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Statement on Immaterial Digital Labor and Universal Basic Income for the General Assembly
Dorothy Howard

Friday, April 3, 2015, 7:00-10:00 PM
PARMER at Abrons Art Center
Experimental Theater, 466 Grand St, New York, NY 10002

Dialectics of the struggle to live under late capitalism have connected the dots between the many problems faced everyday by netizens including the failed promise of automation in alleviating work, the reality of increasingly immaterial and unpaid knowledge-labor of content creation, and the heightening gap between the digital have and have-nots. Crowdsourcing and automation have contributed to the diminishment of previously waged jobs, and the devaluation of knowledge-work.

Crowdsourcing platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Wikipedia), and the sharing economy (Uber, Air B&B, MOOCs), the rise of unpaid internships, and the burgeoning freelance market, have made it increasingly hard for creators to profit off of their work and to maintain a decent quality of life.

Ironically, machines have not alleviated work so much as transformed what used to be paid work into unpaid work, contributing to the global “time-famine” and increasingly conflated notions of work and play, as well as the rise of “hope-labor” (unpaid work for an undetermined, later payoff) in digital/ social content production, such as blogging.

Terms and Definitions

The concept of Digital Labor has evolved from the traditions of Workerism, Autonomism, and Post-Fordist theory that grew during the worker's struggles in Italy. In cultural theory today, digital labor scholars work at the nexus of sociology, philosophy, social and critical theory, law, and computer science. Digital labor as a field includes consideration of the effect and the axiomatization of the body, collective intelligences, and the hive mind, semiotics and postmodernism, artificial intelligence, science fiction, gaming culture, hyper-reality, disappearance of the commodity, and contested definitions of the “knowledge worker”, the “cybertariat, in capitalistic society.

The term immaterial labor was popularized by Italian sociologist and philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato in the 1990s, and  further explored by Franco Berardi ("BiFo") in The soul at work: from alienation to autonomy and Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Italian Marxist sociologist and political philosophers, in their books, Empire, and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, as well as Judith Revel, and Paolo Virno. This notion of Immaterial labor (connoting the unrecognized, affective, unseen, illusory labors of the everyday, of sociality) as opposed to material labors, blossomed from the student and worker’s movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, particularly the Situationism (France), Provo (Holland), and the Autonomist, Workerist/Operaismo movements (Italy).

Universal Basic Income (UBI)

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a social welfare provision that would provide all citizens (unconditionally) with the sufficient income to survive each month.

Universal Basic Income is meant to lessen the constraints of the current economy that prevent people from having a high quality of life. It aims to be a non-partisan initiative, though it has had supporters in the left, right, libertarian, and moderate parties. UBI might feasibly coexist with a robust welfare state, and a high investment in public goods, including universal health care, free and well funded primary and higher education, and universal pensions but it could also exist independently of these other welfare measures.

There are historical precedents of UBI proposals among great thinkers. Bertrand Russell proposed a basic income in 1918 in his Proposed Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism. In 1962, Libertarian economist Milton Friedman defended the idea of a Graduated Minimum Income (GMI) to replace the existing social welfare system. George McGovern ran for the U.S. presidency with a guaranteed annual income, what he called a ‘demogrant’, on his platform in 1972. The concept has been endorsed by other Nobel laureates in economics, including James Meade, James Tobin, Herbert Simon, Friedrich Hayek, Jan Tinbergen, and Robert Solow (Yap 2014), and economist David Graber.

Much research and scholarship has already been produced on the policy considerations of UBI at the city, municipality, state, and federal levels, including the sources of funds for a Basic Income. There are multiple precedents for how UBI would be funded that are on the table. Alaska was the first U.S. State to implement a partial U.S. income. its Permanent Fund Dividend (“Alaska Dividend”), established in 1982 after being voted in by the state legislature. The Alaska Dividend as of 2014, is $1884/year and comes directly from state oil dividends. The Alaska model is particularly interesting because it is about distributing some of the financial gain that companies have had in exploiting natural resources like oil, land, rainforests. Even if natural resources are owned by municipalities in the way that the water supply is owned and wildlife is owned, natural resources belong to all of us, especially insofar as the private exploitation of natural resources harms all of us (rising sea levels, global warming).

Globally, projects or pilots for UBI have been taken up at the national level in Brazil, Namibia, Switzerland, Canada, and India, among others. To name a few; in Brazil, the Citizen’s Basic Income (Renda Básica de Cidadania - RBC) was established as law in 2004 after being voted up by all parties in both houses in the National Congress. The Namibian Basic Income Grant Coalition established a pilot project in the Namibian village of Omitara (or Otjivero-Omitara). It was found to have significantly increased income above the amount from grants, decrease malnutrition, and decrease overall crime rates by 42%. In Switzerland Fall 2014, activists dumped eight million coins outside Parliament, one for each Swiss citizen.

In Canada, Mincome was a pilot project for basic income in Dauphin, Manitoba from 1974-1979. New mothers and teenagers worked less, and hospital visits dropped, among other things. In India, UNICEF funded a pilot called SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) to study the effectiveness of Universal Basic Income grants in eight villages in Madhya Pradesh. In France in 2012 a group of citizens launched a transpartisan network in an attempt to join forces for raising awareness about basic income in France. This network aim at participating to the European citizens initiative that is set to be launched in 2013. And also the global, Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), founded in 1986, now has affiliates in 20 countries.

UBI is supported by libertarians and members of the political right in a different way than it is by the left. Libertarians have also been known to support an implementation of a Basic Income Tax or “Negative Income Tax” where the amount allotted to a person would be reduced as their income went up. Perhaps this contestation at the policy/ implementation level can be read as an exciting turn; pointing to a potentially non-partisan effort that might be able to cut across party lines- an opportunity rather than a breaking point.  

UBI Platforms

Supporters of UBI come from a divergent set of policy platforms. UBI has traditionally been supported as a path from homelessness and poverty, and in the same breath, and an initiative promoting women’s rights where many more women than men live in poverty. “At 11%, the poverty rate for women aged 65 and older is almost double that of men aged 65 and older—6.6%.”(source) It has also been seen as an incentive to legal immigration, insofar as UBI would be used as an encouraging factor for illegal immigrants to go through the processes of gaining legal citizenship so they could receive the UBI benefit.

A newerplatform for UBI has been modeled after concerns to the growing immaterialization of labor and “time-famine” to a discussion of how data collection, surveillance, and privacy infringement has created for-profit economies that should pay back citizens for the constant infringements on civil liberties, and the generation and profiting off of life itself. One argument for UBI is that people should be paid for living in a society where they generate value (in the form of data, advertising value, etc.) just by being alive and participating in the current, data-driven economy. The rise of WikiLeaks, and the Snowden revelations have revealed to us the integration of the surveillance state into the architectures of contemporary life.

The growing transhumanist and accelerationist groups, too, are supportive of UBI as it would be a necessary tenant of a society ruled by the replacement of human knowledge work and thinking with machine learning and artificial intelligence.  

UBI would also help counter the devaluation of knowledge-work in the digital economy. Research institutions like the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society have contributed significant research on research on the impact of the architecture and engineering of the internet on the imbalance in who profits from the crowdsourcing of code and content. Universal Basic Income would provide more free time for citizens to enjoy a higher quality of life without the fatigue of having to work exhaustively to maintain basic human needs.

Organizing

There are also significant hurdles that need to be overcome in order for immaterial digital labor to be recognized by the state, and for UBI to be considered as a feasible political option or agenda item.

The welfare industry has become a cash cow for all sorts of private interests. Corruption and payoffs so common today in American politics would affect the possibility of UBI being implemented at the Federal level. It has already been made clear to us that the far right will do anything and everything in its power to obstruct any and all ‘socialized’ welfare measures from passing. This was seen in the defeat of the 1993 Clinton Health Care Plan, ( the “Health Security Act”), chaired by the then First Lady of the United States Hillary Rodham Clinton, by the massive spending of conservative policy groups and lobbies funded by private interests and the privatized health care industry. Similar things happened to President Obama’s semi-socialized health care reform packages.

Politics has always been deeply symbolic. There needs to be a revolutionary, action-oriented, spirit to the UBI movement, and also that art and performance generally, are an important part of political and democratic expression alongside more to-the-bone policy discussions.

The hands grow weak in the digital economy, it is time for us to step forward and move into solidarity and agenda building. Our voices must be heard.

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