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How the precariat – and UBI – can stop neoliberalism from destroying the planet

Taxes on exploiting the commons - both exhaustible and non-exhaustible resources - could be used to give people basic financial security.

Image: Chislehurst Common. Rights: Marathon/Geograph, CC 2.0

Historically, every progressive surge has been propelled by the demands of the emerging mass class. Today’s progressive transformation must, therefore, be oriented to the precariat, driven by a strategy that appeals to enough of all its factions to garner adequate strength. 

Unlike the proletariat, which sought labor security, the progressives among the precariat want a future based on existential security, with a high priority placed on ecology – environmental protection, the “landscape,” and the commons. By contrast, when confronted by a policy choice between environmental degradation and “jobs,” the proletariat, labor unions, and their political representatives have given “jobs” priority.

The precariat is a transformative class partly because, as it is not habituated to stable labor, it is less likely than the proletariat to suffer from false consciousness, a belief that the answer to insecurity is more labor, more jobs. In the twentieth century, mainstream commentators believed that putting more people into jobs and for longer was a progressive strategy—that doing so offered people the best route out of poverty. It was a trap into which many on the left fell.

For hundreds of years, the idea of putting everybody in jobs would have been regarded as strange. The ancient Greeks saw labor as being unworthy of the citizen. Their society was hierarchical and sexist, but their distinctions between labor and work, and between leisure (schole) and recreation, are vital for defining the good life.

Being in a job is to be in a position of subordination, answering to a boss. That is not a natural human condition nor an emancipatory one. In the nineteenth century, being “in employment” was a badge of shame, often referring to a woman reduced to being a domestic servant. In the early years of the United States, wage laborers were denied the vote on the grounds that they could not be independent if they were not property owners.

A transformative politics should promote work that is not resource-depleting and encourage leisure in the ancient Greek sense of schole, the pursuit of knowledge and meaning, rather than endless consumption. That points to the need to reconceptualize work, to develop a new politics of time, and to decommodify education so that it revives its original purpose of preparing young adults for citizenship. Most fundamentally, such a politics must promote a new income distribution system because the reimagining of work depends on it.

Such a system should recognize that wages will not rise much and that other sources of income will be needed to reduce inequalities and to create economic security for the precariat. The new system must recognize planetary limits and, accordingly, promote ecologically sustainable lifestyles. The distribution system must also offer the precariat a future that revives Enlightenment values. A Good Society would be one in which everybody, regardless of gender, age, race, religion, disability, and work status, has equal basic security. Basic security is a human need and a natural public good, since, unlike a typical commodity, one person’s having it does not deprive others of it.

euthanasia of the rentier

Given that wages cannot be expected to provide the precariat with security, the system must find alternative ways of doing so. The secret lies in capturing rental income for society. We should want what Keynes predicted but which has yet to pass – “euthanasia of the rentier.” One way of capturing rental income for society would be to bring the commons back into policy discourse. In the neoliberal era, the commons – natural, social, civil, cultural, and intellectual—have been plundered via enclosure, commodification, privatization, and colonization.

The income from using commons resources should belong to every commoner equally. Accordingly, the tax system should shift from earned income and consumption to taxing commercial uses of the commons, thereby facilitating their preservation. Levies on income gained from using our commons should become major sources of public revenue. This means such measures as a land value tax, a wealth transfer tax, ecological taxes such as a carbon tax, a water use levy, levies on income from intellectual property and on use of our personal data, a “frequent flyer levy,” and levies on all income generated by use of natural resources that should belong to us as commoners.

Fed by these levies, a Commons Fund could be set up as a democratic variant of the sovereign wealth funds that exist in over sixty countries. Then, the questions would become how to use the funds in a transformative way. The Fund should be operated on proper economic lines, adhering to investment rules geared to socially beneficial forms of capital, taking into account ecological principles and tax-paying propriety.

The Fund’s governance must be democratic, and it must be separated from the government of the day to minimize the possibility of manipulation by politicians before elections. And every commoner should be an equal beneficiary, their stake in the Fund being an economic right, rather than dependent on contributions, as was the case with laborist welfare schemes. Everybody, regardless of taxpaying capacity, should gain, by virtue of being commoners.

temporary custodians of our commonwealth

The commons has been nurtured by many generations and exists for future generations. As Edmund Burke recognized, we are “temporary custodians of our commonwealth” and have the responsibility of passing on to the next generation our commons in at least as good a condition as we found it. Thus, levies on exhaustible commons resources should be preserved for future generations as well as serve existing generations. To respect this principle, only revenue generated by the Fund’s investments should be distributed to today’s commoners—you and me. This rule is applied in the world’s outstanding example, the Norwegian Pension Fund Global, which, drawing from Norway’s share of North Sea oil, generates a net annual return of 4% that can be disbursed to the populace.

What is proposed here is even more transformative. The levies would be placed on all forms of commons, including non-exhaustible commons resources. Land, water, air, wind, and ideas are among non-exhaustible resources, and part of our commons. Some commons resources are replenishable, such as forests. Including non-exhaustible commons resources in the financing of the Fund is key to the transformative strategy. The only equitable way of disbursing proceeds from the Commons Fund is to give equal amounts to everybody deemed to be a commoner, and the easiest way would be to distribute “social dividends” or “commons dividends.”

Sharing the commons is one ethical rationale for basic incomes, which are justifiable for other ethical reasons as well, including ecological justice, freedom, and basic security. Granted, it is not a panacea; there would have to be supplements for those with special needs or extra costs of living, and there would still be a need for a rich array of public and social services, as well as new forms of collective agency and voice.

Still, a basic income would enhance personal and “republican” freedom (the freedom from potential domination by spouses, bosses, bureaucrats, or others), provide the precariat with basic security, and strengthen social solidarity. Evidence and theory show it would increase work, not reduce it, and tilt time use towards reproductive, resource-conserving activity rather than resource-depleting activity. The basic income is a core feature of a Great Transition future. Getting there is up to us.         

This is an excerpt from Guy Standing’s new essay “The Precariat: Today's Transformative Class?” on the Great Transition Initiative website.    

About the author

Dr Guy Standing is Professorial Research Associate, SOAS University of London, Fellow of the UK Academy of Social Sciences, and co-founder and honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). Subjects of recent books include basic incomerentier capitalism and the growing precariat.

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