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In 1966 the Black Panthers released their Ten Point Platform, a series of demands and calls to action that offered a clear statement of their political orientation. The second point of the program demanded that the federal government provide either full employment or a guaranteed income. In 2016 this call was renewed by the Movement for Black Lives. What the Panthers understood in 1966 is what the Movement for Black Lives understands today: capitalism in the United States functions by creating, maintaining, and exploiting class and racial differences to produce antagonistic forms of security. Antagonistic security is security that is created for some people by processes that work against the ability of others to access resources such as wealth and political power. For those on its receiving end, it often generates precarity, from barbed wire fences to predatory police patrols.
A basic income that supplemented existing welfare structures could make everyone safer while ending the most pernicious forms of policing.
In the right context, basic income has the potential to expand cooperative security, which is security with others: the kind of security that a dam provides a nearby village, or that mass vaccination schemes provide a community that develops herd immunity. However, a basic income advanced as a replacement for labor regulations and other security-enhancing government programs—“UBI-,” we call it—will only further exploit those whose lives are made most precarious by this system. Conversely, a basic income that supplements existing or new welfare structures—“UBI+”—could radically redistribute security, remove incentives for the most pernicious forms of policing, and create the conditions for a more thorough overhaul of the current political system.
In the absence of a stable and equitable distribution of wealth, the government has long advertised the welfare state as a partial citizens’ security that defends its recipients from extreme poverty. President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed “freedom from want” as an executive mandate in his 1941 State of the Union address, less than a decade after his administration’s New Deal redefined the character of the U.S. state as a guarantor of security. The New Deal federalized schemes to provide insurance against bank runs and bad crop years, and expanded access to homeownership by establishing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, and the Home Owners Loan Corporation.
Although the New Deal has been well documented as racially inequitable, it was progressive in that it established a state responsibility to make its citizens secure, primarily by protecting their economical well-being. But the discriminatory development and implementation of state security was not an unintended consequence or accidental imperfection. It was a manifestation of the state’s interest in maintaining racial hierarchy. Given this goal, the state secured the interests of white people even when it meant the exclusion and dispossession, and precarization of others. In the ensuing years, many good-paying jobs moved to the exclusively white suburbs that had been made possible by government policies and regulatory schemes. Meanwhile, in the wake of the hundreds of race riots in the 1960s and the associated anti-authoritarian consciousness developing in cities, increasingly large and professionalized police forces were tasked with preventing and responding to urban unrest, partially aided by counter-insurgency strategies developed in Vietnam. For many working-class communities, especially those of color, the government has been simultaneously a last line of defense against the most serious forms of poverty and the first line of attack against their basic dignity and autonomy, offering security with one hand and taking it with the other. True collaborative security requires not only that a government provide all its citizens with resources to survive through tough times, but also that it does not engineer the conditions for those tough times in the first place.
Our criminal justice system largely functions to insulate the powerful from the risks of their decisions.
The criminal justice system in the United States largely functions to insulate the politically powerful from the risks of their decisions, at both the literal and figurative expense of working-class communities of color. Overpolicing and an increasingly broad set of plunderous police activities, ranging from creative “enforcement” of fine-generating traffic laws to civil asset forfeiture, sits awkwardly next to chronic underpolicing of corporate predation. The everyday shakedowns of working-class people bring a very real risk of bodily harm and can even cause death: Philando Castile was murdered during a routine traffic stop, SWAT stormed Korryn Gaines’s house over unpaid parking tickets. But what is also important are the much more reliable effects: increased revenue for government coffers, arrest statistics that provide police unions and elected officials with the useful illusion of effective law enforcement, and opportunities for incarceration that destabilize communities and provide a political pretext for politically and economically disenfranchising millions. These tactics, taken together, provide antagonistic security for a handful of political elites at the expense of endangering the lives, livelihoods, and political power of entire swaths of the population.
Incremental adjustments to our capitalist society—such as means-tested welfare benefits, anti-gentrification, and policing reform—are important and should be fought for. But many of these approaches are perceived, sometimes accurately, to pit exploited groups against each other in zero-sum games. Taxpaying people who are not targeted by specific welfare programs represent welfare recipients as being supported by their dime; efforts to protect neighborhoods from newcomers further constrict an increasingly unaffordable housing market for outsiders; and many view the police as necessary to protect them from intimidating populations, especially youth of color. When these ways of generating antagonistic security dominate political discussions, they support the dangerous and mistaken idea that social groups must primarily protect themselves from other groups, This neglects the hidden framework of false choices that seem to constrict the viable possibilities to only various forms of antagonistic security. The result is a political climate that fails to imagine how we might build cooperative security together. UBI- capitulates to exactly these kinds of forces by secretly serving as an offensive against welfare programs and other forms of government-provided security. UBI+ asks instead that we find ways to struggle together for forms of cooperative security—security that does not sacrifice the lives and liberty of vulnerable people. Only when this is our orientation will we be in a position to dismantle racial capitalism.
More radical challenges to racial capitalism are possible. UBI+, by guaranteeing everyone an income sufficient to live on, reframes the way society treats labor and provides security to its citizens. For example, this kind of guarantee recognizes that the labor of raising children and caring for the elderly—work done disproportionately by women—is valued as work. Currently much of this work is uncompensated, and as a result we economically and socially marginalize those who do it. In a capitalist system where economic value and overall value are often conflated, this reinforces the idea that caregiving is not an important contribution to society and penalizes people who try to do this work alongside paid work (e.g., child-unfriendly work policies, expensive child care, lack of clear leave policies for caring for children or elders). UBI- would provide a guaranteed income but eliminate programs that respond to these specific concerns, such as those provided by Social Security that target the needs of elderly and disabled people. This would effectively offer security with one hand while taking it with the other.
Because it is unpaid, caregiving is seen as an unimportant contribution to society, and those who do it alongside paid work are penalized.
UBI+ likewise helps provide freedom from exploitation. It contributes to freedom from harmful relationships by helping to eliminate reliance on the income of a partner who does paid work, a dynamic that often plays out in relationships between women and men. A UBI+ that is sufficient to meet basic needs, and supported by social services that strengthen its impact, will allow people to live with dignity, choices, and the kind of freedom that many in the United States seek but routinely fail to achieve.
A guaranteed income would also give activists and organizers within marginalized communities more space to work on the myriad problems a basic income would not solve. Many people working for a more just world get little to no pay for their work. In a world with basic income, activists would not have to work a day job or constantly hustle to get by, but would be able to give their lives to agitating for other causes without the anxiety that comes from being financially precarious.
For these reasons the Movement for Black Lives—a coalition of more than fifty black-led organizations seeking “radical transformation, not reactionary reform” for racial justice—released a six-point platform that included reparations for slavery and the institutional exclusion and disenfranchisement that followed. UBI+ alone would go a long way to improving security for all marginalized individuals and families in the United States, but a UBI+ coupled with a broader social vision of cooperative security, such as the one advanced by the Movement for Black Lives, could change the game. This vision would, wherever possible, embrace radical forms of cooperative security, from universal health care coverage to the abolition of both police and prisons.
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