On March 4th, there was held an, interesting and timely debate on basic/citizen’s income. The event, chaired by Labour MP John McDonnell, is part of a wider series of events that form part of a People’s Parliament designed to reconnect citizens with the political process. The speakers were Malcolm Torry, author of ‘Money for Everyone‘; Natalie Bennett, leader of the UK Green Party; and Guy Standing, author of ‘The Precariat‘ and long-time champion of basic income.
The discussion was wide-ranging. Guy Standing – a stimulating and provocative public speaker – focused on how basic income could help change the current distribution and nature of work within a globalised economy. It could prove – and indeed has proved in various pilot schemes – an effective way of helping individuals avoid the dangerous poverty traps developed under neo-liberal economic regimes. Natalie Bennett drew attention to the imperatives of environmental protection and the ways in which basic income can help adjust our economic priorities away from growth and toward sustainability, as well as protect the most vulnerable in our society’s (asylum seekers, for example). Malcolm Torry, drawing on work done by his team of researchers at the Citizen’s Income Trust, presented a ‘minor’ policy change that could fund a universal basic income at the current level of Job Seeker’s Allowance without costing any more in taxpayer’s money.
The following is only a brief summary of what I took to be some of the main points raised during the event. I hope that comments added to these summaries will help clarify, amend and advance the on-going campaign to bring this emancipatory welfare proposal into existence. As such, this article is intended as little more than a rough sketch of the current political landscape we have to confront and the moves we might make to help see across it.
Changing ideas of work
On a couple of occasions during the evening, discussants seemed to talk past one another. This was particularly pronounced on the issue and definition of work. Where one person talked about work in the garb of the traditional nine-to-five clock-punching employee, others used a more expansive notion of work which included the work of mother’s, care workers, community activists and – a recurring theme throughout the evening – poets of questionable talent. Given the changing nature of our economies – see below – we are faced with a choice: On the one hand, we can transform and reclaim the notion of work to include this more expansive definition. Unconditional basic income would be a way of paying for such work. On the other hand, we retain the current understanding of what work means but cease to demand it from one another. To continue to enforce conditions of work on people in situations where work is no longer available or desirable, is not an option we should countenance.
The wider question, raised by a number of people, is why markets and bureaucracies continue to enjoy such positions of privilege in deciding on matters of value? Are we really, in this age of technological advancement and efficiency, suggesting that our imaginations and ethics are unable to keep up with the pace of change? In terms of converting this recognition into strategy, an enormous cultural shift away from conservative visions of valuable contribution is necessary. Such a shift is already in the offing and indeed has always been a large part of capitalist economics. Workers have always been fed, clothed and educated through unpaid labour: The production of people by means of people. The time is ripe for recognising the value of this and all unpaid labour by supporting it, unconditionally, with a basic income.
Shrinking possibilities for work
Work is not what it used to be. In an economy characterised by rapid capital flows and international chains of production there exists an irreversible downward pressure on the wages of advanced economies. This is, in many respects, a consequence of economies in the Majoritarian world going through the processes of industrialisation, and the complex knot of contradictions that are their consequence. Couple this with the fact that increased technological efficiencies both reduce the availability of even minimally interesting kinds of work, as well as the time necessary to do the boring/menial/dirty/degrading work people really shouldn’t be doing in the first place, and one begins to appreciate the scale of change underway and the necessity for finding radical policies to confront it.
Basic income is the best – possibly only (civilised) – means of dealing with these shifts. The alternative is the regime of sado-sanctions favoured by the current coalition government that should appeal to nobody. What is surprising is that this change seems to be resisted across the political spectrum. Calls are still being made to create new (waged) jobs in order to soak up the unemployed. In the UK, During the campaign for the promotion of the European Citizen’s Initiative, campaigners spent a great deal of time outside job centres, in sometimes quite deprived regions of the UK. It was often hard work trying to convince people that the predicaments within which they found themselves were part of wider global changes that could not be resisted. Moving forward with the campaign, fostering an acceptance of these economic developments needs to be at the forefront of our efforts. The media in this country is responsible for creating a culture of blame and resentment. Solidarity will be hard won out of these kinds of teeth but it can be won if the hard, cold facts of economic progress – and it could be progress – are properly faced up to.
Myth of austerity
As part of this strategy for apportioning blame to those responsible for the current economic crises, the (real) world’s overwhelming productive abundance must be used to confront the dangerous and reactionary myth of austerity. When the richest 85 people own the same amount of wealth as the bottom 3 billion, one is confronted with the grotesqueness of the charade. We are not living in times of necessary austerity. It is a program enforced and sustained by those in positions of political and economic power, pushing millions into poverty, crushing vulnerable individuals and communities across the planet, and destroying our environment in the process. Linking basic income to this struggle against austerity, as an alternative to its imposition, is a crucial component of any future struggles.
An unconditional basic income acts as both a challenge to austerity and the articulation of a demand that it end immediately. While Malcolm Torry’s proposal is interesting for its cost-neutrality – although the exemption of housing benefit from its calculations is something that needs to be costed as well – we should not allow ourselves to be distracted from the wider need to increase taxes on the rich, to penalise polluters for their disregard of the planet, and to regain the wealth that although generated by the contributions of a great many people is being siphoned off by an increasingly delusional class of super-rich sociopaths.
Trade Union focus
In Eastern Europe – Bulgaria in particular – trade unions have so far paid a pivotal role in creating awareness of basic income as a genuine alternative to traditional (read: defunct) forms of welfare. Trade unions have been at the forefront of a great many movements of social justice – if you enjoy your weekends, remember that you owe them to trade unionists! Unfortunately, today they are being put increasingly on the back foot, and their very relevance is being under increasing attach. In many ways, given the pressures described above, the trade union’s relevance could be seen as waning: where we are no longer able to conceive of ourselves as workers, what is left for unions to do?
However, this need only be the case if they refuse to adapt to demands of the time, and persist in pursuit of the chimerical dream of full employment. In order to remain relevant and take steps forward toward greater social justice – something that historically, unions were in the perfect position to do – they need to retrain their sights on a new target, a new goal to achieve. It is up to campaigners to convince unions that basic income is the policy toward which they should aspire.
As John McDonnell suggested, it is up to civil society to make the issue of basic income ‘safe’ for the higher ups in (potentially) progressive parties (Labour/Green Party) to take into the national arena. To this end, Malcolm Torry’s costed proposals could prove incredibly useful. This issue of feasibility requires argument and empirical work on a great many fronts, both in civil society and much closer to the (current) corridors of power. Pilot studies – like those Guy Standing has set up in Namibia and India – are part of the growing empirical research on the issue. The results have been staggeringly positive. The next stage is to get something similar running in a Western democratic state. Switzerland’s referendum might well be interesting on this front. Pilot schemes are something the ECI demanded as part of its push for a European wide policy, and it should occupy a similarly large part of any future campaigning efforts.* I think that trade unions, despite their historical scepticism of basic income, would do well to get behind such pilot schemes as a way to contribute and affirm their part in the on-going search for alternatives that are being issued by people all around the world.
*An interesting practical point was made regarding how high the UBI should be. If set to low, the fear is that the UBI will be treated as little more than a state-sponsored shock absorber, allowing companies to pay lower wages since people will be buoyed by their other income. It will, in other words, lack the emancipatory aspect many of us feel is the very reason for supporting it. (Interestingly, this is a fear that has been voiced by certain trade unions in Belgium – a country with particularly high union-density.)
Main Photo Courtesy of Darkroom Daze