The governmentality of welfare and the Universal Basic Income

With an ongoing trial in Finland, two councils in Scotland considering the idea, and a Labour Party working group considering whether to make it party policy, the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) seems to be gathering support.

It is of course still subject to a lively and heated debate, with fears being expressed that it may allow firms to keep pay low or cripple state finances with a burden to pay rich and poor alike, among other criticisms

I want to sidestep this debate and explain why I think it is unlikely that a government of a major liberal country such as the UK will ever introduce such a policy. My reasons for making this argument build upon Foucault’s notion of governmentality, the term used to connect his investigations into the practices of government, of how we are governed and of how governments operate.

For Foucault, the purpose of government is to manage what he called ‘the conduct of conducts’, creating subjectivities capable of being governed to the extent that they self-actualise the rules of society. The term ‘subject’ is used by Foucault to capture a double-meaning: these subjects of liberal governmentality are both ‘subject to someone else by control and dependence; and tied to [their] own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge’[1].

Welfare systems play a key role in this liberal governmentality. They do not simply provide a social safety net for persons falling on hard times or incapable of work either temporarily or permanently: rather they are vast machines of governmentality, seeking to construct forms of subjectivity amongst those they process. The aims of this governmentality have changed as governmental rationalities have changed, but it has been present throughout the history of social security: from the ‘new Liberal’ government of the early 20th Century seeking to ensure a populace healthy enough to provide capable soldiers after the struggles to recruit enough sturdy men from the working classes to fight in the Boer Wars, to neoliberal dictums of self-reliance and resilience promoted by contemporary benefit sanctions regimes.

Those dependent upon the state for their means of subsistence are most exposed to these governmental rationalities, but they radiate throughout the social world. This highlights a further flaw in another line of argument about the inevitabilty of a UBI in the wake of greater automation. According to this logic, as more and more jobs are replaced by robots and machines the vast numbers of persons displaced from the world of work will require a basic income to allow them to live without employment. This argument misses the point that economic systems are not merely about the production of resources, goods and services, but that they too are implicated in wider systems of governmentality. Neoliberal capitalism seeks to produce resilient and self-reliant subjects capable of being governed and willing to govern themsevles, as well as generating prosperity and providing for basic needs (something it is, of course, not always successful in).

Governments require mechanism through which to intervene in the lives of populations, mechanisms through which to regulate behaviour and implement the ‘conduct of conducts’.  A UBI would allow ministries such as the Department of Work and Pensions to be radically reduced, as well as limiting the scope of HMRC and the network of job centres around the UK (there are around 700 job centres in the UK, which is just under half the number of police stations). The benefits in terms of reduction of administrative costs, inhumane sanctions regimes and allowing people to take part time or voluntary work without fear of losing benefits may be obvious: but, from the perspective of governmentality, this would mean the removal of a massive instrument for conducting the conduct of the poor, a mechanism for creating liberal subjects out of those who have so far failed in society.

A UBI would therefore disrupt the means of implementing liberal governmentality: but it would also run counter to the purpose of contemporary liberal governmentality. A UBI would remove some aspect of danger from people’s lives by providing regularity, safety and security. This is why liberalism cannot countenance it. Liberalism, as Foucault argued, depends on a culture of danger[2], requiring people to calculate risks, insure themselves against potential failures, take responsibility for the success or failure of their endeavours. This ‘sink or swim’ mentality is part of the subjectivity that neo-liberal welfare seeks to stimulate, inculcating a sense of responsibility by forcing the recipient to earn their benefits and take actions which will allow them to free themselves from the benefits trap by becoming self-sufficient and self-reliant.

Without an alteration in the very meaning and purpose of our liberal governmentality, I therefore think it unlikely that a UBI will be implemented in a country like the UK. But I would be delighted to be proved wrong…

[1] Michel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’, Critical Inquiry(1982), 8:4, p. 781.

[2] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79, trans. Graham Burchell, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), p. 67.