In praise of a Citizen’s Income

A universal Citizen’s Income is the big idea that politics has been crying out for, writes David Wild.

In modern politics there has been very little scope for the Big Idea that can transform a society and change fundamental aspects of life for the better. At such times it can be useful to explore unfashionable parts of the political map and see if there are any overgrown paths and byways that could find a route to a better place.

As a young working class idealist I was attracted to some ideas of Andre Gorz and his Farewell to the Working Class from 1981 is one of my favourite books of political theory. He realised that the prospects for the traditional working class to act as the bedrock for transformative political progress were bleak due to the technological changes in industry at the time. He was also in favour of what became known as identity politics to try and create a counter-balance to the pure logic of capital. It was insightful and prophetic.

The reason I really liked the book was because he addressed directly the prospect of a new politics of time, and the control of time, so as to try and maximise the amount of unalienated free time for individuals. I was brought up in the 1970s in a Northern council house with a Dad who was a shop steward in the gas industry. I wanted to believe, like he did, in the inevitability of social progress based on working class power, but to me the reality of decline was all too obvious.

Gorz saw this but offered this new thinking based on control of time, not labour power. The sheer political potential for this sort of thinking has never really been explored beyond the 35 hour week in France and the odd dispute over tea breaks at British Leyland. The politics of time demand a new frame through which to view society and the power relations that determine the control of resources. It could be revolutionary in its impact.

In the UK during the Nineties notions of time sovereignty became fashionable and there were some ideas that tapped into this potential, like greater maternity and paternity leave. However the discussions lacked imagination as they circled around purpose-driven policies to do with work and payment for time in portfolio middle-class careers. They missed the real value in time-freedom – the essential liberty of being able to spend at least some portions of one’s time engaged in activities entirely of one’s own choosing which may, or may not be, productive in some way.

I was also attracted to the essay In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell both for its brilliant title (very Morrissey) and its basic idea that the world would be happier if work were not the most valued of activities. If anything this notion seems more radical today than it did when I read it in 1983. I have always resented time I have had to work doing things I neither enjoyed nor believed in, no matter what the pay. These classic feelings of alienation I assume are shared by most people, if they are being honest with themselves. Later in life as a trade union activist I realised that alienation is one of the main elements in what binds the union membership together.

Time needs to be properly valued by society if we are to maximise the amount of unalienated time individuals can enjoy. The reason zero-hours contracts feel unfair is that they value people’s time at zero. You can hang around all day waiting for the call and get nothing for that time wasted. It is almost perfect in its alienation.

This was the original path that led me to the notion of a Citizen’s Income. The basic idea would be that every citizen of the UK would be entitled to a minimum income by virtue of being a citizen. Any income earned on top of the Citizen’s Income, however large or small or intermittent, would not affect the basic entitlement. Crucially all the various requirements to be actively looking for work and the power this gives the state would be abolished.

This new arrangement would completely remove the terrible poverty trap that currently exists for people living on benefits, and it decriminalises the entrepreneurial impulse to do some paid work that would have to be ‘off the books’ so it didn’t lead to losing your benefits. It would encourage people to do something extra however small.

It would also liberate the unemployed and sick from the negative bureaucratic interactions that they have with state employees. Recently Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute has written persuasively of a negative income tax from the point of view of a right-wing libertarian and a Citizen’s Income can be thought of as a negative income tax. This is a big idea that can forge new political alliances between traditional left and right, giving hope that once adopted it would command enough support across the spectrum to last.

A Citizen’s Income would create legal, not hidden and ‘criminal’ autonomous economic actors, which would be good for general economic activity in poorer areas. It would also be good for creative people and allow breathing space to incubate new business ideas. The societal energy now being wasted on red tape and compliance could be diverted to more helpful activities like providing office space, business advice and training for new start-ups. We need to create hubs of helpful creativity in stark contrast to the negative activity of policing arbitrary rules for the poor.

A Citizen’s Income would transform the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the state, especially amongst the poor, and offer the prospect of more unalienated time for individuals to pursue their own dreams without unnecessary state interference. It would bring about a net increase in both individual security and liberty, which must amount to a net increase in civilisation.