Thoughts on Guy Standing at the Festival of Debate

We attended an event as part of the Festival of Debate, where Guy Standing talked about the concept of a basic income, which was a prelude to today’s announcement. The blurb for the event was the following:

Guy Standing is co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network and economic advisor to John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has been leading a working group exploring the feasibility of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in the UK on behalf of the Labour Party. Standing presents his findings, along with details from his 2017 book, Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen.

Standing outlined 8 modern giants – drawing inspiration from Beveridge’s giant evils – and the need to tackle these to prevent the rise of authoritarianism.

1) Inequality – relating to the rise of the rentier economy (especially in terms of intellectual property), whilst productivity and profit increase and wages go down. There has been a deprivation of the commons with the community reducing whilst privatisation and commercialisation has increased. This links into wealth inequality increasing and high levels of tax evasion/avoidance. Standing said that a basic income could help with reducing this inequality.

2) Insecurity – relating to the increasing uncertainty people feel, with unknown unknowns. Standing said that a basic income would help with giving people security, which should be considered a public good as all benefit from everyone having security.

3) Debt – Standing made the point that there is an obsession with stopping debt when actually the system relies upon debt, especially private debt – even though the mainstream corporate political focus is on the problems of public debt.

4) Stress – this relates to the above discussed giants, which basic income would help address.

5) Precarity is increasing – the feeling that people do not have a future and that they do not have a capacity for agency/control over their life is a big problem, with the growth of charity reliance. The example of extreme and increasing levels of food bank use linking with Universal Credit is one of the despairing examples of this. Again, a basic income, Standing argued, would help alleviate this.

6) Technological revolution – a basic income would help us with addressing this and the disruption caused by this.

7) Extinction linking to ecological crisis

8) Populism/neo-fascism – relating to the inability to be truthful and the tendency for some to keep lying (e.g. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson etc.)

Standing said that basic income has to be part of a transformative political agenda to tackle these 8 giants. Standing argued that we need to get behind pilot studies and keep promoting the concept of a basic income.

Analysis

Standing was a fantastic speaker who eloquently talked about many of the issues and problems we are facing today. It was good to see recognition of the need for a broader political platform, for instance; we have to address the rentier economy through things such as an increase in social housing and rent caps if we are going to make sure a basic income doesn’t just help top-up profit.

For us, basic income has to be part of a broader anti-capitalist movement. It can’t be done without a comprehensive critique of the problems regarding unequal ownership, distribution and also the exploitation that is central to a capitalist system. For instance, capitalism relies upon social reproduction (referring to ‘people making’) – of which Standing cited when referring to the statistic that the ONS found “unpaid household work, which also includes adult care, laundry and driving, increased by 80 per cent between 2005 to 2016 – from £684.87 bn to £1.24 trillion”. A basic income would help with addressing this but would need to go alongside a critical reconsideration of what work and value is, something capitalism cannot do given the threat to surplus value and profit.

Standing did not also want to use the term “universal” when talking about basic income as he saw this as politically problematic. For us, however, now is the time for bold ideas and radical political movements. Extinction Rebellion is a great example of this – their radical, bold and non-compromising language has resulted in the UK government being the first to declare a climate emergency. The time now is for radical political policies. Compromising and playing political games, especially if it undermines the very basis of its appeal – as in the universal aspect of basic income – is dangerous and counter productive. The danger for co-option is real, especially as the idea becomes more popular and discussed in the mainstream, so we have to be very careful about the potential for implementation to create new inequalities and disadvantage.

It is very promising to see basic income and these types of discussions becoming more prominent and central to the Labour Party, but there is a crucial need for constant engagement in critical discussion about how basic income would be implemented in terms of a broader political programme and political discourse.

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