My language teacher in Germany, who was a PhD student in political science, showed our class a video about something called Grundeinkommen or, among its several other names in English, Universal Income. The video explained what this was: a wage paid unconditionally to every citizen. No means test, no work, no requirements of any kind. It went on briefly to discuss different economic models and the theory’s appeal to both the left and the right side of politics, then followed three everyday Germans participating in a simple trial.
We were B2 speakers: deep grammar was literally beyond us. Political detail would have been meaningless anyway since no two people in our class were from the same country. Just the bare ideas came out: freedom, money, citizenship. I could see from our responses that the thought of living without the obligation to earn money was scary. There was the very plausible view that, on their own clock, people would organise themselves around philanthropy, craft and research; there was the very plausible view that they would slide between the couch cushions, lost to video games, drugs and malaise. At the very least it proved an excellent learning tool. My teacher let his students from Russia, Korea, America, Sweden, Israel, Syria, Oman and Australia hold their amateur summit.
This was in 2018: at that time there was already a lot of discussion across the world about Universal Income. In Australia there had been some articles in the major papers and some discussion on Q&A, coverage stimulated more from without than from within: a no-more-than-dutiful monitoring of the government trials in India and Finland, some poo-poohing and speculating. The government at the time, if it was watching at all, seemed likely to employ its preferred tactic of waiting in arrears until the smoke cleared on the trials overseas.
Now the systems we took for granted suddenly look very fragile. Many of the challenges which a few months ago we were content to postpone appear both more urgent and more open-ended than most of us could have imagined. On an economic level, the crisis has forced a conservative government to release a family of support concepts, JobKeeper, JobSeeker, JobMaker, with more policy to be spawned. Many citizens with entrenched anti-welfare views have been forced onto these payment schemes. And on the level of public discourse, we have been forced to re-examine the way our culture organises time, professionally and otherwise, from kitchen-offices across the country. How the economy will finally reform itself is anyone’s guess but to many once sceptical eyes Universal Income suddenly appears a little bit sane, even uncannily plausible. To those who still see Universal Income as nonsense or merely a peculiar limit-case, the ideas it brings into relief are of very current interest: how sustainable are the assumptions that underlie our concepts of freedom, money, citizenship?
At face value, Universal Income sounds intuitively too expensive. No differentiation between rich and poor, everyone gets paid the same amount calculated to cover the average citizen’s basic expenses. Many pundits dismiss it immediately on that basis. But there are many others, notably from the right side of politics, who advocate Universal Income as a cheaper alternative to current (that is, pre-pandemic) welfare models. This is because it has the dual effect of eliminating or reducing the expensive bureaucracy of application assessment on the government’s end while allowing proof-of-eligibility hoop-jumping to become positive labour on the applicant’s end. This standing cost is also offset by projected savings in crisis situations like the present. The buffer infrastructure of Universal Income would ease the panic to roll-out saviour packages which in this country led to a well-publicised 60 billion dollar budget oversight, the largest in government history.
As it stands, there are various models and more trials are needed. Spain’s scheme, introduced in 2020, is arguably the closest thing to Universal Income on the level of major government policy that the world has ever seen. Intended by the Economic Minister to ‘stay forever’, it will become one of the testing posts in the continuing debate over issues like inflation and eligibility. It’s probable that, like most systems which depend on collective cohesion, feasibility comes down to a critical mass of support. The developed world has, on aggregate, a surplus of wealth. If enough people came to view this system as desirable, and to view themselves as responsible for its success, it would work. If not, it wouldn’t. So is it desirable?
We know that for those on the poverty line the obligation to make a living can be a death sentence. The current welfare system in part provides for these people at the expense of a different kind of entrapment: an abusive stigma in the eyes of the rest of society, and the continual, demoralising obligation to prove adequate need. This obligation, in many cases purely nominal, can become consuming to the point of addiction. Universal Income is designed to alleviate this kind of need without alienating those endangered by it from their life’s effort, or inflicting a sense of class inferiority. And, insofar as it’s universal, the deeper project is to organise the economy such that a citizen’s survival is granted as a right, not just a reward for the profitability of their work.
We could admire this moral ambition while continuing to ignore it. But the 2007 Global Financial Crisis and the current pandemic present glaring challenges to the assumption that money-making is an ordinary state to be reasonably expected of everyone. This systemic instability in the modern job market is matched by systemic vulnerability in the modern workforce — increasingly part-time, casual, freelance, job sharing and otherwise eccentrically designed. From this position we face forecasts of between a third and a half of the jobs in the developed world disappearing to automation by the time a child born today reaches adulthood. The number of unemployed Australians has breached 1 million for the first time since recording began. If our memories of 8 pm curfews are beginning to fade, the return to the old ways still seems scarily remote. So a chorus of voices are calling for Universal Income not just as an admirable moral ambition but as an urgent answer to clear trends: how long can we hold to the assumption that there will always be enough profitable employment to go around?
Some attendees of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival in 1973, described as Australia’s Woodstock, decided to stay on after the festival and share in the purchase of some land in the area. The miscellany of communes that grew around them was the beginning of Australian hippiedom, otherwise known as the alternate lifestyles movement. Jenny Del, an early pioneer at the still-active Tuntable Falls, the original and most well-known commune in the area, described in a later interview: ‘in the early days we looked on the dole as a form of rural subsidy where it allowed people like ourselves to establish ourselves on degraded land.’ Enabled by the Whitlam administration, under which university was free, living cheap and subsidies high, they would rescue skills from the concrete hurly-burly and, replanting them in a more independent environment, grow ‘institutions, structures, that we needed, that were appropriate to our needs’. Architects and master craftspeople, writers and psychologists, chefs and physicians, along with many green amateurs, piled on the ark.
The counterculture movements are seized on as precedents by both advocates and detractors of Universal Income. Evaluating their success will naturally depend on your point of view. The people who live on the surviving communes still scattered among the banana and marijuana groves of northern NSW are probably grateful for the experiments which they inherited. I first heard of the movement from one of these people, a friend of a friend who was born and raised on a commune near Glen Innis. He spoke about the upkeep of his mud humpie, the authority of Indigenous bushcraft, how the washing machine he was about to purchase would effect his solar energy calculations. On a certain set of subjects he was extremely well read, with his own sensible pantheon from which Tim Flannery and Peter Singer emerged as particular heroes. But he was occupied by a problem of his girlfriend’s. Having lived on the commune for much longer than the expected year before being granted her own allotment, she was constantly vetoed by a resident with an obscure vendetta. And these problems from within could find no redress from without. When city delinquents ran riot through his fields, a story involving crossbows and blue face paint, it was out of the question to call the police.
Jenny Del’s account of the origins of the movement leaves you with a similar impression of admirable self-reliance assailed by insane problems. She is no dilettante: her account, available via the State Library of NSW, is sober and eloquent. But she goes on to describe being shot at by neighbours for swimming naked, police raids which traumatised her children and her eventual abandonment of the commune. It seems as though the chariness of anything that might wear the label ‘authority’ which is a hallmark of counterculture thinking — sometimes including the authority of yourself over yourself — made it very hard to instil the minimum of control necessary to maintain a society. The communes attracted and bred, in her words, ‘a group of people who tended to throw the baby out with the bath water.’ In the words of that friend of a friend: ‘bush pirates’.
We have a conservative impulse that holds fragmentation to be an innate enemy of society. Individuality, it follows, is readily seen in terms of irresponsible self interest. An individual raised under the state’s protection forgoes an implicit contract, a type of family contract, by not making a ‘return contribution’ along established lines, which generally means holding down a job or sharing in some public effort. This sense is often sublimated into the label ‘personal lifestyle choice’ as in the pronouncements made on hippiedom by Clive Hamilton, founder of the independent think tank, the Australia Institute: ‘it’s people who can afford to pretend not to care. It’s not a movement based on a set view of society and a set of political demands. Rather it’s a personal lifestyle choice.’ When Elizabeth Anderson says that Universal Income ‘promotes freedom without responsibility’, she succinctly expresses the same fear. Many people drawing a blank trying to imagine life with Universal Income will project their worst case visions of hippiedom: chronic disorder and aimlessness devolving inevitably into paranoia and addiction.
It’s true that the revival and creation of all types of ‘personal lifestyle choices’ would in theory be enabled. There are ways in which this could serve clear political ends: for example, as a way to enable the populations of First Nations people still living in the bush, for whom a connection to the land is consubstantial with identity and religion, to stay in the bush. But, like the counterculture movements, it would also test our readiness to accept an increased degree of renegade behaviours and societal fragmentation.
Advocates of Universal Income leave open the possibility that people, relieved of inert welfare obligations, would be able to find some way of contributing positively on their own terms. This isn’t a stupid hope, if vague and optimistic. But at bottom there is still the question: are we capable of freeing people from an obligation which deforms their lives even if it means forfeiting any claim to ‘return contribution’? Could we extend this rope to people with an education, prospects and potential, as much as people on the poverty line? Those who welcome a divisible and flexible kind of order even at the risk of fragmentation would be able to support this, those who don’t would have to tolerate it.
But while the Love Generation’s famous slogan ends on the phrase ‘drop out’, Universal Income isn’t of necessity anti-authoritarian, a fact brought home by its appeal, albeit with different emphases, to both sides of politics. It’s a particular formula of personal freedom that, rightly or wrongly, has attached itself to the hippie movement, one built around an ethic of wild and rebellious independence. Counterculture history remains a valid litmus test for our embedded judgments about this kind of personal freedom, and a warning case for the difficulty of living out these ideals in a society built from scratch. But why isn’t it plausible to imagine the freedom underpinned by Universal Income built as much around an ethic of structured and social dependence? Bush piracy has its appeal, but 90 per cent of Australia’s population lives in cities. Buried in our dense networks, would a majority of us wake up one morning and, finding we don’t have to earn as much money as we used to, simply take up the crossbow?
Universal Income isn’t of necessity anti-capitalist either. True, a recognition of the limits of profitability as an organising principle is generally implied. The need of all citizens to provide for themselves, and the need therefore of society to provide enough profitable employment for each of its citizens, creates a blind feed back loop, loaded toward profit, the creation of more ways of getting it, and the breed of values which adhere to these goals. To make this loop more flexible is a key element of the vision. But the motivational function of capitalist competition isn’t nullified by Universal Income. It won’t eradicate the constructive encouragement of earning more money than your neighbour, it will only relieve the destructive threat of impoverished suffering if you don’t. A vigorous capitalist infrastructure, far from its enemy, is its gateway.
So if Universal Income is promoted as a way to forward many of the positive changes represented by the counterculture movements, the hope is equally to avoid the backslide inherent to revolution. We would need to make peace with ‘personal lifestyle choices’ but just as worthy of our attention would be those types of employment which are productive but not profitable; they would be more available than ever before. How do you relieve the economic strain felt by workers like teachers and journalists who, though essential to any society, don’t fit easily into the system of supply and demand? Again, we would need to make peace with ‘personal lifestyle choices’; we would also have a platform for more dedicated collective action. How could we bring into the institutional mainstream those causes and discourses which, no matter how broadly valued, could only ever exist in fragments among citizens forced to spend their time competing for material subsistence? We are at a juncture where ‘capability leads practice’: how will momentum be generated in the race against time fighting climate change, in the struggle to harness technology? The mass redirection of energy heralded by automation — is it worth straining our imagination to turn a profit from every last volt, or could we, in part, channel it toward something else?
Coming home from my class in Germany, I mentioned Universal Income to my partner. She knew all about it. This seemed typical. Where I had worked two jobs for a year to pay for the classes I was taking, she was drawing a wage from the Swedish government to take hers. With her it was easy to believe in money trees. And though we had both heard the stories of the many Syrians, Kurds, Israelis and Palestinians from our language school, and shared a sense of shame at the relative security of our backgrounds in Sweden and Australia, I had reserved some superior feeling by the fact of not receiving this support which would have been very helpful to me. Now Universal Income, which I had brought up with enthusiasm a moment ago, could be dismissed in the same way. This temptation to bolster identity by appeal to narratives of deprivation and survival is subtle, deep-rooted and completely at odds with the kind of social order Universal Income seems to project.
There is a much romanticised time when things which were profitable had a clearly perceivable link with survival. If the farmer didn’t rear his crop, the village would starve, if the tanner didn’t tan his leather, the village had no shoes. Now the chains of power are so massive and perplexing, obscured by future-shares and myriad parasite industries, that whatever survives of this romance is difficult to consciously uphold. The colossal revenue of the advertising industry is an indication of the way in which this economy of need has been cross-bred with economies of desire and perceived desire into something very ambiguous. Where once those who worked out of necessity had the satisfaction of producing necessities, now the largely white-collar work force operate at a very large remove from the first motivations and final consequences of their labour.
But, despite all this, an equation between earning power and the right to survival goes beyond Darwnism and neoliberal economic theory. It’s of a piece with the national affection for the battler and underdog and the vilification of the bludger and show off. It’s embedded even in the syntax of the phrase ‘to make a living’, and is a source of the everyday negativity toward accepting money when you’re sinking which persists even in people who readily give it out when they’re afloat. Most of us start our lives working primarily for a pay cheque. It’s not uncommon to continue for years, decades, or a lifetime in a job you don’t consider very meaningful or actively hate. For want of any other justification, earning money becomes, almost unavoidably, a wellspring of identity. It’s hard, once this has been internalised, to shake the fear that accepting help may mean forfeiting indentity. But when it runs too deep, this amounts to the refusal to improve and the inundation of mediocrity. The pandemic has been a case in point that to accept economic support does not mean failure. And the revolutions in identity politics, among other examples, are cases in point that existence beyond worrying about material subsistence isn’t bereft of all tension and heroism. One of the key challenges of Universal Income is not to view financial support as something which discourages engagement and invalidates success but as something which expands the possible scope of both.
Australia is a country raised under the wing of two dominant modern powers, Britain and the US, with a nominal GDP per capita in the top 10 worldwide according to the International Monetary Fund. This wealth, the mostly urban population and high rates of education among other factors make it a prime candidate to trial Universal Income. Our contagion figures are relatively low. In combination with our strategic advantage in the struggle to control the virus, being an island nation, this puts us in a unique position to assess the events shaking the world and take a leading position on the exit route. When Spain was in the throes of 28,000 COVID-19 deaths and rising, it saw no reason to wait.
But it may be hard to picture the cultural overhaul that would have to accompany the policy should it be implemented. In our country there is a deep-seated indifference to the arts, and disregard for the place of imagination in the life and wellbeing of society. All governments face the difficult task of deciding how best to prepare for futures which can’t be imagined. Ours has decided to do that without an Arts Portfolio. These careers, it explains, are ‘personal lifestyle choices’. The same government cites ‘anecdotal feedback’ that employers can’t find employees anymore, laying ground to roll back the schemes it was forced into by the pandemic. Our high rates of immigration and the furore over eligibility that would undoubtedly raise as well as our general apathy toward abstract theory and reluctance to mobilise around it are among the many other discouraging signs. Whether our experience of the pandemic will prevail on this status quo can’t be predicted in advance. In his clear-headed report to parliament in November 2016, Don Arthur concluded: ‘Attitudes would have to shift drastically for an unconditional basic income to win support from a majority of Australians.’
It seems to me that the utopian potential of Universal Income can easily be exaggerated, but so can its dangers and implausibility. There are struggles all around us which, on a daily basis, we’re forced to abandon and forget. Given increased power over our own attention wouldn’t make these problems disappear, even more would emerge. Material poverty, for all the most airtight policies and implementations, will likely never cease to exist. Old habits die hard, and money is a very clear and relatable motivator. Many would surely carry on with their goal of meeting the grave as a trillionaire. No doubt many invaluable contributions to society have been made by people who, if not for their profitability, never would have bothered to make them; some of these would be lost. There would be the banal fight against laziness, the serious fight against depression and anxiety. None of these challenges are, at bottom, new. There would be others which are. But the ways history has contrived to shake off prescription and test new ideals of freedom have always come at a price of delusion. Realising this beforehand can’t discourage us from wisening to the challenges which, whether we try actively to match their pace or not, are already advancing on us.
If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue