News that a universal basic income (UBI) is to be trialled at two locations in England, paying 30 people £1,600 a month regardless of their work, has sent shockwaves through the tabloids.
“Something for nothing” is the way working-class Conservatives have always described out-of-work benefits, with the implication that those receiving them were “spongers”. The idea of actually paying people a good subsistence wage, whether they work or not, is – well – just not capitalism.
And in a way they’re right. The idea of work for wages has been burned deeply into our collective consciousness by 250 years of industrialisation. The eight-hour shift; the hierarchical team; work for piece rates; work to targets; after-work drinks – so many rituals and rhythms of life assume work is compulsory and for ever.
So why are we suddenly talking about the idea of a universal, or unconditional, basic income? And why are trials much bigger and more advanced than the one proposed by the Autonomy think tank happening all over the world?
It’s a response to the idea of rapid automation, due to digitisation, robotics and artificial intelligence.
In every industrial revolution until now, new machines have made old skills redundant. But new technologies always created new skills and new demands: the automobile put the coachman and the farrier out of business, but it created the motor mechanic, the used-car salesman and the taxi driver.
In 1990 the economist Paul Romer realised the digital revolution might be different. Digital goods need almost no labour to reproduce them, and in a market economy their price will fall towards zero, he said – unless specific laws are passed to make information scarce.
A visit to what remains of the EMI factory in west London shows the effect: in the rock’n’roll era it was a mass production line producing music on vinyl discs, to be sold in stores and – of course – made on actual guitars, drums and amplifiers.
Today, not only are the record shops and the factory redundant, but large parts of music production take place using electronic instruments, played in simulated concert halls. There is still a music business; there are still pop stars; but music is basically rented, not bought, and the workforce needed to bring it to the consumer is much smaller.
And what the MP3 file did for vinyl, computers did for office admin assistants and electronic ticketing did for the bus conductor. It’s no longer futurology to argue that a mixture of robotics, artificial intelligence and big data could begin to perform tasks like medical triage, basic legal work or – take a deep breath here – tabloid journalism.
There are three basic responses to this prospect. The first is denial. There’ll always be new kinds of jobs created and the task of progressive politics is to make sure they’re highly skilled and well remunerated, say the trade unions. That’s why there’s usually scant support for basic income schemes in the traditional labour movement.
But as the late anthropologist David Graeber argued, in a book entitled Bullshit Jobs, what we’re actually creating are jobs that don’t need to exist.
The person who delivers a single bottle of milk to your door on a bike at midnight; the graduate frothing your cappuccino; the store greeter; the in-house magazine journalist… are all doing jobs that they are glad to have, and demand respect for doing, but, said Graeber, people know, deep down, that they don’t need to be done.
For its left wing supporters, the UBI is not intended merely as a fairer or simpler form of welfare benefits. People who need these should get money on top of any basic payment.
Instead, the idea is to gradually and purposefully separate work from wages. To mitigate what Graeber called the “profound psychological violence” of a culture that defines everybody’s virtue through work.
Instead of automation producing a small elite of skilled people and a mass of low-paid people doing de-skilled jobs, it could then produce more leisure time and wellbeing.
The basic income, for its left wing advocates, is a way of subsidising the transition to a society where fewer work hours are done. It is a way of overcoming our resistance to automation. Since it would make poverty impossible, it should – over time – eradicate some of the diseases and mental stress of poverty. That’s why Autonomy, which is pioneering the proposal, has developed it by working with some of Britain’s poorest communities.
But here’s the quid pro quo. With a basic income, more human-to-human services would have to be done voluntarily and for free. We would need to transition to a less frenetic, less energy-intensive lifestyle.
And that’s why you need trials. What they’re trialling is not just greater financial security: it’s the way humans behave if they are not compelled to work all day every day. Do they volunteer for stuff? Are they healthier and happier? Do they produce and consume culture in different ways? Do they manage their work-life balance actively, developing new skills? Do they take a more active part in their children’s education?
To the tabloid writers such questions sound outlandish: but they’re the practical questions faced by any retired person with a decent pension scheme. In fact, the most constructive way to think of basic income schemes is as “pensions paid early”.
Of course, the cost of paying every adult of working age £1,600 a month would be unbearable. But what if everyone were entitled to claim it for a year of their life, or maybe two? The fact is, because the costs and benefits would be behavioural and social, not just financial, we won’t know until we try it.