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Basic Income: The Foundation Stone of a Citizen Future Jon Alexander

Festival of Ideas
Jon Alexander

Written by Jon Alexander

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Jon Alexander began his career in advertising, winning the prestigious Big Creative Idea of the Year, before making a dramatic change. Driven by a deep need to understand the impact on society of 3,000 commercial messages a day, he gathered three Masters degrees, exploring consumerism and its alternatives from every angle. In 2014, he co-founded the New Citizenship Project to bring the resulting ideas into contact with reality. He is the author of Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us.

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

The doom-laden headlines of our times would seem to indicate there are two futures on offer. 

In one, an Orwellian authoritarianism prevails. Fearful in the face of compounding crises – climate, plagues, poverty, hunger – people accept the bargain of the ‘Strong Man’: their leader’s protection in return for unquestioning allegiance as “subjects”. What follows is the abdication of personal power, choice, or responsibility.

In the other, everyone is a ‘consumer’ and self-reliance becomes an extreme sport. The richest have their boltholes in New Zealand and a ticket for Mars in hand. The rest of us strive to be like them, fending for ourselves as robots take jobs and as the competition for ever-scarcer resources intensifies. The benefits of technology, whether artificial intelligence, bio-, neuro- or agrotechnology, accrue to the wealthiest – as does all the power in society. If the first is an Orwellian future, this represents the vision of Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. It sells itself on personal freedoms, but the experience for most is exclusion: a top-heavy world of haves and haves-nots.

Yet despite the bandwidth and airwaves devoted to these twin dystopias, there’s another trajectory: I call it the ‘citizen future’. 

Over the past few years I have been researching a book called Citizens, in which I propose a more hopeful narrative for the twenty-first century. In this future, people are citizens, rather than subjects or consumers. With this identity, it becomes easier to see that all of us are smarter than any of us. And that the strategy for navigating difficult times is to tap into the diverse ideas, energy and resources of everyone.

This form of citizenship is not about the passport we hold, and it goes far beyond the duty to vote in elections. It represents the deeper meaning of the word, the etymological roots of which translate literally as ‘together people’: humans defined by our fundamental interdependence, lives meaningless without community. It’s a practice rather than a status or possession, almost more verb than noun. As citizens, we look around, identify the domains where we have some influence, find our collaborators, and engage. And, critically, our institutions encourage us to do so. 

When we look beyond the headlines, we find this future emerging everywhere, even here in our increasingly dis-United Kingdom. It is in the 300 plus community energy projects that are generating renewable energy and reliable revenue for local people across England, in the face of the energy crisis. It is in the world-leading example of the Commissioner for Future Generations in Wales, holding the Welsh government to account for the impact of its decisions on generations as yet unborn. It is in the Scottish government’s pioneering embrace of citizens’ assemblies and deliberative democracy, which sees randomly selected, representative ‘mini publics’ come together to make recommendations on major policy decisions (like a criminal jury but judging policy rather than people). Perhaps most of all, it is in the vitality and determination of organisations like Northern Ireland’s Positive Carrickfergus, where local people are coming together to reimagine and rebuild their own communities, organising festivals, starting businesses, supporting those who are struggling.

Now we need to take the next step. In order to confirm the viability of the citizen future, we need to give it supporting structures and coherence. This demands we come together on a few big symbolic policy shifts – and is where some form of Basic Income must come in.

The reason a Basic or Guaranteed Income matters so much (I am less worried about the exact design than the principle) is that introduction of this measure would fundamentally shift the understanding of absolute poverty in the UK, from a personal choice for which the individual is responsible and must change themselves, to a policy choice, a collective responsibility which we must change together. 

By contrast with existing welfare provision, it would express a deep belief in people. Existing approaches are built around conditions that must be fulfilled in return for ‘benefits’: the underlying assumption is that the recipient can’t be trusted, must be checked on to make sure they are not perpetuating the bad choices through which they created their own situation. Basic Income approaches are the opposite: the underlying assumption is that everyone can and wants to make a contribution to society, and that poverty erects a fundamental barrier to that contribution that must be removed, not just for the good of the individual, but for the good that individual will then contribute to society. 

Basic Income is, as such, the most powerful and most direct political embodiment of the understanding that people are citizens, not subjects or consumers. If we want to reclaim the future, this is the place to start.

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