A basic income as an allowance for democracy


        [Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]

The most logical answer to the insecurity caused by the precariousness and transformation of the world of work is an unconditional basic income. Not everything labelled a “basic income” today is actually an unconditional basic income, meaning that a precise definition of the term is needed. Clear criteria have been defined by the Basic Income Network (Netzwerk Grundeinkommen), an organisation which is not affiliated with any political party. A basic income is a sum of money paid to every person simply by virtue of their existence, without means testing, without checks on who they are living with, and without it being compulsory for them to work. There are various views regarding the appropriate level of a basic income. Crucially, it should not only ensure that a person can afford to eat, but also ensure that a minimum degree of participation in society is possible. In my view, a basic income cannot replace existing forms of social insurance, such as the statutory pension, long-term care insurance and unemployment insurance. It should instead supplement them.

Many people today find it difficult to envisage a society where everyone is entitled to a basic income. Admittedly, an unconditional basic income has not yet been introduced anywhere. But what exists in reality is the opposite model: in other words, people being forced to work, means testing, social benefits which do not raise people above the poverty line, and people being trapped in the position of supporting dependants. In Germany, this model is referred to as “Hartz IV”. As a result of the Hartz IV package of reforms, employees have become more vulnerable to blackmail. Unpaid overtime and pay cuts have been increasingly accepted because this seemed a better option than being at the mercy of the jobs centre. These experiences show how right Karl Marx was to believe that the blackmail potential of the reserve army of labour, the unemployed, would play into the hands of companies as far as wage dumping was concerned.

A basic income would turn this logic on its head. If everyone receives a secure basic income without repressive conditions, those whose employment is insecure are not vulnerable to blackmail to the same degree. This is a much better basis on which to call for shorter working hours or at least less overtime, higher pay and more co-determination – an important stage on the road to making the economy more democratic.

An unconditional basic income also offers other advantages. This model gives people the right to self-determination in what they do, for the security afforded by the knowledge that an unconditional income is provided in every life situation makes it easier for people to decide to set up their own businesses, and encourages the establishment of communes and cooperatives. It allows people to take time out, even at 50, to study or take a sabbatical. If people know they will definitely receive a basic income each month, they can better afford to reduce their working hours. A basic income thus also serves as an excellent catalyst for a reduction in working hours. It allows people to exercise self-determination in defining the course of their lives. Women who, in our society, are highly dependent on their partner’s income have a greater opportunity to exercise self-determination in respect of their personal development.

Guaranteed financial security frees people from the fear of financial hardship – a key prerequisite for democratic participation. To borrow from the title of a well-known film by director Rainer Werner Fassbinder: fear of hardship eats the democratic soul. Someone who does not need to fear financial hardship is more likely to participate in society. Those who want to be politically active must be able to afford to travel to a demonstration or buy a daily newspaper. A minimum degree of financial security is therefore required for political participation. In addition, as Pierre Bourdieu concludes, “some grasp on the present […] is needed in order to conceive the ambition of changing the present with an eye to the future.”

[1] An unconditional basic income enables everyone, regardless of their status in the labour market, to participate in society to this minimum degree. In that sense, a basic income can be seen as an allowance to enable people to participate in our democracy – which is becoming increasingly important, particularly in times of growing job insecurity. Designed as an allowance for democracy, a basic income stands for the achievement in financial terms of the aim of a democracy for all.

[1] Pierre Bourdieu: Job Insecurity is Everywhere Now. Extract from a paper given in Grenoble in 1997, English translation published in: Acts of Resistance: Against the New Myths of Our Time. Cambridge, 1998. Polity Press.

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