The radical potential of a universal basic income: a reply to Ben Kunkler

Universal basic income (UBI) – a regular cash payment made unconditionally to all citizens in order to meet basic needs – has been the source of much debate across the left and elsewhere recently.

In a recent piece for Overland, Ben Kunkler outlined his case against UBI. Like Kunkler, I too am sceptical of UBI for its potential to be used as a tool to undermine the welfare state, and to pacify ‘a propertyless mass’ into accepting economic relations as they stand.

Yet to dismiss UBI because of these and other fears, as Kunkler does, is to ignore its radical potential. At its most generous, and indeed most utopian, a UBI could allow leftist politics to reclaim its old promise of expanding leisure time, and with it the domain of human freedom.

Of course, any UBI designed by neoliberals and endorsed by the likes of techno-space billionaire Elon Musk would be a travesty, and ought to be opposed. As Kunkler asserted, such a scheme would barely provide a subsistence payment, and would be constantly under attack by conservative governments. The libertarian vision of the policy disturbingly sees UBI replace the welfare state with privatised essential services, to the detriment of ordinary people.

Yet this bleak vision of UBI does not mean we should discard the policy altogether. If a better, more equitable version of UBI is possible, shouldn’t we aim to implement that, rather than shy away from the policy because it might become a neoliberal wolf in sheep’s clothing?

As sociologist David Calnitsky has argued, a generous UBI, implemented as a single plank in a strong welfare state, would be of a drastically different character than a meagre payment designed to pay for services. Calnitsky suggests that UBI should be designed to ensure people are not forced into work merely to avoid poverty, thus ‘negat[ing] the coercive nature of the capitalist labour market.’

A substantial UBI thus points towards a liberating possibility and long-held desire for Western societies: that people spend less time at work and more time doing what they want.

An increase in leisure time – once a central goal of the labour movement – is sorely needed in western societies. In Australia, working hours for full-time employees increased throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and have only declined slightly since, despite significant increases in productivity. To add insult to injury, workers’ real wages in Australia are no longer rising in line with increased output.

A UBI could help to reverse this trend: workers could afford to work fewer hours or accept part-time jobs without having to risk poverty, as many of the casualised ‘precariat’ are forced to do today. As productivity increases massively due to automation – 40 per cent of Australian jobs ‘face the high probability of being replaced by computers in the next 10 to 15 years’ – an ample UBI would ensure that the fruits of technological progress are evenly distributed, rather than resulting in mass unemployment and misery for the many.

A UBI would also increase leisure by diminishing the need for ‘knowledge workers’ to undertake pointless busywork that contributes nothing to society, or what economist David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’.

Importantly, the aim of a generous and well-calibrated UBI would not to be to get rid of paid work altogether. Rather, UBI would redistribute work and leisure according to choice; people would be free to choose how many hours to devote to work and how many to devote to leisure. Those working more would be rewarded by more income; those working less, with more leisure.

So long as the financial rewards of work are substantially more than the basic income – what David Calnitsky calls the ‘Goldilocks’ level of UBI – many people will still choose the monetary rewards of paid work over a life consisting entirely of leisure.

This would ensure that the tax base that funds the UBI is not eroded, and productivity remains high enough to maintain our standards of living. Yet people choosing not to work will not be punished for their ‘freeloading’, but simply choosing a different lifestyle; one which is currently afforded only to the wealthiest.

UBI could do more than simply increase leisure. Despite Kunkler’s worries about meagre wages and the death of the union movement, a generous UBI would actually increase workers’ bargaining power. As David Calnitsky writes, the safety net of the UBI gives people a genuine choice to leave an abusive or exploitative employer (or indeed, an abusive partner), thus providing a stronger position from which to negotiate conditions. Indeed, during a Canadian experiment trialling a minimum income, businesses were forced to increase their wages in order to attract labour.

Kunkler argues that a UBI would give out money to billionaires, which it would, but the highest income earners would be at a net loss after tax. Furthermore, the UBI’s universality is an important part of its character. As David Calnitsky has pointed out, wealth transfer policies that affect large swathes of the middle classes are much more popular (and thus less likely to be watered down) than welfare policies targeted to small sections of the population. This popularity, along with concerted political campaigning, could ensure that UBI becomes a civic right, not a welfare program.

Finally, Kunkler suggests that the UBI is simply not radical enough: it will not be available to the global South, and the wealthy should instead ‘hand over the means of production.’ This makes the perfect the enemy of the good, and the impossible the enemy of the possible. UBI, while utopian, is a policy that can emerge from our current or near-future political system, implemented as a part of a democratic socialist program in western nations, becoming an example that could be adopted across the world.

Any proposal for a UBI should be examined with caution. Making the transition from utopian program to policy reality will not be easy, or perhaps even possible, in the admittedly optimistic guise I have outlined. Yet the UBI points towards a radical future. Writing in in 1890, Sidney Webb argued that the push for the eight-hour day was ‘a demand for a new life.’ Universal basic income, while no panacea, could help ordinary people to realise new lives, less dominated by work, in which leisure is available to all.



Gavin Scott

Gavin Scott is a freelance writer and English language teacher living in Melbourne. He was the winner of the 2018 Questions Writing Prize.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Agree that having a utopian vision is essential if we’re to hold onto the idea that ends and means are connected. The rub for UBI is what are the means? The last time there was a significant gain in our welfare arrangements was in the 1970s. Riding the waves of industrial action, second wave feminist movement and the Vietnam moratorium campaign the single parent pension was won by self-organised single mums. So was the Disability Support Pension. So was Child Care Benefit a bit later. Today we’re facing the ravages of a shit Newstart Allowance that tortures people with poverty. Soon everyone on a payment will have a healthy welfare card rather than cash. If UBI is your utopia good luck to you. Mine’s to abolish the wage system altogether. Either way the means need to be the same. It’s worse than idealist to seek a UBI through rational argument. By somehow appealing to the good sense of employers or a neoliberal state. That’s the path to perdition. If it’s
    To be a gain for us it has to won by building social movements that act in our interests. The road to a UBI worth having is to join the current campaign to increase the dole. To stop the roll-out of the healthy welfare card. And to support broader social movements such as refugee rights campaign as well as becoming the best activist in your union. Otherwise UBI talk is just masturbatory.

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