On Green Socialism, the PFD, and Universal Basic Income
By Waleed Khalid
Lately, many on the left have discussed the idea of a Universal Basic Income, or UBI. The idea behind UBI is that the gradual development of more efficient technology will enable producers to increasingly automate labor and thereby eliminate many jobs currently performed by human laborers. The crisis of unemployment caused by unrestrained automation would lead to mass poverty. The idea of a UBI, then, is to provide each person with a basic, or livable, annual income from the state. Some proponents of a UBI say that it will prepare us for a not-so-distant future in which automation nullifies the majority of the labor market. The time is ripe, they might say, to take the welfare state to its logical next step.
Governmentally-funded and robot-enabled leisure time sounds great, and in fact, throughout the 20th century, many economists predicted that technical advances would soon allow for a vastly reduced workweek for most workers. The noted economist John Maynard Keynes predicted nearly a century ago that industrial societies would soon have a 15-hour workweek because machines would ease the burden of labor. Yet many if not most of us continue working countless hours every week. Why this inconsistency?
Some, such as anthropologist David Graeber, have argued that many of us are now working “bullshit jobs”; in other words, that millions of us in post-industrial societies secretly (or not so secretly) believe that our jobs shouldn’t exist. In an interview, Graeber says: “There are all these people who are like ‘I am the east coast manager’. If you talk to them and get them drunk, they will tell you that they don’t really do anything, they just go to meetings, etc.”
Others go even deeper. Capitalism depends upon a population continually at work (at least in name), partly for cultural reasons and partly for economic reasons. Culturally, capitalism acculturates us into its ideology of work. Under capitalism, our labor determines our value as human beings and our jobs are central signifiers of identity. Economically, capitalism requires the class of people who do not possess large amounts of capital (the working-class or “99%”) to earn wages, so that we can continually purchase the commodities we need to survive and function as members of society. This is crucial because without workers, capitalists would lose the foundation from which profit arises.
To those of us living in Alaska, this ballooning of useless managerial and administrative job positions might feel like an issue for the urban centers of commerce in the lower 48, where there are proportionally more office workers. Due to Alaska’s resource-heavy economy, many people continue to perform materially productive labor here, such as in forestry, fisheries, or subsistence. Yet Alaska is implicated in many conversations about UBI, because a similar institution has been in place here for over 40 years: the Permanent Fund Dividend.
Proposals for funding a UBI have ranged from higher taxes on large corporations to a higher income tax to an investment system like the Alaska Permanent Fund. Recommendations for such funding schemes, though, should be wary of their unsustainability and potentially antidemocratic tendencies. Funding the population’s basic livelihood and sustenance through petroleum revenues would not only further entrench the extractive and exploitative oil industry in the culture and economy of this state. It would also hitch the sustenance of large portions of the population to an extractive industry that contributes to climate change, rising sea levels, and ecological devastation.
“A social welfare state cannot long be funded by oil without bringing about the conditions of its own demise,” writes Samuel Miller-McDonald in The Baffler, “conditions like inexorably consolidated capital or a political order fractured by ecological collapse and dominated by the crisis-forged dictators who will prosecute the inevitable resource wars. Given this reality, we cannot indefinitely fund the NHS or Social Security with oil cash.” Neither, I would argue, can harmfully extractive industrial revenues fund any kind of universal basic income, PFD or otherwise.
What is to be done? The following are plausible ways forward that I find appealing, though a variety of meritorious positions exist on the left.
Careful degrowth, or the reduction of resource extraction and industrial development, would allow for a sustainable relationship between this land and the humans who inhabit it. Alaska Native people lived on this land since time immemorial without, to my knowledge, producing any devastating ecological crises; an Alaskan leftist politics should entail adopting low-impact, simple, and ecologically responsible methods of reproducing our lives from day to day and year to year. Fisheries, forestry, and oil are among the industries that must experience significant degrowth in order to build a sustainable and just Alaska.
The state must resist the urge to transform Alaska into a northern extension of the tech hub stretching from San Francisco to Seattle. Without monumentally increased investment in renewable energy sources, Alaska’s budgetary and political crisis will only deepen as oil revenues run dry. In this context, it is conceivable that the state will attempt to lure fledgling tech companies into southeast Alaska and beyond, in order to jumpstart the state’s economy. But this will only result in increased housing pressure and gentrification of Alaskan towns and cities, along with a continued anti-democratization of Alaskan politics, as firms and corporations grow more powerful in the state. Our future lies neither with oil nor with tech startups. Sustainable resources and renewable energies must be the backbone of our politics.
Finally, we must resist the urge to adopt a pro-UBI position uncritically. The goal of a socialist politics is to redistribute not only wealth and commodities, but also the means of producing wealth and commodities. Plugging the population into an oil-fueled life support machine will not bring about justice, democracy, or equality. If anything, a UBI will weaken class struggle by providing the bare minimum for the abjectly impoverished. This is precisely what capitalism wants: to prolong its life by whatever means necessary. A leftist politics looks optimistically toward a democratic and collective distribution of decision-making power and ownership over the means of production. A UBI, though it might redistribute wealth toward workers, is not necessarily a socialist institution, nor is it likely to be ecologically sound without a significant shift toward renewable energy and sustainable industry.