In this extract from a must-read essay published on The Great Transition Initiative, Guy Standing proposes a Commons Fund for the precariat.
Guy Standing: Given that wages cannot be expected to provide the precariat with security, the system must find alternative ways of doing so. The secret lies in capturing rental income for society. We should want what Keynes predicted but which has yet to pass—“euthanasia of the rentier.” One way of capturing rental income for society would be to bring the commons into policy discourse. In the neoliberal era, the commons—natural, social, civil, cultural, and intellectual—have been plundered via enclosure, commodification, privatization, and colonization. This rent-seeking is an injustice and should be reversed.
The income from using commons resources should belong to every commoner equally. Accordingly, the tax system should shift from earned income and consumption to taxing commercial uses of the commons, thereby helping in their preservation. Levies on income gained from using our commons should become major sources of public revenue. This means such measures as a land value tax, a wealth transfer tax, ecological taxes such as a carbon tax, a water use levy, levies on income from intellectual property and on use of our personal data, a “frequent flyer levy,” and levies on all income generated by use of natural resources that should belong to us as commoners.
Fed by these levies, a Commons Fund could be set up as a democratic variant of the sovereign wealth funds that exist in over sixty countries. Then, the questions would become how to use the funds in a transformative way. The Fund should be operated on proper economic lines, adhering to investment rules geared to socially beneficial forms of capital, taking into account ecological principles and tax-paying propriety.
The Fund’s governance must be democratic and separated from the government of the day, to minimize the possibility of manipulation by politicians before elections. And every commoner should be an equal beneficiary, their stake in the Fund being an economic right, rather than dependent on contributions, as was the case with laborist welfare schemes. Everybody, regardless of taxpaying capacity, should gain, by virtue of being commoners.
The commons has been nurtured by many generations and exists for future generations. As Edmund Burke recognized, we are “temporary custodians of our commonwealth” and have the responsibility of passing on to the next generation our commons in at least as good a condition as we found it. Thus, levies on exhaustible commons resources should be preserved for future generations as well as serve existing generations. To respect this principle, only revenue generated by the Fund’s investments should be distributed to today’s commoners—you and me. This rule is applied in the world’s outstanding example, the Norwegian Pension Fund Global, which, drawing from Norway’s share of North Sea oil, generates a net annual return of 4% that can be disbursed to the populace.5
What is proposed here is even more transformative. The levies would be placed on all forms of commons, including non-exhaustible commons resources. Land, water, air, wind, and ideas are among non-exhaustible resources, and part of our commons. Some commons resources are replenishable, such as forests. Including non-exhaustible commons resources in the financing of the Fund is key to the transformative strategy. The only equitable way of disbursing proceeds from the Commons Fund is to give equal amounts to everybody deemed to be a commoner, and the easiest way would be to distribute “social dividends” or “commons dividends.”
Sharing the commons is one ethical rationale for basic incomes, which are justifiable for other ethical reasons as well, including ecological justice, freedom, and basic security.