Universal basic income is emerging as a realistic policy position across Europe. As we reported in late 2015, local authorities across the Netherlands are currently running trials to award every citizen unconditional money from the state. And this year, Finland started an experiment of 2,000 randomly selected people, all of whom currently receive out of work benefits.
The first monthly payments of €560 ($590) were paid into those people’s accounts within the last week, and the trial will examine the impact of that money on overall employment. Now, sweeping further to the west, plans are underway to establish basic income in the Scottish councils of Glasgow and Fife, revealing a groundswell of interest that is sweeping the continent.
An Idea Whose Time Has Come?
The proposal for universal basic income has been discussed for a very long time, starting with the 16th century political philosopher Thomas More in his book “Utopia.” More recently, trials have been undertaken including an 18-month experiment in India in 2011, whose results suggest the strategy both improved the quality of people’s lives and stimulated positive economic activity.
Putting theory into practice, Glasgow and Fife council officials announced their intention to investigate basic income late last year. One of the keynote speakers at the meeting in Fife was Professor Guy Standing. A leading academic on the subject, he ran the Indian trials. Standing’s 2014 book, “A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens,” which I reviewed here, asserts that due to the crisis of capitalism, states would either fall towards “something close to neo-fascism, with authoritarian control over the minorities,” or transform so that the economy worked for society, “with new mechanisms of regulation, social protection and redistribution.” One core proposed solution is a basic income.
One of the driving forces behind the basic income proposals in Scotland is the Fairer Fife Commission. Set up by the council, it aims to tackle social inequality and poverty. Its recommendations in 2015 include piloting basic income, instigating a living wage and living rent so that no worker lives in poverty and everyone can afford housing. “Basic income is a fundamentally transformative policy,” Willie Sullivan, Chair of Basic Income Network Scotland, told Occupy.com.
“It is not a panacea for everything that is wrong in the world, but it gives people the time and power to shape their own world. That does not necessarily mean they’ll shape it into something better, but if you’re optimistic about humanity you believe it will.”
Sullivan said Glasgow and Fife councils are investigating how much money citizens will receive and where the funding will come from, with the first trials to begin between 2018 and 2019. Money could be allocated from a pot controlled by Scotland under further devolution from the British government in Westminster. The issue is growing in public and media attention, and events to discuss basic income are regularly selling out, he added.
This kind of popular enthusiasm is essential to turn the proposals into reality. Across Scotland, Sullivan said, the idea has quickly spread and gained traction. “When people are exposed to the basic income idea, there are light bulb moments. More and more people are getting on board as it creates a lever to push back against the cuts and direction of the current social security system. It could create real social security.”
Breaking From Neoliberal Decay
Social security has been something broadly lacking in the recent history of both Fife and Glasgow. Like many places the world over, they were industrial hubs discarded by capitalism during the neoliberal era. Fife’s main industry was coal mining. Glasgow was once the “shipbuilding capital of the world.”
Whereas many places abandoned by capitalism have since become hotbeds for right-wing demagogues, this is not the case in Fife and Glasgow. One reason is these cities’ long history of workers movements and solidarity. But to explain this shift, it’s crucial to understand the broader trends occurring across the Scottish political landscape, which is become increasingly progressive. For instance, Scotland’s non-corporate media is growing year on year and has an internationalist hue, actively welcoming refugees and pushing renewable energy.
Sullivan is not alone in pinpointing the Independence Referendum as a catalyst for this change. “The independence campaign lasted a long time and people got together and created spaces to discuss politics, and that’s real democracy,” he said. “Outside of the institutions and political parties people were having these conversations. It means a lot of people understand the power relations and do not accept them.”
Some progressives view a potential pitfall in introducing basic income, saying neoliberals could hijack the agenda, using it as a way to dismantle the social welfare system and cut social security even further. But for Sullivan, this fear is secondary. “Let’s be honest, the current social security system is being cut anyway,” he said. “Any transformation is an opportunity to do things differently. But you need the political support and capacity to make sure you get to a progressive future.”
During the exploratory stage of the Scottish trials, Sullivan said basic income could become a vehicle to rethink what the economy is for.
“What you do not want to do is create trials that solely measure outcomes based on the current economic systems priorities, like GDP or hours worked,” he added. “Instead you should be looking to really improve people’s quality of life, their care, their security. We need to ask, How can we measure all these things? We need to both win the orthodox argument, whilst also moving towards an economics where people matter.”