The concept of guaranteed basic income for all was originally formulated by neoliberal economists as a way of the state subsidising low paid jobs and eliminating the need for unemployment benefit; but it has since been embraced by more reformist academics as a potential liberating innovation, such as Guy Standing of precariot fame (Standing 2011, 171-173).
André Gorz has provided the most detailed study on how this basic income for all would work in society, and he is unique among critical theorists in that he sets out a relatively clear course of practical action to tackle unemployment. He sets out medium term strategic aims, which are essentially reformist in nature, but have the potential to lead to a socialist revolution in society (Gorz 2005, 8). For instance, his plan for guaranteed income includes freeing peoples’ minds from the assumptions about work that the dominant discourse in society perpetuates, enabling people to realise that work is a social construct and its nature can be changed through collective action (Gorz 2005, 3 & 78).
On a practical level a guaranteed basic income for all would free people from the fear of under-employment, and a dramatic decrease in working hours would create space for the unemployed (Gorz 2005, 72-73). Simply put, society would produce much more doctors, lecturers, waiters and road sweepers but they would all be working less hours and all for the same money. People could still embrace the natural urge to test themselves and to aim to achieve the best that they can achieve, but this would no longer be at the expense of others; and the rewards would be personal satisfaction or public esteem, rather than pure monetary gain. The surplus labour time created by modern industry would be distributed to all the people, rather than being eaten up by the demands of Capital.
This would lead to freedom from work rather than freedom within the traditional work paradigm favoured by traditional socialist politics. In fact this process of increasing the leisure hours of citizens to compensate for the efficiencies of late capitalism and to provide time for greater self-realization is far closer to the aims of Marxism. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out it is this embrace of individual freedom and the radical potential of leisure time that is behind the Communist Manifesto’s aim of, “…the free development of each becoming the condition of the free development of all” (Eagleton 1999, 160).
The practical difficulties behind guaranteed basic income are obviously formidable. For instance, it would have to be implemented on an international scale, or at least on a European level, as one country adopting this alone would face crippling isolation and bankruptcy. This might be avoided if they were independent in the areas of pharmaceuticals, energy and food; but unfortunately it is probably only the United States that meets these criteria. It would also require the “common sense” hegemony currently dominant in society to be harnessed and transformed to represent progressive counter hegemonic views.
But given the scale of youth unemployment in the Global North, it is not unrealistic to assume that a young and politicised group in society would be open to these kinds of radical solutions to their problems. There may be some debate about whether Guy Standing is correct in claiming that the young under employed and unemployed constitute a distinct new class. But this is irrelevant, as they are definitely a distinct subject of emancipation, with a reformist potential equivalent to the students of 1968. Alain Badiou has pointed out how younger citizens are more likely to embrace the ideology and risk behind a “logical revolt” against accepted norms (Badiou 2012, 14). The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Syriza and Podemos have shown the reformist potential of subjugated youth.
But the failure of at least some these movements has also shown the downside to modern youth protest. Their atomised individualism, asymmetrical authority structures and ideological incoherence mean that it is difficult for them to push through their agenda against traditional political structures and they are also open to being co-opted by the interests of traditionally organised political parties/trade unions. Badiou has encouraged asylum seekers and immigrants to be considered as a serious subject of emancipation for the Left; that their alienation from society makes them open to radical political mobilisation (Badiou 2012, 21). In a similar fashion, and despite their ambiguous politics, the young unemployed should be viewed as a potential worksite for emancipation. Given that their experience of discrimination through policy and public discourse could open them up to greater levels of politicisation and resistance.
Badiou, A. 2012. Philosophy for Militants. London: Verso.
Eagleton, T. 1999. Self-realization, ethics and socialism. New Left Review, I/237(Sept – Oct), pp.150-161.
Gorz, A. 2005. Reclaiming Work: Beyond the wage based society. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Standing, G. 2011. The Precariot: The New Dangerous Class. London: Bloomsbury Academic.