Basic income – too basic, not radical enough | Michael Roberts

'The idea of a basic income has gained much popularity recently and not just among leftists but also with right-wing pro-capital proponents. Basic income boils down to making a monthly payment by a government to every citizen of an amount that meets ‘basic necessities' whether that person is unemployed or not or whatever the circumstance. As Daniel Raventós, defines it in his recent book: “Basic Income is an income paid by the state to each full member or accredited resident of a society, regardless of whether or not he or she wishes to engage in paid employment, or is rich or poor or, in other words, independently of any other sources of income that person might have, and irrespective of cohabitation arrangements in the domestic sphere” (Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom).'

Page content

Michael Roberts has added a new post on the idea of basic income and it follows numerous other authors who raise the question of why those on the left should be wary of promoting the policy program. More radical solutions exist and are needed to deal with (not so new) changes in capitalist production and automation.

Reading of this post should be accompanied with his recent series on Artificial Intelligence and automation, which Roberts sums up with the following:

Let me sum up the conclusions of my posts on robots and AI.

  • The new technology of robots and AI is coming fast. As in all technology under capitalism, it has a ‘capital-bias'; it will replace human labour. But under capitalism, that capital bias is applied to reduce costs and boost profitability not meet people’s needs.

  • Robots and AI will intensify the contradiction under capitalism between the drive by capitalists to raise the productivity of labour through ‘mechanisation' (robots) and the resulting tendency for the profitability in this investment for the owners of capital to fall. This is Marx’s most important law in political economy – and it becomes even more relevant in the world of robots. Indeed, the biggest obstacle to a world of super-abundance is capital itself. Well before we get to ‘singularity' (if we ever do) and human labour is totally replaced, capitalism will experience an increasingly deeper series of man-made economic crises.

  • Robot technology will reduce many existing jobs (and create some new jobs) and is doing so already. But singularity and a robot world is still a long way away. That is because the AI technology is not being directed by capital into the most productive areas but into the most profitable (not the same thing). And the costs of ‘controlling' AI robots will increase.

  • A super-abundant society where human toil is reduced to a minimum and poverty is eliminated won’t happen unless the ownership of the means of production changes from private control (capitalist oligarchy) to ownership in common (democratic socialism). That’s the choice between utopia and dystopia.