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UBI and the Dawn of the Unviables Emma Harvey

Festival of Ideas
Emma Harvey

Written by Emma Harvey

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Emma Harvey, CEO Trinity Community Arts and Trustee of Bristol Law Centre, looks at UBI, work and purpose.

This article is part of a series on universal basic income to coincide with the conference ‘Back to Basics: Income for Everyone?’.

We’re all broke so there seems no better time in the UK to make the case for Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI promises an end to child hunger, domestic violence and crime and improving mental and physical health. It will even create a new generation of entrepreneurs who, unburdened by the trappings of poverty and the mundanity of work, are able to pursue their creative dreams in a life free from worry.

It’s even more attractive when compared to our conditional welfare system that leaves people feeling at best stigmatised and at worst facing punitive sanctions. Rethink Mental Illness warned in August that claimants are now more likely to be under sanctions than to have Covid. The employment rate for people on Universal Credit has increased to 42 per cent as we top up wages for some of the largest and most profitable businesses in the country.

Advocates of UBI want to be clear this is not socialism. After all, we can’t risk scaring the free market thinkers, bolstered by billionaire advocates such as Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson who, whilst not so much advocating for UBI, talk about it as the logical end facing us unviables. Does it really matter if UBI comes as a result of socialism or as an anticlimactic conclusion to the story of humankind as we’re rendered obsolete by a more efficient robot army?

The question as to how those in power solve the problem of the wretched poor has shaped UK Poor Laws for hundreds of years. Today, researchers from the London School of Economics and Warwick University suggest that 46 per cent of the gains from the abolition of the 45 per cent NI rate (£1bn), now dropped after widespread concern and protest, would have gone to people with annual incomes in excess of £3.5m. I can’t help thinking that UBI comes to us at this time when we are at our most vulnerable, not so much as a golden egg but a consequence of us all mattering less and less in the pursuit of profit. A more efficient way of managing ye sinners, poor and needy.

If driven by the very appetite of consumption that got us here this will just be another chapter in a capitalist tale that’s already written us out of the story. In this strange new world of UBI and global tech giants, whose only current limiter is customer satisfaction, would it even matter if we’re satisfied or not? And who needs minimum wage rules if all our labour contracts become almost voluntary as the machines do the rest?

Maybe I’ve spent too much time watching Terminator movies and reading stuff like Small is Beautiful by E F Schumacher. Or maybe I’m just a product of a working-class household duped by Thatcher into believing work and leisure are two complimentary parts of a whole. Still, that reciprocity of work feels missing, and I’m drawn to thoughts of ex-offenders who I’ve worked with as part of back-to-work schemes who talk about work not in the context of money or comfort, but about a sense of belonging and the feeling of being treated like a human being again.

It may feel hard to hold onto some retro view of Buddhist economics while the number of in-work poor is rising. But if we don’t at least want for more we may end up with a fix that upholds the drivers of inequality and allows those who’ve accumulated vast wealth off the hook from doing anything about the conditions they continue to manifest. Advancement of our collective rights against these market forces have historically occurred because of protest, strike and people power galvanised by withholding our labour. UBI risks handing over our only leverage as working-class folk in a society where those of us perceived as economically defunct are rendered politically powerless. Why contend with the employed and unmanageable when we can make the masses unemployed and manageable.

UBI is yet to be fully adopted anywhere nationally and I remain unconvinced that if or when it does it will come without conditions or some unfavourable consequence from output without employees and income without employment. We must resist oversimplifying the complexities at the heart of what makes us healthy happy people. As well as the comfort that the promise of UBI affords us we also need meaning, opportunity, and the ability to nurture our whole selves and others. For the poor and working classes that means holding onto and building on any power we already have – be it money, resilience, cultural and community collateral, or just our ability to mobilise, speak up and take action about stuff that matters to us. We relinquish the power of purpose at our own peril. UBI might make life more tolerable, but I want better than tolerable for my fellow humans.

Image credit: Paul Blakemore

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