Wednesday 23 October 2013

"We're facing a shift in what work means and it is this generation that can express this shift." Interview with the group behind the Swiss Basic Income referendum

Orson Welles was wrong. While most of Europe labours under the strictures of a failed and destructive economics, Switzerland shows independence of mind. The country will soon hold two referendums. One will ask whether the pay differential in companies should be set at no more than 12 to 1. The other proposes that all Swiss citizens receive a monthly unconditional, basic income, whether they are in or out of work.

We are not the Beautiful interviewed Enno Schmidt, co-founder of Generation Basic Income, the group behind the basic income initiative, as well as two of its members, Marilola Wili and Che Wagner.

Here is the first part of the interview:

There will be a referendum in Switzerland soon on whether every citizen should receive an unconditional income of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,711) every month from the government. When will the vote take place and will a basic income be introduced if you win?

Enno Schmidt: How high the basic income will be is not fixed in the initiative. The amount of 2,500 Swiss francs is only an example. The actual amount will be the result of another discussion and vote in the population. What amount allows a life in dignity? These are questions for the democratic process.

It’s not right to say the basic income will come from the government. The government has no money. It will come from everyone in the community and will be transferred through a levy or tax. The government manages money from the population in order to do what the people have entrusted them. We live in illusions. We live in the idea that we are going to work for ourselves because we get an income on which we live. But, in truth, we go to work to do something for others. And we need an income, regardless of that, to live. Basic income means a new look at everything, not a simple belief in what appears in the newspapers. Today, we pay all the taxes in the prices of goods and services. All taxes on income, on corporate profits and so on are included in the prices. But invisible. The tax or duty for a basic income will be paid in the prices of goods and services too. But visible. Perhaps the process is carried out on behalf of the population by a federal office, but it is quite wrong to say that the money comes from the government.

The vote will take place in two to four years. At present the Federal Council is considering the proposal and examining the consequences. Then the Parliament will do the same. Then the vote will be fixed. If a majority of people vote yes, the federal government is mandated to implement a basic income. But that will be many steps, processes of consciousness and votes, away. This is a long journey in which everyone participates. It is not a shock, not a regulation from above.

We offer this idea and make it clear. It is not our gain if the majority wants it.

 Is the idea that this monthly unconditional income will replace all welfare benefits?

ES: The principle is that each person receives this basic income, unconditionally, regardless of how one lives and what one does. It is set to be high enough to live on and to last a lifetime. What happens then? Today’s benefits, up to the amount of the basic income, fall away. The principle of social assistance or welfare benefits remains. But it will be much less necessary.

What else will happen? Income from labour will be renegotiated. With a basic income, I can say no to a bad deal. And yes to what I really want. With a basic income I already bring an income to employment. Earned income is supplemented with the amount of income that secures my existence. Good work that people like to do, will be cheaper. Poor work that people do not like to do, will be better paid, because no-one can be blackmailed with their existence to do it. Basic income does not necessarily mean more money. It is the unconditional nature of the income that is important. Only someone who has little today will have more money in their pocket with a basic income.

Your group, “Generation Basic Income” has submitted 100,000 signatures to force the referendum to happen. Did it take a long time and a persistent campaign to collect them?

Marilola Wili: It did take a long time to actually get the collection of signatures started. The collecting campaign started in April 2012 and, after the first few months, there was not too much happening on the streets. That’s why we founded the Generation Basic Income in September 2012:  to spend all of our energy on the most important part of the Initiative’s history: collecting those 100,000 valid signatures. Due to the fact that almost all of the work related to collect Swiss citizen signatures was voluntary, our most important virtues were fun and focus on the beauty of this process. We designed little competitions or the format “100 times 100”, where 100 people assured to collect 100 signatures within a certain timeframe and invited them to celebrate those 10,000 signatures in the best hotel in town.

In December 2012 Generation Basic Income decided to get the signatures by April 21st, half a year before handing them in. With that, a boost of engagement was set free and on the day, accompanied with a live-ticker, all of us energetically collected signatures to reach this goal. One of the keys of our success lies in our name: not only is it a political question but we’re facing a shift of the paradigm what work means to us, and it is this generation who is ready to express this shift.

ES: Many people have collected signatures, many older people too. And some, very bravely, alone. Generation Basic Income has put the salt in the soup. It was not easy to find this many signatures. We are not many but we have persevered and continued with a strong will. In the end, we have collected 142,500 signatures, 100,000 are necessary. But only 126,000 are valid [the population of Switzerland is about 8 million].

Is there a groundswell of support for a basic income in Switzerland?

Che Wagner:  For the collecting campaign we always talked about 500,000 people who would sign as soon as you asked them directly. Our job was to reach them in the streets, at railway stations, public squares, on festivals or within families. My experience during all these thousands of encounters was often a spontaneous support. But after a while I met all the arguments, which insist that a basic income is impossible. Nobody is capable of ignoring this idea because it is pointed towards every single person. So, by collecting the signatures I had the impression that the more someone knows about the idea, the more he is empowered to support it, too.

“Generation Basic Income” is the generation that already feels what it is to live a life in the mindset of an unconditional income: to actually do what you want to do and to insist on what you want to stand for. Those are the people who are our groundswell and this is a fast-growing generation.

ES: I don’t think there is a greater groundswell of support than in other countries, but in Switzerland there is direct democracy and therefore we have a good cultural conversation. In Germany, for example, when one speaks of the unconditional basic income, many people immediately think that once again something will be decided over their heads. In Switzerland, people listen and think about it because nothing will happen if they do not want it. They are politically sovereign.

There is a great deal of international interest in the Swiss referendum. Can you say in which countries this is strongest and whether you know of others that are likely to follow the Swiss lead?

CW: With our money pile performance we wanted to provoke the media and the international community to acknowledge this historical moment with a unique picture. But I am still amazed about the strong and enduring reaction the handing in of the referendum had. Apart from Switzerland and other central European countries, there was a big interest coming from the East, with Russia Today (RT) broadcasting directly on site as well as Chinese media. Then, there was response from the Arabic press, which was surprising. The strongest response I felt was coming from some Balkan states, especially Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia, where the idea of a basic income turned into quite a national debate a week after the performance. These debates were also boosting the European Initiative to collect 1 million signatures within the EU with the aim of having a debate all over Europe.

Now, several weeks after the event on October 4th, the media response is shifting to the English-speaking world including Great Britain, Australia and the US. There, you can sense that it’s rather an intellectual sphere that is willing to discuss such an issue rather than the broad public.

From the beginning, Germany was the strongest ally in our Swiss initiative. Throughout the campaign, there were Germans involved. I have the hope that not only will basic income become stronger as a topic, in Germany and elsewhere, but also the great tool of direct democracy will attract attention, because it is definitely the key to this whole process. 

ES: I think the most important message of this successful initiative for unconditional basic income in Europe is: direct democracy through referendum – so that the population can implement ideas and it is democratic. Governments in Europe are divorced from the population. You have opinion polls but the population has nothing to say. The lobbies have something to say, however, and money rules. False ideas of economy apply the thumb screws. Basic income is Enlightenment, it is an evolutionary revolution. We are always told we have democracy, but we don’t. Politicians do not want a direct democracy because they will lose power. The basic income strengthens the individual because it speaks to him. It dares a person to think for themselves, to take seriously what one perceives and feels.

Why do you think a basic income is necessary now?

MW: Never in world history were there more products produced, or services delivered and money circulating, than in present times. In Switzerland, and in all western countries, we live in total abundance rather than in scarcity. There is way more than we actually need for consumption. At the same time people live often in fear not to get enough or even are forced to live in poverty. This is a paradoxical situation: Large parts of the people in western societies are living far from the actual reality in their mindsets.

The idea of unconditional basic income helps to uncover this big misunderstanding of our current reality and helps to let go this unproductive and even dangerous fear of scarcity. This idea is able to make things visible and then unpredictably sets human forces free in ways one may have never thought about.

ES: With a basic income people get to what they really want and find important. So much of life is wasted and so many talents remain untapped if we hold to the old ideology of gainful employment and full employment in gainful employment. Lives have fractures; you do not stay in one job all your life. There is a lack of attention, of time for people. This rationalisation puts a limit on living. “We cannot solve today’s problems with the thinking that has brought on these problems,” said Albert Einstein. Basic income is new thinking.

Here is Part two

1 comment:

  1. The point about abundance replacing scarcity is crucial - and revolutionary. It is evidently linked to a growing perception that the economic model based on a competitive pursuit of maximum growth no longer makes sense - if it ever did. If such views are gaining ground n Switzerland we may hope that the days of profit-maximising capitalism are indeed numbered.