Citizenship and Basic Income
Thoughts on basic income, citizenship and why we need a welfare system that works for everyone.
Chris Worsey invited me to speak on his Tech and Politics Podcast. He sent me through questions in advance, particularly focused on basic income. This write up is not the same as what I actually said by a long chalk, but I publish it here for those who might be interested.
Can you talk about your work with Centre for Welfare Reform?
I began the Centre in 2009. The idea was simple, if crazily ambitious: to transform the welfare state so that it supports citizenship for all.
My thought was, we need the welfare state, the welfare state is a brilliant thing - but it could be so much better if we used the wisdom of people to keep making it better. I also thought it might be an opportunity to turn the idea of ‘welfare reform‘ on its head. The term had been stolen by the Right to disguise their assault on the welfare state - making it weaker, more bureaucratic and less empowering. So I thought it would be clever to take a Right-wing sounding name and promote ideas that were radical and progressive under its banner.
In general I must say that, judging by the quality of our Government and their policies over the last 11 years the these have been 11 years of failure. I hope, failure with integrity, and I hope that through that failure we’ve been able to transmit hope. I know that we are all meant to be successful - its part of our modern mythology - but our biggest success is that we’ve survived and are in some ways stronger than ever.
Moreover there is an increased interest in our work. So perhaps something is changing in the zeitgeist - even while our politics seems so bleak.
When you look back on your career, what's the thread that ties everything together? What threads have you kept pulling on?
The idea of citizenship has always interested me. It is the idea with which political theory began with Aristotle - and yet it is an idea which keeps going underground. Whether in the era of kings or capitalists the idea that at our best we are citizens - with rights, freedoms and responsibilities - cannot quite be killed off.
It’s also the idea that makes most sense of the work of liberation that so many groups have had to do over the centuries. What do we most want for ourselves or for our children? We surely don’t want stupid things like money, fame or power - things that can only be distributed unequally to have any value. Surely we want to have lives of meaning, freedom and contribution - this is what citizenship means - and it’s something we can all have. In fact it only grows as we make things more equal.
In the first phase of my career I was very focused on how people with learning difficulties could become full citizens. Latterly I’ve started to think we can learn a lot from people with learning difficulties - and that all of us need to behave a lot more like citizens. In fact we need to start organising society so that we can all be better citizens. In the UK I think that demands basic income - but also a revolution in our understanding of democracy.
I think we need to remember that democracy must start at a local level and should be fully participative - elections are a long way from democracy. We must all be a lot more involved in community life.
What are the major debates in the field of UBI? Where do you stand on them?
The most obvious debate is in some ways the least interesting: How much should a basic income be?
There are those who say we need a really low UBI in order to make it economically feasible. Others - and I’m probably more on this side of the debate - want a UBI which can free everyone from poverty. But it’s important not to think of the level as a fixed thing which is settled by any arguments in advance. In fact the level will be sorted and changed by politics and influenced by economic realities. If people value it it will rise - if the economic impact starts to be negative it will fall. This is natural. We cannot tie our children’s hands.
One of the reason’s I like UBI is it makes economic security a clear matter for public debate.
At the moment - despite the fact that benefits have a profound impact on all our lives - directly and indirectly (although often forget that Child Benefit or Pensions are benefits) we don’t feel we have any stake in the setting of the levels and politicians often behave as if poverty is just a small technical problem that they can fix by special measures. This is despite that fact that poverty and inequality have got worse for decades - we’ve kind of privatised poverty - turned it into a matter for charities, think tanks and foundations. This has been a disaster.
What I am more interested in is how we build on the foundations of a basic income. There are several really interesting opportunities for us. For example, we can get rid of some of the dreadful features of the current disability benefit system - we could use self-assessments and peer support instead of privatised assessments to ensure people had the extra funding that some of us need. Funding for social care could be converted into personal income, ensuring people had real flexibility to get the support they need.
We could also radically rethink our housing strategy. Housing Benefit can’t easily be shoehorned into a UBI system in the UK because the housing system is so badly broken. Currently we use HB to subsidise landlords and to subsidise the over-heated housing market in the South. This is crazy. We need to ensure everyone has a home and we need to make this a fundamental feature of our local democratic structures. Housing security needs to be part of a radically new and sustainable approach to building communities that work for everyone. No longer should we be forcing people to ‘get on their bike’ - in other words leave their community to go and work for someone else. We need instead to bring work, contribution and development back into our communities.
What have you changed your mind on when it comes to UBI over the years?
About 10 years ago I wrote a paper which proposed a kind of household basic income - and I proposed a system of family security. However as I spent more time working with WomenCentre in Halifax I realised that the best way of strengthening families was almost always going to be - paradoxically - a basic income based on individuals (not families). That’s probably my biggest change of mind.
How would you respond to the critique that UBI is unaffordable and encourages people to be unproductive?
The most obvious response is that not only is there no evidence for this, but all the evidence points in the opposite direction. People who are economically secure with good incentives for work (and UBI actually provides the best possible positive work incentives) will continue to work. What changes is that people cannot be forced to do any crappy job at any crappy wage. Instead people can think about what they really want to do.
It is critical to think about who is defining productivity. Am I being productive if I am having my spirit crushed just in order to survive?
The reason that we even have this fear is that we are such a dreadfully class-based and prejudiced society. The rich don’t think they should give up their own wealth in order to be more productive. They don’t impoverish their children so that they will be more productive. Instead they use their wealth to learn and do more interesting things.
Is the view that we ordinary people are somehow different kind of beings who must be forced to be productive by our betters? Bollocks.
When you look forward on what you want to achieve in the next few decades, what do you want your wikipedia page to say?
Funnily enough my current wiki page doesn’t seem very accurate as it is - so I’m not sure what to expect from history and I don’t really mind too much.
But if I indulged my vanity it would be that people remembered my commitment to citizenship for everyone. One of my heroes from history is Solon, who developed the first democratic constitution for Athens, 2600 years ago. I’d love to help reignite some of that kind of thinking today.
Where can listeners learn more about UBI?
One good thing about basic income is that there is already so many brilliant and easily accessible resources available. Here are just a few:
These are all great resources. But if you like the sound of any of this then please join us in the UBI Lab Network - this growing network of activists will help you set up a lab anywhere in the country.
Also the Centre is pretty good itself and we have a lots of UBI material, particularly relating to feminism, disability and mental health.
Also, if you like Twitter follow the American activist @scottsantens - he is the king of UBI on social media - and a lovely guy.
How can they contact you?
The Centre loves to publish interesting pieces and we’ve a growing network of over 100 Fellows - so please do get in touch and email me at email@example.com