Tech Feudalism or Mutualism: The Roles of Universal Basic Income

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AI-generated landscape (AI developed by Robbie Barrat), 2018
  1. Introduction
  2. What is Neo-Feudalism?
  3. Universal Basic Income
  4. The Mutualist Garden

Introduction

A universal basic income (UBI) is coming. It shall be no small thing. Either it will linchpin a broad effort going past our form of capitalism toward something like a mutualist political economy or it will linchpin a new, tech-centric feudalism, an obvious regression from our current pattern of organization. Here I’ll examine the differences between these possibilities and the conditions for arriving at the first one.

Why is a UBI coming? For one, the traditional middle class (small business owners, manufacturing laborers) is presently getting curb-stomped by COVID-19 and by our leaders’ vacillating and denialistic handling. On either side, things are less bleak.

The info workers of the upper class (media people, university people, government, marketing, etc.) are just working from home. Upper-upper oligarchs (Bezos, Zuckerberg, etc.) are frolicking in a waterfall of revenue. Their business models are actually predicated on trends that COVID-19 accelerates, e.g. hollowing out markets, physical isolation and lots of wastable, unproductive time. Right now, Amazon’s logistic networks are pretty much the only point of contact for many goods. Granted, it’s always paid to be monopolistic or monopsonistic (1) during times of hardship, but in the digital age, the effect is heightened: the network dynamic of e-commerce allows Amazon to fatten its “long tail”way past the point of competitiveness with smaller businesses.

Lower down, service workers are still working and making an income because we need them. Under that, the dependent welfare underclass is basically unaffected economically. They’re still getting their government checks.

Granted, the lower down someone is, the more screwed in terms of health. But it’s the traditional middle class that’s the most screwed in terms of losing economic standing. With middle-class people rapidly sliding down and out, what this is is a big bifurcation. The middle is shrinking and an underclass of precariously employed or government-dependent people is opening up. This, of course, was already happening. COVID-19 has accelerated it.

The tech oligarchs (whom Congress is currently grilling in a series of antitrust hearings) have precious little incentive to give a damn. In contrast, the robber barons of the 20th century needed a robust, asset-holding, and active middle class. Henry Ford paid his workers enough so they could afford Fords of their own. Ford Motors took care of its laborers to broaden the consumer base, raising the tide for everyone. But today, as far as digital platforms are concerned, people’s worth-as-assets are always roughly equal since everyone provides sellable data (tech companies’ source of income) regardless of economic standing. All that’s really required for Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix, etc., is that we keep idling online, providing data.

In other words, digital enterprises won’t rush to protect the middle’s economic standing per se. It’s simply no skin off their back if formerly middle-class people tumble into a purely “consumeriat” underclass so long as they maintain internet access and just enough money to buy a lot of food, services and nonsense, but not assets that appreciate in value, e.g. real estate and stock.

With this bifurcation comes a burgeoning and hardening underclass consciousness. Right now, we’re standing at increased risk of totalitarian exploitation, therefore. Why? Because the “universalizing” and potentially totalitarian false consciousness belongs squarely with a self-conscious underclass, not with the asset-holding middle. Marx couldn’t have predicted this in his time, nor could have György Lukács who developed Marx’s theory of class consciousness with the focus on the proletariat as the “subject-object of history.” Neither Marx nor Lukács, nor anyone, could have predicted the attention economy of our century in which the “subject-object” relation is sensationally muddled for average people, not clarified. Especially so in this context of globalized economics and automization in which anything resembling a counterweighting proletariat is unnecessary and accordingly sucked out.

So… how did the tech oligarchs get so decisive? We can lay some of the blame on President Obama, who did little to counter the accumulation of power there as Web 2.0 grew up during his tenure from 2009 to 2017. Obama touted Amazon, for example, with all its tax evasion, its blatant anti-competitive behavior, its aggressive anti-union tactics, and its gross collection of personal data via Alexa, Ring, and click and sales data.

Note that the personal data collection part is “permitted” by “user consent.” The problem, however, is that a good-faith application of contract law should recognize this form of consent as farcical. Obama failed to see it as such. Caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware” — the principle on which big tech relies — is in fact anti-freedom even when we’re not talking about an inescapable behemoth like Amazon.

In 2020, we cannot realistically opt out of using these platform services, either as consumers or vendors. Our “consent” is coerced and under-informed. In past eras courts would have refused to enforce contracts with such gross power disparities. That lasted until the privatization of jurisprudence in the 1980s when an “efficiency theory” of contract law (under which power differentials are ignored) overtook the commercial reasonableness standard of the earlier part of the 20th century. (2)

For years, Amazon and the other big tech platform services have erected their empires on this sort of disparity. It is a fundamental disparity of information.

Platforms hoard the information, binding us to their terms and conditions (their governance models) under circumstances that in no really “commercially reasonable” way involve the informed consent of the governed. Restrictive right-to-repair conditions bar us from innovating on our own devices. We are restricted from truly owning them and are effectively renters. Lack of cross-compatibility (e.g. an iPhone needs an Apple charger, Apple earphones, and Apple speakers) creates unbreachable walls. In each case, tech platforms operate as walled gardens where users play by the platform’s rules only to be cut off from understanding. We exchange our data and bargaining power for the “privilege” to continue living in that platform’s space.

Already, the likeness to the walled-in Medieval feud is obvious.

That Obama didn’t perceive a problem here speaks volumes about the man, but perhaps it should come as no surprise. After all, in his eight years in office President Obama passed on nearly every important opportunity to curb power concentration, allowing it in all variety of industry from telecom to pharmaceuticals to entertainment.

On personal privacy, Obama upheld President Bush’s sprawling, systematic attack on privacy rights by renewing the Patriot Act, which he’d previously condemned as a senator. He proceeded to defend and expand the NSA’s secret surveillance programs, including the internet surveillance program PRISM, even after they were leaked and decried.

He bailed out finance instead of meaningfully relieving everyday borrowers after the 2008 crisis, a move that keeps on crippling the middle and lower classes.

And he rejected federalism when he bypassed both Congress and the public to legislate by fiat on immigration law. (A wildly obstructionist GOP-held Congress forced his hand, of course, but he still did it.)

Big picture: much like big tech, President Obama promised veritable utopia but ended up a pretty pisspoor friend to the American middle, American privacy, and the American rule of law. On these three points, Obama might be regarded as one who lurched us toward “neo-feudal” patterns of arrangement.

Now this brings us to the question: what exactly do I mean by this term “neo-feudal”?

In a nutshell: liberal welfare capitalism is disintegrating from its own untrammeled logic, as conservative theorist Patrick Deneen illustrated in his book Why Liberalism Failed (2018), and organizational structures are figure-eighting back toward patterns resembling those of the Medieval period from which liberal capitalism originated.

There’s one big difference, though, which makes the feudalism “neo-”. That is: digital technology elevates the whole thing one level above the feudalism of the Middle Ages in terms of the intimacy of control. (3) In a digitized world, the new “lords” wield unprecedented access to our personal information. As such, they possess extremely deep-diving instruments of control over us: both the “nudging” and the shoving kind.

Critical theorist and political scientist Jodi Dean lists four features in America today that mirror Medieval feudalism. Let us now review these features, plus an added fifth, before digging into how UBI plays in.

What is Neo-Feudalism?

A. The parcelization of sovereignty

In the neo-feudal pattern of organization, law loses its formality and becomes relativized, as how Roman law and legalism faded in favor of the divine right and caprice of monarchs at the end of Antiquity. As a result, sovereignty parcels out by region and sector.

See, for instance, the many abuses of the last three presidents, each of whom maintained a form-suspending “state of exception,” to use the term coined by Carl Schmitt and elaborated by Giorgio Agamben. (4) Examples: Bush’s post-9/11 assault on civil liberties, Obama’s continuation thereof plus the continuous ruling by executive fiat, and Trump’s continuation thereof plus his downright cartoonish subjectivism on all matters.

Areas that obviously belong in the public sphere are privatized, e.g. for-profit private prisons and the hiring of private military contractors to fight our wars and deal with internal rebellion. (The latter has been alleged regarding Black Lives Matter protests). Conversely, spheres that should obviously remain private are made unduly public, e.g. corporate personhood under Citizens United and the harvesting of our private internet data by big tech. Compulsory arbitration conducted outside of courts on a case-by-case basis (according to power differentials) replaces contract law, which previously formalized such agreements. See the dealings of Amazon with its vendors.

Since the invention of private equity and financial derivatives, financial regulatory bodies have been forthrightly self-interested and publicly unaccountable. As we know by now, a phony, revolving-door complex of “self-regulation” in the finance industry caused the 2008 economic collapse. It was thereafter rescued by Obama and our tax dollars and exists today as before. In fact the 2008 meltdown is the very picture of an endemic public/private conflation, a big toxic muck that saps the sovereign (our government) of its central legitimacy.

Sovereignty is further parcelized as the federal government’s authority literally breaks down. Unconstitutional interstate compacts have come together to independently address COVID-19 as President Trump abdicates his duty to do so. Anarchist “autonomous zones” like Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) pop up to address racial injustices that the federal government won’t. Sanctuary cities deliberately contravene federal immigration law.

In theoretical circles, sovereignty-parcelizing strains of monasterial communitarianism are on the upswing. Whether it’s Patrick Deneen’s Cenobitic model, which takes medievalism quite literally and revamps Catholic integralism, or it’s the whole “granola” counterculture involving ecosocialism and New Age retreats, or it’s a totally secular model like Game B’s “inoperative communities,” to borrow the term of Jean-Luc Nancy, which live (for now) mostly online.

B. Hierarchy and expropriation

Mind-boggling economic stratification means unprecedentedly obvious hierarchy in real terms. Perhaps more important is a crystalizing cultural hierarchy. The classes now occupy near-completely separate cultural worlds. The rich and poor in the U.S. of the last century used to strive for homogeneity via the “middling virtues.” This is no more.

A number of scholars (e.g. Charles Murray on the right, David Brooks on the left) have documented a rapid cultural “coming apart” and stratification of American life. (5) The rich now self-consciously conceive of themselves as “high” (culturally, intellectually, spiritually, and in terms of character) even as they acknowledge their privilege in being up there. More consequentially, the poor conceive of themselves as being both “low” and, in a sense, rightfully and proudly so.

Brain drain and a steep decline in inter-class marriages and family-making mean these divisions are hardening exponentially. At this point, it’s almost a de facto caste system. The poor — constantly indebted, precariously employed, lacking access to healthy food, and forced from birth to operate in a scarcity mindset that is neurologically destructive — now toil without much realistic recourse to upward mobility.

Systems of expropriation keep them down, with the criminal and penal system epitomizing the dynamic. White-collar corporate criminals, orders of magnitude more destructive to society than petty criminals, tend to get off easy. They are equipped with high-powered lawyers. The poor are not so it’s disproportionately they who shoulder the burden of fines and jail time. It’s the poor whose incarceration provides the private prison complex with revenue. With increasing shamelessness, this dynamic holds in many realms.

C. Distinct cities and hinterlands

Cities, especially the “cool” cities on the West Coast and in Megalopolis on the east, have totally absorbed cultural capital in the U.S. The old Jeffersonian picture where the “yeoman farmer” and rural folk represented the purest strain of Americanism is gone except in pop country music, which is, of course, a sonic shrug of resignation that is gleefully scorned and never listened to by urbanites.

Political differences between rural and urban have never been more salient. America now is a field of Republicanism upon which a web of Democratic urbanity is superimposed. The cities: global entities propped up by global capital, rooted in global concerns. The areas surrounding: hinterland, blank space where lots of boring, stupid, and dangerous bumpkins are assumed to dwell.

A Hillary Clinton steeping in petulance after her presidential loss in 2016 expressed it concisely:

If you look at a map of the United States, there’s all that red in the middle where Trump won. I win the coast. […] I win the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, ‘Make America Great Again,’ was looking backwards.

Clinton’s spiritual Heartland is the urban web. As far as proud cosmopolitans like her are concerned, the red-leaning leftovers in the hinterlands can scurry off and drown in their backwardness.

D. Insecurity and catastrophism

Most today harbor a sense that institutions are insecure and liable to fall apart. To say we’ve been lurching from one catastrophe to another is a tritehood at this point as the year 2020 has been a veritable dumpster fire for most everyone involved. Apocalyptic anxieties abound.

On the societal level and, for many, the individual level, there hangs a specter of doom. A stark reality: 45% of Americans have zero savings. What separates this 45% from personal bankruptcy is but one unforeseen catastrophe like a medical emergency. COVID-19 and future epidemics will happily provide such catastrophes.

What’s more, our operations and logistics networks have purposely been made insecure under neoliberal patterns of organization. A fixation on efficiency and specificity overtakes any consideration for robustness, meaning the lines are all thread-bare. Such a system cracks with any unforeseen blow. In this case, life-saving supply chains and health care systems broke as soon as COVID-19 hit because the U.S.’s public bounty, ergo our material security, has been siphoned off for private wealth accumulation for years.

E. Epistemic humiliation

Now to Jodi Dean’s list, I would add a fifth feature: epistemic humiliation. By this I refer to the many ways in which a central notion of Enlightenment thinking has disintegrated. Namely, the principle that with more information always comes more understanding, more agency, and more power.

On this principle, modern science took shape. It worked pretty well for most of modernity. As James Bridle illustrates in his book aptly titled New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (2018), our century is characterized by its diminishing returns in all realms.

In science, “Eroom’s law,” widespread p-hacking, and a replicability crisis mean the rate of progress is sinking fast. In technology, machine learning and cloud computing remove the possibility for human understanding even by program developers because algorithms operate opaquely and oftentimes counterintuitively. Opacity reigns in globalized economics and finance, too, where a million decisive calculations are performed in a “black box” by inhuman forces. In both cases, the human element — theoretical understanding, “grasping,” a sense of intent — is removed.

In culture and politics, an overflowing sea of information leads to cognitive “hard forking.” Political scientist Justin Murphy borrows that term from Blockchain technology to describe how people today adopt different frames of cognition that are not simply mutually opposed but altogether incommensurable and senseless to one another. This isn’t mere “political tribalism” à la Amy Chua’s work. It’s the creation of actually separate epistemic realities, or “meta-tribes.” (6) Think conspiracy rabbit holes à la QAnon. Think CNN’s and MSNBC’s movies versus FOX News’s movie. (7) NPR versus the Rush Limbaugh Show. My algorithmically determined Facebook experience versus yours.

Filter bubbles and confirmation bias together produce denialism. Contrary to the Enlightenment principle, piling on more information without any objective sense-making apparatus leads to more fervent misunderstanding, not cool-headed discernment. So a feudal-esque “patchwork” of epistemic realities has cropped up, all of them axiomatically wrong, and with it a weaponization of rationality. Ergo: a multi-party culture war in which everyone fights nastily but without claim to objectivity. The European kings and lords fought for territory without any pretense of higher justification. We do the same, only the territory is the mind space.

Add to this a proliferation of “hyperobjects” as Timothy Morton and object-oriented ontologists describe them. Hyperobjects: “n-dimensional non-local entities.” Things that are so damned big, so massively distributed across space and time, as to escape human comprehension. Global climate change, for example, or radioactive plutonium or the internet. Unlike the Godhead or Brahman or some such omnipresent spiritual entity, hyperobjects lack Eros, that “force that drives reality itself towards greater contact and larger wholes.” (8) In fact, Morton says explicitly: these are “demonic inversion[s] of the sacred substances of religion.” (9) In a hyperobject-ified world, we’re faced daily with our smallness and a vague dread, cosmic horror. The Lovecraftian vibe here is obvious. Hyperobjects are chthonic (Greek: subterranean, of the underworld; from which H. P. Lovecraft imagines ‘Cthulhu’) contra Gaia, the primordial life-giving force. (10)

Every day, clicking through the internet, witnessing climate disaster, etc., with our protestations literally indecipherable to huge swaths of others in the patchwork, we feel self-consciously powerless. As early Medieval Europeans must have felt belittled, humiliated, and lost as Western Rome collapsed around them, so we feel in the face of modern opacity, incommensurability, and hyperobjectivity.

Universal Basic Income

Anyway, that’s neo-feudalism. A pattern of organization in which most of us would degrade to neo-serfs. Not fun.

Back to universal basic income (UBI). The idea here is pretty simple on the face of it. With a UBI, everyone would receive a monthly income by virtue of being American, regardless of working or wealth or any other factor. Proponents typically propose an amount somewhere in the range of $800 to $2,000 per month. UBI is coming because the dynamics of network capitalism, automation, and globalization together make for a smaller middle class and more economic precarity than is profitable. As such, the powers-that-be will have to find ways to stabilize consumer demand, one of which will be simple cash handouts.

It’s pretty immediately obvious how UBI might propagate neo-feudal patterns given this formulation. Indeed, we should be suspicious given that tech oligarchs themselves often like the idea. Douglas Rushkoff, in a 2018 essay titled “Universal Basic Income is Silicon Valley’s Latest Scam,” writes that UBI “is no gift to the masses, but a tool for their further enslavement.”

Like any programmer, the people running our digital companies embrace any hack or kluge capable of keeping the program running. They don’t see the economic operating system beneath their programs, and so they are not in a position to challenge its embedded biases much less rewrite the code.

In this telling, UBI just raises the floor so consumption can carry on but it preserves the problem underneath, the wealth extraction and asset concentration effects of capitalism. People and consumption would survive but wealth inequality would keep escalating as would a serf-like sense of dependence.

When Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang made UBI the centerpiece of his campaign last year, he received criticism along precisely these lines. Simply handing out cash, Yang detractors cried, reduces the American people to a peasantry needing pacification rather than dignified stakeholders wanting work and purpose. We can’t just capitulate to reducing human nature to passivity and pleasure maximization as neoclassical economics does. On this line, Elizabeth Bruenig (a Christian socialist) referred to Yang’s base of support as a group of “nihilists” who relinquished the Good and the True in favor of a fat monthly $1,000 to “spend on video games.” (11)

This is UBI in the role of “proletarian alms bag,” to use Marx’s words. Or in the post-industrial U.S. context, it’s UBI as an alms bag for the precariat consumariat underclass. In this role, UBI reaffirms the status quo of wealth extraction, hierarchy, dependence, walled gardens… in a word, neo-feudalization. A monthly pacifier, not an emancipatory tool but actually the exact opposite.

Counter that with the work of Oshan Jarow, a self-described “contemplative economist” who advocates for UBI as a central piece in a spiritually emancipatory series of reforms. Here, Jarow examines how UBI would decommodify free time, which the current system has commodified and consequently accumulated among the asset-holding rich. This focus on time ownership is the foundation on which Jarow advocates for UBI. Same policy, different frame.

As the argument goes:

For most people today, the majority of potentially free time gets absorbed in the one-dimensional plain of the profit motive. Surplus time is sucked back into the machinery, reinvested into capitalism and transformed into ever-increasing surplus value. This happens in a few ways.

  1. Surplus time enters the “attention economy” whenever we go online, usually mindlessly as a form of escapism, between tasks and after the workday closes. It gets extracted as data, sold, and is used to grease the wheels of advertising and further consumption.
  2. We reinvest our surplus time in the “sharing economy,” adding value doing things we would do otherwise, e.g. driving from place to place or having extra space in our homes (Uber and Airbnb respectively). The profit motive seeps into our “off time.”
  3. Most mundanely but most pressingly, wage stagnation and job insecurity force people to surrender their free time working a second job, hunting for better work, resorting to unseemly means of grinding out an extra buck, or working unpaid overtime to demonstrate fealty to employer(s).

If, however, we knew that we could at any moment fall back on a guaranteed income, and labor had nothing to do with it, then we might be able to find our time (and ourselves, since self is a vector of time) outside of the economic realm. We could feel less guilt about “wasting time,” “being unproductive,” etc., which is mostly pathological guilt. We might quit certain “bullshit jobs” (12) that sap the soul and add negligible if any value.

We could take a step back, breathe, and get to work on ventures that are riskier, more fun, and more intrinsically motivated. In other words: projects done playfully.

More work and less frivolous labor/consumption. More durable human objects (physical, symbolic, and artistic) getting fabricated. Less activity that produces nothing special or lasting. The distinction here comes down from political theorist Hannah Arendt, who counted it as Marx’s central error to have missed it. (13) Note: here the word “work” denotes the same psychological state as “play.” If this congruence rings strange, that’s because we today tragically misunderstand work and play, conflating them with labor and consumption respectively. Work/play performed naturally, as children perform it, is really a flow state that is spontaneous, self-governing and intrinsically fulfilling. Children do not distinguish their play from work, understanding their play as a dead-serious endeavor (in fact, it is). Decommodifying free time helps to reclaim this understanding for grown-ups. “Imaginative rationality” may take the reins (to use the term of feminist economist Julie Nelson).

The presumption here is that free time, extricated from the profit motive, does not lead to idleness, nihilism, and video-game-playing (or TV-watching or Instagram-scrolling) as Elizabeth Bruenig insinuates. And indeed there is reason to be optimistic on this point. Rich people (with abundant possible free time) tend to partake in less media consumption, actually. (14) Free time, we ought to presume, really leads to projects and acquiring transferable skills. So in a political economy with more universalized free time, we would get more inventors, more entrepreneurs, more artists, more lay scientists and mathematicians, more network builders, more psychonauts. The innovations spurred by their ventures would help defibrillate our economy whose arteries are, in many places, clogged.

Granted, some folks might drop away into lives of indolence. Most wouldn’t though. The average would go up. The indolence problem, or “free rider” problem, would be countervailed by most people’s freed up initiative.

Aside from the material benefits, what’s closer to Jarow’s point is the spiritual benefit.

As an authentic act of rejecting economistic reductionism (the ‘economic man’ model, homo economicus, and the invasion of the profit motive), the act of stepping back and breathing would elevate human consciousness directly. Or, at the very least, it would help to bring about conditions favorable to holistic human flourishing. Or as Aristotle called it, “eudemonia.”

Eudemonia: from the Greek eu (good) and daimōn (one’s personal helper deity in ancient Greek mythology). In secular terms: the condition of being able to “get out of your own way” and “tap into your best self.” Walking in the light, so to speak. Acting gracefully, congruently, without exertion (playfully) so that spontaneity and creativity are cultivated. In Confucian and Daoist philosophy, this is called wu-wei.

Eudemonia ought to stand as the object of economics. (15) In terms of having something like an exhaustive economic teleology, which we need, it’s either this or it’s the feverish machinations of posthumanism and hypercapitalism converging in the writings of so-called “accelerationists” like noted assclown Nick Land, whose theories are economistic rationality totally realized. (16) (Land’s ‘machinic desire’ echoing George Bataille is cosmologically interesting but ethically compelling only to the demented and sad.)

When I asked Jarow about UBI’s two faces, capitulating and emancipatory, he responded: “UBI has more than two faces, it has thousands.” For Jarow, the difference hinges on two factors:

1. How much is the UBI’s monthly payout?

2. How does it get funded?

Depending on how these questions get answered, UBI can serve as an emancipatory tool pushing back against feudalization or it can be neo-feudalism’s purest expression.

On the first question: How much is the UBI’s monthly payout?

If it’s too low, and especially if lots of other welfare programs are deemed redundant and get cut (this being the proposal of conservative UBI advocates like Milton Friedman), then it would entrench market power, hierarchy, and insecurity.

A too-low UBI would erode employees’ opt-out and bargaining powers. On the one side, employers would claim that their laborers receive a UBI and thus are nominally extricated from wage slavery, precarity, etc., so why should they be covered more? On the other side, laborers would not really receive sufficient cushion to be extricated. Employers get more weaponry to attack institutions of a retrograde wage system like pensions, unions, and social security. Laborers get a half-step forward and many more backward.

Granted, those institutions are in fact retrograde, suited to an older wage structure than our current one. But a too-low UBI would restrict laborers from enjoying the benefits of a new political economy. Precarious labor, rather than becoming comfortably provisional, would stay precarious. A shiny new “post-corporatist” economy for the rich; the same old precarity and stuckness for everyone else.

The so-called “sharing economy” with its platform service companies like Uber already expresses this dynamic. Companies of the sharing economy absolve themselves of the duty to care for employees by effectively disowning them, deferring to “community” and “self-ownership” instead. There’s no real intermediary institution in the corporation, only a platform. If we have a too-low UBI, this “sharing” model could be a template for companies to exploit us further.

Long story short, the UBI payout can’t be scrape-by. It’s got to be at least $1,000 per month, and preferably closer to $1,070. That way it would add up to more than $12,760 per year, the 2020 poverty line, and the cushion would be real, not just nominal.

On the second question: How does it get funded?

Now, here it gets chunky. For a UBI to escape the feudalizing zone, we would need a fairly dramatic overhaul of the tax system and/or some mighty reconceptualizing of ownership because this thing would be expensive — around $3.6 trillion per year.

I shall refer the reader to Jarow’s piece for a list of progressive, UBI-supporting tax reforms (here) as he has done the leg work. To summarize, though, it amounts to increasing taxes on rich people across the board, e.g., adding an eighth tax bracket for the oligarchs, raising capital gains and corporate taxes, adding a land value tax (Georgist tax) and a value-added tax (VAT), and significantly increasing the financial transaction tax.

Note: some UBI proponents propose abandoning taxation as a UBI-funding tool altogether in favor of just adding more money into circulation in line with what can be done under Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). MMT folks believe U.S. public spending should be limited only by inflation, not the deficit. Why? Because the U.S. dollar is a fiat currency and the world’s reserve currency, so we supposedly can’t default on our debts. And since the Federal Reserve has already been adding a ton of currency in the past few decades without much inflation, we should feel free to keep doing so. I beg to differ! For one, there has indeed been surging inflation — not in commodities, but in assets like housing, stock, and college degrees (where it actually matters). For two, MMT ignores why it is that the dollar has been stable, namely: foreign governments trust our system and choose to keep holding U.S. debt. The U.S. government can’t just write off its debt because it isn’t the sole debt-holder. As soon as we abandon pretending to care about the deficit, other countries will abandon trusting our system, and the system will collapse. UBI has to originate from somewhere besides the Fed’s printing presses.

The thorn here is that Americans, broadly speaking, dislike heavy taxation and heavy redistribution. Which is to say, Americans still resist the idea of a welfare state even as a number of social democrats enjoy a spot on the national stage, e.g. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This is natural. In a committedly liberal system, it’s axiomatically off-putting having your pockets raided on tax day. Only with significant cognitive dissonance can the liberal rich maintain their welfare-friendliness. The conservative poor, on the other hand (accused by the rich of “voting against their interests”) are less dissonant. They own up to it: taxation for redistribution is obnoxiously discriminatory against the rich and impugns the dignity of poor recipients.

This is why we need a new frame. To move away from UBI as a form of liberal redistribution and toward UBI as a form of mutualistic “pre-distribution.” This frame, mutualism, is the political-economic counter to neo-feudalization.

The Mutualist Garden

Basically, the source of funding for the UBI should be, or should primarily be framed to be, public-private pools that already exist prior to realized economic gains reaching anyone’s pockets.

Writing for the Berggruen Institute, economists Nils Gilman and Yakov Feygin have presented a mutualist proposal (2020). They summarize their project as follows:

Our proposed “mutualist” model of political economy would allow for the large-scale diffusion of productivity gains that may follow the installation of deployment of the next wave of general-purpose technologies. This new social contract will move beyond the welfare state’s focus on insurance toward a more radical notion of shared ownership of returns on capital via universal individual capital endowments and new public investment channels that control shares in firms and intellectual property.

The idea is to share assets that ought to be considered parts of the commons while also respecting individual claims to realized value. Money in the pocket mostly stays there once it gets there. But since the value is extracted from public-private pools, everyone else gets compensated upfront for allowing its use, like a form of rent. At heart, it’s a reframing of distribution. Reframed as such, with timing finally taken into account, we get a kind of neo-Georgism. Back in the 19th century, the economist Henry George spoke primarily about land use. Here we refer also to tech companies’ use of proprietary data sets, artificial intelligence, and server farm power as the new economically relevant “land.”

Another mutualist policy might be a sovereign wealth fund, or SWF: a giant, federally owned and federally managed hedge fund in which every citizen owns an equal stake. State-wise, this already exists in the Alaska Permanent Fund, where shares of Alaska’s oil revenue are prudently invested by a dedicated government instrumentality and returned to Alaskans as an annual dividend. Norway, Singapore, and several Persian Gulf countries do it at the national level. (Like Alaska, those countries have large, persistent trade surpluses from oil.) A UBI that is partially funded by an SWF means monthly payouts would originate (partially) from asset ownership, and not mere political fashioning ex nihilo. We could feel dignified receiving it as due compensation, not a handout. The end result is the same, of course: free money and free time.

Other policies in a mutualist pattern of organization might include public investment banks, baby bonds, a system of public savings bonds, and guaranteed retirement accounts connected to a pooled public pension fund that would function like a “401(k) for all” (as my friend Ryan Nakade has called it). These are detailed in Gilman’s and Feygin’s proposal.

As asset ownership transfers to the people, we might also consider advocating for a significant degree of worker co-determination in company boards of directors. Furthermore, since the instrumentality in charge of an SWF would invest in many companies in order to generate its returns, we could also allow for some degree of determination in those companies by citizen-investors (i.e. everyone). This might be done by way of representative, by proxy, or by direct voting whereby citizens would have a literal say in shareholder matters. (17) Note that I don’t think direct voting would be appropriate, but it’s something to think about.

The central idea is not redistribution for equality’s sake. That would be socialism, which is fatally flawed. Particularly, the Marxist interpretation of socialism errs from the mismatch between Marx’s diagnostic and prescriptive frameworks, as Arendt and others have noted: namely (in the terms of Erik Reinert, a development economist) that Marx diagnosed the ills of liberal capitalism using the production-focused tradition of German social science, which teleologizes the layering of realities (technology, knowledge, and synergies of production), but then, when reaching for a prescription, grabbed on to the labor theory of value coming down from the commercialist British tradition (Adam Smith and David Ricardo principally). So Marxist communism retains all of the problems of liberal capitalism while piling on even more from its theoretical incoherence, resulting in silliness like the Soviet Union. This is not at all what we want! Not even close. Mutualism stands in contrast to liberal capitalism (and its cuddly-capitalist welfare state outgrowths) and to communism, integrating those frames while also surpassing them. It axiomates the nurturing of mutualistic relationships per se, encouraging a natural emergence of equity while resisting the pull of either abstraction: that of production (which is flux) and that of labor value (which is stasis).

“Mutualism,” of course, is a term familiar from biology describing relationships in which two or more species experience a net benefit, e.g. bees and flowering plants; humans and dogs, etc. The biological element is very appropriate. Even more specifically, a horticultural metaphor works best: economic organization, like a garden, always involves human intent and can’t be purely “natural.” Mutualism, then, is the creation of an economic space and a corresponding psycho-spiritual space that resembles a healthy garden. The garden allows everyone equal, unfettered access to both “soil” and “sunlight” and propels positive feedback loops, synergies for growth.

Plants that are big and nutrient-hungry, e.g. tech giants, are checked at their roots. Delicate saplings, e.g. startups and other projects, are provided the space and nutrients to flourish. Abundance reigns.

What’s novel here is mutualism dips down into the soil, differing as such from old-school “distributism” where monopolies are broken up with antitrust measures. Distributism is philosophically similar to mutualism (it too tries to spread asset ownership) but its sphere of concern is totally above-the-soil: pruning excess growth to increase overall yield.

Why, then, is the mutualist, root-centric mode needed now?

Because the traditional, distributist imperative to break up monopolies using antitrust measures applies awkwardly in the 21st century. The tech giants, chiefly Google and Amazon, are clearly behemoths. But they profit largely from economy of scope benefits whereas older monopolies (Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, etc.) exploited economy of scale benefits. Back in the late 19th century, antitrust measures grew up to address scale, not scope. On this difference, Congress’s current antitrust hearings are outstandingly naïve. The issue is not antitrust per se, as lawmakers assume. The issue is how the tech giants have benefited hugely from economies of scope but (because of how they make their profits) have not been compelled to distribute those benefits equitably.

What’s more, the basic idea of breaking up a platform service simply doesn’t make sense. A platform, whether it’s Amazon or Google or a table or a bookshelf, is relevant and appealing specifically because everything exists together in one big place, i.e. the “monopolistic” centralization. Facebook simply wouldn’t work if it were chopped up into smaller platforms, severing users from one another by region or some such contrivance. It works only when it’s big.

All that can be done, really, from the above-the-soul, antitrust perspective is to cleave off subsidiaries, e.g. Instagram and Whatsapp in the case of Facebook. This is the meaningful extent of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up big tech, for example. Such cleavages would have minimal effects on anything important.

The only viable way to render big tech’s economic benefits equitable lies down in the soil.

The model we need: the economy as one big, shared garden. A garden where mutualistic relationships are nourished from two directions. One from the soil upward, with a neo-Georgist, pre-distributive mode using a UBI and other instruments to spread assets and encourage novelty and work (in Arendt’s sense). And the other from the sun downward, with a teleological mode incentivizing future-thinking: aiming for synergies, enlightened spiritual states, and positive externalities in society, politics, and the biosphere.

The two modes would meet in the middle in a consciousness of generation. A consciousness that centers the striving for eudemonia (in Aristotle’s sense), creativity (in the ontological sense of Alfred North Whitehead), and Eros (in Zachary Stein’s sense: “greater contact and larger wholes”). It’s either mutualism and the big happy garden or it’s the neo-feudal option: a patchwork of walled gardens hierarchically and demonically arranged.

Now to circle back to neo-feudalism’s five dimensions. On each one, mutualism does one of two things. In some cases, it directly counters the trends pushing us toward neo-feudalism. In others, it redirects those trends in the direction of positive, non-feudal manifestations.

  1. The parcelization of sovereignty. “Personal sovereignty,” or the sense of self-efficacy that allows for democratic functioning, is de-parcelized. Americans regain control over economic decisions. Granted, sovereignty might well continue parcelizing in terms of who makes the rules in various realms. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Mutualism helps ensure that new sovereigns in new realms don’t arise simply via the exploitation of power differentials.
  2. Hierarchy and expropriation. This is directly countered. Asset ownership, most centrally the ownership of free time and free choice, is equalized so that lifestyles may equalize too. Because it’s universal, UBI removes the hierarchy-entrenching stigma of receiving welfare assistance for the poor.
  3. Distinct cities and hinterlands. Many of the differences between cities and hinterlands are mitigated as capital spreads outward from the cities and dedicatedly mutualistic policies target left-behind areas.
  4. Insecurity and catastrophism. At the individual level, this is mitigated as Americans build up savings without depending on precarious, exploitative, and bullshit labor. At the national level, robustness-focused institutions like an SWF counter the neoliberal focus on short-term efficiency that leaves us open to unforeseen shocks. UBI’s carving some distance between labor and consumer spending (a reduction in bullshit labor) smooths the business cycle so that recessions come less often and penetrate less deeply.
  5. Epistemic humiliation. Greening our thumbs over time, epistemic humiliation becomes epistemic humility. States of aporic ignorance transform into states of playful, wandering discovery. A nebulosity-affirming process mode of psychological functioning is encouraged by the economy’s holistic and generativity-focused structure.

The big meta-point here: policies are never just policies. I repeat: policies are never just policies.

A UBI in the hands of neo-feudalizing hypercapitalists would ruin the middle, where virtue is. (As the Medieval Scholastics said, “virtus in medio stat.” Virtue stands in the middle.) The destruction of the middle class would be the destruction of the middle zone in individual consciousness. Metaxy haulted. (18) “Thinking” obsoleted (since Thinking requires firstly a subject-object separation in the refining of a daimon before right relation can be established). (19) The U.S. economy, and with it every American, catapulted into a state of demonic separation, which is to say daimonic conflation.

Ergo: hopeless sterility, a new dark age.

In the hands of mutualist-minded reformers, however, a UBI can be constructed to serve fullness and eudemonia, generativity and prospering. Not quite a Garden of Eden, not perfect (since “the middle zone” ought never to have existed, to use the Christian frame)… but a pretty damn lovely garden, one eminently frolickable. “Relative utopia.” What matters: the framing.

Focus on the framing.

Thanks for reading! Talk to me on Twitter! @nate_coffman

Endnotes

  1. A monopsony is when one buyer dominates a market, contrasted against a monopoly’s one seller. Monopsonistic dynamics are relevant in the case of big tech. This is woefully misunderstood by Congress, which proceeds in its antitrust hearings as if the big issue were monopoly.
  2. This article (2020) by Robert Kuttner and Katherine V. Stone provides an excellent analysis of neo-feudalizing contract law.
  3. This is the coinage of Michel Foucault.
  4. State of Exception, 2005
  5. This is the term that Murray uses in his book Coming Apart (2012).
  6. I use this term in Peter Limberg’s sense.
  7. Scott Adams (the Dilbert cartoonist) has described Trumpworld and anti-Trumpworld as two different “movies.”
  8. Zachary Stein, “Love in a Time Between Worlds: On the Metamodern ‘Return’ to a Metaphysics of Eros” (2018), p. 201
  9. Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature (2007), p. 130. Not sure if it’s conscious but he’s echoing Guy Debord’s notion of the spectacle: “The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving.” Society of the Spectacle (1967), p. 10. “The illusory paradise that represented a total denial of earthly life is no longer projected into the heavens, it is embedded in earthly life itself. The spectacle is the technological version of the exiling of human powers into a ‘world beyond’; the culmination of humanity’s internal separation.” p. 14.
  10. In New Dark Age, James Bridle draws heavily on the Cthulhu mythos, too.
  11. I recall Bruenig saying this in an episode of the podcast “Left, Right & Center,” where she often speaks for the left. I have not a clue which episode.
  12. “Bullshit jobs” is the highly technical term of the late anthropologist David Graeber. Alex Howlett, creator of Consumer Monetary Theory (CMT) has called it “make-work” — jobs that get propped up solely to artificially close the wage-price gap.
  13. The Human Condition, 1958
  14. The direction of causation here is obviously questionable, but still.
  15. On this point, Aristotle-influenced economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum are correct.
  16. “Economistic rationality” is another term of Julie Nelson’s.
  17. Matt Bruenig discussed these options here.
  18. I mean “metaxy” in the senses of Plato, Eric Voegelin, Simone Weil, and Timotheus Vermeulen & Robin van den Akker… but mostly I’m thinking of Simone Weil’s mystical theology.
  19. Hannah Arendt speaks of Socrates’s famous daemon like this in her The Life of the Mind (1977).

Writing about politics, culture, and theory here. Looking for work, connections, and projects. Talk to me on Twitter @nate_coffman

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