Being human: the artist behind the London UBI posters
A society in which people work only because they have to have money is no better than slavery.
The black-and-white poster carrying this message is one of a large number of basic income sheets which artist-campaigner Russell Shaw Higgs has been pasting all over his part of London, Hackney. Another one argues that if people are intrinsically of value, they have the right to survive without working. Yet another quotes Martin Luther King: “the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly”.
The paste-ups contain no web address, no logo, no signature. No call to action, except for some which encourage you to google “Basic Income” for more information. The posters carry just the substantial message, the core argument. They’re a street-art fragment of a conversation in a public space. When Higgs emails me from Athens, where he’s spontaneously absconded, he says he makes no distinction between his personal life, his art and his political activism. Reading his emails makes it clear what he means. Higgs combines a coherence of thought with acts that are as much about self-expression as they are about campaigning.
“I remember in my very first hour here thinking, it is as though Athenian citizens feel a passionate need to communicate on every available inch of outdoor wall space,” says Higgs. “It’s almost like wandering through a physical manifestation of the Internet.”
The “profoundly social space” of the streets of Athens is contrasted with London as a metropolis “dominated by corporate advertising, CCTV, Public Order Acts, and the general, ever creeping privatisation of our commons”.
Higgs naturally believes that Greeks in particular should be granted Unconditional Basic Income. This is not only because they have been singled out for “a whole special kind of brutal punishment by international bureaucrats and banker racketeers, with undemocratic global corporations hovering in the shadows” but also because “we owe Greece such an immense cultural debt”.
Higgs is used to making the case for UBI. Earlier this year, he stood in the UK general election, contesting the parliamentary seat for Hackney South. Seeing it primarily as an opportunity to promote ideas, Higgs’ campaign literature found its way to 62,000 households. His main causes were UBI, compassion and sortition: the random lottery selection of political officials, as – partially – practiced in ancient Athenian democracy.
Higgs and the Green Party candidate were the two candidates promoting Basic Income and by chance they were always seated alphabetically next to each other at the hustings as they confronted the rigidity of the establishment parties.
“The trouble with most career politicians is that they are programmed to habitually distort and mutate their thoughts and words, to fit the narrow and unimaginative limitations of their party policies,” says Higgs. “However, in 2015 it is certainly my impression that a large number of people are at least now familiar with the idea of a UBI. Probably the most common question asked now, tends to be around how a Basic Income would be financed.”
In the winter of 2000-2001 Higgs participated in a number of naked protests, attracting “much coy media and friendly public attention” with a simple yet radical action. Higgs spent a month continuously unclothed: he was remanded naked in his segregation cell in Brixton Prison, he also appeared naked in court in front of the judge and jury, until ultimately being found not guilty of any misconduct.
“Basic Income and Non-criminalised clothing-optional living are both very simple and straightforward rational concepts that would subsequently bring about profound changes to human consciousness and our attitudes towards one another,” Higgs says. “They are both concepts that value autonomy and that undermine archaic authoritarian hierarchies and deeply embedded power structures. Both concepts place high value on simply Being Human.”
A year later Higgs got himself his first iMac and home internet connection. He became an intensive blogger and soon discovered Basic Income. Like many UBI supporters, the fundamental liberation for Higgs would be to “uncouple work from money once and for all” and to begin valuing human lives, not humans as slaves.
“I find it appalling that most people’s lives are fundamentally dominated by (wage) slavery and the corrupt propaganda, from cradle to grave, that results in people colluding in their own slavery, backed up by the false notion that it is all about ‘morality’”.
Higgs says that growing support on the left as well as the right gives him hope. He says people are crying out for new ideas and solutions and that many can see that the old ways of organising society are desperately in need of being revised. The challenge is overcoming apathy and the “accumulative drip-drip poison and negativity propagated daily by mainstream media and so called ‘leaders’”.
“I believe very strongly that ideas shouldn’t just collect dust on our bookshelves, nor only take up mind and discussion space. Ideas are to be actively practiced, tried out and experimented with in our daily lives,” Higgs says but adds: “The stresses and distractions of full time wage slavery makes that near impossible. And probably deliberately so.”
Will Wachtmeister, “Being human: Q&A with the artist behind the London UBI posters” Personal interview, September 26, 2015.