CAN THE STATE SAVE US FROM WORK?
The Idea of Separating Income and Work is Radical Enough to be Utopian
By Guillaume Paoli
[This article published in: Freitag 04, 1/27/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.freitag.de/2006/04/06042101.php
We do not lack crises, at least if we rely on the diagnoses from newspapers, non-fiction books and other stethoscopes of the present. The most frequent and most stubborn phenomenon is certainly the “crisis of the work society.” This crisis has become a saying applied without any reflection. However the relevance of the term is everything but obvious. In the original sense, a crisis is the “decisive moment” of a sickness leading either to death or healing, in any case it is the opposite of a stationary condition. Thus the term seems rather inappropriate for a phenomenon like mass unemployment that has already lasted over a quarter of a century. Neither an end nor a solution can be expected in the foreseeable future. Not the fact itself but the inability of dealing with it is usually described as a crisis. For example, there is the tendency to think in the categories of 1930 as though unemployment were actually the result of a crisis or sudden economic crash. Obviously the present situation is different. One only needs to look at the stock curves and profits of the last years.
Global players do not experience any crisis. The fact that the conditions of he working population worsen and that millions are treated as a superfluous mass is not a temporary state of emergency.
This situation calls for criticism in two ways. Since critics cannot predict any immediate collapse unlike 1930, they must be content with more modest solutions. The classless society and the abolition of money are not possibilities. On the other hand, critics are forced to radical concepts by the gulf between the economy and society that becomes ever deeper and more obvious. Established policy always offers insignificant reforms. Modesty and radicalism are mixed into an ambivalent cocktail circulated according to political orientations as basic social income, subsistence money or citizen money. In any case, all the nuances come from the same logical premise: Whenever more profits are produced with fewer and fewer workers, income should be separated from work. Every citizen should automatically receive a part of the money cake to buy goods produced without his help and find his or her own fulfillment.
I have nothing against the idea of a secure money income. Whether one is for or against this, a realization of the agenda of concrete politics is more distant than ever. The German president recently urged a basic social income “according to the model of the US” which immediately makes the recommendation less appealing. “Citizen money” is spirited about in the current program of the FDP, not an unconditional citizen’s money but o “protect the diligent from the lazy.” In the Left party/PDS, the attempt of a “loose network” to gain a majority for the idea was fruitless. Even when a left-yellow coalition gains an absolute majority in the Bundestag, an uncoupling of work and income would not occur. Assuming a completely renewed political class had the honesty and courage to carry out its promises and dare conflict with the economic lobby, assuming the experiment would not be torpedoed by the commercial media corporations and assuming local entrepreneurs would renounce on higher profits out of love for justice, how could the citizen money society resist growth pressure and cheap competition in the global world? In a word, however modest and logical it may be, the idea is radical enough under given conditions to remain utopian. Nevertheless (and perhaps therefore), it seems to be increasingly popular.
I will not weigh here the pros and cons of citizen money or design other alternatives to the work society. We have had enough of that. The proposals that I make are as little verifiable as those already circulating. The questions that interest me are: On what plane of public discourse is such a proposal made? Is there another perspective from which it could be viewed? Can the state save us from work?
From a political vantage-point, what is strange in basic income is that this demand for stronger state intervention comes from corners that usually claim to be anti-state, namely from liberals and leftist-radicals. One of the first proponents was Milton Friedman, the intellectual ringleader of neoliberalism. The implicit message was: We will let the poor fellows that we cannot use vegetate in peace to concentrate on business. A little state must be intent on regulating the superfluous – an advance compared with the great economist Malthus who wanted the “uninvited guests to the feast of life” to simply die. Simultaneous with Friedman but from the opposite corner, the Italian autonome demanded a “guaranteed social wage” and in the same breath challenged the state. A possible conversion was not seriously believed. Unmasking the contradictions of power and making itself popular were central. Since then, the “emancipatory left” has included subsistence money in its catalogue of desires. One wonders about the form of the state that should guarantee this. On the other hand, the advocates of a welfare state struggle against paid non-work. This is not surprising. Traditionally, belief in the state went hand in hand with work fetishism.
There are exceptions. For example, Wolfgang Engler’s book “Burger ohne Arbeit” (Citizens without Work) is a plea for citizen money and an indictment against state smear campaigns from the right and the left. The market economy can only be civilized with the political means of the welfare state. Therefore all ideas that start from non-governmental authorities are either unrealistic or cynical. His final remark referring to concrete politics sounds helpless: “Nothing can be expected from the state.” The “many individuals” are called to “join together.” How they should join and their goals are not explained. Still reproaching Engler for the helplessness that we all share would be unfair. The considerations that lead him to citizen money are more interesting. He views the unconditional basic income as a means or the means for the “radical reorganization of society.” The reasoning is political-philosophical. Some time or other, the project of political enlightenment came to a standstill. State thinkers and leaders of the Ancien Regime are mentioned. At this time, an enlightened elite argued passionately about social organization. Therefore reactivating and perfecting the emancipatory ideal is central today. While individual and political rights for all citizens are unconditionally in effect, social rights are only recognized under one condition: participation in the work process. Only the introduction of citizen money would remove this aesthetic flaw in the social contract and establish all of us as universal legal subjects. “The capitalist industrial society needed more than a century to emancipate the worker into a citizen. How much time must pass to dare the next step: the emancipation of the citizen from the worker?”
I cannot come to terms with this reasoning. Firstly, because I grew up in the welfare state and cannot mourn it. That it guaranteed better living conditions than the present “payback” society is undisputed. Still there is no reason to regard this as the lost paradise. The best that I can claim for the welfare state is that it made it simple to rebel against it. Secondly, categories of political philosophy are too abstract to me. Somehow we still stand with the old opposition between the mutualist and government camps of socialists. For a long time, the original currents that described themselves as socialist were viewed as unscientific and undeveloped. Since the collapse of state socialism, these currents are coming to life again. This approach may cast a different light on our present.
What I doubt in harmony with them is the possibility of forming society from the outside like the sculptor models the material with his chisel or the architect designs a building in which people then move freely. The confrontation – here the society and there the individual – is an annoying inheritance of enlightenment philosophy. To speak with the philosopher Alain Caille: “In the beginning, that is all the time, there were neither individuals nor societies but the interaction of concrete persons who create their individuality, their community and the social conditions of their rivalries.” Solidarity communities were established beyond the state and the market. The first beginnings of this security were called into life by worker associations, not by enlightened statesmen. In 1827 the Lyon weavers whose rebellion was the prelude to the working class movement founded the first society for mutual support. They were forced to self-organization because there was no state care. Such stopgaps were then replaced in social-democratic times, in a little positive counter-balance.
On September 6, 1867 a hundred men (no woman was there) solemnly assembled in the great casino hall of Lausanne who came from all the industrial nations at that time. The International Worker Association was formed. At that moment, ten thousand members joined together, enough to alarm all Europe’s governments. It had not yet decayed to dogmatic trench battles that would lead to its dissolution. The question at the top of the agenda of this session was: “How could the working classes use the credit given them by the bourgeoisie and governments for their own emancipation?” The discussion was very lively. A London tailor was indignant: “Nothing practical was said. One had the feeling of being at a meeting of German professors who lose themselves in the clouds of abstraction. However we did not speak of theories here. The English workers deposited the enormous sum of 25 million pounds in the treasuries of the bourgeoisie. If we take back this money from the hands of the bourgeoisie, the workers will have one more weapon and the bourgeoisie one less.” Thus they were concrete. Creating insurance associations on mutuality and institutions of interest-free credits was resolved. Some delegates were convinced that only the future worker state would be able to solve this problem. However the large majority was very distrustful of state institutions. Lessner, also a London tailor, argued that the worker becomes conservative through the contributions he pays to the state. He is afraid of overthrowing the government that safeguards his savings.” The Paris surveyor’s auditor Chemale made one of the most beautiful anti-state declarations: “Credit means trust and trust cannot be centralized.”
I cite this episode because it clearly shows that these people did not act out of sheer deficiencies in state care. These were primarily emergency solutions that soften the industrial misery and make a virtue out of distress. The mutual association was a defensive measure and a weapon. This struggle aimed at opposing another principle to economic egoism, not at gaining a more favorable position within the existing system. The conditions to be opposed were not only ascribed to evil capitalists. The “self-regeneration of their own conscience” was sought. In the same discussion, Longuet, the later stepson of Marx, declared: “Through the mutual insurance against all imponderables of life, we will learn that the risk of individuals is the risk of everyone. The application of mutuality to all our social relations represents the saving principle against the present un-solidarity. Today the war is all-pervasive in our heads, our consciousness and our affairs. The economic praxis of the barbaric watchword “homo homini lupus” becomes stronger and stronger. People would rather go bust and forego their dignity than abandon the tiny hope of becoming wealthy some time or other.”
For people of the 19th century, the origin of this un-solidarian development was clear. It was “the day when the revolution decreed freedom for industry that destroyed the bodies.” During the French revolution, the freedom of the bourgeois opposed the equality of citizens so blatantly that a third element had to be added to the motto of the republic: fraternity. Then the social struggles to honor the promise of fraternity ensued.
To approach my original theme, I move forward a few decades to Marcel Mauss. In Germany, only “Gabentausch” (Gift Exchange) written in 1925 is known of Mauss. In this book, he defended the thesis that all archaic social forms have a common characteristic: “exchanges and contracts take place in the form of gifts that theoretically are voluntary but in reality are always given and reciprocated.” Thus the emphasis was seemingly on an interpretation of the distant past. However Mauss revealed his intention at the end by referring to his present. The gift exchange is still current he said because “happily everything is not yet classified in terms of buying and selling.” He sees a return to the archaic principle in the modern tendency of society in a modern garb. What he meant is clear in his political writings. He was a special kind of militant socialist all his life. He criticized Bolshevists and social democrats for “political fetishism”. For him, the mere assumption of power could not have a constructive influence on social conditions because “laws do not create anything; they only sanction.” In principle, direct, collectively managed cooperation was crucial, not nationalizations. However he was not an anarchist. He did not believe in the immediate abolition of state and market but in the progressive addition of a third authority. As the bourgeoisie coexisted for centuries with the feudal system, socialism should gradually develop in the bosom of capitalist society through learning processes and experiments.
This idea was not merely a castle in the sky. The cooperative sector that is almost forgotten today was widespread and dynamic in the thirties. In all European countries, millions of people were bound in consumer unions, cooperatives and mutualist bodies with the explicit goal of emancipation from the tyranny of the private. Mauss personally supported this movement all his life. In 1900, for example, he was passionately engaged in founding a wine cooperative. This cooperative should bind city workers “who receive overpriced wine from the wholesalers” with winegrowers “who produce excellent wine and live in interdependence.” This is a very enlightened challenge. “The public could gradually become accustomed to France’s genuine fresh wine.” With this pragmatic affair, the motives of “total social conduct” come to light. “The cause is simple, beautiful, useful and very socialist. There is a single prerequisite – honesty.”
In many regards, this political theory rests on simple common sense which is everything but self-evident under modern conditions. Hospitality and generosity make life sweet and assure return favors. Return favors are done to create a good name, not to show selfishness. Mauss identified these principles with a reestablishment of the original rule. In 1924 he wrote: “As old-fashioned and banal as it may sound, we return to the antique term caritas, to the necessary empathy, that sense of community constituting the delicate nature of the city.”
He was bitterly disappointed.. The development he envisioned was abruptly stopped, firstly by the great economic crisis. This confirmed his thesis that the social structure can only succeed in well-functioning capitalism (when everything collapses, the associations are overstrained). The development was also halted by the genesis of the welfare state. In postwar Germany, “socialization” was a much-discussed theme. Several years later the matter was completely forgotten. The clubs, societies and associations flourished and even expanded but no longer in a contradictory relation to the existing conditions.
Everything functioned more effectively and securely with the state. The expense of self-management was spared taxpayers and benefit recipients. What was given to citizens was anonymity. I need not know the people who profit from my contributions. In his interview in “Krisis und Kritik,” Noam Chomsky said: “Social security is based on a dangerous idea, that one has to worry about the destitute widow at the other end of the city.” I would contradict this. The attitude that at least makes the welfare state possible is “Why should I worry about this woman? The state is already concerned.” Then the way to the neoliberal approach is not far: “Why should I bother about her? Life is fine for me.”
His turn was certainly an advance since social security was extended to people who did not belong to any association in the past. Society meant “the general public,” no longer the production process of associations and communities. Under the view of the mutuality principle, his moment was the primal catastrophe that neoliberalism only perfected. The social life was no longer understood as a horizontal relation, person to person, but vertically from taxpayer to the state, a loss of independence and reciprocity whose effect we feel today. As Baudrillard said, “power in reality consists of one-sided gifts and not of taking” which guarantees the apathy and tutelage of the receiver (the Bismarck gift of the social law as a way of combating socialists was a classic example). It is an error to believe we should reclaim some of the power taken from us since there is nothing to take any more. Conversely, replacing or, more modestly, supplementing the one-sided gift of the state by the principle of the mutual gift is vital.