What would you do if somebody gave you a few hundred pounds each month to spend on whatever you wanted? Would you quit your job? Retrain and look for a better one? Spend more time with your kids? Get those vital repairs done on your house? Eat better food?
I’m not trying to taunt you. Asking anyone who has to work for a living to contemplate a society in which they have proper economic choices feels like asking a friend on a doctor-enforced diet to describe their favourite dessert. But it’s the question being raised by a growing chorus of thinkers and campaigners, from Silicon Valley businessmen to conservative philosophers, who believe that the answer to a snarled web of economic problems – wage inequality, automation and the gender pay gap, among others – is to institute an “unconditional basic income”.
Basic income – the proposal to give a flat, non-means-tested payment to every citizen – is an old idea. It has been around for centuries, and for centuries its proponents have largely been dismissed as utopian, or insane,
or both. This year, however, that insanity is gradually becoming a political reality. Finland is considering giving its citizens an unconditional stipend of €800 a month and the Dutch city of Utrecht is carrying out a similar experiment. Switzerland will hold a referendum on basic income in June.
Campaigns to get the idea taken seriously are sprouting like mushrooms around the world. In the US, the tech start-up funder Y Combinator is earmarking money to test the theory. In Germany, a crowdfunding initiative called Mein Grundeinkommen (“my basic income”) to give a basic wage to as many people as possible has attracted over a quarter of a million contributors.
“Basic income is about power, about letting it go,” Michael Bohmeyer, a former entrepreneur who runs Mein Grundeinkommen, told me. “It’s about trusting people. It gives them the freedom to say no and to ask the question: how do I really want to live? Basic income is not a left-wing idea, or a right-wing one. It’s a humanistic idea. It strengthens human beings against the system and it gives them the freedom to rethink it.”
That is the sort of freedom that sounds like blasphemy to conventional, liberal, “free-market” economists. In today’s understanding of the economic facts, individuals have the freedom to choose how they are exploited – but they cannot choose to escape exploitation, unless they are born wealthy. Basic income seeks to change that, not just because it is the right thing to do but because the coming labour crisis may soon leave world governments, whatever their orthodoxy, with no other choice.
“If we don’t disconnect work and income, humans will have to compete more and more with computers,” Bohmeyer explains. “This is a competition they will lose sooner than we think. The result will be mass unemployment,” he says, “and no money left for consumption.”
With that in mind, Bohmeyer began an experiment in anti-capitalism that has been more successful than he could have imagined. So far, 39 people, chosen at random from a pool of applicants, have received €1,000 a month through the scheme – and almost none has spent the year twiddling their thumbs. One quit his job at a call centre to retrain as a pre-school teacher; another found that the removal of daily stress about work and money cleared up his chronic illness. Others found fulfilling jobs, having given up on the prospect years earlier, and almost all have been sleeping better, worrying less and focusing more on family life. What would society look like if that sort of freedom were available to everyone: if advances in technology and productivity could benefit not only the very rich, but all of us?
Basic income is an idea that manages to be simple, practical and wildly, unthinkably radical at the same time. It’s simple because it is the only concrete, even vaguely workable solution that has so far been offered to tackle advancing inequality, an ageing global population and the encroaching end of wage labour as we know it. It’s practical because basic income is that rare thing, that socio-economic unicorn: a compromise that has received positive coverage from almost everyone, from Financial Times columnists to feminist campaigners, from libertarian techno-millionaires to young, left-wing organisers. And it’s radical because, in its simplicity, in its pragmatism, unconditional basic income is a proposal that requires us to rethink the economic and ethical framework of neoliberal capitalism that has governed our lives for generations. All that it requires is that we trust one another.
The organising principle of modern economics is that without the threat of starvation, homelessness and poverty, people will not be motivated to work. There is no such thing as individual gumption or community spirit: human beings, left to their own devices, will inevitably sit on the sofa and eat crisps until the species collapses into a quagmire of entropy and episodic television. Fear, therefore, is necessary.
The notion of an economic system based on trust and mutual aid rather than fear, shame and suffering still sounds like a fairy tale. But as more and more jobs are automated away, as mandatory wage labour collapses as a method of organising society, even the most conservative governments may find themselves with no other option.
We have a choice, not just as a society, but as a species. We can choose to let fear and suspicion run our lives as we all struggle harder each year to survive in a collapsing economic system on a smoking planet. Or we can choose to trust each other enough that everyone can share in the rewards of technology. It is blasphemous, unthinkable – but it may also be the only practical choice we have.
This article appears in the 13 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster