Publikation Ungleichheit / Soziale Kämpfe - Globalisierung Existential income - possibilities and contradictions for a new left movement





Mario Candeias,


Mai 2002


Nur online verfügbar

Socialist Scholar Conference April, 12-14, 2002

Abstract: Under conditions of neoliberal hegemony an increasing part of the work force is ruled out of the system of regularised labour relations into unemployment or into precarious jobs - not only in low-productive service sectors but also in the so-called new economy. To face these tendencies with a progressive approach since a few years concepts of a separation of work and income were discussed. Starting from the difficulties to organize counter-forces inside the factory and from increasingly fragmented and flexible social relations a new common project for a universal and unconditional `existential income´ shall form a point of crystallization for a new left movement, strengthening class consciousness between groups of unemployed, precarious mainly female workers, so-called freelancers, workers, people getting social assistance etc. The target of this project is to minimize pressures and force to take up a job under all circumstances and to increase to negotiating power of the labour force. The productivity of the system would allow this, as Marx already suspected in his Grundrisse. But of course this project reaches far beyond the limits of capitalism, removing the social relations of power, therefore it is not to be expected to be implemented under current circumstances. Moreover under neoliberal hegemony it might be used - and it is used - to cushion the disintegrating effects of current processes, consolidating existing power relations. But it might have its progressive use as a utopian but very realistic project in a long-term perspective close to the everyday experience of the people. Of course this fight beyond the limits of wage labour must have its roots in the fight on the shopfloor, because hegemony, as Gramsci said, is born in the factory - in a today fragmented and globally dispersed factory.

This paper is an extract from my study named "Arbeitsgesellschaft im Neoliberalismus. Zur Transformation des Verhältnisses von Kapital und Arbeit", Berlin 2001


Under conditions of neoliberal hegemony an increasing part of the work force is ruled out of the system of regularised labour relations into unemployment or into precarious jobs - not only in low-productive service sectors but also in the so-called new economy. To face these tendencies with a progressive approach since a few years concepts of a separation of work and income were discussed. Starting from the difficulties to organize counter-forces inside the factory and from increasingly fragmented and flexible social relations a new common project for a universal and unconditional `existential income´ shall form a point of crystallization for a new left movement, strengthening solidarity and class consciousness between groups of unemployed, precarious mainly female workers, so-called freelancers, regular workers, people getting social assistance etc. As Marx put it: The pressure of the unemployed "completes the despotism of capital" over labour - "every combination of employed and unemployed disturbs the `harmonious´ game" of capitalist exploitation (MEW 23, 669f.). "If tomorrow morning labour generally were reduced to a rational amount" (666) capital would loose power. Accordingly the political target of an existential income is to minimize pressures and force to take up a job under all circumstances and to increase the negotiating power of the labour force. If material conditions of existence are secured (clearly above poverty line), workers don´t have to fear to loose their jobs and are able to resist unworthy, exploiting, alienated, sexist or racist etc. work conditions that gives to the workers nothing in term of satisfaction and little in terms of income. At this point experiences of a fragmented working class, the contradictory interests of employed and unemployed could be brought together. Moreover this project opens up possibilities to connect with other social movements: with the classical anti-capitalistic resistance, environmental groups, women's movement and feminism - because otherwise an ongoing of social disintegration destroys solidarities, enhances competition and this way undermines conditions for ecological change and emancipatory progress.

Beyond such political-strategic aspects the reformist call for an existential income transports a utopian perspective. It opens up the possibility to question the ruling notion of work, for a critique of racial divisions and of gender hierarchies in the division of labour. And it puts redistribution back on the agenda. It is clear, that it is not individualized work, but accumulated technical and cultural knowledge of the humanity that creates wealth. Who has the right to claim its fruits? 25% workers aristocracy and owners of capital or the whole society? (FelS 2000, 40) "The distribution of means of payment must correspond to the amount of socially produced wealth and not to the amount of labour" (Gorz 2000, 130) - otherwise we will just have a redistribution within class. In a flexible, high-technological mode of production of the century the minimization of necessary work for a single product in the course of productivity increases reaches a level, that theoretically allows to replace labour as a central means of what Marx called Vergesellschaftung (societalization): When "labour in its direct form finishes to be the great source of wealth, labour time finishes and must finish to be its measure and therefore the exchange value to be the measure of use value" (MEW 42, 601). Of course this implies the abolition of the existing mode of production. Liberated from being forced to wage labour, work looses its character of necessity and becomes the basis for the development of individuality. Under conditions of capitalism work and enjoyment are mostly separated. The original enthusiasm for work changes into its opposite and creates subtle forms of self-removal and resistance that had to be disciplined. "The practical solution to seek real life outside of work life quickly reaches its limits, and also compliant, but not intended admissions, as the term unemployment clearly demonstrates." (F.Haug 1996, 684) To bring work and pleasure together again still is a perspective of liberation (685).

The high-technological mode of production (at least in some major branches) makes knowledge about natural processes, that can be used in production, a decisive factor: there is a tendency "that the worker steps beside the productive process", becomes its "guard and regulator", not his "main agent" (MEW 42, 601). This way work becomes "universal labour" that allows individuals to develop socially (F.Haug 1994, 410). The target is not the abolition of work - work is "an existential condition of human life in all social formations, eternal natural necessity to mediate the metabolism between humans and nature, human life itself" (MEW 23, 57) - but abolition of the wage relation. When the development of productive forces allows, to liberate all from material misery and rule, "the production of material life becomes productive pleasure and improvement of capabilities" (F.Haug 1994, 411). On the way there the universal and unconditional character of an existential income connected with a radical shortening of working time shall prevent a splitting of the society into employed workers and existential income subscribers. In a society of manifold activities (Beck 2000, 50) everyone should participate in productive, reproductive and personal work. An underlying condition would be a "guaranteed right for own means of production" - without it the call for a universal income would remain imprisoned in the logic of capitalism and welfare (Gorz 2000, 117). The existential income should prepare the way for an appropriation of work (Opielka/Stalb 1986)(1). In the long run only the disposition about one's own time permits the "free development of individualities", their "artistic, scientific, etc. formation" (MEW 42, 593 and 596). The increase of productive capabilities thereby is not only a precondition; at the same time their further increase would be consequence of that full development.


Under given social conditions an implementation of these conceptions appears impossible. It is however important to show that it is the capitalist mode of production which - in a contradictory way - creates the conditions of its own negation as well as the prerequisites for the development of a society of free and associated individuals. Otherwise political strategies easily come into danger to glide into banal reformism. This often results in a double dilemma: between the utopian call and the necessity for reformistic and implementable reforms:

First of all because the underlying analyses about the future of work frequently pass by the real existing social relations and renounce the fight for re-regulation of labour relations in their concepts. Gorz (2000), Lazzarato (1996), and Negri among other (1998) show a technologically shortened understanding of productive forces development, in which technological revolutions must bring out quasi automatically emancipatory forces. This way crucial preconditions for overcoming wage labour or the whole capitalist mode of production seem to be already available and a possibility, which has to be fought for, already gains actual validity. Retort-actually they argue: "In the immaterial economy the worker at the same time is labour power and the one who commands it." (Gorz 2000, 183 also 108) "Exactly these most advanced form of subjecting labour - the shifting of commandment into the subjects themselves -, can become the starting point for the release of their productivity and existence" (Atzert/Seibert, 94), for "the re-appropriation of the social core of production" (Negri et al 1998, 79) - they say. This way, with a trick theorists of `immateriality´(2) reinterpret the loss of working class´ power in production into a moment of new strength. "It is the reversal of the elevens Feuerbach thesis: the world is changed, by interpreting it differently." (W.F.Haug 2000, 191) Gorz (2000, 65) (3) himself shows, how capital again and again succeeds in reconstructing the social, cultural and economic conditions, to guarantee "the rule of capital over the autonomy of living labour" - a circumstance that veils the liberating potentials of technological progress. The oppressive effects of flexible and precarious labour relations in New Economy sectors, like in service sectors proof it clearly. This contradictoriness of real social relations in the end - in these theories - is taken back however to maintain the faith for the forthcoming implementation of that elegantly formulated utopia - utopia becomes illusion.

Secondly behind the call for an existential income almost always a break with the factory as a major field of struggle is intended (Rein 2000, 14; viz. Gorz 2000 e.g.). Struggles within capitalist production thereby escape out of view. This is caused by a dichotomising opposition between (more or less obsolete) labour and (trend-setting) self-determined work, self-entrepreneur-ship and so on - overlooking that is no either-or. Both forms of work - at least provisionally - are necessarily dependent on the other: on the one hand self-determined work, reproductive or self-supplying work are bound to financial transfers by some form of basic income, which must be generated within the range of business activity and wage labour; on the other hand the capitalist mode of production always required different modes of production and societalization. In most concepts for an existential income the relation to traditional labour remains indefinite, strategies for the renewal of the latter remain faded out. Thus the way to implement it turns out either to a voluntarist chimera or it degenerates to a basic social assistance and minimum wage (Rein 2000, 27; Opielka 2000, 205; 3RME, 237) (4). The experiences with the fight for the 35-hour-week in Germany 1984 or in France 1999 showed that such isolated attempts quickly become a `synonymous´ for more flexible and intensified work, erosion of collective agreements and for precarious conditions of working and living (Rheinländer 2000, 97). Accordingly workers regard a shortening of working time frequently distrustfully as means for the further compression of the work. With the call for an existential income under current circumstances the gate for the powerful pushing of models for a basic income, lowering social-assistance and forced labour is good-willingly opened (100). There is a danger that the political project for an existential income transforms itself into a lean social workfare state with even more disintegrating effects on society.


The guarantee for a basic income on a low level consequently is state subsidizing of low wage jobs. Who in full extent likes to participate in social life and does not want to have an existence at the margin, is forced to complement his small income with the salary of a so-called bad job. Thus a small measured basic income represents only the lowest catching line, an actual minimum wage, limiting the negative effects for the working poor. The obligation to sell one's labour power however is preserved as in models of low-wage subsidizing or a negative income tax. Low wage subsidizing, as it is discussed actually in Germany again (e.g. Scharpf 1995) lower the labour costs for capital. It is the idea that unemployment develops, because numerous potential vacancies for low qualified labour with low productivity were not profitable in view of the high wage level and can not be occupied (Gorz 2000, 113). In contrast a negative income tax (fundamental Friedmann 1984, 245ff.) - for example the Earned Income Tax Credit in the USA (Conceição et al 1999, 65) - is directly paid to the households. It supplements low yearly incomes up to a certain amount (in the USA 24,000 dollar). However only those households could require it, in which at least one adult has a job. Unemployed persons and people getting social security do not have to expect any advantages from low wage subsidies and negative income tax, unless they take up an occupation in the low wage sector. All three instruments institutionalise state incentives and the obligation (because of a lack of sufficient income) to take up an existing or still to be created bad job. In contrast to low wages subsiding, a basic income and a negative income tax are more flexible. They permit an intermittent changing between unemployment and low wage jobs and enable enterprises a flexible application of the hire and fire principle and short time contracts. Effects for the regular labour market could be expected, an increased deregulation and precarization surely is the consequence.

While the mentioned concepts bind state payments on the participation in traditional labour relations and to the possibility of a re-creation of full employment, Giarini and Liedke (1998) in their report to the Club of Rome or the conceptions of Ulrich Beck (1999, 2000) - the German Anthony Giddens - represent a break with full employment ideas. They say: the crisis of the working society in the first place is not an economic problem (Meier 2000, 83), it is based on the imperialism of labour values (Beck 2000, 35), not on historical transformations or on a crises of old modes of capitalist accumulation and regulation. Thus the technologically induced decrease of labour inevitably leads to the end of full employment society (8) and a "societalization beyond labour" (Bonss 2000, 365) is needed. At the same time they identify an enormous potential of necessary reproductive, productive and service work for the structurally unnecessary workers. Basic income here is linked to the obligation of doing badly or non-paid honorary or family work. Only in this way negative "sustainable effects on the working morale could be avoided", they say (Giarini/Liedke 1998, 180). Beck's housewifing concept - how feminists call it, because there are mostly women, who work in the household, educate children, care for the elderly etc. - puts his character of forced labour not that openly into the light and stresses more strongly the perspectives of certain self-determined activities `beyond´ the contradiction between labour and capital. But what is recognized as socially `useful´ determines the so-called public-weal-entrepreneur, a mixture of "Mother Theresa and Bill Gates", as Beck himself names it (2000, 428), authorized by community committees (431). Narrow-minded workers, unionists and politicians still block the implementation (447). The economy and material distributive relations do not play any role in this conception. The question on property (63) becomes a question of the self-precaution via investment funds. In Beck's view, the reorganization of the working society must take place without additional costs (446) - especially without costs for capital and the state, we could add. Thus it becomes clear that the remuneration of honorary work - or "civic work" how he calls it - is envisaged only on the levels of the social welfare assistance - the idealistic revaluation materially remains behind labour or capital incomes - the speech of the equivalence of honorary or reproductive work becomes mockery. Although conceived as counter-concepts to neoliberalism, the liberal concept of civic work gets the function of cushioning social disintegration, splitting society into a small, rich capitalist sector and a large poor, decoupled back-up area of self-organized neighbourhood assistances. (5)


Under hegemony of a neoliberal ideology the danger for cooptation of existential income concepts is enormous. It is the question between the mere reorganization of functional dependencies, disciplinary mechanisms and social fragmentations and a emancipatory loosening of forced labour and an associated modification of modes of living (Hirsch 2000, 164). Discussions about the height of an existential income are not false therefore, but they do not hit into the core of the problem. The reorganisation of the working society presupposes a critique of existing social relations and requires difficult long-term social struggles. To that extent not too much time should be used on sketching technocratic plans and models, but on the opening up of public debates for positions critical to capitalism, patriarchate and racism. A learning process has to enable social acceptance of such a concept of living and working redistributing productive, reproductive and self-determined work. Otherwise the concept is counter-productive in view of the supremacy of neoliberal models. It must be conceived in such a manner that it could be linked with other projects, realizable within the capitalist system, but reaching beyond the latter (Gorz 2000, 117). Sometimes Lenin was going right: There are more and more people dissatisfied and willing to protest, but the ability to organize them in a way all progressive forces could contribute, around a attractive project, is missing (LW 5, 485). The universal and unconditional existential income could become such a project to reorganize the distribution of productive, reproductive and personal, self-organized work, as a utopian but very realistic project in a long-term perspective. Around such a project it is possible to start a real movement of self-education of the left - because the crucial point is to win cultural hegemony back again. This is not possible with projects wide away from everyday experience of the people. So I insist: The existential income is a radical project that functions very close to the everyday problems of working women and men. It is an adequate instrument for the mobilisation of social forces and for the struggle against capitalism (Iglesias/Manel 2001, 108ff.). Of course the fight for a societalization beyond the limits of labour, should not forget the struggles for a liberation of labour within the factory - because "hegemony is born in the factory", Gramsci already proved, and it is still so - today in a fragmented and globally dispersed factory (Candeias 2001) - in fact globally we have more workers than ever before and a spreading of capitalist relations. So the project should be combined with a radical general shortening of the working day, re-qualification and decommodification of work. This way it could open up new perspectives. The competitive corporatism as actual policy of trade unions all over Europe produces divisions and undermines the articulation of a plural block of progressive forces - as well as the indifference of existential income defenders against the fight on the shopfloor.

(1) "In manufacturing and modern industrial capitalism from the beginning it was necessary to forbid to the workers the appropriation of their work. Capital [...] used all possible means, in order to break the power of the up to then independent workers over their means of production, working time and their products and to force them to dependent labour and into wage dependency. Means of production used by the capital were designed in such a manner that employers had the unlimited power over the division of labour, working time and the results of the work - and they largely remain until today. Accordingly the capitalist society trained and socialized humans in a way, enabling them to dominated, functionally specialized work, but unable for self-work, self-sufficiency and leisure." (Gorz 2000, 118)

(2) Disregarding the fact that the gossip of the `immateriality´ depreciates the still growing material content of production - otherwise there would be no ecological crisis anymore. An outstanding critical analysis of theories of Antonio Negri and others you can find in Frigga Haug (2000) and Wolfgang-Fritz Haug (2000).

(3) Gorz himself criticizes the "theorising delirium" of the voluntarist theories of Negri, Lazzarato etc.; he stresses (60): "The autonomy in work causes few without a continuing cultural, moral and political autonomy. Also the latter does not arise out of productive co-operation, but from militant actions and out of a culture of resistance, rebellion, solidarity, open debates as well as radical questioning and dissidence." That is absolutely correct, but even the autonomy in the work, from which Gorz proceeds, becomes a fata morgana under currently dominant conditions.

(4)All left parties in Germany from social democrats to green to post-communists have developed models for a basic income.

(5) A resuming critique of basic income models you can find in Brütt (2000).


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