Reflections on 'The Future of Work, Technology and Basic Income', edited by Michael Cholbi and Michael Weber
A review essay by David Frayne
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the proposal that the state should provide a guaranteed income floor to everybody, as a right of citizenship. As someone who first learned about the policy from socialist tomes with forbidding names like Critique of Economic Reason, I can sometimes hardly believe that the idea has gone mainstream. And yet here we are. The UK Labour Party would have trialled UBI in Liverpool, Sheffield and the Midlands had they won power. Meanwhile, clips of the US Democrat candidate Andrew Yang, discussing UBI with the likes of talk show host Stephen Colbert, have been watched millions of times online.
Watching the enthusiasm grow, one might be forgiven for thinking that UBI were the solution to all the world’s problems, but not everybody is so enthusiastic. Some argue that the policy would undermine the motivation and duty to work, nurturing a generation of idlers and misanthropes. Disabled groups have voiced concerns that the policy could draw resources away from targeted welfare and social programmes. Others say that the policy does too little for equality, especially if it gives the wealthy more pocket money for extravagant consumption.
Adding to the headache of thinking about UBI, vast differences also exist among its supporters. Disparate figures, from Martin Luther King to Elon Musk and André Gorz, have all supported the policy – something made possible by its diversity of justifications. The version of UBI proposed by Andrew Yang is often billed as a soft landing for people whose jobs are displaced by automation. The argument is that it could help support people while they re-establish themselves, track down the right job, or start a small business. The concerns of other supporters are differently accented. Some see the policy as a fair way to redistribute the fruits of natural resources like oils and minerals. Critics of work have viewed UBI as providing a viable exit choice for workers trapped in abusive dynamics (whether in employment or at home), and others have billed it as a policy that could potentially synergise with labour automation and a shorter working week, to the ends of increasing citizens’ free-time.
Complicating this maze of arguments even further, we can zoom in on Universal Basic Income and see that the concept is actually made up of three separate parameters, each the source of their own internal debates. Asking how universal means thinking about who precisely should receive the social minimum. Are children or non-citizens included? Should basic income come bundled with any work requirements, and would there be additional means-tested support for people with more complex needs? Asking how basic means thinking about the ideal amount for UBI. Are we talking about enough money to survive without a job, or a more modest safety net? Finally, asking what income involves a tricky debate about whether the social minimum should be delivered with cash, public services, or some combination of the two.
All of this adds up to a pretty overwhelming field of discussion. Worried about saying the wrong thing, I have been looking for a roadmap to guide me through the intricacies. I feel glad to have found it in Michael Cholbi and Michael Weber’s excellent The Future of Work, Technology, and Basic Income, an edited collection of essays published earlier this year. The book provides a philosophical contribution to the debate, focusing on normative questions of freedom, justice and the good life. Instead of summarising the book, allow me to say a few words about its contribution to three key questions that have been on my mind: what could basic income do for freedom, should it come with a work requirement, and what would people do with themselves without jobs?
What can basic income do for freedom?
You have signed on to benefits, surrendering your agency to the welfare bureaucrats. They force you to take part in back-to-work programmes and threaten you with sanctions for non-compliance. After weeks of scouring the job listings, you finally find a job. You take it, glad to break free from the welfare system, only to now find yourself under the law of what Elisabeth Anderson calls a ‘private government’. A boss you did not choose commands an authoritarian rule, piling on the work, optimising your movements, snooping into your private life, and busting your attempts to organise. ‘At least I have the freedom to find a better job’, you think to yourself, but you have heard similar horror stories from your friends in other places. You are a player in the worst kind of choose-your-own-adventure game, where most choices lead to the same ending: a realisation about your basic lack of freedom.
Freedom is a key theme in The Future of Work, Technology and Basic Income. In the book’s opening chapter, Matt Zwolinski finds an unlikely champion of UBI in the libertarian philosopher and disciple of the free-market, Friedrich Hayek. Hayek’s support is explained in terms of his interest in a particular type of freedom – the freedom from coercion by arbitrary authorities. Whether we are thinking about the unreasonable demands of authoritarian bosses or the discretionary power of Job Centre advisors, these are all things that would violate Hayek’s idea of freedom, and they are all abuses of power that are enabled, at their root, by citizens’ reasonable fear of falling into poverty.
In this context, Zwolinski suggests that UBI could operate as a kind of anti-tyrant device. By alleviating poverty, UBI has the potential to eliminate some of the fear that allows coercive power to remain unchecked. With the benefit of relative economic security, people can refuse. His chapter adds an interesting insight when it suggests that in some cases, UBI might be a superior check on coercion than the alternative option, which is to suddenly ban particular practices. When a group of union members were fighting for a ban on temporary contracts at my previous university, I gave my support, and yet my predominant thought was ‘if the precarious positions go, then I won’t even have those to sustain me.’ The crippling insecurity aside, I also secretly quite liked the existence of opportunities to work at the fringes of the institution. The benefit of UBI, according to Zwolinski, is that it puts limits on coercion by giving individuals more options, rather than taking options away.
This idea returns at the end of the book in Vida Panitch’s excellent chapter on basic income and intimate labour (a category that includes commercial surrogacy, egg donation, and various forms of sex work). Panitch suggests that liberal feminists have been stuck on a core dilemma: how to preserve the possibility that intimate labour could be consenting and beneficial, permitting the freedom to undertake it, whilst also recognising that it is usually exploitative and done out of desperation. Panitch argues that debates up to now may have focussed too much on the question of criminalisation – on whether the option to undertake intimate labour should be permitted or banned – yet it is clear that neither option adequately resolves the core dilemma. Reframing the debate, Panitch suggests that feminists could focus on the potential of UBI: a policy which might preserve the option to undertake intimate labour, whilst also removing the necessity to undertake it out of economic desperation.
In the detail of their arguments, both Zwolinksi and Panitch offer a broader reminder of something often forgotten in popular discussions of liberty: the fact that no matter what abstract freedoms society permits us, the actual power to make choices has to be built on a foundation of material security. The hypothetical freedom to act is worth little when it is not backed up by the resources to take action. When fans of liberty have failed to understand this, they have tended to blame the individual (‘why didn’t you just look for a better job / leave the abusive partner / get yourself back into education?’) Insisting on the need for more than hypothetical liberty, one of the bigger promises of UBI is that by eliminating poverty and its associated fear, it might boost citizens’ actual freedom to make significant life choices.
In another chapter, Jessica Flannigan offers further insights on freedom using principles drawn from anarchism. The chapter provides a novel defence of UBI as a method of enabling people to opt out of a capitalist system of property relations – a system she suggests that nobody explicitly consented to. In this case, UBI might represent more than the freedom to move around the labour market, as some proponents have envisaged; it could also represent a freedom to reject the norms of the capitalist system and survive outside the cycle of employment and consumption. Flannigan provides a glimpse of a more radical conception of UBI, conceived as much more than a welfare safety net: a UBI high enough to allow people to experiment with fundamentally different ways of living.
Finally, in his own chapter, editor Michael Cholbi examines one of the most popular defences of UBI: the idea that it serves freedom by avoiding paternalism. As Cholbi points out, the idea of a social minimum is very clearly anti-paternalistic because it removes the power of the state to decide who gets financial support and under what conditions. In a situation where benefit conditionality has developed to include not only behavioural conditions but also forms of mandatory brainwashing, this particular advantage of UBI is hard to overstate. Whilst the anti-paternalism of a guaranteed social minimum is plain to see, however, Cholbi argues that the jury is still out on whether it is less paternalistic to provide a social minimum with cash or some variety of Universal Basic Services (things like publicly provisioned housing, healthcare, transport and so on). With meticulous reasoning, Cholbi concludes that neither UBI nor public services necessarily tell people how to live their lives: both cash and services serve a fundamental need for social security and are ‘sufficiently generic in their instrumental utility’, meaning that the case for one over the other must be made on grounds other than anti-paternalism. Cholbi’s chapter invites us to find new arguments for the respective advantages of cash versus services, and I hope someone will take up the mantle.
Should there be a work requirement?
Even among those who support the idea of a social minimum, there are still those who question the idea that it should be offered without any conditions. As Hayek proclaimed with indignation: ‘are we to subsidise their hermitages?’ Bristling at the idea of a public fund for misanthropes, Hayek is asking us to consider whether basic income should ideally come bundled with some kind of work requirement. In The Future of Work, Technology and Basic Income, every author who visits the question answers with a conclusive ‘no’.
In her chapter on UBI and anarchism, Jessica Flannigan suggests that an advantage of unconditional basic income is its potential to end the division of societies into groups of ‘deserving / underserving’, ‘productive / unproductive’ individuals. These are suspicious and resentful divisions, fuelled by today’s means-testing and welfare conditionality. Flannigan wisely suggests that such distinctions not only undermine solidarity, but are also plain unfair, given that many in society cannot work, and many others make diverse and important productive contributions outside of employment (unpaid carers are perhaps the most obvious example). UBI could boost solidarity by conveying the message that everybody shares the same rights.
The main worry, though, is that unconditional basic income could undermine a sense of social reciprocity: the some-say sacred balance between rights and responsibilities, which deems it wrong to take something without also giving back. Another way of putting this is that UBI would violate the social duty to maintain a job. This problem was tackled by the editor Michael Cholbi, in a paper which predates the current book. Cholbi looked at the modern duty to maintain employment, arguing that it only stays valid if there are ample opportunities to contribute something useful through employment, as well a chance to receive adequate rewards in return. In today’s society of dubious (bullshit) jobs and working poverty, Cholbi suggests that neither of these conditions are adequately met, making the duty to maintain employment philosophically indefensible.
Adding to these insights, individual chapters in the book by Andrea Veltman and Evelyn Forget both make the important point that the need for human labour is something that rises and falls historically. Both authors voice a truth that is rarely spoken: the fact that societies can sustain and reproduce themselves adequately on far less than full employment. Given the state’s current obsession with employment as an expression of worth and citizenship (even for disabled people and full-time carers), it was refreshing to see Forget state this so plainly: if people are not needed, ‘why should we worry about how they spend their time?’ For both Veltman and Forget, the duty to work deserves to be treated as a limited obligation rather than something that defines personal worth and the right to survival. Veltman says we should realise that individuals satisfy a duty to work in diverse ways, with Forget adding that work responsibilities could be reasonably regulated with cultural mechanisms like esteem and opinion, rather than political sanctions. Both, in sum, argue against pairing basic income with a work requirement.
Approaching the question differently, Matt Zwolinski focuses on the impracticality of imposing work requirements. Given the myriad ways in which it is possible to contribute to society, both inside and outside the remit of paid employment, sorting out which activities ‘count’ as a worthy contribution is just too philosophically fraught. Zwolinski considers a hypothetical case in which someone stays at home working on the next great American novel. Should this activity officially count as a social contribution? What if the novel turns out to be a load of rubbish and nobody reads it? Should it still count? The futility of coming up with a satisfactory definition of social contribution quickly becomes clear. Even if it were possible, Zwolinksi argues, the state could never enforce such a definition without unimaginable administration and invasions of privacy. His point is that even if we think reciprocity is an ethically valid standard to apply to work, it does not follow that governments should be entrusted to enforce it.
All of these strikes against the maintenance of work requirements lead to an obvious question – one that has been posed many times by critics of UBI: if people received an income from the state, what on earth would motivate them to work? Responding to this question, Andrea Veltman makes one of the most powerful points in the book: that those who pose this question never seem to consider the problems with how we motivate people in the here and now. Most workers now are motivated through coercion: by a system that requires all but the wealthy to either work or perish, and where the worst jobs inevitably fall to those who have the least. Critics who reject UBI on the basis that there would no longer be a way to motivate workers hence succumb to a kind of slave-driver mentality – a refusal to consider the idea that there might be ways other than coercion and deprivation to ensure that society’s necessary work is performed.
Sticking with this issue, Evelyn Forget’s chapter offers a dose of optimism, suggesting that the labour market would likely reconfigure itself in ways that help maintain the incentive to work. Most people would presumably continue to work, either because work gives them personal value, or because they want the extra money. Some will decline, deciding that the costs of working outweigh the benefits. Their jobs will be taken by people who want them. Jobs that attract no employees will be forced to sweeten the deal with higher wages, and perhaps there will be a remainder of jobs that don’t attract anybody. Forget suggests that we might treat this as the reflection of a social decision to do without these forms of labour.
All of this makes good sense, although in a separate chapter, Frank Schmode suggests that we still have to respond to the problem of ‘essentially bad work’. Essentially bad work sucks not only because the conditions are bad, or it is unsuited to the worker’s capacities (things which can theoretically be redeemed); essentially bad work sucks full-stop, because it involves extreme risks, harms or unpleasantness. One hope is that automated technologies will eventually be able to take care of these tasks, but the risk is that with the introduction of UBI, the work would fall to people who are ineligible for payments (those without citizenship status, or residing in countries without UBI). In response, Schmode invites us to consider the possibility of reconceiving terrible jobs as a collective social problem. Might there be a way to fairly distribute such tasks without relying on market mechanisms?
Also on the topic of bad but necessary jobs, Andrea Veltman designates a degree of responsibility to citizens. She thinks we should be more attentive to the labour on which our daily practices rely (labour which capitalism has tried very hard to keep from view). We should clean up our own mess, and try buying less stuff, if we can. I have always argued that the benefit of a post-work politics is that it takes us away from a focus on individual responsibility, to think at the policy level. Nevertheless, it is hard not to see the wisdom in Veltman’s words. Think about what you are doing.
What should people without jobs do with themselves?
UBI’s potential as an anti-poverty measure is clear. Nobody who is eligible will be permitted to fall beneath its income floor. Yet it is important to qualify this by remembering that in today’s employment-centred societies, jobs are supposed to provide much more than an income. They are also designated as a main source of psycho-social goods such as recognition, meaning and sociality, playing a major role in how people gain self-respect, a sense of personal direction and a public life (at least in theory). If UBI is being conceived as a form of alternative income for people, in a world where more job tasks are performed by robotics and AI, it is important to acknowledge that jobs have a personal as well as economic significance.
This point was made forcefully by Amber A’Lee Frost in a recent takedown of UBI for Jacobin magazine. In the article, Frost depicted advocates of UBI (Yang supporters in particular) as ‘failsons’ – champions of a comfortable but spiritually empty social withdrawal, who spend most of their time on the internet. She compared this with the tragedy of the postwar middle-class housewife, who shared the economic security of her husband, but became self-destructive and chronically bored in the process, dosing up on tranquilisers or listlessly wandering the suburbs. Frost’s essential argument was that UBI would enable a new generation of ‘paid off and discarded’ individuals, wallowing in their own social dislocation.
Frost’s core concerns with isolation and the death of public life are extremely valid, but her argument was based on an odd assumption. It seemed to suggest that economic protection (what Frost derided as ‘being kept’) and social isolation share some fundamental connection. I would in fact argue that the loneliness of the postwar housewife was not a case against economic protection, but a case for economic security and more: a case for collectivised care, for a right to meaningful employment (for those who want it), for the death of the patriarchy, and for an injection of public life into the stuffy suburb. There is in fact nothing inherent in UBI proposals to say that individuals should be discarded or denied a public existence, but there is a question we must still ask: does UBI do enough for people who are expected to live without, or with significantly less work?
These are concerns that Evelyn Forget takes up in her chapter ‘Work and Worth’, which cites a number of empirical studies to show the harsh psychological consequences of unemployment. These consequences include the horrible ‘deaths of despair’ as a result of poor labour market opportunities, studied by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. The problem is real and deeply concerning, but reading Forget’s chapter, I wondered whether the author had been too decisive in her conclusion that ‘work is inherently valuable to human beings’ (even if Forget acknowledges that the problem is complicated by the existence of bad jobs). The chapter’s empiricism leaves no space to explore the possible contingency of employment as a source of psycho-social goods. This is a possibility that the book’s co-editor, Michael Cholbi, explored in a recent contribution to Autonomy, where he suggested that employment might be more of an adaptive than inherent preference. In other words, it is possible that today’s personal dependency on employment says less about the inherent psychological value of jobs, and more about our system’s withdrawal of other ways to gain respect, maintain a public existence and put food on the table.
I was inclined to agree with Andrea Veltman’s argument in a later chapter on ‘the good of work’, which suggests that even if a public preference for work can be demonstrated empirically, policymakers needn’t feel beholden to this in their designs for the future. Factors like overproduction, automation, the impositions of work on freedom, and the harms of work present a strong case for policies that help people acclimate to a society where jobs are more peripheral. Here, Veltman follows Cholbi in considering the kinds of initiatives that could operate alongside UBI: things like redefining education as more than preparation for jobs, lowering the retirement age, shortening the national working week, and commending rather than shaming young people who prefer self-exploration over a job.
A separate issue from the empirical reality of work’s psycho-social significance is whether, based on the data in hand, the state and related authorities should be permitted to push their own views on the goods of work. This is a highly relevant question, given recent developments in the UK. Drawing on a dubious evidence-base on the health benefits of employment, the government has been rolling out a programme of work-focussed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, as well as applying pressure on NHS doctors to adopt work as a ‘health outcome’. By contrast, what is praiseworthy in Evelyn Forget’s approach is that although she accepts the evidence on the health benefits of work, she still defends the sovereignty of individuals to decide the value of employment for themselves. This is a view she shares with Kory P. Schaff in a later chapter on UBI and inequality. Schaff suggests that although things like the opportunity for self-realisation, self-respect and community might constitute some generally agreed-on goods of employment, clearly not everyone will agree, meaning that the state has no grounds to impose these goods. As Forget writes, an advantage of UBI is that ‘everyone can be their own judge’.
Finally, as well as exploring the personal significance of work and the state’s right to impose its own ideas, the book takes a more concrete look at the question of what people might actually do with themselves in a society where employment was more peripheral. As a species, post-work writers have tended to be vague on this question (perhaps intentionally so), but something often stressed is that a shift away from employment need not be a shift toward idleness. This is a point made by Andrea Veltman, when she argues that it would be pragmatic to avoid couching UBI as a takedown of the work ethic. This is not because Veltman glorifies employment. Her argument is in fact no different from many critiques of work that came before: that one of the main problems with employment is it keeps people from doing work with genuine utility – a utility Veltman defines in terms of ‘contributing our time and talent to communities’. Framed in this way, UBI is not so much an expression of ‘anti-work’ sentiments, but a case for resourcing people to opt for work that is genuinely valuable, whether this takes the form of care work, craft work, or political and civic-minded activities. It is about broadening out our definitions of what we are prepared to call, recognise and reward as ‘work’.
In his chapter, ‘In Defence of the Post-Work Future’, John Danaher takes a different tack. Unembarrassed by anti-work sentiments, Danaher suggests that what we should celebrate in UBI (if coupled with the labour-reducing potential of automation) is the potential to reprioritise our lives in favour of a more game-like existence. As a fan of games, I was fascinated by Danaher’s exploration of what constitutes play – something he defines as a ‘voluntary triumph over unnecessary obstacles’. Danaher suggests that true games are something we are never required to take part in, although this is not the same as saying they have no impact in the ‘real world’. Playing games involves and develops real human qualities like self-efficacy, aesthetic appreciation, character and community. What differentiates them from work, however, is that they are primarily undertaken for non-instrumental reasons, motivated by an individual’s autonomous sense of what is good or worthwhile. This leads Danaher to perceive playing as a noble activity, in which there is more scope to live authentically and vigorously. The non-instrumentality of playing likens it to craftwork: activity that is directed by something other than extrinsic motivations like the promise of promotions, pay rises, or certificates. In the modern world, with its harsh economic realities, this purity of intention is a luxury that few of us can afford. According to Danaher, the ultimate promise of UBI and the post-work paradigm is a future where what we do and how we do it are no longer dictated by economic necessity.
The Future of Work, Technology and Basic Income by no means settles the debates, and it remains difficult to form a stable opinion on UBI, with all its many versions and rhetorical frameworks. There are things outside the book’s remit that must also be weighed in, including discussions of feasibility, administration, and the empirical findings of UBI trials. Nevertheless, Cholbi and Weber’ book has put up some valuable signposts around the maze of UBI debates – especially the more philosophical ones. It is also rare for an edited book to stick to its topic as well as this one does.
My predominant thought after finishing the book is that the effects of UBI will depend largely on what policies it is combined with. Paired with a political effort to shorten the working week, UBI could help to ensure that citizens benefit from the temporal and financial dividends of automation. Paired with a cultural revaluation of work, it could resource people to play more, and undertake productive activities outside employment. Paired with new educational priorities and public spaces, the policy could allow people to enjoy active and public lives without the benefit of a steady job.
For clues about what people might do with their time, we need only take a closer look at what people are doing now. Something that is often forgotten in debates about what might replace the norm of full-time working is the fact that many people are already channelling their efforts, finding community and establishing a sense of identity in other ways. The community workers, the carers and the public educators; the craftspeople and the sportspeople; the musicians, hobbyists, car-fixers, and hikers; the dancers, fashionistas and writers; the gamers and the puzzle-solvers. How are they spending their time? How do they stay socially connected? What are their hopes and dreams?
The Future of Work, Technology and Basic Income is published by Routledge and edited by Michael Cholbi and Michael Weber
David Frayne is an independent researcher who has previously held research positions at New York University and Cardiff University. He is the author of The Refusal of Work (2015) and the editor of The Work Cure (2019) and is a Research Affiliate of Autonomy’s. His Twitter handle is: @TheWorkDogma