Interview with Bru Laín Escandell
Maciej Szlinder: You worked a lot on the topic of American republicanism, especially on the role of Jefferson. What is his most important contribution to the republican thinking?
Jefferson modernized the republican thought at the end of 18th century, although he kept a strong classical pastoralism ideal. He adapted the ancient republican thought to a new society living on (and creating) the new world. They were creating a new country, but also a new way of thinking. Jefferson concentrated on two main points: 1) the natural sovereign of individuals, and 2) the relation between the republican understanding of property with the idea of fiduciary government. He never considered property as something separated from the forms of government. When he was advocating for “republic of small republics” he meant the form of government consisting in the government of the Union, the 13 state republics, and the sovereign citizens at the bottom. Both these three elements were necessary to think about a real republic.
This structure of government was deeply influenced by his thinking on property that, for him, was not a natural right, but a civil one. “Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society”, he stated in 1813. In other words, in the fiduciary relationship, the principal is the people in itself, the only natural proprietor of all the wealth. “We the people” are the fundamental words in the Declaration of Independence stating that idea. So that, it is only such a people the only one entitled to allocate national wealth and resources. The private owner, therefore, becomes just the agent, the usufructuary of the principal’s wealth. The yeoman, the small farmer who possesses the land is not an absolute proprietor of the land, he’s rather a tenant. In sum, according to Jefferson’s view on property, private property is an act of private appropriation of resources by means of a public fideicommissum shaped by a fiduciary relationship of the principal (the sovereign people who retains the right of alienation) and its agent (State or private owners, who just use it as usufruct).
What does it mean?
To usufruct means not to have the absolute dominium nor possession of a particular resource. It’s a right to use and get benefit from the land you’re working on. If you usufruct the land you’re not the last proprietor of it, since the land belongs to the whole society, the people. So that, private owner is nothing but a trustee of public or sovereign property. “Who plants a field” Jefferson defended in 1814, “keeps possession till he has gathered the produce, after which one has a right as another to occupy it […] Till then the property is in the body of the nation, and they or their chief as their trustee, must grant them to individuals”. This is the core idea of the fiduciary relationship on property. The important thing is that the same relation occurs in the government. The people is the sovereign, the principal. The representatives (first the King and after the senators and counsellors and public officers alike) are nothing but its agent, secretaries entrusted by the nation as a whole.In the US there are no Ministries, like in Spain, but Secretaries. The difference corresponds to a difference in the way of perceiving their role. For the Americans, their representatives just exercise some political function on behalf of the people and hence, subject to its trust. Put it in this way: why the French and the Americans republicans started their revolutions? Because both kings (French and English) betrayed the fiduciary relationship with the people. By nature, the principal always retains the right to take away its trust from its agent when it pleases. In 1792 Maximilien Robespierre clearly illustrated this point: “The source of all of our evils is the absolute independence of the representatives. They were nothing but the people’s agents, and they made themselves sovereigns, despots. For despotism is nothing else than the usurpation of the sovereign power.”
The conflict about taxes between the UK and American colonies was the very beginning of the revolution. Jefferson said that government imposing taxes without a voice in the government was nothing but a tyranny, an act of “despotism” or “usurpation of the sovereign power” in Robespierre’s terms. Those taxes were unacceptable, because they were not an effect of the voluntary decision of Americans, but something imposed by the king unilaterally. The right to decide about ourselves, taxes, the division of land etc. – belongs to the people. While English Parliament gave no voice to its colonies, the only authorized agent as the King. And, in doing so he betrayed the “English citizens” in the Americas.
What is the difference between Jeffersonian republicanism and the one of Robespierre?
For Robespierre the principal was everyone, all of the French population (including waged workers, women, child and slaves). For Jefferson, just white owners, yeoman, and small and independent farmers. Women and slaves were excluded alike. Democracy, in Robespierre’s mind, included the whole nation, while by Jefferson, it extinguished in the front door of the yeoman’s farm.
There were, of course, some crucial ideological differences. In the sense of social ontology all republicans are similar: they assume the existence of social classes, power relations, conflicts. The ideological difference, on the other hand, was to which extent does the democratic republican citizenry (the free or sui iuris individuals) must be extended, namely, which individuals must be free and therefore citizens, and which others must remain excluded from this republican civil society. Most of such ideological differences were due to different economic and political context. Initially, in the American colonies, there were no feudal relations, nor feudal property regime. So, no feudal lords were expected, and so, neither private dominiums. Unlike the Old world, Americans didn’t have this tradition and didn’t have this structure to overcome. They were creating a new world. That’s why the “liberation” of land was so important for Jefferson who defended the classical republican requirement of material independence by means of “40 acres and a mule”. Having a piece of land meant to be independent, meant to be a free citizen. And the only way to achieve independence was through private property of small pieces of land.
Was it different for the Jacobins?
Yes, that was not exactly the case in France. Jacobins didn’t stick only to the private property. They also claimed for the use the public, state tenure of land (the state decides how it would be divided) and common land as well. The communes before the French Revolution were very important and, in fact, they were the primary source of the jacqueries (the peasant revolts promoting the French revolution). Peasant were organised along common property, woods, land, animals, etc. They were dispossessed during 17502 by the Quesnay’s and Turgot’s phisiocratic reforms, a dispossession that continued during the first period of the French revolution by the Liberal policies passed by the new landlords of the Third Estate. The promise of the second (Jacobin) part of the French revolution was that these lands had to be returned to the commons to be used by peasantry.
So, while the American republican freedom was mainly based on the independent-private properties (the freehold), the French republican freedom was based on at least 3 different kinds of properties: small private property, public property (belonging to the state) and communal property. Americans would have never accepted the idea that the state possesses all the land. Seeing the European despotic kingdoms, for the Americans State represented the idea of imperium (the threat to the republican freedom from above public institutions). So, the government was always a second-best option; we need it not to live in chaos. Instead, for the French, the civil government was an achievement since they created it by replacing the feudal kingdom.
What about republicanism after those two revolutions? How it transformed in the face of industrial revolution?
Jefferson died in 1826 and he didn’t face the effects of the industrial revolution. The French already were witnessing the rise of the industrial world. In the US in the second part of the 19th century there was an important group called the Knights of Labor who were partially the heirs of Jeffersonian republican thought. They have updated the republican way of thinking in the world of industrial capitalism with the dominant wage-labour relationship (the new private dominiums). And that meant claiming democracy within the factories, mainly creating cooperatives. The capitalist-wage-labourer relation is unacceptable from this point of view, it’s against republican freedom. The republicanism of the Knights of Labor is still based on material independence but now it’s a collective one, not individual, not farming but working in the factory. A cooperative is a coordination and collaboration between independent workers who are the equal owners of the factory.
Talking about cooperatives. As you are a member of the basic income movement, do you think that BI can strengthen the cooperativist movement?
Yes, it creates the possibility to establish a cooperative based on the joined money got through basic income and can also make it easier for the existing cooperatives to survive.
What do you think about the concept of property-owning democracy?
Many people used this term in different meanings, even Margaret Thatcher presented herself as a supporter of a property-owning democracy. Nevertheless, the most progressive and interesting framing of POD was held by the Novel prize-awarded, James Meade in his influential work: Efficiency, Equality, and the Ownership of Property (1964). His proposal included a) a radical reform of death duties turning it in a progressive tax on inheritance, b) to apply it on inter vivos gifts, c) the creation of a public budget surplus (provided by these taxes revenues and wealth taxes) to reduce national debt and to invest in new forms of public properties, and d) to make institutional reforms (profit sharing schemes, purchase municipal houses by their tenants, investment trusts) which would make easier the accumulation of small properties. All of these measures would promote that “the ownership of property could be equally distributed over all the citizens in the community”. In that case, every citizen possesses some significant share of the national assets, so even in case of some losing a job he or she can easily subsist him/herself. In Alaska model the idea is similar, but obviously that dividend is to small fluctuating around 2,000 dollars per year and comes from oil, not from tax revenues on wealth and inheritance. As far as you are the owner of these national assets you will never lose your economic capacity. Of course, Meade showed we can apart from making a dividend do other things with these national assets – invest them or convert them into common property organised by municipalities.
The moral and economic justification of Basic Income is that the wealth in a country belongs to everyone, insofar is the output of a collective effort (which is appropriated and accumulated unequally), and thus, it must be spread to everyone in equal part. As we, the government, decides which part of the revenues goes to public schools or health service, we can also decide a part of these collective revenues going to fund a Basic Income.
You have written some articles about collaborative economy. How we should analyse it and what political stakes are connected with it?
There is huge misunderstanding with the so called “collaborative economy”. In fact, capitalist markets in themselves are the most collaborative systems ever, since they cannot exist without collaboration. Of course it’s not a democratic collaboration. We must be quite careful in using the term “collaborative economy”. For now the most collaborative platforms in our society are the labour market and the social security system. There are millions of people collaborating in them, people working, others getting unemployment benefits, and more than 6 million people receiving pensions. Uber is nothing in comparison to that. There is no collaboration there. There are people working for the owners. The only thing is that you can get in touch with your taxi driver directly, you don’t have to ask a taxi by talking to the central. This is the only collaborating element that Uber represents.
Another example, Airbnb, is supposedly to be the most collaborative platform, since connects the landlords with the tenants all around the world. But, we have been doing this for a long time without it. The only difference is that they have a huge capital to invest in advertising. The only difference is that I can upload your advertisement on their site that gives you the chance to get in contact with a lot of people. Airbnb is a private company who extracts its surplus not from the wage labour of their peers, but from what you possess –your house– and your daily activity –web connection–. This whole model is just the way of profit-making –using not your work, but your assets (your house, car, daily activities, and even more, also the collective ones like the city in itself). It is far beyond the classical exploitation relationship; it’s not the labour time that is the basis of exploitation but the leisure time. So, all of my life, not only work time, is a part of the alienation. There is nothing democratic about this.
So there are 2 main problems: First, that it’s overwhelmingly taking all of our time. And second that it is not democratic. Peter Frase concentrates on that second feature. He thinks that just destroying Uber or Airbnb is not the best idea. It would be better to take them over and democratise, to change it into cooperative. You can still use some of the technological and organisational tools but you completely change the property relations. Every Uber driver would be a cooperator having his own equal share in the firm. What do you think about that?
There are already taxi cooperatives, very old ones here in Barcelona. You can get in touch with a particular driver if you like. In that sense it’s the same service that Uber provides. In case of people renting their flats or rooms – would it be a good idea to create a cooperative of them? It’s easier to have a cooperative of landlords. But what about the problems connected with excessive tourism? What about gentrification? What about housing bubble? At some point we need the state or municipality intervention to correct or to fix negative externalities of “collaborative” activity, whereas it may be public-communitarian or private-parasitize. In any case, the house market has to be regulated. Even with taxis – it’s one of the most regulated sectors; they need licences, pay high taxes, obligatory assurances, etc. That’s why these people are complaining on Uber – they don’t follow those rules. Collaborative economy is not a problem if it is not avoiding taxes, regulations and not eroding the state and really collaborative affords. If there is, in other word, a possibility to unionise and the labour rights are respected. Otherwise it’s the savage and unregulated capitalism.
Bru Laín Escandell is PhD in Sociology at the University of Barcelona where teaches Sociology, Sociology of Knowledge and Introduction to Economics. His research is mainly on the topic of property and related issues like the common property, fiduciary theories, natural right, basic income, distribution and pre-distribution, among other. His main interests are on Political Philosophy, Political Economy and History of Political Ideas. He is the Secretary of Spanish Basic Income Network and advisor of the Barcelona City Council on the B-MINCOME pilot testing cash transfers benefits when combining with public active policies in reducing inequalities.
The interviewer received funding for preparation of PhD thesis from Polish National Science Centre as part of PhD scholarship decision DEC-2015/16/T/HS1/00295.
Interview with David Casassas
Maciej Szlinder: In your book you’ve analysed the thought of very known philosopher and classical economist Adam Smith. Being a leftist what have you found interesting in this icon of free-market and contemporary liberal thinkers?
David Casassas: One thing you can do if you want to think in emancipatory terms is to try to defend your allegedly own values and goals such as community, equality etc. This is very important. But there has been a huge mistake inside the emancipatory thinking since the twentieth century of giving a present made by very important values in our tradition to the conservative right. For instance, freedom seems to be liberal, individual seems to be bourgeois, the private sphere seems to be something that can be only dominated by the few. It is very important to go into these values and concepts and try to make sense of them. If that is your goal you should go to some classical thinkers that have been kidnapped by the liberal hermeneutics which has given an interpretation of them that has nothing to do with the kind of world they were aspiring to. I’m thinking of such political philosophers as, for instance, Locke, Kant, Robespierre or Adam Smith. They all have been related to the liberal tradition by liberals, and sometimes also by some Marxists for whom they were all liberal and bourgeois people. In my opinion this is completely false. Adam Smith and other representatives of the Scottish Enlightenment thought about manufacture and commerce in a way that has nothing to do with features of the really existing capitalism. Capitalism is incompatible with free market as it was defined by Smith.
So you propose some kind of strategy of diversion, re-capturing or regaining the notions that have been appropriated by the right? A kind of Trojan strategy?
You can say that. But the important thing is to go in depth into the works of these authors, see “the text and the context”, to put it in Skinner terms, and realise that there were an emancipatory project of abolishing serfdom, of creating undominated social relations. In fact it is stronly connected with long republican tradition which was still very important in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in Scotland, England, France, North America etc. I think it is important to recover these authors from the claws of the liberal interpretation.
One of the ways to recover Adam Smith is to fully understand and present his vision of social ontology. What was his view of the individual, the collective and power relations and how it differs from the liberal point of view?
If you are a liberal, you tend to think that the world is made of psychological relations. I sign a contract with you, because I prefer what you have and you prefer what I have, so we make an exchange. Sometimes the thing that you have is labour force and what you prefer is to work for me. This is all a matter of preferences. A republican social ontology shows a world which is criss-crossed by all kinds of (materially-based) power relations. And it is very clearly present in the works of Adam Smith. In a long passage in the Wealth of Nations about the fixation of wages he describes a world which is completely pervaded by strong power relations, in which workers are very likely to lose a lot in an interaction that is defined by a very dissimilar access to resources. There is a very nice image, when he says: “In the long run, the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.” (WN 42) In other words, workers needs capitalists (or the money from them) right now, because the other option is dying from starvation, capitalists also need workers, but on the long run. In this conflictive interaction capitalists have many more opportunities to win and to build social relations that respect their wishes and whims and that are extremely exploitative for others. You can find this presence of power relations all along the work of Adam Smith, as well as in Aristotle, Kant, the Levellers, the Diggers, Robespierre, Jefferson and all the republican tradition.
Ok, so what about the probably most known Smithian metaphor of “the invisible hand” which is used by the liberals against any regulation of the market? What is the significance and place of it in the whole theoretical construction of Adam Smith?
Firstly, it is important to know that this metaphor appears seriously only twice in his works (and once as a joke in the History on Astronomy): once in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and once in the Wealth of Nations. But the liberal hermeneutics has turned it into the main idea of Adam Smith. Secondly, let’s take the metaphor seriously. What is Adam Smith telling us? He is telling that he believes in a world in which we have decentralised exchanges of goods and services without having to ask for permission in every case to guilds or the state. When these decentralised exchanges happen societies tend to achieve higher degrees of efficiency, freedom, happiness and self-realisation. Adam Smith is one of the main theorists of alienation and self-realisation. 1844 Marx picks up Adam Smith’s views. For these decentralised exchanges to take place in a free way that respects everyone’s wishes, preferences, undominated life plans etc. it is extremely important that state intervenes in order to cut bonds of dependence and to create these spheres where you and I can meet and look, how Philip Pettit would put it, “at each others’ eyes without having to turn head down,” because it means that I depend on you. There is something like “the invisible hand” but it is something to be constituted by the public powers. You don’t have “invisible hand” without state intervention. So we can say that Adam Smith’s thought is a thinking towards the political institution of the invisible hand. All markets are of course politically constituted and Adam Smith is very clear about that.
In one of your articles you say even a little bit more, namely, that all markets are a result of state intervention saying at the same time that markets have always existed. Therefore how do you understand the notion of state?
I understand it as political institutions created by men and women, mainly man, in order to organise social life. Of course as Polanyi teaches us, as well as Goody and others, markets exist since the Bronze Age or even before. So you can’t say that the markets are a result of capitalism or of the modern state. What it seems to me is that it is a cultural/political decision, the one that defines in which way we exchanged these goods and services. I’m saying that all markets are politically constituted because they all are the result of the sedimentation of many layers of implicit or explicit rules of what to commodify and how to commodify it. Of course making of these rules depends on a certain correlation of forces. Markets are not metaphysical entities, they don’t fall from heaven. They are a way of decentralised exchange according to certain rules. Does the left intervene in the markets? Yes and I think it should more. Does the right constitute the market? Of course yes, it’s a myth it doesn’t. Markets are the result of layers of legislation. And when I use the term “legislation” I do it in a broad sense, as any kind of regulation, from the civil code to the “moral economy of the multitude,” as E.P. Thompson would say. These kind of markets are the defeated markets by capitalist modernity.
In what sense capitalist markets are not free markets? You say that they are against competition and other values defended by Adam Smith.
There are two things to say in this respect: one related to workers and the other connected with the Adam Smith’s idea of a free producer, which, I believe, should be central in our world. The problem with capitalist markets, which were very well known by Adam Smith, is that they rest on a massive process of dispossession of the vast majority which forces the commodification of the labour force of this majority. Markets, including labour markets, are something that you should be able to access when you want it. When I say ‚you’ I mean every individual and the whole society. Forced commodification is a problem from the republican point of view, the Adam Smith’s point of view. Another problem is that capitalism creates very harsh entry barriers: monopolies, oligopolies, predatory price fixation, dumping, advertisement. These are many forms of expelling from the markets potential producers that might want to access it. I think it’s very important not to see market as the devil, but as a space where part of the externalisation of our capacities can occur. For this to happen markets should be something that we, as a society choose to use in certain moments, scenarios and contexts. We should have the possibility to say ‚no’ to markets in order to think about free markets. This is like in a relation with a partner – it is only free and interesting when you can choose to leave it and you decide not to leave it and nourish it. But we need the right to divorce. And capitalism denies us the right to divorce from this kind of social relationship. We need the real possibility of choice. I can’t say that all spheres of life should be certainly decommodified but all of them should be at least decommodifiable. And capitalism denies that.
One of the measures you propose that enables us to say “no”, is basic income. What do you mean by that?
I think that if we try to present basic income itself as a sufficient way to build power to leave markets, to decommodify the labour force we would make a mistake. But we can present it as a part of a project of contradicting the dispossessing nature of capitalism by creating, as a right, a set of material resources that could guarantee an existence in dignity. And this right to decent existence which is guaranteed by rights to basic income, health care, education, care policies etc. would give you this kind of bargaining power that you lose when you are dispossessed. Basic income plays a crucial role in this context because it can help to consolidate sets of resources hat could give us this bargaining power to say ‚no’ to what we don’t want to do, but not in order to build an atomised life without social relations but to build an interdependence (which is unavoidable) that is based on autonomous decisions by all parties. So it shouldn’t be a unique measure but a part of a package of measures. But because of its unconditional, universal and individual nature it is a best example of this kind of counter-dispossession policies we should endeavour in present times.
How this possibility of having an exit option and this rise in bargaining position that basic income could help to give us is related to the amount of it?
This is very relevant – it only works when these set of resources allow you to cover your basic needs. A partial basic income could be important in terms of fostering your well-being but not in terms of fostering your freedom. Having 200 Euros every month unconditionally allows you to buy some food or books, but if you want to be free, what you need to have is a basic income at the level of poverty line and a package of measures that guarantee that you have your basic needs fully covered. If you’re not above this threshold the freedom enhancing potential of these measures vanishes. Without that you don’t have the exit option and the bargaining position and therefore you don’t have a republican, effective freedom that we need.
How this republican freedom-based defence of basic income differs from other, based on freedom, justifications of this proposal, for instance libertarian one (including Philippe Van Parijs’ “real libertarianism”)?
Philippe Van Parijs’ attitude towards basic income is very interesting from an abstract point of view, but I think it is quite vague in sociological terms or when it comes to assessing the material conditions for this kind of freedom to emerge. Having the capacity to do whatever you might want to do is something that I buy, but I think that we need to go down in terms of level of abstraction and analyse the economic institutions that really promote this capacity. The republican tradition gives you this kind of sociological awareness of these institutions. Another thing which is absent in Van Parijs’ approach is the importance of bargaining power, you won’t find it at any point of his works. It’s a problem of social ontology, if you still operate with ontology related to neoclassical economics you don’t need to think about power relations. But if you acknowledge the world is criss-crossed by many form of power relations you should get into deep, institutional approach. In general terms, libertarian thinking is far from these concerns and is highly problematic, especially in the context of contemporary capitalism. Another thing is that left-libertarians think that the world was owned in common, there was an unfair appropriation because it left many people without resources but this lead them only into a reparation rationale. I think that in reality the reparation rationale and the republican rationale might tend to converge but it is not necessary. If this is only a question of reparations, you might forget plenty of situations in which we can’t identify that it was a violation of these property rights and we are not just ex ante distributing to everybody this package of measures I was mentioning before. I think that the predistribution debate we are witnessing nowadays thanks to Stuart White or Martin O’Neil, which is related to a classical, republican approach to freedom, is broader and in some way guarantee that all of us will have access to this sets of resources. If you limit yourself to a mere reparations of the violation of the property rights you might end up leaving people without that socio-economic empowerment I’m talking about.
In one of your articles you use the notion of political economy of democracy – what is that?
Only if you’re a liberal you would deny that democracy requires material conditions. Freedom and democracy as stated by all the republican tradition is something that only occurs when there are some social and economical conditions that have been implemented that make us more free in terms of co-determining how we live in common etc. So there’s a long history of republican thinking about freedom and democracy (when republicans thought about democracy, some of them don’t do that). Democracy is connected to these collective projects of self-determination. In order to participate in these projects with real voice and capacity to codetermine them you need to be empowered, you need to have material independence in order to make a really democratic politics emerge.
And what do you mean by saying that republicanism is in itself a political economy?
I’m concerned very much about romanticised approach to republicanism as a tradition. You can find this in the nineteenth century, as well as, in the works of Hannah Arendt, Michael Sandel or Richard Dagger. In some way they all say that republicanism is liking very much public sphere, fostering warm ties with others, fostering vita activa, as Hannah Arendt would say, without considering the material conditions of it. This is highly problematic for conceptual reasons but also from the hermeneutical point of view. If you go to the classics of republicanism from Aristotle to Marx, you very easily realise that all these people define civil society as a normative concept that has to do with creating a public space where we all have been empowered in order to build undominated interdependence. Republicanism does two things: the first is a descriptive analysis of social power relations (with their material and cultural conditions), and second, in a normative dimension, it suggests and struggles for measures of many sorts in order to promote undominated social relations. To the extent that republicanism does this we can’t say that it is a vague political theory, but it is a political economy. The classical political economist, from Adam Smith to Marx were doing exactly those two things.
What are those measures that republicanism as a political economy suggests?
Firstly, there’s a need of an economic floor, which is basic income and a package of measures similar to those presented in the Precariat’s Charter by Guy Standing. It rethinks the welfarist measures in a truly universal and unconditional way. Secondly, there’s an economic ceiling. Even if you are empowered ex ante with some basic and relevant resources, if you want to enter an economic sphere as a free producer, as Adam Smith would put it, but it occurs that there are some big fishes, big oligarchs that can prevent you from getting into it you have a big problem in terms of freedom. We may want to develop a productive project but if we can’t access the space where production, distribution and exchange occurs because there are 3 or 4 guys that control it we are not really free. Therefore thinking about freedom and democracy requires also thinking about an economic ceiling. There are two strategies to achieve it. First is the Rousseaunian strategy which is very close to the ideas of Pizzigati who claims that we should directly and actively cut inequalities by, for instance, reducing the top salaries. The second strategy is the Rooseveltian one which is connected to the progressive part of the American self-understanding, that you accept people with a lot of money but you can restrain their set of opportunities related to that. They should be prevented from making others more difficult to get into the social-economic spheres as a free actors.
Which of these to approaches is, in your opinion, a better one?
I don’t want to be creationist, as Toni Domènech would say, and say what every particular society needs. But I also have the Rousseaunian intuition, that an ex ante measure avoiding huge inequalities is preferable to an ex post restrain of the opportunities of the most powerful actors. At the same time I would like to add that I like diverse societies, so societies in which people have very different outcomes, even in material terms. It is not necessarily unfair or unjust. If we take the Marx criterion “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” we might have an unequal outcome. So the problem is not that there are any economic inequalities, but that they are so big and that they prevent all of us from developing our own life plans.
So we have economic floor, economic ceiling and…
To enable both of them, and that’s the third thing, we need a state intervention that is democratically controlled. This is very present both in the republican tradition and in its part, which is the socialist tradition. If we want to create workers assemblies, control the most powerful actors, introduce a basic income etc. we shouldn’t delegate these tasks in a blind way but rather inhabit and co-do these kind of arrangements and control them and deliberate about making of all of them. I think there us a need of a contestatory approach to these institutions that help us turn them into our institutions. In the end we are constructing an apparatus that has a very important role to do and we should make sure that this apparatus does these tasks and not other things. Because nowadays they are working for the few. As you can see we need vita activa, as Hannah Arendt would say, but need it for correct running of the state that has to do all this kind of things, as Arendt would not say.
If we have these three things, the floor, the ceiling and the democratic control over this state intervention, what do people do? People live free lives. What does it mean? It means enjoying the collective control over the means of production.
If the republican freedom should be something granted individually and it is based on the property, how you reconcile it with the collective control over the means of production? Do you wish to abolish the private property?
Not necessarily all of it. I think private property is something we should also reconquest from the right. I don’t think that the fact that you build something productive on your own is necessarily problematic. It can be a problem if it is related to the processes that force all of us to do wage-earning work for you and you have the power to limit our access to economic space as producers. It is very important that the package of measures is enjoyed individually in order to try to abolish all kinds of power relations. But does not deny the fact that we are social animals. The problem is that the current interdependence is ruled by the wishes of the few. The thing we will tend to do and we have already tended to do is to produce with others, material and immaterial goods. The question is how to do it and how we can create productive spaces that respect everyone’s freedom and autonomy. I think that these kind of measures can help a lot. And one of the things we can do with them is to decommodify our labour force, because as Aristotle and Marx said, wage-earning work is incompatible with freedom, in order to create productive units, private or common in which we can collectively control the many ways in which it runs. And I think it is the contemporary way of interpreting the old motto of the collective control over the means of production. “Collective control” means that we are all entitled to participate in the democratic decision-making of what and how we produce, how we allocate the tasks, how we avoid the social division of labour, how we distribute etc. And “means of production” signify all the material and immaterial assets that we are using in this production process. I know it is abstract, but I want to leave it open to different social interpretation about proper cooperatives, soviets etc.
Which of contemporary struggles are fighting for the goals that you present?
I think that all social movements that have appeared after the rupture of the post-war social deal in some way are claiming to recover what the left had renounced around 1945 with these deal. If you go to 15 Movement, Occupy, and many other social movements in Europe or Latin America they are concerned about collective economic sovereignty under neoliberal capitalism. Parts of these movements as well develop projects, and sometimes they put them into practice, of social, cooperative and solidarity economy. They have plenty of interesting suggestions and proposals, but cooperatives, self-management are still a very partial reality. I think there is a need to empower all individuals with public policies to help them make all kind of undominated decisions such as nourishing these cooperative economics or self-management projects etc. At the same time these movements ask for true citizens rescue plans understanding that we need a better footing in order to start with all these projects of our own.
How these demands are related to the neoliberal dismantling of the welfare state and the current crisis of neoliberal form of capitalism?
The post-war consensus was a very clear arrangement in which we, the working population, renounce to the control over production. Some people remind us that it was a big mistake. I don’t know if it was but the fact is that we did it. On the other side of the table capitalists agreed on something that they really didn’t like, which is guaranteeing to all of us certain degrees of social-economic security of the welfare-state measures. Most of them were conditioned of course. I think this was a very imperfect arrangement, but still it has reformed capitalism for many years. What we are witnessing now is very well explained in the article by Marco Revelli, the Italian social theorist, named ???. It mentions the painting on a wall of Instituto Politecnico de Torino saying: “You’ve taken too much from us, now we want it all.” So we have renounced to the most important thing from the republican/socialist point of view which is the control over production and with the emergence of neoliberalism, by a unilateral move they (oligarchs, capitalist) broke the deal. Therefore it is extremely legitimate that we don’t limit ourselves to defend this partial goals included in the former agreement, but we go back to the original situation which is the point, in which we were still aiming at controlling production. So I think that basic income, package of measures, the ceiling and the democratic control over these institutions are a very clear way to say: let’s put on the table again, using 21st century terms the project of control over production.
Your vision of “our” struggle for basic income against “them” (capitalists, oligarchs) stands in contradiction with the strategy of convincing “them” that it can be good for both sides by using, for instance, Milton Friedman’s arguments while discussing with his neoliberal followers. So clearly your position is in this point different from, for example, Guy Standing’s approach.
I think this is very contextual, Standing’s strategy might make sense in some societies in certain moments. And I know that this view is widespread in the basic income movement all over the world, but I strongly disagree with it. In this view the goal is too have a basic income which means a certain amount of money every month which enables capitalists to pay lower salaries, therefore we can achieve a win-win situation (with maintaining welfare state, because without that it couldn’t even pretend to be a win-win scenario). But this approach has a very limited political and social ambition. For me and other guys like Daniel Raventós, Antoni Domènech and others associated with SinPermiso the aim is to create a world in which you can decommodify the labour force. It doesn’t necessarily mean you become an individual or collective entrepreneur. It leads to a more diverse world with many economic projects. Only with the capacity to decommodify the labour force for all, things such as entrepreneurship and private investment can be perceived as positive. At this point I don’t think we can convince capitalists. And I don’t think they will easily agree to giving us a very relevant levels of bargaining power to determine the share of the product, what and how we produce or if I want to produce it for them. And this is the goal of putting the basic income in a broader project which is essentially anti-capitalist one. So it is much more important to build coalition with those that are aiming at contradicting the dispossessing nature of capitalism and then we’ll see what we’ll do with basic income and other specific measures. It’s better than trying to build a coalition with every follower of basic income in order to build a world that from a republican/socialist perspective might not be desirable, forcing us to part-time slaves, as Aristotle would say, and prevent us from entering into market as free producers. I think Guy Standing is a really progressive thinker but I don’t agree with him in this particular point about shaking hands with those that want us to remain being forced to sell our labour force to them.
The interviewer received funding for preparation of PhD thesis from Polish National Science Centre as part of PhD scholarship decision DEC-2015/16/T/HS1/00295.
Interview with Antoni Domènech
Maciej Szlinder: You perceive your academic work as a part of Marxist, socialist tradition. What in your opinion are the most important Marxist’s arguments for basic income?
Antoni Domènech: I’ve been interested in basic income for 20 years. I sympathise with this idea, but I’m not so much engaged theoretically and politically like, for example, Daniel Raventós. I think that there is a connection between basic income and a socialist tradition. If we understand the latter that has descended from the democratic republican tradition. The key point is that the origin of all modern ideas of basic income is The Agrarian Justice by Tom Paine . This is very interesting pamphlet, also from a historical point of view. The idea that something like a universal basic income is necessary for guaranteeing the right to existence is a very old idea of Robespierre with whom Paine was disputing. Later, Paine understood his mistake. He didn’t support Robespierre before the Thermidor and Agrarian Justice could be perceived as an amendment to this mistake reconnecting with Robespierre’s views: the idea of guaranteeing the right to existence in the situation of the rise of privatising powers which are hostile to any kind of the commons. It is a fundamental, terrific rise in eighteenth century in England, but also in France, of what Robespierre called the “tyrannical political economy”, which is probably the best name for capitalism. Robespierre presented the program of “popular political economy” in opposition to this. In my opinion, this program of the extreme Jacobin left was retrieved 2 years after the Thermidor in 1796 by Tom Paine in his program of agrarian justice. The idea behind this is that we need a social republic which will guarantee the global rights of existence. But how we can achieve that? Paine’s answer was that we can achieve it by universalising a small agrarian propriety. It was also a dream on the other side of the Atlantic, Jefferson’s dream that all people should be small, free and independent farmers. Robespierre had already understood that guaranteeing everyone basic living conditions was impossible before the industrial revolution. And guaranteeing that nobody needs to ask for permission of others to be able to live – this is the basis of a republican freedom. I perceive a basic income as a part of this tradition. Socialism is the other form of defending these values of the First French Republic, by trying to universalise republican freedom after the industrial revolution. Marx defines socialism in different ways but in a famous passage from Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council written for the First International, he defines it as “the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers” who appropriate together the means of production. So “republican association.” The other famous definition of socialism by Marx at the end of chapter 32 of Capital Volume 1 is “the expropriation of the expropriators” . I perceive the fight for basic income in this context.
Do you think that basic income can be a means of “expropriating the expropriators”?
No, but basic income could be understood as a common means of de-commodifying vast areas of the social and economic life and, also as a means of empowerment of the wage labourers in the relations of power. The first thing I told you are the basic values of the republican democracy of the revolution. The second idea has more to do with the modern socialism of the nineteenth century, the idea of a strengthening the bargaining position of the workers’ negotiators and strengthening the possibility of remodelling the economy by, for example, industrial, trade and agricultural cooperatives. Basic income favours cooperative movement.
Your connection between republicanism and socialism stands in contradiction to the probably more popular current vision of republicanism presented by people like Quentin Skinner, about whom it’s hard to say he is a socialist or even a leftist.
Quentin Skinner is interesting because he is trying to rescue the idea of republican freedom as something different from the liberal freedom that was imposed in the nineteenth century. But there are two things that seem to me to be completely insufficient in his perspective. The first is that he is completely blind to the democratic tradition of republicanism. In his writings, it is like Athens had never existed, nor had The First French Republic. There was only Rome. And the former was the most important in terms of the democratic point of view. It is very significant that for him republicanism is the debates made by Cicero at the end of the republic and Machiavelli interpreted in a very questionable way. In his vision, Aspasia, Cleon, Ephialtes, Pericles just don’t exist. He also has no understanding of the economic and fiscal foundations that led to the fall of the Roman Republic, which was basically oligarchical. Moreover, even inside Rome, Quentin Skinner is completely blind to the democratic elements: the plebeian reform of the constitution in the third century BC, Lex Agraria, Lex Frumentaria. The republic of Cicero was the last oligarchy which tried to defend itself from an uprising of the people which ended up with Julius Caesar.
The third point of my disagreement with Skinner is that he doesn’t realise the republican freedom has its roots in the notion, the structure and the institutionalisation of property and the correlations of social powers. For him the political philosophy is an analysis of texts and discourses. For instance, he has no historical understanding of the English Revolution of 1640. He just doesn’t see the social powers there. And these events were wonderfully analysed by serious Marxists like Christopher Hill, George Rudé and maybe the greatest of them, Rodney Hilton (who was a medievalist but also wrote very interesting things about the English Revolution). That is, in my opinion, the most important historiography done in the twentieth century – a very serious way of thinking.
And what are the relations between Skinner and Philip Pettit one of the most important current republican thinker and a defender of basic income?
Skinner is very close to the philosophical approach of Philip Pettit. We can find the same blind spots in their writings that Greece and the First French Republic don’t exist. Neither does Jefferson, there are only Anti-Federalists. But Pettit tried to build a definition of republican freedom against the backdrop of nineteenth and twentieth century liberalism. His definition is that one is free (in the republican way) if there can’t be any arbitrary interference in his/her life from anyone (neither private nor by the state). This is a psychological definition; I don’t mean that it doesn’t capture something, but it misses the essence. And the essence in the republican tradition, both oligarchic and democratic, is that you are free if your material existence doesn’t depend on another. Of course, if you depend on me because you’re my slave, salary worker or my wife, I can interfere arbitrarily in your life. In this point, these definitions intersect. But I can interfere arbitrarily in your life in forms that have nothing to do with political freedom. For example, I can come to your friend and tell him a white lie: I know that his wife is cheating on him but I’m telling him that she’s not so as not to upset him. It’s an arbitrary interference but has nothing to do with the material conditions that have always been the central issue of the republican tradition. Pettit, by ignoring that, is psychologising social relations. All the neo-republican approach of historians like Skinner or philosophers like Pettit completely ignores the democratic tradition. They also misinterpret the meaning of Cicero and Latin republicanism in the context of a terrible war in Europe from the third century BC to the end of the republic in the first century BC. And philosophically, Pettit and Skinner psychologise the freedom, by eradicating it from its institutional, economic, material and social conditions of possibility. I’m very critical about this. Skinner also works with a similar approach to John G. A. Pocock, the author of The Machiavellian Moment . They both were starting with a very interesting, and sometimes forgotten Marxist called Neil Wood, husband of Ellen Meiksins Wood. These two did a lot of relevant things in reference to republicanism (for example a very interesting book about Cicero – Cicero’s Social and Political Thought ), but contrary to Skinner or Pettit, they are not academic stars, purely for political reasons.
What do you think of other traditions among basic income supporters that declare themselves Marxists or defend this proposal on the basis of Marx’s writings? One of the most important articles in the history of the basic income debate was A Capitalist Road to Communism written by Philippe Van Parijs and Robert van der Veen in which the authors propose that basic income can be a means of transforming the capitalist society to a communist one. What do you think of this kind of idea?
I have translated this very early article by my old friend Philippe Van Parijs into Spanish. But I think it’s not the best way to argue for a basic income. It’s totally disconnected from the economic reality of factual capitalism. There are many people like those who work with the idea of basic income and use some of the Marxist notions, but who are totally neoclassical. They have no idea of Luxemburgian, Kaleckian or even Keynesian perspectives. For them, Marxism is just scholastic thinking. I think that this analytical Marxism is a dead end.
And what about the works of Erik Olin Wright?
I am very disappointed by his book Envisioning Real Utopias , as for me that’s “methodological creationism.” If Marxism has been an important intellectual tradition, it is because of his understanding of the historical and dynamical processes and that has political consequences in the sense that you can say: ok, we are in this historical situation with such a correlation of forces, and we have two, three, four possible paths to take. That is a sort of Darwinist perspective, in the best sense of Darwinism, understanding that we are path-dependent. And these people think like a creationist – we have a wonderful idea of basic income and a just society, we construct a wonderful utopia because of some moral reasons and one must aspire to this, regardless of the material, social, political, institutional conditions we have. There is an American leftist critic Russell Jacobi who has devastated the book by E.O. Wright from a historical perspective.
Other Marxists that defend basic income and attack the formerly mentioned for being detached from the current, historical development of capitalism are the autonomist Marxists. What do you think of their approach?
I have a very bad opinion on this. For me, it is a speculative Marxism. I perceive Van Parijs and Wright as late scholastic philosophers like Francisco Suarez from the sixteenth and seventeenth century who at least have an analytical and conceptual apparatus that is precise and strict. But Negri is as speculative as they are but without this apparatus. It’s almost like “anything goes.” In the books of Negri and Hardt, there are almost no facts, no statistics, it’s a bad philosophy. Marx said about Feuerbach that he was ahistorical when he was materialist and he was non-materialist when he was historical – that’s also true about Negri. When he is historical, he speaks of cognitive capitalism with no understanding of the real dynamical forces of capitalism. It’s a neo-Hegelian bastard philosophy. I met Negri in the seventies in Italy and I have a very bad opinion not only of his philosophy but also of his political attitude. Socialism is also the real history of the working class with the labour unions, worker’s parties etc. You can think what you want about labour unions, you can say that social democratic parties have been horrible reformists, but these were the concrete, historical, real crystallisations of the working-class movement. Negri comes from a Catholic movement in Italy; he has been always a strong anti-communist and anti-syndicalist thinker. He was always against the real, concrete institutionalisations of the working-class movement, against the Communist Party, against the Italian Socialist Party of Pietro Nenni, against the CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro – Italian General Confederation of Labor). Pasolini said about Negri: that’s the Catholic utopia of a bourgeoisie communism , and that’s exact in my opinion.
So, what is your proposition to convince these real institutions of the working-class movement, namely labour unions, to understand the historical dynamics and stop demanding a step back to the Fordist era and take a move forward fighting for a universal basic income?
That’s very difficult indeed. I’ve spoken with labour union leaders and they stick to the classic welfare state. But they are starting to understand that this is an old world which won’t come back. You can try to convince them to open their minds to solutions like basic income, but this would be very difficult. In fact, most of the big labour unions are totally defeated. They must understand we are in a historical stage in the European Union and United States and that they must radically change their minds.
The French, British or German labour unions can relate to the “golden age of capitalism” of the fifties and sixties, but the Spanish ones cannot do that, because you’ve never had a “golden age” here – until 1975 you had a fascist, Francoist regime without freedom of association, when labour unions were controlled by the government or illegal. Does this historically specific situation make Spanish unions more open to the new political propositions?
On the contrary. To understand the Spanish transition to a parliamentary monarchy, one must consider that the aim of antifascist restoration was to become a reformed capitalist system of Western Europe, the welfare state and the democratic state of rights. If you look at the Spanish Constitution of 1978, you can see that it was inspired by the German Constitution of 1949. But the Spanish transition happened to be in the moment of a total change in welfare state capitalism. So, in Spain, a welfare state has never been developed like it was in other Western European countries. The Spanish labour unions have never had the opportunity to become great organisations such as German or Italian ones, not to mention Sweden. The rate of affiliation was always much smaller than countries like Germany, Sweden or Italy. Spanish unions became public assistance organisations and have been very much devolved into corruption. Spanish capitalism after Francoism has developed a very special form of economy – it was a corrupted political economy, with co-optation of the left formations and union workers. People see that and this is one of the reasons why unions are discredited and so weak here. It has been similar to the Polish neoliberal transition but not so radical like in your case.
Antoni Domènech (1952) – Spanish philosopher, professor of methodology of social sciences at the Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Barcelona. Translator. Author of several book, including El eclipse de la fraternidad. Una revisión republicana de la tradición socialista (Crítica, 2004) [The Eclipse of Fraternity: A Republican Revision of the Socialist Tradition]. The editor of journal Sin Permiso.
Polish translation of this interview is available here.
Former interviews about basic income:
Lluís Torrens, Basic income, economic growth and the city
José A. Noguera, Basic income as a political horizon
Jurgen De Wispelaere, Exciting Times Ahead: Experiments and the Politics of Basic Income
Erik Olin Wright, Sociology and Epistemology of Real Utopias
Daniel Raventós, Basic Income in the Spotlight in Spain
Guy Standing, The Strategy for Basic Income
The interviewer received funding for preparation of PhD thesis from Polish National Science Centre as part of PhD scholarship decision DEC-2015/16/T/HS1/00295.
Interview with Jurgen De Wispelaere
Maciej Szlinder: 2015 seemed to be a quite good year for basic income supporters. Basic income experiments are planned to be conducted in several municipalities in Holland and the Finnish government announced that they plan to conduct a national experiment in 2017. As you are involved in the latter project, could you tell us what the current state of preparation of this pilot scheme is?
Jurgen De Wispelaere: The plan is to start the actual experiment in January 2017 which will be conducted for two years. It is important to point out that the actual experimenting hasn’t started yet because there has been a lot of misinformation in the media about that. There has also been a lot of misinformation reporting that the government has already decided which model will be tested or how it will be implemented. None of that is true. At the moment we are doing the preliminary research to prepare the experiment. By “we,” I mean a very large research group, coordinated by Kela, the social insurance institution in Finland, but consisting of teams from a number of Finnish think-tanks, social organisations and universities, including the University of Tampere where I am based. Different research teams are looking at different aspects of the experiment.
For instance, we are conducting several polls to get a better idea what kind of basic income people are supporting. So we want to have a better perspective on who would be the supporters if we start varying different tax rates to pay for a basic income. There are a lot of static simulation studies carried out now in which a database of the representative population is used. You can play around with different variables and see what the results would be. What sort of effect can we expect if we increase basic income while decreasing several other policies? We are also looking into challenges related to implementing a basic income. This is not a straightforward issue. For example, there can be a constitutional problem because the Finnish constitution has a strong equality clause. So we have to be sure that we are not going against the constitution in a randomised controlled trial, which effectively rewards people who are getting a basic income over those who form part of the control group. We also need to change social legislation. We really have to be very careful about how to proceed. Olli Kangas, who leads the research group, told me a nice example: Giving someone a basic income for two years but taking away some of the other benefits as a part of an experimental scheme might have implications on their pension entitlement because some of the policies that we consider replacing with a basic income actually increase the pension. These are just a few of the many complicated issues we must deal with when thinking about experimenting with a basic income.
So, we don’t know either the amount of basic income nor the exact model which will be tested in the experiment, do we?
No – the precise model of basic income to be tested is not fixed at all. Our job is to survey many of the problems, come up with various strategies, survey a number of different models that would be most interesting to test and then present this to the government. At the end of March 2016, the research team will write a provisional report outlining these options. The government will review this and then decide the best approach, and then we continue working on the in-depth preparations for the actual trial. In the last months, a lot of newspapers have been reporting the magic number of €800 as the target level for the planned basic income. This number is from an example that Olli Kangas mentioned in the presentation. But it is only an example; nothing has been and nothing will be decided until the Finnish government reviews the report at the end of March. Meanwhile we are exploring several models. There are the obvious full and partial basic income models. Olli Kangas is also interested in the idea of combining a partial basic income with something like a participation income and testing how both work at the same time. We are also considering something like a refundable tax credit or negative income tax (NIT), which is more an implementation model. The only problem with NIT is that it actually requires for tax records to be properly individualised. My understanding is that the Finnish at the moment don’t have this capacity – they are working towards this, but it looks like the instrument will not be ready on time.
A final area of research is something that basic income advocates don’t really think about: What is going to happen with the bureaucrats and the frontline workers, the people who are working in employment offices and social security offices, once a basic income is introduced? One of the research groups, coordinated by Pertti Koistinen at Tampere, is examining this question. Obviously, if we are implementing a basic income then these people’s jobs will change quite radically. That is not something you can just impose; it needs to be carefully prepared in collaboration with this group of stakeholders.
What about the scope of the experiment? Do we know who will be covered?
This is also to be decided. One of the ideas is to have a trial which is more or less national, using a representative sample across Finland. This can then be complemented with part of the trial focused on a specific social group and also perhaps include a couple of experimental sites where we offer the basic income to everybody. The goal of such a “saturation site” is to explore social network effects. If you have a representative sample and, say, one in 200 people receive a basic income, you can study some effects, but you can’t really study the interaction effects. This is why the municipalities are very important. And this is also why I’m very interested in the pilot studies being prepared in the Netherlands. Although their approach is quite different to ours in many ways, their focus on municipalities is very interesting.
We are examining what is possible given financial, practical and also political constraints. Ideally, as many variations should be tested as possible because that gives the best possible idea of what really works. But we can’t do 100 different things as our time and resources are limited. Meanwhile, we are encountering a host of different problems and have to come up with solutions – and that’s what we are doing right now. Unfortunately, this is very boring for the outside world who prefer to speculate about the now famous €800 figure and what will happen once this is put in place. But to repeat, this is still to be decided. Whenever people ask what is going on in Finland, the answer is “we’re working very hard and will report on results once they are available!”
To what extent you have the guarantee that after presenting your first report in March, or at the later stages, the government will not retreat?
There are no guarantees: there never really are in policy development! Of course the government has made a serious commitment and I personally don’t think they are going to backtrack from that in March. But I can’t predict which of our recommendations the government will adopt. And no-one can predict what they would go for once Kela delivers the final report and is ready to proceed with the actual trial. Certainly we can’t predict whether or not once the pilot phase is completed in 2019, whether a basic income will effectively be implemented and in what form. So we need to be very careful about speculating: we are where we are, and we are in the midst of an important step but we should not expect this to be an easy road ahead.
What’s your own role in the Finnish experiment?
I am not a part of a specific research team, but have been given the job of external consultants. Apart from the main research teams focused on a specific area, there are a number of external consultants involved who have been asked to contribute their specific expertise. In my case, this is based on my work on the politics and administration of basic income. I’ve been asked to write a number of working papers based on the work I’ve done before. In addition, I’m also looking at what we know from other policies that resemble basic income in some way and what we can learn from other experiments carried out in recent years.
What kind of former experiments do you find particularly interesting and useful?
I am particularly interested in the Dutch case for several reasons. First off, they operate on the same time frame as us, so this really does create an amazing synergy and opportunity to learn from each other. I’m happy to say our contacts with the Dutch coordinator Sjir Hoeijmakers and other Dutch researchers are excellent. They are as interested in our experiment as we are in theirs. Second, there is a lot we can learn from them in terms of their very local focus: There are basically 20 municipalities who operate independently and each have a slightly different approach to testing a reform of the Dutch social assistance that moves towards a basic income. Some propose a single change in the existing schemes – for instance, to allow claimants to keep their benefits when finding a job or working more – while others propose to pilot a scheme that is much closer to BI. We can learn a lot from this variation. A third interesting point is that the Dutch deal with many practical hurdles that are very similar to those we face in Finland and examining their problems and solutions is very helpful. And finally, I am personally very interested in the politics of what is going on the Netherlands. They have a very unique bottom-up scenario which makes coordination a massive undertaking. Kudos to Sjir and all the others for getting as far as they have. I visited the Netherlands at the beginning of March to talk in person with researchers, but also to visit some of the sites and get first-hand reports from politicians and administrators.
And what do you think about the Namibian and Indian experiments?
To be honest, I don’t rate the Namibian experiment highly. In terms of its research value, it is very limited and highly controversial. In recent weeks, we have seen that the Namibian government may consider a BIG grant as part of a strategy of combating poverty, which is a very interesting development. But in terms of its social scientific value, the design and execution of the Namibian experiment leaves a lot to be desired. By contrast, India seems to have avoided most of the problems that bother social researchers and the results are extremely interesting. Still, a serious problem exists regarding generalising the insights gleaned from a country like India into a European welfare state like Finland, the Netherlands or Poland. Context matters and in this respect, India is a world apart from Europe. The results from the India experiment are very telling for India and countries that resemble their economic and social organisation, but hard to see how much they apply outside of that. The same point applies to Namibia or the small Quatinga Velho pilot in Brazil. In fact, I think it even applies to schemes like Alaska. Many people say, that “from Alaska we now X, Y and Z”. Well, first of all Alaska is Alaska, not Finland, Denmark, Poland or Spain. Secondly, the very specific scheme that they have in Alaska is very far from the sort of basic income that we would like to think of and for that reason, our basis of comparison is limited.
We are establishing a Polish Basic Income Network. You have experience a lot of political problems encountered by similar groups in different countries. In your papers/talks, you try to show some problems connected with getting a “cheap support”. Can you explain this?
It is a very simple idea. It is one of the aspects inside the basic income movement we see as the debate matures and media attention increases. The last five years have been extremely interesting with a large number of people supporting basic income. But even before, since the start of BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network) the mid-1980s, we could observe politicians or parties, even governments or government-affiliated people saying that basic income is a good idea. But what does this mean? Does it really help push the case for basic income? The idea of cheap support tells us two things. First of all, it is extremely easy for people to say that they support basic income (“talk is cheap”) when there is no pressure from them to “do” anything practical to demonstrate their commitment. So it’s very cheap, for example, for someone who is in opposition to say that they support basic income. Because at the end of the day, no-one is going to call on you and say “you are supporting a basic income, so you should institute it”. That is a task for the government. And so it should not come as a surprise to find more support for basic income in opposition than in government, even with the same parties!
The second aspect of support being “cheap” is that it doesn’t do anything for us. Cheap support without either the willingness or the ability to push policy forward is of little value. I’m not saying it has no value at all. It is great to get increased media attention so that we now talk about basic income a lot more and that other people who have never heard about basic income suddenly start discussing it. All that is brilliant. And it matters for the people who are activists to know that they are not on their own and their hard work starts to connect with a wider audience. But what interests me in the context of cheap support is the next step of moving from the debate to actual policy process. And we have a problem here, because what we need is not cheap support but strong commitment. That is easier said than done, because politicians for obvious reasons are reluctant to commit themselves to anything. That is especially true for policies like basic income, which is always taken as a radical move away from our familiar welfare state. Basic income requires social investment and today’s austerity politics is all about cutting investment. We still have a very activation-oriented approach in our social policies and policy makers worry that basic income goes against this dominant way of thinking. This explains why politicians who earlier supported basic income are keen to backtrack or ignore the policy when they get to a position where they could push for the policy. Of course, cheap support is sensitive to what is happening on the ground, and when there is a real groundswell of support, politicians will suddenly change their tune – perhaps this is what we have seen in the last 6 months in Europe.
So the main thing is to try to build a coalition of influential supporters who are able to change the situation. Among basic income activists and advocates, there is a debate whether to try to get support from neoliberals, right-wing politicians or multimillionaires in the type of Götz Werner or to reject that and present basic income as a part of a broader, progressive, leftist agenda. Which of those strategies is closer to you?
I am very worried about this simple idea put forward by quite a few very smart people over the last twenty years, namely that basic income can unify across the political spectrum because both the left and the right have reasons to support it.
“Basic income is not left or right. It’s forward!”
Yes, exactly. I know the slogan which is quite clever. But clever or not, I disagree: Basic income may be “forward”, but it is still going to be “forward left” or “forward right”. It’s a little bit naïve to say that when people on the left and people on the right are supporting basic income, they are supporting the same proposal. To see my point, we should first acknowledge that when we think about basic income, we are not really talking only about a single proposal. One of the things I wrote about a decade ago is that basic income policy has many faces. Basic income is a family of concrete proposals. It consists of a couple of core principles; basic income is individual, unconditional, universal, but that leaves it open for a lot of variation on other important design dimensions.
These are not merely technical differences, they are profoundly political. Whether we talk about a basic income of €500 or €1000 a month has a major impact on the people who get it, those who support it, the tax system, and so on. But also in terms of implementation, there are some important choices to be made, some of which are more costly than others. Depending on whether you look at it as a left-wing proposal, which is mostly focused on making sure that the most vulnerable or disadvantaged are really fully protected, basic income requires a lot more administrative resources than the right-wing proposal, which is all about increasing labour market attachment, getting rid of unemployment, simplifying and decreasing the cost of bureaucracy. To my mind, those are very different and often contrasting policy priorities. To think that people who support basic income are proposing the same scheme only makes sense when you think of it on a very abstract level – as an idea, if you will. The moment you start thinking about basic income as policy, you need to start thinking about the details. And with the details, you immediately get into politics and talking about political trade-offs.
To illustrate this point, let’s go back to the Finnish context. Two decades ago, it was the left-wing parties that proposed the basic income idea and now we have a centre-right coalition running with it. Do we think that what will emerge in the future is the same proposal if a left-wing government were in a position to conduct a basic income experiment? I very much doubt it. For this left, the Finnish situation poses an interesting political dilemma: Should they accept basic income and support it, because initially they were the ones driving the idea, or should they instead resist it because they think the resulting basic income is not the kind they favour? Of course, we’ll have to see which model will be piloted and, if it gets to that, how it would be implemented. But the politics is always there and we should never forget that.
Among those who agree about a certain package of measures, which can be called the leftist or progressive one, there are differences in regard to the ways of implementation. Some supporters propose a gradual, two-step strategy because for some sort of reasons (political, administrational, financial), they think it is not possible to implement full basic income in one go. One of the proposals of the first step is Tony Atkinson’s idea of participation income. In various places, you criticised this proposal quite harshly. Can you explain why you are against it?
Sure – let me briefly explain the background to Tony Atkinson’s participation income. In principle, Atkinson is quite happy with an unconditional basic income, but he worries that in its radical form, it is not politically feasible because people don’t like the idea of giving money for free. To address this problem, he came up with a neat idea: Let’s get rid of formal employment as the main contribution requirement and expand that requirement to other socially useful activities. This way, we keep some sense of reciprocity and obligation while nevertheless massively expanding the coverage of the policy in a universal direction. A mild form of conditionality remains in place, but with the exception of maybe 5% of die-hard “free-riders”, everyone would easily be eligible for a participation income. This looks like a workable proposal. Philippe Van Parijs then builds on that by arguing that a participation income would get us to basic income in the end, because we’ll soon realize that we still have this unnecessarily large bureaucracy even when we have almost everyone covered. The obvious next step would be to simply drop all the bureaucratic requirements and let basic income emerge quite naturally. This is a bit like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat: In this case, we put the participation income in the hat and pull a basic income out of it.
In a paper that I wrote with Lindsay Stirton, we go into a lot of detail over the administrative requirements connected with participation income. Our review strongly suggests it is extremely hard to implement if you want to take the participation requirement seriously. If you don’t want to give free money but do effectively check if people participate, you face a huge practical problem. For instance, suppose you want to leave your job for a couple of years to take care of your elderly grandparents. You claim participation income to allow you to perform this socially valuable activity. Then the government has to be sure that you are really taking care of them. That is easier said than done, so expect the “Grandparents Care Control Unit” to do regular house visits. Volunteering is the same thing – clearly, not everything can count as volunteering, so presumably we need to start checking which volunteering activities support a person getting a participation income and which don’t. The same with education. The United Kingdom’s former Higher Education Minister Margaret Hodge used to talk of “Mickey Mouse courses” designed to get students registered but that have no real education value. You could get a degree in using crayons on stick-ons or painting silly willies on the pavement, etc. Now we have a real problem: Who decides whether an activity is really socially useful or not? How do we check if someone is really doing what s/he says? Once you appreciate these difficulties, participation income becomes a bureaucratic nightmare.
So what are political implications of our view? This is where it gets really interesting. Philippe Van Parijs would say, “Yes, it’s a bureaucratic nightmare and the moment we realize this, we get rid of participation and move to a fully unconditional basic income”. This would resolve the bureaucracy problem, but it is only one way to do so. Here is another: We narrow the range of approved participation activities down to the familiar policy categories of education or employment. These we know how to implement and control, but of course now we’ve moved from participation income back to workfare. Basic income advocates think that participation income will naturally transform into basic income, but people who come to participation income from an obligation/ reciprocity perspective will resist this and instead try to narrow it down to a workfarist scheme.
Putting all these points together, my co-author and I came up with what we called the “trilemma of participation income”. The trilemma means you either a) accept the massive bureaucratic costs and complexity of implementing a participation income, or b) you try to avoid those costs and complexity by moving to an unconditional basic income, or c) you reject basic income and bureaucracy and narrow participation to workfare. So we have three different routes you can take, but in terms of building a large political coalition, this is a problem. What started looking like a political coalition in favour of participation income divides itself into three different factions once the practical problems become visible. Anyone who believes we can carry out a gradual implementation of basic income through participation income has no good reasons and so has no understanding of the politics involved in this option, and certainly has no empirical basis for thinking that policy will develop in this particular direction. Participation income is a non-starter for the basic income movement!
The other gradual proposal of implementing basic income is to give a smaller (partial) basic income first and then when people see the good results of it, they will be more eager to accept increasing the amount of it to a full basic income.
I think that’s an extremely controversial view that is not really backed-up by the evidence from other policies. The fundamental problem with this kind of partial basic income is that, compared with a full basic income, the number of people who would benefit remains small and those who are better off nevertheless benefit a lot less. Think of this not in terms of beneficiaries, but in terms of building a political constituency. A constituency is a group that benefits objectively but also accepts this benefit subjectively, which is not so straightforward. Take the example of health care in the United States. A lot of people benefit objectively from the health care reforms initiated by President Obama, but they simply don’t accept the reform. Even where we find people who benefit objectively and subjectively, the idea of a constituency means we need to identify a group of people willing and able to invest political effort in promoting basic income. This requires political support in the form of voting, canvassing, protesting, writing letters, debating and all other forms of engagement.
Now, let’s go back to partial basic income. This is putting a system in place from which, as said, only a small amount of people would benefit. Moreover, the beneficiaries would mainly belong to social groups that unfortunately have little political capital – the worst-off in society. I happen to be one of those people (like Guy Standing, Philippe Van Parijs or David Casassas) who think one of the reasons why we should have a basic income is to protect these people. But if it only protects them, then that may be too small a constituency to have any serious political impact. So I doubt that you will get increased solidarity after implementing only a partial basic income. In fact, a lot of evidence suggests the opposite, evidence where people in different constituency groups insist on drawing boundaries between them and the worst off. So do we have any reason to think that the move from a partial to a full basic income would be very straightforward? That argument requires other groups to buy into the policy; other groups who already might be pushing against basic income as we speak. I don’t think it’s that straightforward at all and believe that a partial basic income might not be stable enough to build a pathway towards a full basic income.
Against this argument of instability of partial basic income, you could find counter-arguments showing the case of Alaska Permanent Fund, in which the acceptance for the scheme continuously arose and every politician who wanted to remove it lost or were forced to change their minds in that case. The people accepted the yearly benefits as their right and now defend it.
That is very true. There is a very interesting chapter in one of Karl Widerquist and Mike Howard’s Alaska books by James Bryan and Sarah Lamarche Castillo, in which they are looking into the political side of the Alaska model and they actually found that it is a lot more complicated than you might imagine. One of the reasons of this support in Alaska is that they’re not paying any taxes; all is financed by the Alaska Permanent Fund, which is a sovereign fund. As it is funded through these external resources, there is no redistribution: It is a very unique way of funding it. Would the same political stability apply in a situation where a partial basic income is funded through the regular income tax system? I doubt it. Recently there have actually been some challenges to the Alaska Fund. These challenges are serious enough that one of the representatives in Alaska has tried to promote a constitutional amendment in the state constitution to protect it from any political interference. That didn’t go through, but there’s more and more pressure to repurpose the Fund as Alaska itself is running into some financial problems. So we will see if the Alaska model remains as stable as it has been the past decades.
Relating to the subjective acceptance of basic income – there is an almost complete agreement that one of the advantages of basic income is that, in contrast to means-tested benefits, it is not stigmatising because it’s universal. You seem to question that belief. Why?
Yes, I have serious doubts about this line of argument. I sympathise with it, but I doubt it really holds true. We really need to make a fundamental distinction between the design features of basic income (the fact that it is universal by design) and the policy and political effects that this brings about. The fact that basic income is designed as a universal scheme does not mean that people accept it as being universal in the way we think of universal health care, for instance. In fact, what we observe in comparative policy is a fundamental trend for certain groups not wanting to be associated with other groups. This is why we often have different types of income support programs. There is some interesting literature about different target populations, different groups of beneficiaries in social policy that have a different status. Pensioners are regarded as good, formerly hard-working people who deserve their benefits. On the other extreme are the homeless or drug users who are regarded by many as a burden on society. One of the problems with basic income might be precisely that it is too transparent. It is very clear who wins and who loses. There is a famous argument formulated by Peter Baldwin in the 1990s, which says that one of the reasons why the welfare state came about was because of its complexity which makes the distribution of benefits and burdens deliberately opaque. All those complex arrangements make a large amount of groups think that they benefit, even when they don’t (or not as much as they think) and this is what keeps the welfare state operational – the belief that we are all getting something out of it if we pay into it. Solidarity rapidly breaks down the moment who is net contributor or a net beneficiary becomes visible. This unfortunately counters the argument of a lot of basic income proponents and instead shows that its universalist character might actually lead to a decline in solidarity.
The third way of a gradual implementation of basic income is not to resign from its unconditionality or the sufficient level but to make it less universal and, in the first move, only give it to some parts of the society: only to the elderly (under the name of citizens’ pensions) or only to children (sometimes presented as a part of pronatalist policy in countries with demographical problems, like Poland). What do you think about this way of getting closer to basic income?
So this is what most people in the basic income movement these days think is the most promising route – to go sector-by-sector in a sequential strategy. In Ireland, Sean Healy and Brigid Reynolds were the people who were the first to put a lot of work into that. And there is also a very nice paper by James Mulvale and Sid Frankel, in which they prepare a sequential scheme for the Canadian province of Manitoba. The advantage is that you can identify the groups very easily so you can figure out who should get what and decide on the sequence in terms of how the scheme fits with existing categorical policies. The problem is again with the political dynamic. Is there any reason to think that we can easily move from one group to another? Do we think that expanding basic income this way is going to create its own support? Again I have my doubts, in part because of the reasons I mentioned before. The constituencies don’t necessarily have strong solidarity with other groups they regard as less deserving. They are going to protect their own interests in the first instance.
Think about a scheme that starts with providing a basic pension. Pensioners are perhaps not going to have a big problem if this is expands into child benefit. Those are two very obvious groups that are regarded as deserving of such support. But now it gets more difficult: You can still try to identify some acceptable groups – maybe students or the disabled – but eventually, we get down to the controversial category of working-age adults. Why would pensioners, who believe they are entitled to a basic pension because they worked their whole life, support any move that encompasses everyone? There are several reasons to resist such a move. First of all, they might be thinking strategically that the expansion of an unconditional benefit risks decreasing the level of the pension because of more pressure on the financial system and the better-off pensioners would end up paying higher taxes. Self-interested considerations of costs play a big role. The second problem is the idea of cultural contamination. Pensioners like to see themselves as a deserving group. They do not want to share a policy with people who they may regard as free-riders. Putting these two arguments together, you can’t assume that if a basic income is accepted for a group like the pensioners, these pensioners are going to push for it to be expanded for others. Even worse, my prediction is that they are going to actively resist such a development especially when it comes to the case of working-age adults. If this argument is correct, the sequential approach again may not be as promising as many think it is.
So basically you have denied three methods of gradual approach. Where does it lead us?
My argument is that a basic income will not be put in place by trying to play clever games, use back-door strategies, or otherwise try to get basic income on the agenda without owning up to what we have in mind. To my mind, we need to do exactly the opposite and to create support for basic income first. The bottom line of that is that we are going to have to do a lot of work to convince people (including those who are sceptical) that basic income is a really good policy to have and that’s when we can think about different routes to implement it. But maybe then we could even implement it in a more direct and faster way. I’m not saying to implement it right away, because there are good reasons to start with a trial on a smaller basis to see how the scheme works in practice. But in terms of support and the politics of it, you really need to have the support in place first. And that is hard, that is the difficult part of the job but at the same time, we can’t avoid it. All these strategies we have come up with to institute a basic income through the back door hoping the support will emerge as it rolls out – I just don’t buy that. I think that this is more wishful thinking than solid political strategy.
Which strategy is more needed to build this support – getting and showing data and facts or appealing to values, to the normative sphere?
Both are helpful, neither is sufficient. We know from political research that people are not convinced to adopt or change a position by being introduced to facts. The politics of facts and evidence is complicated and often it works the other way round – people select facts to fit their preconceived ideas. This is what political psychologists call confirmation bias. There is some truth in the idea that people are not supporting basic income because they don’t understand the policy, but that’s not all there is to it. And in the normative spheres, we have a problem of competing moral accounts – there exists not one, but several moral stories. Even if all of them were to support basic income, they are not going to support the same model of basic income. So this too causes problems.
I think that eventually, basic income will come about the moment our system is broken (or perceived as broken) to such an extent that basic income becomes almost a natural solution. The moment that everyone basically sees that the food banks are overrun, that pensioners are living in squalor or children are falling systematically behind, that a ridiculous amount of money is being spent in making sure a relatively small number of people are kept in unnecessarily silly jobs, that people stuck in those jobs have no means of building a real life while being prevented of taking on socially useful tasks that have not been officially approved, and so on and on. This is the time when basic income can present itself as a solution. A cheap and easy solution at that is the best option given the alternatives. So the moment the other options become too expensive, too problematic, too much at odds with our basic human values, that is when basic income will come about. And in the last years, it seems “we” (or rather our governments) are doing our best to get there, unfortunately.
So you propose to sit and wait?
No, not at all. In terms of strategy, there are two important things that should be done and that in fact we, in the basic income movement, are already doing. The first one is making sure that basic income is firmly planted in people’s minds. This is one of the reasons I support the recent media explosion, the many debates, group discussions and actions across Europe and beyond. The more people talk about basic income, the more basic income becomes a plausible solution to be considered when the time is right. And related to this, we need to do a lot of work thinking through the many aspects of basic income policy. We need to do the real work, not just hypothesize and dream about fairytales and unicorn stories in which basic income will single-handedly transform the world. We need to be a little more serious about the real impact of basic income and neither underestimate nor exaggerate its importance. Basic income will have many interesting effects but we need to try to find out as much as possible about the details of those effects, which is where the different pilot schemes come in. The second strategic task is that we need to continue our social critique of what is going on in the world; in particular, the disastrous effect of austerity politics. And we are actually doing that, so we have to do more of it, do it better, more professionally and so on. But we are on the right track here too.
Let’s concentrate for a moment on one of the moral stories that you are connected with, which is the republican story. With David Casassas, you wrote the article “Republicanism and the political economy of democracy” . Do you define yourself as a republican?
No. I’m not ready yet to think of myself as a full republican, partly because I don’t like being pigeon-holed and I see no need to fully subscribe to one particular theory. But in part, it is also because I think there are some aspects of the theory of republicanism that I’m not convinced about. That said, I have an enormous amount of sympathy for the idea of freedom as non-domination. And I think this can be defended in a way that brings about strong egalitarian outcomes. Freedom and equality are the key values for me, and I think republicanism has a lot of interesting things to say about both of them.
How does republicanism think about basic income? Here it gets a little more complicated, in part because it depends on what basic income can deliver. A lot of people talk about the “exit option” that basic income is supposed to guarantee. Karl Widerquist has written a whole book about that. He doesn’t define himself as a republican, but his “independentarianism” is quite close to the republican position, and we share a lot of intuitions. One of the things that Karl believes, and argues for in the book, is that everyone should have the freedom to say no, which he understands as the option to exit from the labour market. I have quite a few doubts about that. I’m not sure if withdrawing from the labour market is as desirable an option as many suggest. I’m also not sure whether basic income can give us what we need in order to make it a real and desirable option. I accept the fact there are a lot of jobs that are really atrocious and demeaning and I have no problem thinking that under certain conditions, basic income can give you an important alternative route. But I also think we need a lot more to make basic income a real exit option from current labour markets. In line with Albert O. Hirschman’s famous division between “exit” and “voice”, I think what we need to develop in the labour market and other economic institutions is more “voice”, that is, more collective democratic involvement. I don’t accept the general free-riding argument in case of basic income, but there exists a sort of free-rider argument in regards to the exit option that does pose a problem. The more people take the exit option from the labour market, the more work for creating voice – putting real pressure on employers to turn the labour market into something more egalitarian and republican – has to be done by a smaller group. Now, the relation between basic income and “voice” is a very interesting field to research. One of the points that people connected with in the Indian experiment is that making is that basic income is conducive to promoting “voice” and participation more generally. But of course this argument applies to a very specific context. So the question now becomes how basic income could promote “voice” in a mature welfare state and the labour market.
An important point here is what you have mentioned before, namely the so-called “package of measures”. Basic income’s effects depend crucially on the policies that surround it, the broader institutional configuration if you like. One of the things we have to do is to think about basic income as one item within a configuration of policies that together will produce important social effects. But we have to do the systematic work: Many accept that basic income is not self-contained, but we haven’t really done the work yet to figure out how it really interacts with other policies – from health to housing to education, and so on.
One of the proposals of the package of measures that include basic income is of course “A Precariat Charter” by Guy Standing. Do you think it’s a good attempt?
It could be, but I would like to see more specific proposals from different countries, even different regimes in the classic terminology introduced by Esping-Andersen. If you think about the different welfare regime types – the social-democratic, conservative-continental or Anglo-Saxon models – it rapidly becomes clear that basic income could fit in with each of them. But what is of interest is not that each regime is compatible with basic income, but rather to think through how basic income in each regime would interact differently – produce different effects because of variation in the “package of measures” that make up the policy background. That is the part where I think a lot of interesting work can be done. And this is quite different from Guy Standing’s more general Precariat Charter.
You’ve been living in Barcelona for some time and you know very well the work of members of Barcelona Republican School of Basic Income, that is, Antoni Domenèch, Daniel Raventós, David Casassas, Edgar Manjarín, Bru Laín, etc. As an outsider with an insight, you could look at its role from some distance. How would you assess the importance and input of this branch of republican thinking in the basic income debates (as distinct from e.g. the branch of Philip Pettit)?
I think the main thing that differentiates them from the mainstream republicanism is a very strong emphasis on property. I think that is fascinating historically, philosophically and sociologically. I think the idea of property is indeed a key concern in the republican tradition and is crucial for thinking about basic income, but of course the idea of property can be fleshed out in different ways. I’m not entirely sure whether basic income should be thought of as a type of property, as many in what you call the Barcelona Republican School argue. The relation between their approach and Pettit’s work is also quite complicated. There is a lot that Pettit himself has left underdeveloped in his own proposed theory, so that leaves room for constructive input. At the same time, Pettit very much resists the notion of independence as a form of non-domination, whereas the Barcelona School takes independence through property as a central feature of republican freedom. Perhaps one other important development is that the Barcelona School thinks very institutionally and I share that perspective. Pettit developed republicanism primarily as a philosophical idea. The next step is to explore how republicanism works in different policy areas.
Jurgen De Wispelaere is a former occupational therapist turned political theorist and policy scholar. He has completed a Doctorate in Social Sciences at the University of Tampere (Finland) with a dissertation on the political analysis of basic income. Having returned to Europe after several years working at McGill University, he currently works at the University of Tampere as part of the team that is preparing the Finnish basic income experiments and where he also coordinates a course on basic income (with Antti Halmetoja). He has published many articles on the politics of basic income and is a co-editor of Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research (Wiley 2013), which compiles key writings on basic income from the last couple of decades. He co-founded and edited the journal “Basic Income Studies” for six years, was a former member of the Executive Committee of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), and is a Board Member of the Basic Income Canada Network (BICN). You can download (for free!) and read most of his published work here.
Polish translation of this interview can be found here.
Former interviews about basic income:
Erik Olin Wright, Sociology and Epistemology of Real Utopias
Daniel Raventós, Basic Income in the Spotlight in Spain
Guy Standing, The Strategy for Basic Income
The interviewer received funding for preparation of PhD thesis from Polish National Science Centre as part of PhD scholarship decision DEC-2015/16/T/HS1/00295.
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.
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.
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
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