Why the ‘Citizens’ Income’ won’t work and isn’t socialist

February 5, 2015 at 9:56 pm (Green Party, plonker, posted by JD, television)

The Green party has been getting a lot of publicity recently, for promoting the so-called Citizen’s Income. This ill-thought-out idea came a cropper when the incoherent and ill-prepared Natalie Bennett was interviewed by Andrew Neil (the so-called “car crash” interview): I’m sorry, it’s not nice, but I can’t resist:

Anyway, here’s a considered and well-argued Marxist (or semi-Marxist) critique of the Citizen’s Income, from the left wing Scottish blog Mair nor a roch wind:

Against the Citizen’s Income

The idea of a “Citizen’s Income”, or “Basic Minimum Income”, or whatever else it gets called, has been rattling around the left for ages, but has been thrust into the limelight by the recent failure of the “surging” Green Party to successfully advocate it more publicly. It’s already popular amongst the autonomist and eurocommunist elements of the left, but the slew of coverage it has had recently means it’s worth briefly setting out the case against it from a more class-oriented position:

The best argument, as far as I’m aware, for the Citizen’s Income says that it would lessen workers’ dependency on the labour market, allowing them to refuse work and thus removing the ability of the ruling class to force down wages by threatening to replace you with someone cheaper. This would help us transition away from a low-wage economy and force the automisation or eradication of what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”, and would give the working class breathing room to fight for socialism. This seems to be the essence of Paul Mason’s recent defence of the policy in the Guardian.

This seems pretty fatally flawed on a number of levels. First up, let’s assume that the Citizen’s Income wouldn’t necessarily achieve these things. A variant of it was proposed ages ago by the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman in the form of the “Negative Income Tax”, and Richard Nixon gave it very serious consideration in the early 1970s. It’s not hard to imagine why the right might support it: under a government controlled by capital, a guaranteed minimum income would essentially be a huge public subsidy for low private wages. In the case of Freedman and right-wing ‘libertarians’ this was also a mechanism to dismantle ‘dependency’ on the state through replacing the public ownership and provision of services with a single cash payment. Indeed, it’s not far away from Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit, or Blair and Brown’s tax credits.

So we need to assume that every government in control of the Citizen’s Income will use it to empower the working class, particularly the government that actually implements it. But a worker’s government is just that – a worker’s government. In fact this is the only kind of government that could plausibly put it into practice. As Mason argues, the policy would demand a great deal of restructuring for business, with huge additional investment required to transition from low-wage to high-wage industry. Only in the depths of Fabian fantasy would the ruling class put up with this without a fight. At the very least, they would try to seize control of the policy and transform it into something far more beneficial to them, as US businesses did with various New Deal programmes in the postwar era. So if we’re proposing that a ‘progressive’ Citizen’s Income could actually be implemented and sustained, we’re assuming that there is already a very powerful working class, with a well-organised, radical party at its head, that can win power and impose its will upon the rich and their allies.

But a powerful working class doesn’t need legislation to get high wages – that’s what trade unions are for, and when they’re strong they do a perfectly good job of raising wages without legislative help. So in order to have a ‘progressive’ Citizen’s Income, you would need certain radical conditions to be in place – but creating these conditions is the goal of the policy! For the left, it’s an idea that can only survive by eating itself, forever consigned to a kind of resigned utopianism where working class power is the rhetorical ends, but is completely abandoned as means.The Citizen’s Income is only confirmation that any perspective of wielding political power through working class mobilisation and organisation has been abandoned by large sections of the left in favour of the hopefully benign actions of the state. This was evident in the hopes that many placed on the hopefully more “democratic” government that would be provided by an independent Scotland and is also clear in the Green Party’s aspiration for a state funded political party system, removing both big business and organised labour from direct influence on political parties.

For all that, let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s still possible. A Citizen’s Income by itself could just as easily be reactionary as progressive – for it to be the latter, we’re really talking about it being just one element in a broad programme of radical structural change in the economy that would ultimately require the permanent domination of the propertied class by the working class.

We’re talking, in short, about socialism. And if we assume socialism to be a process of transferring power and wealth from the few to the many, what function does the Citizen’s Income serve in that? We’ve already established that strong trade unions can do a perfectly good job themselves of guaranteeing better wages, but now we’re suggesting that that power be given to the state. And once you can rely on the state to guarantee you a decent income, why join a trade union? All of sudden we’ve got a supposedly progressive policy kicking the legs out from under working class organisations and boosting the abstract, supposedly classless power of the state. The Citizen’s Income doesn’t build working class power; on the contrary, it is parasitic upon it.

Fundamentally, it’s a nationalist policy. It doesn’t begin from questions of class and power but from an imagined community ultimately embodied in the state, in which everybody’s interests are equally considered and represented, and struggle is procedural, between vague strategic coalitions organised around ideas, rather than warlike, between the classes in which very real material interests are concentrated and combined. It’s hardly surprising that those peace-loving Greens are so enthusiastic about it.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)


  1. Peace loving Green said,

    Hmmm…..I’m not convinced by the Citizens Income as at 72 quid a week it would be less than most people receive for jobseekers allowance, and less still Nathalie Bennett’s attempt to advocate it.

    However, a couple of points Scothorne’s attack on The Green Party itself.

    1 In the first paragraph Mr Scothorne refers to the Green ‘surge’ [sic] in inverted commas.

    The Green Party has recently been doing about 500% better in the opinion polls as it was about a year ago and has recently overtaken both UKIP and the Lib-Dems in terms of membership. On what planet does this not qualify as a ‘surge’?

    2 The last paragraph complains that the Citizens Wage will not add anything to the ‘class war’ – if I’ve understood correctly – and complains about the ‘peace-loving’ Greens. Sorry, is there something wrong with ‘loving’ peace?

    • Aaron Aarons said,

      There’s an extra unmatched ’em’ in angle brackets after the signature, ‘Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)’, that’s made everything that follows appear in italics. I’m going to add an extra ‘/em’ here: to see if that reverses the problem from this point on.

      • Aaron Aarons said,

        Sorry, it didn’t work. The angle brackets in my ” got encoded into special character codes, rather than being copied into the html source. JD or someone else with acess will have to add it directly to the source, or edit the page where it contains the extra .

      • Rosie said,

        Thanks for that. I spent hours going through other posts but not that one.

      • Jim Denham said,

        Thank you Rosie, and Aaron. The p;roblem now seems to be corrected.

  2. The Activist said,

    When will people understand politics doesn’t work !
    What one party thinks is good another will take away,its crazy to think that one party is any different to the next. Labour spent,Tories cut… I actually haven’t seen any improvements anywhere,so are UKIP or the Greens any different ? Both offer a different attitude both get on with it and don’t slag off the opposition, this is why they’re in the running to get more votes. A good % of people recycle and don’t really know it,by going into charity shops looking for a bargain or go on to eBay, Amazon marketplace and buy second hand..is this more Green ? A lot of people see the UK as a small place where mass migration has ruined the countryside as we require more houses…where has the increase in taxes made a difference ? This is why both parties have a slim chance as the big two in successive governments failed to redress the real issues.

  3. The Activist said,

    I’m unemployed,paid taxes for 30 years and when I need jobseekers,they wont give me anything at all.

  4. Aaron Aarons said,

    Most of the arguments given here against the “Citizen’s Income” could be used with equal force against almost any aspect of the “welfare state” and even against more traditional social services like public (i.e., “state” in the U.K.) schools and public libraries! In fact, it seems like a labourist variant of right-wing “libertarianism”.

  5. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Idiotic as our Green Party’s variant of a basic income is, surely a more intelligently formulated version (e.g. MGI rather than CI) is precisely what Trotsky meant by a transitional demand?

    If it sounds reasonable in itself but can’t actually be implemented without breaking capitalism then its exactly what you Trots should be demanding and not rubbishing.

    Indeed looking at the Transitional Programme itself one could easily substitute Trotsky’s Sliding Scale of Wages and Hours for Citizens Income in the above screed.

    The sliding scale after all amounts to nothing less than a demand that in a capitalist society ever worker has an inalienable right to be exploited (‘The right to employment is the only serious right left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation’).

    So if it was implementable we would still all be exploited – and with the terror of unemployment removed might actually look rather more fondly on the capitalist system.

    But in any case in a post-industrial society the demand for full employment and the even sharing out of work is utterly meaningless – whereas a factory job could theoretically be subdivided the bullshit jobs generated in the heartlands of late capitalism really can’t (and like the proliferating non-bullshit but menial service jobs really shouldn’t be subdivided but as far as possible abolished).

    One could also argue that the very conditions of the (post-)modern workplace do not actually foster class solidarity but the truly systematic indoctrination and atomisation of each worker…

  6. Rosie said,

    Trying to get rid of these annoying italics.

  7. Rosie said,

    Failing to get rid of them.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Keep trying, Rosie! I’ve failed so far and am afraid of fucking everything up if I continue blundering about on the dashboard.

      • Rosie said,

        There’s a stray em in triangular brackets somewhere but can’t find it.

      • Aaron Aarons said,

        See my remarks following comment #1.

  8. Glesga Keeping Scotland Free From Loonies said,

    Tories will vote Tory or UKIP. Cameron knows that the Greens will take Labour Votes. The Green leader is just an oppotunist and probably a Tory as well as being an arse.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: