The idea of a universal basic income may have once sounded outlandish. But in societies where everyday lives are increasingly insecure and stressful, talk of this radical proposal will not go away. We spoke to Natalie Bennett and Adam Ostolski, both former Green party leaders, about basic income and the Green vision for the future.
Basic income is being talked about more and more all across Europe. What does the basic income debate tell you about the key political trends in Europe?
Natalie Bennett: The rising debate about universal basic income reflects the common understanding that we need transformational change in our societies. People recognise that what we are doing now isn’t working and that things cannot stay the same. Insecurity is the pressing issue of our times. People fear not being able to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. In our different societies, we have accepted the idea of at least some universal services. In Britain, the National Health Service is possibly the most loved aspect of British society. But the idea of giving people the security of a guaranteed regular income has now risen to the top of the agenda as well.
Adam Ostolski: The debate about universal basic income is an answer to ongoing change in relations between labour and capital, and not only in terms of technology and robotisation. Basic income offers more than just adaptation to the status quo. It reclaims the utopian or transformative dimension of politics. In times of individualism when people have greater need for autonomy, old social protection systems can be too overwhelming and controlling. Basic income instead is a radical claim on the behalf of the people and affirms the idea that we can shape the world around us.
Basic income offers more than just adaptation to the status quo. It reclaims the utopian dimension of politics.
One of the strongest arguments in favour of universal basic income is that it allows us to value unpaid work and whatever we do in our life to care for other people without making it a commodity. This is crucial because the alternative would be for somebody to measure unpaid work to establish how much it should cost, entailing an even deeper commodification of social relations. Universal basic income would let us to go beyond this alternative of care work being either invisible and not commodified or commodified but still invisible.
Natalie, the Greens in England and Wales are focusing on wellbeing and happiness. How does basic income relate to wider rethinking of growth and what the economy is for?
Natalie Bennett: We’ve increasingly been caught up in the idea that we exist for the economy. But the economy is here to serve us and so we want to look at both paid work and unpaid and increase how much free time people genuinely have. No one lies on their death bed and says I wish I spent more time in the office. Universal basic income can free people to think about how they want to use their time. At the Green Party conference, we had a fringe on creatives and universal basic income with the musicians union and Equity, the actors’ union. They were explaining how much preparation you need for careers in the creative sector. If you are a musician, even going to a gig is potentially part of preparing yourself for a career. But because of today’s 40-plus hours a week grind, people are desperately stuck. Universal basic income would give people the space and time to think, develop, and stick with their talents.
Do you think basic income offers real political potential for the Greens and the Left?
Natalie Bennett: We need to take the word security back from the Right. Security doesn’t come from guns, soldiers, or nuclear weapons. It comes from people not worrying about losing their home, having enough to eat, and having education for their children. What the populists say is that there are not enough resources in the world for everyone to have a decent life and so we need to grab them all and keep the other people out with walls. A universal basic income is foundational to the green perspective that argues there are enough resources in the world for everyone to have a decent life, we just need to share them fairly. It is crucial for us to express this positive vision simply and clearly to electorates in desperate need of hope. Even some of the people attracted by the far right have gone there because they have not seen real alternatives put forward.
Security doesn’t come from guns, soldiers, or nuclear weapons. It comes from people not worrying about losing their home, having enough to eat, and having education for their children.
Adam Ostolski: Basic income has already reinvigorated debate on the Left and beyond. I need to come out as a sceptical supporter of the basic income. Differentiating between valid concerns about basic income and simple ideological objections is something that interests me, as is the whole debate between different transformative reform proposals now discussed on the Left. It’s not just the basic income. If we put it in a broader context, we have also shorter working time, the job guarantee, and the debate about money creation. Some people believe that these ideas are contradictory, either you have a job guarantee or basic income and you cannot have both. Others think that they are complementary and that good politics would be to have both. This is the debate that we need to have. Whatever your position is, this debate refocuses attention away from the agenda imposed by the Right, especially the xenophobic Right, to an agenda coming from the Left. Whether you support basic income, a job guarantee, or monetary reform, if you are part of this debate, you are shifting the political ground in the right direction.
Some people criticise basic income as neoliberal and designed to roll back the welfare state. How can Greens counter this narrative and stand apart from free-market versions of basic income?
Natalie Bennett: The neoliberal approach has innate conditionality, so what they are usually talking about is not a universal basic income. Universal credit as pushed by the Tories in Britain is based around extreme conditionality in benefit payments. Universal basic income is the absolute reverse of universal credit.
But some people also have tried to set this up as a question of universal income versus universal services and put it that you have to choose one or the other. The green vision is for both. For example in Britain, the National Health Service, schooling, and free services such as university tuition fees go along with our vision for a basic income. But it is also key that any universal basic income is set at a sufficient level so that you can live on it to a minimum basic standard. If it is set too low and you have to work full-time as well, it becomes a wage subsidy.
Adam Ostolski: This misty idea of a basic income as such is too general. In certain cases, the idea of basic income as a neoliberal ploy is a valid concern and we need to acknowledge this. What we call the basic income is of course universal and sufficient. But what others, especially powerful political actors, may introduce as a basic income may be very different to what we imagine. So we need to be cautious and to pay attention to what’s going on. Criticism of basic income may help us to avoid certain traps that might lie ahead.
basic income is also fundamentally anti-fascist. At centre of fascist ideology is the conviction that life itself is something that needs to be deserved
The idea of a basic income contradicts the assumption that people have to earn their dignity. With just the idea, not even the policy, of basic income we contradict this image of deserving and undeserving. This in of itself is anti-neoliberal because neoliberalism is built around the idea of workfare. To have social protection, you need to deserve it and to work. Not only anti-neoliberal, basic income is also fundamentally anti-fascist. At centre of fascist ideology is the conviction that life itself is something that needs to be deserved.
You both contributed to our Green Observatory on basic income around Europe. It shows that despite the differences in wealth, social protection, and political landscapes, across Europe there is real interest. Could we imagine a European basic income?
Adam Ostolski: It’s a necessary to think about basic income as an all-European tool for social and economic transformation, otherwise we’ll again end up debating migration and benefits. In Poland, we have now a debate about quasi or almost universal family allowance. What is interesting is that same people who are sceptical about the principle of universality and unconditionality also tend to declare themselves as pro-European. So from our Polish perspective, it would be useful to have Europe as a source of these transformative ideas.
Natalie Bennett: The British answer has to engage with Brexit. We often hear complaints from the far right that benefits attract people to the UK. People actually travel for work, for personal reasons, for love, because they want to learn a language, for all sorts of reasons. We don’t know if Brexit will happen, but if it does then obviously the UK could bring in UBI unilaterally. Regardless of Brexit, what we are seeing are more and more trials run on a regional basis. It is perfectly possible to introduce UBI in a single region and we are looking into trials in the Greater Manchester area. I like the idea of Europe-wide basic income, but it doesn’t have to be that.
Let’s imagine a society where basic income had been introduced in 2025. If we were then to look at 2040, after 15 years of basic income, what changes might we expect in our everyday lives?
Natalie Bennett: What we would see is a happier, healthier society. People would probably be working fewer hours and spending more time in education and training. You’d see a flowering of small independent businesses and creatives. If we were to do this on a regional basis, say in South Wales or Greater Manchester, among the most deprived areas of Europe today, it would be a place where people would be able to start their own small businesses and get themselves trained or re-trained.
Adam Ostolski: There are two scenarios. If everything goes right, as planned and as dreamed, we will have a society with more autonomy, enhanced creativity, and greater freedom to maintain social bonds. We will do work that is meaningful and won’t rely so much on economic growth. That’s the optimistic scenario.
But there is also a dystopian scenario with basic income. A crucial point is how much the basic income will be and whether it will be sufficient. Who decides how high the basic income is? It’s not just a normative question of who should decide, it’s also a question of who has the power to decide. The dystopian scenario is with a floating population where people are dependent on government money, but the government is not necessarily democratic and has all the tools to adjust it depending on its needs.
What conditions do we need to prevent the dystopian scenario where something goes wrong? First, bargaining power. We need institutions that recreate and regenerate the bargaining power of the people versus the ruling classes. Second, the money the basic income is paid in. Since the 1970s, our money has been created by private banks in the form of debt. If this continues to be the case, then the dystopian scenario is much more likely. To have this autonomous, creative society that does not depend on economic growth, we need to combine the demand for basic income with the demand for currency reform.
Natalie, you were at the global Basic Income Earth Network meeting this summer. With growing interest, can we expect to see basic income introduced in the foreseeable future?
Natalie Bennett: Yes, it will probably be. What we’ll see first is significantly scaled and well-designed trials. In Scotland they’re taking two years to carefully plan and think through a trial. In the next couple of years, we’ll see a lot more of that and perhaps even a trial that is truly universal on a regional scale. In three or four years’ time we’ll have a vast amount of data on the impact of universal basic income trials and, at that point, the first country will probably bite the bullet and introduce it fully.
Adam, do you think we’ll see basic income soon?
Adam Ostolski: Well, I am not an oracle but it has begun to be thinkable. With growing pressure and a rich debate, we will expand alliances. I cannot say if it will happen soon but, with experiments mushrooming all over the world, it is possible.
Pilots can help build up interest in basic income but they can also backfire as in Canada, where one was cancelled half-way through. Do we need basic income pilots and how much can we learn from them?
Natalie Bennett: We need pilots to work out where the problems lie in any individual country or region, to see where or if some people might be disadvantaged. But we need pilots that are looking to implement universal basic income, not pilots that are an excuse not to take action. It’s quite easy to see the difference between the two.
We are always going to be subject to the realities of political change, what happened in Canada was an utterly reprehensible situation where the government made the decision to do something, told the participants that it was for two years and then a new right-wing government just stopped the scheme and left some pretty disadvantaged people severely in the lurch. You can’t blame that on universal basic income. Let’s put the blame where it’s due on a right-wing government acting inhumanely and unjustly, which I am afraid is not uncommon.
work is not a climate neutral activity, it always consumes some resources and energy.
Adam Ostolski: I am also in favour of pilots. We know that there are good ones and bad ones. Some of them are designed to test something that resembles basic income and some of them are designed to test basic income as a form of labour market policy, which I believe should not be the case. But good or bad, more pilots give us a variety of experiments and approaches to look at. We just need to be cautious not to let the media or others to misinterpret the outcome of pilots and to be careful about the conclusions we draw from them.
The recent IPCC report further highlighted the critical urgency of climate change. Can basic income contribute to combatting climate change?
Natalie Bennett: UBI is essential for people to not feel like they have to have more stuff for their security. At the moment people feel the need to compete against each other to advance at work because the spectre of being left with nothing at the back of everyone’s mind. If you take away the fear and insecurity, then people can choose to have less stuff or to have more free time. Universal basic income makes it possible to live within the limits of this one fragile planet. It is hard to see how we can do that without it.
Adam Ostolski: Universal basic income would help us to overcome one of the strongest obstacles to stopping climate change which is that we work too much. We even have this phenomenon of ‘bullshit jobs’ where people are employed to do unnecessary things just so they spend their time at work. But work is not a climate neutral activity, it always consumes some resources and energy. Our goal needs to be not just to consume less but more enjoyably, but also to work less and more enjoyably.