At Public Books, Gustav Peebles, a professor of anthropology at the New School, reviews the book Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution by James Ferguson. In an age of increasing automation and dwindling employment, Ferguson seeks to question the assumption that the amount one labors should determine one's access to social goods. Here's an excerpt from the review:
Ferguson wants us to abandon these intertwined attachments to self-sovereignty and labor. The sun has set, he suggests, on the traditional socialism that so intimately relied on labor and its “politics of production”; to find alternatives, we must delve into the “politics of distribution.” Distribution, says Ferguson, is everywhere, before our very eyes; and yet, outside of feminist anthropology, we have almost entirely failed to attend to it, surely because the dialectic between production and distribution has itself been gendered. Mythically male production has only reigned as “primal” for at least 150 years because of an intense laboring effort (no pun intended) to erase the role of mythically female distribution. But this primal position of production has always been more of a wishful hope than an empirically based observation. On the contrary, as he argues, “before a man can produce, he must be nursed—that is, the receipt of unconditional and unearned distribution and care must always precede any productive labor.”
As he explains, a “declaration of dependency” would confound these myths, dismantling their tremendous power by openly recanting the illusory promise of self-sovereignty via labor. The international movement for a “Basic Income Grant” (BIG) could serve as a key vehicle for transparently organizing the entire polity around dependency rather than self-sovereignty—without shame or fear, since all citizens would receive it (e.g., a simple bank transfer every month from the state, whether in Switzerland or Namibia). While BIG has brought together the proverbial “strange bedfellows” from the left and the right (Ferguson himself points out its neoliberal elements), the idea nevertheless opens up, for the first time, a truly pragmatic (rather than merely ethical, as per the likes of Lafargue) attack on the mythic power of labor and self-sovereignty...
If this is the case, then BIG, and the new politics of distribution that Ferguson is outlining, might well invert the standard eschatology of Marxism. The future socialist world would not be a dictatorship of the hard-working proletariat, but rather a dictatorship of the seemingly idle rentier—the social class that is incessantly critiqued for receiving income without work. Ferguson hints at the possible veracity of this claim by turning to a term of art that we all know well: “Share.” As Ferguson points out, the idea of a share does not come exclusively from capitalism, but is also well known within hunter-gatherer society. Intriguingly, both the capitalist and the hunter-gatherer concept of the share flagrantly violate the traditional Lockean connection between labor and ownership.11 Rather than labor activating ownership (and therefore rights to distribution), the share dictates that people have an a priori claim on communal wealth, regardless of input. In such systems, ownership is tethered to (a given form of) communitarian socio-legal ethics, rather than individual material action: “If payments can be conceived as rightful shares … then there is no expectation of a return, no debt, and no shame. No one is giving anyone anything. One is simply receiving one’s own share of one’s own property.” Were this logic to prevail, the horrific rhetoric of the “parasite” that has always lurked dangerously within the standard politics of production would thankfully disappear, in one fell swoop.
Image: Swiss activists from Generation Grundeinkommen supporting a referendum to incorporate the concept of basic income in the Federal constitution. Via Public Books.