Commentary. From one perspective, basic income is just a transfer of wealth back to those who’ve created it.

Basic income gains favor in French elections

Benoit Hamon, who prevailed by a wide margin in the French Socialist Party primaries and who’s looking for a possible red-red-green alliance, has placed a basic income program among his central goals.

Although he has moved away from his original plan of a universal and unconditional implementation toward a more gradual and limited solution, Hamon’s promises remain a strong signal that, together with his rejection of the labor bill known as Loi Travail, he has mobilized a large section of the left, particularly youths.

Basic income has gone through countless variations and interpretations in the course of a long history spanning various movements and antagonistic political projects, all antithetical to the liberal tradition whose proponents have sought to banish the idea. To recall that Milton Friedman suggested, in his own way, forms of income outside the employment relationship is just as insignificant as underlining the affection of fascism for full employment.

The fact remains that the left has faced much resistance, ideological chief among them. Which makes Hamon’s victory so much more meaningful and probably due, in addition to the declining popularity of neoliberalism, to having brought together the demands of so many kinds of people excluded from the social safety net that the left has traditionally defended and jealously administers.

By now people are tired of chasing the promise of full employment while leaving everything else as secondary. An article by Laura Pennacchi, published in these pages Sunday, offers us a fairly complete catalogue of the resistance to basic income, ranging from the cost to the “ethical value” of work and the quote from Pope Francis about how the essence of the person resides in his time and labor.

As for the costs of universal income (which would reabsorb other forms of pension) there are as many calculations as there are variations. Without getting into technical issues, it suffices to say that in the brutally unequal world described by Thomas Piketty, the inadequacy of resources is generally a pretty weak argument.

There are two trends for which all those who believe in full employment have no answer.

The first is that automation and technology are, by their very essence, bound to reduce labor — that is, to reduce the expenditure on human labor in the production of wealth. That this potentiality would decrease unemployment and poverty has a tradeoff in social relationships. Work multiplies only in moments of more fierce exploitation (such as the first Industrial Revolution), but it’s mostly repetitive, unskilled and subjected to a rigid hierarchical command.

Or, as in the digital age, free labor becomes more or less unconscious. Which leads to the second trend, completely invisible to everyone who views basic income through the lens of classic social security benefits. We live in a society where most of the activities that create wealth and social inequality are not recognized as work and are not entitled to any form of income.

Total inactivity is merely an ideological invention. To put it drily, we shouldn’t be talking about unemployment but rather the stagnation of wages. The relationship between employment and income has already been severed, but not by guaranteed income — by the proliferation of free work. To translate these manifold activities that form the dense fabric of social cooperation into paid and regulated (not to say stable) employment contracts goes well beyond the most strenuous effort of imagination.

In other words, we are already in a situation of full employment, which is in fact characterized by forms of precarious, intermittent and uncompensated work, which nourishes the so-called “extractive capitalism.” From this perspective, basic income is the transfer of a part of this wealth to those who actually produce it and not just a social safety net.

It is, in short, a fully political objective and also a relative transfer of power. In fact, guaranteed income involves increased bargaining power and fewer demands on the government to micromanage the welfare system.

“Employers” is an expression that does not allow misunderstandings of any kind, whether it be the state or the master. It expresses the power to decide whether, how, how much, when and what to “give.” And it’s a prerogative that certainly won’t be surrendered easily and with which the desire for autonomy of countless productive subjects will inevitably set on a collision course.