Labour’s love’s not lost: UBI and the coming division of labour

A few weeks ago, whilst visiting the gardens of the French presidential palace, Jonathan – a young French unemployed horticulturist – took his chance to ask President Emmanuel Macron what exactly he had done for those ‘out of work’ like himself. “I’ve been sending round CVs and motivational letters”, Jonathan claimed, “but to no avail”. The president seemed nonplussed. Rather than answering Jonathan’s question, he gave an aggressive retort asking what he had done to find a job. “If you’re ready and motivated, be it hotels, cafes, catering, in construction”, he added, “there isn’t a single place where they aren’t looking for people.” “I’ll cross the street”, he continued dismissively, “and I’ll find you some [work]. They just want people who are ready to work.”

Jonathan’s exchange with the French President swiftly went viral, drawing the ire of many of France’s left-wing commentators. The event was presented as yet more proof of Macron’s contempt for the working class, a category of voters that barely turned out for him in the 2017 election. Interestingly so, however, a few minutes later Macron was held up by another young student, who also asked him for a prognosis on his potential future. The boy’s plans were rather different from the horticulturist: he wanted to become an énarque, a French term for the high-ranking officials who study at the Ecole Nationale de l’Administration (the national school of administration), who conventionally come to populate the echelons of the French state. This time, Macron’s response was quite different. “Have a think about what kind of job you want to design for yourself”, the President stated, “and then perhaps you can sign up for an internship at the administration.”

Beyond the obvious difference in treatment between the youngsters in question, these exchanges offer a particularly brutal exposition of the workings of our contemporary job market. If, like Jonathan, entrants do not possess qualifications from an elite school, they are forced to shelve their professional aspirations and take whatever job the market is offering. This implies, of course, jobs with precarious contracts, miserly wages and long, unstable working hours. Rather than what the French sociologist Emile Durkheim anticipated as the development of a ‘spontaneous order’, today’s division of labour increasingly appears as something that has to be produced through the imposition of certain constraints. This holds especially for policy-makers who have overhauled existing unemployment insurance schemes to elbow beneficiaries into low-wage jobs. The results of this process are plain to see: some are coerced to do the ‘dirty’ jobs nobody wants to carry out ‘spontaneously’, while others can indeed take their time to ‘think’ about what they want to ‘make’ of their lives.

Such a situation also presents a considerable contrast to the ‘leisurely’ class castigated by critics such as Thorsten Veblen and Henry George, who opposed a ‘productive proletariat’ to a ‘parasitical bourgeoisie’ in America’s First Gilded Age. Clearly, if there is one thing specific about today’s ruling class, is that they love to work. In fact, the contemporary ruling class seems to love work so much that they’ve managed to monopolise all the well-paying and honourable jobs there are on offer. As Macron put it: we get the careers, you get the toil.

One of the most common responses to Macron’s blackmail has been the implementation of a ‘left’ basic income. As argued by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in Inventing the Future, such a basic income ought to “provide a sufficient amount of income to live on,” and offer temporary and permanent relief from an ailing job market.  By offering an ‘exit-choice’ to workers, a post-capitalist basic income would “overturn the asymmetry of power that currently exists between labour and capital,” “unbind the coercive aspects of wage labour,” “partially decommodify labour,” and, in so doing “transform the political relationship between labour and capital.”

The chances of this basic income coming about seems close to zero in light of its forbidding price-tag. What is more, beyond its financial feasibility, the UBI also seems to require an already politically potent working class, rather than being a tool that could potentially empower the working class. “It is not the case”, Alex Gourevitch and Lucas Stanczyk note, “that, by legislating a generous basic income, ‘we’ could empower the most exploited workers among us better to resist their capitalist bosses … [however] a basic income high enough to be genuinely liberating for the low-wage worker would require enormous expropriation of businesses and wealthy people. Consequently, there is no chance of its passage until there is a working class with the social and organizational power already adequate to extract it.”

But in spite of its unlikelihood, the underlying assumptions regarding the nature of the contemporary labour market remain an interesting indicator of how left-wing conceptions of the ‘division of labour’ have evolved in the last thirty years. As the anti-workerist argument has it, rather than trying to transform work itself, the left should focus on implementing a UBI so everyone can decide on the activity they want to perform in a post-capitalist society. While under capitalism this division of labour is set in a particularly violent and impersonal fashion, relegating large sectors of the population to jobs that are tiresome and badly paid (but perhaps also of great value to society), a utopian UBI would give each the freedom to ‘choose what to do.’ Part of the UBI appeal also lies in its ability to cater to the ‘post-normative’ left suspicious of the labourism of post-war socialist parties, preferring new kinds of activities, creative endeavours or work with non-profit associations or for humanitarian causes – the so-called third sphere celebrated by writers such as Van Parijs and Gorz. This third sphere of “micro-social activity”, as Gorz had it, was to be “organized on a local level and based on voluntary participation,” involving activities “unrelated to any economic goal” such as communication, gift-giving, aesthetic creation and the creation of shared goods and services.

Two crucial problems, however, arise from this view. The first is that the new activities engendered by the UBI are not necessarily those the society needs. For instance, UBI might allow for a majority of people to become free-time gardeners but will not create the engineers required to decarbonize our economy, or the social workers tasked with care for an aging population. This is not a new problem. More than the fact it operates through the imposition of severe constraints, a recurring issue with the capitalist division of labour has always been its exclusive responsiveness to certain social demands. In his famous 1945 piece about The Use of Knowledge In Society, Friedrich Hayek argued that it was precisely through the decentralized mechanisms of the market that an efficient division of labour and “a coordinated utilization of resources based on an equally divided knowledge” had become possible.

Yet Hayek himself had to admit that his ‘efficient’ allocation of labour could only respond to demands that fulfil the benchmark of solvency. Consequently, the division of labour implied by this decentralization of investment would not necessarily respond to social demands that are financially forbidding. Markets, in the end, don’t discriminate on any other criterion than price. Take the question of care of the elderly, for instance. In an economy in which the division of labour would be responsive to our needs, there certainly would be a lot more people trained to care for the elderly (the same goes for childcare). In the US, the dramatic opioid crisis and rising toll of deaths of overdose last year – more than 72,000 as of last year, a toll higher than that of the Vietnam War – would also require the deployment of an army of social workers trained to prevent such a trend. None of these demands are ‘spontaneously’ responded by the market-driven division of labour.

How would a basic income solve the problem of this dearth of labour? It is hard to say it would. In fact, such a vision assumes that in a society liberated from the constraints of the job market and associated division of labour, the spontaneous aggregation of individual desires would yield a distribution conducive to societal needs and that the desires of individuals now ‘free to choose’ what they wish to do would match collective needs. But this expectation is assumed rather than demonstrated in the current post-work literature. In fact, proponents in the basic income movement seem to share an equal reliance on the heuristic of an unfettered free market when they assert that their UBI will not introduce bottlenecks.

Post-workerists may well reply that these problems only apply to a purely ‘transitional’ UBI, and that their proposal is meant for a world in which social planning and centralized investment have become a fait accompli. Yet even such a post-revolutionary UBI evokes a perturbing set of further questions.

Suppose society has completely freed itself from the profit motive. Consequently, people would no longer have to sell their labour-power in order to survive. In such a situation, is it even possible – let alone desirable – to imagine that production can be carried out on a whim? Even in a world beyond the market economy key tasks will still be subject to societal demands and will have to be socially decreed. Getting rid of the constraints the labour market imposes on us when seeking to produce a functional division of labour is not simply a task that can be wished away. Indeed, whether we like it or not, even a post-capitalist society would have to find a mechanism to oblige parts of the population to carry out ‘socially necessary’ labour (childrearing, education, sanitation etc.). The problem thus does not lie with the existence of constraints themselves, but rather with finding democratic – rather than market-driven – methods to institute a proper division of labour. Designing this division in a collective fashion would inevitably inject a degree of heteronomy into some forms of labour. As noted by William Clare Roberts, since there “cannot be noncoercive common decisions that avoid both markets and the impossible demand of consensus,” decision-making will always demand “some recourse to either markets or coercive force.”

Undoubtedly this hints at one of the weakest spots in the current anti-work literature. Thoroughly conditioned by the age of neoliberal atomisation, most post-workerists have come to accept a hyper-individualist notion of needs. In many ways this is compatible with the ‘consumer sovereignty’ trumpeted by neoliberals themselves. This attitude is visible in the left-leaning UBI promoters as well. Since previous forms of welfare always implied dictating the poor what to consume and what to produce, post-workerists prefer to shed such prescriptive thinking altogether. Already in 1979, Michel Foucault could come to typify Milton Friedman’s proposal for a Negative Income Tax – a conceptual cousin of the UBI – as a “less disciplinary and authoritarian” form of welfare, in contrast to Fordist family wage models. The proposition created, as André Gorz once argued in Le nouvel observateur, a “partial osmosis” between “neoliberals and neo-socialists” who both wished to disentangle ‘society’ from the ‘state’. The retreat of the state, which would further neoliberal policy-making, would present a splendid occasion for an anti-statist left to “occupy the field left vacant by the power”.

Yet this embrace also came at a cost. Not only would Foucault or later Gorz’s proposal shore up the market, as it weakened the state’s grip on key sectors of the economy. It would also – as the English historian James Heartfield noted about the basic income movement in 1998 – imply a complete “retreat from the sphere of production.” As a consequence, the third sphere of activity opened up by the UBI would find itself wedged between the imperative to accumulate and the imperative to consume – thus making itself vulnerable to an invasion from either sphere. This invasion is already plainly visible in neoliberalism’s marketization of the most intimate modes of human sociability, from love relationships (Tinder) to daily services (Craigslist). “In years gone’”, Heartfield noted in 1998,

“the realm of production was a highly contested one. Organised workers challenged the division of the production, campaigning for higher wages and shorter hours… With that kind of contest in society, the question of material production as always at the forefront of political life.”

For Heartfield, Milton Friedman’s proposal simply removed the “question of basic needs from any kind of social contestation” and presented unemployment as “inevitable”. In essence, the same holds for contemporary versions of UBI – whether utopian or neoliberal.

If the contemporary left is serious about creating a society whose division of labor is no longer subject to market compulsion, it will have to rethink work itself, rather than merely looking to create ‘autonomous’ spaces outside of the wage relationship. In a society where the nature of work is intrinsically unequal — not only in its distribution but also in its content – work’s transformation is perhaps our most cardinal task; as the American radical Orestes Brownson put in his 1840 Defence of the Working Classes, it requires nothing less than “rendering work as honourable, as much in keeping with the character of the gentleman, as fox-hunting is in England, and as attractive as the active play of boys.” Socialists should shatter the monopoly on desirable work acquired by Macron’s énarques, abolishing the distinction between ‘bullshit jobs’ and ‘attractive careers’, and make sure that labour’s love is not lost on the young Jonathan.


Anton Jäger is a PhD candidate at Girton College, University of Cambridge

Daniel Zamora is a postdoctoral researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles

Image credit: Radharc Images, via Alamy