Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek speaks his mind with no apologies.
He’s become quite a celebrity because of his provocative statements and unique way of looking at things.
Universal basic income (UBI) is one of those topics that’s been increasingly floated by some on the left and right as a solution to the advent of artificial intelligence and a changing economy.
Where does Žižek stand on it?
What does Slavoj Žižek think about universal basic income?
1) He doesn’t believe it will solve humanity’s problems
While Žižek believes there is some merit to UBI, he also thinks it’s been over-hyped.
He also believes that taking away the incentive to work will rob us of our identity in some ways.
Basically Žižek believes that if we make life too easy we will lose whatever meaning it has left.
“Although in principle I support basic income, I don’t think it’s the solution…
Maybe I’m old idealist here, but it will sound horrible, but I still think here – I’m almost a leftist conservative in some sense – that to do some work is part of our personal dignity.”
Žižek has spoken out many times against the capitalist system and what he regards as its exploitative and soul-crushing qualities.
However in this quotation we can also see how iconoclastic he is and how he refuses to accept the popular answer in so many cases.
2) He believes UBI should include requirement to do public work
As part of his belief that UBI shouldn’t be seen as a cure-all solution for our changing future economy, Žižek thinks that if UBI is implemented it shouldn’t be for free.
“I am for this idea that ok now that would be my very brutal – you will not like it, nobody likes it – solution: yes, basic income but then you have to be at your disposal for some public work.”
It’s a bit unclear what “public work” Žižek is referring to here, since a future dominated by AI wouldn’t have much need for basic maintenance and manual tasks.
Perhaps it could include something like sweeping up the computer server lab several times per week, or doing some basic beautification and landscaping outdoors that needs a human touch.
This point shows some overlap, since many on the left and some on the national populist right might be OK with the idea of public service in return for a basic monthly wage.
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However, what if this power were abused or it was extended to military service in an unjust regime and so on?
3) Žižek is horrified by the idea of basing UBI around ideas like ‘happiness’
Žižek is not a simple man, and his view is that many of our most cherished ideas around human nature are bullshit.
One of the biggest is the idea of “happiness,” which he considers to be a delusional obsession.
For this reason, Žižek is concerned about basing UBI around the idea of making people happy or content.
“The pursuit of happiness is one of the most stupid ideas that I can imagine, because if you analyze closely the idea of happiness it’s something very self-contradictory.
“Because if you do an elementary analysis you discover when we dream about how we want something, we are secretly always aware, a little bit afraid – like you know the old rogue – the worst nightmare is to really get what you dream about.”
In other words, Žižek is saying that when we have all our needs fulfilled we find ourselves feeling empty and directionless.
Agree or disagree, his claim here is that by taking away a big chunk of the necessity and hardship that drives life, UBI would leave us even more socially rudderless.
4) He believes idealism about the future is stupid and misplaced
Žižek is focused on what he considers to be a realistic way of looking at human nature and the world.
As such, he considers suffering and disappointment to be natural parts of life.
That includes on the larger scale, where he feels that idealism about the future, decentralization or alternative economic models is largely misplaced and stupid.
Far from being a pessimist, Žižek says he’s simply not willing to believe unrealistic and vague optimism.
“Many leftists accuse me of being just too pessimistic. No! I’m just trying to be a realist.
“I’m tired of these illusions, of this idea, ‘once people are allowed to organize themselves, we will have these ‘small is beautiful’ self-relying economies.’
“No! We live in a complex world, where more and more the problem will be that of large-scale organization and reorganization.”
As he says at other points, basing policy on what seems morally right or wrong is a bad place to start, because it allows very incorrect and harmful ideologies to disguise themselves in outwardly humanitarian ventures.
5) Sedating people to accept techno-capitalism
One of the strongest critiques of UBI that Žižek has is shared by some others on the left. They are concerned that the outwardly logical and humanitarian aspects of paying people a basic monthly wage are actually just disguising its true purpose.
Namely that it is just a nice veneer for a ruthless system.
UBI is a way to stop people from panicking as they are eased into a technocratic system where they no longer have economic value.
Jathan Sadowski makes a great point about the downsides of UBI when he writes that:
“The trouble comes when UBI is used as a way of merely making techno-capitalism more tolerable for people, when it is administered like a painkiller that numbs the pain and masks the symptoms of economic injustice without addressing the root causes of exploitation and inequality.”
Is this correct or is it just cynicism?
The answer seems to have a lot to do with how UBI would be implemented and who – with what agenda – would be implementing it.
6) Žižek thinks we’re spinning our collective wheels
Žižek is not impressed by the kind of activism and idealism of the democratic socialist left and Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic party in the US.
Sanders has proposed UBI during the COVID pandemic and others in his party such as Andrew Yang have suggested full UBI.
For Žižek, many activists on the grassroots left such as those at Occupy Wall Street are naive and ignorant.
He simply doesn’t respect their activism and idealism, seeing them as examples of how moralism poisons activism and real change.
“I spent hours talking with them just with this stupid question … ‘what do you want?’
“And apart from some vague and ‘oh it’s horrible what the banks are doing and so on and so on,’ they had … they had really no idea, no idea.
“Which is why in politics I’m always afraid of moralism not because I’m immoral – I hope not – but because moralism is for me always the politics of those who don’t know.”
7) Žižek believes that a new class of the overeducated and underemployed will push for change
One of Žižek’s most prescient statements is about a growing class of educated but under- and unemployed individuals who will drive future change.
It’s true that education expands our horizons and creates more motivation for change.
To study and find out that there’s then nowhere that really needs you is a disillusioning experience.
Žižek believes that UBI and other even more radical ideas like full political revolution will possibly come out of this disenfranchised class.
As we’ve seen, he doesn’t necessarily believe that grassroots and idealistic change is good, but he does believe that it will intensify and become dramatic due to the issues of our many graduates who can’t find fulfilling work.
“Slovenian Marxist, Slavoj Žižek, predicts the rise of a new class, which he calls the ‘educated unemployed’.
“These young university graduates will find that there is no work available for their education level, and become increasingly radical in their agitating for change.
“This is not science fiction – the role of youth in the Arab Spring is well documented, as well as the potential for conflict within nations hosting a young, unemployed population with little opportunity to earn a living.”
Is Žižek right about UBI?
Žižek makes some insightful points about UBI in his typical unorthodox style.
Particularly with the COVID pandemic and the changing nature of work, UBI is a topic that’s on people’s minds and in government policy discussions.
“Many governments (e.g. in Canada, Finland, Germany, India, Italy Kenya, Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland, Uganda, United Kingdom and the Untied States) are in various stages of exploring/ implementing UBI.”
While it sounds outwardly appealing, I tend to agree with Žižek here that UBI is not an actual solution to future labor oversupply.
No amount of money can replace social and economic purpose, although it could help cushion the blow of a new and inhuman economy.
Only time will tell to what extent Žižek is correct in his criticisms of UBI, but it’s clear that the topic of UBI and debates about it are not going away anytime soon.