The outbreak of covid-19 has exposed the glaring inequality in housing, health, education and work in Ireland and around the so-called “developed world.” This has led to renewed calls from some quarters for a universal basic income for all citizens.
Some of those proposing this are well intentioned and believe it is a means of ending inequality and poverty. The reality is that it would do neither: what it would do is provide a means for a massive transfer of wealth from the poorest to the wealthiest, and the privatisation of the remainder of state services.
The original social-democratic UBI proposal was seen as an addition to welfare payments that would greatly assist the most vulnerable citizens. Unfortunately the greedy eye of capitalism, as always, sees an opportunity to turn this to their advantage.
In 1791 Theobald Wolfe Tone wrote in the “Manifesto to the Friends of Freedom in Ireland”:
“When the aristocracy come forward, the people fall backward; when the people come forward, the aristocracy, fearful of being left behind, insinuate themselves into our ranks and rise into timid leaders or treacherous auxiliaries.”
The language is a little archaic but the sentiment is as real today as it was all those years ago. In UBI, capitalists have seen a fertile ground from which to take over all state assets and have insinuated themselves into the debate, waiting to pounce.
The well-intentioned section of the UBI lobby must take into account the political system of government under which we in Ireland, and for that matter the rest of the developed world, live. We live in a neoliberal imperialist world, where the dominant political approach is one that favours low tax, free-market capitalism, business deregulation, and privatisation, coupled with the withdrawal of governments from the provision of public services.
This proposal is a Trojan horse for the capitalist class. Make no mistake: if it were to be introduced it would not be a helping hand to the most vulnerable in society; it would be a method whereby governments could withdraw from the provision of all public services. All would be privatised, one by one, and handed over to the real power-brokers of the developed world: transnational corporations and finance capital.
The government would replace its social responsibilities with a universal basic income. As each service is privatised, UBI would be increased slightly and temporarily, until the next crisis in the boom-and-bust cycle of capitalism. That crisis would then be used as an excuse for reducing UBI to a more acceptable level for the capitalist class.
The mass privatisation of services would lead to the transfer of all state assets to private hands, in a flooding up of wealth not seen since the glory days of colonial plunder by what is now classed as the “developed world.” As governments withdraw from the provision of services, taxes would be slashed for business, leading to even higher profits for capital.
If that were not enough, the most vulnerable, who it was hoped UBI would help, would hand over their UBI payments to the capitalist class in the form of private rents, private health services, and the plethora of other services they will seize in the privatisation of state assets.
Instead of UBI, workers should have UPS—universal public services. With all the wealth that is produced by workers, the very minimum that the state should guarantee is universal public health, housing, and education, coupled with a state guarantee of a job, whereby all workers have the protection of a union with full collective bargaining rights.
Society was not built by corporations or governments: it was built by workers. How can there be no jobs when we have a housing crisis, a health crisis, overcrowded schoolrooms, and inadequate infrastructure, from water to broadband, and much more. Work should be decided according to the needs of society, not the profit needs of business. So long as work is dependent on someone else’s profits it will never get done. Resources will be wasted, manufacturing yet another brand of paint, yoghurt, toothpaste—whatever it takes to fill the bank accounts of the elite.
The provision of a universal public health service, housing and education is one of the basic necessities for having a healthy, well-educated society capable of working to produce for the needs of society and creating the wealth to provide those services.
Many on the left, just as with UBI, have been convinced by treacherous auxiliaries insinuated into our ranks into believing that there is no alternative to the 12½ per cent corporation tax, that if it were to be increased there would be an exodus of foreign direct investment. That investment came here to benefit from our young, educated and skilled work force. They are receiving the benefits of our young people for an illusory 12½ per cent tax. The great majority pay only a tiny percentage; some pay next to nothing.
During a recent court case in New York it was revealed that Coca-Cola paid a mere 1.4 per cent tax on profits in Ireland, out of $7.2 billion, over the three years 2007–09, robbing the Irish people of $800 million—all facilitated by the Irish state.
We need to build an economy for the common good, where everyone benefits and nobody is left behind, an Ireland where we can all reach our full potential, where we all work with each other, for each other, collectively, not just to benefit a tiny elite.