Universal Unconditional Basic Empathy Part 1 of 2
“Ku areba raku ari.”
“If bitter exists then does sweet.”
Over the last two weeks Cormac presented a short series (Part 1 & Part 2) that opened a discussion on Universal Basic Income, drawing on David Graeber’s discussion of Universal Unconditional Basic Income. I work closely with Cormac to support his online communications, and it’s been my pleasure to be able to work with him in the fashion promoted by ABCD, in that I get to enjoy using my gifts doing work and using tools I feel an affinity for, to support a good friend who likewise applies his gifts towards a purpose we both, and many others, deeply care about.
It’s been an illuminating role for the past few years to edit, post and present his blogs as well as work with Cormac on presentations, educational material, graphics and images. This hopefully sets some context to why I feel a strong familiarity with his work and training. Working on the internet and assisting ABCD efforts from the background, also fits with responsibilities as a carer to my disabled father. Supporting ABCD efforts is work that enables me to engage with life beyond my current circumstances, to enjoy learning new things and hopefully contribute in some small way to the many efforts done at the grassroots and the knowledge sharing by the many supporters of the ideas.
However, that doesn’t mean I have been able to reach a point where I pursue the ‘good life’ as we commonly discuss in ABCD conversations. Daily life is filled uncomfortable moments, I am separated from the work communities I was once a part of, and interaction with institutional power constantly proves disappointing. No results are still the most often outcomes in efforts to find open ears and open minds to discuss how to work together, engage and include people in endeavours to bring about communities that can enjoy and share their pride in their strengths.
This blog is a response to Cormac’s call for an open dialogue and conversation on the points and questions he raised. After uploading Cormac’s last two blogs I contacted him asking if I might pen a response piece, not so much because the information he presented raised new ideas, as his work often does, but more because I actually disagreed with a number of the core ideas presented. Cormac true to his character was delighted to include a challenge to an idea which he hopes can at least open a path to different thinking about how we value work, and it’s future role, or perhaps we should say future importance in how we organise our lives.
See, touch, feel and understand…
In this blog I don’t wish to express an attempt to oppose the ideas, as a tool for a discussion I think the ideas of UUBI are a good contribution. Graeber’s role in promoting information about wealth inequality and the role of debt are also useful contributions to opening up and spreading the discourse on the global economy and it’s dominant features and modes of operation.
However his ideas for solutions leave me less impressed. Effective criticism, in modern times, is more built around firing the blows that land, where landing is what sticks in the public consciousness, clearly this is important but that doesn’t form the basis of a solid understanding that can take us forward to building a new foundation. Unfortunately regardless of who the person is, or how great a level of expertise they possess, as they enter the fray of global macro politico-economic discussion they end up taking a position that is top down, partisan, oppositional and even elitist or discriminatory towards someone. And this outcome is one of the reasons I feel far more comfortable in the discussion about recognising and building on the strengths of a locality.
Our local communities are also places of experimentation, investigation and revealing facts and truth, unlike theoretical tomes, community is able to respond, feedback, participate and improve upon our efforts. At local level we see that positive transformation that lasts doesn’t emerge from big ideas but deeply embedded learning that comes from incremental shared realisation of the value in doing things that are to the local context, beautiful, empowering and meaningful.
From here they look like ants, do they behave like them…?
I’d like to raise this challenge first towards UUBI, that it is a top down policy of gargantuan scale. It bases its predicted outcomes on a set of assumptions that are undemonstrated and solely built upon a foundation of ideas developed for criticising the flaws of capitalism. I prefer to point my criticism of capitalism not towards a general critique but towards specific aspects of malfunction, the two most visible and critical in recent years being consumerism and finance capitalism. Both of these have indulged in great excesses that have yielded poor results for nearly everyone other than the select few winners.
In my home city, I have watched the deep community connection to its traditional industries turn to the gutting of community and place many times over. It was growing up at a time when all the usual directions for job, career and future were disappearing that shifted me from someone who would find contentment in a simple technical role to someone who felt they had to range far beyond the topics they found comfortable. As much I miss the opportunity to have been part of my great local heritage in engineering and technological development, I do appreciate that witnessing the demise of something that seemed so massive and impervious shook my views enough to set within a desire to engage and learn what might happen, before it is simply done to you.
From this perspective I see UUBI as a surrender to consumerism, a claim that we must be given an allocation to participate in it’s process of packaging convenience over wellbeing. Though the proponents of UUBI envision freedom from unwanted “bullshit jobs”, they merely hope that somehow people with more time freed will pursue non consumerist activity. This is baseless, especially when we are reacting too late to the growth of a consumerist machine that can identify or even plant wants in our psyche as we walk around doing everyday activities. Where essential communication devices, such as our common smartphones, are portals that stare into us to a depth that makes the stare of Nietzsche’s abyss seem a like glance of a passing stranger, whose lack of facial expression has left us momentarily perturbed.
Are we expected to hope, that a helicopter money drop, of previously unimagined scale, will have margin gains that are so profound, that though unspecifiable, they will outweigh the new fueling of a feeding frenzy of consumerist endeavours that stand ready to pounce on this injection of loose money. Proponents of UUBI have taken an approach that if you can’t beat, change, or amend something then hypocritically indulge in it whilst complaining. This isn’t a strategy I want to see injected into the working class communities that are my place and heartland; and will forever be.
Coming from what went before…
I have spent many years doing the round of building up from ‘bullshit jobs’ I’ve done floor sweeping, fetch and carrying, serving, administering, supervising, organising, teaching, leading and creating. I’ve many years inside the workforce, some happy, some sad. And the lesson taught was that it takes a special kind of corruption to create bullshit jobs. I saw a workforce where no one wanted their efforts regardless of however humble dismissed as bullshit. I never liked being the first to arrive and the last to leave a sweatshop factory, but it wasn’t something to discredit or destroy, when I left a new boy would take that role, and as long as it existed, it would also induct another young person in the live and learn reality of working class life. There is no bullshit job in that, the role was hard work in far from pleasant circumstances but in that workshop was a bastion of integrity that was sincere to itself, and that without chalk, blackboard, screen or speakers could impart vital education about physicality, sociability, teamworking, mutual respect, understanding of roles and co-operative performance, and more importantly appreciation of the gifts of others.
Does Graeber choose to define that as bullshit from his privileged middle class perch? What I learned is that nearly any role or job has a person who can turn it into something worthwhile. Human capacity comes from our ability to intermesh diverse abilities with common purpose and hinges on motivation and respectful treatment. Outside of encouragement and support for good stewardship of those things we don’t need external decision makers to tell us what is or is not of value to people, the world, or our own communities. These are things we understand when we witness it, discover for ourselves and we should step back from standing in judgement of others over.
Robert Merton popularised the term ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’, a term that sanitized what is looked at from the grassroots as implementation errors resulting from the fallacious overview gained from an ivory tower. From a ground level perspective many mistakes are obvious before they are imposed, and some mistakes we would say, take a particular high level of education to create the outcomes that are such a poor reflection of the stated intents. I recall an endeavour from a local university to provide free websites for community groups. It on the surface seemed generous, but it’s mechanics were those of raising grant funding to support a post graduate student project, that wasn’t maintained after they left.
The community groups were left with poor and dated reflections of what they did. What’s worse though was the destroyed potential. The burgeoning of new internet developers in the local community, keen to show and develop their gifts to make the mutually connected community stronger, had the opportunity snuffed out by an institution that didn’t even give that a single thought. What would have been a better contribution to common good, some free minimal websites or a set shared gift connected community members? That time sensitive moment of mutual need could have bound people in endeavours created by the need to rise to real challenges of the time that would open opportunity for the future.
The local economy is a colourful and complex place, that in face of macro economic plans will always find itself on the losing end at some stage in an economic cycle. A basic income is a state defined inverted tribute, similar to the earlier example of institutional charity it will by no means entail the growth of local economy. At the same time for those drawn into dependence on it, it will force them into the fight to keep it at levels that stay ahead of the corrosive effect of inflation.
The local economy can find solutions to resource problems and those solutions will fall into one of the three types: things we can do ourselves, things we need help to achieve, and things we need help to see them done. It seems odd that basic income proponents haven’t carefully considered how likely it will be that increased consumption will be the greater outcome, and simply fuel an escalating need for cash. This would embed the fourth and least wanted type of solution to local resource problems making it the go to option: things that [only] externals do for us. The ‘unintended consequence’ here is the potential growing within the grassroots gets eliminated because they simply haven’t been allowed to grow to a point where they can stand against corporate capacity to swamp a newly opened market.
The argument to make basic income – universal, is a key and inseparable part of it’s political promotion strategy. However it is that lack of fine grained local context that means for every community aspect that wins, there will be some aspect that loses. For every person that finds they have more time to pursue what they want, there will be another whose sharing connection to that person, that would have mutually enabled both, will now be rendered useless. Government cash will replace the sharing of a favour that builds connection. Where once community knowledge and capacity would be the go to option, consumer options will stalk in pursuit of the new money.
The real proving ground is community responsiveness to it’s needs. This forms the test against which ability to meet necessities breeds creativity, inventiveness and realisation of personal gifts. To aim to replace that complexity with a simple fix, risks it becoming a different thing altogether: a mutual need that spawns from self interest towards maximising basic income level. Do we even have any way for a national state scale system to meaningfully observe what results from this?
Continued in Part 2