A Citizens’ Income could give people power over capital once more
Stuart Rodger is a political activist based in Scotland. He tweets here.
One of the most talked-about ideas at last year’s Radical Independence Conference was a Citizen’s Income – a guaranteed, non means-tested, basic income granted to every adult citizen of the country, regardless of whether they are working or not working. The topic has also been discussed at a recent Parliamentary reception at Holyrood hosted by Jim Eadie MSP, showing that this idea is gaining traction outside of the usual radical circles. It made a very refreshing break from the toxic mainstream media debate about welfare, where the unemployed are relentlessly demonised – usually by very rich newspaper columnists who have no idea what they’re talking about – with very real, very brutal human consequences.
The obvious objection to a CI is – where would the incentive to work be? It’s a view of society which sees value in people only in their ability to serve capital, and which refuses to allocate its resources according to need, but instead uses those resources to physically coerce human beings into work. I regard it as fundamentally immoral, and not without important parallels with slavery, to use human beings as pliable economic tools. Under the wage system, money replaces the whip.
In reality, though, the incentive to work is that everything you earn is on top of your CI. A basic income is just that – basic. The infamous ‘poverty trap’ – where people can end up poorer or no better off in work than out – no longer exists. Furthermore, I think it’s possible we would see an increase in overall employment – part-time jobs that were previously not an option could now be taken on. Some economists now worry that solid, secure, jobs for life are something of the past. A CI is a way of adapting to that.
Risky entrepreneurial ventures that weren’t previously viable could now be launched. Business could boom. Indeed, when a form of the basic income was trialled in Namibia, what they found was that economic activity actually rose, and that people became mini-entrepreneurs. Non-CI income rose by some 200%. Scotland has its own communities devastated by de-industrialization: under a CI and a proper industrial strategy, these communities could be re-born.
And let’s not forget that a colossal amount of work is done in society that is not formally regarded as ‘work’. I am talking specifically about parenting, care of the disabled by family members, and voluntary work in the community. At the moment, much of this work goes unremunerated – and is even regarded as inferior to proper, ‘paid’ work in the formal sense. (”What are those mothers doing at home when they should be out looking for a job?” is a question often barked, usually at poor mothers). A CI finally provides the financial space for this socially invaluable work to happen. What sort of a society are we if we don’t recognise the importance of these tasks?
There is also the class politics of this – how it affects the relationship between labour and capital. It seems to me that ‘welfare reform’ has a very specific agenda, which is to create a more pliable workforce. If people in work know that there is no longer much of a safety net, then they will hold on more tenaciously to jobs with bad conditions and bad pay. All of that means higher profits. A Citizen’s Income – a new, bolstered welfare state – begins to tip the bargaining power back in favour of labour. This is why a CI should be taken up by the trade union movement.
But for me, personally, the best argument for a Citizen’s Income is to improve public health, through the stress relief that it would bring. I write this as someone who has been on and off benefits for the past few years, and I can personally testify that the stress of it all sometimes made me feel physically ill. As the authors of the Spirit Level suggest, what could fill the explanatory gap between economic inequality and poor social outcomes is, simply, stress. Obesity, depression, addiction – all rooted in the intensely stressful society we live in. A Citizen’s Income – as well as being profoundly redistributive – would, in one fell swoop, lift a corrosive level of stress from our society.
And what of the cost and the politics of it all? Well, it’s far more politically palatable than it may sound – as a benefit that would be universal, the divide and rule strategies used by the right to pit the working poor against the unemployed would be blunted. It’s possible that some people would simply not accept the principle that you can get something for nothing, but that is merely because people have internalised the twisted principles of capitalism: and that’s something we’ll have to fight against. It’s far more affordable than it sounds as well: as the Citizen’s Income Trust have demonstrated, the cost would work out at roughly the same as the current welfare bill, which – we must not forget, the vast bulk of which is pensions, housing benefit, and working tax credit.
These are just initial thoughts. It’s possible there are serious drawbacks I have over-looked. Two spring to mind immediately. First, the definition of citizenship could be open to abuse – excluding those with a criminal record, recent immigrants etc. Second, contrary to my previous point about the class implications of a CI, it could entrench poor working conditions. It would be imperative those industrial battles continued. But for just now at least, I think this is an idea worth fighting for.
There will be an event about the Citizen’s Income with the People’s Parliament project in the House of Commons on the 4th March with Guy Standing (author of ‘The Precariat’), and Matthew Torry (author of ‘Money for Everyone’). Details here
There will be a major National Day of Action against Atos and the work capability assessments on the 19th February, with protests planned outside every assessment centre in the UK. Details here