Friday, 6 March 2015

You are set free, there are no conditions

Some thoughts on Basic Income

 I wanted to look more deeply into the idea of a basic income because, although the idea of giving everyone an income unconditionally has broken into public consciousness in recent months, the concept is still swathed in uncertainty, speculation and myth. So in hopes of casting more illumination:

Why is a basic income needed now?

The case for a basic income can, I think, be distilled into five elements. That it will give security to people for whom steady, secure employment is an unreachable aspiration; that it will enhance individual freedom; that it will act as a counter-weight to the all-pervasive influence of the market on society; that it will enable a more responsible attitude to the environment to become a reality. And because of galloping technological change rendering human labour redundant, that it is, in any case, a practical necessity.

Professor Guy Standing, one of the advocates of a basic income, argues that the global labour market has quadrupled in size since the 1980s. The result has been a decline in real wages. A primary victim of this development has been, what Standing terms, the ‘precariat’. This is a class comprising millions of people for whom insecure, temporary, short-term or self, employment has become the norm. They possess nothing that can be likened to a career and merely exist to serve the interests of employers – to whom they are simply disposable labour costs. This ‘precariat’ class is mushrooming in Britain, at present, where under-employment is double its pre-recession level, 38% of the workforce is part-time and 15% self-employed. “We need a new system of income distribution,” says Standing, “in which people have a right to basic security to exist as a human being in modern society.”

Here is a Belgian documentary about basic income:

The one smirking, the other timid

Basic income has been described as “freedom income” and I believe one of its effects would be to finally bring an end to the condition of ‘wage slavery’. This term, which was widely used by the Left in the 19th and early 20th centuries, connotes the dependence of most people on their usefulness to employers. They have to sell themselves in some way. If they cannot, they are denied the means to exist. With the decline of the welfare state in the UK, and the rise of food banks, ‘wage slavery’ has become a palpable reality for millions.

Basic income will abolish this dependence. Employers and potential employees will encounter each other as equals. The fundamental deception of which Karl Marx famously spoke, of treating people as commodities but leaving them powerless to negotiate their full worth when they negotiate their sale as commodities in the labour market, will cease. Enno Schmidt, one of the organisers of the Swiss group Generation Basic Income, says a basic income gives people the power to ‘say no to a bad deal’. With a level of unconditional income in place, for the first time in history, he says, a genuine free market situation will exist between prospective employees and employers. This change in the balance of power will likely give a spurt to the automation of poorly paid, repetitive jobs, an area of the economy that is currently the kernel of economic ‘recovery’ in the UK and elsewhere.

The society of the market

 But although it will give power to the commodity known as ‘labour’ (people, in other words), basic income also has the potential to diminish the reach of market relations into society. It is becoming apparent to quite mainstream thinkers, such as Michael Sandel for instance, that we don’t just live in a market economy, but, increasingly a market society. That such an insight was originally made by leftist thinkers, like Murray Bookchin in the 1970s, does not negate the fact that the process of ‘marketisation’ is speeding up.

This is evident from a cursory look at what has happened to housing, healthcare, education and public services in the last two decades or so.  Basic income cannot, of itself, impede these developments, but it can, in my opinion, generate an opposing force. With the decline of the welfare state, people’s time, if they are not in full-time employment, is dominated by the need to find new ways of making money. Witness the astonishing growth of self-employment in the UK, for which there is no corresponding demand for self-employed services. A basic income, if set at a reasonable level, can liberate people to pursue activities that generate little or no profit, and, most significantly, for which profit is not the overriding intent. “Imagine the creativity, innovation and enterprise that would be unleashed if every citizen were guaranteed a living,” says Australian union organiser, Godfrey Moase. “Social enterprises, cooperatives and small businesses could be started without participants worrying where the next pay cheque would come from. Artists and musicians could focus on their work. More of us would be freed to volunteer our time for the public good.”

As the English social critic, Mark Fisher, has noted, the domination of free market capitalism, the putative incubator of risk and change, has resulted in its mirror opposite – cultural stagnation and conformity. The emotions thus generated, he writes, do not inspire “entrepreneurial leaps” but “the turning out of products that very closely resemble those that are already successful.” Maybe a basic income, if it frees people from the compulsion to seek immediate financial reward, can reinvent the society of risk, and enable ‘cultural leaps’.

The free time potentially enabled by a basic income would also make democratic self-management a realisable option for the first time in history. The hurried, time-pressed society in which we live makes rule by elites, private and public, all but a certainty. But with less time swallowed by work, democratic rule through citizen assemblies, participatory budgeting, worker self-directed enterprises and other forms of direct democracy, becomes possible.

Environmental blackmail

A basic income, believes Enno Schmidt, means that no-one can be “blackmailed with their existence” to do work they don’t wish to do. This ‘situational logic’ is, currently, an unerring feature of capitalism and leads to the paradoxical situation of the economic system producing effects, such as global warming, which few people actually desire but are nonetheless consequences of its successful functioning, an outcome that is also desired by most people. Such tyranny of immediate self-interest seems an inescapable bind which traps the vast majority of people. But a basic income, if set at a high enough level, could offer a way out.

Naomi Klein, in her climate change book, This Changes Everything, laments “the paucity of good choices” that lead Louisiana fishermen to reluctantly take work from BP cleaning up the same Deepwater Horizon oil spill that destroyed their livelihoods. Indigenous communities, she writes, who own the land coveted by mining and oil companies, face a similar choice between jobs and training in the short-term and the inevitable long-term come-back represented by the effects of climate change. Basic income could render this job blackmail impotent. 

We, Robot

But looming over these reasons why a basic income is desirable, is another urgent justification. That it is becoming a necessity as human labour is rapidly superseded by technology. According to two Oxford university economists, 47% of current employment might disappear in the next two decades because of automation. The common reaction to this is that massive technological advances have happened in the past and the jobs they eviscerated were replaced by different kinds of paid employment. But this new industrial revolution may take, in labour terms, far more than it gives. 

According to the writer John Lanchester, it isn’t just factory jobs around the world that are going to disappear because of automation. White-collar jobs, too, will vanish. “We are used to the thought that the kind of work done by assembly-line workers in a factory will be automated,” he writes. We’re less used to the thought that the kinds of work done by clerks, or lawyers, or financial analysts, or journalists, or librarians, can be automated. The fact is that it can, and will be, and in many cases already is.”

We are haunted by “the spectre of uselessness.” If ‘the robots eat all the jobs’, as Lanchester puts it, the effect in this capitalist society will be an almighty increase in profits accompanied by a haemorrhaging of purchasing power. Aside from providing material support to millions of ‘superfluous’ people, basic income may be the only way to keep consumption stable in this new world.

But, nonetheless, a basic income is rejected by many on the Left as an evasion of the real problem.

Why is a Basic Income opposed by large parts of the Left?

The reason is that the problems identified by advocates of a basic income – inequality, insecurity, poverty and the effects of computerisation – are considered to be effects of a particular kind of capitalism, namely globalisation, or capitalism itself. And they cannot be vanquished by merely bolting on to the economic system a radical new way of redistributing income.

Labour left commentator, Owen Jones, believes political changes since the 1980s in the UK have created an ‘hourglass’ economy, comprising well-paid professional jobs at the top and poorly paid insecure jobs at the bottom. The correct response, therefore, is to create secure middle income jobs, through for example, building council houses, introducing a living wage and implementing what has become known as the ‘Green New Deal’. This involves large investments in renewable energy and insulating homes. A basic income is not needed.

The problem with this “eco-Keynesianism” is that, though the spurt it provides to new secure jobs and stable consumption may be real, it is a one-off injection whose benefits will likely slowly evaporate. Basic income, by contrast, is a permanent solution.

The Piketty nightmare

But there is another leftist objection to a basic income that, I believe, has real merit. This criticism is that a basic income merely deals with the effects of capitalism, without trying to tackle the underlying causes. That is, basic income tries to abolish exploitation, and the fundamental inequality of the relationship between prospective employer and employee, but turns its head away from the forms of ownership that create this inequality.

And left untouched, these forms of ownership, in the context of rapid technological change and the destruction of white collar as well as manual jobs, will only further concentrate great wealth at the top of society. This is an amplified Thomas Piketty nightmare in which income from capital (based on ownership) spirals upwards, while income from labour (based on working) declines. Inequality will race ahead, a phenomenon that can, theoretically, be redressed by the radical redistribution of a basic income. But the only reason for accepting the great financial burden represented by basic income, on the part of elites, is fear of consequences of not doing so. At present, however, the dominant emotion detectable among the higher echelons of society is not fear, but supreme confidence.

In this sense, basic income, should it happen, is much like the compromise of post-war social democracy. Social democracy accepted leaving the amassing and allocation of profit alone, in return for the concessions of full employment, strong trade unions and some public ownership. Basic income can be said to make much the same kind of deal, except the concession demanded is unconditional material support. But social democracy, though victorious for three post-war decades, was eventually fatally undermined by its failure to challenge forms of ownership.

So I can see that, on its own, a basic income is not enough and will probably not succeed. But an unconditional income, regardless of how production is organised or ownership composed, is desirable in itself, simply because it is the greatest single way I can think of to increase individual freedom. And if the Left is not about increasing individual freedom, then what it is for?

In the second part of this analysis, I want to examine who a basic income is for. If it is just for the so-called ‘precariat’, it is doomed.

And here is part three 


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