Has the time come to make advocacy for basic income (BI) a central demand of the Canadian left? The pandemic has upended everything, putting many debates on mute and compelling an unprecedented wave of government spending to stabilize the economy.
In particular, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) offers monthly cash benefits to individuals to supplement income lost due to the crisis. Some hope that this policy will lay the groundwork for establishing a universal cash-based stipend, available to all Canadian citizens.
While the outcomes touted by BI proponents sound appealing, leftists should consider that BI is a profound concession to the neoliberal order that entrenches the commodification of virtually all areas of social and political life. Additionally, there are many BI proponents who support the policy for explicitly right-wing reasons and expect that it would facilitate deep cuts elsewhere in the social safety net, resulting in a deepening of government austerity. Leftists should consider the dangers of inadvertently selling the public on a policy that could end up as another weapon to be deployed against the public sector.
The driving force of capitalism is the relentless drive to commodify all aspects of life, society and even nature itself, transforming everything within its grasp into something that can be exchanged for money. BI reinforces and legitimizes this process. Its advocates substitute the traditional left criticism of capitalism — the prioritization of private profit over human need — with an analysis that suggests the problem with this system is merely a question of how to better distribute the wealth that society produces.
However, within a capitalist society, wealth and deprivation are co-constitutive of one another. The purchasing power of a business owner or member of the professional managerial class is predicated upon keeping labour costs elsewhere as low as possible. BI advocates evade the implications of this, failing to recognize that market forces, as well as conservative politicians, would quickly whittle away even the most ambitious BI to a barely subsistence-level support system.
The most enduring and successful leftist program in Canadian history, single-payer health insurance, offers a different approach. Instead of topping up Canadians’ bank accounts and sending them into the private marketplace for insurance, Medicare was intended to remove the need for cash altogether by socializing the costs of insurance and tightly regulating the behaviour of health-care practitioners. As economist Armine Yalnizyan writes, “the advantage of improved public services is that they also make things cheaper for everyone (through scale and by eliminating for-profit exigencies and tax obligations), while improving the quality of life and making incomes and markets matter less.”
In lieu of a BI, then, leftists should advocate for more direct market interventions to reduce or eliminate the costs associated with other vital human needs, such as housing, education and care work. The exploding costs and subpar quality of these critical sectors of the economy drains more purchasing power from the working class than a BI could hope to restore, and unlike a BI, these government interventions would actively seek to mitigate the predatory nature of contemporary capitalist enterprises. While a BI would leave people vulnerable to rising rents and prices, programs that use coordination and planning along the lines of Medicare operate by doing the most possible to eliminate the need for money altogether.
The typical progressive rejoinder is that BI can complement rather than replace these expansions of the social safety net. While this vision is popular with some leftist commentators, the most prominent advocates of a BI in Canada believe that a necessary prerequisite for implementation will be the elimination or severe reduction of existing welfare provisions.
A significant figure in the BI debate in Canada, Hugh Segal, is a lifelong Tory and former chief of staff to Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney. Segal, whose advocacy was critical to the Ontario government’s aborted BI experiment in 2018, champions the idea as a solution to bloated government bureaucracies that aligns more closely with the proposals of arch-conservative economists such as Milton Friedman. While describing the outcome of a BI experiment conducted in Manitoba in the 1970s, Segal even notes that “there was almost no reduction in hours worked except for women who chose to stay home with young children, elderly parents or disabled family members, thereby unburdening the state of health or daycare costs.”
This is an outcome that some feminist scholars, such as Margot Young, have anticipated, though they do not share Segal’s enthusiasm for downloading government costs onto women, pushing them back into the domestic sphere of life while their male counterparts venture into the workforce. When left to the private market, elder and child care in Canada have exploded in cost, and households relying on BI to survive will not have the resources to consistently access these services. In many such cases, the outcome will be women “choosing” to remain at home to care for their families.
While cash stipends have proven highly effective when they are properly targeted, the left cannot indulge itself in the fantasy that it will have the power to dictate precisely how policies that it advocates for are implemented. Expanding public services reliably pushes back against the logic of the market, whereas BI represents a deep concession to the ongoing capitalist takeover of every aspect of social life. As the anti-poverty activist John Clarke writes, it is a “progressive cloak” over a “neoliberal dagger.” Leftists ignore this warning at their peril.
Nicholas Erwin-Longstaff is a graduate student at York University, where he studies labour geography.
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