Matt Orfalea, a social activist and an advocate for basic income, has released a trailer for his upcoming documentary series.
Titled “The BIG Idea,”the series intends to raise awareness of the concept of basic income by describing its history, as well as entertaining possibilities of its implementation. The series will explore such aspects as dealing with poverty, getting ahead of the potential problem of technological unemployment and helping to alleviate the precarious living that is already affecting nations like the United States.
People’s Potato as an example of alternative work organization in the world of Unconditional Basic Income (UBI)
This is the second part of a series proposing a reform of public services to be included in the UBI reform package (first part here). This article presents a model of organizing production based on spontaneous work contribution to the commons so that citizens’ participation is facilitated. Re-organizing work in such a way so that people want to contribute, but without being forced by the necessity to earn a living, should become part of the UBI movement’s agenda.
Certainly, citizens living solely from UBI would need to contribute somehow to sustain support for UBI among working populations that may resent those not working. So far, no viable solutions have been proposed. An “approved” citizen contribution1or rewarding of such contributions2 implies wasting resources on monitoring, control3 or operating a system of remuneration, which would undermine the entire project and philosophy behind UBI. I propose an alternative to generating such unsatisfying administrative jobs (also known as “Bullshit Jobs” – a term coined by David Graeber) and intruding citizens. The state (“Partner State” – a concept developed by Michel Bauwens) should allocate instead resources and liberate spaces where commons are produced and work is a source of fulfillment.
In this article, I will elaborate on the elements of work organization that would turn making contribution attractive to citizens. A new logic of work organization, which could be generalized for the domain of services of public interest, will be exemplified with the case of a cooking collective, People’s Potato, distributing lunch meals for free at the Concordia University in Montréal. One can define the mode of operation in this collective as a peer production project. Access to the service is not conditional based on involvement as a volunteer. The production is financed by fee levies, but the meals are distributed for free and broadly accessible. One does not need to be a student at the Concordia or have paid the levy to receive a meal. The Annual General Meetings are accessible to the stakeholders and the public.4
In September 2014, I volunteered in the kitchen and interviewed several other volunteers, as well as a coordinator, to learn more about work organization at People’s Potato.
Contributing work without barriers
Members-employees of the worker cooperative that manages People’s Potato coordinate volunteers’ work. Since economic survival does not depend on the volunteers, this removes the pressure typically found in commercial gastronomy or other traditional employment systems. Volunteers join the work process spontaneously and are assigned a task. It is possible to join or leave at any moment. Preparing food is organized in a modular way so that coordinators can easily find something to do for a volunteer. Inclusion is also fostered by the fact that each participant can decide their degree of involvement. For example, one can choose whether to contribute to governance decisions or not.
This very flexible way of organizing work at People’s Potato generates more inclusion in work participation, opening it up to those who might not be able to work as an employee, nor find their place in worker cooperatives. Among volunteers, there are people with physical and mental handicaps. Part of People’s Potato’s anti-oppression policy is to create an environment of tolerance so that everyone can work at one’s own pace. Many volunteers appreciated the flexibility that is possible in the involvement. For example, one volunteer – a busy student – enjoyed the fact that the project can go on without her if she does not show up. She does not need to take on additional responsibility.
Organizational framework for p2p production in the physical world
Coordination is a crucial factor in sustaining spontaneous work. Cooking (and other services of general interest) requires time management, as well as obeying safety and hygiene regulations. In Montréal, past non-professional cooking collectives, which managed to peer produce food, were short-lived (see the article by Silvestro5). However, some chapters of the international movement Food Not Bombs are quite successful. Certainly, these non-professional initiatives help advancing the practice and attitude of non-conditionality, both as a principle for redistribution and as a way to organize work contribution.
A worker cooperative runs people’s Potato. The cooperative takes care of administration, logistics, and financial tasks. Coordinators who are members of a worker cooperative provide a framework for spontaneous work contribution. They decide what meals to prepare and guide the process of food preparation. They are also responsible for volunteers’ training, information events, and celebration parties.
Fulfilling a coordinator’s job at People’s Potato requires a higher level of social skill than in traditional employment settings. One of the most important factors attracting volunteers is the kindness of coordinators and the perception that contributing at People’s Potato is different from traditional employment. This is reflected in the way volunteers are addressed. Staff always asks whether one “feels like doing” a certain task. Volunteer contribution is not taken for granted. However, one of the long-term volunteers that I interviewed said they felt unappreciated, and another one wished for more warmth. The former said that People’s Potato’s staff tends to forget that the volunteers are not paid for their contribution.
Space and work process organization to accommodate volunteers
Because of the flexibility of volunteer involvement, the number of volunteers fluctuates during the day. Just to illustrate with an observation of one Monday: at 11 am there were 8 volunteers in the kitchen, at the noon – 14, at 12:40 – 29, at 13:30 – 13, and at 14 – three volunteers were working. Altogether, the kitchen space can accommodate up to 40 volunteers.
The only perk for volunteers is the opportunity to eat in the kitchen rather than wait in the line outside. Many interviewees complained that there is not much space for the volunteers to eat lunch together. However, some contribute very little and eat in the kitchen. Coordinators must find a balance between disciplining and building an atmosphere that does not feel like a workplace. Too many rules may deter people from volunteering, and too little may frustrate committed volunteers.
Since volunteers associate People’s Potato with having fun and meeting people, some volunteers may forget that it is a space for work. One of the coordinators complained that people were kissing each other in the kitchen. The staff is also worried about too many people coming to the kitchen during lunch distribution. Working as a coordinator has distinct challenges, due to the number and fluctuation of people involved in cooking. They manage stress by rotating tasks between the kitchen and the office.
Anti-Oppression work at People’s Potato
People’s Potato defines itself as a hate-free space to bring people together without judgment or discrimination. For one interviewee who belongs to a racial and gender identification minority, this aspect of People’s Potato was crucial in choosing involvement. This person trusts that coordinators would react in cases of oppressive behavior in the kitchen. This person has experienced harassment in similar jobs as an employee in commercial gastronomy.
As I reported in another article, coordinators have a role to play in sustaining a positive atmosphere:
“The involvement of a high number of volunteers may be a challenge at times. There are situations when staff need to intervene because of an oppressive behavior among volunteers: instances of verbal aggression, offences, discriminatory comments, etc. Some volunteers, when asked to stop oppressive behaviour, may become frustrated or become quiet. Sometimes this results in volunteers getting upset and leaving the kitchen, though there is an attempt to establish the anti-oppressive politics without rejecting community members who don’t understand it fully.”6
Creating spaces for a new paradigm in work organization
Sustaining work organization based on spontaneous contribution requires infrastructure, employment for coordinators, and developing skills for running this kind of project. The example of People’s Potato’s work organization helps us imagine how production of the commons could be organized. My interviewees suggested further measures that would make an involvement in spontaneous work more attractive:
– A board with the list of tasks to be done, so that one can easily find one’s project
– Concerts accompanying work
– A place to relax and lay down close to the working space (suggested by an older person suffering from back pain).
UBI may become a reality in the future, but the goal of creating a new vision of work and using human potential can already be pursued now.
The ideas expressed do not necessarily represent those of Basic Income Earth Network or Basic Income News.
About the author:
Katarzyna Gajewska is an independent scholar and a writer. She has a PhD in Political Science and has published on alternative economy and innovating the work organization since 2013. You can find her non-academic writing on such platforms as Occupy.com, P2P Foundation Blog, Basic Income UK, Bronislaw Magazine and LeftEast. For updates on her publications, you can check her Facebook page or send her an email: k.gajewska_commATzoho.com. If you would like to support her independent writing, please make a donation to the PayPal account at the same address!
Gajewska, Katarzyna (2014): Peer production and prosummerism as a model for the future organization of general interest services provision in developed countries: examples of food services collectives. World Future Review 6(1): 29-39.
Gajewska, Katarzyna (30 June 2014): There is such a thing as a free lunch: Montréal Students Commoning and Peering food services. P2P Foundation Blog, https://blog.p2pfoundation.net/there-is-such-a-thing-as-a-free-lunch-montreal-students-commoning-and-peering-food-services/2014/06/30
1 Anthony B. Atkinson, “The Case for a Participation Income,” Political Quarterly 27 (1 1996), 67-70; Anthony B. Atkinson, Poverty in Europe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998); Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995).
2Colin C. Williams and Sara Nadin, “Beyond the market: The case for a citizen’s income,” Re-public: re-imagining democracy, November 23, 2010, URL to article: https://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=3070.
3 Brian Barry, “UBI and the Work Ethic,” in What’s Wrong with a Free Lunch? Ed. Philippe van Parijs (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001). Bill Jordan, The New Politics of Welfare: social justice in a global context (London: Sage, 1998); Bill Jordan, “Efficiency, Justice and the Obligations of Citizenship,” in Social Policy in Transition: Anglo-German Perspectives in the New European Community, (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1994, pp. 109-113); Jurgen DeWispelaere and Lindsay Stirton, “The Public Administration Case Against Participation Income,” Social Service Review 81 (3 2007): 523-549; Jurgen DeWispelaere and Lindsay Stirton, “A Disarmingly Simple Idea? Practical Bottlenecks in Implementing a Universal Basic Income,” International Social Security Review 65 (April-June 2012): 103–121.
4Gajewska, Katarzyna (2014): Peer production and prosummerism as a model for the future organization of general interest services provision in developed countries: examples of food services collectives. World Future Review 6(1): 29-39. Gajewska, Katarzyna (30 June 2014): There is such a thing as a free lunch: Montréal Students Commoning and Peering food services. P2P Foundation Blog, https://blog.p2pfoundation.net/there-is-such-a-thing-as-a-free-lunch-montreal-students-commoning-and-peering-food-services/2014/06/30
5Silvestro, Marco (2007): Politisation du quotidien et récupération alimentaire a l’ère de la bouffe-minute, Possibles 32(1-2).
6Gajewska, Katarzyna (30 June 2014): There is such a thing as a free lunch: Montréal Students Commoning and Peering food services. P2P Foundation Blog, https://blog.p2pfoundation.net/there-is-such-a-thing-as-a-free-lunch-montreal-students-commoning-and-peering-food-services/2014/06/30
On the 25th of March 2017, a meeting of the Fórum Cidadania & Território (link) took place in Covilhã, a mountain city in Serra da Estrela, Portugal. This regular gathering of individuals and institutions was at Coolabora, a local non-governmental organization (NGO), and apart from particular issues related to citizenship and territory, it was also dedicated to presenting and discussing basic income.
Fórum Cidadania & Território is a formal network of NGO’s and individuals concerned with social issues, development and non-discrimination in Portugal. Hence it represents a larger universe of activity than the strict number of people attending these meetings allows for. In this 14th meeting, organized and hosted by Coolabora, activists promoting basic income in Portugal were invited, in this case André Barata, André Coelho and Pedro Ferrão.
André Barata presented basic income as a natural outgrowth of social democracy, nowadays very much torn apart and distorted. According to him, basic income is justified not so much because automation in upon us, but mainly as a right of citizenship. Countless generations of human beings have created everything upon which we live today, and so a basic income is a way for every person to get a fair share of that heritage. André Coelho exhibited a few slides to explain how a basic income could be financed in Portugal, referring to a study offered by Miguel Horta. He also reviewed what he considers to be the advantages of basic income, over our current social welfare systems. Paulo Ferrão spoke of the next BIEN Congress, taking place in Lisbon, and called for participation in the basic income week taking place while the Congress is ongoing (25th through 27th of September, 2017).
After these points, the debate was opened to the audience, who took the opportunity to pose questions and discuss the traditional arguments against basic income (e.g.: disincentive to work, difficulty in paying for a basic income).
Charlie Young, an economics writer who has worked at the UK think tank New Economics Foundation, has contributed an article on basic income to the online journal Evonomics. In the piece, he proposes a categorization system to help make sense of some of the main sources of variations between basic income schemes.
As Young points out, “universal basic income” is not a single proposal. Instead, the label encompasses a broad set of proposals that are not mutually compatible in practice, even though they are related in a more abstract conceptual or philosophical sense. For this reason, it does not make sense to say that one is “for” or “against” UBI outright.
According to Young, the “most important distinguishing feature” between these varied proposals is the source of funding (which he takes to encompass such questions as whether the UBI is a replacement to the welfare state or an add-on). He mentions the scope (“just how ‘universal’ is the income?”), amount, and regularity of the basic income as other distinguishing features.
In this light, Young recommends the following three-fold classification scheme for UBI proposals: (A) proposals based on adjustments of existing tax and benefit systems (which, in his words, have in common “a shared belief that a politically feasible UBI must be small-scale, sometimes include transitional proposals, and be based on funding from existing tax structures”); (B) proposals focused on replacement of existing welfare programs (which Young claims to differ from the former in their justification and outcomes of interest, the latter focusing more on individual autonomy than macro-level effects); and (C) proposals funded by “communalising common assets” such as natural resources, wealth, or productivity increases due to technology.
The MIT Tech Conference, an annual event hosted by the MIT Sloan Tech Club at the MIT Media Lab, took place on Saturday, February 18th this year. TechTarget reports an impassioned exchange regarding basic income that occurred at the conclusion of a panel on the current state of robot technologies. Universal basic income was “largely seen as the best answer to taking care of a displaced workforce,” though the challenges of such proposals were also addressed.
This discussion of basic income arose from points made regarding the rise of automation and the associated predicted loss of jobs:
“To be sure, embracing and adopting technology has always been a competitive advantage. Horses, for example, used to be a major force by which work got done; they labored alongside humans to plow fields and deliver goods, but they were sidelined by advances from the second industrial revolution.
“Liam Paull, research scientist in the distributed robotics lab at MIT’s CSAIL and the panel moderator, asked panelists if robotics will present a scenario where humans are the horses? The comparison was crude, but the point was clear: When robots perform factory jobs or drive trucks better than humans, those careers disappear forever.”
Points raised over the course of this discussion, reported by TechTarget, include the following: that new, unforeseen jobs may emerge when existing jobs become obsolete; that automation risks exacerbating inequality both within the US and around the world; and that more evidence is necessary before solid policy recommendations can be made.
To the victor go the spoils. A meritocracy is a system which rewards superior skill or ability. Great wealth inequality is often defended by those who claim that winners should take all, that superior performance deserves superior gains.
But as Scott Santens writes for Futurism, the main factor in where we end up in life is where we start in life. Using the Olympic games as an analogy, Santens shows how, from wealthy parents to performance enhancing drugs, what we call meritocracy actually rewards those who are given the best chance to succeed. A UBI would make meritocracy less of a fiction, supplying everyone with a decent starting point, so that winners don’t win just because the competition lacks the basic resources needed to even play the game.
The 2020 BIEN Congress was to be held in Brisbane in Australia from the 28th to the 30th September 2020. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the event has been cancelled. BIEN’s Executive Committee and the Scottish and Australian congress Local Organising Committees have agreed the following statement: ‘The Scottish and Australian Congress Local Organisation Committees have agreed that the current plan is to hold the 2021 BIEN congress in Scotland and the 2022 BIEN congress in Australia.’
A Basic Income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. Read more