04/06/18: Universal Basic Income (MC)

Beyond work as the only source of income and esteem


From Il Fatto Quotidiano (04 June 2018), our own Mirko Canevaro discusses the potential and risks of Universal Basic Income (UBI), with an eye to ancient Greece (and to current Italy).



Published article (in Italian)

You can read Dr Canevaro's article in an English translation below.


Beyond work as the only source of income and esteem

Mirko Canevaro

Imagine a world in which, thanks to technology and automation, humans need to work less and less, while more and more is produced. This is both, to some extent, the world in which we already live, and the promise of a sci-fi future yet to come. It is unclear, however, whether the future is a utopian or dystopian one. On one side, we see a dystopia in which wealth is more and more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals, while the contraction of the demand for human labour pushes more and more people into destitution. A rat-race to become more competitive, to chase the ever-changing new ‘heart’ of the economy which is always somewhere else; acquiring skills only to have our labour taken over by robots, rendering us ever more useless. On the other, a utopian future in which wealth is less and less linked to ‘productive’ human labour (which is left to machines) but is more equally distributed. A future of innovation, free time, family time, science, music, art and poetry. Progress at the service of a better form of social organisation.

There are few policies, proposals, or political agendas today that still preserve a sense of utopian yearning.  The idea of a Universal Basic Income, unlike most of the hot topics of our current political debate, has one foot firmly in the present, but the other deliberately planted in these alternative futures.  There have been experiments around Europe and beyond, and the topic has in recent months acquired a remarkable level of centrality in Italy thanks to the electoral programme of the Movimento 5 Stelle – M5S voters voted for it, explicitly, and the debate is progressively becoming one on how, rather than if. At the same time, in the US Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, has published Fair Shot, which has fast become extremely popular. There, he proposes a form of Universal Basic Income which is tied to labour: $500 per month for those that are in work, are looking for work, or have caring responsibilities for children, the elderly and the disabled, and have an income of less than $50,000 a year.

The majority of concrete experiments and proposals, as opposed to the ideal of Universal Basic Income, limit the range of potential beneficiaries by tying the measure to work – this is the case both with the M5S proposal and with that of Chris Hughes. Work is their condition and end. This is paradoxical, if we consider that the very idea of Universal Basic Income is rooted in scenarios in which there is, and there will be, increasingly less and less work available. The M5S proposal, for instance, imposes considerable obligations on beneficiaries: never-ending training to acquire new skills and become more ‘employable’, all-powerful employment centres beneficiaries must attend and report to, pervasive controls on whether they are actually seeking employment, a maximum of three job offers (whatever their nature) rejected before losing one’s entitlement. The reason for these obligations is the fear that a truly universal basic income, with no strings attached, would discourage people from actually looking for work. Behind these proposals, then, is the idea that the outcome to be sought, both desirable and feasible, is abundant and well-paid work for everyone. These measures attempt to create work, but they do not confront a future (be it utopian or dystopian) in which automation has eaten most jobs up.

Hughes’ approach to justifying his focus on work is different. Hughes maintains, on the basis both of research and of his own personal and family experiences, that it is not just poverty that creates marginalisation, criminality, deteriorating health, depression and a host of other social evils. The real issue is lack of purpose, of a role in society, of self-esteem derived from the respect others show us for our contribution to society.

Work is not just about income: it is about dignity, self-confidence, the sense of one’s place in the world. For Hughes, redistributive policies such as Universal Basic Income need to be tied to work because they should not aim to redistribute only income, but also respect and dignity. And Hughes is right: one need only look at the life’s work of Sir Michael Marmot, UCL epidemiologist, who has studied the effects of the social gradient – understood as a gradient of status, esteem, dignity, control over one’s life and recognition for one’s efforts – on health. He shows that it is status hierarchies, and the extent of the status inequalities within these hierarchies, that really make the difference, not just money, and certainly not just ‘poverty’ (be it absolute or relative). If we adopt this perspective (as we should), however, the relevant problems deepen.

First, if our aim is not so much to sanction the lazy and the dishonest but rather to lead the unemployed towards work, as a source of purpose and dignity, then we need to think very hard about the effects of the very means of control and ‘training’ on the dignity and self-esteem of the controlled. It is enough to watch I, Daniel Blake by Ken Loach to get a clear sense of the structural humiliation inherent in hyper-bureaucratised and punitive systems of welfare control: from queues in chronically underfunded employment centres, to the arbitrary error of the functionary and the pervasive presumption of culpability. The danger is that of creating a system which redistributes some income to the less fortunate at the expense of further humiliating them.

Second, we must acknowledge that the link between status, dignity and respect, on the one hand, and work on the other, is not a fact of nature, but a historical contingency. It has not always been like that. To speak from my own expertise, in Greek city-states such as Athens or Iasos, forms of income support that were ideally universal (for adult male citizens) were tied up not with an obligation to seek work, but rather with political participation in assemblies, councils, lawcourts and magistracies (mostly selected by lot). These political roles – extremely numerous and creating both the opportunity and the responsibility for all to contribute to the running of the city – were conceptualised as timai, ‘honours’, sources of esteem and dignity, and were paid for in a way that made a minimum level of income available to all citizens. The system, in its own way (and with its clear limit: it excluded women, slaves and foreigners) provided all citizens with a degree of income, honour and political authority.

I cite this example not because I want to propose them as models of redistribution of respect and income combined with experimental forms of direct democracy (although there should be scope for thinking along these lines). I cite them rather to make the point that labour cannot and should not be the only available source of purpose, respect and dignity. On the contrary, Marmot shows very well that not all jobs provide purpose, dignity and esteem – many are actually damaging. And we see today that an economic system that demands less and less human labour for its productive purposes is already creating a spate of jobs that are in reality empty vessels: humiliating and underpaid tasks, hyper-bureaucratic roles that are both useless and unproductive, and perceived as such – the ‘bullshit jobs’ discussed by David Graeber in several publications. In the years to come, we shall more and more find ourselves forced to look elsewhere for dignity and respect.

The very idea of a Universal Basic Income can help us to picture – to design – a future that is not just the continuation of the present.  It spurs us to imagine a new, fairer, less unequal model of distribution not only of wealth and income, but also of respect, esteem and political control.

Mirko Canevaro

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