Opinion from Keiran Goddard, written as a response to discussions at the recent BIEN Congress 2018 in Tampere, Finland
It has been said that universal basic income (UBI) is an idea in search of an ideology.
In many ways, that’s a fair enough claim; when a policy provision excites actors from across the political spectrum, it necessarily raises questions about intent, clarity and execution.
If a single policy is seen as a transitional demand by Marxists and as a libertarian utopia by dead-eyed silicon valley types, it is right that rather than asking whether UBI is a good idea, advocates should instead be asking “which UBI, for whom and to what ends?”
What does seem certain is that current interest in UBI can function as a barometer of crisis. An admission from all sides that, as presently instantiated, the system/s we have are not working for enough people enough of the time.
It points to a collective realisation that our economic grand narrative (extractive, perpetual, expanding, nominally redistributive) has been utterly stripped of credibility.
We flogged that dead horse until the whip gave out.
As such, any radical demand for UBI should be set firmly against this background of crisis. If UBI is introduced in a form that reanimates, reproduces or extends the structures of neoliberalism, then frankly, what is the point?
We can (and should) ask then, how the emerging coalition of advocates, academics, policy-makers and campaigners can take steps to ensure that the demand for UBI remains emancipatory and liberatory at heart.
Here are ten thoughts, starting with the most obvious and working out from there…
1) UBI should function as a supplement not a replacement
If UBI is conceptualised as a replacement of, rather than a supplement to, social provisions such as healthcare or education, then its impact could be potentially devastating. There is little doubt that UBI could be weaponised as a method of defunding the state by other means, and any such framing must be resisted at all cost. The principle of collectivised risk must be maintained, as must the political struggle of preventing the expansion of the market into ever more areas of public and private life.
2) UBI should not be framed as a ‘citizens’ income
It is important to ask what we mean when we say ‘universal’. If UBI is to play a meaningful role in a politics of solidarity then ‘universal’ simply cannot stand as a proxy for limited or legalistic concepts such as ‘citizen’. If UBI payments could be withheld or withdrawn dependent on one’s immigration status or carceral history, for example, then its radical potential would be deeply compromised. Incorrectly framed, UBI could potentially serve as a mechanism to justify or rally support for inhumane border policing, immigration policy or status surveillance.
3) UBI should be not be about ameliorating unemployment
Increased automation and the transformative possibilities of artificial intelligence are reshaping the labour market, and according to many, herald a future of rising unemployment. Firstly, it is dangerous to concede a priori that such forces are inevitable or natural, rather than understanding them for what they actually are - namely, political and economic choices that can be challenged or repurposed toward different ends. And secondly, UBI advocates should be willing to go much further in reshaping the discourse. Rather than simply framing UBI as a salve for the pain of an altered marketplace, it should instead be seen as a way of society beginning the necessary uncoupling of human worth from participation in waged labour.
4) UBI should serve to recognise and value more of what matters
The market captures depressingly little of what matters to us. In its current configuration, the welfare state accepts this limitation and administers funds almost entirely in relation to one’s engagement or otherwise with the employment market. UBI, on the other hand, by dint of its unconditionality, confers value on a far greater range of human activity. As such, campaigners should not be shy of talking about UBI’s relationship to love, to art, to the erotic, to the sublime,or to the religious.
5) UBI should resist the market’s monopoly on desire
There is a depressing tendency to equate controlling or retarding the influence of the market with a resistance to progress or innovation. Buried in this myth is the notion that only capitalism can truly provide us with the things we desire; the sexy things, the shiny things, the champagne and the fast cars. Any successful public narrative around UBI must work against this story. It is unlikely that sufficient public support will be achieved via stories of minimal standards and hair shirts. UBI can be a libidinal demand, and it should be framed as such; this is about human flourishing, not human survival.
6) UBI should challenge the assumption that jobs bring meaning
Policy makers perpetuate the toxic idea that a job is a reliable source of meaning and wellbeing. This fundamentally ignores the reality of most jobs, which are repetitive, exhausting and often devoid of purpose. While there is no doubt that a proportion of people find their jobs to be rewarding, for most they offer little, either emotionally or materially. UBI campaigns should be honest in this assessment, and recognise that concepts such as ‘work ethic’ ‘vocation’ or ‘purposeful employment’ have historically been mobilised as coercive tools against the interests of the majority and in service of the interests of capital.
7) UBI should acknowledge its relationship to feminism
While explored by some academics, the relationship between UBI and feminism is somewhat under-described in the mainstream policy discourse. This should change. There are deep resonances with the ‘Wages for Housework’ movement of the 1970s, which sought to challenge social formations of labour within the home, specifically around care work, child rearing, cooking and uneven access to leisure time, all of which undergirded the functioning of the employment market yet non of which were subject to financial compensation. The universalism of UBI, which would be paid to individuals rather than households would also serve to erode some of the more patriarchal aspects of the current welfare state. Pilot studies also show a link between UBI and higher divorce rates, a fact that is welcomed by those who believe UBI can allow women to “ say no to bad work and to bad men”.
8) UBI should allow us to expand our notion of the ‘precariat’
Studies consistently show that the highest level of support for UBI comes from the ‘precariat’, those facing insecure employment and poor working conditions. While precarity is obviously an economic phenomenon, often exacerbated by developments in platform technology, it should also be possible to expand the notion in order to build a wider coalition in support of UBI. Precarity, both material and psychic is increasingly endemic, and is utilised as a method of governance and political control. By perpetuating or expanding the amount of the population that feels precarious at any given time, governments are able to stoke and refine an electorate’s desire for certainty and protection, often via state securitisation and observation. We are all precarious, and shaping a collective consciousness around this fact could be key in mobilising broad consent for UBI.
9) UBI should not be all things to all people.
The rise of consensus politics tells us that the ideal political party would get 100% of the votes, and that the ideal policy provision would garner universal support. A radical UBI proposal should avoid this trap and accept that if it is to truly disrupt existing economic relations, it will be unpopular amongst those who currently benefit disproportionately. Delivered at an adequate level, UBI would work against the interests of capital and as such should expect resistance along these lines. In concert with existing labour market protections, it would serve as a continuation of the struggle for workers’ rights, contributing to greater self-determination, a shorter working week, an increased ability to bargain for better pay and conditions, increased leverage via strikes and industrial action and as a backstop enabling the refusal of exploitative work.
10) UBI should work in conjunction with other political campaigns
There are already well established campaigns and organisations looking to address the symptoms and out-workings engendered by our current system of socio-economic relations, whether it be the mental health crisis, inequality, or environmental degradation. In its more overarching attempt to realign the incentives and realities of neoliberalism, UBI should seek to collaborate with these causes and should conceptualise its possible impact as broadly and as powerfully as possible. UBI won’t solve everything. It wont unpick the knots of late capitalism and single handedly weave them into something more beautiful. But it might be a start, and it might very well be the best idea we have.
Keiran Goddard works in policy and external affairs, has published two books, numerous articles and holds a policy fellowship as well as a number of advisory positions.