Impossible? Infeasible? We landed on the moon over 50 years ago… Is a basic income really that much harder than space travel!?
As a species we have accomplished a great deal. If we were able to have a conversation with someone from the distant past they would be staggered by the technological leaps and bounds accomplished by her species. Our collective history (and present) is in part a story of invention, genius and the overcoming of what has been thought of as impossible or inviable. Yet ‘impossible’ and ‘infeasible’ remain the motto and fallback positions for people on both the left and right.
Other than perhaps the exploitation objection (‘I work so why shouldn’t others… and why should I pay for those others not to work??’) the doubts that are most often raised by detractors and/or skeptics pertain to the feasibility of any proposals for basic income. The world, so it is argued, simply isn’t equipped to cope with basic income: Such a policy will scare capital away to less generous shores, it’ll cost too much to implement and sustain, it’ll stall the economy and cripple production etc. etc. These concerns are valid perhaps and worthy of consideration. But let’s allow our ideas a little air instead of packing them away too hastily.
In answering this charge of un-feasibility I want to consider the matter from two viewpoints. First, I draw briefly on an historical example when the same cry went up and the same apocalyptic predictions were made in the effort to ward off the demands made by various social movements and/or ‘subordinated agency’. Then I consider feasibility from a more moral viewpoint. If something isn’t immediately feasible do we simply call time on it, pop it back in the drawer? Or do we adjust our societal arrangements, the ‘frozen will’ of our current institutions in order to inaugurate new conditions of possibility, new viewpoints on what is feasible and what is not?
It might be the case, as David Graeber has argued, that ‘capitalism cannot imagine its own eternity’. At the same time however, its current incarnation in the neo-liberal mould is very good at presenting us with the notion that ‘there is no alternative’: It is, in other words, very good at shutting down ideas that might reach beyond and change the current ways of doing things. But if this attitude had been an historical constant, we would never have achieved even a lick of progress out of the teeth of what we would recognise now as severe injustice.
Take the battle for the ten-hour day in the US as an example.
‘They will work from six to six – how absurd!’
This was the headline in the Federal Gazette in 1791 when the journeyman carpenters went on strike in demand of a ten hour working day (2 hours saved for breakfast and dinner for those of you doing the math). It was a similar response to that which greeted the same demand in Boston in 1825. This time the retort was a little more developed and made reference to ‘salutary and steady usages’ which had prevailed, they argued, since ‘time immemorial.’ The battle continued for decades. Workers in Lowell, Mass. for instance didn’t start demanding the ten hour day until well into the 1840’s.
But these demands seem, in hindsight, utterly justified, a matter of little more than common sense. To say otherwise would, at this historical juncture, seem barbaric. (Though, of course, cheap trainers and electronics have at their root this very same barbarism.) So is the point that the demands that can be justly made have all been met and we are at the point now where any additional demands are infeasible and unrealistic? Have we reached the outer limits of our world’s ethical capacity? We have made it this far and can go no further? I have my doubts… To say so relies on the bizarre assumption that technological gains made in the past 100 years have limited our possibilities for improvement.
When we talk about feasibility we should be careful not to underestimate the distance we have come in defeating all manner of barriers that have been deemed inviable. Physics, biology and chemistry are just some spheres within which feasibility has been redefined. The wonderful thing about science however is once you do an experiment 3, 4 or maybe 5 times people start seeing things from a new perspective in which what was once lampooned as impossible is suddenly very much thought of in terms of the possible. To say otherwise is seen as ludicrous.
Social reality does not enjoy such a status. What is thought of as feasible in this domain is more a battleground in which vigilance is necessary to just hold one’s ground. Take the NHS. It arrived with the familiar prophecies surrounding socialized healthcare: that it would signal the end of freedom as we knew it, bankrupt the nation, turn doctors into bureaucrats. Then came a time when it had embedded itself in the national consciousness, became more or less a given, something we had achieved and which we only worked to improve and amend never to scrap and start again. Now, however, it feels like old battles are having to be fought again, old ground having to be recovered from foes that were figured either vanquished or convinced.
More than this however, is the tension between what we think of as right and the demands which that makes on what we should regard as feasible: We should bring reality in conformity with what justice demands rather than always have justice meekly submit to what we see as ‘real’. The ten hour day was not just feasible it was necessary and utterly justified. We should not follow neo-liberalism in its chant of ‘There is no Alternative!’. Rather, we should construct visions of a future that are defined by new understandings of the feasible which take as their guide what we believe is just, rather than what we believe must be the case. Basic income could well be a part of such vision.