I was chastened by complaints about my first report on Chapo Trap House, Episode 123, featuring Clio Chang on the politics of a UBI. So I just listened to it twice more, and took copious notes as if I were an undergraduate all over again. I regret calling the cast a bunch of “smug, silly assholes.” They deserve better—like, say, “ignorant and yet arrogant little shits who don’t understand anything about the topic at hand.”
Fans of the show made two complaints about my original report. First, I indulged in name-calling (bozos, clowns, assholes, etc.). I have already addressed that complaint. Second, and much more important, they claimed I missed the nuance in the conversation, the distinction between a left and a right-wing rendition of a UBI.
But, having witnessed this circle jerk three times, I can confidently state that there is not an ounce of nuance here. These people are in the room to congratulate themselves for not being fooled by the “seductive” qualities of a UBI. They’re here to assure us that they won’t get fooled again, and neither should you. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Sure, the first 10 minutes (est.) of the podcast is regulated by ridicule of Mark Zuckerberg, who left Alaska thinking that its oil dividend resembled a UBI. The nervous laughter in this segment comes from three bits, two of them offered by Amber, whose accent—always the interrogative uptick in the penultimate syllable—makes the fear of Silicon Valley seem like a family romance.
“How can we keep them [employees, poor people] safe and functioning without giving them any power,” she asks, as her opening gambit. She means that a UBI is just a way of papering over inequality, producing bread and circuses for modern times. A little later she says it’s a way of “taking the onus off employers,” who won’t have to pay a living wage if everybody’s on the dole.
The third bit comes from the normally quiet narrative center of the show, who exclaims, in conversation with Chang, that a UBI “creates a floor just so you can get rid of the ceiling!” In other words, it doesn’t address income inequality, and in fact it unleashes the entrepreneurs. Capitalism is validated by a UBI!
Notice that these early remarks already frame a UBI as a ruling-class scam. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. We won’t be fooled again, oh no. Notice, too, that these critiques aren’t offered in the third person (“so and so says that”)–no, they come from the heart, from the Left as it is convened in this studio.
From here it’s all downhill. The “end” (goal) of a UBI is amelioration, not the creation of a more equitable society. “Cash welfare” is a problem because it can be defunded. “Rent-seekers” will immediately adjust to higher incomes, so price inflation will follow (this from the guy who bellows from what sounds like backstage). The costs of being poor—distance from a real grocery store, for example, forces you to shop for basics at the bodega—are such that a UBI can’t come near to reducing them.
It finally comes down to this, again from the quiet narrative center: a UBI is “inherently not antagonistic to capitalism itself.” Maybe a job guarantee is the way to go. Or, better yet, let’s “decommodify” the necessities, issue food stamps to everyone, for everything. Make everything free. “I love the Soviet model,” Amber exclaims, and she ain’t being ironic. These people are playing at being Stalinists, just like Harrison Fluss over at Jacobin. Or, to switch metaphorical gears, it’s as if the peasants infiltrated Marie Antoinette’s cottage and found it comfortable.
So, on the evidence of this podcast, I can safely say that a UBI appears to the Chapo crew as Hillary Clinton appeared to the sectarian Left, not as a means to ameliorative ends but as political anathema, to be ridiculed, despised, and avoided. Of course the cast begins by protecting its fans—by making fun of Zuckerberg, by saying you can’t trust Silicon Valley—but it quickly moves to speak for itself. In the end, the very idea of a UBI is a joke.
What these ignorant yet arrogant little shits can’t fathom is the simple fact that the detachment of income from work, no matter what its social or intellectual provenance, means the decompositon of capitalism, because you can’t have capitalism without a labor market that correlates effort and reward in a legible and legitimate manner. Socialism resides in that decomposition—why not embrace and enlarge upon it, even in the fragmentary form of a UBI?
But the moral of this story is larger. The Chapo crew are satirists who produce, as a matter of course, pure cynicism. Not mere irony, the “critical distance” we all need and use when we experience conflicting desires or points of view. Irony leads us into the world because it divides us between these possibilities, makes us want to test them. Cynicism via satire protects us from the world by teaching us how to abstain from its conflicts.
But that is a way of saying that cynicism via satire protects us from politics as such. Is that we want, just now?