The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is for the government to give everyone — rich and poor — a regular income that would be enough to cover their basic needs. It would be an unconditional payment, meaning you would not have to work or satisfy job-search tests to receive it.
UBI has been promoted over the years as a solution to mass poverty and unemployment and as a way of staving off serious political challenges to the capitalist system. Recently, it has been championed by tech billionaires Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg and has been the subject of numerous official research papers, including one from the Australian Parliamentary Library's research service.
UBI had been in the margins of Australian politics until it was floated by Greens leader Richard Di Natale in his National Press Club speech in Canberra on April 3.
“The rise of digital and automated technologies means that up to five million existing jobs in this country may be lost in the next ten years,” he said.
“So how about we start a conversation about the future of work in this country? And how about we question the entrenched political consensus that a good life can only come from more work, from working harder?
“How about we have a discussion about the things we really value in life? Spending time with our friends and families, relationships, leisure, volunteering, contributing to your local community, creativity, the simple things that actually make us happy. You know, the important things.
“We rightly talk about the 16% of people who want to work more hours but what we don’t hear about is the more than one in four Australians who say, ‘We want to work less’.
“A four-day working week or a six-hour day. It might make us happier. It might create more opportunities for others who want more work. It might reduce the cost of full-time childcare. Many in the business community are already doing this. Some companies have already implemented a three-day working week.
“As part of that process let’s think bigger, let’s talk about a guaranteed minimum income. We've got many countries around the world trialling models of a social safety net to look after people in a 21st century economy. Work is changing radically.
“It is interesting, isn’t it, that we are so quick to create a trial for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander welfare, despite the evidence against it, but we won’t seriously contemplate looking at some of the outcomes of those international trials of a Universal Basic Income.
“We know that a secure income could drive innovation and research. It won't consign people to poverty. It will enhance creativity and help reset what is meaningful in our lives.”
Di Natale’s support for UBI was ridiculed in the media and by Labor and Coalition politicians, but defended by Waleed Ali on The Project. He argued that 40% of the work force is going to lose their jobs in a fast-approaching “high-tech robotopia” and so we will need to have a basic universal income.
“It’s being trialled in Finland. A place that’s known to be universally awesome,” he said.
Well, Ali is at least right that UBI is not a “leftie pinko” idea. UBI has support from the libertarian right and the Finland trial Ali referred to is being carried out by an austerity-implementing, neo-liberal government, whose main interest is to see if this could be a way to further cut spending on welfare and social services. Another small trial in Ontario, Canada, is also being pushed from a conservative perspective.
There are proposed trials of aspects of UBI in the Netherlands and Spain that may come from a more progressive and egalitarian perspective, but all modern concepts of UBI seem rooted in a defeatism about the possibility breaking from capitalism.
The big fear driving the recent currency of the UBI idea is that of impending massive unemployment flowing from exponential technological change, especially in automation and artificial intelligence. It is the spectre of millions of workers being rendered redundant by our new robot overlords, as Ali puts it.
But this technological revolution does pose society with a choice about whether to accept a future of even more gross inequality, which a corporate profit-driven version will deliver, or a future where we can all be liberated from drudgery and have more time for leisure, creativity and the capacity to be part of a new, participative democracy to displace the rule of the corporate super rich.
Is UBI the “dangerous idea” of our century that can help us advance the struggle to break the rule of the corporate rich? Or is it, at best, a defeatist and distracting schema and, at worse, a reluctant sop from above when social and political contradictions become too great?
It is essential that the left champion the idea that everyone in our society should be guaranteed a decent income. This should be a right, as should decent health, education and housing. But we shouldn’t confuse the idea of a liveable income as a right with UBI.
All the UBI experiments currently underway involve payments that are not enough even to subsist on — even the one in Finland! And worse, they are all also assessing what other welfare rights and social services could be cut to pay for a UBI.
Concretely and urgently, we need to build a movement to immediately raise the cruelly low Newstart Allowance to a liveable level — more like a proper minimum wage. Newstart has not increased in real terms since 1994 and the unemployed have been falling behind the rest of the community for more than 20 years.
The union movement ought to be fighting for this alongside the fight for better wages, which are also falling in real terms.
Concretely, we need to build a movement for a large-scale campaign for public investment in renewable energy, public transport, public housing and public education. All these will create jobs. And if there are still not enough jobs to make up for those lost from automation, then we need to fight to share the work around through a legislatively enforced shorter working week with no loss in pay.
Socialists also want a major rethink on the nature of work, but not one deformed from the start by the mindless profits-first demands of a capitalist system that is now in gross contradiction with social need.
We do not need to accept as a foregone conclusion that half or more of the working class has to be made jobless because of technological change, and henceforth live on some miserable UBI payment. The rich would still be rich and the UBI-dependent would be second-class citizens in that dystopia.
Listen to the speeches of Di Natale, Musk and Zuckerberg promoting UBI and you won’t hear any challenge to the idea that our common future will be stuck in the rut of capitalism. You might hear a plea for a few more crumbs to be dropped from the table, but that’s about it. Meanwhile, entire communities around the world are rejecting this framework.
Some of the biggest and most sustained political movements in Australia today hinge on intractable conflicts between community and environmental needs and the rapacious and unconscionable greed of big corporations. These include the movements against the coal and gas mining industries and the movement against massive private tollway projects like WestConnex. They challenge the corporate priorities on a scale that has profound ramifications for the future of work.
[Peter Boyle is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive.]