BIEN is 30: Interview with Philippe Van Parijs
This year, BIEN celebrated its 30th anniversary. An event commemorating the occasion was held at the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium on October 1, in connection also with the 25th anniversary of UCLouvain’s Hoover Chair of economic and social ethics and the retirement of BIEN cofounder Philippe van Parijs as its director.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Philippe Van Parijs about the past, present, and future of BIEN.
What’s the most striking difference between BIEN’s earlier years and now?
The internet. It is hard for young people today to imagine what it meant to run an international network when all communication between its members had to happen through the post. The newsletter needed to be typed, then printed, then photocopied, then stapled. Each copy of the newsletter then had to be inserted in a big envelope, with a stamp stuck on it, and the whole lot had to be taken to the nearest post box. All this cost money. So, annual fees had to be collected. But bank charges were high for international transfers and would have absorbed half of these fees. We therefore asked people to send the money to Louvain-la-Neuve in an envelope in pesetas, deutsche Mark, French Francs, lire, etc. and I changed them at the bank before paying equivalent amounts in Belgian Francs into BIEN’s bank account. We more or less managed three issues per year, but given the time this cost to a tiny number of busy people, this was a recurrent miracle. To lighten the thankless burden of fee collection, we wisely switched in the late nineties to a life membership formula. And from 2000, thanks to increasing access to internet among BIEN’s members, we allowed ourselves to gradually switch from the tri-annual printed newsletter to more frequent e-mailed news flashes.
What were BIEN’s most memorable successes in its first 30 years?
The greatest success — and the first virtue of a good network — is simply to have kept going, with a newsletter sharing intelligible and trustworthy information every few months and with a congress unfailingly organized every two years. These congresses enabled a core of highly committed people to get to know each other personally, to inform, encourage and inspire each other, but proved also a powerful instrument for making more people aware of the idea of basic income and ready to take it seriously. The first two conferences (in Louvain-la-Neuve in 1986 and Antwerp 1988) were very modest, low-budget events. The first grand congress was organized by Edwin Morley-Fletcher, with the support of Italy’s Lega Nazionale delle Cooperative e Mutue at the European University Institute (Florence) in September 1990. I thought at the time that organizing such big and expensive events would be unsustainable. But I was proved wrong by a long and so far uninterrupted succession of enthusiastic conference organizers.
The second greatest success — and the second virtue of a good network — is to have kept expanding. As time went on, more and more people from outside Europe attended BIEN’s congresses. Among them, Brazilian Senator Eduardo Suplicy, who started suggesting, from 1998 onwards, that the Basic Income European Network should become the Basic Income Earth Network. Guy Standing was sympathetic to the suggestion from the start. I was very skeptical at first, partly because I knew too well how hard it had been to keep our little European network going, and partly because I thought that a broad interest in basic income could only arise in countries that experienced for a sufficiently long time the perverse effects of conditional income schemes. But by 2004, 25 percent of BIEN’s life members were from outside Europe. Moreover, in January 2004, Eduardo managed to get President Lula to sign his “basic income law”. And the internet was conquering the world. My resistance evaporated. At the Barcelona congress, in September 2004, the General Assembly approved our proposal to make BIEN a worldwide network.
Can these greatest successes be called memorable? Not really. A network acts discreetly in the background. It empowers its components, thereby helping them do a number of things, including memorable ones. Would there have been a basic income law in Brazil or a basic income referendum in Switzerland in the absence of the slow maturing and dissemination of the idea made possible by the existence of a lasting and expanding network? And would they stick as firmly in many people’s memories without an efficient and influential network that confers them a memorable rather than anecdotal status?
Can these greatest successes be called memorable? Not really. A network acts discreetly in the background.
What have been the biggest challenges?
Apart from the material concerns already mentioned, I can think of two main challenges. One is linguistic. Opting for English as the sole language of a European network was far less obvious thirty years ago than it has now become. There were voices rightly pointing out the elitism involved in this choice. In most countries, only bilinguals (or more) could be involved. Yet, given the resources available, only the monolingual formula was realistic. Consequently, a constant effort was required, far from fully successful, to correct the imbalance thereby created along many dimensions: from the overrepresentation of news and publications from Anglophone countries to the overrepresentation of Anglophones among active participants in our congresses or assemblies.
The other challenge is sectarianism. When people sharing the same conviction form an association, there is a danger that their meetings and publications will largely reduce to a rehearsal of the common faith and a denunciation of the stupidity or wickedness of those who don’t share it. It has been crucial to the vitality and impact of BIEN that it has resisted such sectarian degeneration. It has kept inviting to its congresses speakers who spoke against basic income. It has kept reporting in a fair way on criticisms and setbacks. And it has kept insisting that its membership is open to people “committed to or interested in” an unconditional basic income in a precise yet broad sense that does not stipulate a specific funding method, rationale, level or set of accompanying measures.
Has BIEN ever run the risk of dying?
Twice, I think. First, it could have been still-born. Driven by the pioneers’ enthusiasm, the initial plan, at the September 1986 founding conference, was to hold a conference every year, and someone offered to hold the next one in Maastricht in September 1987. But the proposal fell through and instead there followed a long silence. It is only in February 1988 that BIEN’s first newsletter was sent out, announcing a second conference, which Walter Van Trier, BIEN’s first secretary, managed to put together in Antwerp, in September 1988.
The second time agony seemed close was in the mid-nineties. With my four children, Louvain’s Hoover Chair to run and my Real Freedom for All nearing completion, I was struggling to combine the jobs of BIEN secretary and newsletter editor. To my great relief, at the London 1994 congress, a founding member who was hardly involved until then agreed to become the newsletter editor. I still dealt with the first issue following the congress, but thereafter, despite many reminders and repeated promises, nothing happened for many months. I took back the editor job and laboriously published a treble Christmas 1995 issue, after a full year gap. It made me realize both how crucial a newsletter is to the very existence of a network and how important it is for the sustainability of a network that people should only commit to what they are really able to do.
What do you see as BIEN’s biggest challenges moving forward?
One big challenge is to keep track of the countless fast swelling stream of relevant developments worldwide and to make their nature and significance intelligible to people across the world. Internet is no doubt a fabulous asset for a worldwide network. But working out the right hierarchy, in terms of relevance, significance and reliability, among the mass of information to which we now have easy access is both essential and difficult. BIEN’s current team is doing a terrific job in this respect.
Another challenge is to constantly find the right balance between utopianism and pragmatism, between on the one hand an attractive, stirring vision of a better world that can boost our hopes and stimulate our actions and on the other an acute, clear-headed awareness of difficulties, obstacles, defeats and disappointments.
What do you see as most exciting?
The fact that so many different people in such different countries discover, discuss and appropriate the idea and that this helps them regain the hope they had lost in a better future for themselves and for their children.
Philippe Van Parijs has been chair of BIEN’s international board since 2004. He was the organizer of BIEN’s founding conference (Louvain-la-Neuve, 1986), BIEN’s newsletter editor from 1988 to 2004, BIEN’s secretary from 1994 to 2004. He is the author (with Yannick Vanderborght) of Basic Income: A radical proposal for a free society and a sane economy, Harvard University Press, Spring 2017.
Cover Photo: Van Parijs at BIEN’s 30th Anniversary event (credit: Enno Schmidt).