A feminist case for Basic Income: An interview with Kathi Weeks
Poster by See Red Women’s Workshop, a U.K. feminist silk-screen collective formed in Camden, London in the 1970s.
Katie Cruz: Since you wrote The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries in 2011, the demand for a basic income has received increasing attention from those of us on the Left. But I think what differentiates your work on basic income from much of what has been published is that yours is a Marxist feminist perspective. Social reproduction is central to your work in general and on a basic income. Could you start by outlining your expansive definition of social reproduction and how you arrived at it in conversation with earlier Marxist feminist approaches?
Kathi Weeks: Marxist feminism’s focus on social reproduction is probably the main reason I keep coming back again and again to that theoretical archive. By my reading of this second wave literature from the late 1960s through the 1970s, reproductive labour is what makes productive labour possible on a daily and generational basis. So “the economy” includes not only waged labour and its sites, relations, and outputs, but also the household, with its gendered labours and familial mode of governance. Early on, reproductive labour was typically conceived in these texts as “housework” and often confined to the tasks of cleaning, shopping, and cooking — those forms of work with the closest resemblance to the once iconic example of manual factory labour. Later the focus shifted more to caring labour. What was seen as an exception, something outside and separate from productive labour within a Fordist imaginary, was soon recognized as a prescient, more generalizable template for post-Fordist service work that enlists more of our emotional and communicative capacities. So over time, a separate spheres model, centred on the two sites of waged work and family, becomes harder to sustain analytically.
KC: What about all the other sites and practices involved in the reproduction of the system of production, like the school, media and the cultural enclave? “Housework,” and even household-based caring labour, are not the only forms of social productivity not covered by the wage?
KW: We could think of this in terms of all the efforts that employers make use of but do not remunerate as part of the wage. This list might include the educational efforts that develop a worker’s general skills and aptitudes, creative production that companies draw on to make and market their goods and the time dedicated to developing communicative capacities and even social networks that businesses draw from but do not pay for. By this more expansive measure, social reproduction refers to all the social, cultural and subjective infrastructures on which the more narrowly conceived structure of production (that is, work covered by the wage) depends, just as a smaller parasite lives by drawing sustenance from the body of a stronger host.
KC: How does a basic income relate to social reproduction? In other words, why is a basic income an appropriate response to our current social and economic situation?
KW: I think it is as clear as it has ever been that neither the wage system nor the family are working as mechanisms of income distribution. At best, they are incomplete and precarious systems of provision. At this point, the continued reliance on the increasingly fantastical promises of job creation and family values campaigns seem wildly unrealistic. A basic income offers a more rational and equitable way to sustain the conditions that allow the economy—narrowly conceived as the waged sector—to exist.
KC: Moving on to the demand for a basic income, what would it look like as a political demand or as a concrete policy reform?
KW: There are many versions of basic income policy. The one I defend is a livable minimum income paid in regular instalments (like wages) unconditionally to all. Waged work would not be replaced by this system, but the link between work and income would be loosened, allowing more room for different ways of engaging in work.
I have learned a lot from the 1970s Wages for Housework literature, not so much about what to demand, but about what a demand is and what it can do. The collective political activity of demanding a basic income is as interesting to me as the demand itself. A demand is not just a thing, but something that must be explained, justified, argued for and debated. The practice of demanding is itself productive of critical awareness and new political desires. Demanding a basic income, as I see it, is also a process of making the problems with the wage system of income allocation visible, articulating a critical vocabulary that can help us to understand these problems, opening up a path that might eventually lead us to demand even more changes, and challenging us to imagine a world wherein we had more choices about waged work, nonwork, and their relationship to the rest of our lives. By this account, we would judge the success or failure of a movement for basic income not only in terms of whether the policy is implemented, but also in terms of the collective power, organizational forms, critical consciousness, and new demands that the process of demanding it manages to generate.
KC: Another key concept framing your approach to a basic income is the refusal of work, which in part entails a critique of the work ethic, including feminist work ethics. Can you say something about this aspect of the refusal of work?
KW: One of the reasons I am so attracted to the demand for a basic income is because of the way that it challenges some of the basic tenets of the work ethic— what I would describe as that cultural overvaluation of work that sings the praises of hard work as an inherent value, highest calling and individual moral obligation. This longstanding ethic of work remains a crucial ideological support for an economic system that accumulates great wealth for a few and lifetimes of poorly paid and all-consuming waged work for the rest. This orientation towards work is even more profitable for forms of employment that require us to bring more of ourselves — our social skills, emotions, and creativity — to the job. Most service sector employers today are interested in their employees’ enthusiasm for work and their self-disciplined commitment to the organization’s goals. Where a strong work ethic is a key element of productivity, our willingness to call these values and modes of being into question is a potentially effective mode of rebellion.
Feminism has produced its own versions of this ethic of work. The most familiar of these is the liberal feminist celebration of waged work for women as the alternative to a life of mandatory domesticity. But there are other versions of this moralizing ethos of work. Some feminists, for example, have drawn on these ideas about the value of work to lend weight to their — vitally important — arguments for the visibility and worth of women’s socially necessary reproductive caring labour. In wrapping their arguments in the mantle of the traditional work ethic, they risk similarly overvaluing work in the family at the expense of other kinds of activities and relationships.
As effective as these strategies may have been historically, these two feminist projects remain deeply problematic for the way they elevate either waged work or family work over other practices and approaches to intimacy and sociality. Rather than seek that ever-elusive “balance” between work and family by trying to corral our desires for a full life into the confines of two specific institutions, I think we should dedicate ourselves to developing more forceful critiques of their considerable failings as inclusive and sustainable social forms. As I conceive it, the political movement for a basic income can be advanced as a way to open conversations about what counts as work, about the value of different kinds of work, and also about what else besides work we might want to do with our time, what other models of care, creativity and cooperation we might want to build.
Street art in Greece; posted July 9, 2015, on reported.ly.
KC: Feminist critics of a basic income argue that it would reinforce the gender division of labour and is therefore a kind of “hush money.” Or that it again mystifies the existence of the gender division of labour. How do you respond to these criticisms?
KW: I think these are very important lines of criticism. I have followed the debates among feminists about the likely impact of a basic income on the gender divisions of waged and unwaged labour with great interest, and have found many of the arguments on both sides compelling. It is true that the demand for a basic income does not directly address either the gendered division of household-based reproductive labour or its privatization. I can imagine scenarios wherein it would serve simply to offer more support for the traditional heteropatriarchal family’s gender division of productive and reproductive labour, with more men participating in waged work and more women working in the home. I can also imagine it shaking things up more by offering both men and women the opportunity to experience their working lives a little differently and to reorient their relationships to their jobs and households accordingly.
While I think this is a valuable debate to engage with, I do not see it as the essence or limit of feminism’s investment in the politics of basic income. Feminism as I understand it is a revolutionary project to transform society, not just the relative positions of men and women within it. So for me, the key question would be whether basic income and the struggle for it could equip people to make better lives. And this includes a consideration of how some measure of relief from the daily grind of sheer survival might empower us in the struggle to make all our relationships more just, equitable and sustaining.
KC: Many forms of service work are gendered, sexualized, racialized, precarious, poorly paid and contractually constructed as self-employment so that both parties appear as equal economic risk-takers. Such work is often intensified, unguaranteed and lacking in social protections. Do you think that a basic income could alter the quantity and quality of such jobs?
KW: My hope is that a basic income could have a positive impact on these kinds of jobs; the danger, at least in the short term, is that it would lend support to them. Here too it depends on the way the demand is conceived and how the case for it is made. The key variable is the level at which the income is set. If it is established as a minimum livable income, which is what I advocate, it could give employees a better strategic position to negotiate better working conditions, provide support for unwaged practices like caring work, allow some to opt out of waged work entirely or for a period, and lend some relief to the pressures that constrain our choices of family membership and household formation. If it is too low, then rather than providing workers with a stronger position from which to demand better jobs, it would serve only to subsidize low-wage employers by providing their workers with a small supplement. For me, this is one of the most critical issues to consider and one of the more difficult traps to navigate.
KC: Feminist advocates and critics of a basic income point out that for it to be compatible with gender justice it would have to exist alongside other demands, including state-funded childcare and adequate paternity leave. I’ve recently been thinking that astronomical student debt would continue to compel people to stay in waged work even if a basic income were a practical reality, hence the need for parallel demands and challenges. What other demands do you think must exist alongside a basic income to maximize the potential for a break between income and work or between work and non-work/life?
KW: With a demand like basic income, which has the potential to benefit a wide swath of people, from the overemployed to the under- and unemployed, there are many possibilities for additional and coalitional political projects. Besides demands for state-funded childcare, caregiving leaves and debt relief, I would mention two other related demands. One is for the continued delinking of employment and access to healthcare (in the United States). The other is the demand for more open borders. To the extent that the balance of power between capital and labour is affected by the relative ease with which capital can move across borders in the pursuit of investment and markets for labour and products, and labour is more constrained in its movement, then the politics of immigration is deeply intertwined with the politics of work. Making connections between the demand for basic income in a national context and the demand for more open borders is particularly important with a reform like basic income which, like many other reforms, risks becoming a kind of enclave benefit that could then help to fuel anti-immigrant sentiments and support for even more controls on cross-border travel and immigration.