A Salary for Living

‘Working nine to five, what a way to make a living. Barely getting by, it’s all taking and no giving’, as Dolly Parton succinctly put it in her theme song for the 1980 screwball comedy 9 to 5. The film depicts three neglected and exploited female office workers who team up to seek revenge on their autocratic boss. While keeping him locked away in his own house, these three corporate Joans of Arc effect crucial changes around the office, allow flexible hours, initiate a job-sharing program, and open a day-care centre. At the time, all of these changes seemed as unbelievable as the unrealistic plot – after all, it’s comedy. But thirty years down the road, many of these ideas have actually been implemented in offices worldwide. Indeed, the most forward-thinking companies now compete over how comfortable they can make their employees’ working environment in their bid to be labelled a ‘Great Place to Work’.

Ideas that go against long-held practices and principles are regularly met with cynicism rather than an open mind. Yet, as the progress made in workplaces since the 1980s shows, today’s utopias can be tomorrow’s realities. When all known and tested possibilities have been exhausted, the inconceivable might be the answer; the laughable might turn out to be not only reasonable, but also feasible. The same could hold true for the Basic Income Initiative, which was submitted on 4 October 2013 to the Swiss Government after the initiators had gathered 126,000 signatures in favour of their proposal. If passed, it would guarantee a basic income for all legal residents, whether officially employed or not, and arguably counteract the rising level of income inequality seen within the last two decades.

According to its proponents, a universal basic income (UBI) would provide an effective substitute for customary welfare programs and a new approach to tackle growing inequality. While other small-scale experiments have adopted the measure for a defined time frame, Switzerland could become a testing ground for applying this scheme on an unprecedentedly large scale. The bars are high and the administrative challenges are daunting, yet the proposal does not founder on infeasibility. No revolutions are required but a change in public opinion. And to achieve such a change, in Tolstoy’s words, ‘no exertions of the mind are needed, nor the refutation of anything in existence, nor the invention of any extraordinary novelty; it is only needful that we should not succumb to the erroneous, already defunct, public opinion of the past’. No work and just play? Perhaps we might be on to something.

The cost of living

Being alive is costly. In order to have access to our natural and universal rights, we need money, which in modern societies is the only currency compatible with those inalienable rights. If we want to remain part of society at all, we need some monetary resources. We can provide these for ourselves or receive them from others. Traditionally, we acquire money through paid employment or self-employment, which ideally not only secures our daily bread, but also grants access to savings and old age pensions in the future. In turn, moving from paid employment to voluntary, unpaid care, or family work places all of the above in jeopardy and puts us at the risk of having to appeal to governmental aid in the future to meet our basic needs. This fact conveys the widely held view that paid employment generates not only financial but also positive social or environmental returns, while voluntary, care, or family work does not. At the same time, means-tested government aid divides the employed and unemployed into groups of ‘makers’ and ‘takers’. If, however, we accept that the fundamentals of life are basic human rights, “dignity, not charity, is the animating principle”, as Sawn Gude pithily notes in his piece ‘In Defense of Entitlements’, ‘people earn access to the rudiment of life (food, healthcare, shelter), by virtue of their humanity’. But being human is a costly business, and it requires us to work for money, or else prove that we are unfit to do so.

In 1928, John Maynard Keynes famously suggested that within a century technology would have evolved to the point that a 15-hour working week would be the norm in Western countries. A nine-to-five job would become a relic of the industrialised past. Today’s employment, however, is tied to an arbitrary and inequitable job market in which, as Keynes predicted, productive jobs in the industrial and agricultural sectors have been chiefly automated and replaced by new careers in the service and administrative sector. Many of the latter have become what anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’ which end up nurturing a slumbering aversion against anybody whose labour bears distinct and irrefutable social value. While automation and technology have indeed reduced the amount of working hours required to meet our basic needs and human rights, for many the prophesied journey towards less work and more play never materialised. On the contrary, ever since wage labour started dominating our social existence, the fear that we might one day ‘run out’ of it is an everyday reality and nightmare for many, even in countries with low unemployment rates. In Switzerland, for instance, the fear of unemployment has consistently ranked among the top individual concerns first place for many years, significantly before health concerns. Why are we more concerned to lose our jobs than falling ill? What went wrong with the idea of a society beyond work?

The cost of stigmatising

If simply adding an extra hour of work to a regular working day has been shown to increase the risk of heart attack by twenty per cent, then how did full-time employment ever become the Holy Grail that it still is? One answer might be that we have completely failed to acknowledge the real meaning of employment, namely that it provides us with a sense of purpose, even if at worst our work is far from being purposeful. It gives us a sense of social inclusion, even if at worst it contributes no social value. In general, people essentially want to work, and while wage labour as a concept is far from ideal, it is an inherent part of our current economic system.

By contrast, terms like unemployment and welfare are treated with suspicion and disregard. People in the workforce generally tend to underplay the advantages that facilitated their success while they overvalue their own contributions. The unsurprising result of this is that being unemployed is connected to lower psychological and physical health. But interestingly, the amount of unemployment benefits does not affect the relationship between mental health and unemployment. As many reports and studies have shown, discriminating and means-tested benefits propagate distrust and alienation, with the recipients being plagued by continuous legitimacy and accountability concerns. As Paul Spicker noted in 1984, ‘selectivity acts, in itself, as a form of labelling. It announces that a person is poor and in need, and indicates what that need is by marking the benefit as one for the unemployed, the disabled, the sick, and so on. To claim a service, a person must accept the label attached to it.’ The widely held view that living on means-tested social benefits equates living in a fairy tale is exactly that: a fairy tale. And the more heterogeneous a society, the more ethnically and religiously divided, the more distrust this creates. What follows is that in a multicultural society where unemployment is the greatest evil, where economic dependency and insecurity abound, leading a self-directed existence and following one’s dreams and aptitudes becomes increasingly difficult. As a matter of policy, the best measure thus seems to unconditionally provide universal benefits, as they bear an innate function to create assistance, acceptability, and trust. Given that they are indiscriminately disbursed to all members of a society, they simply cannot be mishandled. The idea of a basic universal income and its variations, awarded to all citizens, could achieve this task and has for many years been discussed among sociologists, philosophers, and economists, yet was barely ever taken up in the European political discourse. Now it is once again gaining momentum across Europe.

The cost of forgetting

In the advanced civilizations of antiquity labour was something mainly performed by slaves, and it was therefore marginalised and devalued. By implication, in imperial Rome the word labor frequently meant living in bondage and being plagued by physical pain. In German, Arbeit (labour) derives from the Old Germanic arbejo, corresponding, by analogy, to an orphan that has been condemned to slave labour. It was not until the time of the Industrial Revolution, when mass production and wage labour became the norm, that the role of labour as defined by employers came to be opposed by various workers, as it made them vulnerable and prone to exploitation. For example, American craftsmen soon formed the first major union. The goal of the Knights of Labor was the abolition of wage labour, which was perceived as a new form of slavery. Even in British bourgeois circles, many observers shared Marx’s analysis of labour within the capitalist political economy; in 1830, Oxford academic and government adviser Nassau Senior reminded  ‘job-creators’ that ‘it is not employment, but food, clothing, shelter, and fuel—in short, the materials of subsistence and comfort, that the labouring classes require. The word ‘employment’ is merely a concise form of designating toil, trouble, exposure, and fatigue. All these, per se, are evils.’

The idea of a minimum income, however, had already emerged even before the advent of wage labour. In Utopia (1516), Thomas More, a Renaissance humanist and councillor to Henry VIII, described a conversation between one Raphael Nonsenso and the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which the former argued for a minimum income on the grounds that that it would be a more effective way to discourage theft than a death penalty for thieves. Rather than imposing atrocious punishments, he reasoned, it would be much better to provide all citizens with some basic means of livelihood. In 1797 the Anglo-American political activist Thomas Paine propagated the idea in far more detail in a pamphlet addressing the Directory that held executive power in Revolutionary France titled Agrarian Justice. Because in its essential and uncultivated form, the Earth belonged to all of humanity, every owner of cultivated lands ought to be obliged to pay a ‘ground-rent’ to everyone reaching adulthood so as to compensate for the loss of their natural inheritance. In the decades to come, this idea would be further developed under various different designations —‘territorial dividend’, ‘state bonus’, ‘demogrant’, ‘citizen’s wage’, ‘universal benefit’, or ‘basic income’  — with a general shift from the emphasis on collective ownership of land to a more comprehensive notion of social justice based on equal opportunity. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the concept enjoyed a revival of popularity in the United States. It was promoted by several liberal economists such as James Tobin and John Kenneth Galbraith, who called for programs of a more universal and generous nature than the assistance programs then in place. In 1971, the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern even proposed a ‘demogrant’ program in which every American citizen would automatically receive a payment of $1000. And even the incumbent Republican president to whom McGovern lost, Richard Nixon, had earlier promoted a Family Assistance Plan in which every family of four was guaranteed a basic income of $1600 and an additional $800 in food stamps, but these proposals foundered and were, at least politically, locked away in the attic of radical and utopian ideas.

But the idea of a basic income was never completely forgotten, and the discussion continued, although more so in academia than elsewhere. In the past decades, several experiments were conducted to explore the impacts of a universal benefits scheme further. More recently some small-scale programs were initiated in Brazil in 2005, Namibia in 2008, and India in 2011. Thus far, the findings are encouraging. In Namibia the proportion of underweight children declined significantly, dropout rates at schools approached almost zero per cent, and – contrary to the common argument that the UBI adversely affects work motivation – the rate of citizens involved in income-generating activities increased by more than ten per cent. Likewise, the Brazilian and the two Indian pilot projects produced very positive results in the areas of nutrition, health, education, and economic activity.

Between 1974 and 1979, the Canadian government conducted a Guaranteed Annual Income field experiment in the province of Manitoba called MINCOME. At the time it was concluded without conducting any final assessments or data analysis, but its findings have recently been revisited by Dr Evelyn Forget. In her 2011 report she found a substantial decline in hospitalisation, particularly in admissions related to mental health issues, and a greater percentage of high school students continuing to grade 12. And interestingly enough, the only authority ever to introduce a real basic income scheme in the United States, was the State of Alaska. Since 1982 every citizen who has lived in Alaska for at least one year receives an annual dividend from the Alaska Permanent Fund, which is made up of sales and royalties of the state’s mineral proceeds. Programs such as these provide a wealth of data and deserve further assessment, rather than being left behind as happened in the case of the Canadian MINCOME experiment.

Will the (basic-income) utopia ever come about?

This year, Switzerland could thus become the first country to provide data on a national scale, though proponents of the scheme should be cautious not to get their hopes up. No official date has been determined for the vote. And should the Swiss public (which is historically known for erring on the side of the pragmatic rather than the progressive) back the proposal, it could take years for parliament to enforce the law. While good in theory, some argue, it would be difficult to impossible in execution — which is perhaps why the proposal has little teeth today: with no proposed funding mechanism yet, discussing the costs remains a futile endeavour. Merely multiplying the one-person poverty threshold by the population, one quickly reaches an amount that surmounts current levels of government spending. Such estimates are deceiving, however, as a variety of existing benefits could be eliminated or at least curtailed if the basic income were to be implemented. Moreover, several ideas are on the table, ranging from increasing taxes on the wealth and capital gains of high-income individuals and corporations to introducing a financial transaction tax or increasing Switzerland’s comparatively low tax bracket for higher incomes.

Either way, the proposal needs to be further developed, clarified, and disseminated. The debate around UBI also raises questions regarding the effects of immigration. In a Norwegian study conducted to examine the responses of the electorate towards the possible introduction of a UBI, the researchers found that negative outlooks towards immigration can be mobilised to substantially diminish the scope of support for the scheme. Yet these issues are not only tied to a universal benefit program but are also affecting current discussions on welfare systems and social protection. Undoubtedly, similar campaigns in other European countries would build support and more discussion and clarification could help overcome the “erroneous, already defunct, public opinion of the past”. Arguably, UBI wouldn’t solve the disparities endemic to the capitalist system, but it could certainly alleviate some of the more drastic inequalities that plague contemporary societies. And perhaps, in a few years, this now still utopian dream will become reality; or in Dolly Parton’s wise words, “they let you dream just to watch ’em shatter, you’re just a step on the bossman’s ladder, but you got dreams he’ll never take away”.

With special thanks to Jessica Corsi and Luke Hawksbee for their input.

Tobias Haeusermann finished his Ph.D. in Sociology at King’s College, Cambridge. He is now working at the Health Ethics and Policy Lab in Zurich.