Beyond the Wage System

Beyond the Wage System

A universal basic income is the best way, at this juncture, to respond to the inadequacies of the wage system.

“The March of Leisure Time:” poster for a Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project exhibit in Springfield, Illinois, 1937, via Library of Congress. (Click for large version.)

Here’s my pitch for a universal basic income: it’s the best way I can think of at this juncture to respond to the inadequacies of the wage system. There are two basic inadequacies that I want to cover here: underwork and overwork.

The wage system is supposed to do two things. It’s supposed to be a mechanism for the accumulation of capital and profit, and I think it’s doing a pretty good job at that. But it’s also supposed to be a means for distributing income to the rest of us. And that’s where the problems start.

Here, again, there are two dimensions. Obviously, too many people are left out of the wage system as a mechanism for distributing income. Think about the levels of unemployment, which have always been necessary to the capitalist system as a way of maintaining economic “health.” Today’s “jobless recovery” is perhaps the most obvious sign that the wage system is not working.

Then there is under-employment—the increasing number of part-time jobs that don’t pay a living wage. This problem is not new either, but now that it’s affecting many more middle-class workers, it has been receiving more media attention.

The second kind of problem with the wage system is that it’s an incomplete system of income allocation. There are innumerable forms of social productivity that aren’t being covered by it. Some of these forms of unpaid labor—including, historically, slave labor—have been crucial to the formation of the U.S. economy. And that continues today, if in more subtle ways. One persistent form of unwaged labor is all of the work that women have traditionally done in the household, usually in addition to the work they do for wages. In the 1970s, feminists called this reproductive labor, to remind us that reproductive labor makes so-called “productive” labor—the labor that takes place in the waged economy—possible. Reproductive labor, they tried to remind us, is all of the work that’s necessary to reproduce workers so they can go to work again the next day, and to produce (or reproduce) a new generation of workers to take their place. All of these forms of household-based caring labor and other forms of consumption, cleaning, and caring labor are traditionally and typically unwaged. It’s supposed to be something you just fit in the times after your waged job.

We need to think more expansively about what it takes to reproduce a worker in this economy. This includes all of the educational efforts a worker has to make to acquire knowledge and skills that are then used by employers; all of the creative efforts that people are engaged in—dance, music, art—which companies use and make to sell products; the time to develop our communicative capacities; even the time to build our social networks that employers often make use of. The wage system just doesn’t cover all these forms of social productivity.


The second major problem with the wage system—one that a basic income could also begin to address—is the problem of overwork. It’s the problem, for one thing, of all of the jobs—even the best jobs—that take too much time and energy and don’t leave room for lives outside of work. This is tied, in part, to a cultural overestimation of the value of work—to a mythology of work, a romanticization of it, the way that work is elevated over other pastimes and practices as a kind of a moral duty. Work is portrayed as something that should be the center of our identities and our lives, as the place where we are supposed to realize our talents as individuals and to create and participate in social solidarity—when of course most jobs do not offer opportunities for either of those. This cultural ideology teaches us to live for work rather than to work to live; it teaches us to subordinate our lives to the demands of work. It’s a kind of cultural glue that gets us to invest in a capitalist system of work, to bring our entire selves into work and invest our personality in it so that we become workers.

Work becomes so overvalued that we can’t imagine a life outside of it. There’s a famous quote that Frederic Jameson, among others, has repeated about how “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” I’d go a step further: it’s easier to imagine the end of capitalism than to imagine the end of work as we know it. Our imagination is so dominated by this one activity that it becomes difficult to imagine having a different relationship to it. Even on the left, there is an all-too-common assumption that we are laboring creatures, and that our dignity is tied up with our waged work. But if that is the case, why are caring for children, caring for the elderly, or having a conversation about how to change the world less dignified than designing software for Apple?

These were the kinds of questions taken up by the 1970s campaign for Wages for Housework, which presented a very provocative demand. Their demand for wages was meant to insist that housework (by which they meant care work and the rest of it) is socially necessary labor that deserves a wage. But it was also meant to say—and here’s the part I think is more potent—“Remember, it’s only work.” It’s not the entirety of our life. We’re not only houseworkers, we’re other things as well: human beings.

The demand for a basic income can serve much the same purpose. Practically, the main benefit of a basic income would be to lessen our dependence on waged work. Most people, I think, would want to supplement that income by working for wages; a basic income would help to give these workers more leverage to demand better jobs from employers. Of course, there is a danger to this demand, which hinges on the level at which it is set. If it were set too low, the basic income could just be a way to support underwaged jobs. It could allow people to keep working at Walmart for next to nothing, with the extra income from the state in effect subsidizing the corporation. To avoid this problem, the basic income needs to be set at the level of a living wage..

A universal living wage would, among other benefits, also give people relief from the pressures that limit their choices of family relationships and household partners, because some people are forced by economic circumstances to stay in relationships they otherwise wouldn’t. It would offer much-needed support for unwaged, under-waged, and precariously waged workers, and if would offer support for the kinds of unwaged caring labor that most of us do in one form or another.

But as with Wages for Housework, there is a larger goal at stake beyond the immediate practical benefits. Besides making us less dependent on the wage system, a political movement for basic income could help people to think in different ways about what’s possible, what’s thinkable, what’s desirable. In struggling for a basic income, we can raise very pointed questions about the inadequacies of the jobs that are out there now. And we can get people to try to think about what life would be like if it wasn’t completely subordinated to the demands of work.

Kathi Weeks teaches in the Women’s Studies Program at Duke University. She studies feminist theory, political theory, the critical study of work, and utopian thought. She is the author of The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke University Press, 2011).

This article was adapted from a talk given by the author at Grasping At the Root. It appears in Dissentas part of a roundtable convened for New Economy Week 2015: From Austerity to Prosperity, a week of online and in-person events being convened by the New Economy Coalition from November 9-15.