Tuesday, 21 February 2017

André Gorz and the importance of refusing work

Twenty years ago the French philosopher André Gorz warned of the crucial difference between a basic income that enabled its recipients to refuse work and one designed to prompt them to take any on offer.

At a time when basic income advocates were a novelty, Gorz foresaw the dangers ‘inherent in demanding continuous income for discontinuous work’. Basic income was, according to one contemporary conservative advocate, not an end in itself, but the means for everyone to ‘fit themselves into this new system’.

The idea, said Gorz, was ‘to enable employment to become intermittent, and [it] may even encourage such intermittent employment’.

But a ‘sufficient’ unconditional basic income had precisely the opposite logic. “The aim,” he wrote in 1997’s Reclaiming Work, “is not to force the recipients to accept any kind of work on any terms whatsoever, but to free them from the constraints of the labour market. The basic social income must enable them to refuse work [my italics] and reject ‘inhuman’ working conditions.”

Far from encouraging work and entrepreneurship, Gorz wanted a basic income, in line with the ideas of libertarian communists and socialists of past eras, to lead to ‘less employment and less selling of labour and services’. He looked forward to the ‘elimination of work as the dominant form of activity’ and its replacement by myriad forms of ‘personal activity’.

In the late ‘90s, few policy-makers paid serious attention to proposals for a basic income. Now, by contrast, basic income pilots are springing up like mushrooms after a cloudburst. Experiments are planned, or are in progress, in Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and Scotland.  The kind of basic income they embody, however, is closer to Gorz’s nightmare than his dream of liberation.

Intermittent employment, through zero hours contracts, extreme part-time work, freelancing and the burgeoning gig economy, was only just emerging into the sunlight in the 1990s. But now it is an established fact of life for millions of people. And all the basic income pilots, without exception, take intermittent employment as a given, even a desideratum. Basic income, in other words, becomes a means for people to ‘fit themselves into this new system’.

In Finland, the centre-right government hopes the basic income pilot will help participants ‘take short-term jobs’ and ‘encourage people to seek and accept work’. The BI pilot in Ontario, Canada, though set at a more for generous level than in Finland, aims to ‘strengthen the incentive to work’.  In the Dutch city of Utrecht, the ruling socially liberal D66 party, which has initiated a BI experiment directed solely at the unemployed, is committed to ‘strengthening the economy for entrepreneurs, be they big multinationals or small-scale freelancers.

This all suggests that these basic income pilots, besides being more humane that punitive welfare systems, will be good for the economy. But ‘sufficient’, Gorz-style basic income, aimed at facilitating the refusal rather than the acceptance of work, while sounding utopian, may in fact be more economically beneficial. This is because it works to a counter western societies’ now permanent over-supply of labour.

A basic income that is i) substantial and ii) paid to everyone, not just the unemployed and the poor would, according to one article on radical implications of basic income, ‘simultaneously push up the wage rate for unattractive, unrewarding (which no one is now forced to accept in order to survive) and bring down the average wage rate for attractive, intrinsically rewarding work (because fundamental needs are covered anyway)’.

Or, as one of the organisers of the Swiss group, Generation Basic Income (which advocates a monthly ‘basic income max’ of nearly £2,000 a month), puts it: ‘Income from labour will be renegotiated ….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.’

Many basic income advocates stress the inexorability of automation as demonstrating a ‘like it or not’ justification of an unconditional income. But so-called advanced economies, certainly the UK, are de-industrialised without being fully automated. In many ways, they are running on the easy availability of abundant cheap labour. There are now 20,000 hand car washes in Britain, while the automated version – rollover car wash machines – have halved in number in a decade.  This is reverse automation.

 A substantial basic income, that enabled the refusal of work, could turn off the labour tap and spur automation in a way that ‘incentivising employment’ basic income won’t.

In short we don’t need to create more low paid work but this is just what the intermittent employment model of basic income is predicated upon doing. A ubiquitous justification of this model is that it gives the recipients the confidence to start their own business because they won’t face starvation if they fail. It’s hard to argue with the logic except that the last thing we need is more small businesses. Self-employment in the UK, in the most un-basic income conditions imaginable, has already increased by 26% in the last ten years, and now encompasses 15% of the workforce. Simultaneously, since 2008, the income of the self-employed has dropped by a quarter.

The reason is that the ranks of the self-employed have been boosted by a legion of small-scale service businesses – cleaners, gardeners, dog walkers, website designers, personal trainers, nutritionists – that are often barely able to keep their head above water financially. Introducing an insufficient basic income would boost the number of these services immensely and – because they would be many more freelance dog walkers for busy dog owners to choose from – would water down self-employed income even more.

Ventures like Task Rabbit, which matches freelance contractors with people seeking help with tasks like moving or cleaning, have spread across the US and are now growing in the UK. According to the chief executive of one ‘crowdworking’ US company, technology now enables employers to recruit people for ten minute tasks, pay them a tiny amount of money and then ‘get rid of them when you don’t need them anymore’. This is as good a description of a capitalist dystopia as I can find, and it’s an economy that would be massively emboldened by the guilt erasing incentivising employment model of basic income.

The above may seem churlish in the context of a welfare state that has morphed into a punishment state, and relishes denying income to the sick and disabled, forcing them to beg at food banks. Compared to this, unconditional income is little short of an epiphany. But when I think of the future in the light of a basic income predicated on incentivising work, I can’t help but envisage millions of self-employed task bunnies meekly serving the myriad whims of the elite. Labour will have never been so cheap or so abundant. No-one will starve but everyone will be exploited.

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