Universal Basic Income and Human Progress?

Universal Basic Income and Human Progress?

Reading this article on Huffington Post about the need for Universal Basic Income to get the Engine of Human Progress started up again. As I read it I keep asking myself if we’re pulling two invariant concepts together in the wrong way? This need of Universal Basic Income is one concept, the notion of continuing the conceptual underpinnings of Enlightenment Era Human Progress is another. I think the two should be divorces henceforth.

First let me quote Scott Santens argument:

“Here lies the greatest obstacle to human progress — the longstanding connection between work and income. As long as everything is owned and the only way to obtain access to that which is owned is through money, and the only way to obtain money is to be born with it or through doing the bidding of someone who owns enough to do the ordering around — what humans call a “job” — then jobs can’t be eliminated. As a worker, any attempt to eliminate jobs must be fought and as a business owner, the elimination of jobs must involve walking a fine line between greater efficiency and public outcry. The elimination of vast swathes of jobs must be avoided unless seen as absolutely necessary so as to avoid angering too many people who may also be customers.”

Now at face value this is a nice and tidy notion in which he sees progress as a positive, something we once again need to bring about: innovation, technology, creativity, jobs, global equity and justice, and end to ethnic disparity, etc. All well and good, yet what has all this progress given us so far? Climate degradation, political and social turmoil’s, the divisions of rich and poor, First and Third World nations, the endless imperatives of war and globalization, the collusion of sciences and capitalization… a wonder world of corruption, racisms, ethno-national hatred, bigotry, and endless strife. Oh, yes, the wonders of human progress!

We turned on a spigot of human and technological progress two-hundred years ago that has brought us to the point of possible planetary and civilizational collapse. Was this what those early pioneers of the Enlightenment sought in their belief in instrumental reason, science, and industry? I dare say not. They only hoped to better humans lives, and secularize or demythologize and destabilize their security systems (i.e., morals, religion, etc.). Instead we’ve given them a nihilistic view on things, and brought them to a world of fragmentation and fragility, despair and climate apocalypse in the making; not to mention the Sixth Extinction underway…

Santens tells us: “As humans drive forward into the future, they may just have their foot on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time. If so, is this in the best interests of humanity? Why not instead stop pressing the brakes by adopting basic income immediately, so as to fully accelerate into an increasingly automated future of increasing abundance and victory over scarcity? That seems to make a lot more sense than perpetuating — and even artificially creating — scarcity.”

This sounds a lot like Srnicek and Williams recent Inventing the Future, which is not even mentioned in the article at all. Yet, the Left Accelerationist argument is right out of their book: http://www.amazon.com/Inventing-Future-Postca…/…/ref=sr_1_1…

What’s strange is that Santens uses their book, yet quotes from Robert Reich rather than their work for his narrative. Is this plagiarism? One will have to decide. But it was their original manifesto, along with the Right Faction work of Nick Land on accelerationism, and Benjamin Noys (who coined it first) that we should listen too on such matters.

My only concern is caution: this notion of removing the break, if Land is right, is just what the right wing faction of neo-reactionary accelerationism is all about: one that leads to human annihilation rather than human progress, AI and techno-commercial Automation without the need of the current Human Security Regimes. The only thing that gets out alive in this prognosis is the technosphere itself, a realm where humans are no longer needed in the scheme of things.

Human progress is a myth we should forget.

Now that we have begun to understand the environmental limits to economic growth, we need to subject the idea of progress to searching criticism; but a nostalgic view of the past does not provide the materials for that criticism. It gives us only a mirror image of progress, a one-dimensional view of history in which a wistful pessimism and a kind of fatalistic optimism are the only points of reference, a criticism of progress that depends on the contrast between complex modern societies and the close-knit communities allegedly typical of the “world we have lost,” as Peter Laslett calls it in his study of seventeenth-century England.1

For Christopher Lasch in a former generation the Myth of Progress supported a view of things detrimental to our future well-being on this planet. Is he wrong? Should we revisit this whole notion of social and technological progress that some refer to as the ideology of the ‘Cathedral’ of neoliberalism? The Cathedral consists of the institutions in politics, journalism, academia and education acting in an uncoordinated manner to advance progressive principles in society; often deceptively. As Land will report it the Cathedral can be summed up this way:

The power of the business class is already clearly formalized, in monetary terms, so the identification of capital with political power is perfectly redundant. It is necessary to ask, rather, who do capitalists pay for political favors, how much these favors are potentially worth, and how the authority to grant them is distributed. This requires, with a minimum of moral irritation, that the entire social landscape of political bribery (‘lobbying’) is exactly mapped, and the administrative, legislative, judicial, media, and academic privileges accessed by such bribes are converted into fungible shares. Insofar as voters are worth bribing, there is no need to entirely exclude them from this calculation, although their portion of sovereignty will be estimated with appropriate derision. The conclusion of this exercise is the mapping of a ruling entity that is the truly dominant instance of the democratic polity.

As Lasch would surmise from a conservative critique:

The idea of progress and the communitarian counterpoint that accompanies it encourage a type of speculation that seeks to balance the gains of progress against losses and remains understandably ambivalent about the whole business. What is needed is a point of view that cuts through this inconclusive debate, calls the dominant categories into question, and enables us to understand the difference between nostalgia and memory, optimism and hope. A growing dissatisfaction with the prevailing point of view has led historians and social critics to investigate the Atlantic tradition of republicanism or civic humanism, historically an important competitor of the liberal tradition. Scholars have shown that the political economy of liberalism came to prevail only against vigorous opposition, that its eventual triumph was far from a foregone conclusion, and that the republican tradition continued, well into the nineteenth century, to hold up an ideal of the good society radically different from the one held up by liberalism. (pp. 14-15)

Or is the path forward that of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams who also surmise that our current neoliberal system has led us into a end game:

At a planetary level, things appear even more ominous. The breakdown of the global climate continues unabated, and the ongoing fallout from the economic crisis has led governments to embrace the paralysing death-spiral of austerity. Buffeted by imperceptible and abstract powers, we feel incapable of evading or controlling the tidal pulsions of economic, social and environmental forces. But how are we to change this? All around us, it seems that the political systems, movements and processes that dominated the last hundred years are no longer able to bring about genuinely transformative change. Instead, they have forced us onto an endless treadmill of misery. Electoral democracy lies in remarkable disrepair. Centre-left political parties have been hollowed out and sapped of any popular mandate. Their corpses stumble on as vehicles for careerist ambitions. Radical political movements bloom promisingly but are quickly snuffed out by exhaustion and repression. Organised labour has seen its power systematically taken apart, leaving it sclerotic and incapable of anything more than feeble resistance. Yet, in the face of these calamities, today’s politics remains stubbornly beset by a lack of new ideas. Neoliberalism has held sway for decades, and social democracy exists largely as an object of nostalgia. As crises gather force and speed, politics withers and retreats. In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled.2

How shall we proceed? Both Virilio and Baudrillard would critique the notion of human and technological progress from their respective Christian and nihilist irony. For Virilio, asked the question Are you against progress?

No. I’ve never thought we should go back to the past. But why did the positive aspect of progress get replaced by its propaganda? Propaganda was a tool used by Nazis but also by the Futurists. Look at the Italian Futurists. They were allies with the Fascists. Even Marinetti. I fight against the propaganda of progress, and this propaganda bears the name of never-ending acceleration.

For Virilio technology carried an accident. As he has frequently put it, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash … Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”

Baudrillard refuses to dwell too much on the role of capitalism. Instead he emphasizes the consequences and repercussions of the progress of technology. Like the Frankfurt School critical theorists, Baudrillard branches out to other fields of study. He critiques social and cultural changes and their effect in man’s behavior, thoughts, and perception. Baudrillard believed that underlying the fiction of modernity is a sense of temporality that excludes the elements of chance and contingency in play at every moment. In short, linear, progressive history covers up the discontinuities and interruptions that mark points of succession in historical time. For Baudrillard human and technological progress were not about change, but rather about simulation and repetition in a vacuum: “Everything is in motion, everything is changing, everything is being transformed and yet nothing changes. Such a society, thrown into technological progress, accomplishes all possible revolutions but these are revolutions upon itself. Its growing productivity does not lead to any structural change.”3

Another who would speak of human and technological progress is Franco Berardi in After the Future where he explains the changing terrain of the future.  The future has become precarious.  Twentieth century politics had a grasp on the future; it would be the realization of speed, progress and human strength.  This notion of the future is rooted in modern capitalism, the indefinite expansion of capitalism into every corner of the world and of life.  Berardi posits that all modern political ideologies share a “true faith” in the future and progress.  When Berardi speaks of the future, he is not speaking of the temporal direction of time, but rather the shared imaginary of progress and utopia.  To outline this conception of the future concretely, Berardi falls back on the Manifesto of Futurism from Filippo Marinetti.  Marinetti’s manifesto paints a picture of the future as masculine utopia of strength and speed. Where the future was once a promise for progress, there is now only the precariousness of life.  The possibility of devastation and catastrophe has caused a general paralysis of the will.  This paralysis of will is founded in the triumph of general depression across the population.

So the notion of human and technological progress might need a rethink, and a divorce from such notions as a Universal Basic Income. The one does not necessarily include the other. The three Utopian Societies that believed in the Myth of Progress: the progressive, the communist, and the fascist. Each of these in one form or another have died off, and maybe this is what we’re seeing in the neoliberal era of late capitalism, the slow and painful death of the Empire of the Cathedral: the monopolist regimes of globalism that have brought our progress to a halt in a blank world of circulating media-frenzy, where the populations goggle over the latest fashions, the crazed antics of Hollywood, the Reality TV stars, the Sports worlds of athlete millionaires, and the vagrant movements of Rock & Roll Moghuls. A land for fairy tales built on the exclusion of %99.0 of the world’s population. A world replete with images of transhuman and technological feats of prowess, that dismisses Climate Change and Sixth Extinctions as the fabrications of disgruntled scholars, and renegade scientists. As world that blindly follows the dictates of consumers desires rather than the vital and necessary protection of the earth’s resources for the future well being of humanity. This is your world, what are you going to do next?


  1. Lasch, Christopher (1991-09-17). The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (p. 14). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
  2. Nick Srnicek; Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Kindle Locations 69-78). Verso.
  3. Trans. and cited by Kellner, JBMB,11, from p. 217 of the French edition. Much of Baudrillard’s later work will seem particularly utopian absent the implications of this argument; his contentions in America and “2000” that humanity is “totally liberated” should, I feel, be read in light of this earlier remark. Of course, this doesn’t excuse him from the sheer stupidity of comments like “There are no cops in New York.”

Santens aritcle can be found here:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-santens/humanity-needs-universal-_b_9599198.html

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