Universal Basic Income – treading the 'capitalist road to communism'?

Written by Olivia Arigho-Stiles on . Posted in Current features, Features

A spectre is haunting Europe: persistent unemployment. So how can it be tackled, along with the poverty and despair it generates? One proposal is the Universal Basic Income (UBI). A beguilingly simple idea whereby each individual adult is granted an unconditional income, without means test or work requirement, the UBI has garnered supporters across the political spectrum. Bidadunure-

Two Max Weber Fellows Juliana Bidadanure and Robert Lepenies are the enthusiastic organisers of an inter-disciplinary conference this summer on the future of Basic Income held at the European University Institute. As Bidadanure explains, the main goal of UBI is “to eradicate poverty and to free people from various forms of oppression. UBI gives people the ability to exit abusive relationships, whether in the labour market or at home. It empowers people economically. It starts from the “liberal” view that everyone should be able to lead the life they want to lead.”

Lepenies adds “What’s so special about UBI is that it gets support from a broad variety of political normative perspectives.” And while UBI has numerous advocates from the left who have welcomed its redistributive potential, Bidadanure points out that [neoliberal economists] “Hayek and Friedman have proposed a negative income tax, which shares some similarities with UBI, so it’s not borne completely outside of the capitalist paradigm. Philippe Van Parijs calls UBI the ‘capitalist road to communism’; it swims with the tide of capitalism to get us somewhere else. But because it empowers individuals in general and workers in particular, and increases their bargaining powers, UBI can also be seen as the socialist road out of capitalism!”Lepenies

Naturally this poses a number of questions. Should UBI replace an existing architecture of welfare provision, or should it complement it? Right-wing supporters have been attracted by the simplicity of the UBI and its potential to pare down welfare expenditure. Indeed UK Conservative work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, unsuccessfully attempted to launch a universal credit programme which has parallels with a UBI system for example.

But as Bidadanure emphasises, “the vast majority [of UBI proponents] don’t believe basic income should replace the welfare state. They believe that BI is a necessary instrument as part of a welfare state that provides other benefits in the form of public healthcare, education and so on. In that sense, UBI can be seen as a progression of the welfare state.” Many in this camp are attracted by the fact that Basic Income is less invasive in its administration and carries less social stigma and often punitive conditionalities of welfare.

Mainstream advocates have pitched the amount received at subsistence level. In the UK, for instance, this would be around 800 pounds a month, less than the current minimum wage. Advocates have argued that it could be funded through progressive taxation or through VAT.

More fundamentally, UBI has profound implications for how we conceptualise work. The work ethic is deeply enmeshed in Europe’s collective psyche. It dominates political discourse at a time when full employment for European populations has become an economic impossibility. Moreover as the world of work becomes increasingly precarious, with zero-hours contracts and the like proliferating, the distinction between categories of workers and unemployed are rendered arbitrary.

One advantage of UBI therefore is that it provides the ability for citizens to engage in alternative forms of (socially-useful) work that they otherwise could not afford to do. This may be volunteering for an NGO, engaging in creative endeavour or caring for children for example. Feminists have highlighted how UBI would also crucially mean that women trapped in abusive relationships out of economic necessity could be enabled to leave.

However some critics argue that in providing an unconditional income, UBI acts as the ultimate disincentive to work. These critics argue that basic income would lead people to drop out of the labour market, making the entire scheme fiscally unaffordable. But for Lepenies, part of this criticism rests on an overly narrow idea of what work currently signifies. Basic income encourages a broader understanding of work beyond what is waged. When they are provided with a UBI, “people take up different kinds of economic activities”, Lepenies explains. “There is economic innovation which goes along paths that we don’t foresee now. For example, in Indian UBI experiments, one of the main results was that people take up completely new labour activities, things that weren’t captured in traditional labour statistics because they were only measuring one activity. They were doing care work, waged work, volunteering, education and so on.” Bidadanure agrees, adding that UBI instead “can provide ways for people to take up work that they value more.”

Of course, there are many deeper problems that UBI does not solve, not least the causes of sharpening income disparities and social inequalities. With European member states facing an influx in refugees and migrants, there is also the additional problem establishing where migrants fit into the basic income picture given difficulties in granting benefit entitlements within the current framework. Both Max Weber Fellows are adamant that UBI cannot function in isolation and nor can it solve other structural problems.

What remains clear is that while UBI would not dismantle the root causes of inequality and alienation in society, it represents a powerful reform to alleviate poverty and exploitation, empower citizens and open up new horizons for human activity. Whether or not the political will exists to implement such a reform remains to be seen.