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Basic income is on the table in Canada. Is it the fight we want?

The long-term idea of converting CERB to basic income could be an easy exit from the hard work of class struggle

COVID-19Canadian PoliticsLabourEconomic Crisis

While the pandemic economy is far from behind us, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB)—Canada’s chief unemployment benefit—is soon coming to an end. Many on the left have since begun actively refusing a post-CERB world, calling instead for its extension, or, most recently, its conversion into a universal basic income (UBI).

This call has taken on new significance following the tabling of Motion 46: Guaranteed Livable Basic Income by Leah Gazan, New Democratic Party MP for Winnipeg Centre. Gazan has since garnered 15,000 signatures on a petition in favour of the motion. On Twitter she writes: “Let’s trend this to tell the federal government they must ensure human rights for all!”

The left has been grappling for basic income for decades, though its popularity of late is largely growing—not just among progressives, but on all sides of the political spectrum. Arguments in its favour are often tailored to its audience: to the right, UBI can consolidate the inefficient unemployment and support systems in place, and increase participation in the market of goods; to the left, UBI could free us from (bad) wage labour, reduce poverty, provide dignity and autonomy, soften our displacement by automation, or even help bring about our communist dreamscape, but not at the cost of strong public services in the meantime.

The extent to which the policy has play with a critical mass of Canadians remains to be seen, but a diverse movement has nevertheless grown. Together, the UBI corps is a motley crew of leftists, non-profits, CEOs, Brian Mulroney, a grip of sitting Liberal and Conservative MPs and senators, and now sections of the NDP—perhaps indicating future directions for the party.

Another aspect of UBI’s appeal, which is often overlooked, is its ease. It’s easy to explain, and if you keep it generally abstract or work off a few common conceptions, it can be fairly simple to get people on board with it as well. Arguments often start by saying that automation—and the brutal displacement it causes—is unavoidable. And since most people are, or will be, at risk of this displacement, UBI offers a great safety net in an ever-changing society. The same can be said for recessions and the anxieties of being thrown out of work. What’s more, the proliferation of bad or unfulfilling jobs in offices, or via apps, leaves much to be desired. A UBI, the argument goes, could augment our precariously-earned income or provide an exit from the labour market altogether, allowing us to do with our day what we really want—like play more Animal Crossing or reupholster chairs. It’s also (theoretically) unbureaucratic, answering immediate needs with quickness.

Moreover, UBI could fundamentally reshape how we work—an enticing idea for Marxists, to be sure. It is unsurprising, then, that the idea has taken on new significance during the COVID-19 crisis where a sizeable chunk of the population remains out of work and big ideas are in vogue. What better time than now?

On an ideological level, the UBI question manages to be everything to everyone, in effect bucking class conflict and politics. In fact the idea is often positioned as post-political—“not left, not right, but forward.” The work of UBI advocacy has thus been less arduous than, say, a campaign for nationalizing an industry might be, which has allowed the movement to pick up speed as it takes on new sections of the political spectrum, lubricating the often difficult work of political organizing.

Winning feels good, even if it’s tenuous, a probably intoxicating feeling for UBI’s proponents on the left who have spent the last 40 or so years doing a lot of losing.

In fairness, many of UBI’s serious advocates do understand that designing the program will involve a contest of visions. And Motion 46, if vaguely, reflects a concerted attempt at left-wing design (the program would come into effect “in addition to current and future government public services and income supports”). Contrary to the post-politics branding of UBI, the questions of what is protected, what is consolidated or done away with altogether, and who pays, all come with a multiplicity of answers depending entirely on ideology. This future battle looms ever closer as the popularity of UBI grows. One question that must be asked, though, is if the left really wants that fight, and what’s at stake if we lose.

In his revelatory 2017 essay against UBI, Daniel Zamora writes about “The Impossibility of a Left Basic Income.” He outlines that the main advantage of a UBI, as leftists understand it, is “overturn[ing] the asymmetry of power that currently exists between labour and capital” by creating conditions favourable to refusing work, “therefore unbind[ing] the coercive aspects of wage labour.” Tech futurists also see the advantage of smoothing over the process of automation by preemptively protecting those it displaces. To satisfy these goals, a UBI must therefore be high enough to actually live on. Well-intentioned ideas all around. 
 Zamora concludes, however, that “no existing economy can pay for a generous basic income without defunding everything else.” Read that again: everything else. A recent study by Public Services International (PSI) came to similar conclusions: “There is no evidence that any version of UBI can be affordable, inclusive, sufficient and sustainable at the same time.” The upfront costs—in some models, 35 percent of GDP—are simply untenable considering states often pay around 50 percent of GDP on services already, so says Zamora.

He also points out that an ungenerous basic income, still remarkably expensive in various models, would barely move the needle of anti-poverty. This means that “we would either have to settle for the minimalist version—whose effects would be highly suspect—or we’d have to eliminate all other social expenditures.”

A proposal from Canada’s UBI Works, which would give $500 to every adult each month on a sliding scale up to $2,000, calculates its cost at about $199 billion per year, or about eight percent of GDP. Among the different models out there, the one put forward by UBI Works falls on the more modest side. Yet the question should be asked: is giving out a monthly cheque to every citizen really worth $200 billion? Couldn’t these funds be better spent on affordable housing solutions, pharmacare, unemployment insurance, or state-driven investments in infrastructure or a green stimulus?

While leftists should remain deeply imaginative about the world we want (and skeptical of false choices), we cannot be blind to hard details, current possibilities, or the scale of work to be done. Most crudely, we cannot sidestep how much things cost. A common response to my recent article in Canadian Dimension was, “Why not both?” These considerations, at least in part, are why. The admixture of UBI Works’s model and a massive expansion of public housing, while keeping our current services in place, would, to borrow from Zamora, require “power relations [that] would constitute an exit from capitalism.” Sounds good, but we’re not quite there yet. Advocating for a policy priced at $200 billion on top of our present commitments to expanding social welfare is simply a bad strategy, especially since the money is more effectively used in other ways. We will not win.

Protesters hold up a banner above Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan/Flickr.

For now, UBI’s backers are mostly frolicking above conflict in the realm of the apolitical. The policy is trendy, exciting, and attracts the interest of everyone along the political spectrum. But if pursued—and if Motion 46 happens to take flight—the battle for UBI’s design, and the unavoidable, permanent battle that will then ensue in defense of public services, could be disastrous. Of course, we will always have to assume defensive posture to protect public goods. But with a UBI in place, no matter its size, the assault from the business class will undoubtedly ramp up in a substantial way. And we do no favours to ourselves by supplanting class conflict to build support. One flipside to the ease is laziness. Another is outright gambling on the outcome.

Alternatively, we can stay focused on goals where our interests are at the forefront, and where class conflicts are clear. For example, deemphasizing our dependence on the market by decommodifying services is a surefire way to make gains for the working class. Expanding our single-payer healthcare system by bringing in dental and optometric care to make our coverage truly comprehensive, is one strong example. Socializing housing so that we can free ourselves from the scourge of high rents and a housing crisis gone bananas, or creating a public childcare system available to all, are others. To paraphrase Paris Marx: we should aim to not have to pay for things in the first place, not simply improve our ability to pay. And fewer things to pay for could mean less time spent working, if you want it like that.

People will still need cash for the foreseeable future, of course, but some of our largest expenses—housing, childcare, various health costs—could most definitely be brought under public control. Putting the future potential for service privatization aside, why blow the bag subsidizing private markets for these goods, enriching the ownership class in the process, when we could blow it nationalizing these industries for the benefit of everyone?

Meanwhile, we could balloon unemployment and disability insurance to liveable and dignified levels, an expansion that itself will lead to more freedom and less poverty. We can also overhaul unionization laws, the impact of which would be actually building workers’ bargaining power and control over the private sector, and to make gains on their backs. We can do something that’s not just redistributive, but actively anti-capitalist.

Compare hypothetical worst-case scenarios for each approach. On one hand, a good UBI entices the business class because everyone suddenly has money to buy their stuff. They like this. But its price tag provokes a massive attack on existing public services, from which the business class mostly does not benefit, leading to their wholesale privatization. We send $8 letters through Loblaws Post and pay the Amazon Centre for Care to fix our broken bones. Pretty bad.

On the other hand, an ambitious nationalization plan, easing of unionization laws, and an overhaul of unemployment protections provokes massive resistance on the part of that same business class. In the latter case, we’re seeing this already with CERB. The Left then fights that fight, and hopefully we win— but in the meantime, we get to hang onto and continue to defend the gains we have already secured. Between the approach where we potentially get sent back to medieval times, or the one where we potentially fail at pushing forward and get back up to try again—the choice should be clear. And there is a choice here, because the more time we spend on one campaign, the less we can spend on another. Our finite energy must be distributed strategically, in a way that can maximize our benefit.

As unemployment remains high, and the pandemic is far from over, CERB remains an important way to keep Canadians afloat. We should continue fighting for its survival. But the long-term idea of converting CERB to basic income, both as a policy and strategy for the left, is less a matter of principle and imagining the possible than it is a gamble with conservatives and free market fetishists. Or, an easy exit from the hard work of class struggle.

Meanwhile, the battles for public services are as vital as ever: they decrease the power of the market, and capital, by socializing control of industries and reducing their strength. Worker protections like unemployment insurance and liberalized unionization laws work in a similar way. These policies reveal and address the class antagonisms at the centre of our politics, not shy away from them. And they are fought for, passionately, as gains for the working and middle classes have to be.

The challenges ahead are daunting, no doubt. But the choices we make must pave—clear as day, and as detailed as possible—the road to the world we want.

Dan Darrah is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

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