When talking guaranteed basic income, let's not forget the need to contest power

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Photo: Christopher Andrews/flickr

Something about the guaranteed basic income program being readied for an Ontario test run -- names vary but it means automatic minimum support for the needy and eventually everyone -- irritates me. And yes, that makes me feel Dickensian: Humbug!

Let me, without much justification, start somewhere else: sexual abuse at universities. In her book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, U.S. academic Laura Kipnis acknowledges the problem -- the plague really -- but deplores the perils of a bureaucratic, judicialized response.

She documents much abuse in the name of dealing with abuse. Yet what most worries her is what a reviewer called a "crisis of agency" among young women. If they leave their protection to recently minted campus officials and offices -- after registering their complaints -- it may reduce them to passive victimhood, awaiting outside rescuers: "There's an excess of masculine power in the world, and women have to be educated to contest it in real time …"

Now agency is agency and passivity is passivity, though they come in many guises. When I organized with a textile union in the 1970s, another organizer reported a young worker's experience of sexual innuendo being spread about her by company stooges. The organizer wanted to go to Ontario's Human Rights Commission. The union leader, a veteran of 1930s vintage, scoffed. He'd seen it often. My fellow organizer felt rebuffed but his point was: workers are going to encounter much worse and must learn to deal with these attacks themselves, to build their strength.

The way that working people -- by which I mean those who depend on jobs to support themselves, versus living off investments, interest, rent etc. -- the way workers found to protect their interests over a period of about 150 years, was by uniting in what were called unions to assert their rights. This was agency.

The counterattack by the owning class in recent decades has been targeted at undermining those unions. It's been the most significant effect of free trade deals. By moving jobs to cheaper markets, such as Mexico or China, employers pressured unions to ratchet down demands and concede gains they'd made. Eventually workers ask, "What do we need these unions for if all they do is cave?" Then along comes Universal B.I., Guaranteed B.I., or some cognate.

The very governments and sectors that imposed and insisted on those debilitating trade deals, now rise up and say: Worry not, we will restore your declining security, which threatens to plunge you into need and onto welfare, with a guaranteed basic income. The one thing you won't get back, it's true, is your sense of agency and power, which you'd achieved to some extent through your unions. But your "basics" will now, through our benevolence, be covered.

The problem with this isn't only the absence of agency and dignity but, as Kipnis says about the abuse of young women: they can't just wait around "for men to reach some new stage of heightened consciousness" because that day may never come.

And what if the owning and renting classes simply view a BI as another source to be scarfed up through higher rents, charges, privatized highways etc., so it ends up merely expanding the gulf between the rich and the rest? (I'm indebted for this argument to economist Michael Hudson.)

Take Kathleen Wynne's privatization of Hydro. Of course electricity costs will rise once the financiers take over, why else would they buy it except to profit as much as they can? So the GBI just gets recycled back up to those who made it necessary in the first place. The inequality gulf worsens and is financed largely by taxes from people who can't ever get ahead of it. Arrggh!

What's the alternative? Not necessarily unions, but agency in some form. Take control of your destiny -- both because it's more fun than the alternative and because you can't trust anyone else to. Organize somehow -- unions, political parties, whatever -- to get a seat at the same table as those guys with the investments and returns have done forever. Charity is always a way to confirm who's on top and who's stuck below -- and a guaranteed BI is essentially charity.

Would I vote for it? Maybe, as a desperate stopgap measure. People have to survive. But I wouldn't stop skulking around, conniving and contriving a way to contest power, not just gratefully accept its ambiguous droppings.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Christopher Andrews/flickr

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