James Livingston has responded to my critique of his Aeon essay, “Fuck Work.” His response was published in the Spanish magazine Contexto y Acción. One can find an English translation here. What follows is my reply:
Livingston and I share many political aims. We each wish to reverse wealth polarization, to alleviate systemic poverty, and to enable diverse forms of human flourishing. The professor and I disagree, however, on the nature of contemporary economic reality. As a consequence, we propose very different political programs for realizing the sort of just and prosperous society we both desire.
In his rejoinder to my critique, Livingston proudly affirms his commitment to Liberalism and makes a Liberal understanding of political economy the basis of his proposed alternative to the neoliberal catastrophe. Deeming government an intrinsically authoritarian institution, he situates civil society as a realm of self-actualization and self-sufficiency. The problem, as he formulates it, is that while capitalist innovation has made it possible to increasingly automate production, the capitalist class has robbed us of our purchasing power and preserved a punishing wage relation. This prevents us from enjoying the fruits of automated labor. Livingston’s solution is to reject an outmoded Protestant work ethic; tax the unproductive corporate profits that fuel financial markets; and redistribute this money in the form of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). The result: each member of civil society will be liberated to associate, labor, or play as they please.
Like Livingston, the left has long flirted with Liberal dreams that autonomous and self-regulating associations might one day replace the difficulties of political governance. After the Great Recession, these dreams have returned. They imagine algorithms and robots to be politically neutral. They seek a life of shared luxury through automatically dispensed welfare payments. This sounds nice at first blush. However, such reveries are at best naive and, at worst, politically defeatist and self-destructive. Abandoned and abused by neoliberal governance, today’s pro-UBI left doubles down on neoliberalism’s do-it-yourself caretaking. It envisions delimited forms of monetary redistribution as the only means to repair the social order. Above all, it allows anti-authoritarianism to overshadow the charge of social provisioning.
Livingston’s articulation of this dream is especially fierce. As such, it crystallizes UBI’s central contradiction: Demanding a no-strings-attached welfare system, the left seeks to cut government out of social provisioning while at the same time relying on government for regular financial support. This position, which fails to rethink the structure of social participation as a whole, leaves disquieting political questions unanswered: How will we provide adequate human and material resources for our growing elderly populations? How can we meaningfully restructure social production to address climate change? How do we preserve a place for the arts outside of competitive MFA programs and speculative art markets?
Such questions are unforgivingly realistic, not pie-in-the-sky musings. And no amount of volunteerism, goodwill, or generous welfare payments can adequately meet these demands. Indeed, only government can afford to mobilize the persons and materials needed to answer such demands. And while algorithms and robots are powerful social instruments, we cannot rely on automation to overcome extant logics of discrimination and exclusion. To do so is to forget that social injustice is politically conditioned and that government alone holds the monetary capacity to transform economic life in its entirety.
This brings me to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Far from an “obscure intellectual trend,” MMT is a prominent heterodox school of political economy that emerged from post-Keynesian economics and has lately influenced the economic platforms of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Spain’s United Left. For MMT, money is not a private token that states amass and hemorrhage. Rather, it is a boundless government instrument that can easily serve the needs of the entire community. International monetary agreements such the Eurozone’s Maastricht Treaty may impose artificial limits on fiscal spending, but these are, MMT argues, political constraints. They are not economically inevitable and can immediately be dissolved. In truth, every sovereign polity can afford to take care of its people; most governments simply choose not to provide for everyone and feign that their hands are tied.
To be sure, Liberalism has debated the “designation and distribution of rival goods,” as Livingston explains. In doing so, however, it has overlooked how macroeconomic governance conditions the production of these goods in the first place. MMT, by contrast, stresses money’s creative role in enabling productive activity and places government's limitless spending powers at the heart of this process.
In lieu of Liberal “redistribution” via taxation, MMT calls for a politics of “predistribution.” Redistributive politics mitigate wealth disparity by purportedly transferring money from rich to poor. This is a false and deeply metaphysical gesture, however, since it mistakes the monetary relation for a finite resource instead of embracing government’s actual spending capacities. MMT’s predistributive politics, meanwhile, insist that government can never run out of money and that meaningful transformation requires intervening directly in the institutions and laws that structure economic activity. MMT does not imply a crude determinism in which government immediately commands production and distribution. Rather, it politicizes fiscal spending and the banking system, which together underwrite the supposedly autonomous civil society that Livingston celebrates.
MMT maintains, moreover, that because UBI is not sufficiently productive, it is a passive and ultimately inflationary means to remedy our social and environmental problems. It thus recommends a proactive and politicized commitment to public employment through a voluntary Job Guarantee. Federally funded yet operated by local governments and nonprofits, such a system would fund communal and ecological projects that the private sector refuses to pursue. It would stabilize prices by maintaining aggregate purchasing power and productive activity during market downturns. What is more, by eliminating forced unemployment, it would eradicate systemic poverty, increase labor’s bargaining power, and improve everyone’s working conditions. In this way, a Job Guarantee would function as a form of targeted universalism: In improving the lives of particular groups, such a program would transform the whole of economic life from the bottom up.
Unlike the Job Guarantee, UBI carries no obligation to create or maintain public infrastructures. It relinquishes capital-intensive projects to the private sector. It banks on the hope that meager increases in purchasing power will solve the systemic crises associated with un- and underemployment.
Let us, then, abandon UBI’s “end of work” hysteria and confront the problem of social provisioning head on. There is no escape from our broken reality. We do better to seize present power structures and transform collective participation, rather than to reduce politics to cartoonish oppositions between liberty and tyranny, leisure and toil. Technology is marvelous. It is no substitute, however, for governance. And while civil society may be a site of creativity and struggle, it has limited spending abilities and will always require external support.
It is essential, therefore, to construct an adequate welfare system. On this matter, Livingston and I agree. But Livingston’s retreat from governance strikes me as both juvenile and self-sabotaging. Such thinking distracts the left from advancing an effective political program and building the robust public sector we need.