Gabriela Cabaña is a PhD student in anthropology at the London School of Economics. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with her at the 19th Global Basic Income Congress in Hyderabad, India, to chat about why a new movement sees sustainable degrowth as the way forward to a better future.
Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: What is degrowth?
Gabriela Cabaña: Degrowth is a critique of our current obsession with economic growth. Whether we admit it or not, most of the policies in both rich and less rich countries seek to increase our wealth in terms of currency and in terms of monetary value. That has many negative consequences. At the ecological level, for instance, it means destroying our ecosystems for the sake of continuing to grow. It also transforms people into means for the economy. Only those people who contribute to GDP growth are taken care of or are allowed to live well, and all the other things that people might find meaningful are made invisible.
Degrowth argues for stopping this eternal growth. It pushes instead for a sustainable degrowth that would reduce our ecological footprint and put care for people at the heart of policy. It’s more democratic and more fair. It would also improve everyone’s quality of life by giving them more time for leisure and lessening their obsession with waged work and consumerism, which wastes society’s resources on things that we don't really need.
Tactically speaking, how do people think sustainable degrowth could look, and how does basic income fits into the framework of degrowth thinking?
Most of the world’s political and economic effort over the past 50 years has gone to creating a massively intricate network of trade in goods. We have built our economies around this. As a result countries in the Global North can have bananas and mangoes all year round, while other countries – like my home country of Chile – have become heavily dependent on the export of food. This co-dependency is detrimental to both our environment and our economies.
Sustainable degrowth would start to dismantle these dependencies on things from elsewhere. It would reduce this massive trade, which comes with a huge ecological footprint, and focus on more localised production and consumption. It would create a simpler, more local model of economy that ensures there is enough to go around without putting the right of some to accumulate at the centre. Degrowth, done right, would be a radically local and horizontal process.
How does basic income fit into the degrowth movement?
One of the things you hear whenever you talk about degrowth is that, if the economy doesn't grow, people are going to be without jobs, people will go hungry, and no one wants that. Rich countries might be able to afford slowing down their economies, but not poorer ones. You hear this argument mostly in countries from the Global South, like my own. This misses the point. Degrowth is a critique of our dependency on work. This idea that people have to work to stay alive, and thus the economy needs to keep growing for the sake of keeping people working.
Basic income goes well with the ideas of slowing down the economy, of becoming less dependent, and of stopping the increasing and continuous production of stuff that we don't really need. A UBI would precisely allow individuals the freedom to work less and to say no to negative jobs, for instance in the fossil fuels industry. It would also allow them to have more free time to take care of the people they care about.
You’ve mentioned care and freedom a couple times now. They seem central to your vision of a degrowth future. Could you say a little more about those?
In the economies that we have now, many of the policies that we have towards care are implicitly instrumental. Conditional cash transfers, for instance, revolve around the idea of building human capital. You give money to mothers to take care of their children, to send them to school, to send them to health check-ups, etc. This is not completely altruistic. It’s also about creating able citizens that will participate in economy.
Policies that truly care for others have freedom at their centre, and basic income seeks to enhance or maintain other people’s freedom. It gives them something, some livelihood, and a base from which to do something that might not necessarily contribute to GDP. It allows them to work if they want, but they might also chose to write poetry, take care of their garden, or do something else. This is the ultimate act of freedom – choosing what you do without anyone judging if you're actually contributing to the economy or to society.
You’ve recently been working on how basic income could be implemented without the state. This is different to most other proposals, and I’d like to hear more of your thoughts in this area.
Most current proposals involve asking states or central governments to implement a basic income with an already existing currency. This would put the state in service of a basic income. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but a truly revolutionary UBI would also change the nature of money itself, right?
If you have a form of money that goes to everyone, regardless of what they do, then the meaning of money starts to change. Money is just a way of signifying something else. If we give it to everyone, then you're actually changing what money is and you're changing the value of human life.
To be able to truly change the nature of money, we should also change the way in which it is produced. Here is where the more bottom-up perspective comes in. There are multiple experiments right now happening in different parts of the world in which a basic income is being implemented at the same time as a currency is being created. A localised currency that is managed by the people of a given territory. It's basically a way of keeping track of what services or goods they can provide to each other.
In that way, they create an autonomous space in which they can decide democratically how this coin is going to work. For instance, if you can save it or if it perhaps loses value over time. It really brings to life the radical possibility of basic income and of the idea of being grounded in your community and in what you need and what you can do. That would be a way for me to have an alternative both to capitalism and to the nation state at the same time through basic income.