Why Reciprocity Might be Bullshit


Sometimes it is better not to reciprocate the efforts of others and do something else instead.

The gangster’s refrain, when there’s extortion a-foot: ‘I do for you, you don’t do for me…’.

The gangster has lent us money, for which, at the time, we were very grateful. We were able to pay some bills, keep some other gangsters off our backs and allowed a little breathing room to collect our thoughts. But now he’s back and asking for the money (with interest) to be returned forthwith. A service was provided, terms were agreed upon, signatures crossed paper and now, much to the chagrin of the gangster, we look like we are reneging.

On the face of it, this seems like an exchange that many of us (perhaps) can avoid. But in actual fact I want to argue that there’s something like this going on constantly in the marketplace as it currently operates. We are shown the multiplicity of public goods, welfare provisions and the productive efforts of others (well remunerated and otherwise). Our lack of effort flies directly in the face of all this generosity and hard work. More: It is deemed an insult cashed out in the following retorts. How dare we not reciprocate the concerted effort of all our fellow citizens who do so much to produce this multiplicity of goods! You think they like these jobs?! You think they wouldn’t rather be on their arses doing nothing?

The argument offered seems pretty full-proof. Where others have made significant efforts to contribute productively from which everybody benefits, so those benefiting others should do the same. To do otherwise, when one is capable, is to be a parasite, something the others would be better off without.

And yet…

Things are not so simple. What is the standard that judges whether our efforts are valuable? Why should we let the gangster’s refrain play so large a part in our decisions? What they are asking of us in return might, as in the case of extortion, be unreasonable. Fine, you pay your taxes and that goes to pay for my hospital bills, education and local library but does that mean you get to define what I owe you? Does that mean my contributory efforts have to kneel before your arbitrating judgements?

One problem with that assumption is that such expectations are not always easily met. This is especially true on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Technological changes, labour market fluctuations, the introduction of zero-hour contracts and the economic recession affecting demand have all impacted on the availability of work. There’s too many people scrambling after opportunities to reciprocate.

But there’s even more to it than this…

Rather than take on jobs we see as damaging the environment, poisoning the priorities of a large group of people or as unworthy of our dignity as creative and complex people with a finite number of hours to live, we use the basic income to resist and withdraw.

By refusing to meet your productive efforts in the marketplace with my own I could do other things outside the market and which don’t get a wage but which are nonetheless contributory. These efforts can range from community gardening, to taking one’s elderly neighbour to the hospital, coaching the local football team, running a life-skills class or knitting baby clothes for the local nursery. The list is probably endless. There’s no money involved but that doesn’t mean contributions aren’t getting made and effort expended for the good of society at large. An unconditional basic income would make these forms of contribution a more vivid possibility for a great deal of people currently on the lookout for chimerical work opportunities.

Furthermore, the demand for productive efforts confined to the marketplace plays right into the hands of a society that isn’t functioning all that well at present. If we wish to change that then there needs to be a way for people to withdraw and refuse to involve themselves with the poorly functioning practices and institutions that currently structure those societies. Rather than take on jobs we see as damaging the environment, poisoning the priorities of a large group of people or as unworthy of our dignity as creative and complex people with a finite number of hours to live, we use the basic income to resist and withdraw. It is a fund for the prerogative of refusal, a means of keeping open the question of what I owe you and what you can expect of me (and of course vice versa).

This is not to say we rid our vocabulary of demands and obligation. Reciprocity remains an ideal. But the terms of that exchange are far from being settled. Whatever the economic arguments are, whatever personal indignity and desperation neoliberals believe is inseparable from the proper functioning of a society, true freedom and individual power comes from being able to challenge that which society expects of us. Basic income is the means to institute that power.

Picture courtesy of Aidan Jones

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