Basic Income: on the side of the people

Submitted by AWL on 21 April, 2015 - 4:36 Author: John Cunningham

In his article “Basic Income: Side –stepping struggle?” (Solidarity 359) Kieran Miles gets a number of things wrong. I will attempt to pick up on some of these errors and then address his “questions for the UBI advocates”.

Before proceeding, a point on terminology. Kieran uses the term universal basic income while I prefer citizen’s income. However, the most common term in use seems to be the shorter basic income and I would suggest using this in any future discussion.

In a number of places Kieran is simply not comparing like with like. A “minimum income” is not a basic income and the negative income tax suggested by Friedman and others is, likewise, not a basic income. The system discussed in Cyprus also is not a basic income and if anyone was to suggest to Ian Duncan Smith that his Universal Credit was akin to a basic income I think he would have a heart attack.

The basic income contains a number of key elements without which it becomes, simply, another welfare benefit with all the potential disadvantages they hold. First, a basic income is unconditional; in other words all you have to do is prove your place of residency and that’s it. In this respect basic income is not such an alien idea in the UK.

Until quite recently Child Benefit was a kind of basic income: the only condition being that you were a mother, in which case you simply received a weekly payment and had to do nothing else for it. If you go to prison, win the National Lottery, become unemployed, join UKIP, change sex, move to Chipping Norton or whatever, you will still receive it.

A basic income cannot be withdrawn – therefore it cannot be used as a sanction, one of the major differences between it and Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit. In fact the idea of sanction or punishment (or the threat of it) is central to the Duncan Smith scheme and one reason why it is so pernicious. Basic income is not assessed or means-tested, there are no excruciating interviews to go through, no thirty page forms to fill out and no-one to bully you, pry into your private life and humiliate you in the process.

I’m not sure what Kieran is referring to when he raises the topic of “Anti-work” and my own feeling is that this really deserves a separate discussion. Personally (and very briefly), I like what Andre Gorz has to say on the topic of work and leisure and I fully support the idea of sharing work and drastically reducing the working week. Whether or not automation negates the labour theory of value is not something that keeps me awake at night — if the theory doesn’t fit the real world then the theory needs scrapping or revising.

On the matter of whether or not it is preferable to work in a coffee shop or a shipyard, this is not meaningless although the choice, if there ever were one, no longer exists. In the former, your wages are likely to be shit, hours are long or part-time, the coffee establishment will almost certainly be non-union and it must, surely be a bit soul destroying to keep asking: “Is that decaf?” “Full cream or half?” “Would you like chocolate on that?” “Enjoy!” “Have a nice day!” and all the rest of the fabricated bollocks that so-called “baristas” have to come out with every five minutes.

Compared to this, driving rivets into the side of the Titanic might be bloody hard work but it has its compensations: relatively decent wages, union membership, a sense of community, solidarity and, call me old-fashioned, what was once referred to as the dignity of labour. I realise that, particularly, this latter sentiment is open to a number of criticisms (most of which I would probably share) but, again, this is better left for discussion at another time.

One very important aspect of the basic income which critics rarely seems to discuss is its advantages for women.

As the basic income is paid on an individual basis not to the “head” of the household (frequently a man), a woman has a guaranteed independent income. In the trials in India and Namibia there are a number of examples of women, for example, pooling their basic income and using the money to buy sewing machines to boost family income, setting up small businesses or co-operatives. Think of the significance and potentially liberating effect of this on women in patriarchal societies.

Critics of basic income need to spend a little more time looking at the concrete details of what is involved and base their opinions on the evidence. Kieran mentions the trials in Namibia and India but readers ought to be aware that there is plenty of easily available evidence on these trials. Readers might want to have a look at Basic Income: A Transformative Policy for India by Daval et al (published by Bloomsbury this year) which gives 214 pages of detailed analysis of the Indian trial in Madhyah Pradesh. It can’t be said loud enough that both were a resounding success irrespective of what criteria you use.

Would readers of Solidarity and members of Workers’ Liberty support a call for a trial in the UK? Say in some limited and well-defined urban/geographical area like a former Lancashire mill town? A trial of two years, possibly funded by the UK government and the UN, is quite feasible and practical and not the fantasy that it might first appear to be. The results could then be published, analysed, discussed and evidence-based conclusions arrived at.

Finally, in attempting to answer Kieran’s four points I would suggest:

1. I don’t think the universality of a basic income can be guaranteed. But, what can be guaranteed? Was it guaranteed that the miners would win or lose the 84-85 strike? Obviously not; you simply go out there and fight for it. If you expect guarantees then you will often be disappointed.

2. Full employment, increased wages and benefits for the unemployed are all achievable, given certain conditions (and the caveat mentioned previously). My argument would be that basic income would actually help this and not be “side-stepping struggle”. By providing a financial “cushion” it would, for example, help those who go on strike for a living wage or better conditions. Whether or not a basic income is the more achievable demand I simply don’t know and I don’t think anyone else does.

3. I agree entirely with sharing out work more equally. How would a basic income go against this? I don’t think it would. Again, it could provide a financial cushion while the practical details of work-sharing are developed and put into practice. It would also help in the inevitable gap between losing a job and finding other (shared) work.

4. Does basic income challenge capital? Yes, I think it does, partly because it means people can take more control of their lives (surely a good thing) and make choices which suit them and not some government bureaucrat or unscrupulous employer.

It is not a panacea but basic income is on the side of the people, it enhances freedom at a whole range of levels: within the community, within the family and individually. All of which are anathema to neo-liberals (although they pretend otherwise), the forces of big business, government and the bureaucratic mentality.

More on this issue here.


Submitted by Matthew on Tue, 21/04/2015 - 17:56

I think John is right to distinguish a proposed Basic Income from current welfare payments which top up low wages like Working Tax and Universal Credits given that the latter, as he says, are all subject to conditions, such as the hours people work each week, their savings, partner's income etc.

Two more points:

1. Some on the right seem keen on BI because they see it as a means of "cutting bureaucracy", i.e. simplifying the benefits system and making civil servants redundant. We should support the former (getting rid of means testing and other conditionality rules) and oppose the latter, arguing instead for civil servants to be moved from wasteful, politically-expedient work, such as paying tax credits to low-paid workers as a way of keeping the minimum wage below the level of a living wage, to socially useful roles.

2. One criticism of BI on the left is that it's too broad and wouldn't address people's specific needs, in particular health care and education. Surely that is linked to both the level BI is set at (and who set it, Government or an independent body including representatives from the trade unions) and the availability of free health care and education: the same level of BI in Britain, the US and Scandinavia clearly wouldn't result in the same minimum conditions for the working class in those countries.

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