Responding to the Decline of “Work”

Joe Waters writes an introduction to Universal Basic Income.

From the shackles of lockdown, the real world is exposed as even more absurd than we thought it to be. The mores and niceties that made up everyday life can no longer be taken for granted. It is hard not to begin questioning the assumptions on which you, and everyone else, have built their existence. Perhaps, then, it makes sense that during this time I was drawn to ideas remote from the perceived “common sense” of the 21st Century. Ideas that question the nature and value of “work” as we currently know it, that dare us to be utopian, even in full knowledge of the flaws in every proposal, that challenge us to consider what ought to make up a “life”? All these texts make mention of the controversial but ever-present “Universal Basic Income.” It is this idea that I wanted to get a handle on. Is it feasible? Is it desirable? How can we make it happen? My reading has not been exhaustive, but I hope I have managed to bring together the most pertinent answers to these questions in the texts I have read.

The Benefits of Universal Basic Income

Employment has been increasing in precarity for a long time. After the Covid-19 crisis, it is safe to assume that this will only increase. All the while, as Rutger Bregman states in Utopia for Realists (2017), “the pension system and employment protection rules are still keyed to those fortunate enough to have a steady job assistance.” Thanks to technological advancements and a growing population, there simply aren’t enough full-time posts to go round. The collective wealth of nations in the global north is higher than ever but it is concentrated at the top of society in a few lucrative areas that have no need or incentive for a large increase in personnel. Essentially, market forces will not naturally distribute the wealth being created in such a way as to alleviate poverty or provide the majority of citizens with a stable living. Yet, despite the dwindling quality of the jobs on offer, our society is built such that we cannot refuse to work; as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams detail in Inventing the Future (2015): “the proletariat is thereby forced to sell itself in the job market in order to gain the income necessary to survive.”

Existing benefits and means-testing create a stigma around searching for employment. Those without jobs are seen to be at fault rather than powerless in the face of the direction of our economy. At the same time, many jobs need to be done in our communities that are not remunerative enough to give new livelihoods to those in need. A Universal Basic Income, given to everyone, and adjusted for inflation, would allow everyone to be less tethered to their current employment, and therefore have a larger degree of leeway with regard to their choice of profession. This should not, as some right-wing commentators have suggested, replace existing welfare provisions. It should instead be a supplement, with no stigma attached. As Louise Haagh says in The Case for Universal Basic Income (2019) “at the level of systems, basic income may generate a stable monetary foundation on which other public development and social politics can build and support each other’s effects.” Haagh argues that UBI is a form of “stabilising the human condition.”

The Feasibility of Universal Basic Income

Bregman points out that “eradicating poverty in the US would cost only $175 billion, less than 1% of the GDP.” Compare this to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars which cost the US “a staggering $4-6 billion.” Srnicek and Williams highlight how “most research in fact suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programmes, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion,” – referencing research by Daniel Raventós, Guy Standing, and Andrew Gorz.

The money is there, and it can be most effectively used in a universal policy. Haagh acknowledges fears around the nature of UBI as “paid to all, including working-age adults and those with money and property.” Both, however, point to the theorist Richard Titmuss’ point that “separate discriminatory services for poor people have always tended to be poor quality service.” Removing the need to “qualify” removes the stigma for recipients, giving them dignity and recognising that they best know how to use the money. The “perception of fairness” is crucial in any working policy and that is best achieved by “one set of rules [that] applies to players big and small” – as Naomi Klein outlines in This Changes Everything (2014). This applies as much to monetary provision as it does to climate policy.

A “Mont Pelerin” for the Left?

All this begs the question, why are political forces in this country and elsewhere so hostile? In a way, the answer is obvious. Since the late 70s, neoliberal hegemonic views have come into full force across the world – worldviews that privilege markets, competition and economic growth. If we look at the figures, however, it is clear that growth has outgrown its potential and is now providing less and less visible improvements to the quality of life in Western countries (as described in detail in The Spirit Level by Richard Wilknson and Kate Pickett). For environmental reasons, we need to move away from an economy built on these ideas. In doing so, we will also create a society more congenial for those who inhabit it. All that is stopping us is public perception. Hence, Bregman and Srnicek / Williams argue that the left should take influence from the methods used successfully to propagate neo-liberal ideas, most notably the Mont Pelerin Society – a group of proto-neoliberal thinkers helmed by Friedrich Hayek and later Milton Friedman.

Bregman highlights how “Friedman deployed every means possible to spread his ideas, building a repertoire of lectures, opeds, radio interviews, TV appearances, books and even a documentary.”  According to Srnicek and Williams, “From its origins, the MPS eschewed folk politics by working with a global horizon, by working abstractly (outside the parameters of existing possibilities) and by formulating a clear strategic conception of the terrain to be occupied – namely, elite opinion – in order to change political common sense.” The goal of this approach was to be ready in times of crisis – when the old order falls, to be able to argue for and implement a new one. William Davies, in The Happiness Industry (2016), argues that “Friedman made his career on the basis of arguing single-handedly against a global Keynesian orthodoxy for nearly four decades, until finally, by the late 1970s, he was perceived to have “won”.”

To challenge the consensus in this way, ourselves, we need to be bold enough to have demands. Recent political movements, such as Extinction Rebellion have moved away from this format. However, a re-embrace of utopian thinking and specific outlining of policy is necessary for real, useful change, to improve lives. Bregman takes this premise as the thesis for his whole book: “Ideas that seem “politically impossible” today may one day become politically inevitable. As Srnicek and Williams point out: “the divisive nature of demands is also a positive: while putting some participants off, they may equally mobilise those committed to achieving the demand in question.” We have to ask for more than “small impediments [… to] predatory capitalism.” We have to show that we are right and that these ideas can change society for the better.

What to Read First

Personally, I would say that Bregman’s book is the most useful and accessible on this subject. His outline of these ideas, and our need to reclaim utopian thought, is well-written and well-researched throughout. Louise Haagh’s book provides a useful more academic perspective and Srnicek and Williams echo certain of these ideas but with more of a focus on the failure of folk politics – a useful strand of the debate. More tangentially, William Davies” The Happiness Industry adds to the mental health side of the argument, showing how useful autonomy is in improving lives. I’d also recommend Adam Greenfield’s “Radical Technologies,” which provides good critiques of emerging technologies. We need to not rely on automation and AI to implement new and better modes of work. We must build them ourselves, with technology that exists in the here and now.

I hope his guide has been useful and helped to outline a few important ideas around UBI. The potential outlined in these texts is great. As a movement, in the aftermath Covid-19 crisis, we must begin to make some of it a reality.

Joe Waters is a first-year student of Politics with International Relations at the University of York. He is interested in feasible, fallible utopian thought that champions mental health, sustainability and synthetic freedom. He is currently interning at the Next Century Foundation for Peace.

He tweets @cinnamon_worms

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