Social Wage, Social Factory and Universal Basic Income: Some Initial Thoughts
The idea of the Social Factory is one that first found currency in the Italian Autonomist movement, but has since been worked on by a variety of different theorists and activists. The one version of the idea, that is very similar to the idea of the colonisation of everyday life by work, holds that, with the development of more and more advanced forms of specialisation and technology the whole of life is subordinated to the rhythms of production. I often think about the famous example of the way those in full time employment have to treat their weekends, spending hours washing uniforms, cleaning houses and so on, just to get themselves ready to go back to work on Monday. Even exercise, sports, culture and relaxation is thought about in terms of “productivity”. Some employers have even begun encouraging their employees to take up this kind of activity, to increase their “productivity” (for which read “exploitation” at work).
The idea that more and more of our life is work, can especially be seen when we look at the rise of certain new technologies. For instance, social media like Facebook and Twitter are practical ways in which our everyday life and social interactions are now mediated in such a way that we serve capital even while we communicate with our friends. So even seemingly personal and private moments of life contribute to the way that capital reproduces itself. In his essay The Social Factory , from the book Deleuze, Marx and Politics Jacques Roux quotes Kafka, to the end that “Capitalism is a system of relationships, which go from inside to out, from outside to in, from above to below, and from below to above. Everything is relative, everything is in chains. Capitalism is a condition both of the world and of the soul.” The social wage is a way that we can name it as that.
In the context of Gender we can also see how this works. One of the most famous campaigns to come from the same roughly related set of campaigns and ideas that the Social Factory comes from is the Wages For Housework campaign. What this campaign pointed out was that women engage in many kinds of work, that is subjectivized and understood by women and men as not, in fact, being work. In the last forty years this kind of work has vastly increased. Not only in the home, but also in education and in workplace and career based training. More and more young people, at more and more stages of their life, have to undergo work experience, internships and various non full pay training schemes. Indeed, As funding to social and care services have been cut, more and more people find themselves in positions where they have to take up a bigger portion of the care work necessary for our society to function without any recompense.
In all these ways, the system seeks to mask quite how much time we spend working, and the way in which we have lost control over ever bigger chunks of our day to day life. One very real strength of an analysis that is based on the idea of a social wage, is that it picks out what class struggle revolutionaries such as Marxists already know, but find it sometimes difficult to communicate; namely, that the way that we enjoy the benefits of the value we create together, isn’t in fact a function of how hard we work or how successful we are as individuals, but rather determined by how string our class is and how we much of the wealth we have created we can claw back from the ruling class.
Another strength is that the identity between time and money that capitalism sets up. “Time is Money” as Benjamin Franklin said. Because of the devaluation of single jobs, in terms of how much money they can get you, it is becoming more and more important to acknowledge this, if we are ever to claw some of our life back from Capital. As more and more (the lucky ones who have jobs!) have to work more than one job, we find ourself unable to push for a demand, such as the 8 hour day, that formed the struggle for some independence in the 19th Century. A recognition of the social wage, and they way that this could affect a basic income is really important in this regards.
At base, the idea of the Social Wage is a way to try and work out exactly how much of the value created in a society goes back to the working class, including benefits, housing benefit, free services such as health care, education and social/care services, as well as subsidies on public goods like sports, arts and leisure facilities. It is interesting to not that the right and capitalist ideologues use it as well as the left, and people campaigning for more for our class. For instance this (http://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/93891.pdf) we have an example of right wing academics using it to argue that even though benefits payments increased under the Blair administration the “Social wage” (i.e. the sum total of all the monies spent on people in receipt of benefits) actually dropped. Obviously this can be used for both right wing and left wing political ends.
In fact it is more natural for people attacking the present so-called “benefits” regime to use the language of “social wages”; as Mark Fishcer put it in Capitalist Realism: “New Labour committed itself, early in its third term in government, to removing people from Incapacity Benefit, implying that many, if not most, claimants are malingerers. In contrast with this assumption, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to infer that most of the people claiming Incapacity Benefit – and there are well in excess of two million of them – are casualties of Capital. A significant proportion of claimants, for instance, are people psychologically damaged as a consequence of the capitalist realist insistence that industries such as mining are no longer economically viable.” Talking about the notion of “social wage” allows us to recognise that people who have been through this are a part of our class and in all sorts of ways, are actually contributing to the creation of value in our society, not least through the function of the “reserve army of labour” that Marx talked about.
Within the context of a campaign for Universal Basic Income, the notion of the Social Wage is also very important. Richard Atkinson, a member of the International Socialist Network, wrote a very detailed account of changes in the benefit system over the twentieth century, looking in particular at how calls for universal basic income can grab back some dignity and autonomy for claimants who are administered, tested and humiliated more and more due to the austerity regimes “reforms”. Against some left critics of UBI, he takes up the idea that the UBI is basically the “negative income tax” advanced by neoliberals like Milton Freeman. This is important because, actually, it is conceivable with the march of the pro austerity parties and UKIP that, especially if they don’t face serious political challenge, the development of Universal Credit could be a move towards this direction.
The idea of a “negative income tax” in its boldest form is one in which there is only one tax, and one form of “benefit” payment. The idea is that there is some sort of sliding scale of tax relative to income, slides at the bottom end of income into a negative number that determines a rate of payment of a benefit. This is the basis of the right wing calls for something like Universal Basic Income, and it fits into the neoliberal agenda, insofar as it does two things. First, it monetises almost every transaction and social relations, in its most thrusting iterations for instance it is supposed to be a way to point towards a complete privatisation of everything else. So the neo-liberal right would support it to then be able to completely privatize health, schooling and so on, with the argument that “well look, you have this money now, spend it what you want.” This feeds into the second reason that some on the right push for it. In fact, and against the view of the “freedom” or markets that is a fundamental part of neoliberal ideology, this kind of UBI (as well as universal credit) is basically a way to subject more and more of the lives of more and more section soft the working class to systems of control, administration and bureaucracy. The elaborate set of control mechanisms, information systems and technologies that this system would use, would be even bigger than that used for our present system.
On the other hand the notion of the “social wage” is central to the way that we on the revolutionary left should be arguing for UBI. As Richard writes “Above all the rate of basic income is critical. Too low a basic income becomes merely an employer subsidy; it needs to do what it says and mean that significant numbers of people do not, immediately, have to take any work on offer, so that workers’ position in the employment market is strengthened. Too high and it threatens expansion of the universal, free services that should accompany it. A basic income of £2,500 a year funded by a VAT increase is a (completely hypothetical) neoliberal attack on the poor. A basic income of £3,500 a year, funded from income tax (which was the UK Green Party offering at the last election) is feeble and misses many of the possible advantages of UBI. A basic income of £12,500 a year is an invitation to recoup the income through increased prices, rents and charges.”
That is to say, a UBI based campaign against benefit sanctions has to be positioned within an understanding of the social wage, and an attempt to acknowledge and increase the parts of the economy that constitute the commons. Campaigns for free transport, free wifi, and so on can and should be part of this, and formulating them as part of the social wage allows us to name, and thus fight over these things in a way that doesn’t just fall into a “save our services” sort of language, predicated on a post 45 settlement valorisation of a certain kind of Labourist spirituality that the neo-liberal project has all but gutted.
It is in this context that we see the struggle against sanctions, as something which naturally leads into thinking through the issues of the social wage, the social factory and then finally the question of UBI. To quote Richard again; “This motive chimes in with the history of the demand. UBI is often presented as a proposal by off-beat economists and long-sighted futurologists, and sometimes it is. However it is also a demand that has emerged wherever claimants have got themselves organised – a demand that reflects the experience of claiming benefit. From Huey “Share the Wealth” programme of 1934 on the far left of the Democratic Party, to Italian autonomist feminists demanding wages for housework, UK claimants unions and Japanese “Blue Grass” disability activists (“living itself is work”) it has been very much a demand at the margins of the mainstream labour movement and socialist organisations; but then one could equally say the labour movement and socialist organisations have been marginal to the experiences of claimants, disabled people and housewives.”
“To get close to an unconditional basic income scheme worth having is going to involve a prolonged social struggle – because any version of UBI that is simply delivered to us by the rich will be one that is in their interests and therefore not worth having. What social struggle? – the struggle against welfare reform.” That is to say the struggle against sanctions- the idea that some people don’t deserve anything. Against this, we should propose the practical idea that everyone deserves everything. “The demand for UBI needs to be rooted in the fight against ATOS and the work capability assessment, in the resistance to Jobcentre sanctions and workfare, in opposition to the bedroom tax. UBI should aim to become the common sense of all these oppositional movements.”