Ben Wray: Why both the right to work and the right not to work can set us free

In the first of a brand new weekly column, Ben Wray - a former CommonSpace reporter and now head of policy at Common Weal - argues that a basic income will work best in a society that guarantees both a right to work and not to work

THE debate on basic income in Scotland has got me thinking about how it might really fit into our working lives, and how it could help change the way we perceive employment itself.

In a world where the idea of robots taking over our jobs is no longer in the realm of sci-fi, basic income is usually proposed as an alternative to the guarantee of employment. The logic of this is simple: the guarantee of an income replaces the requirement to work, thus solving the problem of being unemployed.

Okay, but why can’t we have the guarantee of an income, whether we work or not, alongside the guarantee of a job if we want one? I don’t see why these two proposals – a basic income and a job guarantee scheme – need to be mutually exclusive. 

Read more – Leading automation scientist backs Universal Basic Income

In fact, I think when we put them together they begin to fill out the gaps of an emancipatory vision for work and a dignified life that neither proposal can accomplish alone. And, crucially, it helps solve the problem of transition – how do we, as people socialised into the current work-life dynamic, embrace a new one without mass social breakdown?

Let us start first by examining an important critique of basic income: that people derive their sense of self worth and dignity from work. I have seen some basic income supporters respond to this position arrogantly, dismissing advocates of this view as lacking in imagination about what life can hold outside of the wage-labour system. 

My response to them is to ask: "Have you ever actually spent much time unemployed and relying on the dole for a living?" I have and it is undignified, there is little sense of self worth and I felt extremely marginalised.

But this does not necessarily mean that work is liberating. Low-wage, unsatisfying work is every bit as alienating.

Overworking crowds out time for leisure, and has been shown to induce poor mental and physical health. Having a bullying and exploitative employer is hardly a fulfilling life.

Read more – Holyrood to look at Universal Basic Income as calls rise to emulate Finland

The point is that alienation comes from our relationship as a society to work: our social system is set up in a way that makes unemployed people psychologically and economically marginalised, and makes employment mind-numbing, exhausting and stressful. 

These two sides of an alienated existence reinforce one another: fear of marginalisation has a disciplining effect on labour, pressuring people to put up with all sorts of indignities to remain in work. Basically, the more fearful you are of being out work, the more you'll put up with poor conditions when you're in work, even though both prospects make you miserable.

Changing this relationship requires systemic changes as a society to get to a point where our working and non-working lives are dignified and satisfying for everyone and where we have the freedom to make our own choices. 

For too long, words like "freedom" and "choice" in relation to work have been dominated by the right. "Flexibility" is a good example of the way the right tries to promote the modern work environment as liberating. 

Rightly, many people wish to have a working life that is not a regimented 9-5pm structure. Flexibility ranks highly on scores of what people want from their employers. But there is a difference between flexibility based on financial security and control and flexibility based on financial insecurity and employer domination. 

Read more – The evolution of universal basic income

Whether in a temporary job, agency work, self-employed, or a zero-hours contract, the flexibility of work is increasingly similar to the flexibility a docker experienced 100 years ago when one turned up at the docks in the morning hoping to get picked for a day’s labour. 

Flexibility based on insecurity equals vulnerability, as the landlord, the electricity company and the supermarket are not flexible in their demands for payment.

An emancipatory vision of flexibility is based on financial security and control. This gives a person real freedom, real options: working more or not becomes a genuine choice, knowing the fundamentals of life are secure. 

So how do we establish this sort of flexibility? This brings us back to where I started - policy, and, specifically, a basic income and a job guarantee scheme.

Why both? A basic income without the option of work could simply replicate most of the existing divisions between employed and unemployed, albeit with some enhanced dignity and financial security for those out of work. 

Read more – 5 ideas from the launch of Scotland's Basic Income Network

There is a rightwing libertarian vision for basic income which we should be conscious of: with automation, low-skill jobs will disappear, but we need the former low-skill workers who currently buy consumer goods to keep on consuming regardless so that we can keep selling them stuff. 

As automation advances, the division between those out of work and those in work will grow greater: high skill people have jobs, the rest have basic income. It is not hard to see how this can fuel rather than reduce divisions between employed and unemployed, with those on basic income becoming a bigger but still marginalised section of a society where class divisions become even more greatly defined by employment status and meritocratic values.

At the same time, guaranteed employment (how a jobs guarantee scheme would work in practice will have to be the subject of a future column) without an adequate option for not working could create a sort of mass workfare society, where the pressure to work forces people into taking jobs they hate with wages no better or worse than being unemployed. 

There is a countervailing tendency to this. Full (or almost full) employment has the potential effect of strengthening the bargaining power of labour over capital: with less available labour to replace you, the worker can be more confident in trade union organising, striking and so forth. This could force wages and conditions upwards. 

While the evidence for this full employment dynamic is certainly true of industrial societies, there is no strong evidence base in the information age from which to say if it would also hold true now.

These two policies are not an end in and of themselves: they should be seen as intrinsic to a broader movement.

In any case, a basic income would strengthen labour’s position versus capital, not weaken it. This is because, as sociologist Erik Olin Wright has argued, basic income would act as "a kind of unconditional and inexhaustible strike fund" from which workers could draw on. 

A jobs guarantee scheme for anyone who wanted it plus a basic income would mean workers could withdraw from the labour market far more easily, making the fear of unemployment (a major disciplining factor on labour) much less severe as access back into employment will always be there.

Thus, one can begin to see how the combination of a jobs guarantee scheme and a basic income could begin to square the work-life circle: the whole of both policies together is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Basic income provides the freedom from work and the jobs guarantee scheme provides the freedom from marginalisation. The two combined provides choice and opens up options: real flexibility.

These two policies are not an end in and of themselves: they should be seen as intrinsic to a broader movement that sees satisfying, meaningful working lives and participatory, engaged non-working lives as two essential parts (with equal status) of a social system that creates quality of life for all of us. 

Many futurists predict work will become a minor feature of life due to automation, but we are a long way off that and, if such a transition is to happen, it will be fraught with danger of further division and fracturing over the question of work. 

It is the inequities between employed and unemployed, overworked and underworked, rich and poor that create the current alienated work-life balance we have today.

Many futurists predict work will become a minor feature of life due to automation, but we are a long way off that and, if such a transition is to happen, it will be fraught with danger of further division and fracturing over the question of work. 

If we have any chance of managing that equitably and peacefully, we need to have a fundamentally different idea of what freedom and choice means in relation to work. The option of guaranteed work, and the meaningful option of non-work, will both be necessary.

Picture courtesy of wormwould

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