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Why we need basic income

Updated: Sep 18

The Basic Income Earth Network is celebrating an international basic income week 14-20 September 2020 with the motto Freedom to choose. With this blog, which is my first one, I wish to contribute to this week by sharing my view of why we need a universal basic income. I do it as a working life researcher focussing on meaningful work that is not adequately or not at all recognised by labour legislation. To remedy this shortcoming, I advocate a changed view of work to include all activities in which people are engaged. A universal basic income would be one way of facilitating and compensating the un- and underpaid work.

Hardly any piece of the jigsaw puzzle that the industrial society was made of fits today's reality. We need to gather new bits and pieces to display the bigger picture of today's information and communication society - its challenges as well as the opportunities it offers. A basic income should be part of this new picture as it could play a pivotal role in unleashing knots in present-day perceptions, structures and practices. ⁠

In short, a basic income could

- counterbalance injustices and undo knots in institutional structures that have passed their best before date;

- reduce the price people have had to pay for reckless behaviour in the financial and business world;

- favour entrepreneurial activities that are more focussed on people's needs than big business does;

- favour artistic work, contributing thereby to a greatly expanding sector that does people good and does not burden mother earth;

- reduce our ecological footprints;

- generate a virtuous circle with spin-off effects for people as well as local and national economies.

By now, we don't lack information about the changes that have occurred during the past decades. Neither do we lack visions or ideas. However, to cite environmental scientist Mark Newton, the only problem with ideas is that it needs people to implement them so that they become more than just a dream. He makes this observation when reviewing Jeremy Rifkin's book The Third Industrial Revolution (2013). In this book, Rifkin's focus is on ecology and energy production. Still, this observation goes, of course, for any change we aspire. And to this, Jeremy Rifkin has dramatically contributed with the big picture he presents in his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, (2014). We need to connect dots like these to get a better view of where we stand, where we're heading and in which direction we want to go.

Now, when we're celebrating the international basic income week, I wish to focus on one side of the changing nature of work that is facilitated by our digital means of communication. I'm intrigued by how quickly we get accustomed to novelties in our digital age whereas we, at the same time, have such difficulties in ridding ourselves of both structures and mindsets that have become counterproductive. Economic theories and policies, as well as working life and its regulations, have past their best before dates in ways that victimise innocent people and cause significant harm to societies at large.

With my helicopter view, I wish to scrutinise the pros and cons of the digital age. We're in a profound cultural shift where we see a lot of abuse that we need to remedy. Just like the inhumane working conditions people endured in the early days of industrialisation, we now have corresponding abuses in digital settings. There is a big difference, though! Today we have unprecedented means of making our voice heard. Luckily, this is well recognised, and there are multiple protests against abuses and wrongdoings.

I'm often criticised for being too optimistic, even naïve perhaps, about the digital age. I do, of course, see all the abuses and wrongdoings, but fortunately, there are so many painting horror pictures, so I have decided on a division of work. I'm focusing on the positive aspects of our digital age.

To all horror stories, there is a parallel story of a low-key mobilisation and cooperation all over the globe. There is a flourishing world of work that exists parallel to the conventional one in the neoliberal economy. This parallel work is greatly enhanced by digital technology as it facilitates grassroots activities that form world-wide communities of interest. This work creates values on another axis than conventional work; values that are good for both people, planet, and society at large.

Take Wikipedia, Linux or Academia.edu, to name a few. These are cooperative ventures where people around the globe are sharing their expertise. As they do it as voluntary work, it is an indication that they consider this work meaningful, in contrast to how much conventional work is experienced.

In his book Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, Linus Torvalds observes about the programmers engaged in his open-source project Linux, "they love being part of a global collaborative effort – Linux is the world's largest collaborative project – dedicated to building the best and most beautiful technology that is available to anyone who wants it" (my emphasis).

Take also Academia.edu, where more than 72 million academics share their research. So, if you feel alone in your research orientation, there is a good chance that you will find a soul mate. This kind of cooperation will, perhaps, also speed up the progression in scientific theory, so that it will not only advance one funeral at a time, as.Max Planck has put it, the Nobel Prize laureate in Physics in 1918. For me, who never felt I fitted into the academic world, all this sharing of research on the internet is like breathing morning air.

Research is evidently only one field where we're sharing knowledge. Got a problem, google and you'll find lots of advice. Or you want to campaign for a course, be sure to find groups that share your vision. The Basic Income Earth Network, BIEN that organises the international basic income week has since 1986 advocated for universal basic income, starting in Europe and extending into an earth network in 2004. So, to Mark Newton's observation that the problem with ideas is that it needs people to implement them to become more than just a dream, today we have greater possibilities than ever to join forces around a vision. The question is, how much resistance the power structures will put up.

So, when it comes to a universal basic income, let's hope that Gandhi's famous saying will see the day: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

The books I've referred to:

Jeremy Rifkin

- The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, 2013

- The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, 2014

Linus Torvalds, David Diamond, Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, 2002

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