Does capitalism work? This question should not be considered only as a foil to the question ‘does communism work?’ These two ideas, both with their own history of spectacular failures, have to be unentangled.
Capitalism does not work for all of the people all of the time. By that simple and fundamental measure, it is not a good social system. That capitalism persists is forwarded as proof that the people have chosen it over communism. This is not true. If we remove the forced dualism between capitalism and communism, we can observe that capitalism persists because one among its many flaws is that as a social system it does not provide a mechanism for precipitating systemic change and thus becomes a self-perpetuating enterprise. People with no other option than to live within such a system cannot be said to have chosen it.
Communism has been posited as an alternative that people can choose over capitalism. Marxist and other theories have even gone so far as to say that people will organically come to choose communism as a result of the oppression they face under capitalism. But there is no clear process that is outlined by which communism will come to supplant capitalism.
There are a few countries in the world that have communist modes of governance. But enough literature exists, even from the Left, on how and why these countries are not really communist societies and are technically just practicing state capitalism. In canonical communist theory, this may even be considered a necessary stage in the transition to communism. Since a society does not exist in isolation and has to be seen within the context in which it exists, it may be argued that with the entire world being a capitalist economy the only way a society could choose communist practices for itself is for the State to negotiate with capitalist economies on behalf of its people and this is the true cause of state capitalism.
There are also countries that have communist governments but are not communist states. In many other countries, communist parties of varying degrees of influence exist which seek to form a government through democratic elections and then provide better governance than centrist and fiscally conservative parties.
Just as state-enforced capitalism cannot be said to have been chosen, communism cannot be assumed to be a system worth choosing just because it is the only alternative to an oppressive system. This is where the dualism between capitalism and communism is harmful. People who are not in favour of capitalism but are also skeptical of proposed communism, end up not making a choice in favour of communism thereby failing to get out of the existing system, namely, capitalism.
It is a widespread practice on the Left to argue that systemic change has not occurred due to the indoctrination of the masses by capitalist consumer culture and that raising the consciousness of the public will make them see why communism is preferable to capitalism. This is the rationale behind such a self-contradictory endeavour as communist political parties seeking to govern within a system of social democracy.
There is definitely convincing evidence that many Left governments provide more pro-poor, pro-people governance than governments of other ideological hues. But this is not communist governance. It is simply effective, conscientious governance by a communist party under social democracy. To argue that the Left has to strategically make this compromise because of the prevalent situations is an interim argument, it is not a communist or revolutionary argument. It is certainly not an anti-capitalist argument.
So, if capitalism does not work and communism is not offering clear alternatives, it may well be asked what is wrong with social democracy? In theory, social democracy claims to be an enlightened mix of socialism and capitalism. In effect, it simply, often unwittingly, seeks to make amends for a conceptually flawed nation-state and the free markets it protects. The reformative zeal of social democracy only provides conditional relief and perpetually postpones solutions. No matter how sensible and cautious it is made to sound, attempting to reform certain aspects of a flawed system is an exercise in futility. It is true that reformist social policy and socialist provisions by largely capitalist states do make some aspects of life easier for some people at some points in time. But this process remains permanently unfinished and unsatisfactory in that it always fails to account for those whose grievances are not addressed. The cumulative effect of social democracy is the self-defeating struggle to try and render humane the inherently inhumane capitalist machinery.
What the struggle between capitalism and the as yet failed attempts against it leave us with is a clear need to make a definitive stand against capitalism without the fragmented ideological branding of the current anti-capitalist efforts. Communist parties, leaders and organisations cannot and should not compete with other types of brands and organisations to seek legitimacy within the capitalist framework that they disavow. A communist-led anti-capitalist front falls into the trap we discussed above - of merely attempting to make capitalism more palatable. To bring people together against the excesses of free markets, an anti-capitalist effort should be sufficient. If we don't rescue the conversation from the dualism discussed above, people who are already convinced about the oppressive nature of compulsory capitalism are made to unnecessarily grapple with what ideological frameworks they would choose over the capitalist one. Political party-led communism cannot be presented as the only such alternative. This does not challenge capitalism but becomes a way of saying that communists can do capitalism better than capitalists.
Responses to the rising calls for universal basic income and free universal provision of social services around the world can stereotypically be slotted into pre-existing justifications of equitable distribution of wealth from the Left and limiting the welfare state from the Right. This age-old partisan bickering has become predictably rhetorical. All governments, no matter of what ideological persuasion, need to promise at least some social welfare to hold any appeal for the voters/citizens. A universal basic income is not some wild radical idea. It is merely an extension of the logic behind all existing welfare schemes. The concept of universal basic income makes it impossible for political parties to manipulate citizens by promising to increase a certain kind of welfare by cutting down on certain other kinds of welfare spending. All welfare schemes become one welfare scheme, i.e., universal basic income. Since everyone is a potential beneficiary of such a scheme, people cannot be pitted against each other by prioritising one kind of need or identity over another.
The primary question raised about implementing a universal basic income scheme is how to fund it. This is a failure of the imagination. A truly effective and permanent universal basic income scheme is only possible outside the bounds of the current international monetary system. We ought not to ask do enough funds exist for a universal basic income program? A basic income program should be built into the very foundations of global finance agreements. This necessarily includes revisiting the language and theoretical frameworks within which arguments for universal basic income have been made. Such review is required not simply as a cosmetic exercise in non-partisanship but to logistically and realistically address the limiting factor - where does all this free money come from?
Even campaigns like demands for free college education and writing off existing student debts failed to conclusively answer how national economies will fiscally survive the shock of transferring cash that is ostensibly provided without any product or service in return. This speaks directly to the very economic system we live within and may require reforms in the very system of floating exchange rates and reserve currencies that international financial systems are based upon. This is not as daunting a task as it may seem as this current system is not only recent but also came into being through collective responses to the various international crises of the 20th century. So implementing a permanent relief mechanism for all persisting and as yet unforeseeable social problems is not just dependent on national governments but requires international cooperation. Calls for reform of the existing financial system have been widespread in the past three decades, though they have been far from universal as most peoples' movements against the excesses of capitalism are fractured along ideological and organisational lines.
Shifting the definition of universal basic income from ‘a basic income for everyone at all times’ to ‘a basic income for everybody at such times that they do not have a source for earning that income by themselves’ may be the need of the hour. Basic income would merely be an amalgamation of minimum wage, unemployment benefits, state-funded education, social security, disability benefits, health insurance, and all other such social service programs. Instead of never-ending back and forth between proponents and opponents of such schemes, the legislature could fix a basic income and provide the lacking amount to anyone who earns less than that or nothing at all at any given point in time. Instead of tracking who is financially insecure and what programs can be funded to reduce the number of such people, it is perhaps better to track who is in need of unconditional financial support when.
Basic income may be provided for only a specific number of activities/purchases – like rent or upkeep for a place to live (including water, electricity, internet bills, etc.), food and other necessary provisions, medical bills, and recreational activities for mentally healthy living. Of course, these would have to be decided through humane and constantly reviewed standards and should not end up institutionalizing a certain level of impoverished living.
The problem is that our bureaucratic and social welfare mechanisms are not being able to maintain a universally useful and effective record of who is in need of what at what time and what are the acceptable criteria to gauge and prioritise neediness. And yet it is the potential mismanagement of funds by the beneficiaries that is presented as a problem. It is argued that direct cash transfers lead to misguided expenditure by beneficiaries. This can easily be circumnavigated by providing basic social services and the materials for a basic standard of living as free infrastructure to those who have provably mismanaged their funds and ended up in need of more help than is equitably provisioned for. Such beneficiaries must also be given the chance to appeal their shift from cash to ‘in kind’ beneficiaries. Such a system would eliminate the possibility of denial of essential services due to lack of cash and this is the kind of cashless society we should be working towards.
Universal basic income could end the problems of capitalism by being a permanent relief funding mechanism that all human beings qualify for. We are at present in a position to find out how many beneficiaries can be shifted to such a program permanently at the earliest, under what conditions, and what is to be done about the population that is left out of such conditions. Based on this, it would be easy to work out under what conditions and in what time span everyone can feasibly benefit from a scheme like this. We have the capabilities to calculate how much fiscal deficit is generated by a worldwide basic income program and what kind of currency circulation policies/agreements are required to eliminate such deficits forever. Apart from addressing issues of job creation, traditional job losses, and fear of automation, this will also give a better perspective on how much work is actually available to do and what amount of wealth is being produced by that work.
That capitalism does not work for everyone is a fact that can not be wished away by scowling 'well, neither does communism'. Universal basic income does work for everyone. The arguments against that are disingenuous posturing by parties and politicians who chase power on a low welfare, small government platform. Saying all this does not make universal basic income and the free provision of universal social services a communist agenda. It may be thought of as so because it is anti-capitalist. Those on the Left would do well to remember that the point of communism was to take a stand against capitalism, not to make capitalism a refuge from communism. There must be no pressure on anyone suffering under capitalism to obtain relief by compulsorily choosing organisational communism with all its baggage. Nor should anyone be forced to take a dubiously principled stand of choosing to suffer under capitalism rather than living under communism. In fact, only when a citizenry is well cared for may it find itself with enough time and resources to educate itself on the different political formations possible, enabling people to truly choose to live under whichever formation they prefer, seamlessly switching between formations if and when they feel they have formed a different, more informed opinion.