Sunday Oct 21

Poverty propaganda comprises a series of messages that work to stigmatise and negatively label people experiencing poverty or other forms of disadvantage as undeserving, and culpable for their own predicament. It takes a variety of forms and operates in different and sometimes complex and conflicting ways, but it always works to reinforce the notion that there are segments of the population who are lazy, work-shy or deviant in some other way and hence underserving of support, particularly in the form of out-ofwork benefits. Poverty propaganda rests on an individualistic explanation of life chances and life experiences, and thus the structural explanations and drivers of poverty are clouded out. The current context is one where poverty propaganda thrives and becomes ever more powerful as neo-liberal capitalist regimes, such as that which has been operating in Britain over the last forty years, orchestrate a view of life and life chances that prioritises individual responsibility over structural conditions and drivers that cause poverty. Rising general standards of living and overt discourses that have openly denied the existence of poverty have all worked to foster fertile ground for the proliferation of poverty propaganda.

Language lies at the heart of poverty propaganda; but, as we will see through the pages of this book, poverty propaganda has real effects on both the existence of poverty and the ways in which people experiencing poverty are treated and feel about their own lives. Poverty propaganda presents a picture of both the causes and consequences of poverty that stands in opposition to the realities of poverty, but its messages are so simple that they appear to makes sense to many people, and thus have in many respects become common sense. Part of the appeal of poverty propaganda and the reason why it is frequently accepted as truth is that it makes effective use of ready and easily digested caricatures. Easily understood sound bites work to create a very distinct perception of ‘us’ and ‘them’, with those experiencing poverty or related disadvantages being relegated to a very distinctive ‘other’ (Lister, 2004). Ready sound bites such as the ‘shirkers’ and the ‘strivers’ or ‘hardworking families’ are used to evoke feelings of unfairness in the system (particularly the ‘welfare’ system). The language shifts over time; so, in more recent times, we have heard a lot about ‘families who have never worked’ and the idea of ‘intergenerational cultures of worklessness’, along with ‘troubled families’, but essentially all of these ideas portray poverty as the preserve of the undeserving who are culpable for their own fate.

The messages of poverty propaganda are diffuse and are threaded through policy and political and popular discourse in a way that ensures that they have clarity and consistency. As we will see in below and in Chapter Seven, the focus and language of policy documents has shifted in recent years, particularly since 2010, towards a ‘social problem’ focus. The welfare state has been increasingly depicted as problematic, leading to supposed ‘welfare dependency’. Structural drivers of poverty, such as unemployment and inadequate out-of-work benefits, are rarely cited as contemporary causes of poverty, with more emphasis being given to ‘welfare dependency’ (DWP, 2010; 2015; 2016), whereby those in receipt of out-of-work benefits are depicted as losing a willingness to work because of the security of those benefits. ‘Troubled families’ have also received significant amounts of attention, becoming, as we will see below, the sole focus of work around ‘social justice’ under the Coalition government elected in 2010. What all of these discourses produce is a problem-focused analysis, whereby social problems such as unemployment become problems that can be explained by the behaviour of those experiencing the problem and the structural causes of poverty can be conveniently removed from view.

These issues are then reworked in popular and political discourses, perpetuating the view that those experiencing poverty are undeserving of support and culpable for their own situations. Periodic announcements from powerful senior political figures frequently refer to the welfare
state as purely meaning out-of-work benefits and depict the system as variously ‘broken’ or ‘failing’ and as being responsible for producing generations of work-shy families (see Shildrick et al, 2012b). At other times generic depictions are drawn on (as happened after the riots in 2011) to decry sections of society that are deemed to be deviant and problematic and to extend and deepen generic narratives of the work-shy and underserving that were already well embedded in popular and political discourses. It is the malleability of poverty propaganda that makes it particularly powerful and effective. Generic populations are implicated in its stigmatising narratives, from those living in social housing to people with life-limiting illnesses who are forced to rely on out-of-work benefits. It is this diffuse and indiscriminate nature of poverty propaganda that makes it so effective and powerful.

Newspapers, in particular the tabloid press, play a crucial role in propagating poverty propaganda and adding to its weight by producing sometimes outrageous headlines that reinforce the notion that some people are work-shy, lazy and ‘getting something for nothing’. These depictions of people experiencing poverty and related disadvantages have become particularly prominent through television programmes of the genre referred to as ‘poverty porn’. These programmes, perhaps best exemplified by Benefits Street (made by Love Productions and first aired in 2014), present people experiencing poverty in ways that reinforce individualised understandings of poverty and the idea that people are somehow culpable for their own predicament. As such, the programmes are very good examples of how poverty propaganda works.

Poverty propaganda successfully constructs generic but very powerful narratives around poverty and related disadvantage and the people who experience it. Its rhetoric successfully obscures the real causes of poverty that are structural and related to the lack of opportunities.

Tracy Shildrick is Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University, UK. She has researched extensively in deprived neighbourhoods over the last eighteen years with a particular focus on poverty, worklessness and young people’s transitions to adulthood. Poverty Propaganda: Exploring the Myths is available from Bristol University Press (https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk)

In the UK we already have Child Benefit, which functions as a universal benefit for children. We have already discussed the UK’s NHS: a universal, unconditional, nonwithdrawable and highly efficient public service. In this chapter I shall discuss the social dividend (a form of Citizen’s Basic Income) distributed in Alaska, Citizen’s Basic Income pilot projects conducted in Namibia and India, Iran’s cash benefit, and a number of other experiments.

Alaska

Since 1977 the State of Alaska has been receiving royalties from oil extraction on state-owned land at Prudhoe Bay, and about 20% of the royalties have been saved in the Alaska Permanent Fund. When the fund was established in 1976, the state legislature decided that the principal of the fund should accumulate, so that future generations could benefit from what was bound to be a temporary income stream. No decision was made about how income from the fund’s investments should be used, except that sufficient was to be added to the capital to inflation-proof the fund. When in 1979 Governor Jay Hammond2 proposed that some of the surplus interest might be distributed to Alaska’s citizens, the idea was warmly received. The initial proposal was that the dividend received by each citizen should be proportional to the number of years that they had lived there, but a legal challenge on the basis that this would discriminate against recent arrivals succeeded, and the outcome was an equal annual payment to every citizen of Alaska who had lived in the state for at least a year.3 In 2017 the Alaska Permanent Fund had a total value of $58.9 bn,4 and the annual dividend paid in 2016 was $1,022 to each eligible resident.5 The world had its first Citizen’s Basic Income: although in some ways it has not behaved like one because the payments are made annually, so the income does not function as a regular income, and the amount fluctuates with the profits generated by the Permanent Fund, meaning that the dividend cannot be relied upon to provide a firm income floor.6

When he had been Mayor of Bristol Bay Borough, Hammond had tried unsuccessfully to establish a social dividend on the basis of fishing revenues. When he became Governor of Alaska in 1974, he decided to try again, on a larger scale, and for the same reasons: to prevent resources being squandered on public projects driven by interest groups, to help the poor, and to reflect the common ownership of the state’s natural resources. This time he succeeded. The Alaska Permanent Fund owes its existence to the right person being in the right place at the right time. It also owes its existence to public opinion. In 1966 Alaska sold oil drilling rights and spent all of the money. Public perception was that the proceeds had been wasted. Suggesting that a proportion of oil revenues should be saved for future generations was therefore a popular move, and legislators of a variety of political views could support it, so the fund was relatively easy to establish. The dividend, however, divided opinion, and was eventually achieved only slowly by making compromises, and by building a coalition of policy makers. Unlike the Fund, the
dividend is not protected by a constitutional amendment.7 It is protected by the fact that every resident receives it, and none of them would wish to lose it.

The dividend has increased personal income, and therefore consumption, and has thus increased employment. In 1990 it was estimated that for every $1 distributed, 13 Alaskan jobs, mainly in the service and trade sectors, were created. The dividend has had an anti-inflationary effect,8 and it has helped the poor. Alaska is the only state in the US in which inequality has decreased during the past twenty years.9 Whereas in 1980 Alaska’s net income inequality was the highest in the United States, in 2013 it was the lowest.10

Can the model be exported? Such dividends are popular once they are in place. Even with its oil revenues, Alaska is not among the states with the highest per capita income, and it uses only a small and now declining proportion of the interest generated by the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay the dividend.11 If ‘resources’ were to be sufficiently broadly defined to include land values, then most countries could establish resource dividends if they wished to do so. The Alaska model could therefore be tried elsewhere,12 and dividends established elsewhere would be at least as secure as Alaska’s. A change of government can easily lead to the abolition of targeted programmes, but a change of political ethos cannot damage the Alaska Permanent Fund or the dividend. The dividend has no enemies so there is no opposition movement in which a politician can make a home.13

Iran

Iran now has a cash transfer programme that looks remarkably like a Citizen’s Basic Income. In 2010 the Iranian government replaced subsidies on food and fuel with an unconditional cash payment of 455,000 rials per month (about US$40) to every individual.15

Before the reform, 70% of the food and fuel subsidies went to 30% of the population, and resulted in wasteful consumption of energy and foodstuffs, lack of investment, pollution and smuggling to countries that did not benefit from such subsidies.16 When the replacement of subsidies by cash transfers was first discussed, the plan was to provide additional cash to poorer members of society via a means test, and 17 million households completed means-test questionnaires. It was the public unrest resulting from that exercise that led to the abandonment of the means test. As soon as the suggestion was made that the money should be given to everyone (since the wealthy are taxed more than they would receive from the cash transfer), it just seemed obvious. Most of the households that had not applied for the payment then did so. The only requirement was that those who received the cash transfer had to complete tax returns. 96% of the population received the payments.17
In one respect the Iranian cash subsidy (the official designation) is not a Citizen’s Basic Income. The head of the household receives all of the household’s individual entitlements, so although the individual is the claimant unit in relation to the income’s calculation, the individual is not the claimant unit in relation to the income’s payment. The transfer is not truly universal either. Afghan refugees, many of whom have lived in Iran for decades, do not receive the cash subsidy, but do suffer price rises related to the withdrawal of commodity subsidies. Neither is it clear how sustainable the cash subsidy would be if oil revenues were to decline because the total value of the unconditional incomes has been above the savings from the abolition of fuel and food subsidies, giving rise to inflation, and because the language of rights has played no part in the establishment of the scheme, which both the government and the population regard as a pragmatic measure, and not necessarily a permanent one.18 An interesting question is the extent to which a universal payment will itself generate a concept of rights and a broader acceptance of democratic government. The scheme is enshrined in law, and it is possible that the resulting economic efficiencies, new investment, poverty reduction, and particularly income security, will recommend the scheme to both government and public as a longer-term necessity.19

While the cash subsidy does not constitute a subsistence income, it is a substantial start. For a family of five, it comes to something like two thirds of subsistence. If the research opportunity that the Iranian scheme might offer is taken up then we shall have available to us information that we do not yet have on how a Citizen’s Basic Income affects employment, consumption and household patterns.

The Iranian scheme is hugely important. We had thought that the widespread European debate on the benefits of a Citizen’s Basic Income20 might one day result in a Citizen’s Basic Income being established in a European country, so that Europe would be the first continent to see a genuine unconditional and nonwithdrawable income for every legal resident. But it was not to be. Alaska has now paid a Citizen’s Basic Income (an annual one) for 30 years; and now Iran has something very close to a Citizen’s Basic Income. A possible conclusion to draw is that this is one more signal of the end of US-European hegemony. The empire is dying and new empires are taking shape, doing what new empires always do: doing things in new ways, and in ways that the old empires (therefore) refuse, thus hastening their decline.

Nambia

Guy Standing22 started his presentation with the heart of his message: poverty is primarily a lack of money, so what people need is a means of providing economic security that is not paternalistic, is based on rights and not charity, benefits the most disadvantaged, encourages ecological  restraint and promotes dignified work.23 Of the three types of cash transfers available:

• universalistic and unconditional;
• targeted (usually on groups deemed to be the poorest, often by means-testing); and
• selective (for instance: in Latin America, cash transfers are received by poorer families who send their children to school, again requiring meanstesting);

means-tested systems suffer from problems familiar to developed countries, such as unemployment traps, poverty traps and savings traps: so in Africa new methods must be sought. At a BIEN Congress in Cape Town in 2006 much support was expressed for unconditional cash transfers, especially among trades unionists and community and church representatives – and now a pilot project involving two Namibian villages had answered some common criticisms of unconditional transfers: that they would reduce labour supply, would go to the rich as well as the poor, would be wasted on alcohol and other undesirable expenditure, would be unaffordable and would lower incentives to save. The pilot project ran from 2007 to 2009. It built on an existing debate about the possibility of a Citizen’s Basic Income in Namibia,24 and also on the existing Namibian universal pension. It gave to each of a thousand inhabitants of two villages a Basic Income Grant (a Citizen’s Basic Income) of N$100 a month for every man, woman and child (100 Namibian dollars is about US$12). The costs were borne by donors, mostly in the form of voluntary contributions, and the project was carefully watched by potential donors, including the World Bank.

The team organising the pilot conducted a benchmark survey and an evaluation survey. The results were significant:25

• Household poverty dropped. In November 2007, 76% of residents of the two villages fell below a food poverty line. Within a year, this was reduced to 37%. Those households that were not joined by family members from outside the project villages (an understandable migration) saw poverty levels reduced from 76% to just 16%.
• The proportion of people engaged in economic activity rose from 44% to 55%, often through own-account work of various kinds: and especially through such initiatives as the tending of vegetable plots and the building of latrines, which directly led to an increase in the community’s health.
• Far from leading to idleness and a decrease in economic activity, the economic security that a Citizen’s Basic Income offered to people gave them the confidence to take the economic risks necessary for new productive activity.
• Child malnutrition fell. Children’s weight-forage improved in just six months from 42% of underweight children to just 10% by the end of the project.
• Before the pilot project, almost half of the villages’ children did not attend school regularly. Pass rates were at 40%, and drop-out rates were high. This was mainly because parents had to pay fees for their children to attend school. By the end of the project, 90% of parents were paying school fees, and most children now attend school. Drop-out rates fell from 40% to almost zero during the project.
• The clinic, like the school, is funded by attendees’ payments. During the project, residents could pay the attendance fee, use of the clinic increased sixfold, and the income of the clinic increased five-fold.
• During the first year of the project, average household debt fell from N$1,215 to N$772. Savings increased, as did ownership of livestock.
• Crime rates fell by 42% during the project. Theft of stock fell by a similar amount, giving people the confidence to invest in assets.
• The Citizen’s Basic Income gave to women a new economic independence, and paid-for sex was reduced accordingly.
• There was no evidence that the Citizen’s Basic Income led to an increase in alcoholism.
• Administrative costs were just 3–4% of the total outlay.26
• The villages of their own volition elected an advisory committee of 18 residents, and among its achievements were the opening of a post office, the establishment of savings accounts, and the closure of shebeens on the day of the monthly distribution of the grants.
• New shops were opened.
• The number of people experiencing daily food shortages fell from 30% to 12% of the population in just six months.
• The number of people who rarely experienced food shortages rose from 20% to 60% of the population.
• Economic activity rose fastest among women.
• Average income rose in every earnings quintile, and proportionately more for lower quintiles.
• Average income rose a staggering 200% in the lowest quintile excluding the N$100 (US$12) Citizen’s Basic Income, because people could now purchase the means for making an income, and they did.
• Low-wage employment was in many cases replaced by better-paid self-employment.

Following the end of the two-year pilot project, additional small unconditional grants had similar effects.27

The pilot project passed all of the tests: it was based on rights, not charity; it was not paternalistic; it benefited the poorest most; it promoted dignified work; and the kind of activity that it promoted cared for the environment: and the project refuted the critics of unconditional cash transfers. Far from encouraging dependency, the Citizen’s Basic Income increased enterprise; far from leading to waste of resources, it encouraged productive use of resources; and far from being unaffordable, the level of Citizen’s Basic Income employed in the pilot project would, if extended to the country as a whole, cost just 2.2% to 3.8% of GDP, and the increased economic activity generated by the Citizen’s Basic Income would by itself pay the entire cost.

Additional findings of the pilot project were that the Citizen’s Basic Income was not inflationary; that women’s economic status had risen relative to men’s; that the Citizen’s Basic Income was more effective than conditional transfers partly because it could not be removed by a local bureaucrat if someone upset them, as a conditional cash transfer could be; that because unconditional payments limit the power of bureaucrats, more of the money reached the poor; that in the context of today’s more flexible employment markets, trades unions are more willing to support a Citizen’s Basic Income; and that surveys in Africa have found that 80% of people favour unconditionality.

Standing speculated that one reason why policy makers in Africa and elsewhere do not like the idea of a Citizen’s Basic Income is that the scheme is emancipatory:28 it allows people to make choices for themselves, and it does not allow policy makers to interfere in people’s lives by imposing conditions on cash transfers.

The most vigorous, and to some extent hostile, questioning at the seminar came from people who worked for non-governmental organisations committed to providing goods and services in Africa and elsewhere. Is it not better to build schools for people than to give them money? Well, no, not necessarily: because if they are given the money then they will build the kind of school that they need, not the kind that someone outside the situation thinks that they need. The main achievement of the pilot project was that it proved that people do not waste money– they invest it wisely: in their children’s nourishment, health and education, in income-generating activity, and in the infrastructure that their community needs.

After the end of the pilot project, Namibia’s government showed no interest in the results, and the Prime Minister dismissed the Citizen’s Basic Income idea: ‘We can’t dish out money for free to people who do nothing.’ Initially the trades union movement followed the government’s lead and withdrew from the alliance that had sponsored the pilot project. A vociferous public reaction provoked trades union re-engagement, and for the first time the movement found itself in opposition to the government. Subsequently more interest has been shown, and in 2015 the Namibian president included a Citizen’s Basic Income in his anti-poverty strategy: but so far nothing has come of that stated interest.29

Malcolm Torry has been Director of the Citizen’s Basic Income Trust since 2001. He is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics. Why We Need a Citizen’s Basic Income is available from Policy Press at www.policypress.co.uk

BOOK REVIEW ON UNIVERSAL BASIC INCOME


Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty,
Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World
By Annie Lowrey (New York: Crown, 2018)


Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream
By Andy Stern with Lee Kravitz (New York: Public Affairs, 2016)


The Case for a Maximum Wage
By Sam Pizzigati (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018)

 

“Humans were still not only the cheapest robots around, but also, for many tasks, the only robots that could do the job. They were self-reproducing robots too. They showed up and worked generation after generation; give them 3000 calories a day and a few amenities, a little time off, and a strong jolt of fear, and you could work them at almost anything. Give them some ameliorative drugs and you had a working class, reified and coglike.” — Kim Stanley Robinson

Massive, disruptive change is happening in the world economy. Up to half of all current workers, both white and blue collar, could be driven into unemployment by technology. Automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are fueling a new industrial revolution.

Once again, as in the past when steam, fossil fuels and biotechnology upended lives and fortunes, workers are getting the short end of the stick—this time robots may come for our jobs. Unless, as science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson warns, we become the robots ourselves, first.

Instead of tinkering around the edges, several recent authors make a forceful case for a bold solution to our society’s growing levels of inequality and economic insecurity: a universal basic income (UBI). Andy Stern and Lee Kravitz kicked off the current explosion of discussion around UBI in 2016 with Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream. Their volume, like Annie Lowrey’s new book, Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World, makes a clear argument for giving people money to lift them out of poverty and smooth out their experiences of dislocation as the economy changes around them.

It is the ‘activity-based’ progression of automation that causes the most disruption. Stern starts with the story of his journey up the ladders of labor to the helm of SEIU, and then into a five-year deep dive on the future of work. He describes how labor has become far more productive in the past several decades, but the wages of workers have stagnated. Pieces of what we do, not entire jobs, are more efficient because of the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution. Economist Thomas Piketty’s now-famous equation from his 2013 magnum opus, Capital, sums this up: Since 1979, r (the rate of return on capital) has been greater than g (the rate of economic growth), leading to more inequality.

Lowrey and Stern describe in detail how income inequality is rising, with wealth concentrating at the top. Full-time work with benefits and retirement is becoming rare, and the jobless ‘recovery’ that followed the 2008 financial crash has created low-wage jobs instead of good jobs.

Lots of people around the world live in extreme poverty, including 18.5 million Americans. Stern sums this up well: “Combine technological unemployment with the two great de-couplings (growth from income, and work from jobs), add a dash of globalization and income inequality, and you get a highly combustible brew.”

Stern and Lowrey delve deeply into all the reasons for a UBI of one formulation or another, and forcefully counter the arguments against it. The data is on their side: People are better off when they have the money to get out of poverty. They are freer. They make better decisions and choices. Their children and dependents have more opportunity.

Lowrey makes a strong case that

The system would falter and fail if confronted with vast inequality and tidal waves of joblessness. A basic income is the obvious policy to keep people afloat.

She takes pains to bring in voices from across the political spectrum to support of this idea. After examining the problem from all sides, Lowrey concludes that UBI is the solution.

What I came to believe is this: A UBI is an ethos as much as it is a technocratic policy proposal. It contains within it the principles of universality, unconditionality, inclusion, and simplicity, and it insists that every person is deserving of participation in the economy, freedom of choice, and a life without deprivation. Our governments can and should choose to provide those things, whether through a $1,000-a-month stipend or not.

Stern comes to the much the same conclusion. A UBI, he argues, can fuel a new American Dream, in which “we’ll each have the freedom to choose and create the life we want for ourselves and our loved ones, according to our deepest values, without ever having to worry about our basic human needs for food, shelter, and security.”

The idea of a Universal Basic Income has been around at least since Ancient Rome, where every citizen over the age of ten received an annual allotment of grain. 500 years later, Caliph Abu Bakr provided a guaranteed income to all men, women, and children living under his rule. The idea surfaces once again in Tudor England, and in the revolutionary writings of Thomas Paine.

In fact, we already have a version of a UBI in the United States. The Alaska Permanent Fund has disbursed $55 billion of oil company revenue since 1976 to the residents of Alaska for the privilege of having their natural resources plundered.

This gets us to the first of several thorny questions about UBI. How can we pay for it?

It is somewhat surprising that while some proposals to raise the approximately three trillion dollars needed to provide $1,000 a month to everyone over eighteen in the United States zig left, these authors mostly zag right. Stern walls off Social Security and Medicare from plunder, but puts 126 other programs that help the poor on the chopping block. He does this, one presumes, in hopes of creating a political big tent that could pass some form of UBI in the next couple of years (not decades).

In her own sales pitch to the right, Lowrey argues that “Replacing the current American welfare state with a UBI would eliminate huge swaths of the government’s bureaucracy and reduce state interference in its citizens’ lives: Hello UBI, good-bye to the Departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development, the Social Security Administration, a whole lot of state and local offices, and much of the Department of Agriculture.”

Whether or not these arguments are driven by hopes of political viability, as someone who grew up on AFDC and food stamps, I’d caution this elite chorus of UBI boosters to think twice about eliminating proven programs before something new (and better) is created.

In fact, I’d like to see a lot more conversations with poor people and workers about their big ideas, hopes and dreams before we use them as guinea pigs in economic experiments championed by Silicon Valley.

I do appreciate Stern’s willingness to think big and strategically about how to win a UBI: Raise $100 million for a 2020 presidential candidate who supports UBI in early and battleground states. Build a digital activist base of 10 million people. A five-million-person tax strike. These are real strategies for winning.

The second thorny question about UBI is a big one. How does a UBI deal with the racism, sexism, and structural oppression that are baked into capitalism?

Lowrey faces race squarely: “Government policy explains why black families are more likely than white families to be impoverished. It has nudged black families into stingy and judgmental welfare programs rather than generous and invisible wealth-building programs.”

She describes poverty as a policy choice, and cites the examples of other high-income countries that have ended deprivation within their borders. “The issue is not that the United States cannot pull its people above the poverty line,” she says, “but that it does not want to.”

The truth is, as both Lowrey and Stern point out, every way an economy allocates resources and rewards is a choice. Who the economy serves is a choice. So is who is in and who is out.

“The safety net’s holes are not design flaws, but intentional features,” notes Lowrey. Lowrey also takes on gender, noting that global GDP would grow 11 percent if we stopped undervaluing women’s contributions to the economy.

Lowrey brings this point home. She declares, “Of course, as the United States built a safety net that excluded and punished black families, it created a wealth-building apparatus to buoy and enrich white ones.”

If you share these authors’ hope that a Universal Basic Income can reduce inequality in the United States, you could easily twist yourself in a Gordian knot trying to find a legislative compromise grounded in racial and gender justice that can also win. But maybe you don’t have to.

In his groundbreaking The Case for a Maximum Wage, Sam Pizzigati says, “Intense concentrations of wealth, political thinkers have long argued, undermine democratic governance.” The more wealth the wealthy amass, the more political power the wealthy gain.

Now we’re getting somewhere - to the heart of why the state takes on the role of managing social unrest. Throughout history, the state has protected powerful economic interests—everyone from the land barons and slave traders of the past to the polluters and profiteers of the present—from the pitchforks.

The fundamental problem, Pizzigati argues, may not be poverty, but the concentration of power in the hands of people who don’t want to solve poverty and its roots in racial and gender injustice.

We need, in short, to battle for economies that generate less inequality, not just for redistributive measures that aim to clean up the messes inequality creates. This redistribution has taken the inequality-generating economy as a given and essentially accepted that this economy will end up advantaging some and disadvantaging others.

Now we’re really getting to the heart of the matter, one close to every organizer’s heart. Power. And how we can keep income and wealth from concentrating in the first place.

Pizzigati explains, “Governments the rich dominate, do good by the rich. They cut their taxes. They address their aggravations. They help them become richer.”

This is why simply raising taxes on the rich to pay for a UBI won’t work, at least not long-term. He says, “An approach to equity that rested on redistributing income and wealth from the top could not overcome, in the long term, the political power of the top.”

Within a generation of this kind of top-down redistribution of wealth, the rich would find a way to use their political power to knock their taxes back down and eliminate or cut the UBI, leaving the poor and workers much worse off.

British author George Monbiot provides this vivid touchstone for Pizzigati’s argument:

Political systems that were supposed to represent everyone now return governments of millionaires, financed by and acting on behalf of billionaires. To expect governments funded and appointed by this class to protect the biosphere and defend the poor is like expecting a lion to live on gazpacho.

Pizzigati’s slender but action-packed volume digs into how leveling society at both the top and the bottom could make a lasting impact on the income gap. “In any nation that linked minimum and maximum,” he says, “society’s richest would be able to increase their own personal income only if the incomes of society’s poorest increased first.”

Here’s how a maximum income works. Society sets a new income maximum as a multiple of the existing minimum wage. Any income above that multiple would face a tax set at 100 percent. Pizzigati explains, “Incomes above specific benchmarks—starting at 25 or 50 or 100 times the minimum wage—could be subject to strikingly higher tax rates than incomes below those ratios.”

Pizzigati explains how cities, states and countries across the globe have taken on the question of a maximum wage, including how public policy can reward people and companies that decide to do the right thing. “A predistributive approach to public policy,” he argues, “could also reward corporations with the most modest pay differentials between executives and workers. Governments could offer these firms lower tax rates. Or give them preferential treatment in the contract-bidding process. Steps like these would, over the long term, privilege enterprises with pay patterns that help narrow inequalities and place at a competitive disadvantage those enterprises that continue to compensate executives excessively.”

While these volumes argue passionately for the redress of income inequality, all three are underdeveloped in their analysis of how structural racism and sexism make people are poor in the first place, and in whose it is to keep people poor.

None of these books deals seriously with the question of how immigration would affect a UBI. Yes, this is a major wedge and hot button issue. It is also central to the economic future of the United States and the global economic system. Neither Lowrey nor Stern even mention the idea of a maximum income, or the potential to level both up and down.

Stern, Lowrey and Pizzigati’s ideas might be better off together. Perhaps the path forward is to pull not from left or right, but from up and down. Universal basic income tied to a maximum income is something that could have broad populist appeal. If we follow Stern’s cue, taking on the rich could open the big tent enough to bring a durable majority together in a way this country hasn’t seen since the New Deal.

In his prescient novel Blue Mars, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson posits that any era’s economic system is the result of a “residual/emergent complex of overlapping paradigms,” composed of roughly equal parts of the dominant systems immediately adjacent to it in past and future.

If, as these authors argue, we are indeed moving into a fourth industrial revolution, we may want to open a path toward a more equitable future and start thinking about how we want to shape the fifth.

[Not included in this review but worth mentioning are additional books on Universal Basic Income such as Malcolm Torrey’s Why We Need a Citizen’s Basic Income: The desirability and implementation of an unconventional income (excerpted in this issue) and Andrew Yang’s The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future, both published in 2018 (and excerpted in Social Policy v.48#2]

James Mumm is the Chief Innovation Officer for People’s Action Institute (www.peoplesaction.org). James grew up in family of radicals, organizers and teachers. After serving as a local organizer in Chicago and The Bronx he joined the national staff to work with groups and campaigns across the country on a forty-year long term agenda for change.

 

Infrastructure projects are designed and guided by financial logic that conceives of emerging cities as competitive zones, which can be pulled into economic relations at a global scale and thereby made more useful to capital. Large infrastructure projects do resolve real problems that are the result of contemporary social processes in Latin America: congestion, traffic, and urban pollution, in this case. However, they also require financing and loan repayment, which obligates new relations of exploitation based on economic development. Cities must become more competitive—and increase ground rents and the public tax base to afford the loans. In Cuenca, Equador’s case, this tax base has long been controlled by the landowning families who most benefit from policies that raise ground rents and that force informal workers and rural peasants into more intensive relations of exploitation.¹ In an economy dominated by low-income informal workers and shaped by a history of racial hierarchy, ground rent increases do not produce development; they produce inequality. The trans-nationalization of real estate in cities like Cuenca and its environs exacerbates these inequalities. The competitiveness of cities in the Global South is often premised on financial support from institutions in the Global North, which, thereby, are able to intensify exploitation, appropriating higher rents in the form of interest payments. Lifestyle migrants can pay higher rents and are attracted by infrastructure designed to improve the livability of cities. These improvements can be appropriated, especially in conditions where North Americans need a low-cost retirement destination to live up to the cultural ideal of “successful aging.” This appropriation can broadly be termed as gentrification, which, in mid-sized Latin American cities like Cuenca, is a truly trans-national phenomenon.

Though latitudes are the scaffolding of a sociology of global inequality, it is important to understand how geographies of difference and the opportunities, meanings, and uses of relative exchange values across latitudes are shifting as a result of the capitalist compression of space and time described earlier. This compression activates new opportunities to exploit rent gaps as spaces in the Global South are reimagined for higher-rent activities derived from offshoring lifestyles or activities previously located in the Global North. In many cases, attracting higher-income buyers from higher latitudes of the global division of labor is the only way to make investment in urban “revitalization” in lower-income countries profitable.² The spatial consequences of this type of urban intervention are well known in the North American context and go by the name “gentrification,” whereby the population of a neighborhood is replaced by higher-income groups and activities (Clark 2005). Latin American studies of gentrification have pointed out that the class dynamics of the region do not favor the same types of gentrification processes as the Global North. The large number of informal workers with insecure incomes and the relatively small size of the middle class have meant that transnational actors and the state are much more important in supporting and financing higher-rent activities in historic centers than they are in North American cities. Moreover, the hollowing out of many of these historic centers in Latin America and the “regeneration” of these spaces through state investment in tourism has led to debates about what forms of dispossession, exclusion, and dislocation actually take place in these contexts and how they may differ from classical cases in urban studies. While Latin American studies of gentrification tend to focus on large metropolitan areas and to a lesser degree on rural ones, the same processes also play out in smaller historical cities, such as Cuenca or San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. In these cities, as in larger ones, the potential to increase ground rents through support for “colonial-style” heritage preservation has drawn the IADB into the ambit of funding municipal intervention projects going back to the 1990s. Clearly, accumulation through land and real estate speculation has spread far beyond the big city “usual suspects” even in Latin American urban research.

Cuenca has become a globalized social space through a combination of transnational networks that entangle wealthy Ecuadorian landowners, Anglo-American international lifestyle marketers, developers and bankers from the Global North, and North American lifestyle migrants, most of whom are retirees in search of lower-cost retirement options. The transnational processes now changing the city also include remittances from Ecuadorian migrant workers in the Global North as well as return migrants—although these transformations tend to be on the city’s edges more so than in its historic center. While a series of factors have combined to make the city the most expensive in Ecuador, heritage preservation and transnational lifestyle migration are now the main drivers of urban transformation.³ This is because they represent demand for the higher-rent activity that the Municipio de Cuenca is intending to generate through intervention projects, often identified by foreign or IADB consultants. Since 2013, this latter has been working with Cuenca through its Emerging and Sustainable Cities program, part of its Housing and Urban Development loan portfolio. The intentions of this program are to make cities in Latin America and the Caribbean—many of them mid-sized cities like Cuenca—more competitive and integrated into an emerging global economy. Consultants have deliberately focused on growth strategies that will help Cuenca increase ground rents through urban improvement projects— but they do so in the absence of any program aimed at increasing local incomes. Thus, the higher-rent activities will have to be supported by external forces, namely, tourism and lifestyle migration.

This promotion of urban “revitalization” in Cuenca’s El Centro is, therefore, a form of urban colonialism, connected not only to processes of globalization but also to the coloniality of global structures of accumulation centered on new types of exploitation of urban land in the Global South. Just as in New York or London, where a global super-elite have generated ground rent increases that no longer bear any relation to local incomes, so too has North–South migration to mid-sized cities and towns—like Cuenca and Vilcabamba—generated transnational processes of gentrification, displacement, and exclusion. These lifestyle migrants from higher-income countries—many of them a new type of economic migrant—are often seen as benign and are not perceived as competition for local laborers. However, they activate global rent gaps and help produce gentrification processes that displace them. Even in relatively small numbers, North American lifestyle migrants can have a very significant impact, as Cuenca and Vilcabamba demonstrate. As pension savings and financial security are undermined, baby boomer retirees seeking more livable, walkable urban spaces (which North American developers and municipalities singularly fail to produce) end up appropriating improvements that may be conceived of and justified as benefiting local populations.

This is not merely a free market process. As elsewhere in Latin America, the activation of rent gaps and the expansion of secondary circuits of accumulation have depended on heritage preservation in which local and national governments play an important part. As noted international financial institutions have also supported local government. In Cuenca’s El Centro, IADB loans funded “intervention” projects designed to “revitalize” central plazas with the intention of raising ground rents. While attempts were made to provide services for workers who would soon be displaced, nothing was done to support the livelihood of, increase employment opportunities for, or improve the incomes of informal vendors— social justice policies that would require much more substantial economic reforms and global economic redistribution. Thus, as in other heritage cities targeted by the IADB and World Bank, at- tempts to improve competitiveness and aesthetics of downtown neighborhoods have promoted gentrification and displacement. Moreover, this displacement overlaps the marginalization of rural and indigenous traditions in shaping the modern heritage city and reproduces caste systems that exacerbate income inequalities. Increasing the market value of heritage sectors is consistent with national developmentalist programs, which are increasingly called into question, in the Ecuadorian context in particular, through the politics of Sumak Kawsay or Buen Vivir. This latter seeks to enhance quality of life outside of traditional economic growth models. But the existing emphasis on growth and heritage tourism also marginalizes alternatives. The national government’s support for Cuenca’s urban heritage redevelopment and its tranvía project intended to extract more exchange value from existing space, positioning Cuenca as an important part of its national tourism strategy. While the migration of North American retirees to the city has been crucial to actually realizing ground rent increases, the process of gentrification was both state led and promoted by international financial institutions. The latter’s ability to compel the action of the Ecuadorian state, obliging it to pursue policies that maximize foreign exchange earnings, is a reflection of neoliberal developmentalism, which was consolidated in the debt crisis of the early 1980s—a crisis created by banks located and owned in the Global North (which overlent for projects that were sometimes never going to be profitable) but which was paid for by workers in the Global South (who lost decades of development as their countries repaid loans to the Global North at the usurious interest rates of the Carter and Reagan administrations). Tourism and heritage gentrification in Cuenca fit within a colonial history of accumulation through dispossession and depends on the epistemic coloniality of developmentalist thinking, which presumes that economic growth in the Western, Eurocentric pattern provides better lives for everyone.

In Cuenca, state-led urban gentrification is also an elite-driven process, dependent on local architects and developers, many of them from wealthy, landed families. Their interests in increasing ground rents also work to favor appropriation of lower-income spaces by higher-income latitudes and thus perpetuate a long history of urban colonialism. Municipal participation in urban “interventions” and infrastructure upgrades stimulated large private construction sites that have supplanted formerly lower- income housing in central areas of the city. Large private developments of luxury condo apartments are sold advertising modern, European appliances in English. These urban interventions are conducted under the guidance of the IADB, whose Emerging and Sustainable Cities program specifically calls for a change in Cuenca’s model of urban growth toward a denser urban layout. The new condominiums are marketed to the professional classes and to foreign lifestyle migrants who can pay the rents that make these projects profitable. For Ecuadorian middle and upper-middle classes, units might be purchased as an investment, with the intention of renting to foreign residents. In Gringolandia and elsewhere in the central areas of Cuenca, North American tenants are the main driving force of increased rents on land and condominium units, much as tenants have been the leading force in other Latin American gentrifications.

Moreover, noted of Panama’s Casco Viejo, the urban transformations taking place in Cuenca could not be sustained on the basis of local income and investment alone. Growth and ground rent increases depend on demand from higher latitudes of the global division of labor. Thus, local improvements always risk being appropriated by people from higher latitudes, who are able to pay to sustain higher-rent activities.

In the case of lifestyle migration to Ecuador, cultural ideals are an important factor in configuring the emerging forms of neoliberal globality, which shape social hierarchies at different latitudes. The cultural ideal of successful aging was readily visible in the discourses of North Americans in Cuenca, who assigned moral worth and social distinction to themselves (as adventurous) and others like them (as brave), as noted in the introduction, often on the basis of staying active and avoiding signs of aging or of slowing down. North Americans have internalized the ideal of taking individual responsibility for an aging process that is supposed to maximize health, welfare, and sociability through independent action, instead of relying on entitlement welfare programs, which the ageist discourse on health care reform in the United States has framed as unaffordable. While North American lifestyle migrants appear to be breaking new ground and experimenting in novel lifestyles, these latter also follow socially sanctioned cultural codes and pre- scribed paths that are shaped by policy debates from the 1980s and 1990s, increasingly packaged by an international lifestyle industry and effectively rendering them conformist, even as they may appear unorthodox.

It is easy to identify with cultural ideals and lifestyle experiments. Such lives do seem exciting and full of potential, in part because so many people today identify with travel and personal growth as the ends of successful living and aging. Often, they are the lives we would want for ourselves. They inspire us to find our own sources of adventure. But they are also culturally and politically produced ideals that play out in the tension between a utilitarian accumulation of intense experiences (e.g., living in a way that produces as much “true” inner happiness as possible; cf. Bellah et al. 1985) and the enforced conformity of prescribed consumer lifestyles, promoted by marketers (like International Living) and corporate interests whose vision of global society is one of increasing competitiveness and profitability. They individualize responsibility for health and sociability in aging at the expense of a more holistic approach that would recognize and address social inequalities. Lifestyle migration to Ecuador is an experiment with life, but one that is increasingly a mass-produced, catered phenomenon, with a market of individuals searching (and sometimes needing) to partake in it. As an ideal of adventurous aging, it is the product of a competitive, neoliberal culture of constant self-evaluation and comparison that leads us to be dissatisfied with lives that seem to fade out.

Matthew Hayes is the Canada Research Chair in Global and International Studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Bruswick.

BOOK REVIEW OF


Herlands: Exploring the Women’s Land Movement


By Kerrwiden Luis (University of Minnesota Press, October 2018)

Editor’s Note: The women’s land movement was never large, but 50 years ago posed a powerful question for emerging movements of feminists and others on the left. The publication of Herlands offered us the opportunity to allow several voices to dialogue about their reactions to the book – and more – as Reinhart and Eversley have eloquently done.

Rinehart writes,

Land for women, for the use of all women— some land reserved for lesbians only. From the 1970s through current day, the relatively small women’s land movement is given a full qualitative, ethnographic study by lesbian academic, Keridwen N. Luis. Based on visits to several land communities and backed by many interviews, Luis is able to provide a thoughtful, in-depth and relevant treatment: race, class, disability, sexual violence, the male gaze, lesbian separatism, and gender-fluidity, among other issues. The wide spectrum of sexual politics is found here, from the second wave feminists of the 60s and 70s, to the non-binary and transgender emergence today. At times intensely nostalgic and at others fully rooted in today’s justice organizing, the realm of women’s land can be a search for utopia, often grounded in a feminist eco-consciousness.

Personally, I (Ruth) come to this review as a European-American queer cis-women who had strong emotional connections to women’s land in the 70s and early 80s. In the 70s, I identified as a man-hating lesbian separatist, but now walk with hetero-normative privilege. A mixed class, high school dropout who is now highly educated, I appreciate Luis’ use of the term “matrix culture,” rather than dominant culture. She recognizes many smaller cultural groups in what she calls “nested cultures.” Each of us usually hold multiple identities, both privileged and marginalized, yet the dominant and privileged aspects are often invisible, and perceived as normal: white, male, wealthy or upper-middle-class, young, able-bodied, etc. Luis trains her investigative eye on where the dominant culture can be invisible, which inevitably excludes and oppresses.

Women’s land is created and occupied by women away from the male gaze, coming into relationship with the “landscape [as] a teacher, a mentor, a wise crone, who provides both a space for queering our expectations of what the public and private are, but also operates with the nostalgia of home. That nostalgia can be dangerous, tying into ideas of a ‘safe community’ and the white imaginary. Yet the land, and the attachment of land-women to the land, remains primary.” Unfortunately, we cannot truly know a world away from the male gaze, as too often “women internalize the heterosexual norms of the female body and apply those norms to themselves,” as well policing gender norms on one another.

 Luis does not skirt the thorny topic and controversy around admittance of trans women to women’s land in her chapter, “We Have Met the Enemy and She Is Us: Scapegoating Trans Bodies.” She defines trans women as “people who have been diagnosed at birth as the male or masculine sex/gender, and who have changed their gender to female through behavior, dress, and sometimes also through surgery and hormones.” Judith Butler and Kate Bornstein, queer theorists, are cited in this chapter as Luis agrees with them that gender is performative, rather than essential, and cannot be precisely rooted in the biological.

As trans women are scapegoated by lesbians who would refuse them entry to women’s land, so lesbians were scapegoated by second wave white, middle-class feminists in the 70s. “Both transphobia and homophobia spring from gender discipline,” Luis reminds us, “licensed hatred of people who step outside the heterosexual hegemony of dichotomous genders.” Both transphobia and homophobia are misogyny at heart. As a gender scholar, Luis argues that “gender is necessary to personhood— when your gender is denied, so is your humanity. Thus, the debate over trans women is an epistemological war— a deep and sordid conflict of meaning making with the humanity of certain people at its heart.”

The gender fluidity we see all around us today, sparking culture wars and bathroom bills, reflects an explosion of embodied gender difference, provoking revulsion from many, but awe and wonder from others. By firmly honoring gender outlaws like trans women, Luis opens herself up to great criticism, but ultimately recognizes the brutal gender constraints that lie at the root of so much sexual violence.

Women owning and controlling their own land—for women’s community— is important resistance to the capitalist patriarchy in which we live. While Luis highlights the fact that most women’s land is dominated by white women (and recognizes the class issues that accompany the resources needed to purchase land), Mariama Eversley underscores the tension that underlies all land in this country as stolen from indigenous cultures.

Owning one’s own institutions will always empower. The early African-American leaders of the civil rights movement in this country were ministers; they were able to do the work they did, because the black church owned itself. Those ministers weren’t beholden to any corporate or government bosses. Similarly, in the 1970s, collecting $1.50/month dues from ACORN members was critical because the members recognized their ownership of the organizing.

Women’s land is a compelling attempt at resisting the capitalist patriarchy, and offering space for healing, growth and agency in spacious wilderness, “a space where women are considered full human beings without the heavy limitations of sexism imposed by the matrix societies of the United States.”

Eversley speaks,

Within the history of land movements in the United States, settler colonialism must always be examined. The practice of European settlers to invade and steal Indigenous lands, lives on as a structure of governance, as well as an overall culture of conquest within whiteness that contains its own practices, beliefs, and ways of knowing. We must beware of the repetition of settler colonialism in the (con)quest for white-utopias.

Author Luis aptly points out that whiteness as a culture has its own particularities, and practices, as well as its own ways of knowing.  In particular Luis calls out white culture as harboring a culture of avoidance and positioning itself in a privileged position of normativity. These cultural practices maintain whiteness as a culture of homogeneity as it renders itself invisible. Conflict-avoidant culture is invoked to prevent difficult discussions. Whiteness thus presents itself as “the natural order”.

In reality, whiteness functions as a vacuum, subsuming and erasing the diversity of various cultures either through the seductiveness of material gain and psychological comfort for those able to claim white identity — or through the destruction and subjugation of peoples not admitted into the white identity.

Scholars like J. Sakai have highlighted how the structure of settler colonial society rested on a thirst for land as they constructed Euro-American ideals of freedom:

What made North America so desirable to these people? Land. Euro-American liberals and radicals have rarely dealt with the land question; we could say they don’t have to deal with it, since their people already have all the land. What lured Europeans to leave their homes and cross the Atlantic was the chance to share in conquering Indian land. At that time there was a crisis in England over land ownership and tenancy due to the rise of capitalism..

The assumed availability of land is often left unquestioned in a settler society, even in leftist circles like the women’s land movement. Sakai also highlights that while the thirst for land derives from shrinking opportunities for prosperity in Europe, the solution was not seen as fighting for better conditions at home. The solution they seized was to conquer other peoples, steal their land, and to seek freedom on this conquered territory. Thus, the battle is not for justice, but the conquest for a white utopia. This coupled with stolen black labor creates a tenuous trap where freedom for some, rests on the oppression of others.

During adrienne maree brown’s session on “pleasure activism” at this years Allied Media Conference, we were guided by the voice of Audre Lorde to reclaim the erotic within political organizing. As we all devised questions, a white conference attendee posed this question, “If white pleasure is consumptive, what could happen if white people/whiteness at large learned to seek satisfaction from within? On a large scale?” Adding to her proposition, I ask, “How can white people question their longings that are presented as natural, especially when they have consumptive outcomes?”

In addition to a disruption of settler culture through reparations, I want to suggest a call for white folks to engage in ancestral work that both acknowledges their violent presence on Turtle Island (North America) as well as their histories long before they crossed the Atlantic. The continuous instinct and practice of white folks to break from the past and recreate themselves on stolen land is doomed to recreate structures of settler colonialism. In accordance with Luis’ assertion that whiteness has a particular yet invisible culture, whiteness must be examined, named, and rendered visible if we are to deconstruct settler habits like “destroying to replace”. Furthermore, the vacuum of whiteness must be imploded with histories of ancestry and a reckoning of the after-life of European ancestral trauma that is replicated through the creation and subjugation of “the other.”

Mariama Eversley is a researcher and artist currently based in London and embarking on a Masters in Human Geography and Urban Studies. Before that, she was the Living Historian at Blights Out researching the historical context of urban development, property laws, and the socio cultural repercussions of gentrification and formerly a data-analyst at the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor.

Rev. Ruth Rinehart is a queer Unitarian Universalist minister who was involved with women’s land in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She is currently working on an addictions ministry in the Denver area, fully owned and majority-funded by the residents, in another attempt to create an alternate economic model existing outside the neo-liberal capitalism that continues to concentrate wealth in the hands of so few.

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