Could basic income play a role in the fight against unfree labour?
Södertörn University & University of Bath
University of Bath
Duke University & openDemocracy
Self Employed Women’s Association
Once treated as a pointlessly utopian fantasy, the demand for a guaranteed basic income is now being debated across multiple forums, from mainstream and alternative media sites to more academic venues.
There are many different proposals that travel under this label. The version I want to defend is a minimal liveable income regularly remitted as a social wage, paid unconditionally to residents regardless of citizenship status, regardless of their family or household membership, and regardless of past, present, or future employment status. Waged work would not be replaced by such a social wage, but the link between work and income would be relaxed.
I support this form of basic income because of its feminist potential to loosen the constraints our current system places on all of us but particularly on women. It is a tool that, if deployed correctly, would enable waged work, marriage contracts, and childrearing to be more a matter of choice than they are at present, where all three are subjected to a relentless, strict, and miserly economic calculus.
My case in favour of the basic income demand is deeply informed by the Wages for Housework movement in the 1970s, which advocated for a social wage to be paid to women for the uncompensated reproductive labour they perform. Many lessons for the basic income movement can be found in this earlier campaign, two of which I want to focus on here. The first lesson is that the wage system is wholly inadequate as a method for distributing income. The second is that because the wage system is inadequate, many people and especially women have little choice but to enter into families in precarious positions of inequality. Basic income has a chance to ameliorate, but will not in itself correct, both these wrongs.
The blind spots of the wage system
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.
The thinkers behind the Wages for Housework campaign insisted that we needed a broader understanding of the economy and of what counts as an economic relation in order to account for all of the productive effort involved in the creation of value. Their main focus was on showing how unpaid reproductive work acts as a subsidy for companies that boosts their profit margins. A capitalist society needs reproductive work to happen so that workers are fed and dressed, so that new workers replace old ones, and so that products are bought and consumed. They argued that since reproduction is not separate from the system of economic production but an indispensable part of it, those reproductive contributions should be recognised and remunerated.
But this is not how the wage economy currently functions. Wages, capitalism’s primary mechanism for transferring wealth back down the chain, are only given to a narrow subset of all those people engaged in maintaining a capitalist society: those who are employed. The wage system doesn’t come close to compensating all the people working for all the value they are producing; its blind spots are legion.
We can make a strong case for basic income if we update this argument to include other areas of activity from which a capitalist society derives value yet the wage system fails to reward. For example, employers make use of but do not remunerate the educational efforts that develop a worker’s general skills and aptitudes. Neither do they compensate for all the time a worker dedicates to developing communicative capacities, aesthetic embodiments, and even social networks. This is no small matter in the present moment. The employment system is currently being restructured around the ideal of the independent, entrepreneurial worker who has invested heavily in their own human capital and future employability, often through the accrual of household debt. This would-be worker is expected to assume all the risk and costs of rendering themselves employable and for landing a series of job contracts while employers are largely off the hook for these expenses.
The fear that there will be free riders who will receive a basic income is laughable given the truly massive levels of unremunerated labour, stolen property, and privatised commons for which companies are given a free pass.
Employers also make use of social infrastructures produced through collective efforts over generations, commons reclassified as ‘natural resources’, assets accumulated through slavery and colonialism, and technologies first developed by governments. They appropriate the materials that create and add value to goods and services, including forms of scientific, communicative, technical, and social knowledge. Then, of course, there is prison labour, various forms of unwaged digital labour used to create data and algorithms, as well as old-fashioned wage theft. Neither wages nor taxes come close to compensating for all of this. The fear that there will be free riders who will receive a basic income is laughable given the truly massive levels of free riding on unremunerated labour, stolen property, and privatised commons for which companies are given a free pass.
In addition to all these types of unremunerated value creation, we must also remember that large, arguably enormous, numbers of people are excluded from or marginalised within the wage system because they do not conform to the model of the ideal waged worker. How many of us really possess the full list of capacities needed to devote 40 hours to intensively focused effort over the course of a five-day week? What about those of us with cognitive, emotional, neurological, or physical differences that mean we cannot always, or sometimes ever, work in the ways or for the durations that are expected? How can we be expected to work a lifetime without more than – and this is of course the best-case scenario – a little vacation time and a few sick days? The family is supposed to be our safety net, but for many it’s a last resort rather than a first option. Too many of us have nothing or little in the way of support when our bodies or our minds are rendered disabled by the standard forms of waged work.
A fundamental lesson of the Wages for Housework campaign is that that wage system does not account for all our contributions to economic production and excludes too many of us to function as a credible mechanism of income allocation. The already rather spectacular mis-accounting of productive activity they identified in the 1970s is arguably much more dramatic today, and the exclusions enacted by the wage system possibly even more damning.
Basic income, as a universal and unconditional social wage, offers a more rational and more equitable way to distribute income and reward forms of productivity.
Freedom to choose a family
A second key insight from the Wages for Housework movement regards the way the wage system interacts with the institution of the family to trap many, especially women, into dangerous situations and also benefits from the unwaged labour that takes place under its auspices.
The heteropatriarchal family may function as a haven in a heartless world for some; for others it is a sad and dangerous site. A 2018 UN report, which found that more than half of female homicides around the world were committed by intimate partners or relatives, was released with a headline that named the home as “the most dangerous place for women.” The statistics on domestic violence, including intimate partner violence, together with child and elder abuse are by any metric staggering. Without adequate means to support oneself and one’s dependents it can be difficult and sometimes impossible to leave such a situation.
The family is also where the majority of the labour necessary to reproduce workers on a daily and generational basis takes place. It is an institution that distributes income earned from waged work to others in a household and that allocates domestic tasks to its members along gendered lines. Enormous amount of time, skill, and energy are devoted to childcare, eldercare, the care of the ill, the care of the disabled, self-care, and community care. Without this work whatever you want to delimit as the economic system would not exist, and it is provided disproportionally by women, free of charge, regardless of whether they also work for wages.
A basic income would better enable individuals to make choices about whether to enter into a particular household division of domestic labour and serve as a resource for exiting an abusive household relationship.
Wages for Housework advocates extended their critical examination of the family as a satellite of the system of production to the question of childbearing as well. They demanded wages so that they could, among other things, “decide if, when and under what conditions to have children”. Deciding not to have children because one does not have the money or time to raise them does not count as true reproductive choice: “As long as we have no money of our own because we work for nothing at home and for crumbs outside the home, none of us can choose whether or not to have children, and all of us face sterilization even if our tubes are not cut”.
A basic income, like wages for housework, cannot in itself create the conditions for truly meaningful choices about whether to raise children or not, or whether or not to enter into a household or form a family. It would, however, better enable individuals to make choices about whether to enter into a particular household division of domestic labour, as well as serve as a resource for exiting a physically or otherwise abusive household relationship. It would also give people a greater measure of economic freedom to either engage in or opt out of childrearing as they choose. As such, it is material support for the possibility of cultivating more sustaining and sustainable relationships of caring and sharing.
Demanding a basic income comes with risk
Critics of a basic income have come up with many reasons why it is a fool’s errand, some more spurious than others. Now I will turn to what I see as most compelling critique, the challenge to the demand that I think should give everyone pause and that may well dissuade some from their support.
The problem as I see it is tactical: The danger is that, if a basic income is won at all, it probably won’t be first instituted just as we want it. Most likely it will be initially granted at a low level that serves to subsidise low wage employers by offering their workers a small supplement.
This means that the initial form a basic income programme takes, and whether or not we can then win it in the form we want, will depend on the power and endurance of the political forces behind its advocacy. Despite its appearance as a punctual event, as a win or a loss, the politics of a basic income will involve a longer process of winning it on our terms, as an unconditional, universal, livable wage. This makes it an undeniably risky endeavor. Whether this “foot in the door” incremental approach to political change is worth the risk is an important question, perhaps the critical question.
Here we might recall the feminist struggles about whether to pursue passage of the 15th amendment and the 50-year wait for the 19th, or think about whether the Affordable Care Act will or will not serve as a step towards Medicare For All. The foot in the door can serve as a wedge to help pry it open further or it can get broken off. The only thing of which I feel certain is at the heart of another insight from Wages for Housework: “Feminism must start from what women need, not from what it might be easier to gain."