Last weekend’s referendum saw UBI democratically rejected in Switzerland. The people’s choice! Offered Utopia, they don’t want it.
Actually, it’s not that simple. UBI (Citizen’s Income) is a huge idea and is competing with the deeply-ingrained Protestant work ethic. We may need to destroy work worship before (or at least in tandem) with a successful UBI campaign. It’s also expensive and nobody’s quite crunched the numbers convincingly yet, despite noble efforts.
A decent summary of the current state of play in the Guardian is sympathetic to UBI but says the next round of campaigning must be stronger in its numbers.
Before it can be seriously considered for a manifesto, further cost-saving compromises – such as restrictions for citizens who already receive a state pension – may need to be considered. The trick, then, as so often in progressive politics, will be to dream big, and then proceed with care.
Meanwhile, the Economist published a largely superb piece summing up the situation.
Both supporters and critics agree that universal basic incomes would challenge the centrality of paid work to the way people live.
I read it looking for a good argument against UBI but the ones present were a bit flimsy. For instance, the concern that the world would become filled by pointless ice cream parlours as a result of a new play ethic:
Hans Peter Rubi, a 64-year-old in the small town of Olten […] was given a pension of SFr2,600 on being sent into early retirement, and became an entrepreneur. He has used his pension to start an exotic ice-cream parlour. The avocado ice cream is proving difficult to perfect, and the innovation of staying open through the winter has yet to pay off. He needs a good summer for the business to be profitable; but he can afford to fail. “My security now is that I have my basic income. It gives a security to take a basic challenge.” … In a world of universal basic incomes, it is possible that the streets would be lined with mostly empty ice-cream shops, as people used society’s largesse on projects no one really needs.
The dystopian image of streets empty of all but unfrequented ice cream parlours is a chilling one (no pun intended) and one I’ve thought of before, but I don’t think it would happen, at least not in any permanent way. Research shows that (a) most people wouldn’t stop working in normal jobs anyway and (b) after a period of too many of these leisure follies we’d realise the mistake and move onto the next big paradigm, be it idling or space travel.
So UBI was rejected in Switzerland but it really does feel like this is just the beginning of a huge international discussion. Back when we mentioned Srnicek and Williams’ book, Inventing the Future, I said “It feels like the cartridge is loaded” and I think that’s been born out. Mainstream political parties are discussing it now.
Speaking of booky-wooks, I highly recommend Utopia for Realists by UBI campaigner Rutger Bregman. His argument is mainly a pragamatic approach to UBI but he also sticks up for a 15-hour standard workweek and open borders. Weirdly, he and I got off to a bad start (I didn’t care for the first few pages because I disagree with the “nasty, brutish and short” progress argument and a naff quip about dishwashers being great) but I was soon caught up in his optimism and research-based reasoning. Good stuff.
Any old hoo, until we get UBI there’s Escapology. Break free! Run! Save yourselves!
The Guardian‘s Dear Jeremy column is about work and career-related problems. I read it every week as a way of remembering what employment is like.
I really love this week’s quandary. It is titled “I want to throttle my talkative office partner”.
I share an office with a woman who is in her late 30s. My problem is that she talks to herself – all day, every day. If she is writing an email she reads it out loud; if she is working on her PC she talks through the process. The boss won’t allow a radio and because I use the phone, I cannot wear headphones. I have tried doing the same but she just talks louder.
I have also tried saying “Sorry did you say something”, but this is obviously too subtle. I even said “Shush” once and told her to stop muttering to herself as I was trying to concentrate. She sulked for half an hour, then started again. Help – I might just throttle her soon.
It’s an extremely sunny bank holiday here in Scotland.
There was a nice vibe on the street this morning. “Gosh, this is alright,” I thought, “We’ve not done such a bad job of building a world.” Yes, the fine weather had a lot to do with this mood but it wasn’t only that. It was the sense of quiet industry and the leisurely getting about. I felt, unusually, that I could relate to the people I saw. They weren’t rushing everywhere. They were scrubbing steps, cycling, putting out sandwich boards, walking with a light jacket slung over one shoulder, arranging things in windows.
You’d expect a bank holiday morning to be quiet and it was, but it was hardly devoid of activity. The shops — small business and supermarket chains alike — all seemed to be open, their keepers and shelf stackers setting up as usual. Even our local Post Office was open for business, though the actual deliveries I believe have stopped until Tuesday. There were still a few white-collar commuters about (Britain’s largest employer, the NHS, does not close for bank holidays) but a far smaller number of cars than usual. This made a huge difference; it meant fewer decibels, noticeably cleaner air, less hostility and impatience, and opportunities to cross the roads in a leisurely manner instead of waiting for a light to change or for a gap in the traffic. It struck me as a pretty good pace of life and I wished it could always be this way. Things hadn’t ground to a halt but it wasn’t stupidly busy either, no harried faces, no sense of dread.
I mention this to say that a slower pace of life doesn’t mean an end to industry, an end to meaning, an end to money-making or getting from one place to another. It just means balance. It means enough people sleeping ’til 10 and having leisurely breakfasts and enough people keeping the world running. Why, we could take it in shifts! It would mean less pollution and fewer heads exploding with stress and anxiety. Wouldn’t that be good?
The art gallery my wife works for is open. The florist I pass each morning is open, as is the library. The pubs and restaurants soon will be. The universities are open. Public transit is running, albeit to a limited timetable. The Deliveroo fleet will be out and pedalling this evening.
So if all of these useful people are on duty as usual (and various street markets and the likes are opening especially for the bank holiday) why are the streets so quiet? Who exactly is off work and off the roads and in their beds? Could it be the bankers? Well, yes, it’s a bank holiday. But that can’t be so many people. The major international bank I use has only one branch (let’s generously assume 40 employees) and will surely be automated out of existence soon. So who are these people with a day off today and another on Monday?
Oh, it’s the people with bullshit jobs! The ones in jobs which aren’t really needed at all and which, in fact lead to the harried faces and the grief and the fumes and the rat-like scurrying!
The Skypark, I noticed, stands empty today. Ten or so stories of glassy desolation.
A bank holiday morning, dare I say, is a good real-time, 3D visualisation of how the world, perhaps post-UBI, could look without bullshit jobs. Cleaner, calmer, more leisurely and at peace.
The main objection to the idea of a universal basic income is not practical but moral.
Its enthusiasts suggest that when intelligent machines make most of us redundant, we will all dispense with the idea of earning a living and find true fulfilment (sic) in writing poetry, playing music and nurturing plants. That is dangerous nonsense.
Mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging … we should not be trying to create a world in which most people do not feel the need to work.
Isn’t that the most delicious (not to mention adorable) thing you’ve ever read? Caught red-handed! Just in case anyone thought we were being paranoid, this is what the critics of the post-work society actually think.
The objection to freedom is not that we can’t do it but that we shouldn’t, because Work — brutal, superegoic knuckling down — is All. Apparently, we should just carry on toiling, no matter how pointlessly, until the whole world is used up.
This obsession with work is one of the only things standing in the way of our luxury, automated post-work society (which is why the destruction of the Work Ethic is key to the manifesto of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams). No wonder there’s a “moral” objection from people like Boles; we can’t have citizens going around “playing music and nurturing plants” like a bunch of toga-wearing hippies. Only obsolete graft is good enough for our people!
It does not occur to people like Nick Boles (or else they willfully dismiss the notion) that time might be occupied more pleasantly and usefully than in full-time employment, and that “work” is not the only way to find meaning in life. Art, craft, husbandry — “dangerous nonsense”!
UK Escapologists could do worse than support Corbyn’s Labour party. Not only has Corbyn proposed four new bank holidays and begun to investigate UBI, he had this to say about automation in his conference speech this week:
We need urgently to face the challenge of automation, robotics that could make so much of contemporary work redundant. That is a threat in the hands of the greedy, but what an opportunity if it’s managed in the interests of society as a whole.
If planned and managed properly, accelerated technological change can be the gateway for a new settlement between work and leisure, a springboard for expanded creativity and culture, making technology our servant and not our master, at long last.
As far as I know, he’s one of the only political leaders speaking in this way about the inevitable future (and dreary present-day reality) of work.
Here’s the Guardian analysis:
What is fascinating about Mr Corbyn’s speech is its hidden depths, most notably on possible “alternative models” to capitalism. The Labour party sees in the future not just the rise of robots, which might entrench economic feudalism, but also the worry that too many people will remain trapped in drudgery-filled, low-productivity jobs. Although Mr Corbyn did not spell this out, he referenced a little-publicised party report that fleshes out Labour’s view of the new economy. This states that accelerating automation is a key political project. Labour’s goal, the report argued, should be to accelerate into this more automated future “while building new institutions where technological change is shaped by the common good”. Mr Corbyn’s socialism is evidently more intellectually bracing than previously countenanced.
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43things was a social network about personal ambitions. You’d enter your dreams and goals and other people could cheer you on. When successful, you could write a little post about how you did it and whether it was worth it.
I mainly used it to eavesdrop on other people’s life plans.
I once popped the word ‘escape’ into the in-site search engine and came up with some 472 items. The result was like a measure of gross international unhappiness. Or at least dissatisfaction. Or, more positively, a measure of people’s desire to put things right in their lives.
Many of the ‘escape’ ambitions are either similar to other ones or don’t make sense, so I’ve boiled them down to a single report of 65 hopes for escape. It’s almost like a poem, composed by the Citizens of the Internet, circa 2013:
Escape the masses
Escape from Google
Escape into nowhere
Escape my past
Escape from this city/country
Escape the cubicle
Escape from Alcatraz
Escape my parents
Escape From Jail
escape from it all
Escape…(for a while)
escape from myself
escape to a rainforest
Escape from Zajecar for a while
escape from my life
escape by train
escape the office
escape the routine
escape the midwest
escape the “curse”
escape from my ego
escape to paradise
Escape from Shawshank
Escape from Iran
escape from LA
escape from intolerance
escape from the matrix
escape to scotland
escape a life of corporate servitude
Pssh, I could tell you how to do any one of those.
I’ll probably not post much more about Universal Basic Income to this blog (though I reserve the right to tweet about it) lest NE become too one-note while there’s so much going on with UBI. As this article puts it:
There has recently been a surge of interest in basic income. […] Long derided as unaffordable and conducive to idleness, basic income is now attracting support from many quarters and standard objections have been robustly challenged. This interest has prompted the launch of several basic income pilots around the world. One started on 1 January in Finland with others planned in Ontario, Canada, Oakland, California, Aquitaine and Catalonia, and discussions are ongoing in Fife and Glasgow. A US NGO, GiveDirectly, is raising $30m for a 12-year experiment in Kenya.
But before we go quiet on this front, let me tell you that Utopia for Realists is a rather good book. It’s light on ideology and instead draws on a wealth of facts and figures, projections and dispassionate analyses of trials. We need more of this, especially in the age of personality politics and post-truth awfulness. There’s a great chapter about the history of UBI in which I learned the following.
President Nixon (of all people and, hey, as of this week he’ll only be the third most-despised US president in history) tried to get UBI for America. It was during a swell of national ambition after the moon landing, and in response to an open letter signed by 1,200 economists supportive of UBI.
Trials were conducted and the Nixon administration came tantalizingly close to eradicating poverty in America. Alas, it never made it through the Senate.
Attempts to save the project were made for a number of years and, in 1978, it almost made it. What ultimately killed the project was a moral panic resulting from a particular statistic from the trials: a 50% increase in divorce rates. This happened, it was reasoned, because women in receipt of UBI no longer had to stay married to jerks just to have food and a home.
Too much freedom for women was the concern that canned UBI in America.
I’m not sure which is more appalling — the very fact of this concern (“I’m not ironing my own goddam babies!”) or (wait for it) the discovery in 1988 that the 50% divorce figure was the result of a statistical error.
This is probably how the world will end, isn’t it? Stinking moral judgement based on obsolete ideas and a made-up a fact.
It resembles, to my mind, the current objection that UBI would lead to idleness when (a) trials indicate that it won’t, and (b) morally, there’s nothing wrong with idleness anyway. People shouldn’t have to stay put in a kitchen — domestically or professionally — if they don’t want to.
If you want to get a taste of this book before buying it, here is its author, Rutger Bregman, speaking quite compellingly on CBC Radio.
Shitty jobs for everyone won’t solve any social problems we now face.
Every now and again, a really good essay comes up to support our way of thinking in a generally mainstream and acceptable way. It’s usually written by an academic or someone else broadly respectable, not shouting from the fringe as we do from New Escapologist. I’m thinking of David Graeber’s On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, Tim Kreider’s The Busy Trap and (if this doesn’t stretch the definition of ‘essay’ too far) Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s Inventing the Future. They capture if not the popular imagination then at least that of the trend-makers, which is why journalists have started asking me about automation and the crisis in work — because, at last, they’ve heard about it. We’re knocking on the door of mainstream discourse now and that is very, very encouraging. We must question the work ethic at every opportunity, and thanks to these big shouts, it’s now easier and more acceptible to do so.
Anyway, a likely new addition has made it into this canon of essays in the form of the irreverently-titled Fuck Work by James Livingston.
what comes after work? What would you do without your job as the external discipline that organises your waking life – as the social imperative that gets you up and on your way to the factory, the office, the store, the warehouse, the restaurant, wherever you work and, no matter how much you hate it, keeps you coming back? What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income?
Arranging something like UBI is quite easy, he says, and a lot of the naysaying is precisely what it sounds like — naysaying. The real problem, he says, is a moral one: the problems of smashing the work ethic and replacing it with something else.
We’ve placed so many bets on the social, cultural and ethical import of work that when the labour market fails, as it so spectacularly has, we’re at a loss to explain what happened, or to orient ourselves to a different set of meanings for work and for markets.
the impending end of work raises the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human. To begin with, what purposes could we choose if the job – economic necessity – didn’t consume most of our waking hours and creative energies? What evident yet unknown possibilities would then appear? How would human nature itself change as the ancient, aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of human beings as such?
It’s a good essay. Lots of economic and moral thought has gone into it. Read the whole thing here.
A weekend break in Berlin to celebrate my birthday and to give Canadian Samara some long-promised time on a larger land mass than the tiny island we now live on.
My third time in Berlin, this was a leisurely trip spent largely sitting around and masticating. She sure doesn’t bring this up often (like every day or anything) but Samara comes from a land of great grub and has moved to a land of decidedly sub-par food just to be with me. Gastronomic tourism is my little way of making amends.
We took an AirBNB in Kreuzberg, my favourite neighbourhood of Berlin, and took refuge from the cold at various bobo-friendly restaurants and bars.
My favourite place to eat wasn’t a resto at all but a marketplace. It was an indoor market hall where you can buy sandwiches for €3 and great coffee for €2 and eat and drink at various little public tables, watching the world go by. Intergenerational groups of locals did the same, enjoying small glasses of wine in the leisurely fashion not quite embraced by the Calvinists of Scotland and England. This being a market hall, I was also able to enjoy the presence of gigantic German sausages. I didn’t know where to look.
On Saturday we visited the museum at Bauhaus archive. We love Bauhaus (who doesn’t?) and it fits in nicely with our current line of thinking about artistic production (social, art-meets-utility, minimalist).
Leaving the building, we spotted this stone tablet (above) declaring an “Extemporale Zone” (or “out-of-time zone”) in which “the representation of eternity in every instant is the uniting sound before utopia”.
On Sunday I had to meet a journalist from Die Welt to be profiled for the newspaper with regards to my book, Ich Bin Raus. I think the journalist was largely on board, though we had limited time together so I probably just yelped something about escapology and hoped for the best.
As with other journalists I’ve met lately she asked about automation and the coming crisis in the nature of work, which is clearly a big topic at the moment and one I could talk about for a long time. Ultimately, I think we have to choose as a society between something approaching socialism (UBI) and the ultimate expression of neoliberalism (widespread precariat struggle) and I think I was able to communicate this in the time we had.
Monday morning and we touch down in Glasgow, ever-so-slightly larger. Burp.
This article is a few months old now, timed to come out around the Swiss Referendum, but I only just got around to reading it. Oh well. It’s excellent and contains this simple little gem:
UBI is a somewhat uneasy mix of two objectives: poverty relief and the rejection of work as the defining purpose of life. The first is political and practical; the second is philosophical or ethical.
The piece is written by Robert Skidelsky who also co-wrote that smashing book How Much Is Enough? towards the end of which Citizen’s Income (UBI) is recommended as a sort of societal equivalent to individualist Escapology.
There’s also an illuminating brief history of welfare and this wee thing about the morals of being idle:
Most of the hostility to UBI has come when it stated in this second form. A poster during the Swiss referendum campaign asked: “What would you do if your income were taken care of?” The objection of most UBI opponents is that a majority of people would respond: “Nothing at all.”
But to argue that an income independent of the job market is bound to be demoralising is as morally obtuse as it is historically inaccurate. If it were true, we would want to abolish all inherited income. The 19th-century European bourgeoisie were largely a rentier class, and few questioned their work effort.