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Marx's argument in the theory of exploitation is that capitalists do not need to sell their labour power in the market in order to live, whereas workers need to do so. As such, workers are not really "freely and voluntarily" participating in the labour market. This power differentiation enables the capitalists to exploit the worker, extracting surplus value from the latter.

Yet, if a (sufficiently generous) universal basic income (UBI) were to be implemented in a given country, workers would not need to offer their labour in the market. Anyone who does so, would do it freely and voluntarily. This not only eliminates the "slavery" side of the argument but it might also reduce (albeit not eliminate) the level of surplus value extracted to the worker (because, essentially, is giving more power to the latter). Therefore, any "exploitation" in such context is entirely agreed by the worker when entering a work contract.

Is this correct? Is exploitation no longer exploitation when no coercion is involved in the transaction? Would then UBI be such a "solution" to exploitation?

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  • This question embeds a fallacy. Marxism is based upon the premise that things values are objective, material, not subjective, ideal. If we accept such core fallacy, we are forced to accept the idea of a basic income, which would represent the average time invested on social action, because it would have objective value. All people contribute to social equilibrium, so, they deserve to be paid for it, otherwise they are exploited.
    – RodolfoAP
    Mar 7 at 13:51
  • When it comes to labour as well as basic needs, the value of those things can be made objective enough. Such funding assumptions are also at the core of all modern economic theories.
    – Johan
    Mar 7 at 14:57

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(This is a short unsourced answer for the time being, when I have the time later, I will update it with sources and details)

From a Marxist point of view, UBI doesn't solve the problem of exploitation. Nor does free housing, universal health care, or food stamps for all, etc....all of these are corrections to capitalism, which aim at keeping capitalism in place, but making it better at handling problems like poverty, unemployment, and hunger.

Marx believed that capitalism was fundamentally flawed. The problems of exploitation and alienation were baked into the basic workings of capitalism, and as long workers didn't own the means of production, there was no escaping these problems. No set of adjustments to capitalism would solve them, the only solution was to overthrow the whole system.


(Update)

For the first part:

Yet, if a (sufficiently generous) universal basic income (UBI) were to be implemented in a given country, workers would not need to offer their labour in the market. Anyone who does so, would do it freely and voluntarily. This [...] not only eliminates the "slavery" side of the argument [...]

The main problem with this is that it is very difficult to define "sufficiently generous" so as to cover what constitutes the basic needs of a worker. Marx mentioned that the worker is forced to do so in order to avoid starvation, back in his time a house with running water and electricity was considered a luxury. Nowadays, in the developed world, people don't starve (thanks to food stamps, soup kitchens, etc...), yet someone living without electricity or running water is still considered to be living in abject poverty. A worker forced to work to pay his electric and water bills would be considered exploited, and the slavery component persists. At which point exactly does a worker no longer "need" to offer their labor on the market? Provide enough food and shelter to everyone, and we simply move a level up in Maslow's hierarchy of needs: The working class is forced to work to find love and belonging while the bourgeois class enjoys esteem and self actualization. The UBI would have to be such that everyone can move to the top of Maslow's pyramid at will - Marx alluded to this in his famous quote from "The German Ideology":

For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.

Only then can we argue that workers are entering freely into any labour agreements they sign up for, without any coercion.

For the second part:

but it might also reduce (albeit not eliminate) the level of surplus value extracted to the worker (because, essentially, is giving more power to the latter).

A UBI doesn't eliminate the likelihood that the wages a worker receives from a capitalist will be unfair. Sure, a worker getting a UBI will not worry about food and might be working to afford the occasional movie ticket and trip to Disneyland, but then the capitalist is raking up all the profits and using them to fly to the Maldives in his private jet. The unfairness comes not from the coercion alone, but from the fact that the capitalist is reaping a benefit that is disproportional to his contribution, while the workers are getting only breadcrumbs. As long as a few people benefit disproportionally at the expense of many, there is unfairness. The only way to insure a faire distribution of the profits is if the workers get paid directly for their labor, which happens only if they own the means of production. Marx says in the communist manifesto:

“But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.”

One might envision a UBI so high that everyone gets to live an upper class lifestyle, but then that ends being the same thing as communism anyway.

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UBI would, I think, mean a shift in the emphasis, to the Marxist argument. Just from wikipedia's quotes:

It is the only commodity which he can and must sell continually in order to live, and which acts as capital (variable) only in the hands of the buyer, the capitalist. The fact that a man is continually compelled to sell his labour-power, i.e., himself

With UBI you can't literally say that labourers "must" sell their labour power.

But even the moral, let alone scientific, argument for socialism is more robust than that. Labouring would still be exploitative for as long as who buys the labour power creates surplus value.

Anyway, with UBI you still have the class system, commodity fetishsim, capitalism.

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  • I agree that UBI would not eliminate other things that Marxists deem as contradictions of capitalism or the system itself. Hence my focus particularly on "exploitation" a la Marx.
    – luchonacho
    Oct 15, 2017 at 7:41
  • The exploitation isn't necessarily defined as means spirited malice but as taking advantage of other people for your own ends and extracting value from their labour and unless you'd reorganize your businesses so that you'd all be co-workers and co-owners of a common enterprise, you'd, as a worker, still be exploited.
    – haxor789
    Sep 1, 2022 at 11:33
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Yes. Not only would it eliminate exploitation but it would eliminate capitalism all together: Because the generation of surplus is at the heart of what defines "capitalism" (at least in the Marxist sense of the word).

The social conditions that capitalism needs are: A larger number of people who have to sell their labor power (the proletarians) on the one hand side and on the other a class of capitalist who own the means of production that are necessary to produce goods and that are used to exploit the labor power.

This relationship (German: "Kapitalverhältnis") is at the defining characteristic of capitalist mode of production. Take away the first half of this equation then the relation breaks down.

Marx illustrates that with a footnote in Capital Volume I:

First of all, Wakefield discovered that in the Colonies, property in money, means of subsistence, machines, and other means of production, does not as yet stamp a man as a capitalist if there be wanting the correlative — the wage-worker, the other man who is compelled to sell himself of his own free will. He discovered that capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things. Mr. Peel, he moans, took with him from England to Swan River, West Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. Mr. Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 300 persons of the working class, men, women, and children. Once arrived at his destination, “Mr. Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.” Unhappy Mr. Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River! --- Karl Marx. Capital Volume One, Chapter 33

That means that as soon as a basic income is high enough there is no need for selling your labor and thus not much possibility for the capitalists to extract profit. This is why we will not easily get a sufficient UBI.

Now as long as human labor is necessary to produce goods: What would happend if we get a sufficient UBI:

Scenario A.) If much less people would work then there would be less goods and the shortage would lead to increased prices and then the value of the basic income would fall below a level where people are able to live. So they have to work again. We are back at a more or less capitalist mode of production. But keep in mind that a lot of work that is done today is either already unpaid (e.g. the care work at home, often done by women) and then a lot of work that is paid is useless or harmful (e.g. think of marketing and advertising - the only product is the creation of discontentment with what we have and desire to by something we do not need.). If you take into account the ecological footprint of a lot of products they are already more harmful then useful. Think of all the bullshit jobs. So just because there is less payed work done does not immediately mean our standard of living is getting lower. Certainly our way of living would be transformed. With a lot of free time on our hands. Also keep in mind that with the recent advances of AI it is rather likely that the hours of work needed to produce all the goods and services that we need for a convenient life will drastically fall within the next few years.

Scenario B.) As the factories are no longer profitable as they are no longer useful to extract profit they loose their value. The state/the public could buy them for a cheap.

Scenario C.) People who live on UBI can make efficient use of their time. Bingwatching on the couch gets boring and people will try to make something useful with their live. They help out in community projects, they develop free software, they share their know-how on sites like stack exchange or write wikipedia article, they cultivate new breeds of tomatoes, etc.. As this is work that people really like to do it is more efficient than the labor that people do under capitalism. (On top they can get the means of production for cheap - see "scenario b") So a UBI can be a way to transform our society into a completely different mode of production. Since the existence of wikipedia the commercial encyclopedias have a hard time selling their work. Free/Open Source software dominates a lot of IT already. With a UBI we could see cooperative work outcompeting its capitalist counterparts.

A UBI is not the answer to all of the problems of society but certainly would make the necsessary transformations of society possible. Or as André Gorz put it:

The demand for basic income basically refers to the need for a different economy, at the end of the money fetishism and market society. It announces the frailty of the political economy built on the fragile foundation of labor and, to a certain extent, prepares for it collapse. (From: André Gorz, Wissen Wert und Kapital, S.80-S.81, Translation to English by myself)

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Marx's argument in the theory of exploitation is that capitalists do not need to sell their labour power in the market in order to live, whereas workers need to do so. As such, workers are not really "freely and voluntarily" participating in the labour market. This power differentiation enables the capitalists to exploit the worker, extracting surplus value from the latter.

This is one level, and a superficial one, of Marx's argument. But why would capitalists want to exploit workers, extracting surplus value from them? That's not just because they are evil or greedy; they are compelled to do that by competition; if they do not exploit the labourers, competition throws them out of the market, and ultimately reduces them to labourers themselves.

Yet, if a (sufficiently generous) universal basic income (UBI) were to be implemented in a given country, workers would not need to offer their labour in the market. Anyone who does so, would do it freely and voluntarily. This not only eliminates the "slavery" side of the argument but it might also reduce (albeit not eliminate) the level of surplus value extracted to the worker (because, essentially, is giving more power to the latter). Therefore, any "exploitation" in such context is entirely agreed by the worker when entering a work contract.

This doesn't eliminate the "slavery" aspect of the issue, because the decisions about the management of companies would still belong to the capitalists. The worker might in this case decide to not join a given company; but he will have no say on what the company produces, how it organises its production, etc.

To really make an effect, the UBI would have to be quite close to the share of each worker in the overall production. That would squeeze profits, and make the continuing of capitalist production impossible; most likely, capitalists would politically react and compel the State to repeal the legislation; if not, the system would crumble, either to be replaced by a socialist system, or into economic disorder.

Is this correct? Is exploitation no longer exploitation when no coercion is involved in the transaction? Would then UBI be such a "solution" to exploitation?

No. More likely, the result is just some diminishment of exploitation, that doesn't really change the system. If the UBI is pushed too high, it would put the system into crisis.


There is a more complicated discussion. In a capitalist society, value is the social form of wealth. But wealth and value are different things, which are not interchangeable, and their relation is, in Marxist terms, contradictory.

You can put things in these contrasting terms:

  1. Two pairs of shoes are twice the wealth as one pair of shoes - and also twice the value.

  2. When productivity changes, so that you can now produce two pair of shoes at the expense of the same amount of labour that you previously needed to produce just one, you double the wealth, but the value remains (macroeconomically) the same.

If you pay workers a UBI, unrelated to their labour output, you are assigning them a given part of the total amount of wealth produced - but you are also assigning them a part of the total value. While capital will have no necessary problems with the redistribution of wealth, it cannot deal with the redistribution of value: while wealth is increasingly abundant, value is not, unless labourers work more (or more labourers work). Indeed, in the conditions of capitalist production, value is increasingly scarce, and giving it away for free will create problems for the reproduction of the system, because capital needs to control a considerable part of the produced value, in order to reproduce itself.


So, beyond a certain level, even if there was absolutely no effect in the incentive to work (which is in itself a dubious assumption), the result of a UBI will be a crisis in the system, probably giving way to a backlash in exploitation.

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  • Thanks! A lot of things to digest. I probably do not understand Marxism enough to comprehend the answer in full.
    – luchonacho
    Oct 14, 2017 at 9:24
  • This answer focuses on the implementation, which is evidently impossible, instead of focusing the ideal context of marxist theory. UBI is a practical aberration, but it consistently follows Marxist principles.
    – RodolfoAP
    Mar 7 at 14:09
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This begs quite a lot of questions.

First, was Marx right in his analysis of the relationship between workers and capitalists?

More importantly, is Marx still right? Capitalism has moved on substantially and in multiple ways: it would be hard to argue that the US model and the Scandinavian model are the same, for example.

Implied in your version of UBI is that workers are free to exercise their freedom. For instance, it implies at most very limited notice periods (at least enforceable ones).

It implies that any exploitation/restriction is primarily financial. It also implies that the UBI generosity is sufficient to make the decision to not work trivial. In other words that one can relatively seamlessly move between a state of employment/unemployment.

Given all that, and assuming all other things are equal, then it would be fair to assume that the relationship of those with wages near or below the UBI level would have a substantial change to their work relationship. The further one moves from that level though, the less this is likely to be true.

Now, all other things are equal is a nice catch all. A bit like sufficiently generous. If the UBI level is sufficiently high then the economy is likely to be significantly changed. It is very hard to determine in what ways.

What is probably fair to assume though is that, as with all other panacea, things may not be all that rosy once this is tried at scale.

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    Maybe I was not clear enough. How would Marxist view of exploitation see the UBI? Speculations about the UBI itself might differ among people. A more canonical answer from Marxism is what I was thinking of.
    – luchonacho
    Oct 13, 2017 at 18:11
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    Begging a question doesn't mean asking a question, it means assuming the conclusion in the premises of an argument. You should replace "this begs quite a lot of questions" with something like "there are still a lot of questions to be asked" or something else because your use of "begging the question" is an incorrect use of the phrase, albeit a common misunderstanding as well.
    – Not_Here
    Oct 13, 2017 at 21:11
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    Anyway this answer has no sources and seems like it's just your open conjecture. Can you provide any sources for what you've written? Have any philosophers said the same thing? It'd be a better answer if it tried to build off of something instead of being a completely subjective opinion with no citations.
    – Not_Here
    Oct 13, 2017 at 21:15
  • @Not_Here yes I know what it means. I point out a list of assumptions the author made in the question that need to be true for the question to be meaningful.
    – Alex
    Oct 13, 2017 at 21:55
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    That's still not what begging the question means. It isn't that assumptions are made, assumptions are always made in arguments, its that the conclusion itself is assumed. Your first sentence and then the two short paragraphs that follow it are not a correct use of "begging the question", they are a very common misunderstanding of what the phrase means.
    – Not_Here
    Oct 13, 2017 at 22:01
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The answer to the main question is no, a UBI would only "raise the standard of living" of the population, it would not eliminate the "exploitation" in capitalism. The reason for this, is that as long as a person wants something additional, or even to maintain what he/she already has, some sort of "resource" has to be spent. Having to spend some resource (labor) in exchange for the "goods" obtained, is what "enslaves" us. Therefore, if we define this "exchange" as exploitation, then the exploitation will never be eliminated, no matter how high the "standard of living" gets.

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  • Your body has to work even to draw breath, so yeah, everything is work in some sense. Raising the oxygen content of air would be like a breathing UBI. We could make it so that our bodies just lie in vats and we never have to do anything...
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 7 at 22:49

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