The Case for a Basic Income

Guy Standing

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the irretrievable breakdown of the post-war income distribution system in the West that essentially ties income and benefits to employment. The past four decades have seen income, wealth, and power flowing increasingly to rentiers—owners of physical, financial, and so-called intellectual property—while the ranks of the global precariat swell, consigning workers to unstable jobs, low and erratic incomes, and insecure lives. But the pandemic may prove the undoing of that system, as paying people to stay home—indeed, to not do paid work—has become essential to survival.

As long as income depends on jobs, workers will feel a need to return to unsafe conditions. And as long as economic power remains concentrated at the top, companies will have every incentive to make workers come back. Even if we manage to weather the current pandemic, our system lacks the resilience to be ready for the next one—let alone other crises.

The glimmer of hope amidst the tragedy is that the economic recession triggered by the pandemic is a potentially transformative crisis. Many on the left were puzzled by the reversion to the neoliberal status quo following the 2007/2008 financial crash. However, a hegemonic paradigm will only be displaced if it cannot answer the questions that preoccupy people and if an alternative paradigm is ready. For too long, that second condition has been missing.

Fortunately, an alternative economic vision has been emerging, and a basic income system is an essential component of it. A basic income is not a panacea, merely a necessary pillar of the reimagining of work and economic security in our crisis-ridden world. As resolutely against old-style “labouristist” social democracy as against neoliberal capitalism, it will foster greater freedom while helping us tackle the worsening crises of inequality, climate change, and authoritarian populism.


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