The Universal Basic Income (UBI) – sometimes called the Unconditional Basic Income, Citizens’ Income or Social Wage – has in recent times become a focus of economic discussion across the political spectrum. While column inches in the Financial Times and The Economist have been racking up, academics such as Stuart White have been articulating how valid cases for the UBI can be made from communist, liberal, and republican perspectives. Here Andrew Dolan offers 7 reasons why the UBI should matter to people who want to create a just and sustainable world:
Since the 2008 financial crisis it has become increasingly impossible to survive on wage labour. In real terms, wages in the UK have declined 9 percent in the last 5 years, whilst in the same period the cost of living has risen 25 percent. Combined with mass unemployment and the reduction of welfare the situation is worse than any in recent memory. Whether in or out of work, poverty is a reality for millions of people living in the UK, the world’s sixth largest economy.
From Conservative to Labour to the TUC, the solution offered to this problem is reducible to one dominant idea: economic growth. Grow the economy and jobs will follow, or so the logic goes. Yet as automation accelerates and human labour becomes ever more unnecessary for the production of goods a return to full employment is quite simply impossible, with or without growth. As for an expanding service sector, neither Costa nor Credit Suisse can employ everyone and nor is it desirable that they do. A new response is needed, one that recognises and seeks to overcome these contradictions. A universal basic income is one such response.
A universal basic income would ensure that everyone, regardless of employment, earnings, age and gender, receives an income from the state: a single weekly or monthly monetary payment with no stipulations as to how it, or the time of its recipients, is spent. A universal basic income would guarantee a minimum standard of living and relief from poverty where work and current welfare cannot. In this sense, it is an extension of the social democratic promise; as a non-reformist reform, however, it sets the stage for the further transformation of society.
However it is funded, as a wage separate from production a universal basic income not only recognises the impossibility of full employment but also has the potential to undermine the mythical sanctity of work—a controlling ideology of capitalism—and accelerate the discussion and struggle over what work is necessary, how it will be done, and for whom. More immediately, a universal basic income could provide the money and time with which to collectively create spaces that embody alternative cultural and social values to those currently dominant.
Admittedly, the introduction of a universal basic income swims against the seemingly unstoppable neoliberal current, which has accelerated the dismantling of the welfare state and elevated an ethic of entrepreneurial individualism. There are, however, a growing number of mainstream politicians and economists, most notably Paul Krugman, who have voiced support for a universal basic income as a possible solution to the impact of automation and a means through which to redistribute some of the gains of capital and stimulate market demand.
Although the vision of Krugman et al remains subservient to economic growth, it is the appeal of a universal basic income to those seeking the maintenance of capitalism that renders its implementation relatively feasible. In other words, the requirements of capitalism—in this instance the need for consumers—create opportunities that can be exploited by those looking to transcend it. If capitalism is to be stabilised once more then let it be on terms more favourable to society and with consequences that lay the foundations for a post-capitalist future.
One cannot, of course, rely on the largesse of economic and political elites, nor mistake opportunity for inevitability. A universal basic income will not simply be given; it must be demanded, as it has been by growing numbers in Berlin, Rome and in particular Switzerland, amongst others. A universal basic income is not a panacea for the social and economic problems of capitalism and its transformative potential is dependent on greater democratic control of the state and a reduction of the working week. Nor should campaigning for it supersede workplace organising; it should, on the other hand, compliment it. Yet organising for a universal basic income presents the possibility of the employed and unemployed uniting around a shared demand that, whilst recognising the inadequacies of work, seeks not its improvement but the creation of a sphere independent from it.