Field Notes from BIEN 2018
I came to Tampere (“Tamp-air-rr-eh”), Finland, with the words of Guy Standing still ringing in my ears from a lecture at a UCL earlier this year: “We can reform 108 tax reliefs and free up £406Bn. Don’t worry about the money, there’s plenty of money available.” An essential conundrum that lies at the centre of the basic income debate is where to find the money to fund an unconditional cash distribution, and the first hurdle in that event is whether a set of basic services, what we commonly call the “welfare state”, pre-exists or not.
My head was already spinning when I arrived in Tampere having met with Demos Helsinki in Helsinki before catching the train up North through the land of lakes and saunas (1 lake and 12 saunas for every 30 Finns, according to Finnair’s inflight magazine!). Our separate analyses of the current political environment could hardly have been more aligned, as well as the dangers we face in this critical transition from the 20th century’s industrial welfare systems to new structures fit for 21st century realities. The decision by the newly elected Finnish government not to extend the current basic income trial highlights the vulnerability of cash distribution to the whims and winds of political balances of power, and underlines the need to do the harder work of building institutional structures for social security instead of trying to buy it with the tools that are seeking to undermine it. Even in a Scandinavian country famous for its comprehensive welfare services pressures are mounting for new alternatives to the conditional redistribution of income and for greater efficiency of public services. The welfare state is not sacred anywhere any more.
I was interested to find out what the core basic income believers believed, and where better to find them than at the annual worldwide congress of the Basic Income Earth Network. Jurgen De Wispelaere (IPR, Bath University) encouraged me to come, despite my reservations about an irreceptive audience, to talk about our recent report entitled “Social prosperity for the future: A proposal for Universal Basic Services”. In that report we compared and contrasted a similar budget spent on improving public services versus an unconditional cash distribution. And I was expecting to have a hard few days making the case that comprehensive public services are the necessary foundation on which other reforms of benefits and incomes can be considered. I was wrong.
The title of the Congress was the first tip that this was going to be more of a love fest than a battle: Basic Income and the New Universalism, Rethinking the Welfare State in the 21st Century. And the introductory framing by Jurgen was another clue: “There is urgent need to rethink the principles of equality, solidarity and universalism and what tools can deliver on a key promise of the welfare state — freedom from want.” As the days progressed and the sessions started to blur together so too the lines between these true believers and the position we had taken in our report faded.
The BIEN Congress was opened by a speech from Finland’s first female President, Traja Halonen, with an affirmation of the central theme that emerged from every aspect of the conference that I experienced: income is only a part of the security that we need to maintain cohesive democracies, with the rest being made up of essential public services and social justice. “We cannot say ‘We give you money and you buy what you need’” she extolled. Which set the scene for Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty (who is due to survey of the state of poverty in the UK in a few months) to make the case that human rights include not just insurance against catastrophic insecurity but the right to an adequate standard of living. Based on recent country visits, including to the USA, his conclusion is that a neoliberal model of social insecurity and the privatisation of public responsibility have become so pervasive that radical, even utopian, remedies are needed, and that tinkering is insufficient in the face of these grave problems. His acknowledgement that human rights are a “philosophical mongrel” that are too often downplayed and ignored does not diminish his hope that human rights can still be a rallying banner for pushing back against the agenda of tax cutting and to combat the rise of populism. Outrage, he noted, creates mass mobilisation and is far preferable to either war or revolution as paths to change.
Well, not even two hours into the conference and the scene has been firmly set: we need radical reform to deal with the changing economic and social environment and an abrupt change to the all-too-common response of austerity as justification for stepping ever further away from responsibility for the safety of citizens or the cohesion of societies. Certainly a rallying call for the troops here, who were all in favour of utopian solutions before they arrived and are now appropriately stimulated to get down into the weeds and explore the details of how to bring about their radical utopian vision. Of the 47 breakout sessions only 3 are about how to finance a basic income, which seems strange given that the number one criticism of the proposal is that it is unaffordable. But actually this offers insight into what is really going on here, and which was summed up nicely by one delegate’s broadly applauded statement in the plenary reviewing the state of BI experiments around the world: “Basic Income is about freedom, not income!”
I finally get it. Basic Income is an idea, a star which orientates a firmament of ideals about the nature of lived experience in which the freedom of the individual takes the ascendant position. These people are hippies! They love life, they love each other and everyone else, and they want reality to get out of the way. The fact that they have adopted basic income as the means to achieve their nirvana is simply a factor of the 20th century mindset which sees the world through the prism of the third revolution (financialisation). Of course giving everyone money is the route to universal emancipation; it’s the definition of resource, so it is the definition of how to share resources.
Lena Lavinas (Institute of Economics, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) burst that bubble. In an unforgiving tour de force of the ravages that financialisation was reeking on the poor in the developing and developed world she destroyed the notion that anything expect a “full Basic Income”, paid on top of a comprehensive welfare state, and married with firm regulation of both housing and finance, could work. If you distribute cash to people whose needs are not already met you are just creating debt-slave fodder for a ravenous financial sector that is continuously looking for growth. “Financial inclusion”, she argued persuasively, is just a deceptive description for the induction of the poor into financial conscription. If a cash distribution (especially a government guaranteed payment) feeds the individual into a debt machine, QED the recipient has not been liberated.
Lena’s intervention came on top of a lecture on the first night by Louise Haagh (York University) that had already set a warning tone. She opened with a, in the context, startling statement: “The welfare state needs a basic income, and a basic income needs the welfare state.” She argued that as nations reduce their public services, the environment in which a basic income can succeed gets commensurately narrowed. The preconditions she listed for a progressive basic income: high equality, effective cross-class welfare, strong property rights, and collective ownership of development and finance. In making the point that a formalised economy (strong governing social institutions) provides many protections that income alone cannot deliver she mirrored the observations of Télémaque Masson (in the session I spoke at) that there is no such thing as “the market” because every market is simply an arrangement of rules that are imposed on the operation of the actors in that marketplace. His point was that it was insufficient to simply say that “the market will provide”.
Jurgen was right when he assured me that this was a community perfectly prepared to engage with dissonant views so long as protagonists engaged with their real objectives and intentions. In my session, which was titled Basic Income and Basic Services — Complement or Substitute?, I found the response in the room truly inquisitive and enthusiastic to tease out the practical implementation issues. There was no dispute that public services have a central role, and in the questions people wanted to know how to decide what should be “service” and what should be “income”, in other words how can we tell where social obligation ends and when individual choice begins? Where do you draw the line? My answer, that it depends on how much money your society has, on the qualities you include in the “good life” for everyone, and on the cultural context, was not the easy answer that many would have preferred. But what was clear was that the issue was not service versus income, but where you draw the line between them.
The BI crowd is enthusiastic and tenacious and the fact that experiments have been run or planned in various countries is testimony to their tireless efforts. As we listened to reports from around the world on the status of various experiments I couldn’t help feeling that basic income was, as Louise had suggested, past its best moment. A political change in Ontario, Canada, this summer led to the cancellation of a nascent Basic Income experiment involving 6,000 recipients just months after it had started. Experiments in Holland, which focussed on “activation” to start with, have now been so fractured that they would not shed light on the emancipatory ideals. The Finnish experiment is ending, the Scottish one in feasibility stage, and the Indian one highlighting an issue at the centre of this debate: if the freedom of the individual is the sacrosanct core of this philosophy, then the use of a basic income cannot be restricted, and that includes using the income to enter into debt or pay off existing debt.
In my various chats with other delegates I found there was a common journey to the basic income constellation which started with a desire to fix the conditionality and bureaucracy problems with the existing benefits system, and then expanded on contact with the idea of a basic income to include the possibility of a much larger goal: emancipating individuals from not just fear and need, but also from want. What started as practical ends in utopian. For many the question of affordability simply doesn’t arise because it seems blindingly obvious that there’s enough to go around and it just isn’t distributed fairly. Entranced by the promise of human capacity liberated, trusted, honoured and freed, the relevance of practical mechanisms fades. Mathematics, doubt, and details are mere obstacles in the way of the transformative potential in the idea.
Perhaps my most surprising encounter was an hour spent chatting at the Tampere City Hall reception with Simon Duffy (Sheffield Centre for Welfare Reform), who has been openly critical of our proposal for Universal Basic Services. To our mutual astonishment, we found much in common. Starting with a shared horror at the state of local democracy in the UK, through mutual recognition that any solution will comprise both services and income, to agreement that there are many needs that are undoubtedly better satisfied socially than purchased individually and visa versa. Once again I found there is not a Rizla paper’s distance between the aspirations of basic income and basic services for _individual_ emancipation, and where differences arise they are in importance and sequencing of _social_ success. In my view the group is the horse that pulls the individual cart. We concluded by agreeing to work together to fashion a common narrative and practical policies that bring basic services and income together. #SaveOurServices ? Unified Basic Access ?
If I came to Finland to persuade BI fans that the only road to a future BI passes through the land of better public services, then I need not have come. Many in this community of thinkers, dreamers, and activists already gets that. They just dream big, and for that I love them. They do not need me to tell them that services are the foundation on which we can build a welfare state for the 21st century, they already know that (even if they don’t talk about it much). This encounter has confirmed to me that if we are to protect the peace and prosperity we have achieved this far, we must start with universal access to basic services. After we have built that foundation, then maybe we can afford to dream., but the urgent work is first getting our society to a place where a basic income could even be considered as an option, and we are not there today.
Nothing I have seen or learned here has changed the essential dilemmas that confront a basic income: that once we have put in place the basic services that must come first, there is not enough money left for what they would call a “full basic income”. Basic income would fail without the services, and is unaffordable with the services. Unless one believes that reforming a few tax reliefs will magic up 20% of GDP as spare money, this idea is both a distraction and a false hope.