THE DREAM OF INCOME AND THE NIGHTMARE OF THE END OF WORK
Income without conditions, mythological animals, platforms and privatized planets
By Emanuele Braga/Macao
Armed with spray cans we’ve been writing on banners in the squares the word INCOME! It has been at least a decade that we have declined and deepened in various directions the struggle for universal unconditional income. The trajectory has seemed increasingly clear to us. We are the sons and daughters of the Italian ‘1977’ movement. Our parents’ generation taught us about the crisis of the Fordist model. They had also told us that overcoming Fordism could not lead to a more equitable reorganization of the labour market, but to an irreversible crisis of labour as a model. They had broken with the unions, allied themselves with the university students and workers, and scandalized half the world by uttering the two words no one wanted to hear: Reject Labour.
We have grown up squeezed between three great mythological animals: precariousness on one side, globalization on the other, and digitization sitting in the middle. I turned eighteen in the middle of the nineties. Those were the years of the alien noise of the 28k modems, with that tab coming out of a head to be connected to the first computers with Intel Pentium processors. We felt that something was wrong when each image on the screen took minutes to complete, adding one line after another from top to bottom. But time was never enough to try to imagine what that new tool everyone called “search engine” was all about.
At the end of college we discovered that work no longer existed. For us, young people, there were no more factories, no more public competitions, no more fixed contracts, secure pay checks, no more contributions to retirement funds, no more credentials to apply for a mortgage at the bank. There was none of that anymore: there was just a rather empty space, more like a large waiting room. What you could do in this waiting room was to earn a little money with a thousand little jobs of different types, paying taxes, but in vain, because never enough continuous to ensure a pension.
How did we survive? We survived because in between jobs we were very creative, we were young people willing to do anything and we didn’t care about spending money on clothes, cars, or anything like that. We lived on nothing, on our small jobs, and on the certainty that we didn’t need anything else, because we could do it all again, we could do it differently, between us who were accomplices, who knew things, who were so intelligent, who had access to everything in an easier way. While the old people thought that you had to pay dearly for something, we knew how to get it without paying for it, or we even knew how to make it ourselves, with two strokes of the mouse, a welder, a keyboard and some English, a paintbrush, a computer and a video camera.
We sinned by too much ambition, and it was this illusion that screwed us over. The beginning of the new millennium was quite painful. We all went to Genoa in 2001 and the police made us realize that another world was not possible. Then the wars on terror began, and finally came the financial crisis that was aimed at destroying the middle class, to make everyone understand that democratic progressivism was over. The only thing that would progress from then on would be the gap between the super-rich and the increasingly poor.
In the same years GAFAM, social networks and digital platforms were born. It was at that moment that the waiting room we had been sitting in since the late 1990s disappeared. It dissolved as only fog is capable of curtains.
Even scientists and Nobel Prize winners were in complete agreement: wage labour could no longer be the main means of distributing purchasing power. Labour could no longer provide an income for all. Digitization of public administrations, smart cities, catering, reception, logistics, credit and currency, security, schools and health: traditional functions controlled by states are slowly being taken over by private digital platforms. A global rethinking of the relationship between governmentality and society begins. It took 40 years to overcome the Fordist model based on work, state and market, to land on a model based on the datafication of social life, the automation of productive and reproductive processes and the financialization of access rights to resources.
I smile, because this is the time of my life.
And so it was that in the second decade of the new millennium we changed our strategy.
In Italy we began to talk about “beni comuni”, around the world we discussed commons. In Italy we began to talk about instituting a movement. Having taken the beating of the lesson suffered in the 80s and 90s, we understood that we had to raise the stakes to keep up with the times. If we had remained a subculture, a counterculture, a utopian island where the alternative is made, another market that tries to do things in a more supportive and honest way but in a small way, entrenched behind barricades waving balaclavas… If we had interpreted the concept of autonomy in this way we would have lost. We would have lost because we would have been relegated to the margins, repressed as much as we needed to be, and functional to the mediatization of political theatre: there is always a need for a good but violent and irreverent ‘radical extremist’, to bring us back down to earth every now and then.
What does “to institute” mean? It means irreducibly placing oneself at the same level as the institutions that count. It means overturning the plate, taking everything that until now has been represented on the margins and putting it where it has always been: in the centre. It means having another concept of law and right. Interpreting law and right as the instrument of protection against predatory capitalism. It means a direct attack on the concept of the existing norm: law is only the right of the oppressed not of the oppressor. It means not only telling the king that he is naked but also that he is illegitimate. It means replacing the normative and colonizing processes of techno-scientific ideology with a common and generative process of a world not based on profit and accumulation.
The struggles that have moved at the planetary level in the decade between 2010 and 2020 are the struggles for the commons against financial extractivism, of the new institutions of the commons, which in the second half of the decade have indicated the three axes of this new institution: decolonization, anti-patriarchy and climate justice. An attack on the extractivist model of capital through a destabilization of its DNA: the power to decide on race, gender and nature. And so it is only in recent years that all the elements have aligned and the picture is beginning to be clearer than ever.
Labour is no longer able to massively distribute purchasing power to feed markets and the taxation system that in turn guarantees the welfare state. This Keynesian model on which the 1900’s were based has jumped and will never return. What is replacing it? All powerful people are aware that they have to distribute purchasing power through some form of income distribution.are aware that they have to distribute purchasing power through some form of income distribution. The question is, what income model? Let’s speculate on several income model options.
A first option is to decide not to distribute income: this amounts to the ‘bidonville’ transformation of the West and the making of middle class shanty towns. A corollary of this option always means war. This option is the most traditional one in consolidating the interests of capital to the detriment of the civilian population considered useless from the point of view of a restricted circle of privileged people, who do not even need so much manpower anymore.
A second option is what China and Silicon Valley are showing us: distributing social protections, income and services – but a distribution that is conditional and in turn conditions citizenship rights. Both China and Silicon Valley have an idea of the social as a community to be preserved, but they are aware that they can determine its behaviours in order to control them. They don’t want to exterminate the useless population, but they want to be able to educate it through its datafication and algorithmic control. In this scenario (which I now see as the most likely, and which is also the model on which the clumsy Italian citizenship income is based) income will be distributed conditionally to how well one behaves under the control of an algorithm.
Income could mean access to monetary liquidity, but also access to material goods or health and education services and mobility. In short, the idea is to distribute value to everyone not on the basis of how much one works (as in Fordism), but on the basis of how one behaves. In this sense, the analyses of the last decades on post-Fordism and bio-capitalism were perfectly right in affirming that capital was transforming itself from workforce into bare life.
A corollary of this second option is the privatization of all services and the weakening of the state as a system of taxation and welfare provision. The state will only have to check that digital platforms are functioning properly, delegating to them the basic provision of services and income. But in order to be able to do this, all public services hitherto provided universally – think of health and schooling and
transport – are definitively privatized. It is the crowning of the neo-liberal dream par excellence, of which even progressive democrats have become standard bearers since the 1990s, based on techno-scientific development rhetoric, progressive social justice, moralising meritocracy, privatisation, welfare destruction, colonialism, sexism and greenwashing.
Our last option is unconditional universal basic income. Of course it is the option we are fighting for. An income that is not conditional on any criteria for your behaviour. An income that is not conditioned to any labour or social category or citizenship. An income that defends the role of the state and universality, of schools and public health. A system of public governance that is able to tax and limit the power of the large private monopolies of digital platforms. An income for all, not meritocratic, based on a system of taxation of digital platforms or a digital dividend. An income that is able to emancipate the person from the blackmail of forms of exploitation. An income that recognizes the value of self-organization, care and cooperation always in place in the social. An income that is based on the gift, on the distribution of value and not on accumulation and profit.
Most likely, in a few years, we will find ourselves in the terrible scenario number 2 option. I hope that scenario number 1 does not come. It is up to us, now, to raise our voices and fight hard for option number 3: the only scenario that is really on the side of social and climate justice, a universal and unconditional income.