Speenhamland, automation and the basic income: A warning from history?

Author:Pitts, Frederick Harry

Proposals for a basic income have a long history, in which they have issued from all corners of the political spectrum: right, left and centre. But what marks their contemporary specificity is the link with a post-work, potentially 'post-capitalist' society. Propelling this conversation is the growing prospect of widespread automation, possibly of a large number of both blue- and white-collar jobs. Technological unemployment is predicted to follow, as robots replace workers. The argument goes that basic income responds to the retrenchment of the welfare state at the precise point jobs become scarcer, replacing the wage with an alternative payment independent of productive work.

But the solution is perhaps not as straightforward as this. Events in a pub in Berkshire two centuries ago let us know where the relationship between automation and the basic income might lead--and what it portrays is not a pretty picture. Through the famous reforms instituted at the Pelican Inn, Speenhamland, a prototype basic income was paid to those displaced by technological unemployment. But the payments preserved in aspic a fraught set of social relations, best seen, as we will suggest, in the example of the handloom weavers displaced by new weaving machines. By ensuring a minimum level of subsistence it kept in place the misery of the state of things as they were, foreclosing their escape.

This historical example throws up evidence of unintended consequences concealed in current thinking around the basic income on the UK left and elsewhere. Basic income is no panacea. We conclude by assessing how introducing a stronger element of class struggle into contemporary visions of a future of automated worklessness might make their best consequences more realisable, and their worst less likely than is implied in current prescriptions for the provision of a basic income.

The ever-new is also the old lying close at hand

Today, proponents of basic income see replacing labour with technology as less a threat than an opportunity. Moreover, among policymakers and mainstream theorists, the underlying assumption is that technology drives productivity enhancement and thus brings an automatic improvement of living standards. In a rehash of the orthodox Marxist dialectic between the forces and relations of production, radical advocates of basic income in turn argue that these benefits can only be shared if the social crisis of technological unemployment is solved with the provision of basic income.

As we shall see, this presentation of the progression of history through the productive forces of a given society pushing against the social relations under which production takes place is misguided. Postcapitalist theorists like Paul Mason put a lot of faith in the capacity of technology to deliver change. But technology is subject to the social context of its use. The simplistic positing of human progress through the development of the forces and relations of production whitewashes both the dialectical co-constitution of the former in the latter and the latter in the former, and the continuing conditions of contradiction and antagonism that render them contingent.

As this short reflection will consider, what the example of Speenhamland demonstrates is not the 'dynamic' side of the dialectic posited by Mason, where history unfolds on the path of progress, but what Adorno called its 'static' side, where the future stagnates in the persistence of the present. Adorno wrote that 'at every moment the ever-new is also the old lying close at hand. The new does not add itself to the old but remains the old in distress'. (1) Speenhamland suggests that the schemes for propelling history with automation and basic income may remain 'stuck' in precisely such a way. History unfolds not along a straight line but turns in on itself like the layers of an onion, with each stage becoming increasingly pathological.

The Labour Party and Poor Laws old and new

Carried along on the pipedream of a development of the relations of production through the development of its forces, today we find the Labour Party at the centre of debate about free money and new machines. Inspired by the upswell in opinion behind the popularisation of the postcapitalist ideal through bestselling works like those of Mason and Srnicek and Williams, Labour has made tentative steps towards the embrace of a postcapitalist imaginary based in automation and the basic income, most notably in Corbyn's recent conference address extolling the 'new settlement between work and leisure' afforded by automation. This follows John McDonnell's suggestion of 'Socialism with an iPad' and Corbyn's previous commitment to exploring the implementation of a basic income.

This dovetails with its uptake in social-democratic think-tanks such as the Fabians and policy research institutes like the Bath Institute for Policy Research. Pilots and modelling exercises proliferate. Though sceptical of Corbyn, the intellectual forces behind centre-left policymaking have made themselves at home in the new ideological room he affords. Indeed, a recent exchange in Renewal between Neal Lawson of Compass and Mat Lawrence of the IPPR charts the course of this translation from the radical fringe to all wings of the social-democratic centre left.

The debate in the Labour Party over a new approach to securing the self-reproduction of workers in the face of instability echoes some of the historical conditions that led up to a debate that took place at the inception of the Labour Party as we know it. In 1908, the Minority Report of the Poor Law Commission, written by Labour MP and future leader George Lansbury and leading Fabian Beatrice Webb, proposed the end of the Poor Laws and the implementation of new social policy protections against poverty. It was pivotal in coaxing the Fabians away from attempts to influence the Liberals and into the Labour fold, producing the uneasy class and ideological compromise with which the Labour Party still contends today.

The Poor Laws with which the report...

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