Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Is the Citizens Income idea becoming Mainstream?

In my youth, back in the 1970s, it was a common assumption that people in advanced economies would work much reduced hours in the future. It was said that this would lead to an expansion of leisure time, which in turn would lead to more jobs in the leisure industries.

There was the feeling around that traditional jobs would be reduced by technological developments, and that this would lead to what was left job wise, being shared around by the workforce. The creation of these extra leisure type jobs would then additionally take up some of the slack left by reduction in traditional jobs. Indeed, it was moving a little in that direction in the 1970s, with working hours reducing alongside a fall in jobs in heavy industry in the UK.

Sadly, the less hours scenario was reversed in the 1980s, by the Thatcher Conservative government’s decimation of British industry with those now surplus workers left to languish on unemployment benefit, which to be fair, in those days, was not subject to the condition of ‘actively seeking work.’ Unemployment benefit was too low (although, allowing for inflation higher than today) for people to live on, but a black market of ‘off the cards’ working developed, at least in the south east of England where there was some work to be had.

Jobs in services, which includes leisure activities, also grew during the 1980s and the number of women in the workforce increased quite dramatically to largely fill these service jobs, but working hours increased for many in these new jobs, which were usually low paid and uninspiring.

I first came across the idea of a Citizens Income (CI), or Social Wage as it was then referred to, in the early 1980s, and found that it was proposed from the 1970s onward by the Ecology Party, the forerunner of the Green Party. Although I later discovered that it was a much older idea, with Tom Paine, amongst others advocating it as far back as the late eighteenth century.  

Last week, John Harris, wrote an interesting piece in The Guardian newspaper, on the rise in popularity of the Citizens Income. Harris points out that the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) spring conference last month passed a motion supporting the idea of CI and that 23 of the SNPs MPs, along with a few Labour and Northern Ireland’s SDLP MPs voted in favour of the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas’ early day motion in Parliament on the issue.

The Green Party of course campaigned, to an extent, on CI in last year’s general election (it wasn’t in the manifesto but is a long standing policy aim for the party), which aroused a fair bit of (critical) media comment.

The usual sort of thing that is said against CI, is that it encourages ‘work-shy scroungers’ and a ‘something for nothing society’ was repeated during in the election, along with some spurious calculations on the likely very high cost of the scheme. The Greens duly retreated behind the line that this was only a long term aim.

There are potentially huge cost savings in CI, as it a very easy and cheap to administer, saving on means tested benefits, which would largely be unnecessary under an automatic CI system, and I think the Green Party should be more ambitious about the level of CI (£72 per week was the recommended figure by the Greens at the election). It really should be at least double this amount to have real value, I think.

This would give some basis for financial security in an economy that produces more and more temporary and zero hours jobs, as well as allowing for caring and other unpaid work to be undertaken.

Reduced working hours also appears to make us more productive. An Australian study of people over 40 by Melbourne University, reported by the BBC, found that a part-time job keeps the brain stimulated, while avoiding exhaustion and stress, and increases productivity. Those taking part were asked to read words aloud, to recite lists of numbers backwards and to match letters and numbers under time pressure. In general terms, those participants who worked about 25 hours a week tended to achieve the best scores.   

I’ll leave the final word on this to Caroline Lucas, as quoted in John Harris’ Guardian piece:

“This idea works on so many levels,” she says. “It’s a very practical policy, in terms of ensuring that people don’t fall between the cracks of the welfare system. But it’s also a deeply radical idea in terms of its feminist potential, and what we do in a world in which more and more work is going to be automated. It also gets you into a sense of contributing to your community, cleaning up the beach, visiting an elderly friend who might be lonely. There’s a whole freedom and liberation that it gives you, and I think it takes you into really deep questions about whether we really exist simply to spend a third of our lives working for someone else.”


  1. BIEN should have come into reality after Thatcher left power it would be an pathfinder for all post industrial natioins

  2. Laurence Pilfold19 April 2016 at 14:34

    Yeah, I've got something to say about that.
    I spent a lot of the 90s trying to work out where Andre Gorz was coming from in his advocacy of something like a Citizen's Income / Basic Income, but not a C.I. / B.I. Until very late in hbis life he insisted that there has to be some kind of conditionality / quid-pro-quo with respect to income: he wanted to retain an idea that the right to an income implied a corresponding obligation - to contribute to society. To cut a very long story short, he though the state should work out how much work we needed to do as a society, do the math, and then work out how many hours all able-bodied adults of working age would need to do per year. You then had to do that minimun number of hours per year to qualify for your CI. And you could arrange how and when you did them flexibly according to your needs / wishes. And if you wanted to do more work you were free to, paid or unpaid. Children, pensioners, the ill, the disabled did not have this work obligation and got a CI automatically. You could also arrange things like taking a X-year sabbatical and making up your hours in other years. Later in his life Gorz decided this scheme was impractical and went over to the unconditional CI idea, which one receives based on citizenship status, without any obligation to work / contribute.

    But why did he originally insist on conditionality? Why the stress on a link between the right to income and the duty to contribute? I think the answer is this. "Rights" are not immune from economic and political changes. In a given society, while rights are enshrined in laws, those that involve an economic entitlement are also conditional on the will of the state / citizen-body to support/guarantee/ provide them. I believe there is a kind of "logic" of welfare based on fundamental - at an anthropological legel - understandings of reciprocity (rights to receive imply duties to contribute)which are common to members of that society. I think this could be seen in the design of the post-war Beveridge welfare system: unemployment benefit, for example, was understood to be a kind of "insurance payment" for principally male workers against the background of a virtually full-employment economy. With enough work to go round (at least for the men), and a degree of social solidarity, there was (arguably) a common assumption that most employees would prefer to work and earn rather than just receive "dole" - so the assumption was that unemployement benefit would be a short-term recourse between jobs for those unfortunate enough not to be able to find work for a period. The system was based on mutual trust and a sense of shared risk - it could happen to me, I assume you are as honest as me - so I accept paying tax / national insurance contributions in order to support you in your hour of need.

    Under conditions of long-term mass unemployent (neo-liberalism), this logic breaks down, and there is the potential for the scapegoating of the unemployed. There is potential of a collective action psychology to kick in whereby the long-term unemployed are labelled "free riders". The sense of reciprocity underlying the system is weakened, and the willingness to contribute at a level which will provide a decent level of income (one which allows full participation in the life of society - or "full citizenship") is challenged. There is the potential for taxpayers to revolt and thus to push down contributions, meaning those dependent on welfare fall into poverty and social exclusion.

  3. Laurence Pilfold19 April 2016 at 14:35

    (continued .. )
    Thus, arguably, the introduction of a CI under neo-liberal conditions (long-term mass unemployment), with no mechanism to ensure "contribution", could be a recipe in the mdeium-to-ling term, for downward pressure on taxpayers' contributions to the welfare / CI budget, and therefore for the CI to end up being a payment insufficient to allow full participate in the life of society / "full citizenship". Perhaps a kind of apartheid?

    My own conclusion is that the answer is not CI, but full employement + decent welfare payments + a French style limit on working hours.

    That means we have to break with the noe-liberal economic consensus, and devise a new economics which at the same time provides jobs without destroying the environment.

    There are ideas on this, but obviously it's a massive challenge. Sadly, although I love the utopianism of CI, I fear for the likely realtiy of its implementation under neo-liberalism.

  4. You should write a blog post yourself Laurence. I think it is important that CI is universal - everyone gets it, regardless of income, wealth etc. There would need to be a huge expansion in free good quality education for everyone too. But if someone wanted to get drunk all day, it wouldn't bother me.