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The "Basic Income" Trap

US Uncut Founder Carl Gibson ruffled some feathers recently by co-founding “The After Party” with controversial Occupy activists Micah White and Justine Tunney, and by shifting the focus of both groups to promoting a “guaranteed basic monthly income for all” or Basic Income.

Comments on US Uncut’s Facebook page ranged from support to puzzlement to outrage. Even some socialist supporters couldn’t understand why Gibson would move away from the fights for a Wall Street Sales Tax, a $15 minimum wage or to close corporate tax loopholes for an idea that one commenter predicted would “make a mockery of your movement right off the bat with the majority of Americans.”

So what is a Basic Income? According to Gibson’s article in the Huffington Post, it would simply amount to a government handout of $1,000 per month to every American citizen over 18. This could be paid for with proceeds from a tax on Wall Street or progressive changes to corporate and income taxes. A variety of similar proposals have been offered, as detailed here by the Washington Post.

One can see why this notion would be attractive, especially to any household living below the poverty line. But whether Gibson or well-intentioned supporters of the idea know it, the Basic Income idea is a deliberate trap to end the New Deal, lock America into permanent unemployment and enforce brutal austerity.

Just ask Charles Murray of the reactionary American Enterprise Institute, whose book “In Our Hands” proposes a basic income plan for all Americans very much like Gibson’s. Murray also co-authored the racist book The Bell Curve to justify the intractible unemployment of non-white Americans. Murray’s book does us the favor of explaining the Basic Income trap. In exchange for your annual cash gift (he proposes $10,000 per adult), you will forfeit your rights to:

  • Social Security
  • Medicare and Medicaid
  • SNAP and other forms of food assistance
  • Unemployment insurance

And there’s more – when your income reaches a certain threshold, you get to pay back some of that minimum income in your taxes.

One can imagine the possibilities that would arise in negotiating this proposal with House Republicans. Say goodbye to your Child and Earned Income tax credits, to your mortgage interest deduction. Say goodbye to the money you’ve paid into Social Security with decades of work – now your prospects for retirement rest on Wall Street’s shoulders. And once the social safety net is shredded, don’t think that monthly number will keep pace with the cost of living!

One might assume Gibson and other Basic Income supporters don’t intend for any of this, and simply want to redistribute the income of the 1% as a public dividend. In either case, reactionary Republicans will thank you for the red meat of founding your movement with a demand of universal welfare, and for your failure to stand up for Social Security and Medicare.

The “grassroots” left: a pattern of puzzling (or not-so-puzzling) incompetence

Gibson’s collaborators Micah White (a former Adbusters editor) and Justine Tunney (a Google engineer who infamously called for Google CEO Eric Schmidt to be appointed “CEO of America”) recently made waves of their own with their open support of European fascism. White has been swept up by Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement, which blames profligate trade unions for Europe’s economic woes.

Tunney, the self-described "champagne tranarchist" drew flack from other Occupiers by celebrating the victory of Marine le Pen and the French National Front, a quasi-nationalist movement based on anti-Muslim xenophobia and austerity. In a recent meltdown on Twitter, White and Tunney burned their bridge to fellow OWS guiding light David Graeber, and called for a new “feminist reich” to end patriarchy. Tunney then put her fragile psyche on display by tweeting “When geeks eventually take power, there won’t be any mercy for the society that once bullied us from cradle to grave. Be afraid.”

These are the self-appointed leaders of the “After Party,” a political party with no candidates whose other demands include “Indigenous Rights” (with all due respect to the indigenous, this is not exactly a top-of-the-ticket item for a national political party) and “Respect for human needs.” Suffice it to say, this brand of mush-brained left-utopianism is not a recipe for success if your goal is political power and higher living standards.

As I wrote in “A world of pure imagination”, the dark desire of left-anarchist thinking typified by the focus on a Basic Income is deindustrialization. David Graeber wrote that “the most pressing need is simply to slow down the engines of productivity.”

The Basic Income signals a resurgence of the quasi-fascist “Social Credit” movement of the 1920s and 30s, which supplied a mathematical justification for the idea that capitalism is self-devouring, and that technology destroys labor. Therefore the society must accept permanent unemployment at the hands of machines, and provide a dividend to compensate for each person’s share of national wealth. This ideology fueled the austerity policies of European fascism and served as an attack on FDR's New Deal. One can see the same process at work in today's Europe, where Grillo has been mercifully defeated, but the National Front and British UKIP are still on the march to derail the New Deal proposals of Alexis Tsipras' SYRIZA.

The idea of an antagonism between technology and labor, advanced by communists, anarchists and even the Unabomber, is simply not true. In nearly a century since the inception of Social Credit, has the prediction come to pass? Ask the miserable legions of sweatshop workers in Vietnam, China and El Salvador. Ask America’s overworked and underpaid farmers. Ask every 2-income family that longs for more time with their children.

We are doing more work than ever, but thanks to Wall Street's control of the economy, very little of it is directed at the production of real wealth, and ever more toward debt service. How do we change this? For starters, we must force the Federal Reserve to finance $5 trillion in repairing and upgrading America’s infrastructure. What’s better for a young, unemployed Detroit resident – to receive a monthly check, or to have access to a challenging, union-wage job in construction where he can develop experience and skills leading to a new set of possible futures?

We can not wait for Wall Street to determine our options in life. So many things can be done that will make our lives better, increase the value of our labor, and give us meaningful work. Why are we not engaging China in a peace race to develop high speed rail and highly-dense power technologies (ie nuclear fusion or molten salt Thorium reactors)? Why are we not greening the deserts and replenishing the San Joaquin valley with publicly-controlled irrigation projects? Why are we not taking back our blue collar work and rebuilding efficient, safe and pleasant industrial environments?, What's stopping us from proliferating family farms and putting good organic food on every table? All these things require human intelligence and labor that no robot can ever hope to provide. Heck, even factory robots require labor to design, build and maintain!

What we need is not some novel economic theorem like the one advanced by the curiously popular Thomas Pikkety. What we need is public control of our political and economic systems, and the ability to determine our direction with public credit for public needs.

“Basic Income” is at best a waste of time, and at worst a trap that will feed our rights to Wall Street. Every minute The After Party spends organizing the desparate residents of Detroit around urban gardens and anarchist economics is a minute spent NOT fighting for an economy where we can provide for our needs without begging scraps from Wall Street's table.

As one US Uncut critic put it, “we need a safety net, not a hammock.”