And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint…
And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.
And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?
And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.
Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.
Genesis 25:29-34. (KJV)
This Biblical passage tells a story of Jacob and Esau, two sons of the patriarch Isaac . Though twins, Esau was born first and thus was in line to secure the “head of household” status and all the inheritance rights that went with the privileged position. But, as the above passage describes, he was famished one day and bargained away his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. Thus he “despised his birthright” (i.e., never fully appreciated its value), and traded away his rightful status for a single meal.
Today, the phrase “a mess of pottage” commonly refers to “something immediately attractive but of little value taken foolishly and carelessly in exchange for something… immensely more valuable”.
What does all this have to do the idea of a universal basic income? Let’s hope, nothing; but if we fail to understand the value of our birthright, everything.
I won’t drag you through the obligatory recap of how the idea of a basic income guarantee is gaining in popularity around the world, about the many different types of proposals, of how even F. A. Hayek was on board, etc.. The backstory is common enough, I think you get it.
What almost no one seems to be understanding however — and I’m including socialist, communist, and other Leftist writers — is the enormous opportunity cost we’ll pay if a basic income regime is implemented within the capitalist integument.
To be blunt: Basic income may become the single greatest roadblock on our path to social progress.
By accepting the lentil stew we may end up despising our birthright. And we will have despised it for the very same reason Esau did — not fully comprehending the potential of what is very much within reach at this moment in history.
So, what is this “birthright” we’re not fully comprehending? And what’s so special about this historic moment?
One of the strongest arguments explaining the need for some type of a basic income program comes from the multitudinous warnings of widespread technological unemployment forecast to hit us as the Fourth Industrial Revolution takes-off. Most voices predict unemployment in the 30 to 50% range over the course of the next few decades. So, the argument goes, we’ll need some way of coping when vast swaths of the proletariat suddenly find themselves members of the lumpenproletariat.
A basic income will then free us. We won’t have to spend our days working at meaningless jobs. We can finally pursue our own interests; art, entrepreneurship, wanton dissipation, whatever. Precarity is banished and a new Renaissance is ushered in. Humanity flourishes, and so on.
Except, no. This vision is the lentil stew, the mess of pottage, of our Biblical story. We sell out too cheaply.
Think of it this way: I currently work a full-time job. (I also work a lot of overtime. I’m tired nearly all the time.) Some months ago the company I work for began mailing paystubs to our homes instead of handing them out in person. So every two weeks money gets directly deposited into my bank account.
This is just like getting a basic income. Money shows up in my account and I’m free to go out and buy the things I want or need.
Well, it’s not exactly the same, you may argue. I won’t have to work. I won’t be tired all the time. I can direct my time and energies towards those things that matter to me.
Is this freedom? Is this emancipatory? No, this is the mess of pottage. This is thinking too small.
Think about this social structure for a moment. Nothing changes. The capitalist class structure is still intact. Pharmaceutical companies can still gouge us for the medicines we need to stay alive. The fossil fuel industry will still go on wantonly destroying the planet. The corporate food industry will still churn-out pink slime and carcinogenic foodstuffs. Corrupt politicians and corrupt media will still go on lying to our faces everyday. The world will still be run by the rich and powerful, for the rich and powerful, everyone and everything else be damned.
In fact, if you think about it, once jobs are lost due to the revolutionary transformation of our forces of production, a basic income is the best scheme the capitalist class can conjure up to retain their privileged positions and perpetuate their rule over the rest of society. It’s basic income or social revolution; and they know it better than we do.
Now some have actually tried to argue that once basic income is implemented people will use their free time to foment the overthrow of the capitalist oppressors (or something like that). To be generous, this seems unlikely.
A while back a huge poster was unfurled in Geneva, Switzerland which read, “What Would You Do If Your Income Were Taken Care Of?” It was meant to inspire and to stir the imagination. If people are content with their pottage, I doubt the number one answer will be, “I’m going to work to overthrow this unfair system, who’s with me?”
Sure people would engage in marginal, incremental remedies. Maybe donate more time to worthy causes on so on. But we all know the limits of this; the power structure remains intact.
What’s more this social arrangement leaves us highly susceptible to malignant, totalitarian abuse. We are well aware that the repressive apparatus of a “turnkey totalitarian state” is already in place. Imagine the conformity if they could click- off your cash flow at the slightest whiff of dissent. And forget assembling, you wouldn’t get past the planning stage.
Why should we pessimistically assume the worst? Why not assume the best and look on the bright side? Because we will still be dealing with the same power structure and the same incentives to capture as much of the profits as possible that we have now. As they advance their interests, crowd control, repression, and mass surveillance become weapons of class self-defense.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. We cannot allow it to be this way.
We must refuse the pottage and reach instead for our birthright.
At precisely this moment in time, as the forces of production are being developed to the point that they begin to conflict with capitalist relations of production, an epoch of social revolution begins.
This is the insight of Marx’s historical materialist analysis of social change. And it’s happening on our watch. We dare not be the generation that misses this.
Consider this, from Marx’s 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.
This describes with uncanny accuracy how the rise of the robots, the development of our productive forces, is coming into conflict with our familiar relations of production, most obviously the employer/employee nexus. These relationships impede the further development of the forces of production. Something must give. If progress is to be achieved, the relations of production must change.
New relations must come into being.
And this is where things get really interesting — here is our “birthright”.
Marx goes on to say:
The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social processes of production— antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individual; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of human society to a close.
The end of [class] antagonisms. The dawn of truly human history. Mankind, as a species, finally realizing full potential. This is the promise of the end of capitalist relations of production. Our birthright is a world in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all; a world in which the foundation is finally laid for the full realization of our highest ideals.
Why would we settle for a mess of pottage which only serves to perpetuate the oppressive capitalist class structure? I’m hungry too, but let’s not sell-out so cheaply.