Book Review originally published on the Socialism or Your Money Back blog
Utopia for Realists and How We Can Get There. By Rutger Bregman. Bloomsbury. 2017. £16.99.
Rutger Bregman is a Dutch advocate (the book is translated from Dutch) of a universal, unconditional basic income as a payment from the state to all citizens as of right and of an amount at least equal to the poverty line. A large part of the book, however, is devoted to advocating an unconditional basic income for the poor only, i.e. not a universal one (and not entirely an unconditional one since you have to be poor to get it). In other words, a proposal to merely reform the so-called Welfare State.
At present, the state already gives the poor 'free money' but conditional, besides means -testing, on being sufficiently unfit for work or seemingly actively seeking work, as the case may be. Bregman’s case against this is that it would be cheaper to make such payments unconditional as this would avoid the administrative work involved in checking entitlement and organising bogus courses for the unemployed; that 'free is cheaper' if you like. A number of pilot schemes are being carried out, as in Finland and Canada, to see if this is true. Bregman lists some previous ones which he says have shown that it is.
What he really wants, though, is an unconditional, non-means-tested, payment to everyone. His case for this has certain similarities with the case for socialism: that we are living in an age of potential abundance (he writes of a 'Land of Plenty') but that this abundance is not used to directly improve people’s life but is wasted on such non-wealth-producing activities as investment banking, advertising and legal services (since he doesn’t envisage the disappearance of money his list is shorter than ours). The resources exist, he points out, to eliminate poverty, improve education and health care, and provide a comfortable retirement for all. For him, it’s the introduction of a universal unconditional basic income that will enable this.
Some of the objections to this are the same as those raised against socialism – that if people were given free money (or had free access) the incentive to work would be undermined. Bregman counters: 'There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the vast majority of people actually want to work, whether they need to or not' and 'Stable and meaningful work plays a crucial part in every life well lived.'
In any event, he does want people to work less as he also advocates a 15-hour week. This, he says, should be enough to provide an adequate plenty for all. The resources for this would come from increased automation, the end of the consumerist mentality, and from what is currently wasted in wealth-shifting rather than wealth-creating activities.
Bregman includes the word 'utopia' in the title but is it a realistic one? Since he doesn’t object to the market mechanism or even to profit-making his scheme is to be introduced within capitalism. This is not realistic. One of the objections to such schemes, and which socialists share, is summed up in one word: Speenhamland.
In 1795 the magistrates in the Berkshire village of that name decided to make up the wages of poor farm labourers up to a minimum level with payments from the Poor Law rates. This was a subsidy to their employers who were thereby enabled to continue paying below subsistence, or starvation, wages. Marx pointed this out in Volume I of Capital :
'At the end of the eighteenth and during the first years of the nineteenth century, the English farmers and landlords enforced the absolute minimum of wages by paying the agricultural labourers less than the minimum in the actual form of wages, and the remainder in the form of parochial relief.' (Chapter 24, section 4)
That a universal UBI would be a subsidy to employers is in fact a major socialist objection to it which Bregman is unable to counter. Indeed, in the Swiss referendum on the matter in June last year, the advocates of a UBI openly stated that everybody’s wages would and should be reduced by the amount of 'free money' from the state.
The other socialist objection is that ignores the economic imperative of capitalism, enforced through competition, to accumulate more and more capital out of profits, and so profits must come first before meeting the consumption needs of the population. Catering for these is kept to the minimum to maintain productive efficiency or, in the case of 'free money' payments to the poor, to the minimum needed to avoid bread riots. Bregman shares the illusion common to many would-be reformers of capitalism that production under capitalism can be made to give priority to people’s consumption instead of to profits. It can’t, as the failure of numerous reformist government that have set out to do this is testimony.
This said, Bregman’s book is very readable and he lands some effective punches on the status quo. He also has a pertinent criticism of those he dubs 'underdog socialists', Old Leftists nostalgic for what capitalism used to be like until the mid-70s:
“Reining in and restraining the opposition, that’s the sole remaining mission of the underdog socialist. Anti-privatisation, anti-establishment, anti-austerity. Given everything they’re against, one is left to wonder, what are underdog socialists actually for.”
And he does get Marx right when he writes that, for Marx, ‘releasing the proletariat from the shackles of poverty required a revolution, not a basic income.’