A Socialist Case for Universal Basic Income in the post COVID-19 era


Nirjhar Mukherjee

Nirjhar  Mukherjee is a scholar and an activist on the left in Kolkata. He has put forward an argument for a campaign for the Universal Basic Income. We welcome further discussions ad debates in a constructive manner over this issue. -- Administrator, Radical Socialist website

            The world has changed in the past few weeks. The COVID19 pandemic has changed the dynamics of politics in a number of ways. Capitalism as we know it is facing collapse. However, it is likely to metamorphose into an even more pestilent fascist form. Liberal democracies are under immense pressure from authoritarian tendencies. Changing technological paradigms are making existing political and class equations redundant and creating newer power hierarchies. The world that we will walk out to when the lockdown ends will be a changed one in a number of ways. The radical left must prepare for this world. While there are multiple dangers, there are also possibilities. There is a need to conceive new, creative politics suitable for the equations and circumstances pertinent to the changed circumstances. The politics of universal basic income is of utmost importance for new, creative, egalitarian politics in this changed era.

            The idea of universal basic income has gained saliennce over the past few years, India being no exception. The crisis of neoliberal capitalism has spurred debates within the capitalist intelligentsia itself on other distribution patterns. Over the past few years, various brands of universal basic income (also to be abbreviated as UBI) have been debated even within the liberal circles. The COVID19 pandemic has created a massive crisis for neo-liberal capitalism. With entire economies on lockdown for weeks, the prospects are frightening to say the least for the highly interlinked political and economic systems. The shadow of uncertainty is stalking people across continents. There are no prizes for guessing that it is the oppressed and marginalised who are suffering significantly more than the privileged ones, However, what is to be noted is that even capitalists are considering schemes such as UBI to rescue the neoliberal market oriented system. Now the question is, should socialists and other radical leftists also support the idea of UBI? If so why? This article argues that while the concept of universal basic income is not radical by itself, it creates radical possibilities. UBI as an idea also needs to be defined and justified in philosophical and theoretical terms. In that respect, a socialist conception of Universal Basic Income would be radically different from conformist ones. The article makes a case for the necessity of UBI at the moment from a socialist point of view. However, UBI is by itself not sufficient, it should be a part of a greater socialist project of overcoming capitalism. Socialists must attempt to radicalise democracy, UBI being a potent tool in the quest.

            Capitalism as we know it has been rendered a body (perhaps fatal) blow by the COVID19 pandemic. However, this does not imply that the post-COVID19 world will automatically transition into a socialist one. On the contrary,I have argued that there are fearsome prospects of the rise of fascist forces across the world. Capitalism changes form from time to time. The current- neoliberal avatar of capitalism began in the 80s in the Western world and spread into a global one after the end of the Cold War. The economic recession of 2008 was a major crisis in which public money was used to bail out corporations. However, it is rather difficult for neoliberalism to survive as it is. Economies are lacking in money circulation, huge amounts of which have accumulated in the hands of a scant few at the top. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a number of conformist (conservative, liberal, centrist, social democrat) thinkers are considering some form of UBI to keep the economy ticking.

            The far-right populist forces of reaction have gained support across the world since 2008. The downfall of the Communist Bloc across the world, and (perhaps more importantly) the capitulation of the many existing left-wing forces to neoliberal hegemony created a political vacuum which enabled the populist forces of reaction to make headway among working class voters. Reactionary identity politics and authoritarian tendencies have gained popularity as the shadow of fascism has re-entered the arenas marked by democratic institutions. When the neoliberal variant of capitalism falls, it will be these fascist forces that big capital will support. Majoritarianism and reactionary politics will be the mantra of capital backed forces, and democratic and liberal ideas shall be rejected.

            We have already seen many such incidents happening. In countries across the world from Hungary to Brazil, Turkey to India, the fascist forces have sought to strengthen their hold on power. As Agamben puts it, the state of exception imposed by these regimes will outlast the pandemic. There is also another threat to democracy which needs to be discerned right away. The threat of the COVID19 is being exacerbated by the media and turned into a fearmongering fest among the middle classes and other key opinion makers. This is creating legitimacy for ‘tough measures’ and ‘strong leadership’ and manufacturing consent for resultant actions. Thus, the panicdemic is the ground for hegemony creation and manufacturing consent for the continuing state of exception where the far-right is going to seize power. Given the massive economic fallouts of lockdowns and other ‘tough measures’ it will not be surprising if governments try to declare emergency in countries such as India where the ruling party has majority support in parliament. Hungary has already passed a draconian law where Orban now rules by decree.

Thus, whatever rudiments of democracy remains, is in further danger of fascist takeover- the preparations of which might be underway as this article is being written. This is going to be used politically to crush dissidents and opponents. In India, the Hindutva fascist government has already used the lockdown period to clamp down upon dissidents. Ridiculous charges have been placed on activists like Umar Khalid who are now being blamed for genocidal attacks on Muslims in North East Delhi earlier in February. Similarly, in Kashmir to Maharashtra, activists like Masrat Zahra and Anand Teltumbde are being arrested and slapped with undemocratic acts like UAPA. All this is happening at a time the economy is devastated with massive unemployment and mass misery being aggravated due to the lockdown. The fight for the left is an arduous one, one to resist this state of exception and spiralling downfall of democratic rights while opposing capitalism on the other.

It is important to remember such a context while making a radical and socialist case for universal basic income. The Indian economy was already in great peril by the end of 2019. However, politically there does not seem to be any revolutionary force which is in a position to make any quick radical shift to a newer paradigm. At this moment, the task of any progressive force should be to create conditions which would enable the people to survive and lead a life of some degree of dignity. Then, the struggle must go on for greater rights and creating an egalitarian system. It is at this juncture that the concept of UBI gains pertinence.

Universal Basic Income, it may be repeated, is by itself a reformist strategy. It is simply a strategy for a better deal within the capitalist market economy system. However, UBI has several advantages. First, it is a necessary reform at the moment, without which the Indian economy stares at mass starvation and destitution. Socialists have the moral responsibility of saving the people (or at least as many as possible) from death and ruin. If people can survive this crisis, the UBI would open newer prospects for radical change. The idea is the keep up the struggle for radical change.

If socialists can win the fight to implement the UBI, they would have saved the economy, at least for the time being. It would bring food and dignity to millions. This would boost the prestige of the beleaguered left in India. The UBI also creates a number of possibilities. Say, if today the idea of Rs 10000 per month is accepted by the government, this can be a stepping-stone to demand a higher amount of UBI. A regular income will provide relief to many poor citizens of India. It will enable them to avoid loans and other humiliations and suffering. The idea of the UBI would also lead to the demands for greater taxation and greater corporate tax. The demand must increase to ensure a Maximum Basic Income. It would also go side by side with the movements for fair minimum wage. These advances would help the left create much needed class based political narratives and shift the focus from communal and other reactionary narratives as championed by the right.

Universal basic income can provide the material boost to empower citizens which would translate into opportunities to radicalise democracy. The left must strive to transfer power to the people. UBI is an important step in the right direction in this regard. With more resources, there can be attempts to greater control over resources and power.

The future is that of automation. This would inevitably lead to job losses (especially for poor, manual workers). The concept of UBI is of utmost importance in this regard. The state must provide adequate means for dignified living for all citizens, whether they have a job or not. At the moment, the demand for UBI has the potential to bring together various movements such as those demanding compensation for workers who have been laid off, movement for migrant labourers, demand for salary for the lockdown period of workers, financial compensation for hawkers, money for workers of the unorganised sector, sex workers and many other innumerable people who have been hit hard by the crisis.

It is here that the fundamental difference between capitalist and socialist visions of UBI emerge. The capitalist idea of a UBI is one to keep markets functioning with regular distribution of money to at the bottom of the economic pyramid. This is done in order to keep demand high and ensure that people have the money to consume the various goods and keep up the profits. This is actually a plan to keep the capitalist cycle healthy though proper money circulation. However, the philosophical basis of UBI for a socialist would be more radical. Wealth of a society is created by the people in various ways. Production is a social process. Everyone contributes to it, whether capitalism acknowledges it not. From an unpaid homemaker who is also dismissed as a ’housewife’ by the patriarchal system to the cobbler to the farmer to the doctor or the teacher. Every person has a contribution to wealth of the society. However, in capitalism, the value generated is siphoned off the capitalists. Only a tiny portion of it paid to the workers who have a direct role in the process.

The socialist philosophy would be a strong normative claim that everyone deserves an equal share in the wealth of the society. Thus, UBI is not a dole or a gift or a donation. It is a right. People (especially oppressed and marginalised ones) have a role in the creation of the wealth the bulk of which has been stolen from them by the capitalists. Through UBI, they are getting back a part of what actually belongs to them. Thus, UBI is a good precursor to other important socialist demands such as control over what Marx would have called the means of production. UBI is not an isolated demand by itself. It is a part of a greater socialist project. The movement for UBI is to be the people’s demand for survival, their demand for dignified living and finally their demand for controlling the system. UBI is to be a permanent scheme. Not a one-time payment to alleviate miseries. It would be a scheme to help citizens take control over their own money.

            As mentioned earlier, the idea of UBI is not to be a stand-alone demand. The current predicament demands that progressives have a two-fold task. On one hand, the democratic institutions need to be defended and the fight must go on to extend the scope of democratic rights and strengthen people’s movements. On the other, the immediate demand needs to be raised- one for a Universal Basic Income. The UBI movement would be the strongest plank to demand a just solution for the miseries that have befallen millions of deprived people of India. It must go side by side with the other democratic demands. Some of the most important such demands should be for free, quality universal healthcare, universal public education system and free public housing.

            It is important to point out that UBI is an intersectional demand. It must be responsive to the needs of oppressed and marginalised communities. For example, there should be a provision to provide extra money to women and persons with disabilities, extra needs. It should also consider and be sensitive to the differences in living standards in different parts of the country. Provisions should be made to consider other such needs wherever required. In fact, progressive public finance would also demand a decentralisation of the political system (but that is not the topic of this article). 

            Among socialists there can also be another legitimate concern. If a reformist idea like UBI makes headway, it can be hijacked by reformist forces in the middle who can use it to preserve and perpetuate the capitalist system. It cannot be denied that such a possibility exists and will always exist. The task of the radicals is to keep radicalising the movement and isolate such opportunists. As mentioned earlier, it is the task of the left to promote the radical idea of the UBI and combine it with other socialist demand. Let UBI be an important moment in the creation of a left-wing movement. If the movement is unable to make headway at a later stage, that would be the failure of the activists of the left. History is replete with examples where reformists and reactionaries hijack the movement and snuff out its radical possibilities. This needs to be kept in mind. However, this does not make UBI a redundant idea at this moment. The radicals must prepare for such possibilities and make strong intersectional alliances with forces committed to radical anti-capitalist democratic change to ensure that this does not happen. It is also important to disseminate the radical visions of UBI among the people. Continuous activism, online (starting right now) and on the ground (as soon as possible) is needed for this to happen.

            The COVID19 pandemic has dealt a massive blow to the neoliberal political idea. While fraught with dangers of looming fascist efflorescence, this is also a time when the neoliberal system stands discredited more than ever. It is a juncture when the people would be looking for a new alternative. It is also an opportune moment to create new political language- to practice creative politics. This is a time of great alarm, but it is also a time where there are radical possibilities. Despite massive political clout, control over media and communal narratives, the far-right would not be able to feed hungry mouths. When the rage erupts, it is the UBI will be able to unite various groups of poor and deprived people. The movement for UBI can be the fulcrum which would unite the people against the state and the reactionary allies. The conditions for radical possibilities are also ripe at this moment. Given the political circumstances of the moment, this is thus the appropriate time to raise the demand for UBI- in a radical manner.