Report on New Putney Debates (30/10/2014)

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Following on from a report I wrote summarising a meeting held in the Houses of Parliament back in April, this is a report from a lively and interesting discussion that took place on the 30th October at the Institute of Education, London. Invited speakers were Barb Jacobson , coordinator at Basic Income UK, Ben Baumberg, Lecturer in sociology at the University of Kent and Duncan McCann, Assistant Researcher at the New Economics Foundation.

There is little chance of condensing what was a wide-ranging discussion that covered everything from foreign aid to Scottish Independence – both of which offer(ed) interesting avenues for exploring the effects and challenges of a basic income. There were, however, a number of key flash-points that when put together could prove useful in moving the debate around basic income forward, and highlighting some areas where work still needs to be done.

It is tempting to just throw down some of the keywords and arguments that cropped up during the evening. But, notwithstanding the risks of editorializing, I am going to try and structure my report of the discussion in a way that I deliver potential avenues for future discussion, thought and advocacy.

Not a silver bullet … Nor merely a Band-Aid

There is always the tendency for advocates of UBI to bracket other issues of social justice. I think this a perfectly legitimate maneuver – especially in the early days of thinking about it, bandying about various justifications and considering consequences both knowable and unknowable. However, there is also something to be said – drawing on Ben’s discussion of ‘sequencing’ – for getting clear on exactly what UBI can and cannot be expected to do. In addition, it is important to be clear on what other regulations, legislation and, more general cultural imperatives would need to accompany UBI if is to achieve the kinds of things we want to achieve.

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Housing is the biggest part of this equation in my opinion. Barb made the point that UBI could actually operate effectively as a mechanism to distribute housing demand. Where people could afford to remain up in Hull and South Shields – and any other area people continue to want to call their home – they wouldn’t have to flock to London. As a consequence, the pressure on housing supply would be lifted. This is not a complete solution, no silver bullet, but could form part of a strategy to solve the current housing crisis.

This general point draws on a separate worry I have about certain of the defences of UBI that see it as the way of chipping away at the functions of collectively organised social security. Yes, there might be a great many justifications for basic income across the political spectrum some of which are likely aligned with one another both in their intuitions and intentions : But care needs to be taken in the arguments we make to justify and defend what see as UBI’s purposes, limiting our arguments to those defences and distinguishing them from various others with which we disagree.

On the other hand, UBI is more than a band-aid. Its simplicity can some times count against understanding the truly radical potential offered by UBI. By giving people enough money, by allowing them to stand back and assess their priorities, to refuse work they find dull, dangerous or dirty and to regain control of their time a great deal of change can be generated from within what might well be a fundamentally corrupt system. That change can then be used to challenge that system. Ultimately, this does depend on a certain faith in human nature – the idea that people will make these moves away from current behaviours and priorities. The alternative, however, is a neo-liberal ‘faith’ that from its diseased vision of humanity a general prosperity can be gained. Current evidence would suggest that that this variety of faith is utterly misplaced.

Normative Arguments

Something interesting Ben mentioned was his belief that UBI lacks a solid normative foundation by which people – which people I don’t remember being specified – could be convinced. He spoke of various ‘normative trade-offs’ that had to be made in the name of UBI that would inevitably leave the majority of people unconvinced. The obvious manifestation of this is the so-called exploitation objection, i.e. that issuing a UBI will necessarily lead to the exploitation of workers.

On the one hand, Ben is absolutely to refer to these trade offs – we might not be able to have our cake and eat it. (Indeed, the the Sheffield pilot study reviewed on this website, while admittedly informal and preliminary in its finding, suggested UBI can be argued for in ways that appeal to the majority of people). But, for the sake of argument, let us examine what those trade offs amount to when applied to the real world.

First to the balance of fairness argument. Accepting that reciprocity might well be breached after the introduction of UBI we can, in defending UBI, point to other gains that can be won in the name of other aspects of justice. Reciprocity is undermined but we take this loss on the chin for the sake of other potential gains. For example, the significant gains in terms of mitigating vulnerability or empowering workers in their struggles with employers to enforce fair treatment can be put beside the possibilities of reciprocity failure. Any move that raises the exploitation objection cannot rely on the metric of reciprocity as a decisive metric: it can only be an all things considered argument which takes these other gains into account.

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Second, and more interestingly, even within the concept of reciprocity there are gains that UBI can bring in its wake. For example, with UBI in place, women can be more demanding of their partners vis-à-vis the distribution of work within the household, without fear of the kinds of conflict that could lead to the termination of relationships which then expose them to considerable vulnerability.As a consequence, reciprocal efforts are here being initiated and secured through the introduction of a basic income. In a similar vein, there is a great deal of work going on in the community (such as domestic and care work) which would be provided for, secured and even encouraged by a basic income. Payment for such work is recognition of the contribution it represents. Sure, this cannot be institutionalised in a way some might find preferable – but the alternative is an oppressive surveillance our best intuitions rightly warn us against.   And, as a final example, with people now having the option to work less in order to obtain sufficient resources for meaningful activity outside of work, lower working hours will allow other people into work and thereby answer the call to productive reciprocity. Taking as given those arguments that complain about the fact UBI provides for (possible) reciprocity failure, parasitism or exploitation, we can still find reasons, using those very same terms of argument, to see UBI as (tentatively) triumphant.

Finally, there is the very real normative defence rooted in the notion of unconditionality. We at least speak in the terms of unconditional rights not to be tortured, to practice all manners of faiths, to believe what we will. Of course, in practice all these are hammed in by reasons of state, ‘security’, corporate interests. Yet the material means of living? This we kick to the curb, dismiss as either immoral or unfeasible – neither of which is true.

Money Creation / Debt

It was Duncan’s contribution to the discussion which I personally found particularly fascinating. At other events, funding certainly comes up: It is answered with various proposals about land value tax, a Tobin Tax, luxury consumption taxes, employment rents etc. However, all of these proposals implicitly assume that the institution of money, its creation, function and distribution are relatively straight-forward. A basic income is something we take from a system within which money works as it does, and then is supposed to change it from the inside – introducing new productive practices, new priorities and emphases.

In actual fact, there seems to be a profound contingency underlining the way in which money functions which really shouldn’t be assumed as anything like a ‘fact of the matter’. For example, the costs of goods are inflated by the servicing of debts that are accrued in the production. Sometimes as much as 70% of the cost of some good is taken up by this servicing. In addition, London’s housing bubble can be similarly described, at least in part, by the (very rational) interests banks have to invest money in housing rather than productive capital.

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I took Duncan’s suggestions and analysis to be largely sympathetic to UBI (if only unofficially). By taking money out of the hands of the banks and, as I understood it, placing it in the hands of governments and even more decentralised authorities, these costs would be massively reduced. The savings that would be made as a consequence of such a move could, theoretically, be used to fund part of a UBI.

However, the wider point to be drawn from Duncan’s contribution that the idea that money/resources are scarce is a function of the current way of creating money. The contingency of the story behind how people get the money they spend, save and lose is one more example of how the neo-liberal assertion that there is no alternative to austerity is an out and out lie.

Using Crisis

There is also something Duncan mentioned after the talk that repeats something John McDonnell mentioned at the meeting in Parliament. At the moment, we are living in a time characterised by a great number of crises. We are at a point in our social, political and economic development where people are directly confronting the assumptions that ground the current status quo. As has been the case throughout history, in times of crisis people stop assuming the causes of their predicament are individual failings: Too many people see themselves and each other suffering in too similar a set of ways to lay the blame at their own doorstep. Instead, the system itself comes to be regarded as rigged against them. Is is therefore crucial that, when this same system shows signs of life, and more people start to emerge from the consequences of that crisis, that it is seen for what it is: Temporary.

Change at the most basic level remains a pre-requisite of progress. And UBI – along with other measures – has to be a part of that change.


Photo 1 courtesy of Becky Stern

Photo 2 courtesy of Green MPs

Photo 3 courtesy of Doug Wheller

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