Alternative Economics and UBI from Upstream

Upstream is a podcast about alternative economics and the role it could play in systemic change. The latest episodes focus on Universal Basic Income, the first as an introduction to the topic and the second on whether a basic income could help bring about the end of capitalism as the dominant economic paradigm.

These docu-episodes are well worth a listen. They discuss core concepts such as what a ‘basic income’ should cover, reframing the value we attach to paid and unpaid work, and different ideological frameworks behind support for a UBI. They also look at what a basic income could achieve, both for individuals (including segments asking members of the public what difference it would make to their lives) and at a systemic level.

For instance, participants argue that in addition to addressing poverty, it would free up individuals to engage politically with other major challenges such as climate change. It might rebalance the social value of jobs, by allowing those providing vital services to demand better wages, and create space to ‘say no’ to the current imperatives of capitalist markets. The staggering statistic cited that up to 37% of people in the UK think that their job is unnecessary, supports this idea that a financial safety net would enable workplace bargaining and other forms of non-capitalist economic activity: co-operatives, caring, ‘solidarity economies’, creative endeavours and so on. Linked to this, it could also help to address gender and racial inequality.

Other key points of interest revolve around existing guaranteed income schemes, such as the Alaska Permanent Fund, and relevant experiments or surveys. For example, Manitoba’s ‘Mincome’ scheme showed that only two demographic groups stopped waged work when given a basic income: women after having children, who were essentially buying themselves more maternity leave, and young men who returned to finish high school. When 13 long-term homeless men in London were given £3000 with no conditions attached, a year later seven of them had a roof over their head. These and other examples back up research which shows that people believe that they would put a basic income to good use. What is needed, then, is a shift in the mindset that others wouldn’t do the same.

The second episode includes a detailed discussion on why UBI has inched from the fringes towards mainstream circles in recent years, and some risks that this might entail. Some experts fear that if a UBI was introduced within the ‘welfare frame’, as a form of social security to ward off growing unrest and economic insecurity, then it could prop up capitalism and its inequalities. In this sense, it would reform rather than transform the system, by softening its edges without tackling root causes of poverty and violence.

Some radical thinkers, such as activists at The Rules, believe that basic income would be a useful step on the path to system change, but that we need to fundamentally steer the conversation away from welfare and charity, towards freedom and rights. Alone, it would be a policy measure that doesn’t challenge the growth imperative, private property or core power relations. It could therefore complement capitalism and simply be eroded once the current crises faced by elites have waned.

Overall, there was clear consensus that a UBI cannot be a panacea for our social and economic ills, but that it would be a hugely significant step in the right direction towards social justice. How significant will depend on the social movements that accompany any introductory schemes and how new spaces that emerge are filled.

Roll your sleeves up! In light of Scottish Government’s commitment to create some pilot schemes here in Scotland, and work in several local authorities to make this happen, we’ve therefore got our work cut out for us. Please get in touch with CBINS if you want to get involved.

  • Jill Wood, Trustee, Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland

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