One thing to celebrate from the 21st-century “teens” – the rise of universal basic income (UBI).
We’ve started a new decade, but you could be excused for not noticing. Usually publications and writers are falling over themselves to mark such a temporal landmark, to draw all sorts of conclusions about the preceding period and what’s to come, but we’ve passed from the Teens of the 21st century into the Twenties with little more than a desultory nod to the date.
That’s not an oversight. Rather it is a reflection of the uncertainty, the fear, and indeed depression about what happened in the past decade, and what many are expecting from the new.
History may well come to mark the teens as a lost decade. It became clear that the financial crisis of 2007/08 was not a cyclical blip but a complete system failure, that the financialisation of our economy and society had caused huge damage, but over a decade we’ve failed to find a way out. Recently released figures show that global debt has reached 322 per cent of annual GDP, but there are few ideas of how to disentangle our economy from this mess.
The climate emergency, although the label had yet to be widely deployed, was already evident at the start of the decade, and the need to transform our way of life to avert meltdown was also obvious (as I reflected in the Guardian in 2009). But as in the economy, so too the environment: the Teens were a lost decade of inaction and obfuscation.
But I’m always seeking positives, and one of the Teens’ positives was the notable rise of a political idea – the idea of a UBI.
UBI has been Green Party policy for decades, but at the start of the Teens we didn’t talk about it much, the practical reality being that political legitimacy requires a groundswell not a single voice. The Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) might have formed in 1986, but it remained small and little remarked upon outside academic circles, as the Citizens Basic Income Trust here in the UK.
That situation transformed in the Teens. Basic income is being discussed right across the political spectrum, with a range of driving forces and intended outcomes, from American tech billionaires convinced their technology will destroy employment to financial impoverished communities seeking to find ways to resource urgent needs.
There’s nothing incidental about the rise of UBI. It’s a natural reaction to the key emotion of our current society: insecurity.
As well as Victorian levels of wealth inequality, we’ve also returned to Victorian levels of uncertainty and fear of the future for all but the super-rich.
A standard storyline in Victorian novels is the family financially sailing along in middle class prosperity, only to be derailed by one disaster – the death of the family breadwinner, a shipwreck, a bad investment – and dumped into abject poverty.
A similar modern real-life story might feature instead an unexpected redundancy, a marriage breakdown, or (in America) a massive medical bill, but the outcome would be much the same. Benefits have been slashed away in the UK, food stamps in the United States. They didn’t exist in Victorian times; they can’t be relied on now.
Zero-hours contracts and the gig economy have left workers at the mercy of circumstances every bit as much as a Victorian parlour maid or factory worker dismissed without references at an employer’s whim.
My starting point for arguing for UBI has always been that there is a human right to life. That’s something with which few would disagree. But life requires sustenance and shelter – and without guaranteeing those you’re failing to deliver the most basic of human rights.
It is an argument that 20 years ago would have seemed almost nonsensical, with stable employment and reasonably decent and reliable benefits. Now it is obvious.
But it is something of a negative argument, a case of plugging the gaps of social and economic failure.
So it is important also to focus on the positive arguments for UBI. For what it offers also is a wonderful opportunity for human flourishing, for the developing of talents, skills and knowledge.
For in the 20th century, under capitalism and socialism, individuals were reliant for the basics on either the state of the employer. “Working for the man”, or working or performing job searches for the state, you had to do what you were told.
But a UBI, to meet its proper definition, ensures that you can meet all of your basic needs with an income that comes to you simply for being a member of a society – unconditionally.
UBI is freedom, the opportunity for each individual to flourish by developing their skills, talents and knowledge in the direction they choose. That is something the human race hasn’t seen in recorded history, as well as a release from the desperate insecurity that the human race has known all too often.
The idea has taken hold – now we’ve got to deliver it as a foundation of a new age. After four decades of the age of social democracy after the Second World War, followed by four decades of neoliberal destruction of society and environment, we can enter a new age, one in which we live within the physical limits of this fragile planet while ensuring a secure, decent life for all.
I’ll call it the emerging Green Age. If we can secure that as the dominant political philosophy in the coming decade, with UBI as one of its foundations, then the Teens may come to be seen as, after Gramsci, the messy interregnum before which a fine and new future was born.
This piece reflects a talk given to the Merseyside Skeptics Society.