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The false hope of a pandemic basic income

Economic CrisisLabourCOVID-19

A man walks down an empty Yonge Street in Toronto. Photo by Myles Herod/Instagram.

In the conditions of extreme economic dislocation that the COVID-19 pandemic has created, a crisis of unemployment is unfolding in Canada that is already dire and that will certainly intensify. More than one million jobs were lost in March, spiking the unemployment rate by 2.2 to 7.8 percent. This is the biggest monthly increase since comparable data was first gathered more than 40 years ago. Yet, in the midst of this disaster, it is estimated that a full third of those thrown out of work will be ineligible either for Employment Insurance (EI) or the hastily fashioned Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

While the immediate lockdown is likely to continue for weeks, and with sustained conditions of mass unemployment staring us in the face, income support for those out of work is obviously a major issue. Not surprisingly, calls for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), even presented as a “pandemic basic income,” have mounted in recent weeks. Some governments are making sympathetic noises in response. There has been considerable fanfare over the supposed introduction of a UBI in Spain. No universal payment has yet been put in place, but when it announced the minimum income program the Spanish government took care to suggest that a full UBI is being contemplated for introduction at some point in the future.

With millions of people facing extreme economic hardship, the idea of UBI continues to resonate among a section of the left. I would argue, however, that far from representing a progressive alternative, basic income leads us in a direction that would be entirely in keeping with a post-pandemic agenda of austerity for working class people and bailouts for the rich.

Well before we were dealing with a worldwide pandemic, I maintained that vesting progressive hopes in a system of basic income constitutes an attempt to “make…peace with [the] neoliberal order and accept a commodified form of social provision.” As a social policy end run around the dominant regressive agenda, the UBI project fails to challenge low wage precarious work or the degrading of the social infrastructure, asking only for a basic payment provided out of general revenues, and it is taken on faith that the adequacy of this can somehow be assured.

If UBI were to be implemented, progressive hopes would quickly be dashed on the rocks of neoliberal reality. It will take the form of a meagre payment that functions as an effective subsidy to low wage employers and that replaces, rather than complements, other elements of social provision. As public services are gutted and privatized, basic income recipients will find themselves shopping in the rubble of the social infrastructure with its cash replacement. In the period following the pandemic, when austerity and wage cutting are widespread and a ruthless drive to restore rates of profit and pay the bill for corporate bailouts gets underway, UBI would be an even more lethal weapon in the neoliberal arsenal.

The problems with UBI in the context of the pandemic are revealed most clearly in what the policy measure fails to address, rather than in what it proposes. The fact that we live under the threat of global pandemics in the age of neoliberal capitalism—a threat that will still be with us when COVID-19 is finally contained at terrible cost—is itself an indication of the need to look for solutions not within that system, but beyond it, by challenging and defeating it. However, as economies grind to a halt and the markets warn us of a major global slump ahead (that is by no means entirely related to the pandemic), how can we ensure that the basic needs of working class people are met and that their living standards are not decimated?

Who pays for the COVID-19 catastrophe?

In the wake of COVID-19, governments will be ready, willing and able to bailout capitalists, while remaining reluctant to provide for workers and the communities they belong to. Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson puts thousands of workers on unpaid leave, even as he calls for a £7.5 billion bailout for the airline companies. The Trudeau government is hammering out the details of a multibillion-dollar giveaway to the oil and gas companies in Canada. This kind of welfare for the rich has to be implacably opposed and the notion that the general tax revenues should be deployed to keep workers and their families alive during the pandemic offers only another form of public subsidy to capitalist institutions. Layoffs of workers have to be prevented and the corporations that have profited from their labour for so long must be forced to shoulder the costs of keeping workplaces idle for any period of time. A fight for no bailouts without public ownership is the only approach that makes any sense if the current period is not to become the greatest free ride for the rich in history and a prelude to austerity on an unprecedented scale.

At every point, workers and communities under threat are pointing a way forward that implicitly raises the twin issues of who will pay and who will be in control. Italian workers have mounted a wave of strikes against employers who disregard their safety. Bus drivers in Detroit have forced the transit authority to suspend fare collection. The RMT union in the UK has called for requisitioning taxi fleets during the pandemic to ensure access to food and other necessities. The logic of and need for such measures is so compelling that even very reactionary governments have been forced to take exceptional steps, such as suspending evictions. Letting capitalism off the hook by granting corporations what amount to wage subsidies, moves us in exactly the wrong direction. The old Maoist slogan “make the rich pay” has never been more relevant than at the present time.

Beyond the immediate struggle to survive in the face of the pandemic, we need to understand that the legitimacy of capitalism itself is now confronted with a test of historic proportions. Why is this massive public health crisis unfolding with public healthcare systems degraded by decades of neoliberal austerity? Why, in the name of profit, were employers and the governments that serve their interests able to delay preventative measures that could have saved lives? And as the pandemic gives way to a major economic slump, what of the measures and resources that are needed to meet the needs of hard hit working class and poor communities?

Tens of millions of people will ask these kinds of questions and socialist answers and solutions will resonate powerfully. While we must, of course, embrace the most robust demands and wage the toughest struggles to win greatly improved and fully accessible income support systems in these harsh times, we don’t want inadequate solutions that extend a peace offering to the neoliberal order. We need radical alternatives, fighting demands and bold plans of action. The concept of a basic income fell short before this searing crisis and it has even less to offer us in the face of it.

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnOCAP and blog at


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