An Anti-Work Feminism Doesn’t Require a UBI

Damn great graphic.

Damn great graphic.

I talked a little bit about being a feminist in my last article (and I’ve also talked about it here and here) but I want to use this space to dedicate a bit more time to hashing it out. Mostly responding directly to an article that a long-time supporter of the site shared with me somewhat recently. It’s an article by Madelaine Schwartz on Dissent Magazine’s website called Less Work, More Time that celebrates the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) from a feminist perspective.

Unfortunately the feminist perspective taken from a magazine that ostensibly prides itself on being against the status quo relies on one of the most patriarchal organizations to fund its “utopia”: The state.

Perhaps most disturbing is this passage:

Critics of basic income have argued that unconditional money transfers are no replacement for a strong welfare system, and indeed, a basic income cannot exist on its own. The sum given would have to be substantial yet not so large that it takes away from existing social welfare programs like health care and education.

Further, while it would do much to reduce dependence on waged work, a basic income alone could not ensure that the burden of caregiving and household work would be distributed equally among men and women. Research done in Nordic countries suggests that gender-blind redistribution of money without incentives may not bring about equality between men and women; given the same amount of money to watch television as to nurse a child, an individual might choose the former.

For this reason, the basic income could not be the only change; state supported childcare would be needed to take on part of the duties of housework. (emphasis added)

The so-called “strong” welfare system isn’t so much strong in the sense of being helpful but strong in the sense of being a gigantic trap for the poor. It’s a system (at least in the US) whereby the unemployed, disabled or otherwise worse-off segments of society have to go through signature after signature and test after test to prove they need help. One of the best aspects of the UBI is that it’s not strong like the current welfare system, it’s in fact very weak when it comes to bureaucracy. And that is one of the things that I like best about it, it’s an (almost) no strings attached deal for the poor.

But instead of relishing an opportunity to keep that positive feature, Schwartz decides to embrace it and say that, yes, the UBI isn’t enough for the state to do. It also has to help raise our children.

Now, I know not everyone reading this is an anarchist and that’s okay. But you don’t need to be an anarchist to think that there is something deeply wrong with the government having some sort of control over our children. The idea that the state is going to know better than us about what needs doing in the house is preposterous and again cuts against the very nature the usual UBI propositions and what makes it so much better than the current welfare system.

Lastly, at least as far as this quote goes, it’s likely impossible to make the work absolutely equal between men and women in the household. And no matter how many laws or state agencies you create, it’s likely people are going to do whatever works best for them and their communities. And sometimes those things are going to cut against what the state wants. Which begs the question: What does Schwartz think the state will do when people, you know, dissent?

Because historically, governments have never taken kindly to being told that their citizens aren’t interested in whatever measures the state thinks is best for them. And the folks who are often times most harmed by state policies that are made for the good of “the people”? Often the most marginalized or disempowered communities within society.

Including, unsurprisingly, women.

And how well is the state currently helping with this process of childcare anyhow? Are the public schools such a center of aiding women in their quest to retain autonomy over their life? Are the public schools suddenly not informed by the Prussian system whereby children were treated as cogs of a greater thing then them, namely the state?

What exact reasoning do we have to presume that the state would do so much better if we had some sort of shift over to a UBI? It is likely a liberal reasoning that sees the state mostly as a problem due to particular people or policies instead of institutional flaws that are deep rooted and insurmountable except in the fact of total abolition.

On another note, I looked into one of the examples they gave as a successful UBI in the US:

A basic income would provide a minimum living standard. While not enough to replace a salary, it would begin to eradicate poverty and minimize income inequality. Variations on basic income have been implemented successfully. … Indeed, a modified form of basic income already exists in the United States: since 1976, residents of Alaska have received yearly shares of the state’s oil revenue.

I had heard of this (briefly) before and decided I was interested enough to do some basic research on it. Keep in mind I never used the keyword “criticism” and tried to be as neutral in my search as possible. But despite these safety measures the outlook for this form of basic income seems bleak as of recent:

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker announced a veto Wednesday that will cap the state’s Permanent Fund oil dividend for residents at $1,000 — less than half what they got last year just for living in Alaska.

NBC station KTUU of Anchorage reported that Walker’s veto prevents $666.4 million from being transferred into the fund’s earnings reserve. He said that the state can no longer afford the high dividends given annually from the $52 billion fund.

A stretch of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline north of Fairbanks. Alaska residents are directly paid a percentage of revenue every year, but the payment is straining state resources, the governor says.

“If we don’t make a change on the dividend program,” Walker said, “it goes away in four years.”

It’s also worth noting that the basic income project is controlled by a state owned corporation which…just sounds like the least democratic thing I can possibly imagine, to be honest. This situation leads to scenarios like ideas being rejected because it’s not “an attractive investment opportunity”  instead of some alternative incentive structure I’d imagine Schwartz and other UBI proponents would prefer.

One of the biggest problems with using Alaska as some sort of great UBI example is that it’s mostly reliant on an unusual amount of natural resources around it, to make it work. Sadly, most of the US isn’t so lucky to have the oil reserves that Alaska prides itself on. But then, Alaska also seems to be declining in the amount of oil revenue it’s making thanks to decreasing costs of obtaining oil barrels. This makes Alaska a rather temporary and unreliable source to praise the UBI from. Even Alaska’s own governor has been more honest than you’d expect about the matter, harsher too.

And look, I’m not saying the fund does nothing right or hasn’t helped anyone. I’m also not claiming there aren’t any good things that we can take from this example. But it’s also probably not a perfect or as good of an example as Schwartz and other UBI proponents might prefer too. What with the fact that it apparently can barely pay its own bills.

To be fair, I haven’t looked at Schwartz’s other examples but suffice it to say if they’re cited with the same sort of rigor that Schwartz used for the Alaska example, then consider me unimpressed. But I could be wrong and perhaps these other examples are much better at giving the poor a better life.

On the other hand I’ve wrestled with the idea of free money before and some other studies and ideas UBI folks have given and remarked that they have a low amount of time they actually measure to get the results. I think a lot more studying needs to be done before we get as excited about UBI as some other folks do.

In the end my central claim is, I think, a fairly intuitive one:

Given that the state is perhaps the most violent, oppressive, patriarchal institution throughout history it seems like a bad idea to put it in charge of a feminist utopia.

I also don’t think we need the state, an institution that has consistently prided itself on getting people to equate “jobs” with “value” and “being productive in a capitalist system” with “having a meaningful life”  to get less work and more time in our lives. If anything, the bureaucracy and control over us will increase our work and decrease our time.


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It’s like a UBI except only for me and one particular project and…well okay, it’s not really a UBI at all.

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