I went tonight to hear a lecture by Guy Standing, who was talking to the RSA in Edinburgh about precarious labour and the case for Universal Basic Income. He argues that the model of secure income which predominated in the mid to late 20th century has now broken down. The combination of global labour markets and huge increases in the supply of labour worldwide have led to unstable lives, heavy dependence on money wages. This has been accompanied by a neo-liberal agenda that has led to commodification of services, an erosion of the commons and a loss of citizenship rights. I do not think this is universally true – it might equally be said that there have been major improvements in civil rights and living standards in recent years; nor is precarious labour a recent phenomenon; but he is right to point to the emergence of the precariat as the basis of an economic class.
Standing’s argument for Basic Income is based partly on social justice, and partly on its instrumental role in furthering economic stabilisation. He has drawn some persuasive evidence from his own work in a pilot in Madhya Pradesh, where a basic income led to improved health, nutrition, sanitation, school performance and economic activity. He emphasised in particular its role in emancipating people – two of his strongest examples related to the position of women, who are empowered by having their own income – and strengthening their hand in wage negotiations. The only group who did less work were the children, who went to school instead. He sees the Basic Income as liberating people, and, he told me, as a means of decommodifying labour.
Both of these elements are persuasive in their own terms, but I am not yet convinced that the problems he rightly identified in the first part are addressed by the solution he was proposing in the second. The core of his argument for Basic Income is based on evidence that poor people do better when they have more resources. There are other ways that resources can be provided. A basic income is an individualised response; it gives people money to spend in the market. If we want to strengthen the commons, there are alternatives – making communal provision for services such as health and education, looking for collective responses to social needs such as communications, roads and water supply. There is a reason why Basic Income has also commanded support from neo-liberals and free marketeers, who see it as an alternative to public services, not a way to strengthen them.
Equally, while it must help to offer incomes that are more secure, it is far from clear that Basic Income will produce greater stability in people’s lives in other ways, such as the loss of the ‘occupational narrative’ Standing is concerned with. If we want people to have dignified, stable, secure employment, we need the community to create the right sort of jobs. Basic Income can only be a partial response.