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Interview with Guy Standing

Maciej Szlinder: We have just had the seminar about Basic Income in Wrocław. What are your first reflections about it?

Guy Standing: I think it was a very interesting discussion. Basic income is becoming an increasingly important issue and more widely discussed throughout the world, particularly in Scandinavia, Southern Europe and even the United States. I think that the debate is behind in Poland, it is very significant that many activists, intellectuals and politically involved people are starting to say: “This could be an interesting subject, and relevant for dealing with the sort of problems Poland is facing.” For me, it is an interesting phase. I would say to a lot of people, including those who came today, that it is a time for open-mindedness; a time when ideas that might have been rejected in a different historical time could suddenly become relevant in the context of the twenty-first century and the loss of the legitimacy of the neoliberal economic model. I think we are now in a phase when politicians are holding on to an old model which has been discredited internationally, and are not yet ready to listen to new ideas.

With regard to the problems that Poland is facing: on the one hand, the Polish labour market is severely precariatised, which can lead to a great desire for basic income security, but on the other hand, the neoliberal hegemony, which is firmly embedded in the Polish media as well as in the educational model, is extremely atomising and encourages people to look for individual, particular (rather than collective or universal) solutions to their problems. Which of these two elements, in your opinion, will be more relevant in the context of the discussion about basic income in our country?

I think it is about time for Polish politicians, intellectuals and activists to wake up to the realities of continuously growing inequality, the continuous spread of the precariat (maybe 40% of Polish adults are now part of the precariat and experiencing insecurity, unstable labour and lack of securities) and social policies which are clearly and obviously failing. I think the most important thing is to realise that Poland, like every other part of Europe, is being hit by globalization. Real wages, on average, will continue to decline or stagnate. In this context you have to think about a new system of income distribution and with regard to this, think about redistributing income from capital to people who have to rely on working and labouring for their income. One doesn’t have to go back to an old socialist model, and it’s pathetic to accuse those of us who favour basic income of somehow subscribing to some outdated twentieth-century model. That’s rubbish! I say this clearly and decisively so that nobody can play this propaganda game: “If we are talking about redistribution it has to be the old Stalinist-Leninist model.” It is not relevant, it is stupid and it is an insult.

To argue for a basic income is matter of saying that in modern society (in modern Poland, for example) we can afford for every individual to have a basic security with which they can try to build their lives and develop their capabilities. Trying to pin some label of the past on this is just propaganda. Basic income is extremely important for the precariat—people living in insecurity, with unstable labour, without any sense of identity or ability to control their lives, and facing a society in which more and more income goes to oligarchs, the elite and people in privileged positions. It’s all very well for the politicians, but down there in the precariat—in the streets, in the towns, in various places in Poland—a lot of people are suffering. One has to be much more progressive in one’s thinking without being frightened of being labelled with some previous-century thinking. Basic income is now beginning to resonate with people around Europe. I was extraordinarily impressed by the number of people supporting it in Sweden, Spain, Italy etc. None of those countries have traditions of the old model of socialism in the twentieth-century sense.

In one of the post-socialist countries, namely Bulgaria, you managed to convince one of the usually most reluctant groups—labour unions—to basic income. You’ve been advocating the launching of a pilot scheme for basic income in this country similar to the one successfully realised in India, as a part of a strategic programme showing us how basic income could influence the functioning of very different societies. Do you think that the results of such a pilot scheme, realised in one of the countries of post-socialist Europe, could convince other Central and Eastern European countries to do the same thing and eventually implement a basic income?

I think it would be extremely important for two reasons. The first is that we have a very unequal Europe. The level of income in Northern Europe is so much higher than in the margins of Bulgaria, Romania, and even Hungary and Poland. It’s crucial to reduce these inequalities. The second reason is that at the moment we are facing a situation in which many populist politicians on the right throughout the countries of Europe are playing on the fear of mass migrations. I have advocated having pilot schemes in Bulgaria, which is one of the poorest parts of Europe, partly because many politicians in England, France and Scandinavia are saying that their people are frightened that millions of Bulgarians and Romanians will flood into their countries taking jobs and benefits. A more human and civilized approach would be to say: “Ok, can we use regional social policies to experiment with pilot schemes introducing basic income to certain regions of Bulgaria to help them decide to stay in those areas.” Then we can see what the effects are on the economic dynamics—inequality, poverty, nutrition, schooling etc.—in those areas. It would actually be an efficient use of regional policies instead of giving money to governments who might misspend it. And it is also a way of saying: “Ok, we are not being inhuman about migration, because migration is human right, but now we are addressing it from the other side. Let’s see if we can reduce the pressures on people, so that they don’t flee from their localities, homes, families and communities.” I was delighted when I went to Sofia and found that the leader of the trade unions of Bulgaria not only supports the whole analysis of the precariat, but also supports the concept of basic income, along with his union and many intellectuals and good democratic people who say that it would be very good social policy. If you go to Bulgaria you can see that even in comparison with Poland the poverty and insecurity is extreme. You also feel the sense of anger and deprivation. Meanwhile, oligarchs are ruling who have been enriched by privatization and the shock therapy that we have also seen in Poland. In Bulgaria it’s much worse. It is a small country and the oligarchs have total control—it’s a criminal gang or Mafioso-type situation. But people in Bulgaria in general are educated, cultured Europeans; one would like to see a policy which would raise their income levels while discouraging them from migrating to other parts of Europe, where they might take up some low level job and be treated like dirt. It would be a very good pilot scheme for a number of reasons. And I would say to the politicians and the bureaucracy in Brussels and Strasbourg: “Use some of your money in this way and you will gain tremendous benefits, socially, economically and politically.”

In fact, the real reason for the European Structural Funds was exactly this—to diminish differences of living standards between countries to prevent excessive migrations.

Exactly! You’re correct. So actually, you’ve got ample justification and ample political reason for doing it. We must get that message across to the new bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion who became a friend of mine has just been replaced and a new bureaucracy has to be engaged, but I would say to them: try it! It wouldn’t be an expensive policy and it would be feasible; it could be done scientifically so that you would have a randomized control trial to see what effects it has. For me, it could be an important breakthrough and a legitimising move towards the basic income.

Another promising piece of information comes from Spain, where the party Podemos, which is in favour of basic income, has, for the first time, emerged as the first party in the voting survey. So it is now really possible that they will gain power in Spain. Do you think, if they win, they’ll try to implement it in Spain?

I am strongly convinced of that. The leadership of Podemos has contacted me; they have translated my book into Spanish; I am going there in December and, as you know, the basic income is in their programme. Moreover, in the European elections in May this year, of the ten political parties contesting those elections, five had basic income in their programmes. It has never happened before, anywhere. Now you have a situation in which Podemos not only won 1.2 million votes, but won them without any money or any structures. According to opinion polls in Spain, if there were an election tomorrow they could win, partly because of the corruption of the two main parties and partly because there is over 50% youth unemployment, extreme poverty and no real hope. Even though they are talking about the recovery of the Spanish economy, there is still huge household debt, personal debt, unemployment and a widespread precariat. We are talking about a change from terrifying to terrifying, really. Basic income in Spain would be a marvellous move to give security to the Spanish precariat. And I think it is possible.

A different debate about basic income is being held in Latin America. Today, you said that some conditional cash transfers, like Bolsa Família, could be a step towards basic income. The other opinion is that, in fact, it is rather a step backwards because basic income has been put into Brazilian law before (but never realised) and every conditional cash transfer is dependent on the decisions of the bureaucrats, who are particularly highly corrupted in this region; therefore we should be purist in the fight for fully unconditional basic income. What do you think of this problem?

I have two perspectives on this. Some conditionalities, like those which demand that recipients who have children should send them to school or take them to be vaccinated, are benevolent forms of conditionalities. They are not coercive and don’t effect other people. If you have a labour conditionality—you only get the benefit if you perform a low-wage job—you are actually, without meaning to, affecting other people because you’re displacing the opportunities for other people to take those low-wage jobs and you’re contributing to a general downward trend in wages. That’s the nature of workfare. The problem is: what would you do if a mother doesn’t manage to make her little son go to school 80% of the time (that’s the rule)? Do you take the money away, which could be very bad thing for the child and the mother, or do you send someone round to lecture her? In principle, I’m against conditionality. There is only one condition I’m ready to contemplate and I state this in the books. I would include a condition which says: you will receive basic income as a citizen of Poland if you sign a statement that you will vote in the next round of elections and you will participate on one day a year in a political meeting in your community on policies. The reason that I would do this is that it would strengthen a very important part of our society that is under threat, namely, democracy itself. We’ve reached a situation in which we have commodified politics and a low turnout in elections and we have to stimulate democracy. It is a critical point. I’m not in favour of a legally binding condition, merely a moral commitment: you sign “I intend to participate.” But definitely, for me, a basic income should be the right of every citizen.

One part of the question: “How to fight for it?” is the question: “With whom?” There are two possibilities. The first is that we should convince the rich that it is in their interest, broadly speaking. The second position assumes that we won’t convince the capitalists because they understand that it would lead to a shift in power relations to their disadvantage; it is a redistribution of money from the higher classes to the lower classes. And if you do want to form an alliance with members of the capitalist class, there will be a risk that some of the leftist groups would say: “We won’t fight for the basic income with people like Götz Werner and Charles Murray, because their version of it is even worse than the current system.” Do you think that this kind of ally is indispensable or would you rather emphasize that basic income is not a replacement for the welfare state and that it is clearly a leftist idea?

I think that really, strategically, we should avoid either of the polar positions. We have to build a coalition for supporting a move towards a basic income. With regard to this, we need to be saying: if you’re capitalist or neoliberal you have to take the Milton Friedman perspective that nobody can be expected to make rational market decisions unless they have some basic security. If you are on the left, as I am, you would be saying that this is a matter of changing the income distribution system and providing an instrument for redistributing income in a way that can actually be interpreted as a structural change providing an opportunity for a progressive agenda to be built. But at the same time, we can say both to the right and left that it is in their interest for their citizens to have security; whether they have other policies—that’s to be debated. I would say to my friends on the left, Marxist or not, that first and foremost, we have to be compassionate about the security of the people around us here and of the precariat in general. Stop being too ideological and think what a good society would look like. I think those on the left and those on the right (except the extreme right), would agree with the statement: we want every Polish person to have enough security to build a good home, family, community, to be altruistic, to be solidaritistic etc. You should be able to build consensus around those things. Then the larger political aspect—that is another debate; we can have that debate. Do you want to restructure Polish society towards a more collectivist approach or do you want to go individualistic like the people who have dominated politics? Let’s have a debate! I am not afraid of it, neither are you. The thing we have to do is to say: the most important thing for Polish society or British society is that all our citizens, all our families, all our friends, all our communities should have basic security. Surely we can all agree on that, can’t we? On that basis, we should shame those people who dress their opposition up in some sophisticated, intellectual, scholastic language and challenge them: “Do you have a better idea? Do you have you a better way of providing your Polish citizens with security?”

Some of them would answer that a better proposition would be the concept of a job guarantee. What do you think of this?

I have actually debated this issue with over twenty professors over the last twenty years. To me, a job guarantee is a lie. What is it? You are going to guarantee every Pole a job. Imagine what this would mean! I am sure a lot of Polish people would like to be president of Poland. Are you going to guarantee to them the job of being president of Poland? What sort of jobs are you going to guarantee them? Is it a job that pays a decent wage? Is it a job which leads to an occupation that they believe they are capable of performing? No. This “job guarantee” would be saying to the unemployed: you must have this job, because we’ve got it. And you’re going to take it. It might be a very low-paying job, or a very humiliating job, or a very stigmatizing job—because to take a job that is only a job because the employment office says it is a job is stigmatizing. If that goes on your CV it’s a sort of marker, meaning “failure”. De Tocqueville, in his famous book Democracy in America, actually illustrated the situation very nicely; I quote it in my book Work after Globalization. He said that if you had a job guarantee, it would either lead to complete communism, because you would be telling everybody that they can only have bread if they take these jobs that we provide, or complete inefficiency, because you would be paying somebody to do something which is unproductive and useless. I’d challenge anybody talking about job guarantee: where is your concept of freedom? Where is your concept of emancipation? Because you are basically talking about coercion: you have to take the job that I decide and you will be grateful. I don’t like that approach. I think it is paternalistic, it is directive and it is contrary to all the great philosophical traditions of freedom.

13 November 2014

Interview realised during the visit of prof. Guy Standing at the University of Wrocław. The visit was co-funded by the City of Wrocław under the programme Visiting Professors, Scientiae Wratislavienses fund.

The Polish translation of this interview: Guy Standing, Strategia dla dochodu podstawowego


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