Dr. Charles Murray, identified correctly by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist, published an article on right wing propaganda machine The Wall Street Journal making the Social Darwinian argument for what he calls a guaranteed income. He follows in the footstep of similarly dystopian libertarian “thinker” Milton Friedman in this respect and some progressive and liberal supporters of universal income believe this support shows that it could be achieved by a bipartisan effort. It is a similar neoliberal agenda as the bipartisan prison reform movement which Truthout did an excellent job exposing. Bipartisanship in general shows the utter haplessness of the Democratic Party, resigned or even enthusiastic about always making rightward shifts in order to placate their bigoted misanthropic Republican counterparts. Knowing however that well-meaning progressives and even some Leftists have been swept up in the temptation of a false pragmatism, I want to briefly outline the differences between the conservative version (which I’ll refer to as guaranteed income) versus the Leftist version (which I’ll refer to as universal income) to demonstrate that there is not even a pittance of some meeting of the minds necessary to form a coalition. Rather, in order to benefit the working class rather than harm it, universal income must be promoted singularly as a progressive goal rather than a conservative one. Apologia for the conservative aim to slaughter public investment in the working class should be classified as exactly what it is: Austrian school mythology with no purpose other than maintaining the socio-economic hierarchy.
Now while Murray switches back and forth with terminology the reason I call his policy “guaranteed income” is to highlight his central economic arguments. He makes a surprisingly neoliberal rather than Randian argument, essentially that:
(1) Labor as we know it is being automated out of existence;
(2) We are suffering from a considerable portion of people (18% of unmarried males and 23% of unmarried women ages 25 through 54, which is one of the few accurate things Murray claims) who do not work, which he insinuates is because the restrictions of the welfare system (which, he failed to mention, is partly his fault) make continued unemployment a sensible choice for his rational actor;
(3) By replacing the welfare system with guaranteed income, Murray projects that the spirit of meeting needs through “voluntary organizations” will be revitalized and since everyone knows that the “slackers” have income there will be no more “excuses,” an uneasy marriage between Keynesian consumer stimulus and anti-welfare Reaganism.
This argument unravels when his basic, unverified by anything resembling science, assumptions about human behavior are called into question. But this foundational fallacy is but one error in an argument as dehumanizing as it is fantastical.
(1) Labor automation is a historical phenomenon that was being written about since the 19th century. In the Grundrisse, Karl Marx wrote:
In machinery, objectified labour confronts living labour within the labour process itself as the power which rules it; a power which, as the appropriation of living labour, is the form of capital. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery, and of living labour into a mere living accessory of this machinery, as the means of its action, also posits the absorption of the labour process in its material character as a mere moment of the realization process of capital. The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency.
People like Murray attribute automation as something arising from technological innovation, but Marx correctly identifies it as an inherent tendency of M – C – M’. Globalization has indeed pushed the limits of other means of increasing productivity and decreasing necessary labor such as offshoring to the point that capitalists are beginning to seriously look at near-total automation. But fixed capital is capital nonetheless, and outside of companies like Foxconn and Google many are unwilling to take the risk of investing in automation when there are still many problems. Automation is coming, but it is hardly the 11th hour that some like Murray portray it as.
(2) While Murray’s statistic about the amount of people out of the workforce is, to the best of my knowledge, correct, his reasoning is pure ideology. If his “rational actor” argument is true, one must wonder why those on welfare are disincentivized from getting a job but people are not disincentivized from getting welfare due to the availability of jobs. One factor that would certainly seem to disincentive people from getting on welfare rather than getting a job is the ridiculous criminalization of welfare (which Murray helped to make). For NY unemployment benefits for example, one must go through a complicated form featuring multiple confusing terms of art (i.e. the difference between being discharged and fired) and then face this compassionate disclaimer:
I have reviewed all tabbed sections and verified that the information is true and accurate, and I understand that the law provides penalties for false statements. I understand that if I am not eligible for benefits, I am entitled to a hearing before an administrative law judge at no cost or obligation. If I fail to repay benefits that I received or fail to pay any penalties assessed because I withheld information or gave false information to the Department of Labor, the Department of Labor may take legal action to file a judgment against me. Once entered, a judgment is good and can be used against me for twenty years, and my money, including a portion of my paycheck and/or bank account, may be taken. Also a judgment will hurt my credit score and can effect my ability to rent a home, find a job, or take out a loan. I also confirm that I am not filing this claim during any period while I was outside of the United States, a U.S. Territory or Canada.
[for more info on NY unemployment, check out this handy resource bank from the National Lawyers Guild] So why do people get on welfare? There are rational reasons someone would, the most obvious being the poverty wages paid by many employers. But something no libertarian ever accounts for is the psychic bombardment of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.
The ever increasing reach of advertisement in our daily lives through the plethora of screens we look at is not empowering consumers but rather reducing people into consumers. Consumption is increasingly centered around liberal conceptions of identity, social media and Google ads steering us to our respective consumption outlets. Despite gains made by feminist and racial justice movements, media depictions of women are still objectifying and shows like Empire promote old problematic “talented tenth” Black capitalism. The struggle of the LGBTQ community with alcoholism to self-medicate for our trauma has been re-appropriated into profits for Absolut and others. Rather than being challenged the liberal mainstream now celebrates this corporate exploitation of our identities as “groundbreaking” (referencing the Absolut ad). As Boyce Watkins wrote, “I can’t tell you everything that Dr. King and our ancestors wanted for our people, I can certainly say that it had nothing to do with the crap we’re seeing in modern American media.”
Modern technology has made shallow consumer pleasures cheaper and easily accessible. But they are also fleeting, and drive the individual further into depression and malaise for which the constant voice of advertisement tells them to cure with more consumption. This contradiction in capitalism is one of many pushing the aforementioned automation and other reductions of necessary labor: consumption drives the economy, that consumption causes more drop-out from the workforce, which in turn requires even better ratios of productivity to necessary labor to maintain profits and continue consumption, etc.
(3) Guaranteed income would encourage this trend, not demarcating public investment for meeting social needs but instead for feeding the addiction to consumption. If we want to write-off the victims of this perpetual brainwashing as “slackers,” knowing they have income changes nothing. Everyone knows they already have access to income because survival in our society depends on it. The stern moralizing of family and friends to shape up is no match for such a socially accepted and profit-driven addiction.
Why would a person invest in a mutual beneficiary society insurance plan that they will only benefit from in the future when they can have the easy and quick pleasures capitalism is ready and willing to provide? As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.” But of course this myth of voluntary organizations meeting social needs is ludicrous because it has no basis in reality. What the white patriarchs like Murray always conveniently forget is how charity has always been parsed out to increase inequality, not to meet social needs.
So with this case laid out against guaranteed income, how can I be for universal income? If social programs are not slashed, universal income could be one of the best means of legal wealth redistribution currently at our disposal. While wealth redistribution is not the same as destroying the exploitation of capitalism, it can allow the working class to dedicate resources to more than just their day-to-day survival. Most social programs do need to be reconfigured and some even removed, especially in regards to the criminalization that people like Murray helped to create. But if we replace all public investment with guaranteed income, it will be a net wealth redistribution to the wealthiest people (in the same way that a flat tax rate would).
Knowing Murray’s proclivities as a libertarian, I cannot help but think that this wealth redistribution to the top is his goal. Conversely using universal income to redistribute wealth to the working class, especially through income caps at $500,000, would be very beneficial especially to the Black community. With an increase in wealth, those current drop-outs of the labor force may have enough to attempt something other than easy and quick consumption pleasures. Data has shown that those with better “financial health” shift aspirations from general happiness to other goals.
Ultimately the conservative’s guaranteed income and the Leftist’s universal income are fundamentally polarized in what they would achieve for the working class. Rather than common ground, Dr. Charles Murray and others threaten to taint our ability to increase support for universal income among left-of-center liberals.
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