Around the world, the sudden lockdown to limit the pandemic’s spread is leading to an abrupt economic slowdown. With cash handouts as the only way to avoid starvation and social unrest, the topic of Universal Basic Income is back on the table. Here is why it is (not) the solution.
by Jan Fürth
UBI as a bandaid or a permanent fix?
“In times of crisis, we are all socialists”, as social media memes liked to comment economic measures taken by governments facing the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Italy, Canada, Germany and even the US are among those who have included cash handouts in their action plans, with many countries following suite. At the beginning of April, Spain made international headlines by announcing the introduction of a permanent Universal Basic Income (UBI), even if it’s not really universal. Finally, in his Easter message, Pope Francis came out in favour of the idea. What was a marginal idea only several weeks ago jumped to the forefront.
Without a question, various forms of (universal) basic income are necessary steps in this time of pandemic to allow people to stay in quarantine while preventing them from starving and losing their homes. Especially, as the quarantine is expected to be on and off, with waves of infection over the next months or years. However, UBI as a long-term instrument has several pitfalls that we must avoid if we don’t want it to become yet another aspect of neoliberalism. Indeed, there is a real risk that UBI could serve as an instrument to worsen the precarisation of labour and excessive consumerism if it is not accompanied by a radical redistribution of wealth and a reorganisation of economic relations.
Panem et circenses
While we should welcome the prospects of freeing people from the necessity to sell their labour or to be policed by social services in order to have a bare minimum to survive on, there are many ways in which UBI could be far from emancipatory. Indeed, we should be wary of a dystopian capitalist future in which the masses on a low UBI would be providing cheap and flexible labour for Uber, Wolt, Airbnb and all the other gig economy villains. With UBI ensuring the basic needs of workers, these corporations could have a powerful argument to scrap work contracts, the minimal wage and social security contributions.
In this sense, a low UBI could just be a perverse way to trap people in the Western consumerist lifestyle by giving them enough to feed corporations but not enough to discourage them from selling their labour to consume even more. As the foremost supporter of UBI in the USA and Democratic Party primaries’ candidate Andrew Yang writes on his website: UBI “actually fits seamlessly into capitalism. […] Markets need consumers to sell things to. UBI is capitalism with a floor that people cannot fall beneath.” While Yang does speak about social issues, this rhetoric betrays the fact that UBI could just be a little fix for the system without really challenging it. A modern version of Ancient Rome’s system of panem et circenses, bread and games for the masses.
Tax, seize, transform
Far from discarding UBI as a tool of neoliberal capitalism, we should see it as a two-edged sword that could be part of a series of immediate measures towards a major overhaul of socio-economic relations. Indeed, in the short-term, it can help society better absorb the shocks of the radical socio-economic changes necessary to avoid new social and environmental destruction, and in the long-term it can be part of a new economical system in which productivism and profit are not central tenets anymore. Accompanied by a radical redistribution of wealth and a reorganisation of economic relations, UBI can be a source of great personal and social emancipation.
If UBI does not go hand in hand with a radical redistribution of wealth, it risks being implemented to the detriment of other key sectors of social intervention such as infrastructures, housing, education, public transport and healthcare. Thus, it can only be introduced if it radically questions wealth redistribution. As a way to immediately fund it, addressing tax justice is crucial. According to the EU Parliament, up to a trillion euro is lost every year to tax avoidance and tax evasion! Yet, no action is taken as EU countries are pitted against each other, with some of them like Ireland having become financially dependent on its role as a tax haven.
While UBI can be financed by taxing the richest individuals and big corporations, we cannot stop short of greater changes and we must challenge the very structure of this system. Thus, UBI should be seen as a tool for radical reforms and a shift in the public and political discourse about labour, wealth, living conditions and the social structure, rather then the end goal, in efforts to stop the madness of the current system built on greed and destruction. With the current crisis, states have a historical chance to challenge the rule of capital and lay the bases for a social and environmental economy. Indeed, now and in the upcoming months, corporations on their knees can be cheaply bought off by the state, or simply nationalised, and transferred to the workers themselves. With UBI, the shocks of mass unemployment and of the transformation can be better absorbed.
In a context of necessary transformation, UBI is not about getting rid of work. It’s about valuing everyone’s existence while also redefining what is work, who does it and for how much. The post-pandemic cannot be a return to the so-called ‘business as usual’, but must be an acceleration of socio-economic changes. Escaping the grip of global finance through taking back control over public finances and moving away from a growth- and profit-driven economy, it is time to massively invest in socially owned green energy, infrastructures, healthcare, education, housing, agriculture and culture. This requires a lot of work and workers, but it must be done without setting a hierarchy between workers based on their market value.
Indeed, one of the injustices of capitalism is that it sets the standards for what is ‘work’ and how much one earns, with little interest for real value based on social usefulness. Thanks to its financial strength translated in political power, it has been increasingly socialising costs and privatising profit. This is especially obvious in the case of unpaid labour in the care sector (childcare, home care, domestic work), mostly performed by women. Despite its usefulness for capital itself, capitalists have largely escaped their responsibility to contribute to it. In efforts to unharness work from a profit-driven logic, UBI can put an end to this artificial separation between labour and chores, and finally remunerate those people who are often performing inestimable tasks outside of traditional working collectives.
Whether it’s being with children, taking care of the sick at home or just doing other forms of communal, reproductive work, everyone can be sure to at least a living wage through UBI, without bureaucratic hurdles and policing. As we see in these times of pandemic, and as we could see before, many people are eager to help each other without expecting a reward. Unfortunately, this is not seen as ‘work’ in our system, and only few people can afford to devote all their time and energy to serving the community. Instead, they are forced to enter into economic relations based on a logic of exploitation and financial return on investment. This has dire consequences for both society and environment, as human energy is more often than ever put in the service of personal greed and resource depletion.
UBI is not the solution, but if it comes along with a radical redistribution of wealth and deep changes in economic relations, then it can be a formidable tool on the path to rebuild a social economy from the bottom-up. With UBI covering basic needs, social investments restoring public services and systemic rules restraining or eliminating big capital, the way will be paved for new economic relations based on environmentally responsible and non-hierarchical principles. Limiting the possibility and the need to sacrifice human and non-human well-being in order for one to make a living can open up countless possibilities for creativity and emancipation.
I see the revival of rural communities freed from the need to compete on the global market. I see the sprouting of autonomous workplaces that can develop without the pressure of instant profit-making, with workers able to make decisions collectively without fearing to die of hunger, without the unfair competition of asocial corporations, without state repression and financial rapacity. I see individuals able to devote themselves to their artistic projects and to communal work without having to think about food, rent and the bills. I see slower societies in which no one is pushed aside and social uncertainty is sent to the dustbin of history. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.