Dr. Nick Srnicek

"There is an important question here of where the universal is drawn though, and typically the welfare state has drawn it in a very citizen-oriented way, thereby excluding recent immigrants."

As part of our website launch, Autonomy asked four leading experts in the field about the status and role of work in our society. Their responses touch on some of the most important facets of the question of work today: the gendered division of labour, the potential and actual uses of automation technologies, the changing nature of work practices themselves and more. We have also asked a question regarding basic income – a much discussed concept with a long history – that is central to current debates. This is week three of four.

 

3. Would you support the introduction of a Universal Basic Income? If so, how should it be implemented?

 

I think a universal basic income is a good directional demand for the left to take up. It responds to the threat of automation by guaranteeing a liveable income for people, it can significantly reduce poverty and the costs associated with it, and it can drastically alter the power relationship that currently holds between labour and capital. For all these reasons (and many more), I think UBI is something we should be aiming for.

But importantly, not every implementation of UBI is equal. As with any other policy (such as healthcare or childcare), a basic income can be implemented in ways that push beyond the limits of social democracy, and it can be implemented in ways that consolidate the present neoliberal order. The question of whether we want a UBI or not turns out to be secondary to the question of ‘which UBI?’

For me, there are three key characteristics of a properly socialist UBI: universality, supplementarity, and sufficiency. In the first instance, a basic income must be universal – meaning that everyone in a country receives it. There would be no means-testing involved, you wouldn’t have to prove that you are seeking a job, and it could not be withdrawn because of things like a criminal record. There is an important question here of where the universal is drawn though, and typically the welfare state has drawn it in a very citizen-oriented way, thereby excluding recent immigrants. This is perhaps the most difficult question for a UBI, but I believe the Alaskan model – whereby immigrants can begin receiving their basic income after 6 months of residence – is a good model to aim for. Implicit within universalism is also a claim that UBI should be given to individuals, rather than households or breadwinners. This is important for rejecting some of the patriarchal aspects of the welfare state, as it means women are not beholden to men for receiving the basic income.

 

“Universality, supplementarity, and sufficiency.”

 

A second key characteristic is that the UBI be a supplement to the welfare state, rather than a replacement. The neoliberal version of UBI argues that a basic income should be provided in return for decimating public services and traditional welfare. Effectively, their proposal is provide everyone with cash, and turn healthcare, childcare, pensions, and so on into private markets. It is the utopia of neoliberal thinkers. The socialist version of UBI is vastly different in that it argues for a basic income that supplements targeted programs (such as housing, disability, and childcare benefits) and public services that reject the profit motive. This would be a UBI that releases people from the coercion of work, while also recognising the differential needs of people, as well as keeping many essential goods and services out of the market.

Finally, any meaningful implementation of a UBI needs to aim for a sufficient amount to live on. Given the vast regional and national variations in what is ‘liveable’, perhaps the best initial measure is something like the local poverty level – a level which allows people to freely choose how much to work or whether to spend their time doing more important things. The risk is that if a UBI isn’t set to a sufficient level that it becomes a subsidy to companies who pay low wages.

 

Dr. Nick Srnicek is Lecturer in Digital Economy in the Digital Humanities department at King’s College London. His current research is focused on post-work politics and social reproduction, and how the two separate areas can be fit together. He is the co-author, with Dr. Helen Hester, of a forthcoming book, entitled After Work (Verso, 2018) and has previously written on labour market transformations – Inventing the Future (co-authored with Dr. Alex Williams, Verso, 2015) – and on the digital economy and its dynamics: Platform Capitalism (Polity, 2016).