Plenty in an age of scarcity
There is a gap, a huge gap, which I don't know how to bridge. It's what lies between the short term exigencies of emergency bailout for the poor and the working class, and the necessary means to survive as a species.

To achieve the former, that is to rescue the majority from forms of unnecessary privation, distress and insecurity, is to make some incremental changes to the tax and benefits system, expand public provision and mildly shift the balance of laws and regulations in favour of workers and consumers. These are simply not commensurable with the radical reforms needed to survive, where major, politically sustainable reductions in consumption, as currently understood, must be achieved.

In the traditional language of the far left, it is possible to talk about "transitional demands". Reforms that, though reasonable, are also incompatible with the capitalist system. They are advanced as pedagogical devices, ways to assemble political coalitions that in practical terms bring them into conflict with capitalism. But what reforms truly point in that direction?

It interests me, therefore, that the universal basic income is part of a left-accelerationist agenda. The practicalities of this measure as a left-wing demand are the subject of contention. But I want to displace that debate a little here, and ask: what do people want, when they want a universal basic income? What is that desire a desire for?

For many of us, the universal basic income sounds great because it is a bulwark against precarity. The more money, the better. But the desire for it is not as straightforward as it seems. The idea is not just that you get a little bit of money each month but that, you get it as a right. Guaranteed. No questions asked. Like your passport. You don't have to pass any test. You don't have to prove you're looking for work. It is not indexed to state moralism. It's yours. And no one will tell you what to do with the money. 

So at first it seems as if the idea is to increase your freedom. Not just from the nosy state, from job centre functionaries. But also, to an extent, from employers. You may still need to work, but your dependence is relaxed a little. The disciplinary whip of the market is not so ferocious. You have options. In a country where most of us are in debt, you might be able to save.

But if you think about it, the whole point of the welfare state in the first instance is that it's supposed to be a citizenship right, and it's supposed to give you a security against the 'rigours of the market'. That, of course, is not how it currently works. The reforms to welfare, justified by an attempt to undermine the supposed cultural sources of poverty, have been slowly turning it into a disciplinary mechanism. But it doesn't absolutely have to be that way. That just happens to be one way of solving unemployment from a supply-side perspective. And while the fungibility of cash gives you a certain range of choices, freedom is not reducible to choice. To an extent, freedom paradoxically involves being freed from those choices that are not intrinsically meaningful.

For most people, the NHS offers more freedom than a tax refund would. If you want to know what exhausting rigours it frees you from, look at the US healthcare market. An affordable, socially-owned house would free you in another way. You might have less choice with public provision. But a home is a complex thing. It puts together a range of amenities and affordances, from energy to water to sleeping quarters. It's a base from which life projects can be embarked upon. If your home is secure, all of those other things are secure, and your attention is free to focus on other things. You can plan your life. You don't have to put every ounce of your ingenuity into the classically middle class pursuit of 'climbing the property ladder'.

Not everything we could have a use for is amenable to this logic. In some areas, choices are meaningful. What books you read, what films you see, who you spend time with, what clothes you wear. Of course, the emerging digital order is predicated on the idea that choice is not meaningful; it is always heteronomously determined. Whether or not the platform bosses, the gaming companies, behavioural economists and government bureaucrats really believe in radical behaviourism in a deep sense, its precepts have filtered into everyday practice. Preferences have become an object for manipulation and guidance, rather than the self-evident starting point of all individual action in a liberal society. The silicon order is not just post-democratic in that sense, but post-liberal. Nonetheless, while this describes technique, it doesn't yet describe human action. And even if it did, the illusion of choice is still very important to us. So choices for the time being matter.

With that in mind, it might be useful to shift the perspective somewhat on the idea of a universal basic income. The standard critique says that if it's adequate, it's not affordable; and if it's affordable, it's not adequate. Either you spend so much money on a generous system that you basically have to expropriate the wealth of the richest (or abolish welfare) for a limited gain. Or you fund a reduced system with incremental tax increases and some benefit cuts, for even less gain. Worse, it is far too congruent with neoliberal ideas for replacing welfare. It could be used to make the whip of the market come down even harder. It could allow employers to cut wages, treating the universal income as a subsidy.

In response to this, one could try to position the universal basic income as a 'transitional' demand. Its aim would be, not to stop at a certain moderate limit, but to expand the social wage to the point where it crowds out the market wage. It's not equal pay for equal work; it's just equal pay. After all, 'equal pay for equal work' only applies to work that is remunerated on the market. The point about a social wage is that it doesn't respect the boundaries of the capitalist market. 

And it would be no good talking about 'affordability' in response to that. 'Affordability' is, up to a point, always a political and not a technical question, decided by gambit not by research paper. The language of universal basic income gains traction because it works on an aspect of contemporary experience. In doing so models a legitimate desire. That experience, whatever the analytical problems with the concept, is precarity. Precarity is a complex, compound notion. Ideologically, it touches on precarious work, shaky mortgages, atomisation, the disintegration of social solidarity. It gives form to a certain jitteriness about the once grandiosely extolled 'risk society', and the wish that the clamours of this life would be contained a little.

It also works on an aspect of precarity that no form of universal basic income can really address: that of late capitalism itself. You never know when the system is going to go bust again. A wild production machine, historically unparalleled: but when it stops working it just crashes. And it crashes hardest on the poorest, its ramifications spilling out toxically for poor women, migrants, the disabled, anyone not fully 'respectable'. The tremors reveal, behind the pacific rule of law, permanent civil war. With uncontrollable political consequences to follow. There's no monthly payment redress for that.

The problem is, if you can only fund a moderate universal basic income scheme, it will do little to mitigate any form of precarity. And if you could get enough money in taxes to fund a generous universal basic income scheme, there might be much better things to spend it on. And if you can assemble support for an agenda that ambitious, universal basic income might expend hard-won political good-will on a policy whose immediate social benefits would not be that great. We need to be talking more about a set of social securities that are not commodified, or not as commodified. I don't see why, for example, universal access to housing, healthcare, education, would not be considered a universal income: that's what the social wage is.

It's not a question of 'yes' or 'no' to a universal basic income, therefore. It is a question of a guaranteed social minimum. Not instead of a universal basic income, necessarily, but as the framework within which any such scheme would be piloted and evaluated. But that means it is very much part of a short-term emergency programme.

There remains the huge question, which in part just is a technical question, not only of how to transition to a survivable society, but what to transition to. What kind of society can provide some form of plenty without destroying the conditions for human existence. It isn't the perpetual growth engine. That's finished whatever we do. The only question is whether we're finished alongside it.