On Living in Dishonest Times

Mark Greif (founder and Editor of the journal n+1) visited the RSA to mark the publication of Against Everything - a brilliant collection of essays critiquing everyday life under twenty-first-century capitalism.

In his speech (reproduced here) he explores the philosophical and political arguments laid out in
‘Gut-Level Legislation, or Redistribution’, which touches on thoughts on a universal citizen’s income, poverty, property and ‘morally relevant inequality’.

Against Everything: On Dishonest Times is 40% off until Sunday October 30th (midnight UTC). It includes free shipping (worldwide) and bundled ebook. This book is not available in North America.

When the Royal Society of Arts invited me to address you today – very kindly, I might add – there was the question of what I should talk to you about.

This book I’ve published, Against Everything, is largely about the transformation of necessity in our time, and a world-historical change in what used to be called “the necessities of life.” Since Greek antiquity, philosophers have fantasized about what humankind would be free to do, could we overcome the dominating force of physical labor, and the need to gain our daily bread by the sweat of our brow. What would happen, were plentiful food ever to become easy to attain, on a mass basis? What would happen if mortality could be pacified, such that seventy-five or eighty years of life could become the norm rather than the exception, and many of the commonest causes of early death and morbidity put away? Or if the tyrannical impulse of sexual desire could be separated from the labor of childbed and childbearing, and reproduction become a matter of liberal choice?

My argument is that for those in the rich countries, like England and America, necessity has in fact been pacified to a degree unimaginable in earlier eras.  But the consequence has not been true liberation – or a new upwelling of the impulses of justice, or democracy, which you might think would be facilitated by such ease – or even the real effort to extend the relevant overcoming of necessity to other populations, globally.  I look at such personal-level phenomena as the new cultures of “exercise,” of food care and restriction, of the sexual exaltation of youth, of “health” as an underlying morality, in order to suggest how new systems of necessity, or seeming necessity, are produced instead: ever more urgent demands to work on yourself; new grounds for self-regulation; the push to add a fantasized additional year, or two years, to your lifespan at some cost to really living those miraculous seventy-five.  Above all, grooming behaviors, to draw a term from the animal kingdom, but often raised to the level of a new morality.  And I think this is opposed to a genuine reckoning with the problem of what we might do with our moral freedom.

Now, not much of Against Everything intrudes upon what you might call policy, or prescription.  It is a book of questions, and not answers.  Or say it is an effort to shift thought, or call for thought, but not to fix it again.

With the invitation to speak to you today, however, it was noticed that one point upon which my book’s contents dovetail quite exactly with practical work that has been done lately by the RSA comes in my slightly “surreal” chapter entitled “Gut-Level Legislation, or, Redistribution.”  In this essay, I spin out the needfulness of what is, essentially, a universal basic income for citizens.  I don’t call it by name, but that’s recognizably what it is.  As a reciprocal policy with that minimum universal income, or income floor, however, I also advocated a ceiling for income, or what’s usually called an “income cap,” a point above which all income would be taxed at 100%—or, perhaps, taxed “asymptotically,” so that as your income rose above a certain height you would only take home an untaxed pound or two, which would be of essentially symbolic value.  “Look, I make more than that other chump!”—by a pound or two, for your pride but not for real differences in buying-power.  I do think, when we consider the deeper moral purposes at least, that a guaranteed minimum income for all citizens, of the kind you all have been contemplating, may also require a maximum income, or cap, as expressive of a shared vision of the valuing of achievements, and social freedom.  Put it this way: I believe that if we should try to free people from super-poverty, we should also try to free people from super-wealth.

Anyway, this is what I want to try to argue to you today. My background and my interests are, let’s say, philosophical, or literary, rather than focused on policy or government.  Yet these are the impractical grounds on which I might contribute something practical.

Now, the value of a universal basic income is often allowed to become a matter of helping the worst off – as a matter, implicitly if not explicitly, of pity, compassion, or charity – or prudence, even.  We should be obliged to reduce misery.  A rich society should not allow poverty to persist.  No one should be without the money for a roof over his or her head; no one should be unable to afford three square meals; a right to minimum life, and freedom from fear, and from want, for everyone, should be an “expense” that all of us are willing to bear – even if we are rich, successful, competitive, out for our own excellences.

All of this is true.  But I think it’s a mistake to limit or misunderstand the purposes of a universal citizen’s income – acquired by virtue of being born, or naturalized, rather than for work or by desert – to this idea of remediation, or charity.  Charitable thoughts allow a whole host of other impulses, often associated with an entrepreneurial or competitive or business culture, and elegized in terms of competitive liberty, to seem to go a different way, as if universal minimal income were only about equality or safety.  To the contrary, I think that minimum income should be understood to be essential to those very reaches of human passions – to the production of excellence, of creativity, of real competition, of thymos, and of, say, inequality on its good side.  We may be tempted to think of universal basic income as a merely collectivist or communitarian gesture.  But it is absolutely essential, I would say to anyone who at first opposed it, for any chance at individualism: for true individualism, perhaps for any individualism worth the name in our society.  A guarantee of money allows the emergence of forms of just and genuine recognition of unequal talents, energy, skill, and genius – because real, honorable inequality is not measured in money, nor dominated by moneyand need – it is set free, and you can thus enjoy morally relevant inequality.  And this will also be why income caps are also needed, as I hope you’ll see.

I want to begin with this proposition that a purpose of life, or say of life in liberal society, is individualism. Individualism is the project of making your own life as appealing as you can, as remarkable as you like, without the encumbrances of an unequal society, which renders your successes undeserved. Government is then the outside corrective that leaves us free for life.  Let us imagine for a moment that government were to give every citizen a total of 10,000 pounds a year from the government revenues, paid as a monthly award, in recognition of being an adult in the United Kingdom.  (And indulge me in imagining, too, that we should to add a tax bracket of 100 percent to cut off individual income at a fixed ceiling, allowing any individual to bring home a maximum of 100,000 pounds a year from all sources and no more.)

These two measures of the redistribution of income help dissolve the two portions of society whose existence has long been anti­thetical to democracy and individualism, and which most harm, too, the marginal members of each of two classes: the obscenely poor and the absurdly rich.

Each group must be helped. We must not only end poverty, but end absurd wealth. Obscene poverty doesn’t motivate the poor or please the rest of us.  It makes the poor desperate, criminal, and unhappy. Absurd wealth doesn’t help the rich or motivate the rest of us.  It makes the rich (for the most part good, decent, hardworking, and talented people) into selfish guilty parties, responsible for social evil. It is cruel to rig our system to create these extremes, and thus to cast fellow citizens into the two sewers that border the national road.

And for all of us, both superwealth and superpoverty make individual achievement trivial and unreal, and finally destroy the principles of hard work and just deserts. Luckily, eradicating one (individual superwealth) could perhaps help eradicate the other (superpoverty).

True property is that which is proper to you: what you mix your hands into (following John Locke), what is characteristic of you and no one else, and would change state in anyone else’s possession. It is your clothes, your domicile, the things you touch and use, the land you personally walk. Property is the proprium, a possession that becomes like a characteristic; it starts as if it could belong to anyone, and comes to be what differentiates you. If it wears the mark of your feet and the smudge of your fingertips, your scent and your private atmosphere, then there is indeed something special and inviolable about property, even where it has come into your hands inequitably, by inheritance or a surfeit of income. The diamond worn at the throat every evening must share a certain protection, under the law, with the torn cloak that keeps some shivering person warm.

This is distinct, however, from all wealth that is not capable of being used in the ordinary necessities of a life or even the ordinary luxuries. From any wealth that cannot be touched or worn or walked every day by its possessor, which neither comes from nor enables the mixing-in of hands but always and inevitably exists as a kind of notional accumula­tion of numbers, the protection of the proprium withdraws. When you have more houses than you or loved ones can live in, more cars than you can drive; more income in a year than can be spent on what you or your family can actually use, even uselessly use; then we are not speak­ing of property anymore, not the proprium, but of the inappropriate and alien—that which one gathers to oneself through the accident of social arrangements, exploiting them willfully or accidentally, and not through the private and the personal.

Thus the rationale for restricting income. Inequality will always exist, but it is in itself something different. One has to recognize that while the proprium may be passed down in nonmonetary forms, too—in the peculiarities of your genetics from your parents; in the heirloom, dwelling, tool, or decoration that wears the traces of hands and breath—income always comes as a consequence of arrangements of the commu­nity, via the shared space of trade, the discussion and rules, the systems of investment, and all the voluntary associations of society, of which the largest association is government. (Redistribution of wealth rather than income might do much more to improve our democracies, our societies, and the globe, but it can and should probably be contemplated much more hesitantly and gently at this stage, simply because it concerns more “fixed” forms occupying vaster spans of time, rather than sums already in movement and liquefied as income is.)

A rich person—continuing to draw 100,000 pounds a year in income—stays rich, but puts part of it into his own home and bank account and part into the needs and luxuries he may actually use. This sum will be converted reasonably into the proper, the personal, without any absur­dity. A superrich person, however, who takes in 1 million, 10 million, or 100 million pounds, will not and can never spend it on any sane vision of the necessities of life, at least not without a parasitic order in which normal goods (a home, a dinner) are overpriced (by the existence of those who will compete to pay for them) and other goods are made to be abnormal and bloated (like the multiacre mansion). The social sys­tem allocates the extra 9,900,000 pounds mistakenly. Reallocated, it would do much more benefit in a guaranteed citizens’ income for many individu­als in households with total incomes both above and below the median. But this is without—and this is very important—doing any harm to the formerly superrich person; if anything, it may do him a great benefit.

And it should also be done, though this should be obvious, without any person or office to decide to whom money should be allocated—without any “means test,” as is the term in the United States. The goal is an automatic mechanism and universal good, not a form of government control. Everyone must be given an equal sum, the 10,000 pounds, to help him be free. And that must include the rich top earner of 100,000 pounds—to keep him free, too, with the opportunity, through all the years of his adulthood, to change his life.

The threat from some who oppose this line of thought is that, without “incentives,” people will stop working. The worst-case scenario is that tens of thousands of people who hold jobs in finance, corporate man­agement, and the professions (not to mention professional sports and acting) will quit their jobs and end their careers because they did not truly want to be bankers, lawyers, CEOs, actors, footballers, et cetera. They were only doing it for the money! Actually they wanted to be high-school teachers, social workers, general practitioners, stay-at-home parents, or criminals and layabouts.

Far from such an outcome being a tragedy, this would be the greatest single tri­umph of human emancipation in a century. A small portion of the rich and unhappy would be freed at last from the slavery of jobs that aren’t their life’s work—and all of us would be freed from an insane system.

If there is anyone working a job who would stop doing that job should his income—and all his richest compatriots’ incomes—drop to 100,000 pounds a year, he or she should not be doing that job. He should never have been doing that job—for his own life’s sake. It’s just not a life, to do work you don’t want to do when you have other choices, and can think of something better (and have a 10,000 pound cushion to supplement a different choice of life). If no one would choose to do this job for a mere 100,000 pounds a year, if all would pursue something else more humanly valuable; if, say, there would no longer be anyone willing to be a trader, a captain of industry, an actor, or an athlete for that kind of money—then the job should not exist.

The supposed collapse of the economy without unlimited income levels is one of the most suspicious aspects of commonplace economic psychology. Ask yourself, for once, if you believe it. Does the inven­tor just not bother to invent anymore if inventions still benefit larger collectivities—a company, a society—but do not lead to a jump in his or any other inventor’s already satisfactory personal income? Do the professions really collapse if doctors and lawyers work for life and jus­tice and 100,000 pounds, rather than 1 million? Will the arts and entertain­ment collapse if the actors, writers, and producers work for glory and 100,000 pounds? Do football players go into some other line and stop playing? If you’re panicking because you can’t imagine a ceiling of 100,000 pounds, well, you can make it 150,000 pounds.  (I’m not sure how much you all are accustomed to earning.) Our whole system is predicated on the erroneous idea that individuals are likely to hate the work they have chosen, but overwhelmingly love money. Presumably the opposite should be true. Even the really successful trader must love his work in some way—he enjoys the competition, temporarily measured in money, and the action and strategy and game of thought and organization, which are his life’s calling. And all this glory could be pursued in a society in which he took home only 100,000 pounds from this sport of kings—and he, and all of us, might be better off.

Not only decency, justice, and community but nobility, excellence, and individualism can come about only by social redistribution, and not charity, in a society organized against drastic monetary inequality in the first place. It would be a good society in the broadest sense, one in which life was worth living, because the good life (as a life of morality, and as a life of justified luxury) could be pursued without contradiction.

The essence of individualism in other words is morally relevant inequality. The misuse of inequality occurs when it comes to be based on wealth rather than ability; on birth rather than talent; on positioning rather than genius; on alienable money (which could belong to anyone) rather than action and works (which can be done only by you). These distortions spell the end of a society of individualists. Money inequality creates a single sys­tem that corrals every person and places him above or beneath another, in a single file stretching from hell to the moon. These so-called indi­vidualists will then be led, by the common standard of pounds sterling, to common interests, common desires, and little that’s individual at all.

— Against Everything: On Dishonest Times is 40% off until Sunday October 30th (midnight UTC). It includes free shipping (worldwide) and bundled ebook. This book is not available in North America.

Listen to Mark Greif in conversation with Brian Dillon on the
Verso Podcast in collaboration with the London Review Bookshop, here!