In the current context of a global pandemic, the universal basic income (UBI) policy has been gaining ground all over the world. Given this sudden raise of awareness about UBI, it was important for the French Movement for a Basic Income (MFRB), as well as 40 other French civil society organizations and public figures, to highlight the importance of having a real democratic debate around its implementation.
These UBI advocates support the idea of basic income, but not at all costs. Basic income finds itself at the crossroad of two very different paths: it can either be included in a series of measures aiming at promoting a social and environmental transition, or it can be a plaster to the current neoliberal system. In the French context, where the social protection system has been strong for the past decades, but which has also been attacked in recent years, the risks of having UBI used politically to weaken established social rights are also important.
That is why the implementation of a real protective basic income must not only be about the economy, but be an outgrowth of a real democratic debate. That to make sure it will help reduce inequalities, reinforce labor rights and help create social protection systems. And to improve working conditions of the “essential jobs” that are currently underpaid and at the frontline of the sanitary crisis. It shall also be used to question the relevancy of “bullshit jobs”.
The strength of UBI has always relied on its capacity to promote debates on an extremely wide range of topics. Today, more than ever, it is crucial to debate collectively about the society we want in the aftermath of this crisis.
Bidar has started getting interested in basic income in 2015. As a defender of basic income, Bidar has tried, in the referenced book and in his speaking venues and interviews, to detach his arguments from strictly economic grounds, but to solidify a sound philosophical defence. According to him, the “how much” question amounts to an obsession, since present-day society is obsessed with money and its derived consumption habits. He doesn’t aim to minimize the economic issue, but to amplify the debate to a much larger sphere.
Because in order to mobilize people, to get them to stand up for their rights, time is needed. Most people are just too busy making ends meet, working to feed the children and paying the rent, so a basic income can come as way to provide people with the necessary time to become full-right citizens.
He says the times we live in are the “Kairos” of the age, an historical moment to act, to achieve crucial change. The capitalist system just captures and condenses wealth, leading to unprecedent levels of inequality. Our task now is to redistribute the abundance we are today are able to produce. Since we no longer need to work so much to produce wealth, in the XXI century, due to automation and computerization, we are now, or should be, able to free ourselves from the necessity to “work for a living”, and maybe start working to live…and be happy.
He cites new generations: according to him, young people are much less “docile” regarding impositions from the job market, than previous generations. They want to align their work with their beliefs and aspirations, and not only to work as a way to guarantee survival (in the midst of a hostile society). That may even include, sometimes, to stop completely from working, since everyone needs to breathe, to stop running and reflect at certain moments in their lives.
Bidar looks at basic income also as a tool that allows people to participate in their community and society at large, instead of just hoping that things arrive at their doorstep provided by a handful of politicians. He poses fundamental questions of what to do with our time: what mobilizes us? How do we choose to use our time?
Because, it seems, society is entirely unbalanced, and tilted towards work. That means that the availability of quality time will help people to re-centre their lives in a better balance between work, culture (each person’s place in society and their own choices within their social culture) and political activity (truthful, responsible and active citizens).
He says that “you cannot improvise freedom”, which in this case means that the actual societal freedom a basic income can supply must be a very concrete, planned and conscient step to take. It takes a lot of reflection, discussion and agreement to implement such conditions for freedom. According to him, children and youngsters in general should be supported in their education, so they develop self-confidence and trust in their creative freedom, rather than just being told what to do.
He defends opening up the marketplace, so people have true choice in what to do with their lives, in a sense trusting them to be responsible in living out their freedom. He also understands that suffering in the job market is rampant in today’s society, and that must end. People have little or no choice, which resembles totalitarian systems. To that end, the link between income and work must be broken. There is a social emergence, so basic income should be immediately implemented, even if in a partial form (for the most vulnerable members of society, e.g.: disabled, young people, women in some circumstances). However, he questions if people in general are ready for the level of freedom basic income allows, even though he states that such a policy is crucial to tackle the social and ecological crisis humanity faces nowadays.
To resolve the apparent paradox – that people may not be prepared for the kind of living they need to be living in order to solve the social and ecological crisis – he points to education. He believes in the human being, and that humans are capable of great things, but education and individual conscience are fundamental to evolve and transition to a new way of living.
The French Parliament house. Picture credit to: Refresh
A law proposal, named “experimenting over the territory in order to implement a basic income”, was presented to Parliament (Assemblée Nationale), on the 31th of January, 2019. Although government had announced the will to promote such experiments, a majority of MP’s from the party in power rejected the debate before it even started. Concretely, the proposal was rejected by a majority of MP’s mainly from LREM, LR and UDI (Note 1).
The proposal was presented by the party Groupe Socialistes & apparentées, a minority group in Parliament whose history goes back to 1893, and supported by other 17 socialist groups. This almost three-year-old project has been initiated by Gironde’s president Jean-Luc Gleyze, building upon a growing national debate on basic income. In a twisted tint of irony, the discussion of this issue is being blocked by the same party which has declared its openness to amplify its debate in France. Specifically, a “preliminary rejection motion” has been presented, momentarily cutting the avenues for discussion in Parliament.
Although most MP’s have agreed, over time, that direct cash transfers would eliminate social benefits non-take up (in France, 36% of all eligible beneficiaries for social benefits do not take them up, due to ignorance and administrative complexity), the unconditionality feature of basic income was rejected by most. To them, it is the responsibility of the citizens to search for jobs, which are seen as “a cornerstone in individual liberty“. In other words, most LREM MP’s believe that people will be idle if they receive an unconditional basic income, which boils down to the most frequently held criticism over the policy (and a pessimist-laden view on human nature).
On the other hand, the Movement Français pour un Revenue de Base (MFRB) (French Movement for a Basic Income) sustains that it is precisely the basic income that allows people to acquire rights, in such a monetized society. Furthermore, the MFRB has declared full availability to work with MP’s in order to establish the possibilities for experimenting with basic income in French regions.
As for the law proposal itself, before rejected it was subject to several change propositions, sixteen in total. These changes aimed to shift the universal grounds of the proposal to an age cohort of 18 to 25 years of age, and to erase all mentions to unconditionality. Even the title was targeted, with a change proposal from “un revenue de base” (a basic income), to “une prestation d’accompagnement à la vie autonome” (a benefit to support an autonomous life).
A new series of demonstrations have erupted in France: the “gilet jaunes [yellow vests]”. This movement started in 2018, from an online petition which had grown 300 000 signatures large by October. From there, massive street demonstrations have followed, with some violent eruptions, particularly in France (but in other regions of the world too). The causes for discontent have been mainly economic, related to taxes on fuels, income taxes, minimum wage and the monopoly of large retailers in villages and cities (which end up asphyxiating small businesses). However, the list of claims grows larger, including demands like eliminating homelessness, financial incentives for home insulation, protecting national industry (in France) and a cap on salaries (at 15000 Euro/month). It even includes the controversial claim that the production of hydrogen vehicles should be incentivized, instead of electrical ones (even though hydrogen for vehicles is produced using electricity).
The basic income movement in France (MFRB – Movement Français pour un Revenue de Base) has written on the “yellow vests” phenomena. In this article, it is suggested that demands from the “yellow vests” movement are aligned with the basic income idea. However, the list of demands above mentioned do not refer basic income, and do not question the conditionality of the present system of benefits and taxation. These do contain the immediate call for taking people off the streets (ending homelessness), but no further ideas on how to do it.
On the other hand, these social events and demonstrations have spurred discussion and public appearances voicing the basic income concept. Public figure and philosopher Abdennour Bidar, has defended basic income as a way to “stop strangling citizens with economic constraints”, on France TV (C La Suite). Cyril Dion, a known French filmmaker and environmental activist, has also supported basic income, alongside Bidar, as a way to both reduce acute inequalities and bring forward true environmental protection. According to him, there can be no ecology without social justice, which is also the opinion of other French thinkers and activists, such as Guy Valette. Also, on the political ground, Benoît Hamon (individually and under his recently formed Génération.s. party) has been defending the basic income policy in France, ever since the beginning of the last presidential elections.
ARTE, the franco-german TV channel, dedicated to cultural content and dissemination, has launched (on the 20th November 2018), an interactive documentary on work, money and basic income, named “Gagner sa vie” (“Earn a living”). Over seven episodes transmitted on the Internet, in four languages (French, English, German and Dutch), it poses questions to the internauts and shows them the episodes, according to their choices. These questions are focused on employment, work, automation, trust, wealth distribution and basic income, inviting thought on present-day societal issues, particularly those revolving around work.
Each episode is eleven minutes long. These combine real life footage with animated cartoons, and cover experiences from the United States (the Cherokee casino dividends), Japan (excess work culture), Kenya (Give Directly’s basic income pilot in Kenyan villages), the Netherlands (Bitnation founders account), Israel (sharing in the rural community of Arava) and France (Gironde’s wish to start a basic income experiment). A seventh episode, launched later (already on December 2018), explores a possible future when machines do most work and a basic income already exists, financed by the tech companies that own those robots.
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