What is wrong with the Universal Basic Income? What should we learn from the Unabomber today? Who are a politics of ‘progress’ serving now?
A few days ago, Mark Zuckerberg, the richissime CEO of Facebook, joined the ranks of billionaires proposing the payment of a universal basic income, thereby following other “philanthropists” like Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla who, in light of the imminent revolutionary technological advances of a combination of AI and robotisation, had already called for the policy to be implemented. Arguably, while the increasing consensus around the policy in itself might constitute something reassuring, namely a shift away from treating unemployment as a shameful disease to be punished with a variety of dehumanising measures, the announcement also leaves a disheartening aftertaste. Effectively, Zuckerberg’s statement has all the potential to plunge both sides of the ideological spectrum into a profound political identity crisis. What happens to the left if the edge of class struggle is taken off by billionaire-controlled universal handouts? And what happens to value-inspired conservatism, if, as is tacitly admitted by a billionaire-advocated implementation of a UBI, human labour simply does not matter anymore?
In the end, nobody could really pretend that this development had not been in the making for a while. Workers without factories have not been a novelty for some time, and neither is industrialised agriculture, which is at the very heart of freeing the more sizeable part of the population, formerly locked into hard subsistence labour, from the tedious tasks of survival, opening the gates first to further industrialisation and specialisation and later to the large-scale shift to economies of virtualised sign value. A few years ago, David Graeber famously designated the alienated, repetitive and soul-deadening labour, constituting an important share of modern economies, as “Bullshit Jobs”, thereby pointing out that the multiple tasks of administration are not really constituting basic necessities of human civilisation. They have distracted from the fact that economies are not merely disintrested administrations that are effectively managing the intricacies of human need, but are in fact rather highly ideological forms of energy distribution organising social hierarchy and material dependency.
The labour liberated by automatisation and industrialisation thus becomes reinvested in the creation of usually entirely stratified and dependent office tasks, allowing for ever more efficient possibilities of social control hypercentralised and -verticalised in the ultraconnected infrastructures of industry and finance. What robotisation is to factories and the maintenance and operation of infrastructures, remote control warfare is to the standing army: all manifest a rapid decline in the importance of manpower. With it comes the loss of self esteem and confidence of labour, populations, democracies – to take political fate into their own hands. Observing the evolution of 20th century political systems, we are beginning to ask ourselves, if perhaps even democracy was merely a passing phase as a function of early industrial societies, necessary as a concession for its large scale factories and wars.
Still, even after the development of the atomic bomb and the first computers, for a while, it seemed that technology was still unable to fulfill certain tasks judged too complex and only manageable by the remarkably complex human brain. Pre-Uncanny Valley robots were still adorably clumsy and, at least for a while appeared reassuring that machines would remain unable to handle the more delicate operations of human civilisation. And then there were the arts, judged the superior domain emanating from enlightened madness of incomprehensible sparks of right-bran activity. In the early 21st centuries, with deep learning and AI-produced playwrights and artwork, all of these certainties appear to be further removed than ever. If anything, communications by Silicon Valley, masterly shrouded in insinuation, increasingly give the impression that a non-mainstreaming of its latest technologies might rather be the result of the unpredictability… of their social implications.
Arguably, there is something satisfying about this: with the merciless jeopardy to the complex bourgeois professions, the ideological veil also falls. If the dignified social stratum cannot maintain the myth of the self-made ubermensch anymore then charity becomes a possibility again. Albeit hesitantly, we learn that unemployment may not be a character fault of the individual after all, but may simply be structural. This admission is perceived as a victory by the left, the unexpected grand and heroic return of the welfare state, this time implemented by a generation of young enlightened billionaires with a social sensibility. But is it?
The Problem with Universal Basic Income
The UBI must seems seductive especially when compared to the neoliberal hamster wheel of precarious and alienated labour that has already done untold damage to the human psyche and contributed to the premature burnout of a generation. However, as with the welfare state of the 20th century, such a scheme does not resolve certain deeper underlying questions.
Throughout the past centuries both left-wing and right-wing ideologies in different ways have aspired to grant human beings control over their own destiny by giving them ownership of the means of production. Also for both the left and the right, at some point, labour and discipline had their own assigned importance and rank as secular means of salvation guaranteeing the dignity of a class, or more fundamentally, the development of the human personality itself. But of course with the shift of work to the tertiary and the development of complex societies came psychological and social changes, the Protestant Ethic gave way to the 4-Hour Workweek, and the hassle of bullshit jobs something to be avoided by all with any sense of dignity. The UBI appears somewhere in this legacy, ushered in by a population numbed through senseless and alienated tasks. Little does it matter then, that it is offered by billionaires rather than being the blood and sweat-drenched product of organised unionised struggle, or that it is usually offered in the Huxleyan combo-package with the late essential project of the New Left, legalised pot. Perhaps, once more, such policy must be taken as evidence that places like the collective psychosis hubs of Berlin or Las Vegas are, despite their geopolitically and economically peripheral situation, truly the cities of the 21st century. Where better could we imagine the techno-industrial state becoming the caretaker for managing a smooth transition of the hedonism-shrouded demos into the post-anthroposcene by way of an ecologically necessary population reduction? All along, there has been the suspicion that the logical consequences of the technocratic state have not really been the mass impoverishments of neoliberalism but rather the ultimate all-transcending and soul-deadening care.
How will politics adapt?
If then, subverted by a UBI, current left- and right-wing politics are losing their raison d’être, a likely development of politics appears to be moving towards a radical decentering of human beings as the political subjects. Current perspectives of ecology and posthumanism are already in the process of readjusting historiography, philosophy, and the sciences to radically relativise humanity’s position in history and society. It is no surprise that such a world will naturally consider to have Mark Zuckerberg as a future President: Zuckerberg, a person without any populist appeal, that no-one ever did like or will like, but who, undoubtedly, as a representative of a company that already lives in a different technological age from most humans, is representative of a superior and posthuman intelligence. Voting for this cheerleader of the cyberindustrial complex symbolically equals renouncing human dignity and abandoning it with the acknowledgement of technology’s victory and one’s own inferiority to hail in humanity’s future in Kurzweilian father-abandoned Cosmist psychosis.
In opposition to this, Donald Trump, also has his logical place in this world, as a man who offers the virtual return to the old times and attempts a reindustrialisation and creation of “jobs”, concepts that, as we learn, might be pleasing to the ears of certain value systems, but are perhaps entirely anachronistic in themselves.
The Unabomber Unconscious
Mark Zuckerberg may well portray a jolly UBI-future of human beings free to spend their time by becoming more “experimental” in a world where everything is taken care of. Reality, however, might be much bleaker if artificial intelligence is capable of surpassing humans in all activities -including the domain of the “experimental”. It return, it might be rather devastating to the collective psyche, when human beings will tell their children that their actions, aspirations and inspirations really neither matter nor will have any effects. After all, human beings crave meaning and will go to any length to create it. Whoever thinks that this impending human existentialist psychosis is a feature of a dark future is best reminded that its effects have already long been observed: while Generation Y’s intelligentsia lingers in a state of permanent identity crisis, more desperate young men, recruited from the margins of Western abundance perhaps instinctively, prefer to opt out and rather die a martyr’s death against society, instead of accepting their role as its useless and passive (welfare) subjects. All already perceive themselves as increasingly unable to determine even a fraction of their own destiny, let alone change the course of a society that is becoming increasingly elitist in its aspiration to total technocratic management.
It is no wonder that such a society will commence in critically reviewing its past decisions, increasingly targeting Enlightenment values and trajectories. In a more quirky and enjoyable form, were it not for its core of desperation, the Flat Earth-Society, for example, is trying to dismantle the post-Ptolemeic- world view – perceived as a milestone in moving human being off the center stage of history – as a carefully crafted lie. While such movements are bound to be either chuckled at or demonised, it would be much more important to take them seriously as symptoms of profound discontent with the modern world. In a way, they seem to even anticipate modernity’s dialectics and point to a much more widely-shared affective existential unease encountered when imagining a posthuman future. This unease appears to be an instinctual immune response against full-fledged technocratic rule. It affectively demarcates the anthropological limits of progress, and it will be certain to increase in traction the closer society moves towards a Silicon Valley-approved and Zuckerberg-led future.
In the meantime, the multiple symptoms of a moral panic and a return to an archaic violence are likely to exacerbate and radicalise the ideology of progress, despite its intellectual and spiritual morbidity becoming more evident with the victory of technology. In return, dialectics already announces the age old formula in the uprising against the posthumanist future and the revolt against the modern world: homeostasis, secession, hierarchy, taboo.
Nicolas Hausdorf is an editor, analyst, and essayist. His essay “Superstructural Berlin”, an experimental sociology of Germany’s capital (with illustrations by Alexander Goller) has been published by Zero Books.
Lutz Dammbeck, born 1948 in Leipzig, East Germany, is a German painter and film maker. Since 1984, he has been creating a comprehensive artwork under the name of “Hercules Concept”. He lives in Hamburg, Germany.