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The Beautiful Fantasy of Unconditional Basic Income

On the new realities faced by the pro UBI lobby and how it fits into the grand scheme of things

Liberal progressives with a socialistic streak have long held, deep in their hearts, a wonderful dream. They surveyed the societal landscape of the modern West, America in particular, and were horrified by the inequality. They saw families reduced to scouring food banks, the gluttonous greed of corporate Fat-Cats, and people reduced to penury despite working all the hours possible. It was a rigged game. The working masses were kept shackled to their checkout jobs and factory production lines, by the ever-present danger of unemployment and the consequent poverty.

The solution seemed obvious: just give everyone money. At least, give everyone enough money to keep the wolf from the door. A small buffer against eviction and cold winters without heating. Unconditional Basic Income, guaranteed by the state, could usher in a new age of liberation. Now the woman who cleaned the office toilets could be liberated into spending  her life doing yoga and reading Japanese poetry, in Japanese!

It would be communism but better. In fact, it would be Fully Automated Luxury Communism, no less. One last caveat added to the bundle, the hot caramel sauce poured over the UBI ice cream: it would also be entirely no-strings-attached and unconditional.

As the left salivated over the dream of the masses being liberated by UBI into a lifetime spent making ornaments out of seashells and mastering medieval musical instruments, way over on the other side of the political spectrum others had caught a whiff of the dream too. For White Nationalists and various figures on the hard right, UBI offered different solutions to different problems. To be sure, making the ‘‘You Know Whos’’ on Wall Street take a hit for their financial parasitism was to be supported. However, UBI also offered a sweet deal to political dissidents who were in danger of losing their jobs through doxing as well as freeing them up to spend more time in activism. Naturally, the key word here would be ‘‘unconditional’’.

In supporting UBI the hard right could also differentiate itself still further from the bootstrap-pulling cringe of a Ben Shapiro or the Boomer MAGA base with their tireless devotion to a seemingly ancient and certainly 1960s model of capitalism.

As somebody who has spent a depressingly large percentage of his life in the soul-shredding tedium of the minimum wage labour market, UBI appealed to me too.

Now, you may ask: who would actually do the work if we all retired on state largesse to write novels and practice our origami? Not my problem. What would the actual impact be on the economy, hyperinflation, and such? Who cares.

The reader could be forgiven for thinking that, from our perspective in 2023, there’s an almost childlike naivety and a certain quaintness to the proposition that the system would liberate us entirely from itself. In this version of The Matrix, the Architect frees humanity and destroys his own construction and machine empire for no other reason than the shits n giggles.

In the pre-Covid era those propagating the UBI model and advocating it, could at least lay claim to being idealists at best, naive at worst. In terms of over-arching social programs and centralized power, many people now feel like whipped dogs and new schemes from Power are akin to their master raising the whip once more. We know we are ruled by liars and psychopaths and so when they say ‘‘It’s quicker to head through this dark and foreboding cave’’ we immediately begin looking for Shelob’s legs sticking out of its walls. Previously, proponents of UBI only had to contend with economic arguments against its viability, now they’re accused of being either fools or useful idiots who want to enslave us — the exact opposite of the original pitch of UBI.

Scott Santens is one such long-time advocate of UBI trying to grapple with the new paradigm. Unconditional Basic Income has been his gig for many years; he’s literally written a book on it. He claims to have influenced Andrew Yang, the once-Democrat nominee, on it. Recently Scott replied to me on Twitter with a blog of his own refuting my own obvious skepticism. His article doesn’t waste time getting to business and is titled ‘‘Is Unconditional Basic Income a Trap Being Laid by Global Elites to Control and Enslave Us All?’’ complete with an Admiral Ackabar Return of the Jedi ‘‘It’s a trap!’’ meme as a leading image.

Scott places his ball on the tee with:

2023 will mark ten years of my advocating hard for unconditional basic income. At this point, one of the things that annoys me most is the new claim from conspiracy-fueled people that the rich and powerful fully support UBI and want to use it to make a subservient population.

This conspiracy is pretty much exactly what I believe.

First of all, most obviously, UBI is unconditional. It's in the damn definition. If cash comes with strings attached, it's not UBI. So you can't make the argument that UBI will be conditional

I’m quite happy to concede that what the elites will usher forth is something different from what Scott Santens has spent ten years advocating. It is at this juncture that the split between our worldviews opens up properly, never to meet again. Santen believes that the conversation around UBI is the result of the long and painful ‘‘bottom-up’’ process of advocates such as himself. Finally, the elite class is buckling under populist pressure and talking about UBI. Within this framing, the next stage of the fight will simply be to ensure that UBI is both unconditional and universal. Almost there folks!

But here's the thing that really gets me most about this argument that UBI is meant to enable the rich and powerful to control you: IF THAT WERE TRUE IT WOULDN'T BE TAKING ME OVER TEN YEARS TO HELP MAKE HAPPEN. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN A GODDAMN CAKE WALK TO PASS INTO LAW.

Like, holy shit, people... If UBI actually further empowered the rich and powerful, and further disempowered everyone else, do you honestly think it wouldn’t happen immediately? Do you honestly think it wouldn't have happened decades ago? Does that make any sense at all??

He’s right! People have been pushing for UBI for years and it was widely regarded as insanity. Yet now, all of a sudden, the elites are rolling it out in trials and speaking openly about it. Is this because the oligarchy can no longer withstand popular sentiment? Or, and excuse my cynicism, is it because the technology now exists to make it entirely digital and part of a much more expansive program to drag the masses onto a digital surveillance grid?

Of course, as Scott explains in his article, at least if the elites try to pull anything tricksy we can use our populist power to clean them all out because democracy works. Perhaps we can use the resounding successes of pushing back against mass immigration, censorship, and the democratic debates informing the WHO pandemic treaty and Agenda 2030 as examples of the will of people bringing power to heel.

It is true that a population receiving lumps of free money from their government without any strings attached at all would be an empowered population, however, this is exactly why the population will not be allowed free money from their government. Client groups do, dissidents will not. The problem with so many left-wingers is that they’ve been aligned with Power on so many issues for so long that they’re not accustomed to Power pushing back in a genuine sense. The state is perfectly at peace with the fact that its critics are regularly de-banked, yet we’re expected to believe it would acquiesce in bankrolling the activism and lifestyles of its fiercest opposition.

In this scenario, the Federal Reserve would be bank-rolling Trump’s 2024 run by providing income to the MAGA base. People would no longer fear being fired from their jobs for speaking up about various taboo subjects, and Power knows it, hence there will be no unconditional UBI lest it undoes itself.

It isn’t so much a question of the pro-UBI camp running into conspiracy theorists, but political realists. From the Jouvenelian perspective which sees Power as an amorphous blob squeezing itself into one form after another, Power would be willingly retreating and shedding itself of what it had won for no reason other than the people will it. Furthermore, Power does not deal in universals, or unconditional arrangements because it cannot. There are always exceptions to every rule and in the West, those exceptions are usually the ‘‘Far Right’’ which is in and of itself a catch-all descriptor of Power’s enemies. Once more, the term ‘‘unconditional’’ will very swiftly become as vague and warped as ‘‘free speech’’ or ‘‘liberalism’’. If the enemies of Power are using universal credit to undermine that Power then by extension they’re undermining the UBI scheme itself, and thus they will become the exception, their UBI will have to become ‘‘Conditional’’ and the conditions will equate to the end of either their activism or credit. Hate speech is not free speech, unconditional income is not unconditional, and we can’t tolerate intolerance.

The more likely scenario is what I laid out in the Tweet Scott Santens replied to:

Advocates of UBI seem not to have been prepared for this style of critique of their hobby horse. I can sympathize with that, it stretches far beyond the standard libertarianism they’d usually encounter. Their opening gambit was one of freedom and liberty, freedom from squalor and financial servitude. Yet, their positive vision is now being thrown back at them as the exact opposite — a mechanism of slavery by the ruling class.

Of course, in my framing, UBI is simply one facet of an unfolding technocratic system. The zeitgeist offers up a plethora of issues for people to become invested in. Some people focus on something like UBI, others on climate change or surveillance. There will be a fixed focus on their own issue, to the detriment of everything else. Take for example so-called ‘‘15 Minute Cities’’. The argument will zoom in on traffic and barriers, but not so much on Agenda 2030 or digital IDs.

Here I shall indulge myself with a pop cultural sojourn. In the half-decent Star Wars series Andor (my analysis) which nobody seems to have watched, prisoners were forced to work constructing some sort of mechanical devices. There were hundreds of prisons, all across the galaxy and all were constructing various parts and devices for something.

Each prison camp had a laser-like focus on its own targets and efficiency, but none of them could understand what the end product was going to be, or what they were working for. The Big Reveal was of course that they had — unknowingly and collectively — constructed the Death Star.

There are people who will argue that the WHO pandemic treaty is a worthy and moral endeavour because a global health crisis needs a global governing body to coordinate. Others will argue in favour of 15 Minute Cities because the roads are congested and city centres are simply more pleasant when pedestrian only. Digital IDs on one’s phone are convenient, UBI will benefit the poor, and Agenda 2030 will prevent the planet from burning up.

However, it is when we begin to slot these various parts together and see the shape and nature of the whole that we begin to see something of a very different order of bad emerging. Take as an example the WHO pandemic treaty combined with the now very conditional UBI scheme. In theory, they have nothing at all in common, but in practice, you will have your income reduced or stopped entirely if you oppose the health sovereign’s policies. Climate Change and digital IDs have nothing much in common until you have a carbon tax which even Elon Musk supports.

There’s something rather tragic about people pouring their lives into a seemingly fitting cause only to be faced with the prospect that the cause is itself about to become the opposite of what was promised or once intended. The prospect of sunk costs settles on the mind ‘‘Shall I give it up or double down?’’. Or, more likely —compromise. After all, if UBI is alleviating poverty for millions, does anyone really care that racists are shut out? And look, it’s just a vaccine, and there won’t be any UBI for anyone if the Earth transforms into a lifeless, barren desert.

It is, unfortunately, human nature to reason that, it’s better to land the marlin’s desiccated carcass than land nothing at all.

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