In defence of the basic income

There are some very good arguments for the basic income, eloquently summed up in numerous articles such as this piece in the Guardian. Personally, I feel good about the idea of a basic income. After a decade of open-source writing, I wouldn’t want to change my habit. Whatever is really meaningful, we share diligently, enthusiastically and at zero marginal cost. Asking a monetary reward for it is a conflict of my own interests. So nothing comes more natural than the humble dream: If only my basic needs (and more importantly: the basic needs of my family) were taken care of, I could pursue my proper interest – the pursuit of our own interests is the only way we can contribute to a society with a steadily increasing automation, where uninteresting things are done by robots anyway.

Basic income culture is secular religion.

I would feel fundamentally thankful. I claim that a majority of people share this feeling. Society explicitly tells them they are an end in themselves, because they are awarded an income that doesn’t depend on their contribution. Thou shalt eat, whether or not you work. I would go even further: People will break the bread they buy from their unconditional income together. The unconditionality will occupy a space that has been vacant since the erosion of the Church. The old God loved all of his children unconditionally and the new “God” will, too. The unconditionality is fundamental. The fetish of justice that has become so apparent in the current welfare state, is replaced by a primordial trust, which means: blind trust. The priest who pretends to mediate between you and your God is replaced by the community (not necessarily the state) that has already acknowledged your value, unconditionally.

The history of religion proves that people are deeply touched by this. People begin to feel they belong when they have been declared to belong. They will develop a gratitude and a profound passion to improve the community that has unconditionally labelled them valuable. Basic income culture is secular religion.

The difference with state communism is of course that it is fundamentally democratic. State planned enterprises staffed by a bored proletariat that has succumbed to the propaganda machine are replaced with co-ops where all owners have a stake and jointly enjoy the fruit of their labor. They are intrinsically motivated and invested in their enterprise, and that is precisely the reason why they won’t automate away their jobs.

Experiments, please

Of course, such theoretical ideas will need to be tested as rigorously as possible. And fortunately, this is happening in the former bastions of social democratic glory, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands among other places. I think this experimental approach is very important, because it could temporarily silence the ideological dichotomy that roars in the underbelly of our debate.

I like to see more basic income-experiments that are not borne out of the desire to vindicate a specific proposed model, but out of a genuine scientific interest. This implies that we should try out more parameters. For example: the UBI is a wonderful chance for direct democracy. Rather than pundits and apparatchiks, why not let the beneficiaries themselves set the amount of the basic income? Why should the amount be fixed and the same for everyone? Why should it be paid monthly? Or even, why should the UBI be individualistic? Why not try out a UBI that is awarded to a small group of people who share it? Or, why be dogmatic about unconditionality? Why not try to limit it to people with modest consumption patterns (e.g. buying a fuel-guzzling car puts you on a red list)? Why not experiment with a foodstamp-like system, a basic income that can be spent only on certain basic goods and services?

We can learn a lot from such experiments. However, we need more than the testimony of a basic Incomer who has victoriously concluded twelve months of meaningful occupation and brought significant happiness to his own community. We need more because the basic income implies a radical shift of power that is overlooked in the technocratic approach, and power is of course never relinquished and handed over voluntarily.

Fundamental power shift

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) shifts the power to the post-workers. The proletariat is no longer dependent on the factory to survive. They now have bargaining power. In Marxist terms: The labor market becomes more like a potato market. When workers are structurally scarce, businesses will need to either optimize working conditions or make labor redundant. This makes workplace automation (robots, AI) even more competitive, which further increases the need for a basic income.

Will people stop doing the nasty work? Authors like Jeremy Rifkin and Paul Mason counter this by pointing at the advent of automation which has made the nasty work a lot less nasty than a few decades ago (think of modern garbage trucks) and made a lot of the nasty work simply disappear (think of automated production lines). So what about the remaining nasty jobs, the jobs that are mind-numbing yet not (economically) automated? Here looms the revolutionary potential of the UBI. While automation has slashed a lot of nasty work, the UBI will give workers negotiating power. So there will be very few nasty jobs left that can’t be profitably automated. And that is precisely the point: The UBI catalyzes the third industrial revolution and the transformational shift to post-capitalism. In other words: The culture around the UBI would manifest an unprecedented rebalancing of power, that today, in our networked society, we have a chance to achieve without a bloody revolution.

Henry Ford’s insight, that he had to make sure his workers can buy the very cars they produce, becomes obsolete. Wages cease to be the main lever that controls consumer spending. Workers who have “seized the means of a basic livelihood” can and will demand meaningful work and co-ownership. I think the radical nature of this shift is often overlooked in the debate about the basis income. Unions won’t negotiate the level of worker exploitation, but the level of worker ownership. It is as Jeremy Rifkin says: capitalism will become a fringe game serving niche markets.

But there is another aspect that heralds the end of capitalism.

Footing the bill

The Thatcherite quote that “ultimately, you run out of other people’s money” is a vulgarity. Still, apart from ill-perceived theories about human nature, the presumably exorbitant cost of the UBI is one of the main arguments against it.

the UBI guarantees a basic level of aggregate demand that companies can build and be built on.

Calculations typically show that the basic income is only slightly more expensive than the current welfare system in Western European countries. The extra money should come of course from more taxes, and these taxes are mainly anti-capitalist.Götz Werner, founder of the German drugstore chain DM, proposes a dramatic increase in value added tax. This would lead of course to a decrease in consumption, something opponents of endless economic growth would applaud. I don’t think the economy would spiral into a recession because the UBI guarantees a basic level of aggregate demand that companies can build and be built on. Rather than sliding into misery or ‘stagflation’, the economy would reset itself at a more sustainable level.

Other taxes, such as the financial transaction ‘Tobin’-tax (attac) or direct wealth tax (Piketty) also shift the power to control the economy away from capital towards the community.

Of course society can pay for a basic income. The question is, are we ready for its post-capitalist implications?

The psychology of the basic income

The post-capitalist notion of putting power in the hands of the community (the post-workers) raises issues about fairness because communities consist of individuals, some of whom appear not to be ‘deserving’. I assume that people who have a successful traditional career will feel different about a basic income than those who couldn’t get a job. Why should everybody have the right to be, at a basic level, secure when they worked all their lives to keep insecurity at bay? This lies at the heart of our social instinct. Homo sapiens, having evolved as a small social primate, has a very vivid imagination of the figure of the ‘free rider’, a vermin he needs to keep his community clear of by all means.

Culture puts us in a state of elevated desperation.

Beyond our fairness instinct, there is another mental habit that causes a hostile attitude towards the basic income. The patronizing argument from psychology is that we need our worries. They make life meaningful. It should be a human right not to be too much secured. Our actions should be guaranteed to be meaningful to ourselves because we are dependent on them in order to survive. Life is not only about taking risks, but about being thrown into them in a Heideggerian fashion. If society deprives us of our existential worries or mocks them by feeding everybody unconditionally, wouldn’t we fall into apathy and utter meaninglessness? There is nothing so inhumane, in this line of thought, as a free lunch.

But isn’t culture about elevating the level of this existential worry, to less cruel, short and brutish, yet still subjectively precarious predicaments? Our ancestors improved their lot from the worry of being eaten alive by wild animals to the worry of not harvesting enough grain to survive the winter. In today’s societies, people worry about not having enough money, which implies homelessness, chronic hunger and social degradation. Why keep people in unnecessary worries about their basic needs? Their worry is existential and it can consume people. A higher culture, I claim, maintains the sense of urgency (the way the worries create meaning) but overcomes the unnecessary physical violence. It is able to ‘gamify’ the existential. Seeing your team lose a soccer match can cause real distress, but it doesn’t debilitate you, or permanently influence your capacity to contribute to your community. Culture puts us in a state of elevated desperation that allows people – especially the more fearful characters among us – to thrive as soon as they don’t need to worry about their meager welfare.


Such considerations, however, leave the issue of structural inequality untouched. Does the UBI preserve, or exacerbate inequality? It seems that, because everybody receives it, money that could have gone to the needy ends up in the pockets of the wealthy, while the basic income will not be sufficient for certain groups, such as the physically disabled. They will need additional support, necessitating in part the very bureaucracy that the UBI was designed to overcome. I think this is based on a misunderstanding of the idea. It cannot replace other systems that support the disabled. The UBI is a no-nonsense social safety net. The fact that most models propose an equal amount for everyone has a pragmatic reason: it does away with case-by-case review and captures most people’s intuition of fairness.

A French blog made another critical point. The UBI rewards people because of their nationality. A European country can not possibly promise a basic income to all its residents, because foreigners would move there just to enjoy the UBI. But if only French nationals receive a ‘revenu de base’ it will create a new lower class of foreign residents. This would reintroduce the very class difference the UBI was supposed to overcome. This is indeed a conundrum, but again it depends on the implementation. There are no easy answers here. A EU-wide basic income is probably a bridge too far, even for Yannis Varoufakis. Introducing a certain degree of conditionality (speaking a language, being integrated) seems to defeat the purpose of making our bureaucracies leaner.

Peer to peer commons management in the spirit of stewardship rather than extractivism, will flourish in a basic income world.

I think we can respond like this. The perverse and structural wealth and income inequality in our society cannot be reversed with the standard economic toolbox of stimulus and austerity or within the mainstream political spectrum. The basic income in itself will not change that. But the UBI is part of a bigger package.

When the poor have a guaranteed livelihood, they could form co-operatives. Worker-owned enterprises will thrive. How do they attract investors? Crowdfunding. With their income secured, people will be a lot more willing to take risks, and to invest in projects or co-ops they believe in. I think that this fundamental restructuring towards a more lateral power structure is what Michel Bauwens also envisions. Peer to peer commons management through ‘phyles’, in the spirit of stewardship rather than ‘extractivism’, will flourish in a basic income world. It is insightful to recall that the software commons are already managed this way, by volunteers (Linux, Apache, Mozilla) who typically don’t have to worry about food on the table because of their six-figure tech salaries.

This spirit would spread to other domains. Currently, it is financially risky to give up your bullshitjob and become, say, an organic farmer. How would it pay the rent, is the first question. Very few such businesses survive their first year, which makes it in turn hard to get a bank loan, although local organic agriculture is not capital intensive. Managing our collective Commons will make a lot of sense to a lot of people. The UBI will take away a lot of fear, and could make our existential worries more productive.

The basic income as a commons

I like to understand the universal basic income as a commons. We can understand its cultural implications when we take other commons as a metaphor. Consider for example another commons (or as the neoliberals would say: unsolicited government service): physical infrastructure such as sidewalks. People don’t think twice before using them. Without them, survival in a big city would be a lot harder and people would be a lot less efficient. Of course, it is intuitively clear to everyone that it is virtually impossible to charge a usage fee for sidewalks. Imagine turnstiles on every street corner, and check-out sweeps when you take a taxi or enter a building. The bureaucratic overhead to deal with fees and fines would be a lot bigger than the cost of maintaining the sidewalks (granted, they are in notoriously bad shape in many US cities).

If you don’t voluntarily replenish the commons, you are a silly, unrealistic loser.

Furthermore, treating the UBI as a commons will have implications on the idea of commons management. The juxtaposition of the commons and private property, as if they serve opposed purposes, becomes obsolete (Elinor Ostrom). Traditional commons (air, water, land, airwaves) are indispensable, but they don’t provide everything. Narratives about the ‘tragedy of the commons’, essentially proto-propaganda for the concentration of power in a few hands, have become an integral part of the economic culture. People who voluntarily replenish the commons were described as silly, unrealistic losers. With the basic income as a commons, the narrative is replaced. If you don’t voluntarily replenish the commons, you are a silly, unrealistic loser (with very few likes on Facebook).

Pedestrians don’t need to think about it so they can focus on where they’re going to. The sidewalk is part of the marketplace. It enables economic interactions because it gives buyer and seller access to stores. You pay for the sidewalk when you buy something in the store, through taxes. But it’s absurd to think you’re not entitled to use the sidewalk unless you buy something.

The basic income would be like a sidewalk. It gives people access to the post-capitalist ‘marketplace’, the place of social interaction we use to call shops. People can navigate the ‘sidewalk of being’ without fear of hunger and homelessness, and meet each other on an equal footing. If there is an opportunity for the production of value, they will jump at it (what else does value mean?). The UBI only makes sure that nothing holds them back. For those with a neoliberal taste, it gives all people access to the marketplace of ideas. For communitarian thinkers, it allows people to be not only in pursuit of happiness, but actually happy. And happy people are value, not just creators of value.

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