Income security: Why Unions Should Campaign For a Basic Income

This article argues that because of the changing character of work and labour in the context of globalisation, progressives and particularly trade unionists could make a basic income a key part of their agenda. It considers the standard objections and then reviews the various advantages of moving in that direction, towards the realisation of a republican or claim right.

Guy Standing, Director, ILO Socio-Economic Security Programme.

This article is written in a personal capacity. All views are those of the author and should not be attributed to the ILO.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”

Anxiety, insecurity and uncertainty – these are the feelings expressed by a vast number of workers and many others all over the world. There is a growing consensus on the reasons – globalisation, consumer capitalism, inequalities of various types, employment insecurity and unemployment, flexible wages, erosion and restructuring of the welfare state, social violence and a lack of networks of social support.

Amidst all this, trade unions have found it difficult to maintain their appeal. Many of us lament the outcome, and feel sure that society needs strong organisations to protect and advance the rights of all its members, and that without them insecurities will multiply. Yet unions need to rethink how to appeal to people as they go through their working lives. As they do so, I believe unions should champion a basic income as part of a strategy for economic security and redistribution. Unions have always been at their most effective when they have appealed to a vision of the future, rather than clinging to achievements of the past. They should set out to be in the vanguard for such a strategy, which should focus on the distributional issues of the time. I ask readers to be as open as possible to new ideas and to fresh thinking about old ideas that they might have rejected at another time.

We are undergoing a Great Transformation, in the way the economic system functions and in the relationship between economic forces and society. In the past, as superbly shown by Karl Polanyi, each transformation has created a period of instability, as old systems of regulation, social protection and redistribution broke down. In stable periods, those help moderate the insecurities and inequalities, at least enough to make most people tolerate their lot, by ‘embedding the economy in society’. Put briefly, when unions were last in a position of strength, between 1945 and about 1975, tripartism and the welfare state performed these three functions reasonably well. Since then, inequalities and insecurities have multiplied.

Whether the old system was good or bad, there is no going back. The challenge now is to identify the new systems of regulation, social protection and redistribution that will moderate the insecurities while not undermining the economic dynamism that is driving the global economy.

The Global Context

In reflecting on feasible and desirable reform of social policy, it is essential to consider two big questions that set the context.

To be stable and prosperous, every society needs a system of regulation, a system of social protection and a system of redistribution, to embed the economic forces in society and to moderate the insecurities and inequalities faced by most ordinary people. The first question is: What are the appropriate systems for a globalising open economy world?

Here is not the place to try to provide a detailed answer. But it is important to realise what is not the answer and to see what options are feasible. First, in an open economy the most effective means of regulation against bad labour and social policies and practices is strong bargaining power for workers and others at every level of decision-making, which means collective bodies, not just individualistic quasi-legalistic mechanisms, although these are needed as well. It is obvious to most observers that such collective bodies cannot rely on the old models; unions need to broaden their appeal to citizenship rights and be champions of egalitarianism.

Second, for social protection, old-style social insurance schemes are limited, costly and possibly dysfunctional in societies characterised by labour market flexibility, economic informalisation and fluidity of labour force participation. Means-tested social assistance and behaviour-conditional schemes such as ‘workfare’ are even less viable if one wishes to promote universal social protection. The shortcomings of those schemes should lead to a willingness to think about more universalistic schemes, even though there are other grounds for doing so as well.

As for the most appropriate system of redistribution, in a globalising economy progressive direct taxation can do little, and even progressive governments have abandoned it as a means of extensive redistribution. Indeed, fiscal policy has become more regressive, worsening inequality. Tax on capital has fallen, tax on labour has risen, while subsidies for capital have risen and subsidies for labour have fallen.

This leads to the second big question. Every great transformation hinges on resolving the social conflict over the distribution of the key assets in that particular era. In an era of crumbling feudalism, the struggle was over land; under industrial capitalism, the struggle was over the means of production, leading to a focus on nationalisation of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. What are the key assets in the era of globalisation? What are the assets over which young progressives of the world – to whom collective organisations must appeal if they are to thrive – will wish to struggle to obtain? Put bluntly, they are surely financial capital, the environment (quality space in which to live healthily) and time (quality time in which to develop through work and leisure, in control over one’s development), which together could promise economic security. The rationale for that choice is provided elsewhere. Suffice it to suggest that if one accepts that these are the key assets of the era over which we wish to have more control, then we should assess policies and institutions by whether or not they offer us the prospect of obtaining it.

The modern world is characterised by the frenzied pursuit of profits and possessions. Income and wealth are increasingly concentrated in finance capital. If inequality is to be reduced, all citizens must share in that, which means renewed interest in economic democracy. Economic rights and democracy will surely be at the centre of progressive thinking in the years ahead. Among the advantages of collective and widespread individual ownership of financial capital would be that social control, including control of ecologically irresponsible behaviour by corporations, would be exercised over blatant rapaciousness so memorably demonstrated by Enron and others in recent years.

Here is not the place to develop that line of thinking. It is the other key asset that is relevant here, namely quality time. There is a uniquely modern crisis, which is the commodification of human existence. Globalisation is not just the financialisation of capitalism, but is based on the spread of insatiable consumption manipulated by constant advertising. In this, the instrumentality of labour is triumphing over the ethics of work, which conjures up ‘craftsmenship’, creativity and reproductive properties. The jobholder society so feared by Hannah Arendt is gaining ground. Jobs are mainly instrumental. For more and more people, there is something close to that old Soviet joke, ‘They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work’. The emerging variant might be, ‘They pretend my job is important, I pretend to believe them.’

To consume is the goal. Alongside the well-known aphorism, ‘I shop, therefore I am’, one should add, ‘I labour, so that I may shop.’ There is an underlying frenzy, to make more money, to labour longer and more intensively, to take work home and home to one’s job. The intensification of labour is threatening our capacity to reproduce physical and mental health. It is not just the Japanese who are suffering from karoshi (death from overwork). There is also a modern disease of presenteeism, staying in a job ‘at work’ even when it would be advisable for health to take time off. Meanwhile, the losers are left ‘licking at the windows’ and ‘bowling alone’ in the malls, where teenagers and the elderly ‘hang out’. Ironically, alongside labour intensification is a deepening passivity, epitomised by the watching of ‘reality’ TV and a sequence of entertainments.

This is an exaggeration, of course. But there is what might be called existential stress, an anxiety, an insecurity. More people feel that they are never satisfied, having insatiable needs, for money, for commodities. We are urged to be ‘competitive’ in almost everything. Education is valued only for the jobs that schooling and human capital may bring. I labour to have more, not to develop myself or my relationships, let alone to preserve and recreate the beauty of nature and society that our forebears have handed down to us. Purchase, possess, display, discard! These are the laws of global consumer capitalism.

It all leads to a time squeeze. And when youth look forward to what their parents or peers are doing, they are surely correct if they think this is no great deal. What sociologists might call existential anomie arises, since more and more people do not belong to a functioning community, of people who are working as a unified ‘class’, or as an occupational group, as a union, as a guild, as a cooperative or whatever. Since they do not belong to such a collective community in which there is a spirit of social solidarity, there is no regulation of opportunism and social irresponsibility, and there is weaker reciprocity between the old and the young, the married and the single, and between religious and ethnic groups.

This too is an exaggeration, is it not? All right, but the dominant trend is towards a combination of insecurity, stress and anomie, a frenzy of labour (money making) in a context of social and political passivity, a modern form of ‘bread and circuses’, of MacDonalds, malls and watching matches.

How have the mainstream political elites responded to this era of social and economic insecurity and rising inequalities?…..

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