Basketball, Terror, and Universal Basic Income
In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend. From the moment when basketball can no longer be converted into capital, money, or rent, into a social power capable of being monopolised, i.e., from the moment when individual property can no longer be transformed into bourgeois property, into capital, from that moment, you say, individuality vanishes. You must, therefore, confess that by “individual” you mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of basketball teams. This person must, indeed, be swept out of the way, and made impossible. — James Harden
They call it the National Basketball Association, but is it really? It isn’t national in the sense of a National Health Service or a National Trust. The NBA is not a public asset; it is a profiteering enterprise, a means for private parties to accumulate and hoard wealth. But neither is it national in the sense of a national anthem or a national security threat: included among the NBA’s 30 teams is a franchise based in Canada, and its commissioner regularly threatens to establish expansion teams in Europe and elsewhere. Already the NBA stages preseason and even regular season games in cities throughout the world. Just this month, a contest between the Denver Nuggets and the Indiana Pacers took place in London, though of course, living outside the capital, I can scarcely afford to navigate the UK’s dystopian rail system in order to reach the arena, let alone afford a seat inside.
So, having established the gross and scandalous inaccuracy of the NBA’s brand name, I would like to consider the following questions: what might a Nationalised Basketball Association look like? What would be its effect on society? Can a sports league serve as a vehicle for revolutionary social change? Should Richard Spencer be punched in the face over and over again until he’s unrecognisable? If you would like to know the answers to these questions (and to many additional and unrelated questions of dubious value), then read on.
On the first day of 2017, Finland’s government commenced a two-year basic income pilot scheme, and similar projects are set to take place in, among other places, Canada, India, and the United States. This has led to renewed media interest in the notion of a universal basic income (UBI), a thoroughly sensible and humane scheme that would alleviate much of the suffering we see all around us presently, and which continues to proliferate in the face of unflagging political indifference.
While Finland’s proposed scheme is, in my view, undermined somewhat by a stipulation that the money be given only to unemployed people, and with the object of increasing employment (more on that later), it is nevertheless a positive sign that such projects are being undertaken at all. Indeed, from the ghoulish parasites of Silicon Valley, to the rapacious vampires of Davos, to the bloodsucking austerity mongers of the European Union, it seems as though everybody is, at the very least, ready to entertain the possibility of a universal basic income in the not-too-distant future, and while the motives of some of these newer advocates may be dubious, I’d rather these conversations be occurring than not at all.
The fashionable justification for the present interest in moving quickly towards UBI is the supposed threat of automation. This spectre has loomed over the working classes since the industrial revolution: as Marx and Engels observed in 1848, “[t]he unceasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious.” It’s worth noting that this narrative is contested, but whether or not the robots really are coming for our jobs1 (and for the record I believe they are), the impetus for UBI should not in my view stem from a panicked reaction to technological advances. Rather, it should arise from a basic sense of empathy and a desire to live in a society in which everybody is free, comfortable, and secure. Basic income is a matter of social justice.
The history of UBI is well-documented, dating back to the sixteenth century in Europe, but the generosity and empathy that underpins it is older and more universal. My favourite example of this spirit is captured in the following passage from a short essay in Yoshida Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness). Writing from his Kyoto cottage in the early fourteenth century, Kenkō was by no means a left-wing revolutionary2. Yet his insight was such that he recognised the importance of security and basic living standards for a just and cohesive society (as well as the futility and cruelty or prisons, a view echoed more recently by the likes of Angela Davis):
It is wrong for anyone who has abandoned the world and is without attachments to despise other men burdened with many encumbrances for their deep-seated greed and constant fawning on others. If he could put himself in the place of the men he despises, he would see that, for the sake of their parents, wives, and children, whom they truly love, they forget all sense of shame and even steal. I believe therefore that it would be better, instead of imprisoning thieves and concerning ourselves only with punishing crimes, to run the country in such a way that no man would ever be hungry or cold. […]. As long as the country is not properly governed and people suffer from cold and hunger, there will never be an end to crime. It is pitiful to make people suffer, to force them to break the law, and then to punish them. How then may we help the people? If those at the top would give up their luxury and wastefulness, protect the people, and encourage agriculture, those below would unquestionably benefit greatly. The real criminal is the man who commits a crime even though he has a normal share of food and clothing.
So what does any of this have to do with the NBA? Currently, roughly half of “basketball related income” (BRI) is set aside for the actual players whose labour generates the bulk of the money (and let’s not forget the staff who work in and around the arenas as well as the sweatshop labourers who produce the merchandise). The other half is handed straight to the team owners—parasitic rentier capitalists who built their fortunes through good honest work like inheritance, mortgage fraud, pyramid schemes, union busting, and pushing innocent men to the ground.
Basic income is often framed derisively as a proposal that involves giving people “money for nothing” (what a ludicrous thought!), but it’s worth considering who really is receiving money for nothing. While it might be tempting to point disapprovingly at the multi-million dollar contracts routinely handed to NBA players just for playing a game, and regardless of whether or not they’re any good3, the real crime here is that half of BRI goes straight into the pockets of an ownership class who—as players’ union executive director Michele Roberts correctly observes—are so worthless that they could disappear tomorrow and nobody would notice or care. Worse still, these shameless vultures refuse to conduct themselves with the compunction that such an arrangement ought to warrant, demanding instead a larger and larger share of revenue with every passing round of collective bargaining, brazenly painting themselves as victims who could not possibly afford to keep their teams afloat otherwise. What keen business acumen they must possess!
[I]t must be admitted that the workman scores over both the horse and the slave, inasmuch as he enjoys the priceless blessing of Freedom. If he does not like the hirer’s conditions he need not accept them. He can refuse to work, and he can go and starve. There are no ropes on him. He is a Free man. He is the Heir of all the Ages. He enjoys perfect Liberty. He has the right to choose freely which he will do—Submit or Starve. Eat dirt, or eat nothing. […]. This beautiful System is the only one possible, and the best that human wisdom can devise. May the System live forever! Cursed be those who seek to destroy the system! — Mark Cuban
But what if there were another way? What if, instead of handing 50% of BRI over to a loafer class of gormless parasites, this money were channelled towards a basic income for the populations of the cities in which each franchise is based? NBA teams would cease to look like symptoms of corruption (publicly subsidised NBA arenas are crimes against humanity) and instead become sources of local pride and shared prosperity.
Not only would this provide obvious benefits for the communities receiving these dividends, it would boost the morale and the esteem of players, and thus increase the overall quality of basketball (which is what really matters). No longer would NBA players have to suffer at the hands of incompetent and meddlesome ownership and endure the dishonour of personally helping to fatten their pockets; instead, they would enjoy the satisfaction of assisting the very people who cheer them on. Who would you rather work for: a corpulent millionaire who uses his inherited wealth to pose as a blues musician, or the poverty-stricken and homeless people of New York City?
The spectacle of the average NBA game is so saturated with advertising that even the camera angles are sponsored. Uniforms now have sleeves to make room for incoming corporate logos, and commentators are obliged to regularly blurt out slogans while calling games. Since advertising so obviously degrades the quality of the “product” (as the NBA likes to refer to basketball), viewers should either be allowed to watch for free or receive some manner of compensation for having their time wasted and their sensibilities insulted. Currently, NBA games are paid for (at least) twice—by the advertisers and by the audience. This is fundamentally unjust, and it’s time to liberate this advertising revenue and distribute it to those who’ve earned it.
But this would only be the beginning. A Nationalised Basketball Association could provide the blueprint—and galvanise support—for broader and more inclusive basic income schemes throughout the United States and the wider world. UK basketball luminary John Amaechi recently argued that addressing homophobia in high profile sports leagues is an effective means of combating such bigotry elsewhere in society, remarking that sport is “one of the most influential social learning environments.” While we may wish to bemoan the fact that professional athletes wield such transformative power, as Amaechi correctly notes, “managing what is takes primacy over what should be.” By the same token, while it may be both galling and terrifying that the United States sets the agenda for the rest of the world, we cannot currently alter the reality that America has successfully constructed a ruthlessly oppressive global empire for itself, and so affecting revolutionary change in the corrupt heart of global hypercapitalism should be deemed a priority, something that will ultimately make train tickets affordable for me everybody.
Sport can reach with alacrity those parts of society in which theoretical and applied socialism are viewed with scepticism. So to readily influence sport’s leadership is one route we can take to help us achieve some useful shifts in society, in terms of basic income, and beyond. — John Amaechi
This is all well and good, you are no doubt thinking, but how do we get there? Numerous studies and pilot schemes have already been conducted, and the necessity of UBI is obvious to anybody with a human heart who has spent more than ten minutes thinking about it. Yet the same familiar objections are voiced every time such a scheme is seriously proposed. How are we going to pay for it?, demands the same venal political class that advocates conjuring money out of thin air “quantitative easing” and setting aside billions of pounds for malfunctioning nuclear submarines that could potentially destroy the planet. Receiving money for free will disincentivise work and foster laziness and dependence, snort the very pigs that live on inherited fortunes and still refuse to pay taxes.
Indeed, the surging popularity of Benoît Hamon and his campaign for le revenue universel in the primaries for leadership of the Socialist Party have forced the French political establishment to confront and respond to the growing demand for UBI. Former prime minister Manuel Valls dismisses basic income on the grounds that it is contrary to his vision of France as a “society of work,” while François de Rugy of the “Left Radicals” (HA!) complained that talk of UBI interferes with the crucial debate over how to create new jobs! Truly, the reasons behind the rise of so-called “populism” in Europe remain a mystery.
It is not a wild dream of Superhuman Unselfishness. No one will be asked to sacrifice himself for the benefit of others or to love his neighbours better than himself as is the case under the present system, which demands that the majority shall unselfishly be content to labour and live in wretchedness for the benefit of a few. — Benoît Hamon
The views expressed by Valls and de Rugy could have come straight from the pages of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a brilliant but unsubtle novel by Robert Tressell in which Dickensian villains with name like Sir Graball D’Encloseland antagonise the poor and collude with one another to appropriate and profit from public assets. Though first published over a century ago, it’s clear that very little has changed in politics since Tressell’s time:
The walls were covered with huge Liberal and Tory posters, which showed in every line the contempt of those who published them for the intelligence of the working men to whom they were addressed. There was one Tory poster that represented the interior of a public house; in front of the bar, with a quart pot in his hand, a clay pipe in his mouth, and a load of tools on his back, stood a degraded-looking brute who represented the Tory ideal of what an Englishman should be; the letterpress on the poster said it was a man! This is the ideal of manhood that they hold up to the majority of their fellow countrymen, but privately—amongst themselves—the Tory aristocrats regarded such ‘men’ with far less respect than they do the lower animals. Horses or dogs, for instance.
The novel’s fictional setting—Mugsborough—is based on the town of Hastings where Tressell lived and worked. It’s also the town where I currently live and work, and I can attest that the locals here are treated to precisely the same rhetoric today as Tressell and his peers endured a hundred years earlier. Just last week, Tory MP Amber Rudd profaned the letterboxes of her long-suffering constituents with the following article of feckless propaganda:
Most of the writers of these Liberal and Tory papers seemed to think that all that was necessary was to find ‘Work’ for the ‘working’ class! That was their conception of a civilised nation in the twentieth century! For the majority of people to work like brutes in order to obtain a ‘living wage’ for themselves and to create luxuries for a small minority of persons too lazy to work at all!
Yes, that’s what’s needed in 2017! More mindless, meaningless toil to occupy the serfs! Poverty wages for the poverty stricken! Rudd exhibits the primordial Tory obsession with unemployment statistics, figures which can be manipulated in a variety of ingenious ways to give the appearance of a fair and prosperous society where no such thing exists. People who are “economically inactive,” for instance, are excluded from unemployment statistics. Likewise, the permanent underclass that sleeps rough on benches and in doorways cannot spoil pristine Tory unemployment figures with their odious presence—they are simply ignored!
Never mind that the wealth of people in their thirties has halved in a decade; never mind that millions of people have no savings; never mind that thousands of people are being hospitalised with malnutrition; none of this matters because unemployment is down, and the Dow Jones is up! Let them eat stocks! The economy is recovering, write the hired scribes of the capitalist press, and the so-called “informed public” believe them! “But it must be remembered,” wrote Tressell, “that most of the defenders of the existing system are so constituted that they can believe anything provided it is not true and sufficiently silly.”
Alright, alright, but something as ambitious as UBI will undoubtedly take time; it’s complicated, and we need more studies, more pilots. There is nothing so distasteful in contemporary politics as this flaccid, incrementalist view, wielded to great effect by Hillary Clinton every time she betrayed her utter contempt for young and idealistic people desperately in need of significant change. Politics, according to Clinton (and other craven swine enamoured with the status quo and the lobbying money it brings), is essentially a labour of Sisyphus: one toils away for years on end, failing to bring about any tangible improvements in the lives of the poor and marginalised (though touching the lives of the poor outside the US proves quite easy), and in the end, exhausted from having fought so hard, all one has to show for it are lucrative Goldman Sachs speaking engagements and mountains of Saudi money. These entitled millennials don’t understand how hard and how thankless politics really is!
This attitude, conveniently popular within the American political and media establishment, was echoed recently in yet another noxious and tone-deaf New York Times op-ed in which one of a seemingly endless parade of white, middle-aged windbags sought once more to explain the Trump phenomenon to his thoroughly lobotomised audience. The author, Kevin Baker, marvels at the wonderful American tradition of civil rights struggles being ignored for decades before finally—all resistance having been exhausted—minor concessions are made (only to be revoked later):
The first wave of feminists fought for more than 70 years to win their biggest demand; Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were dead by the time women got the vote. African-Americans battled ceaselessly, in every way they could, against their enslavement and Jim Crow, training their own lawyers to take their cases to the Supreme Court. The struggles for labor rights, gay rights, Hispanic rights, civil liberties, religious toleration, women’s control over their own bodies — all these battles and more took decades to win. They are the glory of our civilization.
To celebrate political inertia and romanticise oppression while shrugging off the hundreds of thousands of lives ruined and wasted by a callous and stubborn political establishment is simply intolerable. This is the glory of American civilisation? If civil rights struggles were about reasonable, evidence-based arguments and a willingness to work patiently within the existing political system, we’d have long since adopted UBI—and a great many other things—across the globe. Unfortunately, in a world where advocating basic income can get you killed, asking nicely isn’t going to cut it. The time has come for practical measures. No more theory. Don’t talk about it; be about it.
As for what we should do to such individuals…I can assure you that we would not treat them as you treat them now. We would not dress them up in silk and satin and broadcloth and fine linen: we would not embellish them, as you do, with jewels of gold and jewels of silver and with precious stones; neither should we allow them to fare sumptuously every day. Our method of dealing with them would be quite different from yours. In the Nationalised Basketball Association there will be no place for loafers; whether they call themselves owners or shareholders, those who are too lazy to work shall have no share in the things that are produced by the labour of others. — Dirk Nowitzki
For the solution to this problem, let us turn once more to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. “There was only one hope,” Tressell wrote. “It was possible that the monopolists, encouraged by the extraordinary…apathy of the people, would proceed to lay upon them even greater burdens, until at last, goaded by suffering…these miserable wretches would turn upon their oppressors and drown both them and their System in a sea of blood.”
This is the path that I recommend NBA players take.
Led by chief brigand Adam Silver, the loafer class of the NBA has for too long oppressed the players and the people. Silver made clear in 2015 his Machiavellian plot to divide and thus to conquer the player base, to cultivate in the league’s stars a voracious appetite for capital, and to exploit this avarice to secure in collective bargaining negotiations favourable terms for the NBA’s rentier class. I propose, therefore, that the majority of these players4 do away with this parasitic cabal. They produce nothing but consume everything! Drag them from their luxury suites and—to paraphrase Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois—make these inhuman monstrosities disappear from the soil of America.
Wait, isn’t that going a little far? A debate concerning the legitimacy of political violence has emerged recently following the punching of media darling and literal Nazi Richard Spencer, and it has become clear that there remains a great deal of confusion regarding the correct way to deal with fascists. In a cowardly Vice article that sought to determine whether it was right or wrong to punch Richard Spencer in the face, “an ethicist” conflated a literal white supremacist with somebody “you really, really don’t like” whose “ideas are odious” and who “has politics different from yours,” urging readers to take the moral high ground and refrain from any punching.
It’s easy (and common) for white liberals to wring their hands over the sanctity of free speech and pat themselves on the back for their willingness to tolerate Nazis, but those who feel we should respect the “rights” of white supremacists to organise conferences in Washington DC would do well to remind themselves that the United States is a mere generation removed from its last public lynching and consider that perhaps there’s more at stake here than their own desire to remain morally consistent (a privilege few can afford).
Of course, it’s just as easy to say all of this—easier to type about punching fascists as an ideal than to actually punch real people. To acknowledge the need for political violence is not something that I take lightly. But, as Walter Benjamin—a German Jew who died fleeing the Gestapo in 1940—wrote in his Critique of Violence, the commandment Thou shalt not kill “exists not as a criterion of judgement, but as a guideline for the actions of persons or communities who have to wrestle with it in solitude and, in exceptional cases, to take on themselves the responsibility of ignoring it.” In other words, if you see a Nazi,
And if you think that political violence is just a polite euphemism for terrorism, it’s worth noting when and from where that term originates. As Sophie Wahnich explains,
‘Terrorism’ and ‘terrorists’ are words that originated with Thermidor. Those who sought to found a new and egalitarian political and symbolic space were defeated by history. The terrorists meant Robespierre and Saint-Just, but also all who fought for ‘liberty or death’—the Jacobins whose club was closed, the citizens reduced to political passivity by the establishment of a property-based suffrage and the abolition of the right of resistance to an oppression which refused them any active citizenship.
“The people have the right,” Jean-Paul Marat declared, “to take up the sword of justice when the judges are concerned only to protect the guilty and oppress the innocent.” Maximilien Robespierre: “Those who wage war on a people, in order to halt the progress of liberty and destroy the rights of man, must be pursued everywhere not as ordinary enemies, but as assassins and brigands.” If these men were terrorists, then so was John “Father of Liberalism” Locke, who decreed that all those who were harmful to humanity must be destroyed:
In transgressing the law of nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men, for their mutual security; and so he becomes dangerous to mankind, the tye, which is to secure them from injury and violence, being slighted and broken by him. Which being a trespass against the whole species, and the peace and safety of it, provided for by the law of nature, every man upon this score, by the right he hath to preserve mankind in general, may restrain, or where it is necessary, destroy things noxious to them, and so may bring such evil on any one, who hath transgressed that law, as may make him repent the doing of it, and thereby deter him, and by his example others, from doing the like mischief.
There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’ if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; … our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with life-long death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? … A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us have been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves. — Baron Davis
Of course, with any luck, no such unpleasantness will be necessary. After all, dismantling the current system and replacing it with something more equitable won’t just benefit those who are currently poor. Indeed, even an unrepentant capitalist like Adam Smith agrees with Kenkō, if inadvertently (shout out Mark Blyth):
Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions. It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years5, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security. He is at all times surrounded by unknown enemies, whom, though he never provoked, he can never appease, and from whose injustice he can be protected only by the powerful arm of the civil magistrate continually held up to chastise it.
Were wealth to be distributed in a more equitable manner—if every member of every community had access to what Robert Tressell called “the benefits of civilisation”—society as a whole would prosper. The rentier capitalists themselves—though they may not grasp this now—would benefit enormously from participating in a society in which they are not universally loathed, and where their peers actually have the time and the energy to produce art, play basketball, write novels, and so on; a world of limitless entertainment and creativity. As Tressell wrote, “the interests of masters and men are identical, for it is to the interest of all, both rich and poor, to help to destroy a system that inflicts suffering upon the many and allows true happiness to none. It is to the interest of all to try and find a better way.”
1 What jobs?
2 Kenkō considered the consumption of alcohol “a scandalous way to spend a day of celebration,” complaining that it might cause a woman to “brush the hair away from her forehead and brazenly lift up her face with a roar of laughter,” or, if “badly bred,” to “push appetisers into the mouth of her companion, or her own, a disgraceful sight.”
3 Timofey Mozgov deserves every penny.
4 “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”
5 I take the phrase “many years” to be an error, a misspelling of “others.”
Quotes accompanying pictures:
James Harden = Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (altered)
Mark Cuban = Robert Tressell
John Amaechi = John Amaechi (altered)
Benoît Hamon = Robert Tressell
Dirk Nowitzki = Robert Tressell (altered)
Baron Davis = Mark Twain
Check out the bibliography for further reading.