In the last few months basic income—an unconditional cash payment to every member of the population—has been getting more and more attention in the media and social networks. Three items are especially interesting.
First, Yanis Varoufakis, the able Greek economist, Minister for Finance in the first Syriza government and well known for his trenchant opposition to Troika austerity measures bashing the poor and already vulnerable majority of the population, has become such a media star that every time he gives an opinion on political economy, some theoretical aspect of economics or economic policy, his words are widely disseminated. Hence, his remarks on basic income, which he described as “a necessity” at the Future of Work conference in Zurich on 5 May 2016, are of no small import.
In a filmed talk lasting half an hour Varoufakis, incisive and original as always, reframed the debate. He overturned the long-entrenched capitalist narrative, pointing out that we have been led to believe that wealth is created in the private sphere and then generously distributed in the public sphere. The reality is the opposite. Continuing along the lines of a public conversation he had with Noam Chomsky in April this year, in which Chomsky noted that most medical discoveries are only possible because of research carried out with public money, Varoufakis gives another example of public-funded corporate development and profit-making, citing the iPhone, every part of which is created by a government grant. Hence, this process of profit-making presently enriching just a few individuals should benefit society as a fair allocation of aggregate wealth whereby each citizen would have the means to aspire to a dignified existence and, in turn, make his or her contribution to society, individually or as a member of a well-founded economic community. A basic income would be a dividend and not a government grant.
Another essential point Varoufakis makes is that the separation between market and state is illusory. Without a market there can be no state and, then again, all markets are shaped politically, with laws and regulations which benefit some and not others. And, as the capitalist system shows ever more aggressively and blatantly, it basically works for the rich against the poor. A well-functioning market, Varoufakis states, requires that not only bosses but workers too should have the right to say no, which is one of the basic conceptual pillars of basic income: workers would have a much better negotiating position than they have at present. Taking a normative stance—freedom in action requires a basic income—he presents basic income not as a welfare measure to keep the poorer members of society afloat but, at a time of fast-moving robotization and mechanization of jobs, as a way of enabling people to be productive citizens. A basic income would allow for creative work, to replace routine tasks, which are being replaced anyway.
Second, a Europe-wide survey based on 10,000 interviews in 28 countries and in 21 languages, carried out last April by the Berlin-based company Dalia Research shows that 64% of Europeans would vote in favour of an unconditional basic income if there was a referendum. Only 24% said they would vote against it, and 12% stated they wouldn’t vote. More interesting, the results reveal a correlation between levels of awareness about basic income and support for it or, in other words, the more people know about the idea, the more they are likely to support it.
A breakdown of the results shows that the six leading EU states voted as follows: Kingdom of Spain 71%, Italy, Germany, Poland and Great Britain more than 60% and France 58%. The data from Spain coincides neatly with an earlier GESOP survey carried out in Catalonia in June 2015 in which 1,600 telephone interviews (with a sampling error of ± 2.5% and a confidence level of 95.5%) obtained a positive answer from 72% of the population to the question, “A basic income is a cash payment of 650 euros per month made to members of the population as a right of citizenship and financed by tax reforms which would mean a redistribution of income from the richest 20% to the rest of the population: would you more or less agree or disagree with this measure being introduced in Catalonia?” Given that the Dalia Research and GESOP polls were conducted completely independently of one another and almost a year apart, the congruity of the results is, to say the least, remarkable.
Third, on 5 June Switzerland will be the first country in the world to hold a referendum on basic income (with a proposed $2,500 a month for adults and about $625 for minors). After 126,000 valid signatures were obtained, the text of the Federal Initiative for an Unconditional Basic Income was published in the Feuille Federal on 11 April 2012. Citizens will vote on the following modification of the Constitution:
Art. 110a (new) Unconditional basic income
1) The Confederation shall ensure the introduction of an unconditional basic income.
2) The basic income shall enable the whole population to live in human dignity and participate in public life.
3) The law shall particularly regulate the way in which the basic income is to be financed and the level at which it is set.
Five weeks before the referendum 40% of the population stated they would vote “Yes”. But a comparison of data from the beginning of this year and today confirms the principle that more awareness equals more acceptance because support for the proposal has almost doubled in these few months. Moreover, a majority of the country’s French speakers are in favour. Pressure from banks, politicians and bosses against basic income is considerable. Mainstream commentators keep spouting the discredited drivel that if they had a basic income people would stop working but, once again, the response was surprising. A recent survey showed that only 2% would stop work if a basic income were introduced. Only 7% said they would reduce their working time, 7% said they would look for another job, 34% said their work choices wouldn’t be affected and 15% said they would spend more time with their families.
The referendum will be a cliff-hanger. But one major victory has already been won. A grassroots citizens’ initiative has managed to open a nationwide debate on the value of work, its relation with wealth accumulation, consumerism, economic inequality, insecurity, what kind of society people want, and the right to a dignified and fulfilling existence.
The three basic income stories are very different yet they all concur in emphasizing the basic principle of guaranteeing the material existence of the entire population, in particular after the economic crisis which began in 2008 and the harsh austerity measures that followed it, not so much to stabilize economies as to strengthen the hold of the rich on their unproductive wealth, largely acquired by means of dispossession of the majority. Basic income is essentially a people’s initiative, reclaiming basic human rights, justice, freedom and dignity. As one organizer of the Swiss referendum said, “All the inhabitants of our country know that their right to an income sufficient to guarantee a dignified existence is legitimate and recognized.”
Meanwhile, basic income has enemies of several hues, quite apart from the rich who are evidently loath to part with their riches or give more freedoms to the exploited multitudes. Any good idea in tune with its times and coming from the people will always bring out naysaying academics and politicians who want to joust with it, as if the world hasn’t changed since the onset of the present crisis, and even as if it could be taken back to the good old days before the neoliberal counterreformation of the 1970s. One recent example is yet another article by the ubiquitous Vicenç Navarro. Not only does the piece clearly express the usual misunderstandings and confusions regarding basic income but his assertion that basic income is “not the best public intervention to reduce poverty or income inequality”, though decorated with a few welfare buzz-words, offers no numbers, data or studies to back up his case. The “evidence is strong” he says, but what evidence? Is it too much to ask him and like-minded cavillers to try to refute with facts and figures all the studies on financing a basic income which contradict this stand, for example the detailed study which was published in Spain a few months ago? For many people, having their material existence guaranteed is pretty well a matter of life and death. You only need to look at the gap in life expectancy between rich and poor to understand this. If we’re going to have criticisms of basic income, let them be constructive, well founded and seriously argued. This is a matter requiring, in ethical and intellectual terms, a decent level of debate.
The goal—a measure that will guarantee the material existence of entire populations—may, at first sight, shock a few. But the basic argument is clear and most poor people are more than well aware of it, every minute of their daily lives: they will be denied freedom as long as there are great inequalities of wealth and power. It’s an uphill battle but basic income is now showing its moxie.