Republicanism, Socialism and Basic Income

Interview with Antoni Domènech

Maciej Szlinder: You perceive your academic work as a part of Marxist, socialist tradition. What in your opinion are the most important Marxist’s arguments for basic income?

Antoni Domènech: I’ve been interested in basic income for 20 years. I sympathise with this idea, but I’m not so much engaged theoretically and politically like, for example, Daniel Raventós. I think that there is a connection between basic income and a socialist tradition. If we understand the latter that has descended from the democratic republican tradition. The key point is that the origin of all modern ideas of basic income is The Agrarian Justice by Tom Paine1 . This is very interesting pamphlet, also from a historical point of view. The idea that something like a universal basic income is necessary for guaranteeing the right to existence is a very old idea of Robespierre with whom Paine was disputing. Later, Paine understood his mistake. He didn’t support Robespierre before the Thermidor and Agrarian Justice could be perceived as an amendment to this mistake reconnecting with Robespierre’s views: the idea of guaranteeing the right to existence in the situation of the rise of privatising powers which are hostile to any kind of the commons. It is a fundamental, terrific rise in eighteenth century in England, but also in France, of what Robespierre called the “tyrannical political economy”, which is probably the best name for capitalism. Robespierre presented the program of “popular political economy” in opposition to this. In my opinion, this program of the extreme Jacobin left was retrieved 2 years after the Thermidor in 1796 by Tom Paine in his program of agrarian justice. The idea behind this is that we need a social republic which will guarantee the global rights of existence. But how we can achieve that? Paine’s answer was that we can achieve it by universalising a small agrarian propriety. It was also a dream on the other side of the Atlantic, Jefferson’s dream that all people should be small, free and independent farmers. Robespierre had already understood that guaranteeing everyone basic living conditions was impossible before the industrial revolution. And guaranteeing that nobody needs to ask for permission of others to be able to live – this is the basis of a republican freedom. I perceive a basic income as a part of this tradition. Socialism is the other form of defending these values of the First French Republic, by trying to universalise republican freedom after the industrial revolution. Marx defines socialism in different ways but in a famous passage from Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council written for the First International, he defines it as “the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers2 who appropriate together the means of production. So “republican association.” The other famous definition of socialism by Marx at the end of chapter 32 of Capital Volume 1 is “the expropriation of the expropriators”3 . I perceive the fight for basic income in this context.

Do you think that basic income can be a means of “expropriating the expropriators”?

No, but basic income could be understood as a common means of de-commodifying vast areas of the social and economic life and, also as a means of empowerment of the wage labourers in the relations of power. The first thing I told you are the basic values of the republican democracy of the revolution. The second idea has more to do with the modern socialism of the nineteenth century, the idea of a strengthening the bargaining position of the workers’ negotiators and strengthening the possibility of remodelling the economy by, for example, industrial, trade and agricultural cooperatives. Basic income favours cooperative movement.

Your connection between republicanism and socialism stands in contradiction to the probably more popular current vision of republicanism presented by people like Quentin Skinner, about whom it’s hard to say he is a socialist or even a leftist.

Quentin Skinner is interesting because he is trying to rescue the idea of republican freedom as something different from the liberal freedom that was imposed in the nineteenth century. But there are two things that seem to me to be completely insufficient in his perspective. The first is that he is completely blind to the democratic tradition of republicanism. In his writings, it is like Athens had never existed, nor had The First French Republic. There was only Rome. And the former was the most important in terms of the democratic point of view. It is very significant that for him republicanism is the debates made by Cicero at the end of the republic and Machiavelli interpreted in a very questionable way. In his vision, Aspasia, Cleon, Ephialtes, Pericles just don’t exist. He also has no understanding of the economic and fiscal foundations that led to the fall of the Roman Republic, which was basically oligarchical. Moreover, even inside Rome, Quentin Skinner is completely blind to the democratic elements: the plebeian reform of the constitution in the third century BC, Lex Agraria, Lex Frumentaria. The republic of Cicero was the last oligarchy which tried to defend itself from an uprising of the people which ended up with Julius Caesar.

The third point of my disagreement with Skinner is that he doesn’t realise the republican freedom has its roots in the notion, the structure and the institutionalisation of property and the correlations of social powers. For him the political philosophy is an analysis of texts and discourses. For instance, he has no historical understanding of the English Revolution of 1640. He just doesn’t see the social powers there. And these events were wonderfully analysed by serious Marxists like Christopher Hill, George Rudé and maybe the greatest of them, Rodney Hilton (who was a medievalist but also wrote very interesting things about the English Revolution). That is, in my opinion, the most important historiography done in the twentieth century – a very serious way of thinking.

And what are the relations between Skinner and Philip Pettit one of the most important current republican thinker and a defender of basic income?

Skinner is very close to the philosophical approach of Philip Pettit. We can find the same blind spots in their writings that Greece and the First French Republic don’t exist. Neither does Jefferson, there are only Anti-Federalists. But Pettit tried to build a definition of republican freedom against the backdrop of nineteenth and twentieth century liberalism. His definition is that one is free (in the republican way) if there can’t be any arbitrary interference in his/her life from anyone (neither private nor by the state). This is a psychological definition; I don’t mean that it doesn’t capture something, but it misses the essence. And the essence in the republican tradition, both oligarchic and democratic, is that you are free if your material existence doesn’t depend on another. Of course, if you depend on me because you’re my slave, salary worker or my wife, I can interfere arbitrarily in your life. In this point, these definitions intersect. But I can interfere arbitrarily in your life in forms that have nothing to do with political freedom. For example, I can come to your friend and tell him a white lie: I know that his wife is cheating on him but I’m telling him that she’s not so as not to upset him. It’s an arbitrary interference but has nothing to do with the material conditions that have always been the central issue of the republican tradition. Pettit, by ignoring that, is psychologising social relations. All the neo-republican approach of historians like Skinner or philosophers like Pettit completely ignores the democratic tradition. They also misinterpret the meaning of Cicero and Latin republicanism in the context of a terrible war in Europe from the third century BC to the end of the republic in the first century BC. And philosophically, Pettit and Skinner psychologise the freedom, by eradicating it from its institutional, economic, material and social conditions of possibility. I’m very critical about this. Skinner also works with a similar approach to John G. A. Pocock, the author of The Machiavellian Moment4 . They both were starting with a very interesting, and sometimes forgotten Marxist called Neil Wood, husband of Ellen Meiksins Wood. These two did a lot of relevant things in reference to republicanism (for example a very interesting book about Cicero – Cicero’s Social and Political Thought5 ), but contrary to Skinner or Pettit, they are not academic stars, purely for political reasons.

What do you think of other traditions among basic income supporters that declare themselves Marxists or defend this proposal on the basis of Marx’s writings? One of the most important articles in the history of the basic income debate was A Capitalist Road to Communism6 written by Philippe Van Parijs and Robert van der Veen in which the authors propose that basic income can be a means of transforming the capitalist society to a communist one. What do you think of this kind of idea?

I have translated this very early article by my old friend Philippe Van Parijs into Spanish. But I think it’s not the best way to argue for a basic income. It’s totally disconnected from the economic reality of factual capitalism. There are many people like those who work with the idea of basic income and use some of the Marxist notions, but who are totally neoclassical. They have no idea of Luxemburgian, Kaleckian or even Keynesian perspectives. For them, Marxism is just scholastic thinking. I think that this analytical Marxism is a dead end.

And what about the works of Erik Olin Wright?

I am very disappointed by his book Envisioning Real Utopias7 , as for me that’s “methodological creationism.” If Marxism has been an important intellectual tradition, it is because of his understanding of the historical and dynamical processes and that has political consequences in the sense that you can say: ok, we are in this historical situation with such a correlation of forces, and we have two, three, four possible paths to take. That is a sort of Darwinist perspective, in the best sense of Darwinism, understanding that we are path-dependent. And these people think like a creationist – we have a wonderful idea of basic income and a just society, we construct a wonderful utopia because of some moral reasons and one must aspire to this, regardless of the material, social, political, institutional conditions we have. There is an American leftist critic Russell Jacobi who has devastated the book by E.O. Wright from a historical perspective.

Other Marxists that defend basic income and attack the formerly mentioned for being detached from the current, historical development of capitalism are the autonomist Marxists. What do you think of their approach?

I have a very bad opinion on this. For me, it is a speculative Marxism. I perceive Van Parijs and Wright as late scholastic philosophers like Francisco Suarez from the sixteenth and seventeenth century who at least have an analytical and conceptual apparatus that is precise and strict. But Negri is as speculative as they are but without this apparatus. It’s almost like “anything goes.” In the books of Negri and Hardt, there are almost no facts, no statistics, it’s a bad philosophy. Marx said about Feuerbach that he was ahistorical when he was materialist and he was non-materialist when he was historical – that’s also true about Negri. When he is historical, he speaks of cognitive capitalism with no understanding of the real dynamical forces of capitalism. It’s a neo-Hegelian bastard philosophy. I met Negri in the seventies in Italy and I have a very bad opinion not only of his philosophy but also of his political attitude. Socialism is also the real history of the working class with the labour unions, worker’s parties etc. You can think what you want about labour unions, you can say that social democratic parties have been horrible reformists, but these were the concrete, historical, real crystallisations of the working-class movement. Negri comes from a Catholic movement in Italy; he has been always a strong anti-communist and anti-syndicalist thinker. He was always against the real, concrete institutionalisations of the working-class movement, against the Communist Party, against the Italian Socialist Party of Pietro Nenni, against the CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro – Italian General Confederation of Labor). Pasolini said about Negri: that’s the Catholic utopia of a bourgeoisie communism8 , and that’s exact in my opinion.

So, what is your proposition to convince these real institutions of the working-class movement, namely labour unions, to understand the historical dynamics and stop demanding a step back to the Fordist era and take a move forward fighting for a universal basic income?

That’s very difficult indeed. I’ve spoken with labour union leaders and they stick to the classic welfare state. But they are starting to understand that this is an old world which won’t come back. You can try to convince them to open their minds to solutions like basic income, but this would be very difficult. In fact, most of the big labour unions are totally defeated. They must understand we are in a historical stage in the European Union and United States and that they must radically change their minds.

The French, British or German labour unions can relate to the “golden age of capitalism” of the fifties and sixties, but the Spanish ones cannot do that, because you’ve never had a “golden age” here – until 1975 you had a fascist, Francoist regime without freedom of association, when labour unions were controlled by the government or illegal. Does this historically specific situation make Spanish unions more open to the new political propositions?

On the contrary. To understand the Spanish transition to a parliamentary monarchy, one must consider that the aim of antifascist restoration was to become a reformed capitalist system of Western Europe, the welfare state and the democratic state of rights. If you look at the Spanish Constitution of 1978, you can see that it was inspired by the German Constitution of 1949. But the Spanish transition happened to be in the moment of a total change in welfare state capitalism. So, in Spain, a welfare state has never been developed like it was in other Western European countries. The Spanish labour unions have never had the opportunity to become great organisations such as German or Italian ones, not to mention Sweden. The rate of affiliation was always much smaller than countries like Germany, Sweden or Italy. Spanish unions became public assistance organisations and have been very much devolved into corruption. Spanish capitalism after Francoism has developed a very special form of economy – it was a corrupted political economy, with co-optation of the left formations and union workers. People see that and this is one of the reasons why unions are discredited and so weak here. It has been similar to the Polish neoliberal transition but not so radical like in your case.

Antoni Domènech (1952) Spanish philosopher, professor of methodology of social sciences at the Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Barcelona. Translator. Author of several book, including El eclipse de la fraternidad. Una revisión republicana de la tradición socialista (Crítica, 2004) [The Eclipse of Fraternity: A Republican Revision of the Socialist Tradition]. The editor of journal Sin Permiso.

Polish translation of this interview is available here.

Former interviews about basic income:

Lluís Torrens, Basic income, economic growth and the city

José A. Noguera, Basic income as a political horizon

Jurgen De Wispelaere, Exciting Times Ahead: Experiments and the Politics of Basic Income

Erik Olin Wright, Sociology and Epistemology of Real Utopias

Daniel Raventós, Basic Income in the Spotlight in Spain

Guy Standing, The Strategy for Basic Income

The interviewer received funding for preparation of PhD thesis from Polish National Science Centre as part of PhD scholarship decision DEC-2015/16/T/HS1/00295.

  1. Thomas Paine. Agrarian Justice, 1797. []
  2. Karl Marx, Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council. The Different Questions¸ 1866. []
  3. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy; Volume I. Penguin Harmondsworth, London, 1976, p. 929. []
  4. John G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton University Press, Princeton&Oxford, 1975. []
  5. Neal Wood, Cicero’s Social and Political Thought, University of California Press, Berkeley 1988. []
  6. Robert van der Veen, Philippe Van Parijs, A Capitalist Road to Communism, „Theory and Society” 15 (5), 1986, pp. 635–655. []
  7. Erik O. Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, Verso, London and New York, NY, 2010. []
  8. Pier Paolo Pasolini, La prima, vera rivoluzione di destra, Il Tempo, 15 july 1973. []

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