Basic Income in the Spotlight in Spain

Interview with Daniel Raventós

Maciej Szlinder: You are president of Red Renta Básica (The Spanish Basic Income Network). How was this organisation established and what are its main achievements?

Daniel Raventós: The organisation was founded in 2001, so it has been in existence for thirteen years. The most successful point in our whole history is right now. Why? Because basic income is now being discussed in the public domain. Of course, it has been publicly discussed before in the media and twice in the Spanish parliament. There was one draft law, but it was all from top to bottom. However, this year Podemos included basic income in their last election campaign for the European Parliament and they are now the first in the polls. Since they support basic income (or have supported basic income: at present there is a vivid debate within Podemos) then obviously it’s being widely discussed by real supporters, “friends” and “enemies” of the proposal. To tell the truth, the fact that an organisation like Podemos has had this kind of result in the polls was unthinkable a year and a half ago. In Spain we have had two main parties – People’s Party [Partido Popular – PP] and the Socialist Party [Partido Socialista Obrero Español – PSOE] – in government for years. And both of them are monarchical and parties of the “transition” from the Franco regime to the present regime, which some of us call the Second Bourbon Restoration.

Apart from Podemos, what other parties or political organisations are in favour of basic income in Spain?

There are three in particular: Bildu in the Basque country, which supports it openly, a relatively new formation called Anova, a left-nationalist party from Galicia, and Equo. Others like United Left [Izquierda Unida – IU], Initiative for Catalonia Greens [Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds – ICV] are not so clear about it. There is some difficulty with the name, because in some parts of Spain, namely Extremadura and Andalusia, they use the term basic income (renta básica) for a conditional subsidy, which creates some confusion. Therefore, there are quite a lot of organisations that speak about basic income, but in many cases you can’t be sure exactly what they mean when they use the term. In many parties, for example Izquierda Unida, some people are in favour of basic income and others are very much against it.

What are their main reasons for opposing basic income?

They represent this kind of culture which we call trabajista, or labourist. There are some people in the unions who are all for basic income, but most of them are against. And in Podemos now when they are engaged in their election campaign some people accessing Podemos are old enemies of basic income.

Why?

Because it’s not so easy to understand the idea, and if people misunderstand it they can end up looking ridiculous. For instance, the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, in some of last interviews on Spanish television faced the same argument, which he was not able to answer: “We have 47 million people in Spain and if you pay all of them 670 Euros, we can’t afford to finance that.” Clearly, his advisers hadn’t explained him how to answer this obvious question, which is quite strange for me, because they had asked us about it and they are well aware of our very detailed article on financing basic income in Catalonia. But maybe they didn’t tell Iglesias about it. In fact, it’s very easy to respond to this question, even on television: “If you think that all of people will get basic income within the present taxation system without changing it then of course it’s impossible. You don’t need an economist to tell you that. But you should understand that basic income would be a part of a greater tax reform. Everyone would get it, but not everyone would gain because of its implementation. The rich would lose.” Journalists often ask questions like, “Will Patricia Botín (the chair of Santander Group) also get the basic income?” At the same time, they ask for the opinion representatives of PP, who say, “We think that only those in need should receive basic income.” This reminds me a joke connected with the debate about agrarian reform in the Second Spanish Republic, which clearly explains both that reform and basic income. An Andalusian landlord says, “I agree with the agrarian reform because I have a lot of land and I want to get a bit more.” He didn’t understand that to give everyone a plot of land you must first take it from those who have too much.

Going back to Podemos it is clearly a party-in-the-making and still not a well formed structure.

Yes, and all of the professors at the core of Podemos are from The Complutense University of Madrid, all of them.

From one university?

Yes, only one. Pablo Iglesias, Juan Carlos Monedero, Íñigo Errejón, Carolina Bescansa – all of them are from the Complutense University, which is the main university in Madrid. And of course people who are now in Podemos came from very different parties like Izquierda Unida etc.

We are now in the middle of campaign for the independence of Catalonia. Do you think that it is possible to think of basic income in Catalonia, not in Spain?

Three members of Red Renta Básica: Jordi Arcarons, Lluís Torrens and I, did a study of financing basic income in Catalonia (Arcarons, Raventós, and Torrens 2013), but only in order to demonstrate that it is perfectly possible, by reforming the IRPF (El Impuesto sobre la Renta de las Personas Físicas – Personal Income Tax). But the important thing is that 50 percent of this tax goes to Madrid. And in our calculations we assumed that all of this stays in Catalonia. This is a political aspect, from the economic point of view there is no problem. Now we have a sample of two million of IRPF payments throughout Spain. And we want to do the same detailed study for the whole Spanish state. We will show that it is also possible to finance basic income in Spain, without a doubt.1

And what are the connections between the Catalan independence movement and the basic income movement?

I think that there is some ignorance about basic income inside the independence movement, which has not been characterised as especially supporting BI. What exactly do we mean by the Catalan independence movement? It is a big and very heterogeneous movement stretching from the far right to the far left. Therefore, their attitude towards basic income can’t be clear. There are some personal connections, there are people engaging in both of the movements but that’s all.

Yes but these personal relations have some effects – Catalonia is the most represented community in Red Renta Básica and the idea seems to be more popular here than on average in Spain. Therefore independence and basic income supporters could possibly use the argument that it would be politically easier to implement it in independent Catalonia than in whole Spain. Is this kind of argument used?

Well, that’s more complicated – if Podemos wins, it may be easier to achieve it in Madrid than here. And what about Vizcaya or Gipuzkoa (two parts of the Basque Country)? They at least have Bildu. Here in Catalonia for example in the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (The Republican Left of Catalonia) – which is one of those parties that could win next year’s “autonomous elections” in Catalonia – there are people who are in favour of basic income, but it is not on the party agenda.

What was the significance of the 15-M Movement in popularising the idea of basic income?

It was one of the 5 postulates of the 15-M Movement, but I think that not many people really understood what the basic income is. I was invited to speak about it many times at the 15-M meetings and they always asked they same question: would the rich also get basic income?What really made it more popular were the consequences of the economic crisis – more and more people started to perceive it as an immediate response to the situation of decline in the quality of life and work for the majority of population. Unemployment is enormous, but even if it has decreased a little bit recently, it is only because of the creation of a very poor quality, precarious jobs with very low wages. They are almost turning people into slaves.

When one thinks of the neoliberal changes in Europe of the eighties – undermining social security, increase in conditionality, rise of unemployment – s/he compares the current situation with the fifties and sixties, which were “the golden age of capitalism” in the United States, Germany, France etc. But in Spain there was nothing like a “golden age”, there was a Franco regime. Does this specificity create more fertile ground for looking forward to and arguing in favour of new ideas such as basic income, instead of going backwards, sentimentally recalling the past and promoting a labourist agenda?

I don’t think so. During the Franco dictatorship the most important thing for the left was to put an end to this regime and all other goals were subordinated to this main one. But today, the left is not very open to the idea of basic income. The fiercest enemies of the idea, apart from the neoliberal right, are some members of Izquierda Unida. But there are also other people to whom someone presented basic income as a measure replacing, for example, financing child care, the public education system or public health care. That would lead to the end of the welfare state. But we don’t propose that. The financing of basic income doesn’t involve taking a Euro cent from any of these things. Of course, it implies elimination of some conditional cash transfers which would be made redundant by the implementation of basic income. We are not proposing even touching any money that presently goes to the army or the Royal Household. And we are certainly not trying to destroy the welfare state.

But not all basic income supporters would agree with this position.

That’s true and you know perfectly well, that inside the Basic Income Earth Network there are positions that please every taste. It’s a very heterogeneous group. There are people quite close to my position like most of the representatives of the Latin America, or, for example, Guy Standing. But there are also many with whom I completely disagree in political terms. For instance, some of them seemed to accept the occupation of Iraq by the United States and thought of implementing basic income there under the occupation… In fact, I agree more with those that are against basic income, but who have a more similar political approach to the world in general, than with those who are in favour of it, but are talking political nonsense or represent mainstream economics.

Another important difference is visible with regard to the way of approaching basic income and opinion about conditional cash transfers (CCT). For instance Philippe Van Parijs (who, in other ways, I admire) regards CCT as a possible base for the basic income. This approach stands in contradiction to the opinions represented, for example, by the leaders of Latin American sections of BIEN like the Argentine economist Rubén LoVuolo or the Mexican Pablo Yanes who have been fighting against CCT for years. I agree with the latter position. For me, it’s not a step towards, but rather away from basic income, and against the whole concept of universality. In Europe, we may not understand very well the huge problem of corruption, especially with relation to conditional subsidies. Here, they are, of course, inefficient, but not corrupt. Whereas in Latin America they are connected with horrific corruption, having to give to the functionaries a certain percentage of the subsidy etc. It’s awful! Regardless of the basic income, people from Mexico and Argentina say that the first thing they have to do, is to bring about a tax reform and eliminate as much of the anti-universal, corrupt CCT as possible.

You present yourself as a member of the republican tradition. What are the republican arguments for basic income?

I think the simplest way to explain this is that no one is free if s/he doesn’t have a guaranteed material existence. We insist on this point – Toni Domènech, David Casassas and I (and others). Basic income in the monetary economy of the twenty first century is a way of extending what we sometimes name universalisation of property – in a metaphorical way. Metaphorical, because obviously a basic income is not property as it is usually understood. But it is a form of property. In today’s economies it resembles a small-scale ownership in the sense of guaranteeing the right to existence. The concept of republican freedom is about 2-3 thousand years old and the history of its use has bright and dark sides, because there was oligarchic as well as democratic republicanism. The concept has been the same but the question has always been “who can have this freedom”? Demos or only the free people? Everyone or only a few? Who are these free people? The owners, who have the property which gives them the guarantee of the material existence. Democratic republicanism doesn’t change the way of understanding freedom, but simply says that the whole population should have it, including women. Robespierre at the end of his short life understood that it would be a great mistake if what the democratic republicans had said and defended were not extended to women. There were some Jacobin clubs of women fighting for this extension. The title of my first book, which was based on my doctoral thesis, was The Right to Existence: which is the first right, and this is an idea on which we base the republican justification of basic income.

Your approach to the history of republicanism makes it a far broader concept than that presented by neo-republicans who focus mainly on Ancient Rome.

Apart from Ancient Rome, democratic Athens was crucial. The big democracy of Athens was the longest democracy in the history of humanity: one hundred and seventy years. And you can’t understand the political and social views of Aristotle, without realising that books like The Politics or the Nicomachean Ethics were written in the last period of the great Athenian democracy. This democracy died with Aristotle. Therefore if you want to understand these works you need to know that he was criticising the society he was living in that time. And he was against the radical form of democracy about which he writes in some of his works. He opposed the democracy of the free poor. Moreover, he lived after the great very radical reforms of Ephialtes, namely the misthon – in Greek it means money paid to the poor so that they can participate in public acts, assemblies, etc. This is a small precedent to basic income. And Aristotle at a certain point wanted to destroy the democracy of the free poor – because apart from being a great philosopher he was also a real politician – so he proposed abolishing the misthon and fining the rich, who didn’t attend the assemblies. He was a very intelligent critic of democracy and very moderate; and he was a republican. He couldn’t have any other concept of freedom other than the republican one because in this era there was no other. I think that there is some problem with the term in political philosophy. Calling Adam Smith a liberal or the French revolution a liberal revolution is like talking about Christians before the birth of Christ – it makes no sense. The first moment of the really existing liberalism – Toni Domènech has worked a lot on that – was the Cádiz Cortes. Robespierre and Adam Smith had died before then. Their concept of freedom was an earlier, republican concept which was very different. Also Kant, as Maria Julia Bertomeu, for example, showed, was also a republican. Semi-oligarchic and non-democratic, but a republican.

Barcelona, 30 October 2014

Bibliography:

Arcarons, Jordi, Daniel Raventós, and Lluís Torrens. 2013. “Un modelo de financiación de la Renta Básica técnicamente factible y políticamente no inerte.” sinpermiso. December 1. http://www.sinpermiso.info/articulos/ficheros/RBnoinerte.pdf. English version: http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/bis.ahead-of-print/bis-2014-0005/bis-2014-0005.xml

Arcarons, Jordi, Daniel Raventós, Lluís Torrens, and Antoni Domènech. 2014. “Un modelo de financiación de la Renta Básica para el conjunto del Reino de España: sí, se puede y es racional.” sinpermiso. December 7. http://www.sinpermiso.info/articulos/ficheros/rbuesp.pdf.

Daniel Raventós (1958) – economist, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business. Member of the Editorial Committee of Sin Permiso, president of Spanish Basic Income Network (Red Renta Básica), member of scientific committee of ATTAC. Wrote i.a.: Basic Income. The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press 2007), ¿Qué es la Renta Básica? Preguntas (y respuestas) más frecuentes (El Viejo Topo, 2012).

The Polish translation of this interview: Daniel Raventós, Dochód podstawowy w centrum uwagi w Hiszpanii

The Spanish translation of this interview: Daniel Raventós, La renta básica en el punto de mira en el Reino de España. Entrevista

  1. The interview was done before this article was published (Arcarons et al. 2014). []

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