One Question
Universal Basic Income

One Question
Universal Basic Income

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, we ask:

Do we need a Universal Basic Income?

With responses from: Julie Wark; Doug Henwood; Peter Frase; Heikki Patomaki; Danielle Guizzo & Will Stronge; Karl Widerquist; Anton Jäger & Daniel Zamora; Alyssa Battistoni; Danny Dorling; Francine Mestrum; Daniel Raventós; Louise Haagh.

Universal Basic Income

Julie Wark

Understanding that the ‘we’ in the question includes everybody then, from the human rights perspective, I say yes. A big yes because, if human beings have any valid claim of need at all, it is the basic right to a dignified material existence without which all other rights are impossible. Accordingly, human rights don’t float around outside political economy but must be grounded in social institutions and guaranteed by real mechanisms.

In the neoliberal system, human rights are given with declarations and snatched away by the real world. As great fortunes are made, human rights are trashed. And there’s a racist skewing here. Most victims are dark-skinned (just look at the world’s twenty poorest countries) but are subsumed as a colour-free group called ‘the poor’.

If we’re not already living in a dystopia, it’s just around the corner. You only have to read the recent (almost zombie-genre) Davos reports talking about rich people in strongholds and chaos reigning outside. States have created so many scapegoats: black kids who get shot by white cops, ‘bad-hombres’ immigrants, Muslim ‘terrorists’, homeless ‘felons’, ‘traitor’ journalists… Extreme injustice and cruelty, for example in the treatment of refugees, is normal. The planet itself is threatened.

Any struggle against this awful situation will require a political economy aiming at guaranteeing the right of existence for everyone, real freedom, and a decent standard of living (housing, education, health, culture, environment, etc.). Nobel laureate Herbert Simon writes that social capital belongs jointly to all members of society, so the producer should get a small share of the profits and the rest should be taxed and redistributed as an unconditional universal basic income. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein notes that the universal sense of basic income is that it could help to transform the way we treat our whole (social and physical) environment.

Basic income is possible. It can be financed. Any obstacle isn’t a problem of economics but of politics. So far, basic income is the best mechanism on offer for any project of trying to make real the three essential principles of universal human rights: justice, freedom and human dignity. And it holds out a viable means for attaining this. So the next question is, do we care enough to try? READ MORE

Kathi Weeks
The Work Ethic, Gender and a ‘Postwork’ Future

Kathi Weeks
The Work Ethic, Gender and a ‘Postwork’ Future

Economic realities in recent years have begun to highlight problems with dominant attitudes to work. The idea of paid work as an ethical obligation or an inevitable part of daily life is called into question as decent, stable work becomes harder to find and maintain. But there is still a long way to go before this challenge to common assumptions can have a real political impact and change the social distribution of work. In her work, Kathi Weeks deals with such issues, from how the modern work ethic functions ideologically to how gender division and the family unit remain central to the meaning of work and how it is valued. She also considers the future of work, and the kinds of measures necessary to tackle the on-going crisis. The following interview focuses on these important issues.

Kathi Weeks is a professor of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University. Her primary interests are in the fields of political theory, feminist theory, Marxist thought, the critical study of work, and utopian studies. She is currently working on a genealogy of U.S. Marxist feminist thought. She is the author of Constituting Feminist Subjects (Cornell UP, 1998; Verso, 2018) and The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011), and a co-editor of The Jameson Reader (Blackwell, 2000).

Gerd Arntz

At the beginning of your book, The Problem with Work, you question why so many people still seem willing to work so hard, and why work is still so often valued above other pursuits. As you say, ‘The mystery here is not that we are required to work or that we are expected to devote so much time and energy to its pursuit, but rather that there is not more active resistance to this state of affairs.’[1] But do you think that at least certain alternative ideas about work, such as Universal Basic Income (UBI), are beginning to gain mainstream traction? Are the contradictions between the ideal and the reality of work becoming too great to ignore?

Kathi Weeks: I do think that at least some of the key problems with work are becoming more legible within mainstream public discourse. Of course, the many contradictions between the ideals and the realities of work are longstanding, if not, to one degree or another, inherent to capitalist political economies. One way to approach this terrain would be to distinguish between the problem of quantity and the problem of quality.

First, there is the perennial contradiction between a political system of income distribution that revolves around waged work and an economic system that does not provide an adequate number of jobs. This quantitative contradiction may well be intensifying: although the system’s health has always depended on a margin of unemployment, not only did the crisis of 2008 expand the pool of unemployed and underemployed workers, the inclusion of more economically and/or occupationally privileged people in these ranks has resulted in a little more mainstream attention to the issue.

Second, there is the equally familiar problem of the quality of the employment available to us: a contradiction between, on the one hand, what it is we imagine that work should be like and what work should do for us as individuals, family members and citizens, and, on the other hand, the interminably stultifying and dreadfully demeaning realities of the daily grind in most jobs.

This general contradiction may also be sharpening insofar as the dominant mythology of work continues to expand its claims about how we should “do what we love,” “love what we do,” and cultivate an intimate relationship to work as a site of personal development and social belonging. But whereas the problem of quantity may be more visible in public discourse, it seems to me that the problem of quality is still too often ignored in these venues.

Although I think a basic income guarantee should be advocated as a response to—though certainly not a cure for—both the quantitative and qualitative problems of income generating work, my sense is that it is most often considered by the popular media lately in relation to the prospect of further technological unemployment rather than as a way to improve the qualities of our lives by lessening our dependence on work. READ MORE

Alfie Bown
Digital Technologies and the Conditioning of Desire

Alfie Bown
Digital Technologies and the Conditioning of Desire

Mobile phone apps, social media platforms and videogames play a major role in shaping activity in modern consumer societies, and help fulfil a great range of desires. But to what extent are the desires themselves created or enhanced by the technology, and what interests influence the kinds of desires created? In his new book, The Playstation Dreamworld, Alfie Bown explores such issues. Using concepts based in psychoanalysis, he perceives how digital technologies direct our consciousness, especially towards goals that naturalise corporate capitalist social structures. He also considers the social importance of reimagining these technologies for progressive political ends. In what follows, I discuss with him some of the main points he raises in the book.

Alfie BownAlfie Bown is an assistant professor in Hong Kong and co-editor of the Hong Kong Review of Books. He has written two books on psychoanalysis and technology, Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero, 2015) and his new book The Playstation Dreamworld, just out with Polity. He writes for many online publications as well, including The Paris Review, The LA Review of Books, ROAR Magazine and The Guardian. He is currently working on co-editing Post-Memes: Seizing the Memes of Production (forthcoming with Punctum).

One of the arguments in The Playstation Dreamworld is that using today’s entertainment technology, especially apps, games and social media on mobile phones, can alter our desire, enjoyment, and even consciousness. For example, you suggest that games such as Pokémon GO or apps such as Uber, JustEat and Tinder do not so much allow us to fulfil desires through the phone as create desires in us. Could you explain how this works and what you see as its potential political and economic repercussions?

Alfie Bown: I do think that mobile phones are powerfully transforming consciousness itself. My book is primarily influenced by the ideas of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and the answer to your question hinges on a Lacanian approach to enjoyment. For Lacan, enjoyment (both jouissance and plaisir in the French, which are two very different sides of enjoyment) is at the very centre of social life. Despite this centrality of enjoyment to our modes of living, Lacan felt that enjoyment was the thing that existing modes of philosophy and psychology had most consistently failed to account for. In this way we could describe his project as primarily concerned with working out how to understand enjoyment in relation to political and social life. In this spirit, I look at new forms of technology – mainly mobile technologies – which connect us to the objects of our desire (whether that object is a Pokémon, a lover or a delicious meal) and analyse the ways in which the enjoyment and pleasure produced via our technological relationships to objects and humans are changing the way we desire and the way we fit together as a society.

With even a very limited amount of research you can discover some amazing patterns here – similarities in the front- and back-end systems of food apps and dating apps for instance, or shared ownership of apparently diverse and unrelated forms of technology. Patterns are emerging in which increasingly large portions of social life (from games to travel to food to love) are organized by a small group of powerholders with shared interests and shared technological tactics, and I wanted to make some of this visible. These stakeholders are working towards new forms of social organization by going to work on the very ways in which we think and feel.

In fact, this connection between the way we relate to a Pokémon and the way we relate to a lover is what I’m hoping to work more on in the future, as bizarre as that sounds. I want to trace the transformation of love in the age of Silicon Valley and in the world of what Nick Srnicek calls ‘platform capitalism.’ Readers can see a bit of where I am going with it in this recent article. In short, phones don’t just help us get what we want easily and efficiently, they change what we desire and how we relate to desire itself. The problem is that they don’t do so innocently or accidentally, they do so with state and corporate interests in mind. READ MORE