Breaking the spell of labour

A basic income (BI) has long been framed as a radical proposal for addressing various global challenges. Proponents have suggested it as means to redistribute wealth, promote financial stability, achieve gender equality and realise social, economic and environmental justice. A basic income is, I believe, essential to rethinking the future of work and responding to increasing insecurity and disparity.


Rife with insecurity

In Australia, employment is central to economic security. Having a job supposedly provides one with access to the spoils of late capitalism – your own house (or two), access to gourmet restaurants, regular overseas holidays, and the latest gadgets and consumables. Working a regular job confers a particular status: one is regarded as a respectable and responsible citizen. It’s how we are conditioned to think: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ is one of the first questions children are asked. We are encouraged to think through the usual vocations: doctor, teacher, fire fighter. (I was discouraged from my first choice, witch, as apparently it doesn’t pay well.) Within these early exchanges, our futures get locked in – we are taught that we must labour for our right to be financially secure.

This settler nation was built on the norm of waged labour. Participating in the formal economy was and still is the only way that someone can be counted as a productive member of society. This norm is reflected in attitudes towards welfare: access to social security was always conditional on whether you were deemed to have contributed to the country, such as through work or taxes. This is why some academics refer to Australia as a ‘workers’ welfare state’.

Of course, this position has been, and continues to be, divisive. Productivity defined by waged labour clearly excludes other forms of productive labour, such as raising children and maintaining a household, forms of work that are overwhelmingly extracted from women. In 2015, a report led by Jonathan Woetzel conservatively estimated that women’s unpaid work contributes US$10 trillion per year globally – that is, 13 per cent of the global GDP. Norms around waged labour also exclude the productive work undertaken by unpaid creatives, such as the writers, artists, painters and poets, and the productive work many First Nations people undertake through caring for country. These examples reveal the limited boundaries of what constitutes ‘formal labour’ and challenge us to rethink ‘work’, perhaps arriving at something along the lines of what Kathi Weeks describes as ‘productive cooperation organised around, but necessarily confined to, the privileged model of capitalist waged labour’.

The notion that employment is the bedrock of society has always been dubious, but has become even more so in recent years. Full, decent and secure employment is decreasing. The traditional ideal of a stable, permanent full-time job is increasingly out of the reach of many Australians, especially those who are young (even those with degrees). As noted in the Australia Institute’s submission to the 2018 Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers, less than half of Australian workers now fill one of those ‘standard’ positions. Instead, ‘temporary, part-time, casual, irregular, and nominally independent or self-employed positions are now the norm for more than half of workers’.

When discussing labour in Australia, most public commentators focus on unemployment rates, overlooking the fact that underemployment has also grown dramatically: about 1.1 million Australians would take more paid work if they could get it. To put it another way, in the 2016 census, 8.8 per cent of the population indicated they ‘would like more work but cannot find any more work’. That number was 2 per cent in the early 1980s.

As shown by a recent report from the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the figures are even worse for those aged fifteen to twenty-four, a group for whom unemployment is 13.5 per cent and underemployment 18 per cent. This means that almost a third of Australian young people are subjected to precarity – a state defined by economic insecurity and uncertainty – simply because there isn’t enough paid work to go around. Reasons for the failure of work are various, from inherent structural failures in capitalism, to poor economic management at a national level, continued attacks on unions, and increases in the gig economy and automation.

What I am describing here in Australia fits with global trends. Most of the world’s population endures precarious, often dangerous labour in what is known as the ‘informal economy’. The informal sphere is not regulated, meaning there are no labour protections or security provisions. Some workers, such as undocumented migrants or ethnic minorities, have the added pressure of stigmatisation and state-sanctioned discrimination. Globally, the informal labour market is the formal labour market: in some countries in South-East Asia and Africa, informal labour accounts for up to 90 per cent of all labour (if you include agriculture).

It’s a common policy misconception to view informal economies as simply precursors to formal ones. This is the position adopted by many governments, particularly those in the Global North, as well as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the major development agencies, all of which champion entrepreneurial acumen and skill development as a means of transforming economies dependent on informal labour. But this severely underestimates the enduring connection between labour insecurity and global capitalism. In truth, the informal economy is central to production in the formal economy. Precarity provides the surplus labour necessary to drive down formal labour costs, while also supplying cheap resources and commodities. Moreover, the precarity of global labour cannot be untangled from colonial dispossession, ecological destruction, military occupation and the raft of harmful development policies prescribed by the IMF and World Bank – the most striking examples being the structural adjustment programs and neoliberal reforms forced on developing nations in the 1980s and 1990s. Along with not bringing stability or advancement to the Global South, these policies led to significant economic growth in the North.

Here in Australia, despite rising rates of precarity and limits to labour markets, both Labor and Liberal governments have pursued punitive welfare as a way to distract from structural failures within the economy. We have seen a dramatic increase in programs that regard unemployment as the fault of an individual. This is tied up in ‘mutual obligation’: one’s access to welfare is conditional on doing some form of formal labour. We see this reflected in narratives of the deserving and undeserving poor.

The ‘deserving poor’ are those seen as having once contributed to society, or whose incapacity to work fits with accepted norms – for example, pensioners and veterans, those who have ‘done their time’ either in the labour market or on the battlefield. The ‘undeserving poor’, on the other hand, are those perceived to be shirking their responsibilities and to narratives around laziness and addiction.

This simplistic framing of welfare conveniently leaves out middle- and upper-class social support, including family tax benefits and subsidies paid to private schools and the private health system, as well as tax concessions, such as for those with self-managed super funds.

The current Australian welfare system is punitive, which is why we see programs such as ‘Work for the Dole’ and ‘income management’, both of which disproportionately target First Nations people. Despite over a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money being spent and overwhelming evidence that welfare quarantining has failed, the policy continues to be pursued. Just this year, new research was released from the Life Course Centre (an Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence) that showed causation between income management and negative impacts on children, including a reduction in birth weight and school attendance. Despite this and other evidence, the mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s iteration of income management – the cashless debit card – is being trialled again, predominantly on First Nations people in Ceduna, Kalgoorlie and East Kimberley, as well as another trial just passed for the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay region of Queensland.

The remote version of Work for the Dole, the Community Development Program, again targets First Nations people and is especially cruel, causing people subjected to the program to breach, as shown by Lisa Fowkes from the ANU, thirty to forty times more than those (mainly non-Indigenous people) subjected to the standard Work for the Dole program. Breaching often leads to a two-month Centrelink suspension, meaning these individuals and their families may go without a vital source of income. Poverty and hardship have increased under both programs, despite both being subjected to Senate inquiries and ongoing community resistance.

In a cruel twist, the way to get off Work for the Dole, income management or welfare more broadly is to get formal employment. Yet labour markets are limited – especially in remote Australia. There are simply not enough full and dignified paid jobs. Further, according to research released by the Australian Council of Social Services, 55 per cent of Newstart recipients are living below the poverty line. This is a worrying trend because the social security system was set up to help people avoid poverty, not create it.

I should add that while many Australians suffer from underwork, a great deal endure overwork. Long hours take people away from their families, and work demands can increase stress, affecting health and wellbeing. Working more doesn’t mean people are more fulfilled either. Rather, they are often working in what David Graeber has termed ‘bullshit jobs’ – paid jobs ‘so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince themselves there is a good reason for them to be doing it’. Instead, people spend hours of their lives in meetings, writing reports, stacking shelves or entering data, but with no meaning. What does all of this doing actually do? Make a few already wealthy people richer and more powerful? But what does it really do for society, or for the person subjected to the daily bullshit?

For many workers, there is no deep or substantive meaning in their paid work. It’s just bullshit demands on people’s precious time.


Enter the BI

It’s within this context that we should consider the BI. It’s a simple idea that has garnered support from scholars and intellectuals over many centuries – the Basic Income Earth Network cites Thomas More’s sixteenth-century satire Utopia as the earliest documented account of the idea.

In short, a BI is an unconditional payment given to every resident of a particular region. The amount is not enough to make one rich, but enough to keep a roof over one’s head. Importantly, the BI is not a substitute for welfare – it doesn’t eliminate other social security support, such as healthcare, education, social housing or disability support. I bring the BI to the conversation not as a silver bullet for the issues outlined above, but because a BI, alongside other measures such as a radically redistributive tax system, may well be a great step towards a more just and equitable world.

There are four main reasons why we should seriously consider a BI.

First, by positioning us all on the same unconditional economic base, people can push back harder against disempowering labour conditions. In other words, people will be free to withdraw or suspend their labour from exploitative or oppressive conditions without the fear of destitution. This is important given the rapid rise of the gig economy, labour precarity and attacks on unions. A BI gives people the freedom to say no.

Some arguments against BI have overlooked this point and have suggested – in my view wrongly – that a BI undercuts workers. Yet the importance of many BI models lies in the bargaining ability it affords labourers in formal employment. Still, given that the availability of formal and dignified employment is dramatically eroding – a reality that will worsen as the impacts of climate change are increasingly felt – we need to go further. We also need to redefine work.

To redefine work, we need labour to be decommodified, which leads to my second argument: a BI delinks economic security from formal labour. This is important. As discussed earlier, not everyone can get a job, and not all productive work is paid. Scholars like Weeks have argued that a BI, coupled with shorter working hours, has the potential to support individuals engaged in activities not rewarded by capitalist labour markets (for example, creative endeavours, environmental activism or care work, which disproportionately falls to women and older Australians). The key to this, though, is redefining ‘work’ and ‘productive’. We need to develop a broader sense of these words so that everyone feels free to undertake activities they value without generating another abandoned class, the ‘BI-ers’.

Third: a BI is not a grant or payment, but actually every person’s right to the wealth we all take part in generating. Until now, we have seen much of this wealth concentrated in the hands of the elite. This growing inequality is a sickness of our times. A 2017 Oxfam report revealed that the top 20 per cent of people in Australia have five times more income than the bottom 20 per cent, and hold seventy-one times more wealth. Australia’s two richest billionaires are wealthier than the bottom 20 per cent of the population. A key part of challenging inequality is to demystify the notion that these elite individuals create this wealth at all.

Let me explain why: this vast wealth is generated not only off the backs of workers, but also through the social relations that create value for specific commodities and services. In other words, we make particular assemblages economically relevant by attaching a sense of value to them. For example, an iPhone is an assemblage of metals and matter linked together. It doesn’t have a price tag of over $1,000 because it costs $1,000 to make – the appalling labour conditions and remuneration rates of workers on the assembly line make sure of that. The iPhone’s market value comes from each of us reproducing its social value: we position it as important item to own and that is what makes it profitable. Put a different way: if we didn’t relate to iPhones as so valuable, Apple couldn’t sell them for the price and quantity they do. We all generate the wealth captured by the few.

There is another reason why we must challenge the myth that extreme wealth is individually generated and thus deserved: wealth captured by elites is generated by the free use of public goods that we all pay for. We pay taxes for the roads and ports used to move goods around, we pay for the public (and private) education system supplying innovation, and we pay to maintain the legal system that upholds their ability to accumulate. Moreover, much of the wealth captured by elites is accumulated off the backs of those labouring in Australia or elsewhere. But even that is changing: financialisation and automation have shown that labour is no longer necessary for wealth accumulation.

Instead of seeing extreme wealth as something that belongs to individuals, we need to see it as something we all contribute to. A BI is a mechanism to radically rebalance this injustice: a social dividend, a right to an inheritance of wealth that we all socially generate. This is what anthropologist James Ferguson has called a ‘rightful share’. (Note that the BI presented here is vastly different to the model called for by many tech-utopians, who propose a BI as a mechanism to keep us from destitution without radically redistributing wealth, thereby maintaining their elite status.)

Fourth – and here is some good news – a rightful share isn’t utopian. In fact, it’s very much achievable. Unsurprisingly, there are different ideas about the means to implement a BI. John Quiggin, from the University of Queensland, suggests a ‘stepping stone’ approach, whereby either ‘basic’ or ‘universal’ is preferenced during the implementation process (and the other added over time). For example, an initial universal focus would result in a small universal payment for everyone, with the amount gradually increasing over time, to the point where it becomes sufficient to meet basic needs. A basic implementation would start with one group (such as young people) who are first given the full basic income, with other groups added over time to make it universal – an approach preferred by Quiggin and outlined by Troy Henderson (University of Sydney) and Ben Spies-Butcher (Macquarie University).

Some of the calculations I’ve seen floating around about how much a BI will cost are misleading. The error is that the cost of BI is presented as the gross cost (the size of the proposed basic income multiplied by the population size), rather than its true net cost (the proposed size of the basic income multiplied by the number of net beneficiaries, without counting the net contributors paid through redistributive tax). Importantly, the BI is not a standalone measure; it interacts with the tax system as a redistributive mechanism, and the cost would be eased in over time if implemented in the staged ‘basic’ approach.

Pushing for full implementation of a BI is preferable to a trial. Karl Widerquist makes this argument by drawing attention to how changes in government can interrupt trials (as seen in both the Finnish, Utrecht and Ottawa examples), or how results can be undermined and misinterpreted by opportunist opponents. Because of this, Widerquist argues, the political energy needed to bring in trials would be better spent in legislating a complete rollout.

Perpetual challenges to labour continue to be revealed – from growing inequality, unpaid productive work and climate change, to the failure of ‘employment’ to provide economic security in the Global South and, increasingly, in the Global North. This makes the BI an important proposition – and a possible way forward. In the place of witches to cast a spell to make this world all better, we need to find ways to secure a rightful share for all.




Elise Klein

Elise Klein is a senior lecturer in Development Studies, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. Her new book is Developing Minds: Neoliberalism, Psychology and Power (Routledge, 2017).

More by Elise Klein ›

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