Why One Universal Basic Income Advocate Turned His Back on the Movement

Douglas Rushkoff has fallen out of love with the idea.

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The concept of universal basic income, hailed as an economic safety net for people facing an increasingly-automated workplace, could instead be used as a means to supply businesses with a consistent source of consumers, says the author of a new book.

Douglas Rushkoff, digital theorist and author of Team Human, used to advocate for a policy that would provide everyone with a fixed monthly income without means testing. Its proponents claim that it could aid the transition to a world where A.I. takes over more jobs, and a trial in Finland found it reduced participant stress levels.

At a London discussion about his new book on Thursday hosted by The Future Laboratory, Rushkoff warned that universal basic income could distract from more important changes, like increasing compensation to what wage advocates call a “living wage.”

“I was talking to [Uber] about their extractive policies, what they’re doing to people and how no-one’s going to be able to afford to drive for them or even use them,” Rushkoff said in response to a question from Inverse. “They said ‘oh yeah, but UBI!’ They started parroting it back at me. I looked at UBI at that point and I said, ‘Oh, I get it, for them UBI is a way for them to just keep doing what they’re doing.’”

Rushkoff noted that, in this conception of basic income, the government supplies money to people that they can give to Uber and other firms. Those companies end up amassing a larger share of assets. Instead of universal basic income, which he dismisses as a “band-aid,” Rushkoff calls for “universal basic assets.” Rushkoff compared this conception of society, where workers own the means of production, to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity or G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc’s theory of distributism.

“I’m not into socialism of the sort that’s the redistribution of the spoils of capitalism after the fact, because it really just empowers us as consumers, but not as anything else,” Rushkoff said. “I’m into the idea of the workers owning the means of production before the fact.”

Rushkoff (left) at the London event.
Rushkoff (left) at the London event.

Rushkoff is not alone in criticizing basic income from the left. Shannon Ikebe argued in Jacobin that a “parsimonious” basic income, rather than liberating workers, could both keep them in work and enable their employers to pay less. Two writers in the libertarian socialist caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America argued in 2017 that a better approach could be providing a job to anyone that wants one in a self-management framework. Senator Bernie Sanders has voiced his preference for boosting in-work living standards with policies like a $15 minimum wage. Alyssa Battistoni wrote in a story for Dissent Magazine that “you don’t need to be Robespierre to be suspicious of a proposal that explicitly announces its intent to protect the rich from working-class rage.”

Indeed, many of basic income’s biggest advocates are businesspeople. Sam Altman, president of startup incubator Y Combinator, has voiced his support for the idea, as has Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Andrew Yang, running for the American presidency on a basic income platform, claims on his campaign website that basic income “actually fits so seamlessly into capitalism” that it is expected to grow the economy by $2.5 trillion in eight years.

That isn’t to say that the policy has no support on the left, with democratic socialist politicians Jeremy Corbyn and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez both expressing interest in the idea as a means of making workers feel more secure in an increasingly precarious working world. Basic income may find support from those worried about workers’ economic security, but Rushkoff does not consider it a suitable endpoint.

“I could see UBI if it’s a very temporary Social Security welfare measure to get us over a hump,” Rushkoff said. “But if it’s used to delay worker ownership of the means of production, then it’s pointless.”

Finland's New Basic Income Experiment