Notes Towards A Future, Part I
“How do we turn the noise of Information into the coherence of Vision? Plainly no-one is going to do it for us. Whether a resonant, resonating world culture evolves out of all this cacophony is strictly up to you and me.”
– Michael Ventura, “Shadow Dancing.”
“I am now convinced that the simplest solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a new widely-discussed measure: the guaranteed income. A host of psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security.”
– Martin Luther King, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?”
A citizens’ initiative in Switzerland has forced an upcoming vote in the Swiss parliament on the single most important, most progressive, most truly revolutionary idea in modern thought; an idea that has advocates across the political spectrum, a program that sounds like Socialism but was championed by the arch-Capitalist Milton Friedman along with various Libertarians and The Green Party and Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu and top aides to President Nixon; a notion that, pace MLK, isn’t new but has been propounded and at times adopted throughout history, from Abu Bakr, first of Islam’s Rightly Guided Caliphs, to the great Radical Thomas Paine to Napoleon bleeding Bonaparte to Bertrand Russell: the Basic Income Guarantee.
This is the promise that, as old Napoleon put it, “man is entitled by birthright to a share of the Earth’s produce sufficient to fill the needs of his existence.” In short, every single citizen of a country (and ultimately of the world) will be given a regular sum of money equivalent to the amount currently received on State unemployment benefits i.e. an amount calculated to be sufficient to purchase the necessities: somewhere to stay, something to eat, water, electricity, clothes. The Basic Income Guarantee: for everyone, whether glue-sniffer or tycoon, layabout or lord, the message is unconditional, the message is Welcome to the world! The accumulated wealth and exponential know-how of tens of thousands of years of struggle mean we don’t have to struggle anymore. A living is no longer something we have to earn.
The first obvious objection to this measure is the cost: but according to some forecasts it may be cheaper than the system we already have, where grudgingly-given State benefits ensure no-one need freeze or starve to death on the condition that they’re suffering or they’re looking for jobs they don’t really want, jobs that increasingly don’t exist. The bureaucratic burden of e.g. filtering recipients and snooping on the sick to make sure they’re really sick and inventing useless “Back To Work” schemes can be dispensed with, Income Support and Job Seeker’s Allowance etc. can be dispensed with, the stigma attached to being without work in an age where the liberating promise of technology is increasingly making “work” redundant can be dispensed with, replaced by the egalitarian Basic Income Guarantee, which would require just a bare organisational structure arranging payment into bank-accounts or similar.
But! say the Puritans, even if this were viable – and a number of Nobel laureates in economics think it is – wouldn’t we be creating a world in which everyone, everyone sits around getting drunk and high and watching TV all day every day? The first thing to notice about this argument is that it gets raised at the prospect of working- and middle-class people enjoying a bit of liberty but no-one ever sounds the alarm about the upper-class, born into such security, such dangerous potential for decadence. The argument falls apart: on the whole our aristo’s manage to occupy themselves fruitfully. (Similarly, whenever there are riots the corporate media is quick to blame “unemployment”: why then don’t we see the sons and daughters of kings and queens at the front of every mob?) Of course life has its losers, and doubtless a guaranteed income would be used by some to fund an unproductive, wasteful existence: so what? Let the dead bury themselves: living a worthless lazy TV life that you’ve chosen to live is at least a fraction more noble than being enslaved in a worthless workhorse treadmill life that no-one would ever choose.
But most of us know that even freed from the threat of starvation we would continue to develop and to contribute to our tribe, we are naturally curious, naturally producers, naturally social-minded; some of us have taken full advantage of what Welfare State already exists and have managed to avoid too much drudgery, nonetheless we work, we are drawn to volunteerism, to community projects and creative endeavours. There is a certain amount of empirical evidence in favour of this statement: because the Basic Income Guarantee isn’t just an issue in Switzerland, it’s being talked about all over the world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_income) and has been trialled in a few short-term experiments. No firm conclusions can realistically be drawn from a handful of small pilot projects in Namibia and India, yet what results there are are promising: where the Basic Income Guarantee was implemented, child malnutrition was reduced and child school-attendance increased; crime was down by 42%; economic benefits were found which completely refuted the notion that assured comfort would lead to laziness: in fact, local industry was boosted as a number of small businesses were launched, would-be entrepreneurs encouraged by the knowledge that there’s only so much they can lose.
The idea that a universal leisure-class would be destructive to our global economy, would create a lazy and unproductive humanity living off endless pizzas and PlayStations, is thus shown to be false; and we still have one argument against it left over: where do the supposedly slothful masses get these takeaways and video-games? Because “Basic” means just that: the guaranteed income covers the cost of one’s needs, no more. Very few human-beings have a taste for asceticism: we want cars and computers and spices and fluffy handcuffs and books, we want smarter clothes than our neighbours, we want a whole lot more than bread and veg and central-heating. Plenty of us will still go to work in the shops and corporations that will still be around to employ us: that’s the power of the idea, the core of its acceptability from Right to Left: there is nothing revolutionary about the Basic Income Guarantee, nothing is overturned, society is barely changed, still the very very rich will get very very richer all the time, still the discontented can sit in pubs complaining about the vast economic inequalities and the evil multinationals and braindamaging adverts and junk products that will all continue to exist. Here however is a liberation beyond mere revolution. The Work Ethic is dead; long live the Play Ethic!