is also a matter of grave concern. Alyssa Battistoni has an excellent article here if you’re interested in reading more about the complicated politics behind UBI.

The idea of profit sharing with workers falls under the same category of political reforms that democratic socialists should embrace only with extreme caution. The modern corporation is unjust and undemocratic, and profits are currently distributed extremely unequally within capitalist enterprises, so on the face of it, any move towards a more equitable distribution of profits within a firm should be grounds for celebration. But unless such profit-sharing also comes with power sharing with the workers – and ultimately, workers’ control over the corporation – profit-sharing simply reinforces the status quo and is perfectly compatible with capitalism, falling under the umbrella of what we might call “capitalism with a human face” or “shareholder capitalism.”

The same is true of liberals’ calls to make everyone into a small capitalist by giving them a certain amount of property or capital (the liberal philosopher John Rawls calls this property-holding democracy). Compared to a situation where many people are mired in extreme poverty and don’t have any personal possessions or money at all, property-holding democracy is obviously an improvement. Property-holding democracy is arguably incompatible with capitalism to some extent, because it would eliminate poverty and capitalism relies very heavily on the tried-and-true technique of using fear of unemployment and poverty as goads to get people to suck it up and accept terrible jobs and unfair contracts because the alternatives are so much worse. But by universalizing the logic behind capitalism, property-holding democracy makes it less likely that we will ever get rid of capitalism and all of the destructive ways of engaging with our fellow human beings and nature that capitalist understandings of rights, property, and ownership make inevitable, even in societies where there’s a “chicken in every pot.”


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