Interview: UBI and ‘Job Culture’ (Part One)
The following is part one of a two part series in which former Basic Income News editor Kate McFarland interviews D. JoAnne Swanson of The Anticareerist on Basic Income.
The original article can be found here.
KM: You have a long career–if I might use that term–of critiquing “job culture” and promoting, as it were, a more leisurely society. There are others with similar interests who have called for alternative strategies, such as mandatory reduction in the work week and increase in vacation time, policies to promote job-sharing, and policies to allow workers flexibility in trading income for time-off. What caused you to begin promoting basic income in particular as a means to move from a more job-oriented society to more of a leisure society?
DJS: My basic income advocacy began with love and outrage: a deep and abiding love of the arts that led to outrage when I learned that so many artists live in poverty. I want every creative person who’s ever wanted to devote themselves fully to their arts and crafts to be free to do so on their own terms. I mourn the tremendous waste of gifts and talents happening every day as artists spend so much time and energy in jobs to meet basic survival needs while their art gets pushed into the margins of their lives. Art is essential; it’s not a frivolous luxury. People need art. There have even been times in my life during which art, music, books, and dance were the only reasons I wanted to go on living. How many brilliant artistic works have never come into being because artists are forced into flipping burgers just to make ends meet? That’s a massive loss to all of us. UBI could free artists to be of service in the way we do best. If we could meet our basic needs without having to sell our labor to employers to survive, the arts would flourish. That’s the world I want to live in. UBI could help us build that world.
More broadly, though, I started promoting UBI because I wanted to ease the burdens of all economically marginalized populations, including caregivers and other unpaid laborers. UBI could provide a means of harm reduction and self-determination for those who are struggling financially. I want to liberate work from the constraints of paid employment, and empower people to say no to coercive employment. Massive suffering occurs every day because people are divided into “deserving” and “undeserving” categories based on our ability and/or willingness to hold wage jobs. This is fundamental moral injustice. People who aren’t in paid employment – or can’t work at all – should not be treated as if they are worthless. Benefits recipients should not be forced to prove their worth in order to receive food, shelter, and health care. Many people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, for example, are suffering and dying because they aren’t healthy enough to maintain employment sufficient to pay their bills, yet the authorities deem them “not disabled enough” to qualify for disability income. UBI is desperately needed. It could save lives.
I do support reduced working hours, increased vacation time, job-sharing, and other policies that allow greater flexibility for employees. If well-implemented, these can be steps in the right direction. But those strategies only apply to employed people. UBI can make life easier for people outside of paid employment. I want people who hate their jobs to be able to quit without fear of homelessness and poverty. I want to help create conditions in which those who don’t want jobs don’t have to take them, and those who do want jobs can enter into them by choice and interest instead of by coercion born of financial need. When people don’t have the option to say no to selling their labor, they are much more easily exploited. A properly implemented UBI could strengthen the negotiating position of the labor force and reduce the suffering people endure when they can’t find employment that pays enough to meet their basic needs.
As for my career as a critic of job culture, I figure I’m justified in adopting the oxymoron “professional anticareerist” after 20 years of autodidactic study in a field of my own design, tongue-in-cheek though the title may be.
KM: Relatedly, do you think that, as a policy reform, UBI is sufficient to allow people to promote more opportunities for unpaid work, more leisure time, and the attendant ecological benefits to which you allude in your article?
DJS: I think it’s a necessary reform, but I don’t think it’s sufficient. A well-implemented UBI would be a major step in the right direction, but building a culture that values leisure and respects unpaid workers will require us to loosen the ideological chokehold of compulsory paid employment and the Puritan work ethic. I founded The Anticareerist (formerly known as Rethinking the Job Culture and whywork.org) to help facilitate this culture change.
So much of American culture is centered around a norm of full-time paid employment. Many people in the U.S. rely on jobs not just for income, but for health insurance. Making health insurance conditional upon employment or spousal relationships, as the U.S. does, exerts powerful coercive forces that keep many people stuck in unhealthy jobs and relationships to ensure they maintain access to healthcare. UBI alone would certainly be insufficient to address major structural issues like that, especially in the current political climate.
Regarding the ecological benefits of UBI…it’s often overlooked that compulsory paid employment is a major contributor to ecological crisis. As Ken Knabb puts it in his essay Strong Lessons for Engaged Buddhists:
“As long as there is big money to be made by producing weapons or ravaging the environment, someone will do it, regardless of moral appeals to people’s good will; if a few conscientious persons refuse, a multitude of others will scramble for the opportunity to do it in their place.”
Why does that multitude of others scramble for the opportunity to participate in ecological destruction? Because in a world without UBI, people desperately need jobs – any jobs – to pay for food and shelter right now, and that’s a powerful enough incentive that it leads our species to act in ways that threaten our long-term survival. What might we do with our time instead, if we weren’t forced into ecologically destructive jobs in order to feed and house ourselves? UBI provides a means to enable people to refuse ecologically harmful employment, and that’s a necessary reform…but even with a UBI in place, we’ll still need to address other incentives, norms, and ideologies that reward pathological behavior and punish responsible behavior.
KM: Some proponents of a job guarantee also support broadening the concept of “work” to include care work, housekeeping, volunteering, creative work, and so on–work like you describe in your article. That is, they would extend the job guarantee to cover such work. And, of course, employment would be guaranteed by the government, so doing the work wouldn’t require self-marketing. The job guarantee could also be accompanied by a shorter workweek and more vacation-time, to guarantee more time for leisure; it could even be a drastic reduction to allow for the interesting and important states of “deep leisure” that you describe. Some advocates of a job guarantee do also support shorter working hours, after all; the policies are not incompatible. Would you support such a job guarantee? Assuming that you would still prefer UBI, why?
DJS: Well, for starters, I’ll say that if I were offered government-guaranteed pay to do my self-driven creative work on my own terms – i.e., the work I’d be doing anyway, whether or not I ever got paid – I’d gladly accept it. So in theory, a job guarantee sounds like it could be an improvement on what we’ve got now. However, without getting into policy details, I don’t believe it could be implemented in a way that would make it so. It would be much more complicated than basic income.
Furthermore, it’s still conditional income. What would happen to me if I could no longer write, nor do any work at all? Is my life only valuable to the extent I can be productive (however “productive” is defined)?
A job guarantee leaves the dominant work ethic unchallenged, and I think this is one reason many people find it preferable to UBI. Everyone must earn their pay – or so the story goes – and those who don’t work don’t deserve to eat. This ideology is surely among the most deeply entrenched cultural barriers to a UBI. It’s a powerful shaper of policy, and all the more so because it’s so rarely called into question. Fundamentally, my goal is to break the coercive link between paid employment and survival. A job guarantee doesn’t address that, so I wouldn’t support it. Without a UBI in place, a job guarantee would still amount to coerced labor on the state’s terms. In my vision of justice, people are regarded as intrinsically valuable regardless of their employment status or productivity.
KM: Sometimes the poor and unemployed, including those on welfare, do make claims like, “I don’t want a handout from the government; I want a job so that I can support myself,” implying that they themselves do see paid employment, not government-provided financial security, as a source of freedom and independence. What would you say to such individuals? Do they have a false consciousness?
DJS: Unpacking this can get complicated quickly. In cultures organized around paid employment – i.e., the cultures most of us live in – it’s true that jobs are genuinely important to many people. I don’t think they have a false consciousness, because these beliefs do make sense within the normative framing conditions of the dominant job culture. Often, unemployed people feel as if they don’t have a socially acceptable place to belong in the world, whereas a job can bring instant respect and recognition.
When gainful employment is equated with dignity and benefits recipients are maligned as “welfare bums,” it’s understandable that many people become accustomed to tying their self-worth to paid jobs. According to this narrative, wage labor – any wage labor – is vastly preferable to welfare, because jobs are inherently morally good. These cultural norms also place responsibility for economic productivity on the shoulders of individuals, which is convenient for capitalism because it diverts attention away from the immense harm caused by structural forces that force people into jobs.
Conflating the word work with paid employment also devalues and obscures unpaid labor, which compounds the problem. For example, it’s common to refer to those who aren’t in the labor pool as “not working,” regardless of whatever other forms of work they may be doing outside the job market. If I clean my own house, for example, that’s not considered “work,” but if I clean someone else’s house and they pay me for it, then suddenly I’m doing economically productive work. The dominant narrative asserts that all paid work is good because it provides jobs, and those jobs are necessary for survival. If we don’t question the veracity of this paid-employment-is-the-only-real-work narrative, and we internalize social taboos against desiring income without working for it, then it’s logical to come to the conclusions you describe above.
But you asked what I’d say to them. Most likely I’d encourage them to look into the work of writers and thinkers who challenge this narrative, such as David Frayne, James Chamberlain, Kathi Weeks, Sharon Beder, Peter Frase, and David Graeber. Graeber suggests “a labor theory of value that starts with women’s work & caring labor as the paradigm,” for example. I think that would be a great start to dismantling the notion that paid jobs make people “self-supporting.” That’s a misleading notion, because it obscures our interdependence and devalues all the unpaid labor that undergirds the job market.
KM: You mention, in passing, that there are “good reasons” why your creative work “should probably remain unpaid”. Do you mean this independent of the fact that you need to devote so much work and effort to securing funders? That is, even if your creative work could become a guaranteed job, there are reasons it might be better off unpaid? If so, this seems like it could be a relevant and important difference between a UBI and a job guarantee like the one I just described, and I wonder if you would elaborate more on this. What are these “good reasons”?
DJS: Good question! It deserves a full essay of its own, but here’s a start.
I have a saying: “endarken the work.” This is how I remind myself that my best creative work – the kind that’s worthy of being called art – emerges through immersion in endarkened or daimonic states. I cannot control these forces of endarkenment; they live in the realms of the gift, and they show up of their own accord. I can only surrender to them.
Dwelling in these endarkened states of creative flow requires me to trust my gut and allow my instincts to point the way. (By the way, I love the phrase “trust your gut,” as it’s an everyday acknowledgment of embodied forms of intelligence other than the much-vaunted intellect.) I cannot steer this process toward any external outcome desired by my waking mind, whether that be money, attention, praise, love, or influence. My conscious mind must act as servant, not as master. The work must be undertaken willingly, and it must be done for its own sake. It must be done because these are the gifts I’ve been given, and this is the work I’m entrusted to carry out. Period. If I attempt to monetize the creative process itself, hurry it along, or shape it into any form it does not want to take, I compromise its integrity or spirit.
When the work feels complete and true, then I can start thinking about how or whether to market it. If I consider monetary factors too soon, the creative process becomes truncated, because I’ve squeezed the work into the straitjacket of the conscious mind’s agenda. Audiences know the difference between work produced for an agenda and work infused with the integrity of daimonic states. They may not be able to explain it, but they can feel it.
One of my favorite writers, Stephen Harrod Buhner, describes writing that emerges from these endarkened states of relaxed receptivity as “soaked in life force.” I think that’s an apt description. This is also where the deepest joys of work reside for me: in spaces of creative endarkenment. I think of these processes as forms of everyday magic. Like William Morris, I believe that taking pleasure in the work itself is a necessary condition for the creation of artistic beauty.
As a writer who works with daimonic forces, I have certain obligations: to keep honing my skills so I can be a fit vessel for the work; to arrange my life so that I can respond appropriately when words show up of their own accord (“daimonic necessity,” as Matt Cardin calls it); and to make allowances for fallow periods. As I wrote in my original piece, states of deep leisure are essential components of my creative process. Without sufficient leisure, silence, and stillness, I cannot endarken the work.
In a world without UBI, it’s difficult to maintain conditions that permit me to work this way, because leisure, silence, and stillness are made artificially scarce. I live in a culture that considers it not only acceptable but morally right that everyone should have to “earn a living” on the employer’s terms. The implicit threat underlying employment negotiations is: if you don’t find employment that earns enough money, you’ll be denied the basic means of life. Most people don’t have the option to say no to employment, which makes this structural coercion a fundamental moral injustice. If I don’t have time for creative incubation because my paid job consumes nearly all of my time and energy, then I can’t produce work that is infused with the daimonic.
So when I wrote that there are good reasons my creative work “should probably remain unpaid,” I didn’t mean my creative work is unworthy of payment. I’m talking about motivation. I mean that financial motives (or any motive that does not respect the integrity of daimonic forces) can compromise the integrity of creative work. In a world with UBI, I could do that daimonic work on its own terms, without regard to its marketability, and I could still pay my bills. That would liberate a great deal of energy, which would in turn allow me to produce better work. The same goes for all the other creators out there whose time and talents are being channeled into what Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” instead of devoted to their creative work.
In my original piece, I linked to your thought-provoking article “A ‘Paid Volunteer’ Against the Monetization of Voluntary Labor (and for Basic Income),” in which you wrote:
“…it seems that voluntary work is best supported and encouraged not by the monetization of that work, but by the provision of financial support entirely independent of that work — the type of financial support that would be provided, for instance, by an unconditional basic income. […] It is better to have enough financial security to work for no pay than to receive payment directly for the same work.”
I agree. My preference would be to receive unconditional income sufficient to allow me to work for no pay, rather than to receive direct payment for it. I have strong sources of intrinsic motivation to do creative work already, so I don’t need money as a motivator. But I do need it for material sustenance, so as long as I live in a world that requires me to “earn a living,” I must seek payment for it and/or maintain a day job for income.
Typically, when artists decry “selling out,” we’re talking about compromising the integrity of the creative process in order to satisfy market demands. “Art should be free” is one way of trying to give voice to this truth, but that phrasing is vague and easily misunderstood. Whether or not we can put it into words, artists intuit that art should be free of coercion. We know that true art comes to us as a gift. But that doesn’t mean art is financially worthless. It’s important not to conflate ”free” in the creative sense with “free” in the financial sense.
We’re faced with a real dilemma, because art is socially valuable, and the world benefits when it’s made widely available. That’s what we’re getting at when we say things like “art should be free.” But if we make our art available free of charge in a world that requires us to “earn a living,” then our labor goes unrewarded. Art is real work. Art has social and political costs, many of which remain hidden to the general public. As things stand now, those costs are disproportionately borne by the artists themselves.
What causes this dilemma? The need to earn a living. The “starving artist” is not a problem inherent to art. Nor is it a problem inherent to money. The problem is structural; it’s about power relations. The problem is the need to sell our time for money. It’s hard to make space for full surrender to the creative process in a world that shoehorns nearly everyone into paid employment just to prove we deserve food, shelter, and healthcare.
When artists lose control over our time because we spend most of it at our employers’ behest, we pay a high price individually and culturally. That’s one of the tragedies of compulsory paid employment, and one of the reasons I started The Anticareerist.
KM: You have a very interesting passage in which you stress that Patreon is “a far cry from UBI”. I must say that, as someone who has dabbled in crowdfunding through Patreon, I couldn’t agree more. But, as you no doubt know, there’s a lot of talk in the basic income community about the writer and advocate Scott Santens as someone who crowdfunds “his own basic income” on Patreon. Indeed, Santens himself talks about having a “basic income” due to his support on Patreon. What is your opinion on the use of those like Santens as (purported) examples of people “who already have basic incomes”? Do you think it’s at all misleading or even dangerous to the movement?
DJS: In Scott’s case, I suspect that framing his Patreon earnings as a “basic income” may be a consciously chosen rhetorical strategy to attract support for the UBI movement. As a basic income writer, he’s demonstrating what he can do for the world when he’s given enough support by his readers to free him from the need to hold a conventional job. He’s using the phrase very loosely, for sure, because Patreon is arts patronage, not basic income. Scott doesn’t have a UBI; he has crowdfunding patronage that supports his media activism. UBI is unconditional and available to all. Patreon support is conditional, and it’s available only to those with sufficient artistic, social, promotional, and technical skills – and time! – to pursue their art while also managing a Patreon campaign.
Do I think the way he’s describing his income is dangerous? No. Misleading? Yes. However, considering our dire need for UBI – people suffer and die from preventable ailments every day for lack of a few hundred dollars – I’m also pragmatic enough to think this misuse is mitigated by the way his work helps to shift the dominant narrative and attract support for UBI sooner than it might come otherwise.
“Let’s get something straight here. It’s not that people with unconditional basic incomes won’t work. It’s that people with an actual choice instead of no real choice may not choose YOUR work at YOUR price. Basic income is the basic freedom to choose both OUR work and OUR price.”
Because he’s fortunate enough to have that ongoing financial support in place, he’s able to do his work by choice. Clearly he wants all of us to be so lucky, which is why he’s devoting his life to basic income activism. He knows what it’s costing the world not to have it. I respect that greatly. In a recent interview he said:
“There’s someone right now who is flipping burgers just to get by. They’re working for poverty wages for 100 hours a week. They’re too busy to be focused on really important, world-changing work. What is the cost to society of that? You can’t put a price tag on that.”
So although I’d prefer more accurate language about his crowdfunding situation – I’m a word nerd, after all – I think this is a minor “infraction,” especially when compared to the way so much of the discourse in the basic income movement reinforces the dominant work ethic.
KM: We see a lot of discussion these days about the idea that basic income encourages employment, because it removes a financial disincentive for those on welfare to take jobs. We see perhaps even more cases of basic income advocates rebutting the concern that people would work less if they had a basic income; a lot of proponents of UBI are eager to cite studies that show it doesn’t decrease employment. What is your reaction to this type of basic income discourse? Does it make you at all skeptical of the ability of basic income to combat the job culture?
DJS: I’ve been a basic income supporter for over 20 years, and I’m thrilled to see how much the movement has grown in recent years. But the prevalence of rhetoric supporting productivist values and the dominant work ethic troubles me enough that I often feel alienated from the movement. I think anti-careerism/un-jobbing needs an organized movement of its own. Ideally we could work collaboratively with the basic income movement.
Nonetheless, considering that the work ethic is so firmly entrenched, it does make sense that some of the discourse focuses on challenging the notion that UBI is about “enabling laziness” or discouraging work.
I find it discouraging that a typical first reaction to the idea of UBI is “but wouldn’t people just spend it on drugs or be lazy and not work?” Only in a world that normalizes compulsory employment could it be so widely accepted that people should be driven into jobs by shame about “laziness” and fear of destitution rather than by choice and interest. I think “laziness” is often a healthy resistance – a mutiny of the soul, as Charles Eisenstein calls it – to a coercive job culture. Even if some people were “lazy,” though, so what? Who cares? Coercing people into jobs they hate costs us a lot more than providing them with a UBI – not just economically, but also psychologically, socially, culturally, and ecologically. “Lazy” people stuck in ecologically harmful jobs for the sake of a paycheck could do more for the world by quitting their jobs and lying on the couch than they could by staying in those jobs. I’ll cheer them on!
When I first learned about UBI, “laziness” didn’t even cross my mind. I thought about how it might allow me to quit my day job and write on my own terms instead of my employer’s. I thought about how it could empower people to resist coercive employment. I thought about how it could enable people to leave abusive partners. I thought about how it could reduce food insecurity. I thought about how beneficial it would be for welfare recipients to receive support without the stigma and means-testing of a punitive social assistance system.
I also thought: How many people are doing tremendously beneficial work right now without much (or any) income from it? “A lot” would be a massive understatement; I think everyone reading this could name many of them without even missing a beat. How much easier could their lives be with UBI? Would we rather continue to allow masses of people to suffer because we think jobs prevent a few people from “being lazy,” when we could instead be saving lives, freeing people from abusive relationships, easing the burdens of care labor, and promoting a flourishing of the arts?
That said, I do think it’s important to note one of the ironies here: namely, that many people, myself included, yearn for a UBI out of ongoing frustration at not being able to do more of the work they want to do. This interview is a good example. It took me many months to squeeze in enough time to answer these questions, since most of my waking hours are consumed by wage labor and maintaining a household. In a world with UBI, my creativity would flourish, because I’d be free to do my unpaid work. I’m confident that I could be of much greater service to the world as a writer without a job (but with UBI!) than I can with one. But until we live in a world with a UBI, I doubt I’ll have a chance to prove it.
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