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21 July 2017

Free money for everyone: will universal basic income ever happen?

The division of rewards between capital and labour seems to be growing ever-more skewed.

By John Harris

“Times of crisis are also times of great freedom,” wrote the French social philosopher André Gorz in 1983. “Our world is out of joint; societies are disintegrating, our lifelong hopes and values are crumbling. The future ceases to be a continuation of past trends. The meaning of present development is confused; the meaning of history suspended.” The words come at the start of Paths to Paradise, subtitled “On the Liberation From Work” and written as a concise manifesto for a new kind of leftism. Its two foundations, Gorz explained, were the embrace of automation and what he called a social income, paid by the state “to meet the needs of the citizen rather than the worker”.

Thirty-four years later, the inheritors of Gorz’s dreams frame their arguments in the same sense of a sudden break with history, endless economic turbulence, and people blinking into a future without precedent. “We live in a new world, remade by many forces,” announce Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, two academics from the University of Louvain, Belgium. In the midst of what they call a “disruptive technological revolution”, ecological breakdown and the decline of such collective institutions as trade unions, they insist that the key political imperative is “to rebuild confidence and hope in the future of our societies”, and “embrace radical ideas” – starting with a guaranteed income “paid upfront to rich and poor alike, regardless of the income they derive from other sources, the property they own, or the income of their relatives”.

Reading across from one text to another, cynics might detect the eternal leftie habit – evident in the work of everyone from Marx and Engels to Naomi Klein – of declaring a historic watershed that only the author’s ideas can address: a variety of what some people call “chronocentrism”, described by the journalist and author Tom Standage as “the egotism that one’s own generation is poised on the very cusp of history”. But I’d rather be a bit more generous. Gorz was writing at a time when the postwar consensus around the big state and large-scale industry was breaking apart: in retrospect, the point at which the modernity with which we are all now familiar – of globalisation, financialised capitalism, the rise of information technology and the dominance of consumerism – began to take root, and throw up questions that the mainstream left seemed increasingly unable to answer. In that sense, his work pointed to developments that have snowballed – and though it has taken a long time, intellectual fashion is finally beginning to catch up.

Turn up at any left-leaning gathering these days, and the chances are that the idea of a basic income – abbreviated to UBI, in which the “U” can stand for either universal or unconditional – will be talked about. In theory at least, it answers one of the central problems of our age: the way that the division of rewards between capital and labour seems to be growing ever-more skewed, as a few tech corporations threaten to dominate the planet, and technology polarises the job market between a small number of handsomely paid jobs at the top, and a growing mass of insecure, poorly paid roles at the bottom. If you prefer your economics to be more apocalyptic and believe that the rise of the robots will render most work extinct, the case for UBI is even stronger. But there is one big problem – politics – and some very big questions: not just how to pay for any such scheme, but how to sell the idea to millions of people used to the quaint notion that financial rewards should always be linked to hard graft.

Nonetheless, the idea is gaining political ground. UBI has been Green Party policy since the mid 1970s. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has talked approvingly of the basic principle, and held out the prospect of UBI appearing in a future Labour manifesto. The Corbynites’ in-house theorist and agitator-at-large, Paul Mason, put the idea at the core of his 2015 economic treatise Postcapitalism. In as much as it passed an approving conference motion, the Scottish National Party has also embraced the idea.

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Barack Obama says UBI will be at the centre of “a debate we’ll be having” over the next two decades. In June last year, Switzerland held a referendum on whether to introduce a basic income of £1,700 a month – which was roundly defeated, although the plan’s advocates (and they would, wouldn’t they?) claimed that backing from more than one in five of those who voted represented a foundation on which to build. Big figures in Silicon Valley – the latest being Mark Zuckerberg – are increasingly fond of the concept. Meanwhile, pilots have either been launched, or are being prepared, in Holland, Finland, California and Catalonia, as people try to put practical flesh on the bones of an idea that dates back at least 500 years, and whose champions have included Thomas More, Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Martin Luther King, and an array of names on the political right, including Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman.

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Now comes the point at which the principle of UBI is not just advocated by academics and politicians, but by people who have their sights set on the bestseller lists. Rutger Bregman is from Holland, and is an example of that group of international hotshots who seem to spend their lives pinballing between airport terminals and TED talks. He writes in a breathless, faux-conversational style built around such verbal tics as “Don’t get me wrong” and “Let’s get one thing straight”, and drops the names of everyone from Thomas Hobbes to John Maynard Keynes, usually with no real sense that he has understood the nuances and complexities of their ideas.

All that said, Bregman has a decent sense of how to structure an argument. Using a technique that probably owes more to PowerPoint than to great literature, he tends to begin with a primary-coloured, counter-intuitive proposition – witness the title of chapter two, “Why we should give free money to everyone” – before rattling through a selection of anecdotes that serve to prove him right. On the latter score, he capably recounts past experiments with UBI-esque schemes in such countries as Kenya, Uganda and Liberia, as well as summarising the effects of a 2010 project in London in which 13 homeless people were given hundreds of pounds to spend as they saw fit – and rather than blowing the money on alcohol and drugs, used it to improve their position, to the point that 11 of them moved off the streets.

He also rehearses a story that will be familiar to anyone who has acquainted themselves with the growing mountain of material on UBI: the 1970s experiment that involved the 13,000 residents of Dauphin, a town in the Manitoba province of Canada, who were temporarily guaranteed the modern equivalent of $19,000 dollars a year. They lived out UBI’s emancipatory promise: educational attainment went up, as did the divorce rate, as women were granted a financial independence that suddenly multiplied their options.

The failings of his arguments, however, extend into the distance. He makes too little distinction between UBI as advanced by people on the left, and the very different models conceived on the political right, which has tended to view basic income as a neat way of doing away with the welfare state. Though the fault could lie with his translator, he also writes about the key beneficiaries of a basic income in a register that seems to mix the haughtiness of a 19th-century social reformer with a crass tone redolent of MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head. He repeatedly refers to an amorphous bloc of people he terms “the poor” – who, according to one section, “borrow more, save less, smoke more, exercise less, drink more, and eat less healthfully [sic]”. The heading for this passage is “Why Poor People Do Dumb Things”.

For all his zeal, he also has no real sense of what a difficult political sell UBI remains, and when his self-styled utopia is widened to include completely open national borders, everything threatens to fall apart. “In the 19th century inequality was still a matter of class; nowadays, it’s a matter of location,” he writes, which is not just banal, but indicative of views that he has perhaps failed to think through. Combining unlimited immigration with a new onus on the state to pay a universal income would surely kill popular consent for the latter idea in a flash. And how plucking the most entrepreneurial, qualified people from half the world’s countries is meant to solve geographical inequality remains unclear – but at the risk of sounding like his dad, such is the world as viewed from the perspective of a 28-year-old who should maybe do a bit more traditional journalism before he chooses once again to hold forth.

Guy Standing is a London-based academic who has been making the case for UBI since the 1980s. In a prolific stream of work (by my reckoning, Basic Income is his fifth book in seven years), he has always placed the idea in the context not just of the growing class of insecure workers he memorably termed “the precariat”, but of the need for a conception of human rights fit for the 21st century. Standing tends to write in an overly formal way that leads him to present too many of his arguments in the form of lists, but his work is rich enough to take in theology, history, and a range of arguments that are often subtle and unexpected: among them, the idea that UBI might be a good way of managing the eternal tendency of capitalism to strip what it can out of places, before moving on and leaving them bereft.

He makes this latter point using the case of Middlesbrough, the kind of post-industrial English town that stands as a byword for what he calls “the cruelty of history”. If other places that once gained from its industry have continued to prosper, “often through inherited wealth and privilege”, isn’t there a case for a long overdue payback? Standing claims that this is an example of the kind of “inter-generational justice” most politicians dare not talk about, and that UBI is the way to achieve it. In the context of his accounts of many of the same pilots and experiments described by Bregman, the point here is simple enough: that as much as anything, UBI amounts to an ongoing fiscal stimulus, which would give people the kind of foundation they need to move their lives out of the cul-de-sacs into which our Darwinian kind of capitalism has pushed them.

The danger of such arguments is that they stray close to what might be called silver-bulletry, a charge that definitely applies to some of Standing’s more hubristic claims. At one point, he claims UBI might even be able to tackle global warming, a contention that seems to revolve around how a basic income might enable governments to lay off coal miners. In the midst of such claims, the question of how to advance UBI politically screams out for an answer, but none really arrives. “Policymakers must secure a broad level of social acceptance of basic income among the public, or at least a willingness to give the reform a fair trial,” he writes. “This must mean, among other things, a sensitive campaign to explain the values and principles behind the reform.” These truths are self-evident, but beyond the idea that UBI might arrive via “baby steps” (first introducing a limited version, then currying public favour until something more extensive could be implemented), the question of how to deal with the basic matter of public consent is dealt with too briskly.

Van Parijs and Vanderborght’s book is a funny old thing: a stereotypically academic, often impenetrable text, which veers through philosophy, politics, desiccated economics and explorations of some of the cases for UBI’s more out-there elements. When chewing over how on earth to fund national basic income schemes, they first alight on the idea of the state owning the economy and distributing its imagined profits to the entire population. They then imagine the nationalisation of land, before settling on the case for a “partial limited income”, likely to come with conditions – taking part in education or training, caring for friends or relatives, holding down a job, or at least looking for one – which might then be gradually dropped. This is bundled up with their deadpan acknowledgement that their own overview of the balance of forces for and against UBI “does not exactly suggest that the introduction of a generous basic income is imminent anywhere in the world”.

Compared with the grand promise of a “radical proposal”, the conclusion comes with the slight taste of disappointment, and underlines how far the case for a basic income has yet to go. For now, perhaps, the imperative should be not to get lost in hypothetical figures, or to widen the argument into a catch-all solution to everything wrong with the world, but to make the case for UBI in terms of one big argument: that the economy is rapidly changing in ways that leave the 20th century’s combination of complicated welfare systems and secure work behind, with profound human consequences.

If, returning to André Gorz, our world is out of joint and the meaning of history is suspended, the best way to make that point might be to hear from more people at the sharp end, one of whom – quoted from a secondary source – suddenly appears on page 78 of Standing’s book. He is an unnamed man who has reverted to receiving disability benefits, after falling into the kind of traps now inherent in modern economies. He says this:

“There was a time a number of years ago when my health improved spontaneously. Half my brain sought to grab life by the horns and get out into the working world as soon as I could. The other half stood terrified by the bureaucratic difficulties endemic in the system; difficulties that forced you either to relinquish your crucial income in the hope of being able to replace it, or lie to the Department of Work and Pensions. As it happened, I did manage to work for a short while, only to have to push myself far too hard to replace the benefit lost, leading to a relapse from which I have never recovered.”

Those 112 words show that in the end, online lectures, endless graphs and accounts of limited experiments do not add up to much of an argument. If the case for a basic income feels unanswerable but has yet to take flight, that might be because of an absence that runs through all three of these books: that of authentic voices, making the case for the future in the midst of the failings of the present. 

Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy
Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght
Harvard, 384pp, £23.95

Utopia for Realists And How We Can Get There
Rutger Bregman. Translated by Elizabeth Manton
Bloomsbury, 316pp, £16.99

Basic Income: And How We Can Make it Happen
Guy Standing
Pelican, 348pp, £8.99

This article appears in the 19 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder