‘Workless’ capitalism?

July 4, 2016

From the July-August 2016 issue of News & Letters

Detroit—Karl Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program deals in some detail with a post-capitalist society, characterizing it as a society wherein labor is not a means to life but a necessity of life. Economists have been promoting a plan called “Universal Basic Income” (UBI) intended to address the onslaught of robots in society taking the jobs of factory workers, bank clerks, fast food restaurant workers and even drivers, by offering each person a basic income from the government.

UBI is aimed at providing a transition from the work economic arrangements that exist to what these economists call “workless society”—but still under capitalism. Europe has been grappling with the idea, and Switzerland even held a referendum on institutionalizing UBI, which was rejected by the voters. But are we talking of a “workless society,” where no one has to work? Or in reality a society where there is no work to be had and the rulers have to do something to stop the revolt?

Marx expected such a profound transformation of society under communism that what we think of as work would be something completely different from anything that we had experienced. One question is: What will be the psychological and economic implications for the “surplus population,” what Marx would call the reserve army of the unemployed? Furthermore, is UBI even economically feasible?

It is difficult to conceive of a solution to increased robotization, never mind a workless society, if we think in capitalistic categories and stop at the limits of capitalism. All of these categories wind up as dead ends.

A New York Times article called UBI the most optimistic of the alternatives that we face in a “workless society.” But it ignored Marx in its treatment because Marx’s vision demanded a revolution and the transcendence of capitalism. Marx devoted much of his later writings to the idea of a society in which labor is completely transformed as the necessities of life impinge on the existence of everybody.

—Andy Phillips

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