A Note on Basic Income and Capitalist Labour Markets

Basic Income

Much of the existing debate in Ontario surrounding Basic Income (or Guaranteed Annual Income, or “Mincome”) has remained at the level of hypotheticals. The entry-point for the social democratic left has been to answer the following question in the affirmative: if implemented properly, wouldn’t such a policy have a transformative impact on the lives of working people?

And undoubtedly, it would. But it has fallen to socialists and anti-poverty activists to inject the reality that this policy is being crafted and proposed by a neoliberal austerity government, which has a proven track record of overseeing cruel and humiliating “reforms” to their existing social assistance programs. To skip over and/or bracket the question of its implementation and debate the merits of Basic Income as if it is being proposed in a vacuum is to play into the hands of those who are looking to launch this project in the interests of capital.

Moreover, as socialists, we are acutely aware that capitalism is a system with laws and limits, and our task is to provide a clear understanding of the role social policy plays in reinforcing the coercive structure of capitalist labour markets.  Grasping the historic function and present character of social assistance programs and EI is also going to be a vital in preparing our allies for the BI debate — that is, grasping that these programs have not been designed to to make life decent for workers, but have been instead designed to push workers back into the labour market as soon as possible.

This isn’t to suggest that social policy isn’t reformable, or that it’s impossible to fight for policies that improve the lives of working people. It is reformable, and it is possible, but we have to have a clear analysis of the structural limits inherent in the system itself.

Thom Workman and Geoffrey McCormick’s important work Servant State sets the terms very succinctly, and I’d highly recommend everyone read their book:

From the standpoint of capitalism, the coercive mechanics of capitalist labour markets cannot be loosened to the point where a pool of recalcitrant and unwilling workers would swell. Such dynamics would quickly lead to labour shortages and snuff out opportunities for profitable investment. The fact that workers — even those who are fond of their jobs — sell their labour power to employers out of necessity is the bottom-line reality that must be preserved through social policy. The cultivation of genuine alternatives for working people, perhaps in the form of alternative communities tied to the land (history abounds with such experiments) or in the form of legislation guaranteeing annual incomes which permit families to live modestly but with greater dignity, would have the effect of undermining capitalism by undermining its coercive labour supply.

It is not the seesaw of class struggle that determined the outcome of the battle for social policy over the last century. The capitalist state could never afford to be too generous without undermining one of the essential dynamics of capitalist social formations. It is one of the continuities of capitalist states that they must preserve the coercive integrity of labour markets, that the need to insure a constant supply of workers for the ever-growing capitalist economies forms a sort of delimiting condition that frames all social and economic policy.

— Geoffrey McCormick and Thom Workman, The Servant State: Overseeing Capital Accumulation in Canada (Fernwood 2015), p. 117-118