Against The Citizen’s Income

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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)

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To Constitute the People

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In an earlier article on Mair Nor a Roch wind, entitled “Smout Leading the People”, we advocated a Scottish nationalism that looks to the values of the Enlightenment, invoking Liberty, Equality and Fraternity as the values of a new Scotland. One of the most tangible political results of the period of Liberalism was the constitution – a covenant that enshrined the political rights of a people. An opportunity may arise in Scotland to create such an entity. Not only may the people of Scotland be newly constituted as citizens, but this change would develop from a British unwritten constitution which, as we have argued, is in crisis.

But while the country ponders huge constitutional change, at a time of European and British crisis, the constitution itself catches the attention of only a few. It has been pointed out by Andrew Tickell that Scotland’s constitutional question avoids the idea of a new sovereign – it is presented, for safety’s sake, as a kind of devo-doubleplusgood, a particularly big transfer of powers. The idea of the foundation of a country is far from everyone’s minds, as the hopeful state-formers rush to persuade everybody that very little would change. Excitement about the constitution is real among a few academics, but, as one republican journalist said, the great worry is that all things constitutional just become a dripping roast for constitutional lawyers. The people of the constitution, the people of Scotland, mostly couldn’t care less.

A few active democrats hope for something more than this. They recognise that independence is a constitutional question for a reason – that the British constitution is not serving the people of Britain or Scotland, and that there is potential for re-democratisation.

But their attempts to engage people in the idea of the formation of a Scottish state have not resulted in the political excitement or sense of ownership that they hope for. Things that we are told might capture the public imagination – citizens assemblies, ‘crowd-sourcing’ based on the Icelandic constitution-forming model, community action – are contrived to tap into a public that already has a  relation to a state, and experience of active participation; but no such public or form of democracy exists. Meanwhile the organisers complain that people don’t understand what a written constitution is (why should we, we’ve never had one?), let alone its great value as a basis for democratic demands.

These ‘participatory’ forms of engagement lack a basis in our public sentiment, and the Scottish Government does not have the incentive to create it. Thus the question arises of how to enthuse this uninterested population, in order to create a constitution that is of the people, and recognised as a democratic basis for our nation. The answer lies in an understanding of how the people of Scotland are currently constituted, where their loyalties lie, and what it means to them to be a citizen in Scotland and in Britain.

To understand the constitution of Scotland, many look to the “constitution of institutions” in Scotland: a stateless nation has formed an institutional framework, by which it is defined, consisting of law, church and education, and more recently devolved institutions such as the parliament or the NHS. Yet this is not the state as political science recognises it: it cannot act as a universal reference point for the individual, only for people as they interact with these institutions. Neither, however, can the British state be this reference point, both because it is in crisis, and because we are subject to Scots law and institutions. Thus a terrible circularity arises, where we have no public to appeal to, no peculiarly national political sentiment to drum up into a frenzy. How can we escape from this confusion, in such a way that at the point Scotland realises a new constitution, it also creates a new national and sovereign public, rather than replicating tired institutional forms?

The current quasi-constitution of Scotland creates a sort of distorted benevolent bourgeois class who have political clout through particular organisations.  This class is itself a barrier to the creation of a popular constitution. Known as institutional or ‘civic’ Scotland, it forms the most exclusive and bureaucratic sphere that makes up Scotland’s social system. Its members include religious leaders, public service managers, voluntary sector organisers and so on, people who will have a voice in forming Scotland’s constitution, yet who, if they are to create it in their own image, will create something aligned to the British constitution, a constitution created on the assumption that the creator-class will be there to uphold it, divorced from the people to whom it is meant to apply. The current political climate in Scotland dictates that the movement to form a constitution will be institutional rather than political, seeing the subjects of a constitution as people who engage with the institutions of state, rather than democratic citizens.

The other group to whom we might turn in wishing to form a constitution of the public, are the lawyers of Scotland. In America, at the time of the forming of the constitution, a respected and professional legal class, that was accessible to a range of social classes, was key to creating a sense of ownership of and respect for the legal documents said to constitute the people. If only we had the same in Scotland, to give the citizens confidence in the making of their politics! Unfortunately when the law is invoked in Scotland, such as for minimum alcohol pricing, or anti-sectarian laws, it is seen as a rather despotic intrusion into civil society. Scots law is already established in public matters, and so new laws tend to be concerned with ‘private’ or ‘civil society’ matters. We are facing the challenge of the creation of a new constitution alongside a well-developed legal system, a legal system that tends to be in the news for being restrictive.  A democratic and liberatory understanding of the legal documents that will form the constitution can be achieved only if law is invoked politically rather than institutionally, as something that people do, rather than something that happens to people. This is far from current public consciousness.

So where are radical constitutionalists to turn when those shaping the constitution seem devoid of ideas, and the public is devoid of the right political sentiments or mores? How can a stateless nation become a state; how can a new constitution breathe life into fading political forms, when the political classes play to voters regardless of whether they are fighting to win an election or a new state?

The answer is to bring a little political vigour to Scotland. The constitution and the law are rarely invoked politically, they are seen as utilitarian, rational questions, and any decisions refer to “bean counting” rather than sentiment, as Smout aptly put it. There must be a real political rather than institutional movement, which talks about democracy, active citizenship, and public law in terms of the constitution, so that when the constitution comes to be formed it is seen as a political statement, and the establishment of levels of democracy as the embodiment of ideals, rather than bureaucratic institutional forms.

To invoke concepts politically, we used to turn to political parties. Perhaps once again, in a moment of constitutional formation, they will be able to argue based on ideologies and values, from their position as representatives of the people. But as the SNP concertedly ignore the idea that the constitution requires any ideological debate, and while Labour deny that there might be one at all, the only obvious party to assert their particular constitutional ideology are the Green Party, who have been silent for a while on the constitutional question. Given the lack of public constitutional divergence, the Greens would be heard were they to call for particular democratic forms, types of economic, social or refugee rights, or even just new concepts for debate. They are the party of localism, which has constitutional implications, and their localism challenges a government that is seen by elements of civil society, left parties, and the Labour Party as over-centralising . The Greens could create a spectrum of debate within those in favour of constitutional reform.

Whether or not the Greens are the best party to promote left constitutionalism, it falls to all those who speak of this abstract entity to make it real, and to make it political in an engaging and radical way, rather than something created from and designed to perpetuate Scotland’s shallow political sphere.

Amy Westwell