UBI and the Future of Work
I was recently asked by a French journalist to give my views on how UBI might change our experience of work. I argue that UBI may be the key to rediscovering the true meaning of work.
How successful have, in your view, the UBI ‘experiments’ that we have seen so far?
The only true test of UBI will be when it is made a permanent part of a society’s welfare state and when it is set at a reasonable level. Until that time any UBI experiments will only be partial tests of UBI. A leap of faith will be necessary at some point. However the indications are that the benefits of making this leap would be considerable. For all the UBI experiments confirm the perhaps unsurprising benefits of providing people with economic security, freedom from poverty and better incentives for personal, family and community development.
Of course different people have different criteria for success. For some, success is measured only in terms of current economic values: will it increase employment and GDP? Personally I am more concerned with whether UBI can help humanise the economy and help us focus on the values of citizenship, mutual support and care for the natural world. For some of us UBI is about breaking free from an economic model which is destroying the planet and severely limiting human potential.
In many of these, UBI programmes have shown positive effects on mental wellbeing and the reduction of poverty, but have also encouraged risk-taking by participants. Could this be the dark side of Basic Income if it leads to an expansion of the ‘gig economy’?
The ‘gig economy’ is the curiously positive name given to a largely negative phenomonen: reduced labour rights and increased economic insecurity. UBI radically reduces economic security; but it is not yet clear how it will change work conditions. However there are reasons to be cheerful. The primary reason people accept unfair work conditions is that they cannot afford to hold out for more. UBI creates a strong foundation for people to sell their time at a fair rate and it makes it easier for people to organise collectively without the fear of being blacklisted.
Risk is not all bad. The philosopher Simone Weil identified risk and security as two of the essential ingredients for the nourishing of the human soul. Without security we live in fear and our behaviour becomes too limited and desperate - we dare not grow. Without risk we cannot have adventures, try things out or dare to fail. UBI seems to offer a sensible and balanced response to these human needs: basic security for all, under all circumstances, combined with the freedoms and benefits of being able to risk new projects, experiments or businesses.
Given the growing popular support for Basic Income, why haven’t we seen more radical government action to pilot such schemes?
Although popular support for UBI is growing the actual momentum of public policy, for at least five decades, has been towards reduced social security, greater social control and weaker social security - especially in the English-speaking world. This may have been a response to globalisation, resurgent right-wing ideology and the collapse of the Soviet Union. During this time most government action has been focused on increasing ‘national competitiveness’ and supporting the business interests of the wealthy and powerful. Economic security has not been on the agenda, and this is no accident.
Although there are incremental policy tools that would allow governments to edge gently towards UBI the policy still seems radical because it challenges the fundamental paradigm within which modern politics and economic thinking is trapped. Now there are some countervailing forces at work, particularly as the number of people having to live in radically insecure economic situations is growing; but it will still take a bold commitment to justice in order to really move away from the current policy trajectory. Politicians are more likely to follow the growing support for UBI than to lead it.
How is the current crisis changing the debate about UBI?
The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the level of economic insecurity in society and it has reminded governments of the wider duty to protect the well being of everyone in society. As such it has exposed the severe limitations of the current economic model. What is striking in the UK is that this crisis has helped almost all politicians from opposition parties to support UBI, or at least the piloting of UBI. There are even some quite surprising supporters of UBI, like the Democratic Unionist Party, who would normally be seen as an extreme Right-wing political party. In the USA many of the most popular responses to the crisis have been in the form of UBI-type solutions, like stimulus cheques. There have been other important developments in Spain, Korea, Japan and in other countries.
How do you see the introduction of UBI changing the nature and distribution of work?
Our use of the word work is confused and it disguises confused thinking. If we think about work as the valuable activities human beings do to take care of themselves, others and the world around us then two things are very clear.
First, much of the most important work we do is not paid: taking care of our family, our children, our parents, our home, our garden, helping our neighbours, learning, developing new skills, creating art or music, carrying our duties as a citizen. Rarely is this work paid, yet this work is the stuff of life.
Second, much of the paid work that people do is not really valuable: jobs that require no spirit, industries that produce weapons, poison the soil or pollute the atmosphere, producing phoney products, treatments or selling people things they don’t need. The sociologist David Graeber identified a growing trend towards the production of bullshit jobs - jobs with no intrinsic value - but which are perpetuated in order to keep people in work, any work, however valueless.
Our failure to distinguish these two different kinds of work is at the heart of the modern crisis. If we can establish UBI then maybe we will be able to find a better balance. We may be able to better respect and support true work, the work that benefits the world. We may also be able to eliminate toxic work, the work that should not exist.