Op-Ed; Opinion

My libertarian-socialist working feeling

Refugee support clothing depot (Hamburg)

Refugee support clothing depot (Hamburg)

by Rainer Ammermann

Much can be said about the possible links between the current refugee influx to Germany and the idea of unconditional basic income. Now, I want to highlight just one obvious intersection: thousands spend countless hours to build and maintain a support infrastructure for refugees independent from public services. They are not paid and they do in part work others might judge as stupid or heavy. They are driven only by the obvious need and the feeling to be part of a group or a movement of common interest. Although involvement in civil society activities in Germany is traditionally high, the challenge to support thousands of refugees and migrants at short notice shows once more the desire to work and to participate as a deeply rooted intrinsic and social value. With this in mind we do not need to worry about a lack of willingness to work once an unconditional basic income is implemented. But some have to worry that the jobs they offer may not provide the values necessary for real useful work.

One impressive project of refugee support is the clothing depot in a Hamburg trade fair hall. Within days and weeks it has become a well equipped logistics centre completely run by hundreds of volunteers. Of course, people in the core team bring in some professional experience, but no extra money drives them. Most volunteers in the store sort clothes, pack boxes and stack pallets. Some organize free drinks and food for the volunteers, others run and further develop the software used to process packages and orders, and so on. The centre is open 7 days a week from 9 to 9. New in this project is not the fact that volunteers work in a clothing depot, but the large scale of the project and that it is managed independently of established aid organizations with a fluid and self-organizing crowd of supporters. One can start working there without formal registration and without becoming a permanent member of a team or social group. Many people there work in anonymity apart from the first name on their chest.

I work there several hours about twice a week. I am impressed by the atmosphere of a relaxed but effective bustle based on freedom and mutual respect. Although I feel some kind of duty to contribute to this kind of community work (a socialist value), at the same time I enjoy the total freedom of choice each day to start and stop working whenever I like outside public service structures (a libertarian value). No formal accountability undermines my motivation while I can trust in the self-organizing crowd of people that the service is going on well in the time I focus on other things. I call this “my libertarian-socialist working feeling” (while this doesn’t fully reflect my personal political stance) and I feel it bears a huge potential for a more humane and effective world of work. May it stimulate somehow the inevitable way towards unconditional basic income.

Have some insights here and here.

Rainer Ammermann is an activist in the Basic Income Network Hamburg.

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  • Thank you for this report (and the video links (!) that demonstrate the vastness of this project). I think you touch upon an aspect of UBI that often is ignored – the politics of time. When we retrieve time, I think, we re-define the activities that occur with our “free time.”

    Andre Gorz talks about two domains that will exist when we are free of jobs. One of necessity – that is socially necessary work that needs to be done – and the other – the autonomous activity that we undertake. But I think here you are questioning that distinction. Here you undertake socially necessary work but in a spirit of play. Of course we are not trying to create a society of play, but on the other hand are we creating a society of (meaningful) work?

    I mean should we call what you do at this center, work? We must search for a new way of talking about that activity which we are free to do when the yoke of scarcity (jobs) is removed.

    • Andre Coelho


      Thank you very much for your contribution.

      Indeed, there will be a day when work, joy and play will all mingle together. If motivated, human beings can even execute hard, troublesome activities with a smile on their faces. Just imagine if even those activities can be done by machines, leaving us only with that stuff really challenging, that really contribute to our inner growth, to the core of our happiness.

      Basic income is a step towards that future…and that’s path we are already walking through.

      Best regards.


  • Liane Gale

    To akaPaul LaFargue: Whenever the “Technological Unemployment”-and- Therefore, We Need a Basic Income”- harpers comment, we are always reminded that in the coming machine age the “yoke of scarcity (jobs) is removed”. This implies a life of leisure. Never have I heard anybody commenting though on the work that will stay: caring for each other and the planet. Why is care-centered work not considered in these discussions, even though it represents the majority of work being done today (when one considers unpaid and paid work together) and which will not get whisked away by robots (hopefully!). Why is care-centered work not valued at all by the dominant economic and political systems? And not even by supposedly forward-thinking Futurists? To answer this and act on it accordingly would save humanity and the planet.

    • To Liane Gale,
      Isn’t this whole report about “care-centered work”? I can’t imagine a better way to encourage “care-centered work” than by providing for as much leisure as possible.

  • dr dig

    First time visitor to this site.

    I see lots of ideological pontification on here but have yet to see any economic analysis of how such a system would work.

    I haven’t even seen any mention of how a UBI would be set, that is how much money would the UBI be?

    Who gets to define what a basic income is? Who gets to decide what gets included in the calculations?

    What happens when people waste their UBI on frivolous things and then still have their hand out to cover food, utility, and housing expenses?

    Can anyone point me to detailed research on such things, or is this really just an echo chamber for socialists that don’t want to take up serious challenges to the ideology?

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