For Dmytri Kleiner of Telekommunisten, neither the basic income nor Berliners are radical enough.
The Soviet-born, Canadian-raised software developer is no man to water down his revolutionary Marxist perspective with bland political activism. His Berlin-based collective believes in nothing less than “venture communism”, a system of workers’ self-organisation through peer-to-peer networks and digital commons combined with a universal welfare system, providing for everyone according to their needs.
You’re not a big fan of the unconditional basic income. Why?
The problem is that it’s still an income. An income-based provision that doesn’t guarantee any outcomes. One of the original proposals is Milton Friedman’s “negative income tax”, and if you read the proposal it’s very clear that his target is what he calls “the rag bag” of 126 social services that can be eliminated once you introduce basic income. So the project from the start has always been about eliminating social benefits, things like housing, health care, education and childcare. They want to replace those with a mechanism that would give you a certain amount of fixed income to use on the market to get the things that you need. But there’s no guarantee that income is sufficient to provide for what you need. In fact, there’s very little to suggest that it would be.
For instance: why does your apartment cost a certain amount? Because people compete for it and drive up the rents. The economist Hyman Minsky already wrote an analysis of basic income in 1969, I think, and he describes very scientifically andindisputablythat if you move from welfare benefits to an income based thing, all it’s going to do is raise prices and workers will have even less than they had in the beginning. Rather than have social services based on measurable outcomes, like housing, education, healthcare, we’d achieve a system whereby those basic things would be provided by education market, healthcare market etc., in order for capitalists to make profits. So that’s why basic income is actually, from the beginning, a neo-liberal trap. What we need is not an income; we need a clear outcome.
So for you, there would be no modalities to make it acceptable? Even if it were, let’s say, €2000 for everyone?
Modalities are somehow irrelevant. Once the government, once society and our social institutions decide that they’re committed to social outcomes, meaning ending homelessness, making sure you have proper education and childcare, once we have these political conditions, then perhaps a basic income could be useful. But it makes no sense to focus on basic income as the political objective. The political objective has to always be rooted in the outcomes. This is the reason why this broad alliance around basic income between the neo-liberal capitalists of Silicon Valley and sections of the left is an illusion. There’s actually no consensus around the outcomes they want to guarantee.
So we don’t need a basic income, we need to agree on basic outcomes… but can’t the income be a tool to achieve that?
We can’t imagine we’re going to magically achieve our social goals with the existence of basic income, because the way basic income will be implemented by a neo-liberal government, which is what we have, is in a neo-liberal way. And if we had a government intent on delivering the kind of social outcomes we need, then the basic income would become a minor policy at best. What we want to do is move things away from market provisioning to social provisioning: housing should be built to house people, not to make profits for land speculators. Basic income still leaves the creation of housing up to capitalist land speculators, and it wants to do the same thing with education and childcare. This is entirely backwards.
The likes of Rifkin and Mason argue we’re moving towards this idea of a post-capitalist society where there won’t be enough jobs anyway, sharing economy models will take over, and so the basic income will become a necessity.
It’s actually a very cowardly position: ‘I’m simply going to let the capitalists own the robots, and pretend that if the government makes up some magic money it will somehow have an impact…‘
I think it’s a very poor position to think we can answer those problems from an income side. If we’re talking about automation, the question should be, who owns the machines? Who owns the means of production? Not imagining that we can neuter the means of production into private hands but yet somehow make it work by doing some income trick. That won’t work. So for people like Rifkin and Mason, it’s actually a very cowardly position, saying, “I’m not going to demand the nationalisation of the means of production, I’m not going to demand that the robots be owned by the workers and that we share the wealth of automation equally. I’m simply going to let the capitalists own the robots, and then pretend if the government makes up some magic money and distributes it that this will somehow have a positive impact on the distribution side.”
Do you believe that if people were freed from having to work, they’d use this time to do something beneficial for themselves and society?
Absolutely. I’m fully on that more leftist understanding of it. In fact, I don’t think there’s any reason to insist that everybody works. I think the productive capacity of society is such that nobody has to earn a living, as such. We absolutely need to disconnect production from consumption. Perhaps not entirely, and not all at once, but I definitely think there’s no social reason for that. There is, however, a capitalist reason, because capitalists make their profit by exploiting labour. Without labour, there is no capital, and that’s a problem for the capitalists. But if we do things differently, we can find ways to organise social benefits that will not tie people to menial jobs that they don’t want.
But how do you do that? Suppress the market? Just a big commoning system where people live off benefits?
That’s right. The things being provided have to be socially provided; they can’t be provided by profit-seeking capitalists who want to pull as much value out of the process as they can.
In other words… food stamps?
I don’t want to be too prescriptive. What we want is housing for everybody, education for everybody, safety, food, clean water. In terms of how we deliver those demands in policy, we have all kinds of options, but we haven’t achieved the first part. Right now, we’re living under a regime of neo-liberalism and austerity, where the government is pulling support away from workers in order to deal with the crisis of profitability. Automation makes capitalism less profitable, because it’s reducing the amount of labour.
But we still live in an industrial society, using human labour.
Exactly – if you look at the global labour force, the number of industrial workers, including those working in manufacturing, mining, recycling and so forth, is larger than it ever has been. So any idea that we’re living in a post-industrial society is completely false. It’s just that globalisation has brought new workforces into the labour market by expanding the capitalism motor production into India, China, Africa etc., which has displaced workers here, and so here we feel that.
In Berlin, Paul Mason came up with this example: in his childhood, getting your car washed meant a machine… now many times it’s immigrant workers. So it’s kind of going backwards.
Well, yeah, it’s very simple. As the owner of a carwash, why would I buy an expensive machine that’s going to take all my profits when I can hire an immigrant worker for next to nothing?
Do you think raising the cost of labour, i.e. the minimum wage, would be a sounder way to proceed?
It’d probably be a better policy than basic income, but in the long runit will have a similar lack of impact,because you’re still talking about people’s abilities to buy things rather than taking away their need to buy things. If you really want people to be able to have more free time, make it so they never need to worry about their apartment, their healthcare, their childcare, their food or water. Make it so they don’t need a wage or an income at all, and then they’ll be able to have moreautonomyand do things in other ways.
But are people ready for that kind of change?
I’m disappointed with the intellectuals, but I think the masses are a lot more radical than the intellectuals. If you look at the movements in Spain and Greece – and in the States around Sanders, and England around Corbyn – they are making very bold political demands. And then if you go to a leftist conference, people are still talking in very conservative terms, as if we have to not scare the neo-liberals away from the table or something. And I think that’s a huge tactical mistake.
Why aren’t there any of those kinds of political movements in Berlin?
Movements are built around conditions, not ideas. And the conditions in Berlin are pretty okay, for the most part. Of course there are problems with refugees, people engaged in informal labour… but this is a very privileged society. Germany is one of the major economic powers in the world, we’re exporting our costs and importing value from the whole globe, exploiting predatory debts, so it’s hard to imagine any kind of European mass movement starting here.
It’s paradoxical: Berlin’s known as a hub of radical leftists…
This is why I’m saying I’m disappointed, because I feel like too much of this radical imagination that Berlin is good at, instead of going to real strong bold demands, is going to these big, not really useful, movements, like democracy in Europe. I like Varoufakis. He’s a very interesting political thinker, but DIEM is very bland, it makes no clear demands, and it’s the same with basic income. It’s not an inspiring basis for political movement.
So is the Berlin left just more alternative than they are radical?
Yeah, yeah, and that’s the thing. And that’s the transition that Astra Taylor is arguing for in “Against Activism”. To move from activism to organisation, that’s the key. One of the problems she identifies is that certain members of the radical left, and ideologically I definitely fall in that category, are indulging in being unpopular because it makes them feel special. So the bold conversations and the bold demands are in these small bubbles that are just happy to remain small bubbles…
Then you have the whole functionalist approach, to say that so-called “revolutionary” parties, like European communist movements during the Cold War, were more interested in perpetuating their role at the fringe of the system than actually looking to seize power…
Absolutely, and whenever they had the opportunity to be in involved in power it was very disappointing. Like here in Berlin, when you had the red government for quite a long time after reunification and it resulted in socially owned housing being privatised – this bizarre idea that the way forward was not their traditional idea to build housing for the people, but instead to lend money to capitalists so that they could speculate on real estate. That ended up blowing up in their faces and leaving them with billions in debt.The whole debt crisis that Berlin had was actually carried out by quite a left-wing government!
Dmytri Kleiner is a co-founder of Telekommunisten, a German-Canadian workers’ collective that does everything from providing web hosting (“Trick”) to experimental social art projects like open-source microblogging platform Thimbl. His downloadable 2010 book The Telekommunist Manifesto is nothing less than an astute theoretical handbook to the new reality of labour in the internet economy. Since 2003, Kleiner has been a key fi gure in Berlin’s post- Snowden hacker/digital activist scene. His next scheduled public lecture will be at the Digital Bauhaus Summit 2016 on June 3 in Weimar.