The concept of Universal Basic Income was designed by global north economists for global north economies and cannot be applied to the global south. The principles of UBI mean that it pays people in the global north to consume while workers in the global south continue to suffer to produce the north’s commodities. 

I have often found there to be something troubling about discussions regarding UBI. Those who promote it see it as a simple method to eradicate bullshit jobs, alleviate poverty and empower workers by giving them an alternative option for financial survival other than being dependent on selling their labour. In many ways, UBI is the purest extension of the capitalist welfare state –the state pays the workers while the market remains. Oddly, the concept has received support from both the left and right-wing, famously from both the billionaire Elon Musk and socialist UK politician Jeremy Corbyn, as well as Anarchist author David Graeber. In recent years the conversation about UBI has spread to Thailand and here, in the Thai context, is where we see the failures of UBI exposed. 

When we talk about UBI in the western or global north countries, it makes a lot of sense. These countries’ economies don’t actually produce anything like food, machinery, etc. Their economies are full of what David Graeber correctly described as bullshit jobs –work for the sake of work. Graeber argues that capital had to create these jobs and sometimes entire industries as an excuse to pay workers rather than have them starving in the street. What Graeber prescribes is to introduce UBI so as to make production more honest, admit that these jobs are bullshit jobs and allow workers more time to themselves, rather than wasting it at the bullshit office. 

Indeed, this may work well for economies like the USA, UK, Norway, etc., where they don’t produce anything material. However, in the rest of the world, the vast majority of people don’t work bullshit jobs and actually do produce commodities (typically commodities that are exported to those bullshit economies). Let’s compare Thailand to the UK as an example –Thailand is categorised as an “upper-middle-income economy” while the UK is a “Developed/ Advanced economy”.

Thailand is productive in exporting machinery, rubber, plastics, fruit and rice, while the UK’s main exports are overwhelmingly dominated by financial services (the bullshit industry). Indeed, the UK’s financial service exports alone are larger than all of Thailand’s exports combined. What this means is that the UK doesn’t make money by selling things we can touch or things we can eat, while Thailand does. We call these products material goods made by material labour. Things like rice, cars, plates, pineapples, etc. These are all things that Thailand produces. While in the UK they largely produce immaterial goods through immaterial labour. Financial services, insurance, loans, etc. These industries create the kind of bullshit office jobs Graeber described. The kind of jobs which, despite what liberal economists tell you, don’t need to exist! 

Many also make the bold claim that automation will facilitate this transition to a post-work UBI mediated economy. However, economies like Thailand’s have seen an extremely low uptake in automation. Furthermore, many of the industrial job losses in the global north can largely be attributed to offshoring rather than automation. This means that, due to the structure of physical labour-intensive economies like Thailand’s, UBI through automation is unfeasible because the economy is still dependent on a large pool of manual labour– you can’t automate rubber production, these are the sectors that produce the very commodities that drive Thailand’s economy.

Proponents of UBI like Graeber, Musk or Corbyn, overlook the key economic contrast between material and immaterial economies –between the global north and the global south. Their UBI programs would only work for those global north economies, because their jobs are indeed bullshit. UBI would simply pay those British people to consume, buying gaming chairs, or books, or new TV’s or whatever, but someone still has to make those consumer goods and those would be the workers of the global south.

Countries like Thailand, absolutely depend on those material labour jobs to produce commodities to export and bring dollars into the Thai economy. This is what allows people in the Bangkok middle class to have comfortable immaterial bullshit jobs in offices. The vast majority of Thailand however, works very hard, on farms, in factories or on fishing boats, this is what really drives the Thai economy. Introducing UBI in Thailand would be impossible, because without that material labour the engine that drives the Thai economy would come to a complete stop.

In 1917 Lenin wrote the book Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism which explained the function of financial capital in generating profits from colonialism. Since Lenin’s time however, capitalism has adapted, grown and developed. Today the colonial structures have changed, but the system clearly remains the same. Compare the life of the average Burmese worker to the life of a worker in Germany and this is clear. UBI is a concept that comes from the global north and was designed for the global north and when we talk about it, we are only realistically talking about it in the global north context. This means paying the global north to consume while the global south works for them. If Imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism, then surely the highest stage of imperialism is UBI.