Universal basic income is not a new idea. It was way back in 1795 that Thomas Paine, an American revolutionary, first talked about the citizen's dividend. The idea was to pay all US citizens a regular payment as compensation for "loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property".
This ground breaking idea lay fairly dormant for a hundred years until the beginning of the 20th Century. Since then the idea has come in and out of fashion in three times, each time getting closer to becoming a political reality.
In the early 1900s a broad selection of philosophers, writers, politicians and social movements began writing about and pushing for the idea. It grabbed the attention of many but failed to become a full movement, losing momentum when the welfare state was introduced.
The second wave emerged in the USA in the 60s as the focus of the social movements of the day turned from civil to welfare rights culminating in 1972 Presidential election when candidates of the day backed the idea. Although it did not become a political reality due to disagreements in how the idea should be implemented, it paved the way for a number of social policies such as food stamps still present in the USA today.
Given this history it should be no surprise that universal basic income has re-emerged as a political idea as a central theme at this year’s World Social Forum which took place last week in Canada. In today’s climate of austerity and widening inequality with welfare state systems under attack, social movements are turning their attention towards ways of doing things differently.
The World Social Forum was hyped for the idea. Universal basic income was talked about as something that could liberate people from the ‘bull shit jobs’ that have meant that we spend all our time working on things that we don’t believe in. With the universal basic income we give people the opportunity to have a genuine choice about the work that they want to do in their communities. If you just stop for a second to think about all of the things that you’d want to be involved in if you just had the time and brain space, I’m sure you’d come up with a hundred.
At the same time it has the potential for cutting down on the wasted resources currently used up in trying to figure out whom to pay which welfare payments, and redistribute the skewed sharing of productivity gains that we’ve seen since the 1970s. In the UK, 40% of the gains of quantitative easing in the UK have gone to the wealthiest 5% of households. If the amount paid as a universal basic income, was large enough that everybody was given a sum sufficient for sustaining themselves; then you could satisfy all of these things at the same time.
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There are plenty of examples of where countries have been trialling the universal basic income with success. In 2008-2009 Namibia experimented with the world-wide first Basic Income Grant pilot project in Otjivero – Omitara and found that the project led to reduction in poverty, increase in economic activity and improvements in health. A similar series of trials in India produced similar results.
For the UK the universal basic income could be just the campaign to fight back against austerity. In a survey last year 37% of people in the UK stated that they worked in a “bull-shit job”, showing just how relevant this issue is.
The idea has already been gaining in popularity. In the last election the Green Party ran with the universal basic income as a central part of their manifesto, and this year John McDonnell stated that the Labour party are considering including universal basic income as part of their economic policies.
With so much attention on the universal basic income, the question for social movements is what kind of universal basic income do we want to see? If we do not push for a version of this policy that genuinely re-distributes to lessen inequality and provide a genuine improvement in living standards for those from low-income backgrounds then we risk it being used as a tool to further undermine the welfare state. There is a risk that this idea could be co-opted as a Neoliberal project, if it is financed by the destruction of a welfare state. We must advocate for a full universal basic income, which is financed through stopping corporate tax avoidance and supplements the welfare state.
Has the time for universal basic income come? Three years ago, universal basic income had barely been heard about in Switzerland. In June 23% of the people voted in support of it and now they’re upping their campaign to make sure next time there’s a vote it goes through.
The race to be the first country to fully adopt universal basic income is now on. Together we could transform this utopian idea into a real political alternative.
With its radical potential for shaking up the UK and possibility of kick starting a transformative global movement, what role should Global Justice Now activists take in this exciting movement? Let us know what you think in the comments below.