When I first heard about a universal basic income, I thought it was a pie-in-the-sky idea, the product of navel-gazing and not living in the real world. Reading George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage, I found someone else who initially reacted to universal basic income as I did. But he’s changed his mind – so have I.
Out of the Wreckage only spends a small amount of time on UBI. It does cover the key points. UBI is an income paid to every adult, regardless of employment, poverty or attempts to find work. As it would replace complicated needs-tested welfare with a leaner, less bureaucratic system, many believe it could cut poverty and inequality. Others are looking to UBI as a way of dealing with chronic unemployment brought on by automation. Small scale trial studies – such as in sectors of Finland’s workforce, towns in Brazil and in poverty-stricken regions of India – have been successful so far.
But the success of any such scheme starts with individuals and communities and this is at the heart of Monbiot’s doctrine. Monbiot makes the point that identifying ourselves as, or being, our jobs feeds into an unhealthy protectionism of jobs. This protectionism can override the best interest of communities, national economies and our natural environment. The other weakness inherent in thinking of ourselves as our jobs is the stigma attached to those who do not have jobs. I confess, as you may have read in an earlier blog, my sense of identity comes largely from what I do for a living. I’m having a rethink.
Monbiot’s book is also a worthwhile read for the way it explains the damaged done by neo-liberalism (a misnomer if I ever heard one). Unlike other authors who tackle this subject, Monbiot goes beyond describing the flaws of neo-liberalism in terms of deregulation, outmoded economics and capitalism run wild – we’ve all heard these points before. Monbiot looks to the psychological and social ethos of our age and asks readers to rewrite the story we are living and draw from our cooperative nature and community spirit to supplant the ways of corporations and governments.
In this context, where financial and administrative pressures could be taken off the government with more community participation and less plutocracy, the idea of some sort of universal basic income fits in and perhaps stands a chance.