David Brooks, New York Times, taxes, deficit reduction, income security for all, basic income, Peaceful Positive Revolution, Steven Shafarman www.IncomeSecurityForAll.org, Steven Shafarman
Income Security
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Wednesday, June 2nd 2010

Slavoj Zizek on Basic Income

Though he’s mostly unknown in the United States outside a few elite universities where he’s been a visiting scholar, Slavoj Zizek is considered one of modern Europe’s leading philosophers.

Following is a link to a talk he gave in November 2009 in London. After opening with a somewhat general discussion of modern capitalism, particularly the fact that consuming is now a lifestyle activity, he discusses basic income. That part of the talk is great. Zizek mentions developments in Brazil, South Africa, and Europe, and then discusses the work of Philippe Van Parijs, who’s cited in several places at www.IncomeSecurityForAll.org.

This mostly theoretical talk, which is increasingly abstract after the section on basic income, was featured on New Year’s Day on a popular progressive political website, CommonDreams.org. The basic income idea is spreading, even in the United States.

After that section of the talk, Zizek returns to his theme of the contradictions in post-1968 capitalism, using the work of a contemporary German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk (who I had not previously heard of). Sloterdijk and Zizek seem to believe that the modern social welfare state, with its taxes, infrastructure, rule of law, and so on, must be preserved by the good works of the rich, people such as Bill Gates and George Soros.

Zizek then states that he agrees most with some ideas from Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Modern Man Under Socialism,” specifically the notion that charity degrades and demoralizes and merely prolongs the contradictions and injustices of capitalism.

Thus, asserting that basic income is a form of charity that will leave people envious and demoralized, Zizek concludes that it’s an attractive idea but can’t work. His argument reflects three misconceptions about basic income. First, he seems to think that the basic income is little more than taxing the rich to subsidize the poor, and would therefore prolong or increase envy, greed, and demoralization. He thus ignores the fact that the rich will benefit enormously from basic income, because they will have greater security and a more stable and sustainable society, along with opportunities to become even richer.

Second, the funds don’t have to come from taxing income and labor. Society can charge some rent or fees on what people take from nature and the community. Such takings include oil, land, timber, minerals, electromagnetic spectrum, and so on. The opening section of Zizek’s talk suggests that he ought to be sympathetic to this point. This is the idea of carbon fee and dividend that I’ve posted about a few times in recent weeks, and the idea of Thomas Paine, Henry George, and other people who are discussed elsewhere on this site.

Finally, he seems to view basic income only as a form of charity. It’s not. Instead, it would ensure that everyone can participate as citizens within the economic, social, and political activities of the modern state. It would be transformative in just the ways Zizek and Wilde appear to desire.

I hope Zizek continues to read and think about basic income, and to spread the word. His criticisms, particularly because of their contradictions and blind spots, mostly serve our interests.

The whole tape is 29:24.

Here’s the link:


(I tried to upload the video so you could view it here, but had some trouble with that. Sorry.)

Steven Shafarman

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2 Responses to “Slavoj Zizek on Basic Income”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Where does funding for UFT merit bonuses come from?

  2. Steven Shafarman Says:

    I’m not sure what UFT merit bonuses are, nor why they should be funded.