Policy Positions and Political Imaginaries: Framing Basic Income

Basic income is far too often framed in a confusing manner, presented as both a simple policy proposal with particular effects and as a fully realisable political imaginary that encapsulates a development upon the existing political economy. It is conceived as both a landscape for governance and a particular node within this landscape. In doing this, proponents want it to be a hegemonic vision encompassing a world without work and a set of labour relations radically different to those figured today as well as a narrowly focused distribuendum[1] that is prefigurable to currently-existing institutions and ideologies. The framing of basic income, as revolutionary yet simplistic, is confused and altogether difficult to parse when considering the potential of its wide-ranging effects.

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Basic income thus gets wrapped in utopian discourses that proffer the end of labour relations or the destruction of capitalism, ignoring the complexities of real-world socio-economic and political dynamics that determine the pathways of basic income as a distribuendum. This is particularly notable in its advancement as a universal basic income that will raise everyone out of poverty and allow for the rolling back of precariatisation[2] in politico-economic life. It is also viewed as a tool for market equalisation, making the lone consumer just as powerful as the retail monopolist through the provision of voice in the form of a basic income[3]. In this sense it’s a compelling vision, being compatible across multiple forms of economic or social arrangement and allowing for equality (both of opportunity and to a lesser extent of outcome) to be added onto the current political landscape.

However this strength of vision is also a weakness of implementation. The attempt to eschew institutional foundations ignores the complexities of execution that would come with a radical political shift that basic income would potentially incur. It also suggests that the confusion between political imaginary and policy tool is inhibitory to actual socio-political developments, as basic income gets caught in an institutional freefall, with the experiments being conducted showing further confusion over the scale of basic income, the funding mechanisms, the territorial base and the social concepts behind it. On the last point in particular, the imaginaries and possibilities that basic income supposedly brings forth (an overturning of the labour relation, a workless world, an end to employment, etc.) seem to fail in the realisations that basic income experiments have shown, with work hours barely reducing when studying the Mincome and Guaranteed Annual Income experiments[4]. This overall confusion raises questions of institutional applicability, as the idea of funding and scaling basic income become increasingly important when considering questions of national productivity in developed countries and the need to change the tax base as capital becomes increasingly mobile and liquid while labour forces remain fixed and stultified.

Instead of de-institutionalising basic income, making it the nadir of policy, it should be framed as both a causal and reactive mechanism, something that fits between a political imaginary of possibilities that exist beyond current arrangements and institutions and a policy tool that is mainly distributive in character, attempting to equalise certain class and citizenship relations in political fields. The best frame to use in this is Bob Jessop’s territory, place, scale and network (TPSN)[5]. These fields are akin to the conceptualisation of basic income I’m developing here, as both are fields for reaction, acting against and in relation to existing bottlenecks and logistical issues, and action, as they produce their own dilemmas and fields of possibility. On top of this initial framing schema I will emplace a meta-frame, that of exit, voice and loyalty as defined by Albert Hirschman[6]. This meta-frame acts as a way of understanding these political fields in regards to the relations that inhabit and inhibit them, as human propensities toward exiting an organisational field, using their voice, or remaining loyal both change and are changed by shifting institutional landscapes that involve TPSN topologies.

Territory is defined as “the development of logistical capacities to extend control” over an area of land for the purposes of governance, infrastructure and ideal-formation. These relations/formations are centred within a bureaucratic apparatus where tasks are divided amongst the substructures of the central bureaucracy, creating a political division of labour that is related and interconnected with the other elements of the TPSN schema[7]. Territory is thus linked to the extension of control through coercive, foundational and ideological means. The construction of an apparatus to tax, regulate and map; the development of projects and works that increase productive capacity/extend power from the centre into the peripheries; and conceptualisation and realisation of hegemonic visions that bind and structure subjects under the auspice of a governing authority respectively. Basic income in its realisable forms is structured and tempered by the surrounding territorial strictures in which it will be bordered. It thus must contend with pre-existing ideational visions and ideological frameworks that produce particular concepts that are widely accepted and (at least) minimally enforced. These include the generation of a tax-base, the production of taxable income through work and labour-management relations, and the widely held conviction of work-life balance which limits and shapes free time. How basic income proposals interact with these determines its delineation. Already the pilots of basic income in Madhya Pradesh[8] and those implemented through the SEWA network in India[9] have produced socially radical results, including female empowerment[10], forms of equalisation in land-rental relations and a degree of autonomy in the poor village communities. This “diversification of interests” diverts the social imaginations of existing communities and their institutional forms, as the relations they’re built upon (including exploitative land ownership and a predominance for subsistence farming) are redrawn, producing social upheavals and development of new socio-political projects that demand these upheavals gain increasing validation.

The questions that come from the territorial axis of the TPSN schema ask that the ideational and infrastructural frameworks be understood if they interact with basic income and its related projects. For example, how will basic income affect the workings of land, capital and labour that are bound within the territorial form? Basic income funding proposals include things like land value tax or a financial transactions tax, both of which alter the surrounding capital relations as things like financial and land speculation are treated as negative externalities. How will this affect the tax base, and what new forms of capital-state interactions will develop which help in either implementation or avoidance? Will new forms of financial clientelism develop which represent interests in the financial sectors both for and against basic income-related projects, or will new forms of stakeholder constituencies develop in parallel to financial networks which can articulate their own interests in regards to redevelopments in the general tax base. Equally, what new ideational developments will occur? In particular, how will large swathes of the population who are inculcated in current labour-management relations and who take an ideological perspective on the question of work-life balance react when things like basic income potentially make it profitable to get money for doing nothing? How will governance structures propagandise basic income and mend work relations in situations where labour movement potentially accelerates and becomes more acrimonious? Finally, in bordering basic income within a particular territorial area of control, who receives and who doesn’t? Questions of citizenship, migrant rights and constitutionality come to the fore, as the ability to claim money that may be extracted from particular constituencies, classes or commons inevitability creates conflicts and the need to manage that through official (i.e. constitutional and/or legal channels) or unofficial (clientelistic relations, forms of lobbying, legal arbitrage, etc.) mediums.

Place is a “more or less bounded, more or less extensive, site of face-to-face relationships”[11] amongst particular social forces. It is connected to the flows of everyday life where dialogue and identity are shaped. In conceiving basic income as the production of an imperfect Dworkinian auction (whereby “peoples opportunities and desires are provided for as they can price them in a situation of artificial scarcity”[12]), the main provisions of which become greater means toward exit or voice, a significant effect on place as the area of social relations can be perceived. Basic income changes the relations between social forces as one side may gain the greater ability to voice their concerns and desires, whereby they attempt to change “the practices, policies, and outputs”[13] of the governing structure they find themselves a member of/within. Or they may equally gain greater ability to exit the governing structure as they find little utility in changing its policies. Either option (or both combined) redraws the relations of social forces, as some are radically altered while others are slowly reformed due to pressure from these increasingly important means. This could involve a meritocratic reshaping of class relations as social mobility is increased by the Dworkinian auction, due to leximin opportunities being spread and taken up differentially by different actors and structures. Or it could lead to new shop-floor relations between management and labour as basic income increases the utility of free time and rejigs the concept of work-life balance. These two theoretical examples alone suggest new class relations that alter the production cycles and logistical capacities of the wider socio-economic apparatus. A darker element to placement is also possible, as basic income could come with certain sanctions and penalties when conditions or social obligations aren’t met. This could produce new centre-periphery relations as the centre becomes that of the welfare office or the court, where these penalties are decided and meted out. As a corollary, the effects of Universal Credit have already implanted this concept in the welfare system as recipients are contractually obligated to meet certain requirements and take on whatever work comes their way. Placement then, in the shaping of relations in the fields of everyday life, can lead to radically differential outcomes in a given territory with its own concepts of social ideology and infrastructural patterning. It’s in these arenas that the wider territorial forms of ideology (ideational and infrastructure) are shaped in the flows of everyday life, producing different forms of social consciousness and grievances.

Scale denotes the “nested hierarchy of bounded spaces of differing size, e.g., local, regional, national, global”[14]. The way basic income interacts with scale is of vital importance and is the one main unanswered questions when it comes to actual implementation. Scalarity in the modern world is multiplicitous as diverse organisational loci ranging from municipalities[15] and regions to states, supranational governments (such as the European Union and the World Trade Organisation) and corporate forms predominate in particular circumstances and social arenas. These different loci compete for territorial power and attempt to embed differential everyday practices amongst their populations/memberships. Basic income in this variable framework has multiple pathways upon which it can go. Nearly all of the existing basic income projects have been conducted either on the levels of municipalities or town-village complexes[16], where pre-existing social identities shaped by senses of community and shared experience are found. These types of social arrangements are fertile grounds for basic income, as things like work-life balance and the ability to productively use free time are better understood in community-based situations where self-monitoring to maintain reputation and by extension one’s social capital are more likely than in larger political organisations, where the costs and complexities of surveillance and punishment increase exponentially. The Dunbar number for basic income would have to be very low in this respect. However by extension at this level of social organisation the tax base and capital groupings would be extremely limited due to the small numbers of people. It would make sense to arrange basic income payments through a statal or supranational form of governance as the ability for territorial control and extraction are much greater.

This could of course be routed around by suggesting basic income accept the competitive nature of multi-scalar governance and try and nest itself within the nested hierarchies that are already coalesced. Thus the funding and taxation requirements could be done through the national state or corporation where capital is much more easily acquired, but the distribution mechanisms could be decentralised to much smaller units in the hierarchy thus getting around the knowledge problems of centralised control while maintaining a wide enough funding pool. However this makes a number of assumptions that aren’t easily written off. Firstly, in these smaller units of distribution, the ability to render centre-periphery relations in place-based systems is increased as surveillance is much greater and thus power can be wielded more significantly by localised bureaucracies who can enforce reliance on the income through these surveillance and penalty powers. Even in the situation of an unconditional basic income, the social obligations placed upon people in shared commons/communities can still enforce situations of conformity, thus limiting situations of exit or voice and thus limiting the appeal and possibilities of basic income. This may then require recall mechanisms further up the hierarchical chain as well as methods of funding and surveillance that are networked rather than spatially divided, thus increasing the ability to voice an opinion or exit from one element of this system. Secondly, the scalar divide between funding and distribution can produce its own conflictual dynamics as geographic and demographic divides are created or exacerbated. For example, regions or areas that produce high levels of taxable income/capital and have high rates of productivity may feel aggrieved about funding low productivity areas through a basic income. Even though evidence from basic income pilots do suggest greater productivity gains[17] when implemented[18], the ideational framing is important in recognising social divisions, otherwise you end with situations like the North-South divides of Italy or the UK (or the relations between Catalonia and Spain). Scale then is important in understanding where basic income develops and the institutional matrices it becomes entangled within, which produce new outcomes themselves.

Finally, networks are understood as the forms of interconnectivity and differentiation that exist among subjects/members/participants in systemic configurations[19]. They cut across spatial and bounded segmentation, producing cross-cutting and multi-dimensional effects. In relation to basic income, networks are the basis upon which decisions are made and the production of infrastructure is developed. This, alongside scale, raises the most interesting problems when it comes to basic income’s potential implementation as the networks of power that form its infrastructural basis also decide (at least partially) its institutional character and which social identities inform its definition. Questions are raised surrounding the control and funding of this project and how it will redistributed. Networks of power thus determine the conditionality of a basic income, whether it requires any obligations to meet eligibility or whether it would truly be universal. Conflicts over definition, institutionalisation and infrastructure find their stakeholders and actors here.

Territory defines the area of control. Place defines the production of everyday ontologies. Scale produces the levels and mechanisms of distribution and funding. Networks define the stakeholders involved in decision-making and definitions of systems. The way basic income interacts with and nests within these frameworks will define its institutional character and nature of existence. It will also define how the power of exit and voice are delineated within basic income’s multiplicitous schema. The decisions and possibilities briefly framed here present a wide diversity of possible arrangements and their consequences when implementing a basic income. The early experiments already show some positive signs when it comes to implementation, including greater control over one’s worklife and an increasing autonomy provided through owning some form of capital with which one can invest and use. However, this also presents the possibility of new class formations and demographic/geographic conflicts arising, as capital provision of this kind (through the theoretical Dworkinian auction) presents the possibilities of strong levels of inequality forming as some choose what they do with their initial bundles (i.e. basic income funds), thus creating different forms of access to exit and voice and new dependency relations as those who productive may end up subsidising those who are unproductive. Those regions/classes that are advantaged through having a large tax base or having a significant capital stock may feel aggrieved at distributing beyond their initial control, and may in this scenario use their power to exit by seceding or insulating themselves from wider political controls. Equally, the relations of class or demography that define basic income’s distribution may become unstable over time as some classes overreach in their claims or as more classes and peoples are integrated, increasing the costs of provision and complexity beyond their original scope.

Far too often basic income (particular in its universal form) is painted as a set of utopian possibilities. However, it is more than this in the sense that it is a hegemonic vision of society, while also being of project of societalisation. It both defines and is defined by the surrounding institutional structures, shaping and changing its initial ideational visions while also reshaping the visions found within said institutions. This is by no means meant to be a trenchant critique of basic income, but rather present a set of mechanisms to frame it and map out some initial possibilities/problems that may develop. The power to increase the means to voice and exit and produce something akin to a Dworkinian auction are extremely important given the lack of equalisation between capital and labour in the fluid, multi-scalar world of governance today. But as Hirschman noted in regards to the power of exit and voice, neither are utopian forms that put social relations into stasis. “Each recovery mechanism is itself subject to the forces of decay” which will limit the scope of their possibilities. In the same vein, basic income is a field of experimentation and possibilisation that will find extreme pitfalls and resistance both in its ideological instantiation and in its implementation as a new distributive mechanism. This means that even with implementation corrective mechanisms will be needed and institutional differentiation will significantly affect how basic income develops. A workless world or a system that guarantees leximin opportunity and equal access cannot and will not be perfect, and will evolve and decay beyond its bounds.

[1] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/basic-income-as-a-system-of-control/

[2] Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class

[3] https://medium.com/working-life/why-should-we-support-the-idea-of-an-unconditional-basic-income-8a2680c73dd3

[4] https://medium.com/working-life/why-should-we-support-the-idea-of-an-unconditional-basic-income-8a2680c73dd3

[5] Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future

[6] Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

[7] Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_income_pilots#Madhya_Pradesh,_India

[9] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/a-justice-based-proposal-for-basic-income/

[10] https://thelibertarianideal.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/constructing-the-household-economy.pdf

[11] Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future

[12] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/a-justice-based-proposal-for-basic-income/

[13] Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

[14] Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future

[15] https://syntheticzero.net/2018/06/26/radical-municipalism-translocal-futurity-part-1-querying-the-local-1/

[16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_income_pilots

[17] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2016/06/18/what-is-money-for-nothing/

[18] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/a-justice-based-proposal-for-basic-income/ on the Mincome project.

[19] Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future

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