UBI: a recipe for universal misery

Our demand must be for meaningful work in a society free from poverty, unemployment and insecurity.

Proletarian writers

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Communists are in favour of a society that works. The wealth of mankind is created by human labour, and our collective wealth can be increased many times over.

Proletarian writers

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Following the letter published in the June edition of Proletarian, this letter was sent to the editors as a further contribution to the debate on UBI.

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Universal misery is the likely result of any further consolidation of the benefits system, and a rebranding of the dole as ‘universal income’ will do little to reduce the stigma of poverty in a society that worships money, wealth, and the power it buys.

In response to mass unemployment, extreme poverty and the disaster of universal credit – all a result of the built-in and ever-widening inequalities and economic crises of the capitalist system – advocates of UBI are finding support amongst a section of the most hard-pressed working people. These workers, many of whom are unemployed and falling deeper into poverty every day, are desperate for a legislative fix to the inherent contradictions of capitalist economy.

The dream that UBI will enable workers to refuse to take on poorly-paid jobs, instead picking and choosing the types of work they prefer, can never become reality under capitalism. The obvious question is: who will do the ‘bad’ jobs if everybody is able to refuse? Either the jobs themselves must disappear or it will be the poorest workers who’ll do these jobs as before.

Any UBI could never be paid at a rate that would be sufficient to enable the entire population to refuse to work, because workers are put to work not to do socially useful tasks but to have surplus value extracted from them in the form of profits –to make some owner of capital rich.

The economic crisis that is today gripping the planet is the product of capitalism. Capitalism gives birth to recurrent crises because the things it produces are destined to be sold as commodities, making money for the producer when they are sold. The worker, paid in wages, only ever receives a fraction of the value he has created, for if he was paid in full, there would be no excess for the employer to take.

This excess is called ‘surplus value’, and it is the source of the wealth of every rich man and woman. Wealth is not created in the manner of Del Boy and Rodney, by buying goods below value and selling them at inflated prices, for in such transactions the capitalists can only rob one another – money is passed around but the sum total of society’s wealth does not increase.

The current crisis results from an overproduction of goods – the existence of too many goods that working people have made but cannot afford to buy. Gifting everyone cash to pay for these goods is self-defeating for the ruling class, whose very aim is to accumulate capital, not to give it away.

Why rob Peter to pay Paul? Employers may as well pay higher wages and employ more staff and cut out the need for UBI altogether!

Arguments about various systems of progressive taxation are also confused, for why would anybody aspire to be an accountant if you could be a football coach on the same money with the help of UBI? The idea that the gap between high and low wages can be bridged using UBI demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of how capitalism works, and how wage workers are motivated, including under conditions of socialism.

When a worker sells his labour-power, the working man or woman sells their ability to work in return for money, at a rate. More skilled labour-power, which has taken more time and investment to produce, sells for a higher rate. Besides this differential, the rate of pay is set at a level that is socially accepted – and this in turn is decided in the struggle between the workers and their employers, with each determined to get as much as they can – an economic struggle between the classes.

There is a direct relationship between the level of wages and the level of profits. Higher wages will lower profits; lower wages will raise profits. This simple fact completely negates the ‘trickle-down’ theory that what is good for the capitalists is good for the workers and reveals the naked truth: that the interests of workers and capitalists are diametrically opposed.

In Britain, a fixed minimum, the ‘minimum wage’, was set by an act of parliament in 1998, and has helped to maintain industrial peace (killing off many trade union struggles) while keeping wages low. This official ‘minimum’ rate of pay has always, generally speaking, paid out wages below the real value of the cost of living.

Tony Blair’s Labour promised that the national minimum wage would end poverty wages and protect the most vulnerable. In the years since this legislation was introduced, the opposite has been seen to be true. Wages in many areas of the economy that were previously perfectly liveable have been held down until the minimum wage caught up with them, exponentially increasing the number of people living on the breadline and lowering expectations (and socially-accepted living standards) for a huge swathe of workers.

It was possible for the ruling class to effect this huge cut in living standards because the majority of workers have had little or no trade union or socialist leadership. Class-consciousness has sunk to an all-time low and the employers have made hay while the sun shone.

So unliveable is Britain’s minimum wage that campaigns have been created to lobby for increases: calls for a ‘living wage’ and now for a ‘universal basic income’ have arisen precisely because minimum wages, unemployment and disability benefits and pensions have all sunk below the level needed to live.

While the system of capitalism remains – a system that is unable to provide employment for all workers, wasting the human potential and creativity of millions – communists are in favour of decent benefits for any worker who is out of work, whether through forced unemployment, retirement, disability, for study, or for any other reason.

We must demand as our right increases in these benefits, but no change in the name – no slick rebranding or faddish slogan – must hide the truth that meaningful work is our real demand. Socialism knows no unemployment, just as it knows no homelessness or insecurity.

We demand of the capitalists the basics that we would provide for ourselves if we took over control of production. To the extent that our rulers cede any of our demands, it will be because we are organised and powerful enough to scare them into making concessions. To the extent that they do not, it is further proof that they are standing in the way of human progress and must be set aside.

In a socialist Britain, automation will not make human beings redundant but will enable them to have shorter and less monotonous working days. It will also enable society as a whole to greatly expand the number and types of tasks that can be undertaken so as to raise people’s living standards, increase their leisure time and raise their cultural level.

Communists are in favour of a society that works. The wealth of mankind is the product of human labour, and our collective wealth can be increased many times over – not through idleness but by unleashing the untapped labour-power of the entire population and sharing its fruits equitably amongst the people: from each according to his work; to each according to his need.

CK, Wales