Dr. David Frayne

"UBI is not just a contingency measure to make unemployment more tolerable, but rather a rejection of the entire principle that it’s acceptable to live in a society split between the securely employed and the precarious masses."

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?


The research and commentary around this proposal is currently coming out at such a rate that it can be difficult to form a stable opinion on the details.  But essentially, yes, I would support the introduction of a Universal Basic Income.  One of the major injustices of the capitalist present is that people are condemned to financial struggle whenever their labour is unrequired for generating private profit.  With the coming developments in automation making work even less viable as a just mechanism for distributing income, we will need a policy like UBI to prevent escalating poverty and inequality.  The financial security provided by UBI would also have some obvious positive knock-on effects, such as alleviating the mental illness caused by precarity, and giving workers a firmer ground on which to stand when making decisions about their employment.  A UBI would give people the power to reject work that is unsuitable, and also the ability to fight for better working conditions without risking destitution.

Another compelling reason to promote UBI is that it promises to remedy the depressing wastage of time and talent witnessed in the present, where social inclusion still depends on the ability to keep a job.  Basic Income could solve this problem by giving people the resources to undertake productive activities for themselves and for each other, if they so choose.  The hope is that, with the benefit of time and a guaranteed income, people would be able to develop a range of interests and capacities outside employment.  You can finally do the thing you actually want to do.

I do not have detailed remarks on how to implement UBI – I would still call myself a student of the idea – but importantly, I think we do need to recognise that the politics of UBI are by no means fixed.  There are many possible versions of UBI that we might see – some more desirable than others – and we would need to be very clear about the official purpose of such a policyFor me, that means insisting that UBI is not just a contingency measure to make unemployment more tolerable, but rather a rejection of the entire principle that it’s acceptable to live in a society split between the securely employed and the precarious masses.  In its most progressive form, UBI also means giving people the opportunity to exit paid employment, recognising the inherent value of leisure time, and eliminating the somewhat arbitrary basis on which society currently deems some activities worthy of payment, and others unworthy.

Unfortunately, it is easy to imagine a compromised or Right-wing version of UBI, where either the payments are insufficient to facilitate any significant departure from today’s work-centred society, or where guaranteed income becomes an excuse or a cover for further cuts to public services.  It is understandable that some citizens including disabled people, who currently depend on the welfare state for their survival, are dubious about the introduction of Universal Basic Income. Their concerns should be taken seriously, because it is possible to imagine an appropriated or watered-down version of UBI that would leave some people worse-off.


Dr. David Frayne is a writer and social researcher interested in critical social theory, the sociology of work, consumer culture, political ecology, the sociology of happiness, and utopian studies. His first book, The Refusal of Work, was published by Zed books in 2015. His follow-up, Fitter, Happier. More Productive – an edited collection of critical essays on work and health – will be published by PCCS in 2018. His writing has also appeared in the Guardian, The Irish Times, ROAR Magazine, and Contrivers’ Review.