The revolutionary potential of a universal basic income cannot be over-estimated

29th January, 2018 7:00 am

The Labour Party should adopt a universal basic income as can act as a catalyst for a radical transformation to an egalitarian society based on community, sharing and the rejection of materialism.

The debate around an unconditional payment to all citizens, regardless of income or wealth, has its many questions and caveats; what we mean by universal, what level to set it at, and how to factor in benefits for those with additional needs. John McDonnell has said Labour is considering it. Yet, however it is formulated, it is the general principle of the universality and unconditionally of a basic income which is inherently within our socialist principles.

Then again, there are objections from those who would counter that there cannot be a reward without any responsibility. After all, the question which jumps to many people’s minds is: why should the rich receive the exact same benefits as the poor? These objections are deep routed in the history of Labour Party welfare policymaking but, to inspire a genuine and radical transfer of wealth and power, we need a radical break from conditional welfare policies and from the traditional perception of the purpose of welfare spending.

Firstly, a basic income could be partly paid for by higher progressive income and wealth taxes, thus making it a tool of significant wealth distribution. Secondly, we do not base access to the NHS, or to state education, or to fire and rescue on how deserving people are, nor on their contribution to society. We grant these services even to the wealthiest, because it is their right as members of society. Everyone have access to these services from the state as a recognition of their equal rights as a human being.

The universality of the basic income is inherently egalitarian, as it emphasises community and sharing. The stigma attached to means-tested welfare is palpable and can place the recipient in a category separate to their peers. For example, the provision of free school meals for all children reduces the stigma around receiving free school lunches. The universality of the basic income therefore produces consent for the overall system. Everyone benefits and so everyone is willing to defend the right to keep the benefit. For those who do not receive a benefit, they do not feel the pain when parliament vote to reduce it and so providing benefits universally ensures right-wing governments struggle to remove them by attempting to divide and rule.

A basic income would transform the traditional view that state welfare is primarily a supplement or a way to alleviate unemployment, always with the implication that it would be ideal if you were not receiving money from the state. This creates the perception that sections of welfare spending are a form of market correction, a temporary necessity designed to “help those help themselves”.

A basic income is given with the recognition of an individual’s right to their portion of the wealth of the country in which they play a part. It places welfare as a universal right of citizenship, such as the ability to vote – you may not use it, you may use it in ways others think foolish, but it is your right as a member of society to have that opportunity.

And the revolutionary potential of a basic income cannot be over-estimated, as seen in Philippe Van Parijs’ argument that the policy could provide a “capitalist road to communism”. The theory is one of radical transformation. If a basic income ensures a reasonable standard of living without work, then wages for undesirable work would begin to rise, while also lowering wages for more desirable work. This inspires capitalist technical innovation as wages for undesirable jobs rise. People are no longer compelled to sell their labour to the market, the compulsive element of employment is removed for many and thus the power to discipline workers with the threat of unemployment is greatly diminished.

Consequently, more and more work becomes fully automated, as technology becomes cheaper than workers. Intuitively, this sounds like a disaster for many but in the long term, people are less dependent on the basic income and money as more products can be produced instantaneously and virtually for free, as technology trends towards 3D printers and infinitely replicable digital technology. With less money used the very basis for a basic income is therefore reduced, and the very basis of money itself is compromised. The pathway to a radical egalitarian society is possible.

All this would require co-ordination with a truly radical political movement to ensure certain outcomes but it could well to lead to a form of social and economic emancipation. If Labour are looking for more radical ideas for the welfare system, then adopting a universal basic income is the natural next step.

Felix Ling completed his undergraduate dissertation on Labour and the universal basic income and now works for an MP.

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