Introduction: Basic Questions
What do Erik Olin Wright, Yanis Varoufakis, Hugh Segal, Elizabeth May and the Liberal Party of Canada have in common? They are all proponents of some form of unconditional Basic Income, which involves decoupling the means of subsistence from the obligation to perform waged work. Advocates of Basic Income hail from across the political spectrum, as do the detractors, who range from the Fraser Institute to anti-poverty activist John Clarke.
The idea of guaranteeing the individual members of a political community an income sufficient to meet basic needs independent of their participation in the labour market and what is formally defined as “work” dates back eons, with variations on the theme recurring in the long history of utopian social thought. But it was really in the 20th century, with the advent of automation and the ensuing reflections on the social impact, for good or ill, of productivity-boosting and labour-sparing technology, that an unconditional Basic Income began to be viewed as feasible, finding supporters in thinkers from Milton Friedman to Bertrand Russell to André Gorz.
The current round of pondering and polemics on Basic Income is being fuelled by two main developments in particular: first, the scope of technological unemployment seen to be looming on the horizon, as sketched out in books such as Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots (Basic Books, 2015), essays such as Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work” (The Atlantic, July/August 2015), research such as the 2015 Oxford University study which estimated that 47 per cent of U.S. jobs are at risk from computerization — all encapsulated in alarming (or alarmist) headlines, such as “Foxconn replaces 60,000 factory workers with robots” (BBC.com, May 25, 2016).
In face of this, defenders of Basic Income argue that as advanced technology progressively reduces the amount of human labour required to expand our productive capacity, all members of society should be entitled to receive a dividend from the social investment in technology in the form of a guaranteed income, citizens’ income, minimum liveable income — the concept goes by many names, some of which describe specific schemes associated with a particular politics, such as the negative income tax favoured by Milton Friedman and his ilk.
A second source of the revival of interest in Basic Income is mounting criticism of existing strategies and methods for combating poverty and precarity — again from across the political spectrum and motivated by very different considerations depending on the provenance. It is clear to many that poverty comes at a huge moral and economic cost. Incalculable in qualitative terms, the price tag on poverty in Canada has been estimated at some $30 billion annually, a figure cited by Liberal Senator Art Eggleton in his arguments for Basic Income.
On the Left, it’s less the principle of Basic Income that propels controversy than the practice. Much of what is potentially beneficial or potentially detrimental about it revolves around the level at which it is pegged — is the proposed income really sufficient to allow people to live in a modest but dignified way, thus offering a degree of liberation from a punishing labour market, or is it so meagre as to condemn people to permanent penury in the same way as welfare, or worse if liberals and conservatives succeed in using the introduction of a Basic Income as a pretext to dismantle public services and programs?
In this CD Focus we have invited several Left scholars and activists to share their perspectives on Basic Income. To lay bare some of the bones of contention, we present a comradely debate between Michal Rozworski, who is emerging as one of English Canada’s leading Left economists, and scholar Nick Srnicek, co-author of a couple of recent books associated with the “left-accelerationist” current that have sparked intense interest in the U.K. and beyond. Kathi Weeks, author of the acclaimed book The Problem with Work (Duke University Press, 2011), offers a socialist-feminist perspective on Basic Income in an interview conducted for CD by Katie Cruz. Journalist and writer Richard Swift (also a CD Editor) has penned a short essay intended to inspire a return to the Left’s too-often neglected critique of the nature of waged work. Community animator Josh Brandon reports on the North American Basic Income Guarantee Congress held this past spring in Winnipeg. Cult Montreal columnist and CD Editor Peter Wheeland contributes a report on the Basic Income policies under consideration by the neo-Liberal “austerian” governments of Kathleen Wynne and Philippe Couillard. Finally, I introduce a French degrowth model of basic income, the Unconditional Autonomy Allowance, conceived as a tool to support a transition beyond the market economy.
This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Canadian Dimension (Basic Income).