Frase on Basic Income

by Anthony Signorelli

Note: this is from pages 49-58 in the book

I am catching back up after a bit of a delay writing on the qualities of this book, Four Futures, by Peter Frase. In previous posts, I have been mostly critical of Frase and the socialist lens he uses to view the world. As one gets deeper into the book, however, he seems to look less ideologically and more analytically—and the results are good.

Frase skewers the capitalist argument against universal basic income that claims basic income cannot be sustained in the long run. That argument follows this line: As basic income is adopted, more and more people drop out of the work force, and therefore the tax base that supports basic income disappears. When the tax base disappears, basic income can no longer be sustained.

Frase’s intelligent challenge, however, is that basic income is a systemic change that gradually de-commodifies labor. If people have basic income, they are no longer forced into terrible jobs to acquire the basic necessities of life. Hence, the crappy jobs will go up in price until it becomes economical to automate them. Fulfilling jobs come down in price, and automation eventually spreads to everything. In the long run, more and more work is automated, the marginal cost of production approaches zero, and products no longer have prices. They are produced through 3D printing, as pure digits, or in a collaborative manner in which the benefits are all shared. In other words, the money economy vaporizes. Rather than the disappearing tax base creating a crisis, the capitalist economy simply withers as money becomes decreasingly relevant to society and no crisis is created at all.

From a postcapitalist point of view, this makes basic income even more worth advocating. Basic income is more than just a response to automation-driven unemployment; it is an actual tool to begin the process of dismantling capitalism. The good news is that eventually basic income will occur because it has to; digitalization and the associated precipitous decline in prices will drive down demand and force capitalism to adopt basic income to sustain demand. The good news for activists is that by doing so, capitalists sow the seeds of a changed system.

I have also read forward in this book, and Frase’s four futures are more interesting than I had anticipated. I still think the four quadrants he uses are too simple, but the four systems he describes are interesting. Feel free to read along! I will post again on those soon, and welcome a challenge!




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